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What is our purpose? What happens after we die? What is 'good' and what is 'bad'? Such questions have busied us humans for, well, as long as we have existed.
Philosophers, scientists, and artists are some humans who make exploring the answers to these big questions their careers. The poet Marianne Moore (1887–1972) is a famous example, and she ponders on the perennial question of how humanity should face the reality of our mortality in her poem, 'What Are Years?' (1941).
Marianne Moore was an American poet known for her Modernist style of verse that used unconventional rhyme schemes and meter. Her poetry is also known for its Imagist influences. Her first book of poetry titled Poems (1921) was published without her knowledge by H. D. (otherwise known as Hilda Doolittle) who was a famous Imagist and Modernist poet.
Modernism: a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement between the late 19th and the mid-20th century and around the First World War that encouraged freer expression and a break from traditions.
Imagism: a poetic movement and sub-genre of Modernism that occurred during the early 20th century. Imagists broke away from traditional structures and sentimental and complex language, instead prioritising the use of precise imagery and language instead.
Over the next decades, Moore went on to publish her own poetry. The collections Observations (1924), Selected Poems (1935) – which contained an introduction by T. S. Eliot, a key Modernist poet of the 20th century – and What Are Years are just a few examples.
The poem 'What Are Years?' is the title poem of Marianne Moore's 1941 collection of almost the same title.
As you read the poem, keep Marianne Moore's Modernist and Imagist influences in mind. What do you notice about her use of language in her poem?
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
This short, 27-line poem is divided into three stanzas, each consisting of nine lines. Over the course of the poem, the speaker goes from a state of questioning to one of resolution. Let's take a look at what happens in each stanza in closer detail.
Reflecting the title of the poem, the speaker introduces a number of broad rhetorical questions, asking 'What is our innocence, / what is our guilt?' and 'Whence is courage', or, what is the source of courage? The questions raised in this stanza create an air of suspense, and the need for answers is established.
Regarding the first two questions, the speaker states that 'All are / naked, none is safe', problematising the black and white conclusion that the world is divided into those who are good and those who are bad. For the speaker, we are all the same: vulnerable, emotional human beings.
Then, the speaker focuses on the idea of courage and where it comes from. The speaker suggests that courage is accepting that there are things we don't know or are uncertain about. The speaker continues to say that courage is something that always keeps going and 'encourages others' in the face of 'misfortune' and 'death'.
The responses to the question about where courage comes from seem to be resolute in the previous stanza. However, as the speaker's answer that courage 'stirs / the soul to be strong?' flows into the second stanza and ends on another question mark, this reflects the speaker's continued uncertainty and need for answers.
The speaker then focuses on the topic of mortality. For the speaker, insight and happiness come from accepting that each of us will die someday. To the speaker, our mortality imprisons us. It is something we can't escape, although some struggle against it. It is only through surrendering to the reality that we are mortal that we can 'continue' to truly live.
Because surrendering to the reality of our mortal existence is necessary to live, we must 'behave' and control the emotions that drive us to do the opposite. If this is managed, we can become like a bird that grows taller, sings mightily, and thrives despite being in captivity.
We should strive for joy rather than satisfaction, the speaker advises. Perhaps this is because satisfaction involves getting things we want whereas joy is enjoying the present moment.
The final two lines read like a firm conclusion. Our lives are defined by mortality (their inevitable ends) and eternity (everything that is beyond us and we cannot understand). Because we can't change this, we should accept it and let ourselves be free to live and feel joy.
The poem's focus on the topics of innocence and guilt, human mortality, and courage as faith gives the work a strong religious undertone. Moore held strongly to her Christian beliefs and religious themes are quite common in her poetry. She held the opinion that it was 'not possible to live without religious faith'.1
Let's take a look at how the presentation of these topics in the poem reflects Moore's Christian beliefs.
Although the poem contains many references which could be attributed to the author's religious background, the questions it deals with are not necessarily connected to religion. Did you notice any religious themes when you first read the poem? What does the poem mean to you?
In the first stanza, the poem states:
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe.
We could read this as being a reference to the universal vulnerability of human beings to corruption in relation to the Christian story of the Garden of Eden. According to the Bible, the Garden of Eden was a paradise in which the first two humans, Adam and Eve, lived innocently until they were corrupted by knowledge and expelled from the garden.
This is perhaps the central and most important theme of the poem, and we can also connect it to the theme of innocence and guilt.
For Christians, the Christian God gifts us our lives and predetermines what will happen during them. Because of this, our lives are all inherently 'good'. This is also reflected in the second stanza of the poem as the lines 'He / sees deep and is glad' mirrors the story of creation in the Bible in which 'God saw all that he had made, and it was very good'.2
Therefore, the poem suggests that when we fight against our mortality, we are fighting something that is perfect as it is and beyond our control as it is God's creation. As reflected in the story of Adam and Eve, this can only have negative consequences.
Although accepting our fate is one of the central premises of the poem, the poem is still filled with questioning and the speaker's need for answers. Courage, then, seems to be something that the speaker aspires towards. If we look at the poem through the lens of Christian belief, courage could also be seen as having faith and surrendering to God's plan.
Marianne published 'What Are Years?' relatively early in her literary career and it went on to become one of her most famous poems. The form of the poem and the literary devices it uses make it easily accessible as Moore discusses complex topics with a simple structure, sincere tone, and beautiful imagery.
Reflecting the Modernist style, Moore wrote 'What Are Years?' in free verse.
The use of free verse suggests the speaker's free expression of emotions and resistance against traditional poetic forms.
However, the use of rhyme in the poem isn't always entirely 'free'. Although there isn’t a consistent use of rhyme, Moore includes half-rhyming couplets ('others'/'stirs', 'surrendering'/'continuing', and 'mortality'/'eternity') at the end of each stanza and a perfect rhyme in the middle of the final stanza ('feels'/'steels').
Half rhyme: when two words sound similar but do not form a perfect rhyme.Perfect rhyme: when two words end in the same vowel and consonant sounds.
The use of half-rhymes simultaneously adds to and interrupts the flow of the poem, reflecting tension and uncertainty within the speaker. On the other hand, the perfect rhyme in the middle of the final stanza mirrors the speaker's increasing courage as they accept this uncertainty as being part of life.
Two of the main literary devices that Moore uses include imagery and juxtaposition.
Imagery: visual description that appeals to the senses
Juxtaposition: the placement of two things close to one another to draw a contrast between them
To help clarify the abstract and complex themes surrounding mortality, the poem includes natural imagery including the sea and a caged bird.
The image of the sea could represent the human soul and its desire to be free. In the poem, the speaker suggests that freedom can be found only after 'surrendering' to mortality.
The caged bird can be seen to represent the human soul stuck in the cage of its mortal body. However, the image of the bird becomes a hopeful one when the speaker states that the bird has 'grown taller as he sings' – despite the limits of his existence, he is still able to grow and feel pure 'joy'.
Contrasting images are juxtaposed throughout the poem, e.g., 'unanswered question', 'dumbly calling, deafly listening', 'sea in a chasm', and 'free and unable to be'.
On the one hand, this reflects the speaker's uncertainty about their mortality. On the other hand, the consistent use of juxtaposed images throughout the poem lends it stability. These images support the poem's message that the nature of life itself is, in many ways, beyond human understanding and that, therefore, we should accept the things that are beyond our control.
1 Charles Molesworth. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. Macmillan. 1990.
2 'Genesis 1 – New International Version (NIV)'. Biblica. 1978.
‘What Are Years?’ was published in 1941.
The poem's meaning is about learning to accept our mortality.
The poem is about how mankind can become courageous in the face of mortality.
This short, 27-line poem is divided into three stanzas, each consisting of nine lines. Over the course of the poem, the speaker goes from asking questions about life to advocating that we accept our mortality.
Marianne Moore sees poetry as 'genuine' because it allows us to come closer to the natural, unfiltered expression of thoughts and emotions. She uses this term in her poem 'Poetry' (1919).
What form is the poem 'What Are Years?' written in?
True or false: there is no rhyme in ‘What Are Years?’.
False. Although there is no structured rhyme scheme, there are some rhymes present in the poem.
What literary movements was Moore considered to be a part of?
Modernism and Imagism
How many lines does the poem ‘What Are Years?’ contain?
How many stanzas does the poem ‘What Are Years?’ contain?
What does the imagery of the bird in a cage represent?
The bird represents the human soul and the cage represents the human body.
How is couraged described in the poem 'What Are Years'?
An unanswered question
In the poem 'What Are Years?', how does the bird grow taller?
What two things does the final line of the poem 'What Are Years?' refer to?
Innocence and guilt
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