‘What Are Years’ by Marianne Moore is a twenty-seven line poem that is contained within one block of text. The poem is not structured with a consistent pattern of rhyme. Instead, there are a few end words scattered throughout the lines which rhyme. This feature of the text, in tandem with Moore’s use of repetition and alliteration, helps to unify the poem. Unity is also accomplished through the lack of capitalization in the title and the run-on sentences (and therefore lack of capitalization), in the body. The moments of alliteration, or the repetition of the first letter of a word, are able to slow down or speed up one’s reading of the text. This helps create the mood that Moore was looking for.
The most important theme of this piece is the recognition of one’s own reality. Moore’s speaker, who is likely the poet herself, is seeking through her various questions, the true nature of one’s “soul.” She is a firm believer in the power that freed emotion can have. She is seeking to liberate herself, as well as any who read the text. The speaker talks through the ways that expressing oneself to the fullest extent can make one “grow taller,” just like a singing bird. The connection between nature, the soul, and living one’s best life is quite clear as well.
Summary of What Are Years
The poem begins with the speaker asking what role innocence and guilt have in the world. These emotions, and all the others associated with being human feel exposed and naked. The act of feeling, in the contemporary world, seems like an unsafe thing to do. The speaker pushes back against this feature of modern society by recognizing the courage and the way it is able to strengthen the person experiencing the emotion as well as those around that person.
In the next lines, she expresses her support for a life lived-in full recognition of one’s own mortality. She believes that this kind of life, in which nothing is hidden and all emotion is sung out, will be joyous. The poem concludes with the speaker celebrating the nature of humanity and its connection to the larger “eternity.”
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of What Are Years
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
and in its defeat, stirs
the soul to be strong? He
The speaker begins this piece with an impactful question meant to draw in a prospective reader. It asks,
What is our innocence,
what is our guilt?
This phrase encapsulates the theme Moore is going to focus on within the next twenty-five lines. She is interested in understanding the basics of the human condition, what makes one strong or weak, and how someone should come to terms with these factors. In the next line, she states that “none is safe.” Everyone and the motivations that drive them are “naked.” The emotions that fuel one’s soul are exposed and vulnerable.
She continues on to ask where courage comes from. The speaker marvels over courage’s ability to make one strong in the face of overwhelming defeat. It comes to the surface on a variety of occasions, “even death” when it “stirs / the soul to be strong.” The speaker also explains how courage is able to “encourage others” in addition to the person experiencing renewed strength. It is clear the speaker would like to understand better where courage comes from and how it is able to manifest so powerfully. She is also interested in the power that shared emotion can have and how recognizing one’s own common humanity can have a wide-reaching, beneficial outcome.
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.
The next lines refer to an unknown, generalized, “He” mentioned at the end of line ten. This person is “glad” because he is able to “accede” to his own “mortality.” This means that he accepts and agrees to its rules and restrictions. A human being who does not try to resist the factors which make them human is going to be more successful. This includes the elements of courage mentioned in the first stanza but also the less pleasant experiences of fear and struggle.
The speaker refers to mortality as a prison. Humanity is stuck within its fragile form while trying to overcome obstacles which often prove to be insurmountable. The constant pull within the body must be accepted and ascended. She specifically mentions he needs to,
[…] to be
free and unable to be,
It is in this state, surrounded with the pains of defeat, the need to continue, and one’s remaining hope, that life must be lived. Moore’s speaker describes the ideal mindset as one that “surrender[s]” to human nature and in its flawed form is able to “continu[e].”
So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
This is mortality,
this is eternity.
In the final set of lines of ‘What Are Years’ the speaker gives another example of how and why one should give into their own humanity. Someone who feels strongly, “behaves” in the same way—with passion. She gives the example of a bird that sings. Just the simple act of singing raises it up higher, straightens its form, and makes it grow taller. She sees human beings in much the same way. If one recognizes their strengths and flaws, sings of them (aka fully accepts them) then life will be more rewarding.
In the next lines of ‘What Are Years’ it is unclear whether or not the speaker is referring to the bird or to the generalized “he” from the previous sections. Either way, the metaphor works the same. The bird or man is able, in an idealized world, to sing with great strength even though “he is captive.” This can refer to both the man’s body or to the bird’s cage.
This type of attitude will bring joy to life. It is the embodiment of a recognition that mortality is inescapable. This person will tap into a wellspring of human emotion unavailable to those who continue to fight against their impulses. The final lines are a celebration of humanity. To be human is to be mortal and a part of eternity.