Originally published with the title ‘A Talisman’ Marianne Moore’s ‘Talisman’ speaks on themes of discovery, mystery, the sea, and magic.
The poem describes a grounded ship with its mast torn from its hull, as well as the shepherd who stumbled upon it. Under its wreckage, the shepherd found a strange seagull shaped jewel, a talisman with an unknown purpose.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Talisman’ by Marianne Moore is a three-stanza poem that’s separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets follow a simple rhyme scheme of AAB CCB DDE FFE. Upon first glance at the text itself, a reader will immediately be struck by the use of indention in the last line of each stanza. It is inset so that the first word lines up with the middle of the two lines above it.
While there are a variety of reasons Moore might’ve chosen to give the poem this added layer of visual interest, it is impossible to know for certain why she arranged the lines this way. It might’ve been, simply, to give the poem a different presence on the page, or, more likely, to impact the speed and rhythm at which on moves from stanza to stanza and line to line. Also of note, the final line of each stanza is also shorter than the two that proceed it.
The meter of ‘Talisman’ follows a pattern as well, the first two lines of each stanza contain two sets of three beats (a total of six syllables) and the third line is half that, containing only three syllables. The only time this pattern is broken is in the second line of the first stanza. “torn from ship and cast” has only five syllables.
Half and Internal Rhyme
There are also examples of half-rhyme, as well as internal rhyme, within ‘Talisman’. The latter, internal rhyme can appear anywhere in the poem. For instance “beak” and “greet” in line two of the fourth stanza.
Half rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, can be seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “curling” and “parting” in the fourth stanza and repetition of the hard “r” sound in the first stanza, with words like “near,” “her” and “splintered”.
Within ‘Talisman’ Moore makes use of several poetic techniques. These include repetition, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, repetition, the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In the case of this piece, Moore’s rhyme scheme is quite repetitive. Especially when one considers the repetition of the pattern itself, as well as the reappearance of end sounds in the pairs of stanzas.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “splintered” and “ship” in the first stanza and “stumbling shepherd” in the second. Repetition is utilized in tandem with alliteration as the “s” sound reappears within every stanza and almost every line. The poem is littered with consonant strands that make use of the “s” sound. This was done in order to mimic the sound of the sea that is present in the scene.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Analysis of Talisman
Under a splintered mast,
Near her hull,
In the first lines of ‘Talisman,’ Moore takes the reader right to the heart of a scene. The poem begins in medias res, or right in the middle of the action. The reader finds themselves investigating what’s beneath “a splintered mast / torn from ship”. These first two lines allude to what happened before the poem began. They suggest that there was some terrible accident, perhaps brought on by a storm. A ship was torn to piece and toss onto land. Its mast came off and was “cast / near her hull”. The mast should be regarded as one of the most important parts of the vessel, without it, it can’t operate. So, the removal of this piece of wood, especially violently, suggests a severing of ability and agency.
Here, Moore sticks to the ship-naming convention and refers to the vessel as a woman. This is a form of personification that is meant to trigger a reader’s emotions. It’s more likely a reader will relate to the ship, its damage, and therefore the plight of those on the ship.
A stumbling shepherd found
The next three lines are quite alliterative with the “s” consonant sound appearing throughout. The tragedy of the wrecked ship the sublime grandeur this scene would evoke is juxtaposed with a “stumbling shepherd”. This hapless man came upon the scene by chance. He certainly was not called there, nor was he seeking it out. It appears to be an accidental discovery. Since this poem is os short, consideration should be given to every work.
Why did Moore choose to make this man shepherd? What, one might think, does this symbolize? traditionally, the shepherd represents goodness, and a life lived close to nature. In the Bible, the idea of the shepherd represents benevolence. This is another interesting contrast to the devastation of the ship. One might also consider the implications of a shepherd’s job, caring for the ship, and the impossibility that anything can be done to save the ship as it is devoid of its mast.
The most important symbol in ‘Talisman’ is discovered “in the ground”. It is, as the next stanzas explain, a jeweled seagull.
Of lapis lazuli,
With wings spread—
The next three lines state that the seagull was made of “lapis lazuli” and expensive blue gemstone. It is compared, through a metaphor, to “a scarab,” a symbol in Egypt of immortality and resurrection. The seagull as its “wings spread,” another symbol, this time of freedom. In tandem with all of these intricate layers, a reader should consider the title “Talisman,” and its original title before Moore revised it “A Talisman”.
Curling its coral feet,
Men long dead.
The pome concludes on a solemn, introspective note. The seagull has “coral feet” and its beak is open as if “to greet / men long dead”. These lines are mysterious and conclude a poem that is in itself quite complex. They suggest something of the seagull’s history. It’s possible that it was made a long time ago in order to “greet” the newly dead. Now though, those men are “long dead”. Its greetings go unheard. But now perhaps through its resurfacing in the hands of the shepherd, that is going to change.
Traditionally, a talisman is thought to have a power of some kind, usually a positive one. This could relate back to the symbolism of the scarab, or speak to its actual lack of meaning. It did nothing to save the ship under which it was found.