WHAT SHALL we say of it, this ms. found in an envelope, this rodent Poe-tale, rat-gnawed as any of Edgar's miasmal arabesques? Little enough, it may be. Yet that little may prove more than enough. The virtues of smallness here has the effect of a st-boiler: the lines, cut short, incontinently expand, and catapult the reader, along with his mouse-narrator, into orbit, up with the stars and other cosmic chaff. Contrived as a fable as old, and older, than Plato, whose ancestors (and ours!) pondered their cave-flickerings, and out of them extracted extrasensory awareness, Moore's version is at once contemporary and timeless. It is as well a compendium of Romanticism, of mid-century critical and poetic theory (though published in part in the seventies, it was completed in 1961), and cut-throat psychology (castration, cannibalism, goddess-worship). It is moreover slashing satire at its merciless funniest, a tour-de-force that does Skelton one better, and as a bonus a rattling good read. As the most immediate impression of this remarkable work will be its unusual meter, it may be instructive to look at that first.
COMPACT like its narrator, and despite its truncated segments with a shapely guiding tail, the meter of The Mouse Whole is peculiarly apt to its subject. With its roots in the flyting scatologies of the late middle ages (which grew in their turn out of earlier oral traditions), the abbreviated line, deceptively simple of con struction, is actually diabolically difficult to convincingly execute.
The hurdles are formidable enough. Apart from the myriad rhymes that must be accom- modated, at least double those of more leisurely lines, the rhymes themselves must engage the ear with their unexpectedness and rightness. This is not an easy matter, and certainly not one for any rhyming dictionary. Much has been made of the rhymes in Byron's Don Juan ("intellectual / hen-pecked you all", etc.), but what are we to say of such brilliant juggleries as infinite / lymph in it, develop her / swell up her, and quandary a / hypochondria?
Yet this, daunting enough, is the least of it, for the rhymes, like the staccatos of knocks in an empty street, must not merely stand out from their poetic texture, but must also sink back into it. Their energy must not only be dissipated but reabsorbed. We must at once notice, and be stimulated to forward motion, to the next line, yet not take notice to the degree that we stop and gawk. Tourists all, our gape at the geyser or juggling seal, entrancing as always, should not keep us from the hanging garden or dancing bear.
This tension creates a special sort of poetic energy, a kind of combustion engine in which the individual explosions contribute not to any jerky progress but to swift, seamless motion. This is seen throughout, in a curve that takes us from offal-gobbeted sewers to the stars that Dante saw, but even more clearly in those passages where the lines are broken up into even tinier segments by dialogue. Here's our squeaking narrator being seduced by a hairy though not unkindly Socratic rat:
"O Sir," I cried, "Unpaw me, or you'll wish that you never saw me." "Aw now..." "Not a word!" "I was only..." "I know..." "Do you know how lonely..." "But I..." "It can be for a rat..." "Unpaw me!" "Who likes to chat..." "Now stop!" "Who prefers to discuss..." "This minute." "Who won't make a fuss..." "Let me go!" "Who can speak in verse..." "I'm leaving." "Who likes to converse with mice who are gifted and clever?" "And clever?"
The advantages of the truncated or what we might call the halting line are exploited thoroughly here. Put simply, a great deal of information can tellingly be inserted within this tiny structure. It allows moreover asides and deepening dimensions to be accessed and tapped without interrupting (except to advantage) the forward flow of the narrative:
I gazed at the rubbish and swillage about us.... Why yes: a village. A settlement. In and out of the trash that was lying about I could see them scurry and scamper— real mice! They liked the damper places the best, it seemed. Delightful. The shadows teemed with creatures exactly like me. Or were they?
This compression of purpose, like that of a white dwarf hobbling well along the road to its black hole, will be seen to be admirably suited to Moore's purpose, which appears to be, despite its modest furred narrator, no less elevated than that of the cinderous Florentine: "my model / (though the traces may seem somewhat scanty) / was that fellow whose name was Dante".
PART of the charm of the mock-heroic tradition, we are told, in which The Mouse Whole appears to fimly establish itself, seems to be the amusing disjunc tion or disproportion between the Aristotelian model and its local incarnation. We are amused (or professors of English profess to be) by divinities clustering around a lock of hair, or a battle between regiments of frogs and mice. And there is a certain residuum of truth in this limited insight. What it misses of course is that this applies in almost equal measure to the definition of epic as such, which is what Mouse calls itself. Certainly the affairs on the windy plains of Troy might seem to be of interest to historians and classicists no less than to their stunted participants; but from a God's eye (the red squint we see when the temple veil of the horizon is twitched away most mornings), such doings must appear as paltry as those of the mating practices of early eighteenth-century Augustans, or the details of their maquillage.
Moore has exploited this tradition to deadly effect. Our Mouse is not only a naif as far as his species goes, but also a tyro, or beginner, a Country Mouse if you will, whose education we are tracing. Moore bestows upon him lovingly and lavishly his wide reading and deep culture -- but in such a nonponderous and even patchy way that we cannot fail but to be amused. He evokes not only Dante but Proust, Freud, Lord Byron, Poe, Gide. But such references are made, how shall I say? hesitantly, stammeringly; and it is clear that the awareness is not the mouse's but the author's, the god toward whom the narrator's tiny brain is striving.
It's here that the genius of Moore's working of this tradition reveals itself. It would be pitiable if readers were to limit themselves to the pyrotechnical and amusing as pects of Mouse. It has these, and abundantly so. But they are devoted to a serious (that is to say, comic) end (Dante, as the Mouse observes, called his triptych a commedia). This end appears to be the illumination implicit in the Plato-myth, and the end of Dante's epic; which is no less real because Moore's poem, opting for slap- stick, rhymes Nirvana with banana. Moore's poem begins in a sewer, which is an approximate modern locus for Dante's underworld. It's every bit as stuporous and offal-redolent as that of the famous Ghibbeline (or is it Guelph?), with "scraps of tainted meat / dumped down there from the street" and "thousands of rotten eggs" and "tons of coffee dregs". These droppings of civilization are perused and "read" as tea-leaves are by our own dim-sighted sages.
In the midst of this cloacal dimness, there are longings "for a life more pure"; and our miniature hero evokes a Wordsworthian version of the ancient Platonic myth, in "Suspicions of heavenly light / beyond [his] pestilent night":
Our world had a source of light not far upstream to the right where the glow from a passageway distinguished our night from our day. Each morning its gentle beam would play on the bumpy stream and glow through the hazy murk as we rose to our daily work. That passage, so luminous, so faithful, was sacred to us.
To which the Aristotelian father replies:
"It's fine," said my father, "to dream. But I put less stock in such feelings than I do in potato peelings."
Yet narrator Samson (whose Delilah goes for tails not heads) dreams of "some radiance higher and truer / than the dark travail of our sewer". And in yet another brilliant stroke, Moore makes the vehicle for this transformation an ordinary envelope, a metaphor not only for art and art's transcendence but for the enveloping womb of beginnings, in which our trans cendental navigator, along with a series of Graves-like goddesses, will sail to another world.
In each of these other-worldly evocations, Moore always makes certain to insert a comic or grotesque mirror. Here, it's Samson's deciphering (like Poe's mariner Pym) the word personal on this discarded bit of scrap -- which he immediately applies to himself: "I surveyed it ecstatically. / Then was it intended for me?" It is in this misconstrued vessel that our sailor will launch himself -- on the ooze; and sail "under that sky, / so luminous, golden, and wide".
THE VOYAGE, one of the durable wrecks handed down from Romanticism, is as much stylistic as it is literal. Mouse is filled with pastiches of famous poems and styles, of Byron and Poe and (most tellingly) Wordsworth. These are not, as they might be with a lesser writer, mere vehicles to show off his mastery of technique, but rather provide the ćsthetic fuel that drives the Mouse toward his apotheosis.
"Pastiche" is a literary device which, unlike the more slavishly literal parody, holds up to its original a distortive mirror and copies what it finds there. Moore's usage is instructive. The Mouse's nuptials are celebrated by an epithalamium derived from a famous love-poem of Poe's:
"Helen, thy beauty's to me like my envelope-boat of yore that gently o'er this flowing perfumed sea its way-worn wanderer bore to thine own native shore. "Through desperate sewers long wont to roam, thy hairs...thy hairy face have brought me home to glory in thy grease: a grandeur in thy foam. "Lo! by yon drainage ditch stone-gray I see thee stand upon a plane, tin-canned! Ah, Psyche, from regions which are holey land!"
This transcends parody in that it does not merely ape its original but rather takes elements and makes a new poem of it. A parodist might have penned the first stanza; but would never come up with "desperate sewers" nor the "glory in thy grease" or that audacious final adjective. There are as well fleeting references, just enough to light up the Mouse's passage, to Byron ("A Phantom of Delight / that gleamed in the smelly night"), Keats ("I squinted my bulging eyes / and gazed with a wild surmise"), and Blake ("O Rose, thou art sick, art blighted").
Yet Moore's imaginative reworking goes far beyond individual "set" pieces. The poem's finest moments are, finally, about itself, about the transmutation of filth into song:
And you know it's strange, God knows -- did you know I don't speak in prose? I rant and digress--even curse-- but it always comes out in verse. Even cursing the fith and the slime I can't help making it rhyme.
This is Nick, the pederast mouse-tutor speaking; but it might as well apply to Moore (who as far as I know has no taste for "male mice.") It's one of the telling ironies of the poem that the romantic phrases with which Samson evokes the "other world" of sunlight and ocean and sky are almost identical with those Nick uses on the susceptible mouse to "open . . . the way out there / to the sky and the fresher air":
where the sea-gulls sit on the billows as wispy and fluffy as pillows and little birds chirp in the willows by the side of the ocean's foaming, and the stars come out in the gloaming . . .
and so on; "as described in the tales of old". These tales being retailed by Nick in his attempts to seduce Samson, and later Samson in his seduction of Genevieve. The language of romanticism, Moore seems to be implying, is that of seduction; the entry into "another world" being guaranteed by the keeper of the gate, who exacts the toll-fee.
These aesthetic ruminations which, again, are no mere "asides" muttered as a matter apart from the work's main theme but rather are central to it, reach their height of complexity and condensation in Book V, which opens "In this world where everyone loses, / I have brought my complaint to the Muses". Out of "earth, that stomachy Goddess" issues the fleas of critical theory -- specifally, mid-century poetical theory (and practice). These take the shape of voices shouting in the fog, the "Bennies" and "Bums" (aestheticians and Beatniks) who dominated poetry of the nineteen-fifties. One of the few references in the work that fix it chrono logically, it's also essential to its structure, as being essential to the Mouse's comedic passage to enlightenment.
THIS passage depends on specific vehicles: the Mouse sails on paper, guided by his phallic tail and by his squeaking song (which reverberates bat-fashion on the walls of the tunnel). We are regaled en route by gum wrappers, cigarette butts, and labels from bottles of Yummy Mustard...the droppings of civilization, which are interpreted by these pitiful mice as being scraps from the banquet of gods. In Part Three, that diabolically involuted segment ("torn by aesthetic dichotomies"), which is appropriately truncated (it has only one Book; all the other Parts have two), in the fable of two flies named Ezra and Yvor (Pound, we assume, and Winters), the two winged creatures (who don't fly but only crawl) move on two sides of a single piece of paper; which a handy Deity twists and makes into a Moebius strip. The Universe may be one such strip, and its complexity reducible to a single dimension, if we could but see it aright.
Would we want to? Well, yes. Or, "Eureka!" as our Mouse would exclaim; and, "Sail!" In Book 5, in phrases that echo Rimbaud ("s'il avait toujours été‚ bien éveillé, je voguerais en plaine sagesse!"), in a single astounding metaphor, Samson (and the Reader) is told, "wake up! See the stars":
Among the knotted spars of the branches, which creaked in a breeze, I saw them: like luminous fleas in their millions, silent and bright, in the blue-black pelt of the night.
This great cosmological image is Coleridgeian in its splendor. I can think of no other metaphor which is so rootedly of this world, and at the same time so exquisitely other-worldly.
In that final book, the Mouse is "goddess'd" with Lucy, her latest incarnation. In this, perhaps the most audacious stunt of the work, we are lifted into orbit with NASA (or is it Sputnik?) "among gods":
...my jigger of dust surviving the terrible thrust of the rising rocket... But I went, withstood the ascension, and now in another dimension...
And so she becomes "a goddess"; and "the toast / of a nation for almost a week." It is from her other-worldly point of view, from "the cold dark glitter of space", that we now see Samson's face, "so comical, angry, and queer".
This stretch of popping fireworks ends with an outrageous Wordsworthian invocation which I will allow the reader to discover for himself, in which Lucy, the character of this poem, becomes at once Wordsworth's Lucy, a goddess, and a bestower of divinity. But this I will say. You will at once laugh and cringe at the cosmic implications of this witty, adroit, and delicate ţourish. The appropriation of one of our most venerable images into this grotesquerie, this commedia, is a mark of the confident largeness of this work.
FOLLOWING the example of The Mouse Whole, I will truncate this already overly-long essay before it becomes tail-heavy. Despite its length, I have barely touched on many of its themes. I have said almost nothing about Samson's family, his father, castration fears, his brief marriage, his ţirting with homosexuality, fleas. I have left out the matter of litters and their feeding, mating rituals, and mice as in- laws. Nor have I tapped at all the antecedents of the work, from Aesop to Matthew Prior's The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.
But I wished, through my limited focus, to hint at some of the depth and dazzling height of this work. In an age flaccid with self-advertisement, with regional trivia and autobiographical nonsense, it is at once microscopic, quirky, and cosmic in its breadth. It demonstrates a formidable technique that effaces itself even in its execution. There are almost no false notes in, literally, thousands of lines. Partially because it avoids the poetic trapfalls of lesser poets, it is among the very great poems written in this century.
The Mouse Whole is as well an extraordinary piece of entertainment. Please give yourself, or another, the pleasure of discovering what poetry is capable of, even in this mean-spirited time, of talentless, bellowed slams and the inanities of self-absorbed confessional verse. Get it, and take it into your favorite hole. You may not want to come out.PARTICLE