Essay: Hugh Haughton on The Possum and the Salamander: T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore

Couldn’t modernism be taught to children as a series of Aesop’s fables?
    – Brian Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1986)

Poetry is an unintelligible unmistakable vernacular like the language of the animals…
    – Marianne Moore, ‘Ideas of Order’ (1936)

I

Poetry is a form of play, among other things. It occupies a space dedicated to the play of language. The same is true of poets’ letters. We read poets’ letters for many reasons – to watch writers in their workshops, get glimpses of the personal lives of public figures, gather an insight into their poetics and witness them in dialogue with their first audience of friends, family and editors. Reading them, we are also given a chance to see them at play (think of the letters of Swift, Byron, Keats, Edward Lear, or Dickinson).

Co-editing a couple of volumes of the letters of T.S. Eliot a few years ago gave me a ring-side seat for observing Eliot in his many roles as poet, critic, editor, publisher, husband, friend, and tormented soul. It also offered a chance to watch him letting his hair down and playing the giddy goat when adopting his favourite persona, Possum. Dead famous as he was, Eliot enjoyed identifying with the animal famous for playing dead. Another American modernist, Marianne Moore, whose Selected Poems Eliot published in 1935, was a poet with an even more developed sense of play and a taste for animal personae in her letters as well as poems. Late in her career, she published quirky versions of some animal fables by La Fontaine, and, while reading the letters of both poets, I began to imagine a modernist fable called ‘The Possum and the Salamander’ (or alternatively ‘The Possum and the Pterodactyl’).

Eliot had qualms about the potential publication of his letters, telling his brother Henry in 1930 that “if I could destroy every letter I have ever written in my life I would do so before I die. I should like to leave as little biography as possible.” Despite this, he left an epic quantity of correspondence, with the eight volumes published so far taking us from 1914 to the 1930s, and his long-embargoed letters to his one-time sweetheart Emily Hale now finally being read and reported on for the first time. Most of Eliot’s letters are what he called in 1914 “official bulletins”, though many of the most personal ones confirm his rueful remark that it was “very bizarre that a person of my antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel” (letter to Henry Eliot, 29 July 1926). In ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, the speaker says “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be”, presenting himself alternatively as “an attendant lord” and “Almost, at times, the Fool”. In his correspondence Eliot certainly showed a Hamlet-like taste for playing the fool, providing some much-needed comic relief from his roles as dutiful editor at Faber and The Criterion as well as from his Dostoyevskian personal life. One of the early comic letters to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley written on a visit to England in 1911 includes a sketch of the young poet (with his signature hat) feeding an apteryx (or kiwi) in London Zoo. An admirer of the Marx Brothers and correspondent with Groucho, Eliot shared their taste for “animal crackers”.

Despite his reservations about letters, Eliot published The Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907–1941 at Faber (1950) and told Moore in a letter of 9 July 1959 that “One of the books which obviously must in the fullness of time be published […] will be The Letters of Marianne Moore.” With letters by both poets now published, we can observe the poets of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and Observations (1924) at play in their zoo-like epistolary playgrounds. Unlike Joyce, Proust, Yeats, Woolf, Stein, and H.D., neither poet did any sustained autobiographical writing, which means that their letters, as well as being playgrounds, are their written ‘lives’.

Eliot’s jokey letter about the zoo reminds us that they both liked games with animal names. In his 1915 poem ‘Portrait of a Lady’, for example, he wrote:

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression… dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.

Here the “changing shape” of bear, parrot and ape enable the young Eliot to “find expression”. The same could be said of the animal personae of Moore, an ardent fan of zoos, who in her poems adopted the shapes of jerboas, pangolins, rats, a frigate pelican and a plethora of other animals. For example, in her 1918 poem ‘Black Earth’ (later re-christened ‘Melancthon’, the Greek for ‘black earth’ and the name of a wind-up toy elephant she owned) she borrows the skin of an elephant:

Openly, yes,
  with the naturalness
  of the hippopotamus or the alligator
  when it climbs out on the banks to experience the

sun, I do these
things which I do, which please
  no one but myself.

Elephant, hippo, and alligator are all invoked here, as the speaker explains that what they do is “openly” done to “please / no one but myself”. Openly, yes, but in opting to speak as an elephant Moore characteristically adopts a pachyderm’s defensive skin and opts not to speak in propria persona.

In their letters, Eliot and Moore often played with animal personae to “please” themselves and “find expression”. Eliot’s nickname “Possum” was given “by Ezra Pound with reference to Brer Possum in The Stories of Uncle Remus”. The name gave Eliot an American alibi, the possum being an American creature, famous for thanatosis (playing dead). In a letter dated 19 July 1922, joking with Pound about a possible title for his new periodical, Eliot asked, “What do you think of ‘The Possum’ for a title?” Pound replied that if Lady Rothermere “says [The Criterion] looks like a corpse, she’s right, mon POSSUM” and enquired if Eliot’s financial backer realised “it is supposed to be playing POSSUM”. Given that The Criterion ran till the onset of World War II as an often deadly embodiment of high seriousness, it might have been more fun if Eliot had named it The Possum.

Eliot apparently first used Possum as a signature when writing to Dorothy Pound in 1925, but went on to use it in letters to close friends and their children. For example, he sent the five-year-old Alison Tandy a letter with a poem called ‘Mr Possum wishes that his name was Tristram Shandy’, and another to Virginia Woolf with a poem called ‘Possum now wishes to explain his silence’. Eliot drew on the stories of Brer Possum and Brer Rabbit in letters to Pound, regularly addressing him as “Dear Rabbit”, or (in February 1928) as “Rabbit ben Ezzum” (a play on Browning’s ‘Rabbi Ben Ezra’) as well as variants from “Ex. Podesta Possum I mean Rabet” (drawing on the Italian Fascist title of ‘Podesta’) to “Right Honourable Rabbit” (giving the creature a British parliamentary title). We can see the pay-off in a letter to Pound of July 1934, where Eliot talks of the Fascist-sympathising Pound as “the Buck Rabbit”. In it, he enumerates Pound’s intellectual limitations (“theres some subjects on which the Buck Rabbit is touchinly ignorant such as French literature, drama, philosophy and theology”) with a candour he couldn’t use in propria persona, before commenting on one of the Marianne Moore poems he was preparing to publish at Faber:

I have been rereading Marianne’s Poem about the Gerboa and it come to me like that maybe Hes not a Rabit at all but a Gerboa a Little Animil wich I understan does illustrate the Quantum Theory by bein at two Places at once even if he dont understand it

Such a letter shows how his protean use of animal comedy mediates politically complex and tricky relationships, while generating a further set of problems concerning the racial politics of their shared use of US blackface dialect, like Berryman later on.

Playing dead, lying low, concealing his hand – Eliot’s assumed name of Possum advertised what the overtly propagandist and loud-mouthed Pound thought was his tendency to disguise his views. Eliot thrived on identifying with the animal that thrived because he could pretend to be dead. In terms of his poetry, we remember from The Waste Land “So many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” and “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones” as well as ‘A Song for Simeon’, where the speaker says “I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me”. In ‘How to Pick a Possum’, a poem for Geoffrey Faber, Eliot noted, “He is skilful at solitaire patience”, and, when asked once by Auden why he himself liked Patience, replied, “Because it is the nearest thing to being dead.” In other words Eliot used the figure of the possum to both defy and define his public image. In the Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (1928) he notoriously announced: “I have made bold to unite these occasional essays […] to refute any accusation of playing ‘possum’. The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” We might ask whether these adopted identities are not as artificial as the pose of Possum. They offer a shield of a different kind, a different way of playing dead. A decade later, after years of playing with the thanatosis-persona in hundreds of letters, he adopted it publicly as his comic mask in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), a book that arose Lear-style from his correspondence with the children of his friends.

On 17 December 1940, Eliot wrote to apologise to the aforementioned Alison Tandy for not thanking her for a gift of lavender she’d sent him earlier in the autumn. He also sent a poem called ‘A Practical Possum’, which opens:

A Practical Possum once lived in a Pye,
Surrounded by Gravy and Sweet Pertaters,
And he always walked out with a Glass in his Eye
And a Clerical Hat and an apron and gaiters.
For a Possum who dresses in Style
          Is certain to be observed;
And everyone said: ‘What a Charming Smile!
          And isn’t he Well-Preserved!’

By now the act of playing Possum is not only a form of displacement but of play and display. This is the Possum as Dandy, for whom “A Lavender Pye, we must now suppose, / Is the best for a Practical Possum’s Nose / And the tips of his ears and his tail and his toes.” Here Eliot has become a Possum to his fingertips (or toe tips) even as he adapts the nonsensical metre of his beloved Lear, becoming a dandified and anglicised cousin of Prufrock wearing white flannel trousers on the beach.

Such letters reveal Eliot the comedian. They often include genial comic verses, parodies, squibs and satires, as well as bawdy, offering a version of the poet he invoked at the end of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933): “He would like to be something of a popular entertainer, and be able to think his own thoughts behind a tragic or a comic mask.” If comedy involves a mask, he implies, it is also a way of the poet thinking “his own thoughts” under a different guise. The Eliot canon has been hugely expanded by the publication of Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue’s The Poems of T.S. Eliot in two volumes (2015), with the popular entertainer looming larger than anyone had previously dreamed of. With the invention of Possum, Eliot was able to separate the disturbingly dissonant comic dimensions of ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land from his more ‘serious’ work, siphoning comedy away from Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets into Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Hugh Kenner wrote a study called T.S. Eliot: The Invisible Poet (1959), and Eliot’s art is a disappearing act in many senses. It involves the assumption of the image of a deliberately ‘impersonal’ poet who disappears among personae, voices and allusions, and is only revealed in the very act of disappearing. He is reincarnated in Old Possum’s Macavity:

Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw –
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime – Macavity’s not there!

But where Eliot disappears behind the mask of Prufrock or Gerontion or Tiresias in The Waste Land, or later the Pope of Russell Square, he is happiest in the role of Possum. The author of ‘The Naming of Cats’ played up to the name of Possum. Playing the animal who plays dead paradoxically gave him new life as entertainer, children’s writer, and master of popular light verse rather than the neurotic avant-garde maestro of The Waste Land.

II

Marianne Moore forged a comparably dandyish literary self-image, as we can see in photos of her with her distinctive hats or posed alongside signature animals like the cockatoo. Where Pound and Eliot drew their animal nicknames from the homespun American Uncle Remus, Moore drew hers from the Edwardian English pastoral of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, crossed with running references to the zoo.

The editors of Moore’s Selected Letters (1998) list the poet’s “primary family nicknames” as “Uncle”, “Gator”, “Fangs”, “Rat”, “Basilisk”, “Feather” and “Weaze” (for “Weasel”), noting that she habitually referred to herself in her letters in the third person as “Barca” and “Willow”. In their correspondence the Moores really were “my family and other animals”, with her mother’s “primary family nicknames” being “Bunny”, “Fawn”, “Mouse”, “Mole”, “Bear” and “Cub”, and her brother Warner’s “Biter”, “Turtle”, “Badger”, “Toad”, “Fish” and “Porker”. In their letters, the family morphed into a zoo.

This onomastic menagerie offered a launchpad for the unique modernist bestiary we find in Moore’s poems, such as ‘The Jerboa’, which celebrates a desert rat as an exotic alter ego for the poet nicknamed Rat or Ratty, along with innumerable other poems like ‘To an Intra-Mural Rat’, ‘The Paper Nautilus’ and ‘Frigate Pelican’, as well as the various animals like the “bat holding-on upside-down” in ‘Poetry’. In addition to these polymorphous nominal disguises, the editors of the Selected Letters note that “Moore typically referred to herself as male, and is given a male pronoun by both her mother (often) and brother (consistently).” And bizarrely, Mrs Moore was “often referred to as Warner’s and Marianne’s mischievous child”. In their letters the whole family was caught up in an elaborate zoological name game, in which Moore herself changes identity and gender in startling and hilarious ways.

The game begins in her early letters from Bryn Mawr, written when she was eighteen. Writing to her brother as “Dear Biter” on 16 June 1905, she says:

I was going to tell Fawn how you looked […] Your tail was like a bee’s honey sucker and your flippers were mere carets […] As you know a phenomenon long peculiar to your race and that of basilisks and salamanders is the appearance in the head at an uncertain date of a jewel symbolical of wisdom and which varies in color according to the disposition of the fortunate acquisitor

The letter is signed, “With love eternal, Your affectionate brother, Fangs.” Later, writing from Oxford in 1911, Moore describes a visit to the Bodleian (“the atmosphere of rarity fairly stifles you”), where she sees “an illuminated book on Animals (in Latin); the page open was about Salamanders ‘kinds of lizards with arms […] against whom the fire was not powerful to inflict injury.’” She also observed that it was a common sight “to see Mr Fangs in deep study before a pastry shop”, signing off “With love, Weaz” (ie “Weazel”).

These names are not weasel words but multi-faceted self-images that involve performance and impersonation. The same thing appears in letters to close friends like the poet H.D. and her partner Bryher, who were also virtuoso exponents of the nickname. Louis Silverstein lists their ‘Nicknames and Acronyms’ in a 1987 paper, reporting that H.D. is Kat, Mog or Mother Monkey, and Bryher is Dog or Fido while Norman Douglas is Rhino and Hans Sachs Turtle. When Moore wrote to Bryher in December 1920 she raised the question of her own nickname:

Dear Bryher,
             I shall like any name you select for me; I am in my family, a weasel, a coach-dog, a water-rat, a basilisk and an alligator and could be an armadillo, a bull-frog or anything that seems suitable to you.

Moore is up for being multiply named, but makes it clear she has a particular bestiary in mind. In another letter of 23 January 1921, we learn the outcome, which involves not a basilisk but an even more ancient lizard:

             The pterodactyl has often thought of shortening its hair. (It will send or read you ‘The Rape of the Lock’, a friend’s burlesque dealing with this very subject.)

             Its craving for peacock blue is the scandal of its rock.

             The pterodactyl has an open mind with regard to Freud and
child and parent protective measures…

             The pterodactyl’s conscience hurts it; it has done wrong but hopes no harm will come of it. It is sending to The Dial, a stone
tablet depicting T.S. Eliot in The Sacred Wood.

             Love to H.D. Your trusting but disobedient pterodactyl

Freud, Eliot, and H.D land us in the middle of the moment of high modernism, even as Moore elects an identity from evolutionary prehistory as a flying reptile (one therefore capable of movement through water, air and land). Writing to H.D. later that year, she says “The dactyl is not an oracle” (reminding us that “dactyl” is an appropriately metrical kind of name for a poet) and to Bryher on 7 July 1921, where she deploys the persona to express her anxiety about her poems being published by her friends without her permission:

I received a copy of my poems this morning with your letter […] Now that I am a pterodactyl, it is perhaps well that you even with your hardened gaze, cannot see what it is to be a pterodactyl with no rock in which to hide. In Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication, Darwin speaks of a variety of pigeon that is born naked without any down whatever. I feel like that Darwinian gosling.

As a poetic animal under domestication, she needs protective covering, and feels threatened by publication, revealing that hiding matters for her, as it did for Eliot. After chronicling an extraordinary number of animals she has recently seen on a visit to the Bronx Zoo, including a mongoose – “it has always been the ambition of my life to see a mongoose” – Moore signs off the letter, “Your now naked, Dactyl.”

The predilection for speaking of herself in the third person in gender- and species-bending ways, feeds into Moore’s zoomorphically-minded verse, which also depends on her playful identification with other, usually non-human creatures. Being a “naked” Dactyl actually prevents her from being a naked Marianne Moore “with no rock in which to hide”. Moore’s polymorphic style of appropriating the identities of animals and other non-persons in her letters offers a key to her idiosyncratic poetic identity. Discussing having a book of poems published in a letter of 26 July, she says, “It is a pleasure to approach publishers in their reptile houses and if I should prove a mongoose, all concerned would be enriched, so let me take it to one or two.” For the poet who said to Bryher that “D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Snake’ in the June Dial has made me happy for a year”, the whole world has become a zoo. This is a reminder that Lawrence was another great modernist animal poet, bearing out Paul Muldoon’s case that “It seems that in poetry, as in life, animals bring out the best in us.”

In a later letter to her brother, in 1932, the mongoose returns. After mentioning ‘The Jerboa’, Moore signs off as “R.M. Rusty Mongoose” (Pharaoh’s rat). Her primary pen-name “Rat” suggests an encrypted identification with the Jerboa of that brilliant apparently impersonal poem shortly to be published by the “reptile house” of T.S. Eliot. (She notes that Bryher might “think I couldn’t be impersonal but I think, in a work of art, one must get at the individuality of a thing one is describing literally” and insists that an artist should “psychologize” detail.)

                                     Its restlessness was
    its excellence; it was praised for its wit;
    and the jerboa, like it,

a small desert rat,
and not famous, that
    lives without water, has
    happiness. Abroad seeking food, or at home
         in its burrow, the Sahara field-mouse
         has a shining silver house

of sand.

Restlessness, wit, agility – the “desert rat” hides “at home / in its burrow”, a “shining silver house // of sand”. Simultaneous revelation and concealment, encoded in “psychologized” details. In a later letter to John Warner Moore on 24 July 1932, Moore records that ‘The Jerboa’ had been accepted for publication but she is not “proceeding with my feather basilisk” – (see her poem ‘Plumet Basilisk’) – before signing herself “Basilisk”, adding in a PS: “I am now a basilisk – harmless, however.” Reporting a trip to the primal Marianne Moore scene of the Brooklyn Natural History Museum, where “there are live white rats, a kangaroo-rat, a flying-squirrel”, she draws an anteater and records: “I was allowed to pick up the tiger salamander but did not hold it for long for it loves to cover itself up with black moss and not let a soul see it” (letter of 9 December 1932). Here she identifies with a creature who does not want to be observed, even while observing it. Moore returned to salamanders in a response to Wallace Stevens’ 1935 review of her Selected Poems in Life and Letters Today, in which he wrote that “Miss Moore makes the most lavish snake-charmer look like a visitor”:

Men of compulsions and poetic respects, like Donne and Gerard Hopkins, or Dante, would undoubtedly have been swine if they had not been able to assert that life that amounts to anything is a matter of being colossally inconvenienced – is a kind of supernatural salamander. (Letter to T.C. Wilson, 5 July 1935)

I think of Moore herself not only as a poetic snake-charmer or zookeeper, but a supernatural salamander, with what she calls in another letter “the eye of a chameleon”. Like armour, her zoomorphic accounts of chameleons, salamanders, and other exotic animals, are simultaneously forms of protective covering and display. Equivalents of imaginary toads in real gardens, they show that for Moore natural history writing was life writing in many senses.

Another famous animal poet, Ted Hughes, has a poem called ‘Famous Poet’ which imagines the figure blinking “behind bars at the zoo”, and, as we have seen, zoos and the animals in them provided a place of playful experiment for at least two earlier famous poets in their poems and letters. When Moore’s Poems were first collected by Bryher in 1920, her brother Warner wrote: “I was […] greatly impressed by the fundamental grasp of ‘Life’ in them and expressed too in our own special ‘language’ but so marvellously handled that the ‘aliens’ could and can understand & enjoy them” (1 May 1920). The same might be said of Eliot, who told Mary Hutchinson in a letter that as an American he always felt like a “metic” or alien in England. Writing under the sign of the Possum – in a kind of Opus Possum-us – the inherently foreign Eliot made himself at home in his adopted culture (and his own skin). ‘Impersonality’ and impersonation are comparable strategies. Anyway, the ‘special language’ these two American moderns developed helps make their different forms of alienation (and belonging) less strange.

Both poets also turned to animal fables. Moore published versions of The Fables of La Fontaine, in one of which she says “I tell myself frequently that man’s counterpart / In situations I take to heart / Is almost always some animal he knows” (though in the singularly plural Moore’s case it was many animals). In a letter to Geoffrey Faber the hyper-conservative Eliot likewise circulated a squib called ‘The Whale and the Elephant: A Fable’, which noted self-mockingly that “The Elephant, of beasts alive / Is quite the most Conservative.” Letters foreground many things about poets, and for these poets, they confirm the truth of Paul Muldoon’s claim in The Faber Book of Beasts (1997) that the “ongoing question of ‘What am I?’ is […] central not only to animal poetry but all forms of poetry.” I think that’s the moral of this fable of the Possum and the Salamander.

Hugh Haughton teaches in the Department of English and Related Literature, University of York, with a special interest in modern poetry. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:2, Summer 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.