Marianne Moore’s What Are Years? seems an example of her early works as it utilizes complex imagery and prosodic patterns, themes of her early poetry. My initial interpretation of the poem was that Moore split the poem into three sections to reflect three stages of life (emulating themes of the “Voyage of Life Series” by Thomas Cole). I interpreted the first stanza as “innocent” childhood, the second as “struggling” young adulthood/adulthood, and the third as acceptance of “mortality” in late life. However, further analysis makes me think otherwise.
The opening lines begin with Moore’s existential, “unanswered question” of what makes us courageous. She asks why, in times of “resolute doubt” we soldier on and go about life despite the challenges before us. Her phrasing here jumps out. The word “resolute” creates such a final and sad tone that contrasts her chilling, final lines of the stanza, “in its defeat, stirs/the soul to be strong”. Her choice to separate the phrase elongates and suspends the sentence, first emphasizing the two timid descriptors, “defeat” and “stirs” then the conflicting, powerful alliteration of “soul” and “strong”.
The second stanza is the narrative of vivid imagery of seeing “deep”, encapsulating the feeling of drowning and how she wrestles with the thought of death. Her choice of the word “accedes” creates rhythm in the stanza that causes a natural slowing of the poem until it picks up speed again with imagery of “imprisonment” and panic as death looms. The poem continues at this speed with struggling until the “sea in a chasm” occurs when suddenly she is flying above worry and has a revelation that mortality is what makes life worth living, what makes “continuing” worth it.
The third stanza uses the metaphor of the “imprisoned”, “caged” bird conjuring similar themes of Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is a Thing With Feathers. The bird “steels” his form straight up once again conveying vivid imagery of picking oneself up and moving on and even “mighty singing”. “Mighty” inspired me and created a lift and pause in the poem, conveying a newfound confidence and resolution. The ending lines are my favorite, though, contrasting the satisfaction of mortality and eternal joy. This perfectly wraps up the poem. I think that she tried to convey that one can spend their whole life trying to do everything right, outsmarting mortality and feeling satisfaction. But, they may never achieve true joy that lives longer than the human life as it can only be achieved through accepting mortality and making the most of it.