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By Kirby Olson


The Montréal Review, August 2014


"The Fall of the Rebel Angels" (detail) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1562)


The Presbyterian poet Marianne Moore comes out of a religious tradition that has been largely severed from the literary and artistic world.  In the omnibus volume Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet critic Patricia Willis says that except for one brief article that she has published in the collection, “no case has previously been made for Moore as a religious poet, although her avowed interest in George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, Christopher Smart, and Gerard Manley Hopkins should alert us to this dimension of her work” (20).  Willis’ volume was published in 1990, the year that Charles Molesworth’s biography came out. Molesworth’s biography recuperates Moore’s Christian context, and the Christian notion of Just War, and since the publication of the biography Moore’s conservative and religious viewpoint is slowly coming back into focus.  The publication of The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore in 1997 provide further understanding of Moore’s religious viewpoints, especially in the revealing letters that she wrote to her pastor brother, Warner.   Moore’s grandfather, John Riddle Warner, wrote an eloquent defense of Lincoln’s decision to commence the Civil War.  Might these and other theological underpinnings contribute to understanding Moore’s most famous poem, “In Distrust of Merits”? 

Since Willis wrote her preface, several important articles have appeared that locate Moore within a Christian context, in particular “’Certain Axioms Rivaling Scriptures’: Marianne Moore, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Ethics of Engagement,” by Jennifer Leader, which appeared in the journal Twentieth Century Literature in 2005. Bernard Engel, among others in the earlier critical tradition, hints of Moore’s Christian affiliation, but does little more.  Engel writes that “Such poems as ‘Keeping Their World Large,’ demonstrate that in her middle period she had come to take a specifically Christian view of the nature of spirit” (113).  Engel writes that “Keeping Their World Large,” is “a counterpart to “In Distrust of Merits,” which warned that egocentrism is a major cause of error and war” (112).  Engel’s assertion about “In Distrust” will show that one of Moore’s most powerful champions has reversed the meaning of the poem. Whereas Engel argues that “egocentrism is a major cause of … war” the poem argues the opposite: that it is egocentrism which creates the cowardice that keeps us out of wars. 

In her earlier poem “Keeping Their World Large,” (written during World War II at about the same time as “In Distrust”) Moore is coming down on the side of martial intervention and uses a Christian basis for doing so.  “Keeping” cites a pro-war article by Reverend James Gilkey that appeared on June 7, 1944 (just two days after D-Day) in The New York Times.  She quotes Gilkey, “All too literally, their flesh and their spirit are our shield” (Complete Poems 145).

A far deeper taproot can be found in her grandfather John Riddle Warner’s essay, “Our Times and Our Duty: An Oration,” which was pronounced in Gettysburg in 1861 (two years before the great battle) in which Pastor Warner calls upon the tradition in which God faces down Satan, and in which treason is dealt with as Satanic, in order to invoke the duty to fight in defense of America.  John Riddle Warner cites John Webster throughout the speech, and closes his book with a reference to Webster that Marianne Moore later cites in the closure of her important poem “Marriage.”  Her grandfather ends his 16-page speech,

            “And long, long after we shall have passed before the throne of the Ancient of days, from Ocean to Ocean, from northern heights to southern plains, and back from the shade of the Palmetto to the pine-clad hills of Maine, ever new, ever fresh, ever gladly inspiriting, will rise the glorious cry of America, ‘Liberty and Union, now and forever – one and inseparable!” (16).

In the 1960s war had become suspect due to American involvement in Vietnam.  Donald Hall disliked “In Distrust” and called it “trite” (The Cage and the Animal 112), while also putting her well-known war poem “Keeping Their World Large” into the same category.   Hall admits that “… [Distrust] is possibly Miss Moore’s best known poem.  It is the one that turns up most often in anthologies and is quoted frequently” (110-111), but he thinks this is because “It is easy to understand.  The emotion and the ideas are all surface” (Cage 111).  Contemporary critic Harold Bloom dislikes the war poems, too, and calls them a “poetic disaster” (13).  All or almost all of the criticism on Moore denies the Christian aspect of Moore’s positions on war and often attempt to deny that Moore was anything but a strict pacifist, citing a juvenile letter or two that she sent to her mother while a college student as proof.  However, Marianne Moore’s family had a deeper tradition. Her mother published her father’s famous speech about Gettysburg along with a volume of his sermons “that Mrs. Moore subsidized at some considerable expense” (Molesworth 2).  Marianne Moore would certainly have known this book, but until now it has never been cited in the understanding of Moore’s later adult poetry.

Marianne Moore’s hawkish positions as an adult can be seen in her response to a survey on the Vietnam War organized later by the New York Times, and which John Updike cites in a memoir:

“…Marianne Moore in typical cadence responded, ‘It is short-sightedly irresponsible, I think, to permit communist domination and acquiesce in the crushing of the weak by the strong.  Can negotiation be imposed by force?  Winston Churchill thought appeasement solved nothing.’” (Moore cited in Updike, 110).

Protestant theology professor Daniel Jenkins at Princeton Seminary, wrote:

“Biblical phrases and echoes abound throughout her work.  More profoundly, in her major poems she is moved by a Christian passion which is reminiscent of the best kind of preaching.  This emerges clearly in what is widely regarded as her greatest poem, ‘In Distrust of Merits.’  The poem was evoked by reports and newspaper pictures of dead soldiers in WWII.  Her realization of the sacrifices of those having to fight fills her not only with a conviction of the necessity of what they have to do but also with an awareness of how, in her own undependability, she fails them” (37).

Even in her eighties, when asked about her opinion of the Vietnam War by peace activist Harry Belafonte, “She told Belafonte that the war in Vietnam ‘was an agony to me,’ but that she favored finishing the war, even if it meant military escalation, rather than abandoning the South Vietnamese” (Leavell 370).  How much of Moore’s understanding of war was due to her familial tradition?  In the Second World War, John Warner wrote to his sister and mother on May 27, 1941, “You must know by this time that the Bismarck is on the bottom!  I knew they’d get her; the only question was, when?  Now we know.  I only wish more of her consorts were finished off at the same time” (Family Correspondence in Rosenbach Archives VI: 36: 02).  As part of his position, Warner gave sermons that found a Biblical rationale for just war.  In Marianne Moore’s files there is a clipping from a New Jersey newspaper dated January 16, 1941: “Chaplain Moore Declines to Appear at Methodist Meeting,” which goes on to sketch out a scenario in which Warner had not wished to appear on the same stage with Democratic Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana, who was the head of the America First Committee, a notable anti-war group that had nearly a million members until the devastation at Pearl Harbor when it disbanded.   Warner discusses a passage from Matthew 16:18 in a letter to his family on January 19, 1941.  “’I will build my church and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. We are invited to serve as partners in making possible the Victorious Life for all mankind” (Rosenbach Library VI: 31: 02, Family Correspondence).  This letter and many others from the time echo the grandfather’s understanding of war.  Warner also discusses a sermon he is writing and tells his mother and sister that his research is “the basis of a talk on how Washington not only discovered the hour of the birth of the nation under God, but by his acts disclosed how that nation must live under God if it was to endure” (VI: 31: 02).  While many Christians cite the “swords into ploughshares” passage from Isaiah 2:4, or cite the Sermon on the Mount, another tradition not only allows war, but demands it.  That tradition is not something unique to Moore’s family, or to her denomination, but is a widely known and understood tradition within Christianity.  That faith is little known inside contemporary academia, and therefore an entire tradition that Moore would have known well must be recuperated in order to return to “Distrust” its fullest implications.

“In Distrust of Merits” can be compared to a war poem by another Protestant poet.  Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that opens with the famous line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” and ends with an unambiguous quatrain,

“In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:

As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.”

Howe’s poem, published in February 1862 in The Atlantic Monthly, is one of the best-known Civil War poems.  In the last two lines, the Union Army and Christ are identical in their mission.  Howe was a Republican abolitionist.  Marianne Moore’s Lafayette Ave. Presbyterian Church was founded as an abolitionist church.  There is a religious agenda in Howe’s poem that uses a military cudgel.  It uses Christ’s actions to stir and provide a rationale for the soldiers of the north.  In war the one who creates greater devastation wins. The dangers of losing one’s soul by going too far are not addressed in Howe’s poem.

“As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,”

Echo in Moore’s more cautious opening lines,

“they are fighting fighting fighting that where

There was death there may

Be life” (137)

Moore’s poem reveals that she reached into a deep tradition. Her understanding is gleaned through her Augustinian taproot.  There is no evidence of this Augustinian ambiguity about war in Howe’s more famous “Battle Hymn.”  The two poets had a similar understanding of war as just, and as Christian.  Moore is more ambivalent, but she is not a pacifist.  Moore writes, in Complete Prose, “It is a great deal to me that there are in the world a few real enemies of enslavement and that some of them are generals – General Eisenhower, General MacArthur and General de Tassigny…” (Complete Prose 648).  She never denounced the actions of the Civil War.  Sketching her autobiography for teenagers she begins, “My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and was present during the Battle of Gettysburg.  He was a pastor there, and his wife, my grandmother, died of typhoid fever as a result of the battle, since conditions in Gettysburg were very unwholesome” (662). 

Moore, as well as her mother, are buried in the town of Gettysburg.  Her brother is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Abraham Lincoln’s abolitionist intervention in the Civil War provided a watershed of thought for Republican sons and daughters.  Gettysburg as a landmark is an ineradicable national monument. 

In the volume The Vacant Chair, Civil War historian Reid Mitchell argues that northerners saw the war as their solemn obligation, an idea stressed throughout John Riddle Warner’s oration, and a point which he made all over America as he gave the speech in various cities.  Mitchell writes,  “Preserving the Union was the duty he owed both the generation behind him – particularly, it would seem, his mother – and the generation to come.  He further told his wife, ‘teach our children that their duty to the land of their birth is next to their duty to their God.  And that those who would desert her in the hour of danger, should be deserted by Him when their final calamity comes’” (14).

Julia Ward Howe’s daughter recuperates the context surrounding her mother’s famous poem in The Story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The poem was set to a song about John Brown (35), the fierce Puritan abolitionist (35) who ignited the war through paramilitary action at Harper’s Ferry.  Julia Ward Howe wrote of Harper’s Ferry, “None of us could exactly approve an act so revolutionary in its character, yet the great-hearted attempt enlisted our sympathies very strongly.  The weeks of John Brown’s imprisonment were very sad ones, and the day of his death was one of general mourning in New England” (cited in Story 36).    

Among Julia Ward Howe’s heroes were John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Sumner, a congressman who spoke out against slavery in Congress.  Southern Senator Preston Brooks surprised Sumner on the floor of Congress and beat him unconsciousness using a cane while Brooks’ friends prevented aid.  Sumner died from the wounds.  These were men that Julia Ward Howe had known personally, and from them her own vocabulary had been formed.  Marianne Moore’s vocabulary arises from her involvement with her church, and with her brother, a naval pastor, and from a taproot reaching back into a tradition that has lapsed inside of academia.  There were 4000 congregants at the Lafayette Ave. Presbyterian Church in the 1860s during the Civil War.  Today there are barely a tenth of that number.  In Moore’s day the congregation had dwindled to about a thousand members.  Moore’s world was fading, but as a congregant her thinking extended back to the Civil War, and back to battles fought in antiquity as sketched out in the Old Testament.  

In a previously unnoticed diary entry in the Moore archives dated Sunday 26 July 1942 --  written just before she published “In Distrust of Merits,” Moore gives us hints as to how some of the newspaper editorials at the time influenced her thought.  She writes, “We noticed in the Times today, ‘It was Emerson who said, “The cause of peace is not the cause of cowardice.  If peace is to be maintained, it must be by brave men, who have come up to the same height as the hero.” 

Moore describes that morning at her church when a man spoke in favor of the war.  I have been unable to ascertain whether the man who spoke was a member of the congregation, but it is clear that he spoke before the congregation and was invited to do so.  “A certain John A. MacSporran spoke today, on NUMBERS: ‘I will take his spirit and put it upon you,’ when Moses’ burden seemed to be growing too heavy for him and two of the leaders from the camp stayed behind to undertake active duties perhaps…”

John MacSporran held up two American leaders as exemplary to the war effort in World War II because they had been like Joshua and Caleb in Numbers.  Like Joshua and Caleb, these two continued to have faith in spite of what looked like a lost cause.  Joshua thought they should attack Canaan even though outnumbered, and that faith alone would win the war.  It was God, not the Israelites, who won wars.   In the book of Numbers their win is overwhelming against the Canaanites.  MacSporran, according to Moore’s note, cited two American heroes: Henry A. Wallace and General Douglas MacArthur.  Wallace had been Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt, and had made a speech entitled, “Century of the Common Man,” in which he argued that America had to stand up for the common man throughout the world.  We were not to assume that because we are Americans we are a superior race uniquely entitled to freedom.  General Douglas MacArthur, the second of MacSporran’s champions, had spoken of his faith shortly after the defeat on the Bataan peninsula in which the Japanese routed the American and Philippine armies and consigned the surviving American and Philippine soldiers to a death-march that destroyed 10,000.  “To the weeping mothers of its dead I can only say that the sacrifice and halo of Jesus of Nazareth has descended upon their sons and that God will take them unto himself” (MacArthur Speech made on May 8, 1942, in Australia).

Moore’s note summarizes MacSporran’s speech, “We are fighting to defend ourselves and to save our country from tyranny but if that’s all, we would do well to remember that he who saveth his soul shall lose it.  We are fighting that the defenseless, that the poor, that the oppressed in other lands may know what liberty is, and what it is to praise and serve God.  …” (MM VII: 09:11, Rosenbach papers). 

Other than this note, we don’t know what was said in her church, or much of what was said within her family, except from letters and published artifacts.  The very fact that Moore kept notes on MacSporran’s speech and filed them, however, indicates their importance to her thought.  A strong consensus was forming throughout the nation by the middle of 1942 (six months after Pearl Harbor) that the Second World War was just.  By 1943, when her poem was published, it became clear to the majority that we needed to be in it to win it.  Moore herself writes in the opening line of the third stanza that “contagion of trust makes trust.”  If it is first only a few who want intervention the movement may die.  But we can see a rising crescendo in and around Moore, before Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  By the time her poem is published, national leaders are making important pro-war speeches and writing essays in leading papers.  Henry Wallace, the Democratic vice-president at the time, and one of the two heroes that Moore mentioned in her diary note, had in his essay “The Century of the Common Man” clarified some of the ideals for which American troops fought.  He writes, using the Civil War as precedent,

“This is a fight between a slave world and a free world.  Just as the United States in 1862 could not remain half slave and half free, so in 1942 the world must make its decision for a complete victory one way or the other…”  (Wallace 14).  Wallace goes on to trace the role of God in warfare from the time of the ancient Jewish prophets, and writes, “But that which was sensed by the prophets many centuries before Christ was not given complete and powerful political expression until our nation was formed as a Federal Union a century and a half ago.  Even then, the march of the common man had just begun” (Wallace 14-15).  Wallace continues: 

“Through the leaders of the Nazi revolution, Satan now is trying to lead the common man of the whole world back into slavery and darkness.  For the stark truth is that the violence preached by the Nazis is the devil’s own religion of darkness.  So also is the doctrine that one race or one class is by heredity superior and that all other races or classes are supposed to be slaves” (Wallace 17). 

Wallace declared the twentieth century to be the century of the common man, in which all of humanity would look forward to the benefits of democracy.  He writes, “If we really believe that we are fighting for a people’s peace, all the rest becomes easy” (Wallace 21).

Moore’s brother John Warner Moore had seen the horrors inflicted by the Axis powers, and he thought that war against them was just.  On September 1, 1946 he sent part of his sermon notes to his sister, “In laying down our lives in Christ’s name, we enter into eternal life.  As we conform to the word of the Lord, or to His Law, we establish ourselves forever. Our part therefore, is not to ask why, but what, it is His will for us to do; and so in obeying His word we become part of that which is Eternal.  Kingdoms shall rise and fall, but my word endureth forever” (MM VII:09:11).

As early as the First World War, according to the Molesworth biography, Moore had contemplated accepting war.  “On February 24, 1915, Moore mailed her brother a long and curious letter in which she reflects on the war then being fought throughout Europe.  She had come to the conclusion that she would reduce her opposition to the war, because war, she argued, affects only physical life.  This sentiment comes to full expression decades later in the poem ‘In Distrust of Merits,’…  At this time American intellectuals were engaged in a deep and divisive debate about this issue of non-participation…  Moore never entered this debate directly, but her ideas about war were obviously to be important for her overall view of human morality, which enters her poems more explicitly after World War II” (Molesworth 111). 

James Turner Johnson, a scholar of Just War theory, argues that in the 1960s, “In American churches … religious discourse was increasingly taking form as pacifism of various sorts” (157), and that scholars and intellectuals instead turned to “…political realism, which emphasizes interests and discounts ideals of any sort, including those based in religion” (158).   To recuperate the ancient Christian tradition in which war can be religious will allow us to understand Moore’s later support of the American intervention in Vietnam. 

St. Augustine is held to be the beginning of what has been called the Just War tradition.  Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago, wrote in Just War Against Terror, “Augustine launched a great tradition of reasoning on the ethics of force called the just war tradition.  …  The origins of this tradition are usually traced from Augustine’s fourth-century masterwork, The City of God.”  Elshtain continues:

“Jesus resisted taking up arms in his own behalf or asking others to do so.  How, then, can a Christian take up arms?  That is the question that animated the just war tradition, which had several aims: to articulate occasions for the legitimate resort to force; to ensure that war derives from the use of right authority by those responsible for public order; to limit the means to be deployed even in a just cause; and to hold warfare, one outgrowth of political rule, up to ethical scrutiny” (49-50).

Augustine found the Pax Romana hid great ugliness.  “The Romans, Augustine argues, created a desert and called it peace … So peace should not be universally lauded even as war is universally condemned.  Each must be evaluated critically” (Elshtain 50).  In a nutshell, Elshtain writes, Augustine had one major question, which she summarizes:  “If our neighbor is being slaughtered, do we stand by and do nothing?” (51). 

While some Christian traditions disallow war, it is permissible in others, and in some it is mandatory.  Moore’s own tradition allows it, but sees its severe drawbacks.  In Protestant thought, deriving from Augustine, men and women cannot embody justice, but can only act in the name of justice.  They can never fully embody it.  To think that one embodies justice is sin.  Thus, Moore was against those who believe that because they are on the side of the good, that they are good, and according to her biographer was against “adamancy” as the “chief enemy of truth” (Molesworth 332). 

Nevertheless, moral awareness can be found in soldiers as often as it can be found in the artistic avant-garde, and to find this awareness and act on it can be considered heroic.  In a letter to her brother John Warner Moore, Marianne wrote on January 8, 1945,

“The war staggers belief and paralyzes pity.  The stupendous acts of heroism of poor solitary men – ‘grease monkeys’ and orderlies & nurses.  As one of the Bastogne commanders said, ‘There are no heroes, they are all heroes’” (Selected Letters 457).

Moore kept clippings and wrote to her brother regarding news reports of the battle as the war drew to a close in Europe but continued unabated in the Pacific theater.  “We are certainly moving closer to Japan in the Philippines.  A good map in today’s paper we are saving so you can comment presently & we can picture ‘the route’ since you left Pearl as you call it” (Letters 457).

Many of the artists in Moore’s milieu disliked war and, like their academic counterparts today, find it incomprehensible that it could ever be justified.  Outside of the Augustinian paradigm Moore’s poem has been widely decried.  Randall Jarrell was one of many who scorned “In Distrust of Merits.”  He felt that it was wrong to “believe that man could be taught to live through the sufferings of war” (cited in Engel 108), and yet he also concedes that it is one of her “best poems” (Poetry and the Age 186-187).  Jarrell’s understanding of the poem falls outside Just War thinking, and is worth quoting at length because it is a fair representation of a style of secular thinking that finds all war incomprehensible from within a moral framework: 

“Miss Moore thinks of the war in blindingly moral terms. We are fighting ‘that where there was death there may be life.’ This is true, in a sense; but the opposite is true in a more direct sense. She writes at the climax of her poem, ‘If these great patient / dyings – all these agonies / and woundbearings and bloodshed / can teach us how to live, these dyings were not wasted’; and she is certain that they were not wasted, and ends the poem with ‘Beauty is eternal / and dust is for a time.’ (The armies and the people died, and it meant that Beauty is eternal.) Since Pharoah’s bits were pushed into the jaws of the kings, these dyings – patient or impatient, but dyings – have happened, by the hundreds of millions; they were all wasted. They taught us to kill others and to die ourselves, but never how to live. Who is ‘taught to live’ by cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and that occupational disease of soldiers, death? … If Miss Moore had read a history of the European ‘colonization’ of our planet (instead of natural histories full of the quaint animals of those colonies) she would be astonished at nothing in the last world war, or in this one, or in the next. She should distrust us and herself, but not at the eleventh hour, not because of the war (something incommensurable, beside which all of us are good): she should have distrusted the peace of which ours is only the extrapolation” (Kipling 129).

For comparison’s sake, theology professor Daniel Jenkins sees “In Distrust” from within a framework closer to Moore’s:

“Brief quotation cannot convey the poem’s intensity of feeling, but it is a moving example, worked out in terms of the grimmest public events, of how the sacrifice of others, even in our common just cause, produces contrition rather than self-righteousness” (38). 

In Moore’s poem war is real and objective but it is also an internal and symbolic struggle.  Her poem touches upon the objective world of action and encourages us to enter into it, but it also encourages us to do this with a sense of our own unreliability as moral subjects.  The title of the poem “In Distrust of Merits” is Augustinian – there is no merit in being a soldier.  But, it must be done: 

In snow, some on crags, some in quicksands,

Little by little, much by much, they

Are fighting fighting fighting that where

There was death there may

Be life.


Jarrell has no larger framework in which to place conflict, and sees it as essentially “slapstick,” as something absurd (Kipling 129), but in a world without God, and in which all action has no greater meaning, absurdity would subtend any action.  To create a symbolic map, on the other hand, the Christian soldier must not imagine she is justice itself, but must see her calling as part of a larger meaning of true peace.  The Augustinian ethos iterates that we are in bondage to sin.


Fighting in deserts and caves, one by

One, in battalions and squadrons;

They’re fighting that I

May yet recover from the disease, My



And then, further on in the poem --

There never was a war that was not inward;


War is a spiritual struggle.  It is a spiritual struggle not to find a selfish justification, but to do an unselfish act.  According to Moore’s biographer Molesworth, the most central figure in her thought was Augustine.  As fallen sinners we care more about self than God.  When Moore writes that she wants to recover from her central sin, My Self, it is in reference to this Augustinian belief.

Although many have died from the times of the battles against the Pharoahs, as Jarrell puts it dismissively, it was not all for naught: there are now better laws and the doctrine of universal human rights.  So surely those soldiers did not die in vain, as they established certain principles, and bore witness to those principles in their sacrifice.  If, on the other hand, there is no God, and no universal principles, then there is only solipsism within an incomprehensible universe.  Within that framework, Jarrell’s reading makes perfect sense.  Since many academics are no longer Christian, Moore’s poem no longer makes sense, and is, in a sense, senseless, and thus we see its devaluation within that framework.  To recuperate Moore’s tradition is therefore necessary to create a context for understanding her brilliant poem.

Human rights have a long history in Protestant understanding of war.  Glenn Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary argues that human rights come to the forefront in Parliament’s war with King Charles I.  Leveller Richard Overton made some of the initial arguments in the 1640s.  Professor Stassen summarizes Overton, “All humankind is made in the image of God, and Christ died for all” (Stassen 142).  Overton anticipates Patrick Henry when he writes, “Let me have justice, or let me perish,” (cited in Stassen 151).  Overton’s writings anticipate much that is important in American political thought arising from the Protestant tradition, often traced not so much to Overton as to Anglican John Locke.  According to Locke, “A good state is one that guarantees and maximizes … rights [to life, liberty, health and possessions]; a bad state is one that does not guarantee them; and an evil state is one that itself assaults the natural rights … a tyrannical government is illegitimate and ought to be revolted against” (Palmer 195).   Locke writes in Two Treatises of Government,

“Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?  Polyphemus’ den gives us a pattern of such a peace, and such a government, wherein Ulysses and his companions had nothing to do, but quietly to suffer themselves to be devoured” 435). 

Moore biographer Molesworth writes, “…the poem projects a genuine sense of struggle, and its controlled self-dramatization keeps it from being merely preachy.  The sense of morality is existentialist rather than absolutist, for the poem finds its energy in its self-doubt and self-definition.  The allusion in the closing lines to an ‘Iscariot-like’ crime’ indicates the Christian background…” (313)


Moore is asked “how she feels ‘about war – now’” (Molesworth 445) in 1969 by Grace Schulman (Interview in the Quarterly Review of Literature).  The interview harkens back to question Moore’s involvement in World War II.  The Vietnam War was less popular than World War II because it was seen as an aggressive rather than defensive action by peace activists, even if the powerful Marxist armies of northern Vietnam received much of their help from Red China and the Soviet Union.  However, if one sees the war not through Marxist but rather through Lockean criteria, communist states did not protect the lives and liberty of their inhabitants, nor did they protect private property.  During the war in Vietnam we had not been attacked, and it appeared to be an imperialist aggression, but Moore saw the war through the lens of Christian thought.  Moore responds to Schulman’s question by saying that “she doesn’t even like to kill the smallest animals” (445), but that “to persevere in killing out of patriotic duty was only tolerable if the end was in sight, a practical qualification.  Such views,” Molesworth writes, “are not that far removed from the argument theologians use in defining a just war” (446).  Moore’s viewpoint is amplified by her response to the New York Times quoted by John Updike, where she argues that not to act was “…shortsightedly irresponsible … to permit communist domination and [to] acquiesce in the crushing of the weak by the strong” (cited in Updike 110, and in Moore’s Complete Prose, 691).

Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray raised the notion of Just War during the Vietnam War in his pamphlet Selective Conscientious Objection which was distributed free to the nation’s doorstepsWe are more familiar with the viewpoint of those who were against the war, but Murray crucially states that he thought there should be no easy loopholes for conscientious objectors –:

“…the presumption stands for the decision of the community as officially declared.  He who dissents from the decision must accept the burden of proof…  The citizen must concede the justness of the common political decision, made in behalf of the nation…” (11). 

Catholics have a top-down decision-making apparatus: we have leaders and must obey their decisions.  Protestants put a larger emphasis on individual conscience, which Murray dismisses as what he calls “the problem of the erroneous conscience” (13), and by arguing that the nation is a moral community, and that a nation ought to defend itself against any threat, and that, “No political society can be founded on the principle that absolute rights are to be accorded to the individual conscience” (14) because this is, according to Murray, “rank individualism” (14).

Liberal Protestant theologians disputed Catholic theologian John Murray during the Vietnam War, as they put a greater emphasis on the individual conscience. Moore was for the war, but in many ways she uses a different framework than Murray to arrive at her conclusion. 

Lutheran theologian Richard Niebanck, writing for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in 1968, places the ultimate authority not in the hands of the government, but in the hands of the individual conscience, and ends his pamphlet on just war, “…the church must respect and protect the conscience of … an objector, keeping itself open to whatever word of divine judgment his action may embody” (46).

Niebanck laid out the rudiments of Just War theory in a booklet published in 1968 and distributed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: 

“War must be a last resort…War must be an act of defense against unjust demands backed by the threat of force… War must be openly and legally declared by a properly constituted government… There must be a reasonable prospect for victory… The means must be proportionate to the ends… War must be waged in such a way as to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants… The victorious nation must not require the utter humiliation of the vanquished” (19-21).

These criteria do not exhaust the criteria for a just war, but they reflect the thinking of a prominent contemporary Protestant theologian.  Presumably, if any of the above conditions could not be met, it would mean that an individual could opt out of the war.  Would Moore have persisted in regarding the war in Vietnam as “Just” as the war went on into the 1970s?  Shortly after her interview with Schulman, she suffered a stroke and there are no published writings after that point (ca. 1970).  But why would she have changed her mind?  Jean Bethke Elshtain cites, in a recent addition to the literature (published in 2003), “Love of our neighbor” as a criterion (59) and writes, “It is horrific to stand in the ruins of a once flourishing city or section of a city and to know that a government could not prevent what happened there – or was, even worse, the agent of destruction” (49).

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, at least a million South Vietnamese were slaughtered by the north as punishment for having fought for the South.  Reeducation camps filled with intellectuals and businessmen, Christians and their families, and offered such harsh conditions that death was the most common outcome.  Since that time, millions of South Vietnamese left Vietnam, often on rickety boats, and at least a half million are thought to have perished in the open sea.  In spite of how absurd it might seem to fight for such people, people we do not know, there is a tradition within Christian thought that says that we must, even if it costs us our life, as they are our neighbors.

Biographer Molesworth writes that, “The Book of Job, among other things a great drama of self-discipline, inspired Moore from an early age” (xv).  Moore’s mother and brother, more than her friends or the artistic milieu, gave her the deepest bonds of affection in her life.  Molesworth writes, “Together, the three of them approached the Christian faith as a lesson in strength vindicated through trials and temptation.  For them, Old Testament figures like Job and Jonah, another key figure for Moore, would always illustrate the necessity for strong bonds of faith that were more important than outward ceremony or public recognition… At least in her family circle, Moore often conceived of the work of a literary career as a spiritual quest” (xv).

If war is as much psychological as physical, then psychological warfare is as important as physical.  Moore’s poem shows us that what must be done is not just an outward thing involving tanks and missiles and bullets, but an inward thing involving prayer, reflection, and resolve so that “hearts may feel and not be numb” (CP 137). 

Moore’s friend the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote during the war, “The defeat of Germany, and the frustration of the Nazi effort to unify Europe in tyrannical terms, is a negative task….  But it is a negative task which cannot be avoided” (118).  Niebuhr’s work recuperates Augustinian traditions, and comes to the conclusion that, “In its profoundest insights, the Christian faith sees the whole of human history as involved in guilt, and finds no release from guilt except in the grace of God.  The Christian is freed by that grace to act in history, to give his devotion to the highest values he knows, to defend those citadels of civilization of which necessity and historic destiny have made him the defender…” (118).

In his book Presbyterianism in New York State, theologian Robert Hastings Nichols writes of the importance of Reinhold Niebuhr’s work during the period leading up to the Second World War:

“Moral Man and Immortal Society (1932) is usually taken as the signal for Niebuhr’s new theological turn.  He was reacting against the naïve moralism of the liberal social gospel, and in the process led in the rediscovery of classical doctrines of sin and grace, judgment and forgiveness.  By the end of the thirties he was acknowledged to be the most discerning and influential theological analyst of American political life” (236). 

Moore makes several notes as to the importance of Niebuhr’s writings in Complete Prose.  Biographer Molesworth notes, “Throughout the 1940’s Moore shared … her enthusiasm about Niebuhr” (416), and includes Niebuhr’s book The Dilemma of Modern Man in a list of her hundred most important books (Complete Prose 669).  Critic Jennifer Leader, in her article, “’Certain Axioms Rivaling Scriptures’” establishes further links between Moore and Niebuhr.  Leader writes,

“It is not surprising that Moore would find in Niebuhr a kindred spirit, for

the questions she was tackling aesthetically during a poetic career that

spanned two world wars were also being tackled by Niebuhr in terms of

philosophy, pragmatic politics, and national justice movements: namely,

how to strike a balance between the legitimate claims of a free self and

the responsibility to the community or nation at large; how to assert a

just and loving truth while at the same time avoiding extremes of determinism,

totalitarianism, repression, and fanaticism; and how to construct

a meaningful interpretation of individual and human history while acknowledging

the limitations of all human metanarratives” (316-317).

Moore’s poem “In Distrust of Merits” sets out to say something about the war, but the poem never became an anthem as did Howe’s “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” nor was it on the mind or lips of the common soldier as he went into battle, perhaps because the vocabulary was too difficult.  The poem is obscure and complex, and represents to many liberal critics Moore’s own sense of ambiguity toward war.  And yet she sees the men as “heroes,” in her letter to her hawkish brother, and tells him that she is enthusiastically following the war’s progress in the newspaper.  Like Vice-President Henry Wallace, or her contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr, it would appear that, as we reconstruct the poem’s context from within her own milieu and from later documents regarding her understanding of war, Moore was articulating a vocabulary similar to that of Niebuhr’s and which drew on Niebuhr.  With an awareness of the Augustinian tradition the poem makes clearer sense.  In an era in which secular liberalism dominates within poetics, and conservatives have largely abandoned the study of contemporary poetry, as well as its interpretation, there are many liberal critics who reject Moore’s “In Distrust” but that judgment should not be considered final, nor as representing a concerted attempt at a full understanding of Moore’s poem.

Contemporary Protestant theologian, Jean Bethke Elshtain, writes of Reinhold Niebuhr’s rival liberal theologians who have now succeeded in eliding much of his thought,

“…criticism of, and contempt for, the military comes readily to the lips of many religious people, perhaps because they put the worst possible interpretation on those who have determined that a resort to force is justified.  Niebuhr insists, however, that such contempt flows from a sentimentalized Christianity whose adherents have reduced the complexities of the Christian message to slogans that exalt alleged victims, encourage condemnation of responsible authorities, and traffic in attention-getting breast-beating” (110).

Moore’s viewpoint is amplified by Elshtain’s.  This can be seen more fully when we look at other Christian viewpoints on Just War theory which will present deep roots in a faith that doesn’t reach back to an isolated phrase in Isaiah, but takes on more complex vocabulary and terminology, and which departs from what we have discussed so far in terms of the background of a Just War. 

Against the Augustinian tradition, Greek Orthodox theologians Darrell Cole and Alexander Webster trace a viewpoint that arises from St. Ambrose: “We have argued that the Christian just war tradition is most usefully approached with classical notions of justice and Christian notions of God and charity, and that this approach receives its brightest theological formulations in the West in the Church fathers (especially St. Ambrose) and in St. Thomas.  … we have suggested that our approach to the just war offers useful critiques of the moral approaches exemplified by Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism” (191).  Unlike Niebuhr, the Eastern Orthodox believe that one can go to war, and remain wholly within the good. 

Like Catholic John Murray, Orthodox theologians Webster and Cole downplay the role of the individual conscience which came to the fore in liberal Lutheran theologian Richard Niebanck’s account of just war, and in Marianne Moore’s “In Distrust.”  Webster and Cole, like the Catholic Murray, write that the Church has the power to command obedience.  “The person who deliberately and willfully acts against what the Church commands is the person whom the Church disciplines” (205).


Moore’s thinking is aligned with Protestant Niebuhr’s, but is only distantly aligned with Julia Ward Howe’s less intellectual viewpoint.  To rescue Moore’s poetry is to recuperate her cautious and pessimistic familial Protestant tradition, often against the liberal pacifism of the academic community which prides itself on its secularism, and against a more assured Catholic and Orthodox viewpoint.  The Orthodox viewpoint is sketched out in Greek Orthodox scholars Webster and Cole’s critique of Niebuhr in their book The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West.  Whereas Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr take the position that war is a lesser evil, Webster and Cole argue that war is a charitable service that we provide to our neighbors, and that we can go to war without lapsing into the dubious behavior that characterized Sherman’s march to the sea, or the atomic bombs on Japan, or the horrors of My Lai or Abu Ghraib.  Webster and Cole argue that, “The unbeliever may be a coward or just indifferent to the evil that might be prevented.  This is a failure of natural moral virtue.  When Christians fail to engage in just war, it may involve all these natural failures as well, but it will certainly involve a failure of charity” (169).

Within the Christian community there are as many different strands of thinking about Just War as there are denominations (over 1200 in the United States alone).  A good many of these are more liberal than the accounts given here, but liberalism itself is almost certainly not part of Moore’s character, insofar as it is well-known that she was a lifelong Republican who was for Taft in her youth, then Hoover, and wore a Nixon pin in the 1960s.  She would be unlikely to take a liberal stand on war.  Contemporary conservative Protestant Jean Elshtain had a corrosive understanding of liberal Protestantism that might well give us a sense of Moore’s own when she writes that liberal theologians believe in the unctuous goodness of mankind, a goodness that must never be sullied by partaking in a morally dubious action.  Anything that could be interpreted as bad must not be essayed, and thus doing nothing was the only safe bet:

“Liberal pacifism, for Niebuhr, is a position that relies far more on a general faith in human perfectibility and a teleology of historic progress than it does on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. It is, in other words, an ideological, not a gospel, stance.  Are Christians not obliged to respond, even at the risk of dirtying their hands?” (Elshtain 111).

When we turn to the understanding that Moore’s poem may offer to later conflicts (Vietnam, and contemporary wars, as well as conflicts within Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether or not we should come to the aid of the Yazidis), it is well to remember that General Westmoreland, who was in charge of the American army during the war in Vietnam, also saw that conflict within Christian terms.  In the Spartanburg, SC Journal-Herald  of December 24, 1966, he wrote an article with the headline "Our Cause in Vietnam Is Christian," that summarizes his ideas, which reach back to our own First Amendment, and applies it universally:

"Every human has the right to seek his identity without fear of intimidation. That is part of Christ's message. We have committed ourselves to the belief that the people of the Republic of Vietnam will have this privilege" (Westmoreland A2).

Westmoreland continued, "The problems of violence and inhumanity that faced the world at the time of Christ's birth still exist in such areas as Vietnam" (Westmoreland A2).

Moore’s war poetry argues that we must respond to oppressors in order to “keep our world large.”   Moore’s war poetry is complex and comes out of a little-understood Christian tradition.  Her involvement with the Vietnam War is less public, has no poems, and since her health was faltering, the only way we know of her stance is through several short statements, but could be shown to have a continuity with her stance during World War One.  In Vietnam, millions of Vietnamese men and women had turned Christian during the centuries in which western missionaries had been present.  Many Vietnamese Christians had been exterminated.  If the American army left, it was feared that those remaining would be exterminated, as they had been since the 18th century.  We see a similar fate awaiting Assyrian Christians in Iraq. 

Under the heading “Martyrs of Vietnam,” The Penguin Dictionary of Saints provides a brief glimpse of centuries of atrocities toward a population that Moore would have regarded as neighbors.  “The sufferings inflicted were among the most terrible in the long history of Christian martyrdom: cutting off limbs joint by joint, tearing the flesh off the body with red hot tongs; drugs were administered to enslave the mind; Christians were branded on the face with the words ta dao and families and villages subscribing to this ‘false religion’ were destroyed” (Attwater 351).

As mechanized war enslaves others or exterminates them for their adherence to Christianity, Moore’s poem will continue to speak to those who continue to understand the duties of neighborliness articulated by Christian tradition, but it will also continue to make no sense, or appear to be aberrant or even barbarous, to secularists who pride themselves on their pacifist perfection.    The major poems of World War II discussed in this article are from Complete Poems but are amplified by poems published in the more compendious The Poems of Marianne Moore (2003), “We Call Them The Brave,” “At Rest in the Blast,” and “Like a Bulwark.”  Just war takes on the tyrants and dictators who would enslave others or behead them for their religion, confronting terrorists who would blow up a building full of children, or sacrifice a plane full of noncombatants.  For Moore, her worst fear is languid pacifism brought on by the need to be perfectly good, a demand that places an impossible burden on the soldier since within the Augustinian tradition we are always already fallen, and it is only a question of lesser evils that brings us to fight for our neighbors.  Moore’s viewpoint is quite clear, and although she is now considered a major poet, many of her most stalwart supporters would like to minimize lines such as these from “We Call Them The Brave”:

“Yes, what if the time should come

When no one will fight for anything

And there’s nothing of worth to save” (280).


Special thanks to librarians Greg Giuliano and especially Elizabeth E. Fuller at the Rosenbach Museum Archives in Philadelphia for help in uncovering documents related to the poem “In Distrust of Merits” during summer 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2013.  Those documents are cited within the text using the Rosenbach Library’s system.


Kirby Olson is a professor of philosophy, literature, and creative writing at SUNY-Delhi in the Western Catskills. He is the author of Comedy After Postmodernism (Texas Tech, 2001), Andrei Codrescu and The Myth of America (McFarland 2005), Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist(Southern Illinois U. Press, 2002), Temping: A Novel (Black Heron Press, 2006) and Waiting for the Rapture: Poems (Persistencia Press, 2006).



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-- “Paris Review Interview.” Paris Review 26 (1961): 16.

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Niebuhr, Reinhold.  “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist.”  In The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986): 102-122.

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Stassen, Glen H.  Just Peacemaking (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1992).

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Wallace, Henry.  The Century of the Common Man (New York: Reynal & Hitchock, 1943).

Webster, Alexander and Cole, Darrell.  The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2004).

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Willis, Patricia. C.  Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1990).


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