To "rest upon" an opinion

I will be guest-blogging several times for Joanne Jacobs while she is away. I have had Marianne Moore’s poem “The Student” (1941) on my mind for a while; I keep returning to it and thinking about this “student” that she describes.

It is difficult to quote from the poem, because of the enjambment from stanza to stanza. Not one of the stanzas (except for the last) ends with the end of a sentence. Another difficulty is that Moore’s poetry has many quotes, each one worthy of explanation. So be it. What intrigues me is the ending, but it makes little sense without the rest of the poem.

It is written in syllabic verse–no set meter, but a set number of syllables for each line. In each stanza (with a few exceptions), the syllable count per line is as follows: 7, 10, 8, 10, 6, 5, 11. This gives the poem a visual structure that contrasts with the relative lack of sonic structure.

The poem seems at first to defend the American idea, criticized by a lecturer, that everyone should have a college degree.

“In America,” began
the lecturer, “everyone must have a
degree. The French do not think that
all can have it, they don’t say everyone
     must go to college.” We
incline to feel, here,
     that although it may be unnecessary

to know fifteen languages,
one degree is not too much. With us, a
school—like the singing tree of which
the leaves were mouths that sang in concert—
     is both a tree of knowledge
and of liberty,–
     seen in the unanimity of college

Now Moore has moved beyond the idea of the college degree. College is important not for the degree, which seems incidental, but for the thought that takes place within it. But Moore hints at a pitfall of such institutions of thought: perhaps Americans have opinions and not much more.

mottoes, lux et veritas,
Christo et ecclesiae, sapiet
felici.
It may be that we
have not knowledge, just opinions, that we
     are undergraduates,
not students; we know
     we have been told with smiles, by expatriates

of whom we had asked “When will
your experiment be finished?” “Science
is never finished.” Secluded
from domestic strife, Jack Bookworm led a
     college life, says Goldsmith;
and here also as
     in France or Oxford, study is beset with

Again I have to break off in an awkward place–but now we see that the idea of college has been extended to cover life; that to Moore we are eternal students whose “science is never finished” (a quote from Einstein). What, then, about these opinions that we spout?

dangers—with bookworms, mildews,
and complaisancies. But someone in New
England has known enough to say
that the student is patience personified,
     a variety
of hero, “patient
     of neglect and of reproach,”—who can “hold by

himself.” You can’t beat hens to
make them lay. Wolf’s wool is the best of wool,
but it cannot be sheared, because
the wolf will not comply. With knowledge as
     with wolves’ surliness,
the student studies
     voluntarily, refusing to be less

The quote “patient / of neglect and of reproach” is from Emerson. At first the wolf seems to represent the one who will not be taught, but in fact he represents knowledge itself, not easily acquired. To exercise free will, it seems, one must be, like knowledge, a bit surly; it is not a wishy-washy matter. Nor, then, are the opinions flimsy, when they come from a student “patient of neglect and of reproach.”

than individual. He
“gives his opinion and then rests upon it”;
he renders service when there is
no reward, and is too reclusive for
     some things to seem to touch
him; not because he
     has no feeling but because he has so much.

What does it mean–to give one’s opinion and then rest on it? The quote is from Henry McBride in the New York Sun, December 12, 1931: “Dr. Valentiner … has the typical reserve of the student. He does not enjoy the active battle of opinion that invariably rages when a decision is announced that can be weighed in great sums of money. He gives his opinion firmly and rests upon that.”

How does one rest on an idea while continuing to learn and question? Perhaps the learning and questioning depends on the quiet. One might assume at first that to “give an opinon and then rest upon it” is to put an end to questioning–but perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the truth or falsity of an opinion can only be seen over time, so to get caught up in arguments about it is to distract oneself.

In that case, why give an opinion at all? To Moore, perhaps giving an opinion is “rendering service”–offering the best of one’s thought at a given time, and then letting the matter rest.

Difficult to pin down, even more difficult to accomplish, but a compelling idea.

Comments

  1. When someone builds something, a design is set and built (rested upon) in time, but there is always a better design (opinion), that will be released at its time. Think of OS X, v 5 and v6 or Windows Vista, followed by 7.

    In engineering, an opinion is given to freeze a design, build/release it, and simultaneously start the new refined designed. The extreme of this is when chips are designed, but the next version and the version after that are also started, if they haven’t been already.

    Fighting over the merits of one iteration at the moment is often a pointless and distracting choice.

  2. Moore’s vision of college life was rendered obsolete by WWI and then the GI Bill. She wrote this before 1941, didn’t she–and how could she possibly think that America believed all should have a college degree?

  3. WWII, I mean.

  4. Diana Senechal says:

    It’s not that she thinks America believes all should have a degree. The first quote in the poem is from Auguste Desclos, “Les Idéals de l’Éducation Française,” December 3, 1931. I have not found the text of the speech, but apparently Desclos was contrasting French and American conceptions of higher education. It is possible that he was exaggerating to make a point.

    College education in America was far from universal by 1930, but it had become much more popular over the past 50-60 years. Women’s colleges had also grown in importance, and the “college experience” was taking hold, not only in the colleges themselves, but in the public imagination. See, for instance, John R. Thelin, A History of American Higher Education, chapter 5, “Alma Mater: America Goes to College, 1890 to 1920.”

    But it is important not to take Moore’s poem too literally. Her direct quotations often turn into ideas with which she plays. In this case, it seems likely that the idea of universal (or at least widespread) higher education was in the air. She takes that idea and does something surprising with it.

  5. Diana Senechal says:

    Dennis, that is a very interesting comment about “resting upon an opinion” (or design) in engineering.

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