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To a Snail

To a Snail

'To a Snail' (1924) is a poem by the famous American poet, Marianne Moore. On the surface, it is a poem about a snail but it is also a poem about poetry and aesthetic values. Specifically, about the value of being concise.

'To a Snail': about

To a Snail
Written in1924
Written byMarianne Moore
Published inObservations
Form and meterFree verse with no set rhyme scheme or meter
StructureSingle stanza of 12 lines
Poetic TypeBlason
Poetic DevicesEnjambment, alliteration, repetition, epistrophe
Frequently used imageryA snail
ToneCasual, wry

'To a Snail': Marianne Moore

Marianne Moore was born in 1887 in the US state of Missouri. Raised in her pastor grandfather’s home, she moved with her family to Pennsylvania after his death in 1894. She graduated in 1909 from Bryn Mawr College with a BA in biology and histology. Bryn Mawr was a private liberal arts university for women and the first American university to educate women up to PhD level. It was here that her first poem, 'A Jellyfish' (1908) was published.

Following her degree, Moore studied typing and then became a teacher at the Carlisle Indian School.

The Carlisle Indian School was a government-run boarding school for Indigenous American children. It closed in 1918 but many later schools were modelled on it. The methods of assimilation and the resulting loss of cultural identity have been questioned.

Moore and her mother moved to New York City in 1918. There she worked at the New York Public Library before becoming editor of the prestigious literary magazine, Dial. Through Dial, she met Imagist poets like Carlos Williams and Hilda Doolittle aka, HD. HD surprised her by publishing Moore's first book of poems, Poems (1921) without telling her.

This publication launched Moore’s career and she went on to become an award-winning poet, famous for her precision, irony, wit and seemingly paradoxically, her ambiguous statements. For example, her poem, 'Poetry' (1920) begins with:

I too dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.

(line 1)

Moore won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer, making her one of the most famous American Modernist poets. In addition to poetry, she wrote prose on subjects from art to baseball. A versatile writer, she also penned the liner notes for Muhammad Ali’s record, 'I am the Greatest' (1963).

After a long and illustrious career, she died in New York City in 1972.

The Imagists were a group of poets who sought to create visuals with simple words. They moved away from traditional verse structures and focused on more mundane, everyday themes.

'To a Snail': poem

If “compression is the first grace of style,”

you have it. Contractility is a virtue

as modesty is a virtue.

It is not the acquisition of any one thing

that is able to adorn,

or the incidental quality that occurs

as a concomitant of something well said,

that we value in style,

but the principle that is hid:

in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;

“a knowledge of principles,”

in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

'To a Snail': summary

The poem, 'To a Snail' is ostensibly about a snail. Moore initially describes the attributes of a snail in great detail rather than any of its physical characteristics. She mentions its ability to 'compress' or 'contract' and links this as an aesthetic principle that is relevant to poetry.

Further into the poem, she speaks about the snail's physical aspects. She mentions a 'lack of feet'. Poems can contain 'feet' but snails only have one foot. This is another type of contraction or compression value. Lastly, she talks about the snail's 'occipital horn'. Similar to how she links the attribute of 'contraction' to poetic aesthetics or style, she links the 'lack of feet' and the 'occipital horn' to poetic and rhetorical values.

'To a Snail': analysis

'To a Snail' is a fairly short poem that links the attributes of a snail to rhetorical or aesthetic principles. Moore achieves her signature effects in a variety of ways. Let's look at a few.

'To a Snail': poetic terms and movement

'To a Snail' is a Modernist poem, considered part of the Imagist style. The Imagists sought to elevate what was regarded as the mundane and everyday to the poetic. They wanted to create images with words.

Modernism is a broad movement across society, art, architecture, design and literature that is thought to have run from about 1900 to around the mid 1900s. Although it has many facets, it is typically associated with a move away from traditional, conservative methods and a focus on new innovations.

The poem is a blason. This poetic term is used to describe poems that feature physical descriptions, traditionally those of a woman. The device was bought into general use by the poet Petrarch of the Petrarchan Sonnet fame. Blasons would usually describe a woman’s physical features by comparing them to traditionally beautiful and valuable items like jewels, ivory, or celestial bodies. Modern examples substitute a woman, usually a lover, with a snail in Moore’s case or a boyfriend in Camille Guthrie’s case.1

Moore subverts the traditional blason form in two ways. Firstly, she describes a snail and not the physical features of a lover, male or female. Secondly, instead of favourably comparing a lover's physical features to traditionally beautiful and valuable objects, she compares the snail’s attributes to abstract principles of poetic craft.

A famous example of the traditional blason form is Thomas Campion's 'There is a Garden in her Face.' (1617). Moore's witty subversion of his subject matter and style are characteristic of her poetry.

'To a Snail': structure

The poem is a single stanza that is 12 lines long, written in free verse with no set meter or rhyme scheme.

Although she avoids a set rhyme scheme, Moore uses slant rhyme throughout the poem. Examples include the slant rhyme created by the consonance in the words, 'Contractility', (line 2) 'modesty' (line 3) and 'quality' (line 6).

Consonance is the repeated use of similar-sounding consonants in a poem. The consonant can be in the middle or at the end of the word, unlike alliteration which is always found at the beginning of a word.

'To a Snail': poetic techniques

Devices and techniques used by Moore in 'To a Snail' range from enjambment to repetition, epistrophe, and alliteration.

Enjambment

Enjambment is the continuation of a line of poetry into the following line, with no punctuation breaks.

Examples of enjambment can be seen in 'To a Snail' in the lines below. In lines 2–3, the use of enjambment links the concepts of contractility and modesty, reinforcing the link created by the repetition of the word 'virtue'. For lines 6–7, the effect is similar. The lines run into each other, creating one long sentence that combines the elements of quality and something well said. The word 'concomitant' means something that is naturally associated, so this further enhances the link.

Contractility is a virtue

as modesty is a virtue.' (lines 2–3)

and

or the incidental quality that occurs

as a concomitant of something well said,' (lines 6–7)

Repetition

Repetition is the repeated use of a letter, word, phrase, or technique.

Moore repeatedly makes use of quotations throughout the poem. These quotes directly reference works by famous philosophers, based on other works by previous philosophers.

An example is the central quote 'Compression is the first grace of style'. This is often attributed to the philosopher, Democritus. It was actually used even earlier by the Athenian, Demetrius. He wrote a little less concisely: 'The very first grace of style is that which comes from compression.'2 When these were written and even whether Demetrius is the original creator of the line is up for debate, so the origins and timeline are murky.

Moore uses this line of often tweaked wisdom in quotations, acknowledging that it is not her creation. The reference to another text is very direct and obvious but what is less obvious is the layers of history behind it. This reflects her style of poetry. A seemingly simple approach with a complexity that is there for those that look past the immediate subject matter.

Epistrophe

Linked to repetition is epistrophe.

An epistrophe is the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of a sentence, clause, or stanza.

The word 'virtue' is repeated in lines 2 and 3. The word 'style' is repeated in lines 1 and 8. These repetitions serve to create rhythm and reinforce words that are important to the meaning of the poem. Moore is highlighting the tangible aesthetic (style) and linking it to the abstract (virtue), which is an approach that is evident throughout the poem.

Alliteration

Alliteration is when the same letter is repeated and used in proximity in a poem.

You can see examples with the repeated 'a' in 'acquisition' (line 4,) 'any' (line 4) and 'able to adorn' (line 5).

'Able to adorn' is a wordy way to say 'decorate'. Do you think this is an example of Moore's use of irony and dry humour? How is this phrase different to her use of words in the rest of the poem?

'To a Snail': meaning

To a Snail, a snail on a tarmac road, StudySmarter 'To a Snail' is as much about a snail as it is about poetry.

There are many possible readings of 'To a Snail' but it is clear that the poem is about a snail but also poetic precision and stylistic perceptivity.

Moore uses an extended metaphor, linking the snail’s ability to contract with the need for a poet to edit their work to a more precise and pithy version. She makes puns about ‘no feet’, linking poetic meter to the snail’s physical attribute of having only one foot. Initially, it seems as if she is using the snail as a way to talk about ‘higher’ abstract principles.

However, in the final line, she uses a seemingly biological term, 'occipital horn'. This is a portmanteau that is scientific-sounding but is made up by Moore. The occipital part of a mammal's brain is the primary visual cortex: it processes images. A snail uses the horn to sense its way, rather than see its way.

A portmanteau is a word that is created by combining two words together. Examples include cyborg (cybernetic + organism) and frenemy (friend + enemy).

Moore creates two important meanings with one phrase. Firstly, she shows that the poem is as much about the snail as it is about abstract principles. Secondly, she indicates her belief in the principle that poets should use all of their senses. Specifically, they should do this as concisely as possible.

'To a Snail' - Key takeaways

  • 'To a Snail' is a poem about a snail and about poetic principles.
  • The poem was written by Marianne Moore in 1924 and published in the collection, Observations.
  • 'To a Snail' is considered a Modernist poem and regarded as part of the Imagist movement.
  • Poetic devices used include enjambment, repetition, epistrophe, and alliteration.
  • The poem subverts the traditional blason form by not only being about a snail and addressed to a snail but linking the snail's physical attributes to abstract poetic values.

1 'My Boyfriend', Poetry Foundation. 2022.

2 Carol Rubens, 'Poem of the Week, To a Snail', The Guardian. 2017.

Frequently Asked Questions about To a Snail

It is about a snail and poetic values.

This poem has no obvious moral lesson. Rather, it focuses on aesthetic value and the elevation of the seemingly mundane.

Marianne Moore.

It is a Modernist poem, part of the Imagist movement. It is also a subverted blason.

1924.

Final To a Snail Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'To a Snail'?

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Answer

Marianne Moore.

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Question

What is 'To a Snail' about?

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Answer

It is about a snail and poetic aesthetic values.

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Question

What movements does 'To a Snail' belong to?

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Answer

Modernism.

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Question

What is a characteristic of the Imagists?

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Answer

Poems about the mundane.

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Question

What is a characteristic of Modernism?

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Answer

Move away from tradition.

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Question

What verse is 'To a Snail' written in?

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Answer

Free verse.

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Question

What rhyme scheme and meter does 'To a Snail' use?

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Answer

It has no rhyme scheme or meter.

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Question

What poetic devices does 'To a Snail' use?

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Answer

Repetition.

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Question

How many stanzas are there in 'To a Snail'?

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Answer

One.

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Question

What portmanteau does Marianne Moore create in 'To a Snail'?

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Answer

'Occipital horn'.

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