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What is the human mind? Is it simply the abilities we need to function and survive given to us by that pink blobby thing in our heads? Is it more spiritual, like an expression of each individual's soul? Is it something only humans have, separating us from the rest of the natural world, or does it connect everything together? Is it within or beyond our control, and to what extent?
In 'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing' (1944), Marianne Moore (1887–1972) takes on this complex question. However, she moves away from theory and answers it in a way that perhaps only an artist can – through demonstration. So, let's dive into this deeply intricate poem to see what the mind means to Marianne Moore.
Marianne Moore's 'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing' explores the mind and the different qualities it possesses. Here is the full poem and a brief overview of it before we move on to analyse the poem in further depth.
When you read through the poem for the first time, what do you notice about it and what are your first impressions?
The Mind Is An Enchanting Thing
is an enchanted thing
like the glaze on a
subdivided by sun
till the nettings are legion.
Like Gieseking playing Scarlatti;
like the apteryx-awl
as a beak, or the
of haired feathers, the mind
feeling its way as though blind,
walks with its eyes on the ground.
It has memory's ear
that can hear without
having to hear.
Like the gyroscope's fall,
because trued by regnant certainty,
it is a power of
strong enchantment. It
is like the dove–
neck animated by
sun; it is memory's eye;
it's conscientious inconsistency.
It tears off the veil; tears
the temptation, the
mist the heart wears,
from its eyes – if the heart
has a face; it takes apart
dejection. It's fire in the dove-neck's
iridescence; in the
its confusion to proof; it's
not a Herod's oath that cannot change.
Here is a quick overview of the poem's key aspects and background.
|Title||'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing'|
|Author||Marianne Moore (1887–1972)|
|Structure||Six stanzas each containing six lines|
|Style||Modernist; stream of consciousness|
|Poetic devices||Personification; metaphor; simile; enjambment|
|Key themes||Nature vs culture; chaos vs rationality|
'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing' is a distinctly modernist poem. Moore befriended and was influenced by major figures of the modernist movement such as Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. We can see this modernist influence in the poem's fragmented style, precise scientific vocabulary, and references to contemporary artists.
Moore's use of specialist words on various subjects makes the poem difficult to decipher upon the first read. However, taking some time to become familiar with the vocabulary reveals the depth of the poem and the attention to detail.
In 1921, Moore worked at the New York Public Library where she had unlimited access to a huge world of knowledge. Not only was Moore educated in history, economics, and political science but she also had a strong interest in biology and animals.
In 'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing', Marianne Moore explores the mind in six stanzas, each containing six lines in a stream of consciousness style.
Stream of consciousness: a typically modernist style of writing that tries to replicate the free association of ideas that occurs organically in the mind
Throughout the poem, Moore, uses multiple complex similes and metaphors, based on her own specialised knowledge, to illustrate the human mind as a chaotic yet rational and, most of all, beautiful totality of our existence.
Simile: a comparison of two things using the words 'like' or 'as', i.e., love is like a rollercoaster
Metaphor: when a comparison is made between two things by substituting one thing for another, i.e., love is a rollercoaster.
Let's go through the poem step by step to analyse how poetic devices, including personification, enjambment, metaphor, and simile, are used in the poem to explore and illustrate the human mind.
The poem begins abruptly, mirroring the abruptness by which we can begin a trail of thought, before introducing the first of many similies it uses to describe the mind. In the sunlight, the katydid's (a type of insect related to crickets and grasshoppers) wing reveals an intricate net design that is 'legion', meaning complex and multiple, like the intricate make-up of our minds.
The katydid's wing is then compared to 'Gieseking playing Scarletti' as Moore references Walter Gieseking, a renowned German pianist, as well as Domenica Scarlatti, the Italian classical composer. This highlights the creative potential of the human mind.
The second stanza compares the mind to another animal – the apteryx, otherwise known as the kiwi (a flightless bird native to New Zealand). The mind is like the bird's long beak or 'awl' (a tool with a sharp point for making small holes) and its waterproof cloak of feathers which are key to the bird's survival on the ground. The mind has also evolved to help ensure that we survive and thrive, not only with our creative abilities but also with our instincts, like the kiwi.
The third stanza uses personification to describe human memory as having an 'ear' that allows them to 'hear without having to hear'. This statement reads like a riddle, but it refers to the mind's powerful capacity to imagine using our senses and recall past memories.
Personification: the attribution of human qualities to non-human things, i.e., by calling a lion the king of the savannah.
Then, the mind is compared to a 'gyroscope', a rotational device that measures positions and provides stability to moving things. And what's especially useful about a gyroscope? It's 'unequivocal' (without any doubts) because it is 'trued by regnant certainty' (made so by a dominant influence) – the laws of physics. Like the gyroscope, the mind provides us with stability and a sense of self, kept ticking by its complex biological workings.
To illustrate the enchanting power of the mind, Moore compares it to another bird – a dove with its' neck animated by the sun', referring to its shiny feathers. A dove is often used as a spiritual symbol of peace, love, connection, and purity, and reflects how the mind also creates and responds to beautiful things such as these.
The personification from the previous stanza is further developed, stating that the mind has the additional capacity of the 'memory's eye' as it can conjure realistic images and sounds. However, no matter how 'conscientious' (hard-working) our minds are, they can still make mistakes.
In this section, Moore compares the mind to the heart. The mind 'tears off the veil' and 'the mist' that the 'heart wears', implying that the mind has an advantage over the heart. Unlike the heart, which can be troubled by emotions, the mind can see things more clearly. It 'takes apart dejection' and makes sense of difficult situations and hardships that people face.
The stanza ends with an enjambed line that begins with a metaphor about a dove and continues in the next stanza.
Enjambement: when one line of poetry runs into the next, this is enjambement. We call the line of poetry that does this an enjambed line.
The first line of the final stanza finishes the previous line's sentence, as the poem again references the fiery 'iridescence' (bright colours that change depending on movement and light) of a bird's feathers. Then, Scarlatti is mentioned again. But, this time, the poem focuses on his inconsistencies. Similar to the fiery iridescent feathers and Scarlatti, the mind can be inconsistent and unpredictable – which is all part of its beauty.
Then, the poem highlights the rational ability of the mind that 'submits its confusion to proof'. The mind is a jumble of chaotic unpredictability and rationality; however, there is something positive in this. Unlike 'Herod's oath' (a promise made by Herod who is thought to have been a tyrannical ruler), it is flexible and can be changed.
Modernism was keen to move on from the more black and white thinking of the nineteenth century in which adhering to religious, moral, and social values was of utmost importance. In 'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing', the poem brings together contrasting ideas, including nature vs culture and chaos vs rationality to show how the human mind is all of these things and more.
Throughout the poem, the mind is compared to natural objects such as the katydid's wing, the kiwi's beak, and the dove's iridescent feathers as examples of the marvels of nature. On the other hand, it is also compared to pianist and composer Gieseking and Scarlatti, who represent the brilliance of human achievement. This emphasises the complexity of the human mind as something driven by a combination of emotional instincts and rational intelligence.
The poem also moves away from the traditional division between the chaos of nature and the rationality of human civilisation as it mentions 'the inconsistencies of Scarlatti'. This is also reflected in the intricate designs of both the organic katydid's wing and the manmade gyroscope.
The poem's structure is another illustration of chaos and rationality working together in tandem. While the enjambment gives the poem an irregular quality, this is balanced by the poem's regular meter and rhyme scheme.
The poem looks at the human mind as a complex mix of chaos and rationality, and this fluid and multifaceted nature grants it its primary advantage: an ability to change.
With all its specialised language, the poem can seem like an unclimbable mountain at first glance. However, once we dig into the meanings of the words that Moore uses, it becomes much clearer what she means. Each and every person's mind is different, and we all experience the world in different and ever-changing ways. Moore's poem gives us a glimpse into her brilliant poet's mind that dazzled her contemporaries as well as her readers today.
'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing' was written in 1944.
The poem is about the human mind and its multifaceted nature.
Marianne Moore liked to write and read poetry that was written in the Modernist style.
Marianne Moore wrote 'The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing' and published it in 1944.
Two of the main themes of the poem include nature vs culture and chaos vs rationality. The poem challenges these distinctions and illustrates the mind as a combination of all these things.
‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’ was written in which literary movement?
The Modernist movement
What job did Moore have before writing ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
In which subjects was Moore officially educated?
Moore was educated in history, economics, and political science.
How many stanzas are in ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
The poem has six stanzas
What insect is referenced in the first stanza of the poem ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
Who are the two musicians that are referenced in ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
Walter Gieseking and Domenica Scarlatti.
Which bird is referenced in the second stanza of ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
An apteryx or alternatively, a kiwi.
Which human body parts is a person's memory described as possessing?
What is the function of a gyroscope?
To provide stability to machinery and vehicles and measure movement.
What is the third bird referenced in ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
How is the human heart personified in ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
It is described as having eyes and a face.
What rhyme scheme does the poem ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’ follow?
Is the poem's structure regular or irregular?
While the poem has a regular meter and rhyme scheme, its use of enjambment gives it an irregular quality.
Why does Moore reference famous musicians in ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
To give an example of the heights of creativity that the human mind is capable of.
Why does Moore use enjambment in ‘The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing’?
To help control the pace of the poem.
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