The Paper Nautilus

     For authorities whose hopes 
are shaped by mercenaries?
     Writers entrapped by 
     teatime fame and by 
commuters’ comforts? Not for these 
     the paper nautilus 
     constructs her thin glass shell.

     Giving her perishable 
souvenir of hope, a dull
     white outside and smooth- 
     edged inner surface 
glossy as the sea, the watchful
     maker of it guards it 
     day and night; she scarcely

     eats until the eggs are hatched. 
Buried eight-fold in her eight 
     arms, for she is in 
     a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ramshorn-cradled freight 
     is hid but is not crushed.
     As Hercules, bitten

     by a crab loyal to the hydra, 
was hindered to succeed, 
     the intensively 
     watched eggs coming from 
the shell free it when they are freed,— 
     leaving its wasp-nest flaws 
     of white on white, and close-

     laid Ionic chiton-folds 
like the lines in the mane of 
     A Parthenon horse, 
     round which the arms had 
wound themselves as if they knew love
     is the only fortress 
     strong enough to trust to.


This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on March 30, 2024, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“The Paper Nautilus” is anthologized in The Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by Michael Roberts (Faber and Faber, 1923). In her article, “Two Kinds of Vision in Marianne Moore,” published by John Hopkins University Press, A. K. Weatherhead wrote, “The principle, implicit throughout Marianne Moore’s work, that attention must be paid to details and that truth and feeling must be based on the perception of them is clearly embodied in ‘The Paper Nautilus.’ […] These ‘intensively watched’ details give rise to the conclusion that ‘love / is the only fortress / strong enough to trust to.’ […] The scrutinized details which produce the moral judgment also express personal feelings. The paper nautilus is in a sense the poet herself who, working indeed with paper, constructs a form, a part of herself, in which to foster and deliver her ideas. These ‘coming from / the shell free it when they are freed’ and leave evidence of the love and care that had encompassed them. In such a way the poem expresses with extreme reticence the complex of personal feelings, conflicting senses of freedom, and deprivation, that attend the poetic act.”