Kirby Olson's article "Marianne Moore and the Just War Tradition," which appears in the August 2014 edition of the Review, restores a mature Christian theological context to Moore's "In Distrust of Merits," and provides valuable insight into her meaning, but goes too far in rejecting the meaning his predecessor found, and by focusing all but exclusively on the just war tradition, choses an unnecessarily obtuse and ambiguous vehicle for illustrating how Christian ideas pervade Moore's work.
Moore's poem contains many clear references to Christian beliefs and themes. Through the repetition of "blind" and "dust," Moore calls to mind specific and well-known biblical and liturgical passages: Jesus's criticism of the Pharisees as "blind guides" [cf. Matt 15:14] and "blind fools" [cf. Matt 23:17], his many miracles of giving sight to the blind [e.g., Mark 8:22ff, Matt 20:30ff], God's creation from man out of dust [Gen 2:7], and with it, the shocking power of the Ash Wednesday invocation, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" [Gen 3:19]. This kind of reference, of which these are but a few, adds richness and conveys meaning.
But the central theme of "In Distrust" is atoning suffering and death, a clear reference to the central Christian story of Jesus's passion. Through Moore's explicit identification of herself with Judas, she begs us to ask, "Who here is Jesus?" In her suffering and dying soldiers and sailors, the answer is legion. She rejects the possibility that they suffer and die for idolatrous goals such as medals or military necessity. She enumerates atoning consequences of their sacrifices: hatred overcome by love, sickness healed, and life arising from the former battlefields. The raw emotional edge (and title) of the poem comes from the realization that though this suffering and death is for her sake, she doubts her own worthiness to be the beneficiary of such sacrificial love, a doubt all thoughtful Christians experience in contemplating the means of their own salvation.
Olson makes the point that Bernard Engel's analysis of "In Distrust" as an anti-war poem has "reversed the meaning of the poem." He lifts up the just war tradition of Christianity, and argues that it was easily available to Moore through both contemporary and historical articles and letters, and observes that Moore consistently supported America's 20th century wars as just. It would be odd indeed, given this, if she chose the Second World War of all wars as the setting for an anti-war poem.
But the ledger sheet of a just war has credits in justice gained, and debits in suffering and death. The just war tradition requires an open-eyed accounting of both sides of this ledger, as no war can be just if its debits exceed its credits. Moore's "In Distrust" understands this, and comprises a conservative, necessarily regret filled calculation that the Second World War is just, exactly by dwelling on and mourning its debits, while discounting her worthiness to receive its credits. In their respective analyses of this poem, Engel and Olson make complementary errors. By seeing only the debit side of the ledger sheet, Engel concluded that Moore's purpose in evoking these sufferings and deaths was to oppose them, and so to oppose the war. Conversely, by seeing only the credit side of the ledger sheet, Olson is blind exactly where Moore would have us see most clearly: the suffering and deaths of the soldiers who inspired her poem were real suffering and real death, just as Jesus's suffering and death on the cross was real suffering and real death, and not a divine charade. Moore does not give us the abstract moral imperative of John Riddle Warner's 1861 Gettysburg sermon/essay "Our Times and Duty," she gives us John Warner burying his wife after the battle of 1863, knowing full well the inseverable link between duty and sacrifice. She does not give us Julia Ward Howe's bloodlessly triumphant "Battle Hymn of the Republic," she gives us Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, with its full awareness of shared sin and of blood drawn by lash and sword. She asks, "Shall we never have peace without sorrow?," knowing the answer, and insisting that we know too.
May we see as she saw, that ours hearts may feel and not be numb, that we may hear the pleas of the dying and bring them succor, and may we too, if the cause be right, see through the blindness of hatred to love, and be willing to give up our mortal dust for the beauty that is eternal.
Stuart A. Kurtz