A Jelly-Fish (Marianne Moore)

Poem: A Jelly-Fish
Poet: Marianne Moore

Visible, invisible,
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
you abandon your intent.


I

This is an astonishing poem, a striking marriage of form and content. Let us begin with form. The poem is written in alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines, capturing the languid expansion and contraction of the jellyfish itself. Moreover, the order of the lines switches, from 4/3/4/3 for the first four lines to 3/4/3/4 for the last four lines, with the result that the first half has a generally contracting movement, while the latter half has an expansive movement. This fits with the content, which begins focused on the jellyfish itself, then expands outward to include the person captivated by its beauty.

All this would be mere cleverness were it not for the sheer beauty of the poem. First at the level of language: “an amber-tinctured amethyst” is, for instance, a masterpiece of a line, with wonderful repetition of sounds. The enjambment gives the poem a constant forward motion, but does not rush things. It also disguises the rhyme, allowing it to serve as a quiet accent rather than as a bold, attention-grabbing note (which latter would disrupt the languor of the poem). The choice to describe the attempt to capture the jellyfish by saying that the arm “approaches” is perfectly well-sounded, fitting the dramatic action into, again, a thoroughly languorous poem.

The payoff is the description of the “hunter” seeing the jellyfish quiver at the arm’s approach and abandoning the intent to catch. We are left to imagine the precise reason why. I read it as a recognition of shared life even across anciently diverged phyla. It is a delicate, tender moment in a delicate, tender poem, capturing at once both the unity and the mutual otherness of these two creatures.

II

Marianne Moore was famous for revising her poems. I possess a copy of her Complete Poems (Penguin), which was curated by Moore herself and so contains the revisions that she endorsed. (The volume The Poems of Marianne Moore, also from Penguin, appears to contain the unrevised versions of many of her poems.) It is interesting to discover that there is an earlier version of “A Jelly-Fish”:

Visible, invisible,
A fluctuating charm,
An amber-colored amethyst
Inhabits it; your arm
Approaches, and
It opens and
It closes;
You have meant
To catch it,
And it shrivels;
You abandon
Your intent—
It opens, and it
Closes and you
Reach for it—
The blue
Surrounding it
Grows cloudy, and
It floats away
From you.

Though clearly an ancestor of the revised version, this is almost a wholly other poem. The biggest reason is the extra material at the end, which entirely changes how what precedes it is to be read. Whatever recognition is suggested by “You abandon / Your intent,” this suggestion is undone by the hunter reaching for the jellyfish a second time. The beauty and delicacy of the former moment is eliminated. Further, the looser form and plethora of line breaks in this version simply fail to capture the languid motion of the jellyfish altogether. The last four lines, for instance, are all dimeter, and the lack of variety doesn’t evoke the floating motion. I also find “shrivels” to be harsh in a way that “quivers” is not. It disrupts the mood while actually (or so it seems to me) relating the jellyfish’s “fear” less compellingly. In short, in this form, it is simply a less beautiful poem, in meaning and in content.

If I had to summarize the difference between the two versions, I think I would have to say that the original version feels true, while the latter feels like a poem. That is, the extraneous “addition” in the original feels like something narrated because it actually happened. But, of course, life is rarely so perfectly poetic as poetry requires. Poetry takes life and betters it through selection, through eliminating all that does not serve the poetic purpose. I do not know if the original version of “A Jelly-Fish” tells a true story—the point is that it feels like it does, because what else other than fidelity to real events could motivate that ending? It is nice to see both the early and late forms of the poem, if only as a stark illustration of the power of eliminating needless detail.

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