Friday 15 November 2019

Moore's Silence, James's Amenities

Today is the 132nd birthday of Marianne Moore, so a poem is surely called for.
Here is her 'Silence', a poem full of wise words, which she attributes to her father. This is odd, as she never met her father, who suffered a psychotic episode, and split up with her mother, before she was born. The name of Longfellow pops up again here, by way of his grave (in Mount Auburn cemetery, west of Cambridge, Mass.)...

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat --
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "`Make my house your inn'."
Inns are not residences. 

Talking of inns – here is Henry James, in English Hours, reflecting on the traditional English inn:
'I have sometimes had occasion to repine at the meagreness and mustiness of the old-fashioned English inn, and to feel that in poetry and in fiction these defects had been culpably glossed over. But I said to myself the other evening that there is a kind of venerable decency even in some of its dingiest contingencies, and that in an age in which the conception of good manners is losing most of its ancient firmness one should do justice to an institution that is still more or less of a stronghold of the faded amenities.'
Well, that 'ancient firmness' has only weakened since James's time, and those 'faded amenities' have faded yet more. Those who work in what is nowadays oxymoronically called the 'hospitality industry' display a hollow form of 'good manners' that is no more than a matter of following a script. This helps things to run smoothly – at least until circumstances demand a departure from the script – but at a cost in character, spontaneity and variety. James would not be impressed.
To our ears, his phrase 'faded amenities', in the context of an inn, suggests something very different from, and more concrete than, James's meaning. 'Amenities' is a word he uses broadly and freely to convey all those things that make life pleasing, decent and liveable. On his memorial stone in Chelsea Old Church, James is described as a 'lover & interpreter of the fine amenities, of brave decisions & generous loyalties.'


  1. Beautiful. That's why I don't stay longer at my son's house and prefer stay here, in Brazil...