Within ‘To a Snail’ Marianne Moore takes the reader to her own mind as she considers what is and is not valuable in writing. The text speaks most prominently on the theme of writing, specifically poetic writing. Moore was known as a careful curator of her own works and this feature of her style shows through in this twelve-line poem.
In the first lines of ‘To a Snail,’ the speaker begins by loosely describing a snail, how it moves, and its ability to compress its own body. These lines are an extended metaphor, referring to the choices writers make. She discusses her dislike for unnecessary adornments to the written word or the thought that each word flows naturally from the next and should remain that way.
The poem concludes with the speaker reminding everyone that they must be the judge of their own works. They have to, as she does, determine which words are the best at getting their message across without unnecessary additions.
You can read the full poem here.
‘To a Snail’ by Marianne Moore is a single stanza twelve-line poem that does not follow a specific rhyme scheme. But there are moments of rhyme throughout the text. For example, Moore makes use of half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial, 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. There are examples throughout the poem, for instance, “Contractility,” “modesty,” and “quality” in lines two, three, and six.
Marianne Moore makes use of several metic techniques in ‘To a Snail’ these include repetition, epistrophe, apostrophe, alliteration and enjambment. The first, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. For example, the use of speech marks and the reuse of the technique epistrophe. Epistrophe is seen through the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. A reader should look to the ends of lines one and eight with the word “style” and lines two and three with “virtue”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the fourth and fifth lines, “acquisition” and “able to adorn”. Also important in this work is apostrophe. This is an arrangement of words addressing someone/something who does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. In this case, the snail is being addressed.
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. There are examples throughout the poem, including the transitions between lines two and three as well as between four and five.
Analysis of To a Snail
If “compression is the first grace of style”,
as modesty is a virtue.
In the first lines of ‘To a Snail’ the speaker begins by suggesting that the ability to “compress” or “contract” is a virtue. It is something one should strive for and a real marker of “style. “If” one has “compression” then they are on their way to presenting character traits the speaker sees as admirable. With the title in mind, it quickly becomes clear that she is speaking admiringly of a snail. The references to contraction and growing smaller allude to the general size of the snail and its ability to compress its body back into its shell.
Through a deeper analysis, it becomes clear that it is not just the snail she’s interested in speaking about, but modesty and compression in general. This piece embodies those traits. It is short, mostly to the point, and structured in a straightforward, selective way. The poem promotes a clear-eyed perspective as a writer. She sought to convey a general need to judge her own work clearly.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that we value in style,
In the next four lines, the speaker pushes back against a traditional notion that acquiring things is of value. She states explicitly that “It is not acquisition” of “one thing” that “we value”. It is really very much the opposite. The ability to “adorn,” add details to a piece of writing or make more beautiful through addition is not valuable.
She adds that it is also not the “concomitant of something well said”. In this line she’s referring to the natural progression of things “well said”. This is also not on her list of valuable traits in poetic works. It’s clear by this point in ‘To a Snail’ what it is the speaker actually does care about.
but the principle that is hid:
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
In the last four lines of ‘To a Snail,’ the phrases in speech quotes continue. Moore’s speaker says it’s “the principle that is hid” that’s something she cares about. That “principle” is of course represented by the snail. The next lines are harder to interpret but still promote the same ideals of concise, well-judged writing. The “absence of feet” may refer to the snail itself and its ability to get along fine without them. (Although snails do in fact have one foot).
These lines come together to speak on the “curious phenomenon of your occipital horn”. Here, she is again using the anatomy of a snail (albeit loosely) to describes poetic judgment and acuity. It is up to each writer to use their own “occipital horn” to figure out what is most valuable within their own works, without getting caught up in adornment.