A Jellyfish by Marianne Moore: Summary and Critical Analysis

A jellyfish is sometimes easily noticeable and sometimes it is not easily noticed. It moves like waves. It is attractive. Its color is brown yellow mixed with bluish purple. If the arm of an observer comes close to it, it opens and closes its umbrella-like shape. It the observer aims to catch it, he gives up his plan because of its shaking movement.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

 A Jellyfish is a poem by an American poetess and naturalist Marianne Moore makes a keen observation of a strange organism of the nature with a romantic sense of wonder. But the poem is modernist in form and deeply symbolic and multiple in meaning. The surface meaning or literal description and wonder of seeing a jellyfish is itself interesting. But the nature of the jellyfish evokes other thoughts in the reader’s mind. The “fluctuating” jellyfish could be a symbol of human nature, there emotion, ambitions and so on. It is also comparable to poetic expression. In yet another sense, the jellyfish may also compare with women, like the poetess herself. The poem is formless in form, like a jellyfish itself.

 At a literal level, the poem is a description of, and a meditation on a real jellyfish. It is sometimes visible and sometimes invisible because it is colorless and transparent. But a very slight shade of blue and the yellow dots on it make it very charming. It is ‘fluctuating’ in its shape and movement. It unexpectedly closes and opens like a cone as it moves. The speaker was trying to catch it but she simply gave up the intension. This description and the thought are realistic.

There are very tricky clues to other levels of meaning. At the end of the poem, we see that it is not only the jellyfish that is fluctuating, it is also the speaker whose ‘intension’, at least, fluctuates, and she gives up the attempt. Thus, the speaker represents human beings with their ever-changing and unpredictable nature. They are happy and sad, firm and confused, clear and vague by turns. They are unpredictable even to themselves. Their wishes and aims change every moment. Human emotion, attitudes, desires and ambitions are also the jellyfish. The jellyfish only teases the speaker’s own nature.

The jellyfish is similar not only to human emotions and nature in general, but also more accurately to human expression and poetry. The speaker’s attempt to describe the jellyfish may be compared to her attempt to express her feelings in a poem. That doesn’t always take a definite shape. Poetry always eludes (escapes) our target. The attempt to catch also parallels our attempt to read a poem. We try to interpret this very poem, and in the course of the attempt, we see the many possible meanings (or shape) of it. It fluctuates. It opens and closes our paths of interpretation. Then we finally leave it with a sense of surrender to its complexity, or because we have understood its complexity and pleasant experience. This analogy is also equally plausible.

An even more interesting interpretation of the poem, as suggested by some critics is this: the jellyfish is a symbol of a woman and her dynamic, flexible, complex and creative nature. Of course, the writer is a female. Women are beautiful and they like to be ‘precious’. At least, some like wearing precious stones like amethyst. If we interpret the Jellyfish as ‘woman’, it means that the speaker accepts the male myths about women. Some ‘males’ believe that women are inconsistent, unreliable, mysterious, weak and unable to keep promises or secret. These are misconceptions of their uniqueness. Women are more flexible, versatile and able to adapt, dynamic and creative, and tender. Being mysterious is a human quality: everyone is mysterious. The positive qualities attached to women by this interpretation at least balances the male-made concepts about women.

The poem is formless and looks like a jellyfish on the page in its typography. It has no rhythm, rhyme, music and diction of traditional poetry. It is unique. The imagery in the poem can be interpreted as conceptually related to the three things mention above: human desire, poetic expression, and female nature. The symbolic meaning of the image of a jellyfish is that human beings’ desires are also shapeless and ever-changing like the jellyfish. Similarly, poetic expression, like when the poetess is simple trying to describe a jellyfish, or when we try to express a deep feeling in our hearts, is also as complex and as impossible to ‘catch’. And finally, since the writer of the poem is a female, we can also say that the image of the jellyfish also symbolizes the beauty and tenderness, and the complex and flexible nature of women.

Related Topics

The Fish: Summary and Analysis

Marianne Moore: Biography