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Marianne Moore’s poem ‘Four Quartz Crystal Clocks’ (1940) was first published in The Kenyon Review 2:3, pp. 284–285, and collected in What Are Years (1941). Here's the first stanza (of seven):

There are four vibrators, the world’s exactest clocks;
    and these quartz time-pieces that tell
time intervals to other clocks,
    these worksless clocks work well;
and all four, independently the
    same are there, in the cool Bell
        Laboratory time

(The version printed in Complete Poems of Marianne Moore has slightly different wording in a couple of places: “independently the same, kept in / the 41° Bell” for lines 5–6, and “newborn progeny) that punctuality / is not a crime.” for lines 47–48.)

What is this poem about? What form is it written in? What is “the Giraudoux truth-bureau”? Is the third stanza a good explanation of a quartz clock’s sensitivity to temperature? What is the train of thought linking quartz clocks in the first stanza to Giradoux in the second to the lemur-student in the fourth to metathesis in the fifth? Why is the bell-boy carrying a buoy-ball? In what way does the speaking clock resemble the god Jupiter? Why does Jupiter tell Chronos that “punctuality is not now a crime”? What happened to the last line?

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  • Some of this is explained in Marianne Moore's notes to her poem, which can be found in The modern poets,: an American-British anthology
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 16:16
  • I assume bell-boy is some kind of wordplay on bell-buoy. See Kipling's poem The Bell Buoy, which Marianne Moore probably knew. And I'm not at all sure the bell-boy has a buoy ball. Maybe the buoy ball is what is used to embarrass the bell-boy.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 16:35
  • For the sixth stanza, there used to be numbers you could call which would say something like "At the tone, the time will be 3:46 pm and 15 seconds BEEEEP." In New York City, this number was Meridian 7-1212 (637-1212).
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 16:49
  • From the OED: embarrass, 2b. transitive. To complicate or confuse (a matter, subject, issue, etc.); to render perplexing or problematic. Now somewhat rare.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 17:18

1 Answer 1

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(Revised in the light of comments from OP and @ClaraDiazSanchez)

The poem contrasts the precision of scientific timekeeping with the disorder of lived experience, and examines the yin-yang relationship between the two. The key phrase is hoped-for accuracy: given the limitless confusion that human beings face as we navigate our way through the world, we had best use language as precisely as possible. Yet even as timekeeping provides a model for accurate knowledge and faithful representation, time itself devours all things.

Moore's notes to the poem explain, or at least touch upon, the reference to Giraudoux:

Jean Giraudoux: "Appeler à l'aide d'un camouflage ces instruments fait pour la vérité qui sont la radio, le cinéma, la presse?" "J'ai traversé voilà un des pays arabes ou l'on ignorait encore que Napoleon était mort." Une allocution radiodiffusée de M. Giraudoux aux Françaises à propos de Sainte Catherine; the Figaro, November, 1939.

Moore is quoting from a wartime radio address of Giraudoux's on November 25, 1939, part of which was printed in the next day's Figaro. Giraudoux's theme is disinformation. Of the Germans' effective use of propaganda, he says:

J'ai traversé voilà un des pays arabes ou l'on ignorait encore que Napoléon était mort, mais pas un geste de Hitler qui n'y fut connu dans la minute même.

I have even traversed one of the Arab countries where people were unaware that Napoleon was dead, but not a gesture of Hitler's remained unknown there the very minute he made it.

He says that the image of Germany created by propaganda is as much an enemy as Germany itself, and asks how the French should respond:

Que devait faire la France en face de cette double ennemie? L'imiter? Créer une second France? Alors que s'affronteraient, à la frontière, dans une lutte d'un terrible réalisme, dans le corps à corps, la vraie Allemagne et la vraie France, créer contre l'Allemagne imaginaire une France inventée. Appeler à l'aide d'un camouflage ces instruments faits pour la vérité qui sont la radio, le cinéma, la presse?

What should France do faced with this double enemy? Imitate it? Create a second France? An invented France against an imaginary Germany; meanwhile at the border, the real Germany and the real France would clash in hand-to-hand combat, in a struggle of terrible realism. Call the radio, the cinema, and the press, those instruments made for truth, to assist in a lie?

(Translations from the French are my own.)

This allusion to Giraudoux goes to the heart of the poem's meaning. On the one hand, the radio, the movies, and the press both mark off time in precise intervals and rely on precisely demarcated time: radio broadcasts stick to a schedule, motion pictures rely on the flicker fusion threshold, newspapers are printed daily. We assume that these media represent the world accurately: during a war especially, we seek out information from those sources. On the other hand, our reliance on them also makes those same "instruments of truth" very effective means of disinformation. Through this paradox, the poem lays out a complex relationship between abstract time as a precise measurement, and the times as material reality confounding any such accuracy.

Yet, says the poem, We know how timekeeping works. If we desire accuracy, we must maintain a constant temperature—in the time vault, to be sure, but also in the phenomenal world. Just as the clocks mark off one instant from the next, with a cool head we can distinguish between similar but unalike things. Giraudoux notes the difference between la vraie France and une France inventée; a student of lemurs can distinguish an aye-aye from a loris. We can also have fun monkeying around with language, but we should be able to tell the difference between a bell-buoy, a buoy-ball, and a bell-boy. The initial appearances of the poem have bell-buoy, but later ones bell-boy; whether this change is a result of a misprint or Moore's own revision is hard to determine. (Moore was known to revise her poems over and over, and this one has an interesting textual history.) It's interesting that the question and a comment thereto assume the poem says "bell-boy," while my initial pass at this answer assumed "bell-buoy"; the confusion underscores the poem's point that we're always in danger of collapsing distinctions that we strive to maintain.

Just as "bell-boy," "bell-buoy," and "buoy-ball" are very similar sounds with entirely different meanings, when we call a phone line that signals the time at regular intervals of 15 seconds each, we hear the same voice saying the same thing: "at the signal the time will be," followed by "the new data" or the actual time it will be, followed by the same signal ... over and over again. Most readers of this site are probably too young to know of the existence of such long-defunct speaking clocks, where one could dial, say, MEridian 71212 and be told what the time would be at the signal. (See also Tom Stoppard's If You're Glad I'll Be Frank.) The point here is the fine balance between sameness and difference, between the regularity of precisely measured time and the inherent difference between one moment and the next.

The poem's last stanza brings these various related threads together. There is another pun: Jupiter and jour pater. We know, of course, that Jupiter is not jour pater but Dyaus Pitr, Deus Pater, the sky-father, from Dyaus / Zeus, the sky. So who is jour pater, the day god? Time brings a day into being; time consumes that day. So it would seem that this day god is Chronos. Moore's note quotes Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable on Chronos, who

devoured all his children except Jupiter (air), Neptune (water), and Pluto (the grave). These Time cannot consume.

The sky is outside the ravages of time, that cannibalistically eats what it creates. As far as our own experience of time goes, we can, like Jupiter, achieve a certain mastery over it, for example, by cultivating punctuality. We arrive at our destination on time.

However, the poem forestalls us by arriving at its destination earlier than expected: the last line is missing. Up to this moment, the poem's form has been admirably precise. Each stanza has seven lines. Each corresponding line has the same number of syllables: 12, 8, 8, 6, 9, 7, 6. Each even-numbered line within a stanza rhymes. An iambic meter prevails:

  x    /  |   x   /  |  x   / |  x \  |
they punc | tual ize | the ra | di  o |

Yet, despite the precision of this timekeeping, we end up with a blank where we expect culmination. The poem's form emulates its meaning, where precise measurement of syllables builds a pattern of significance that is abruptly terminated. We have had Neptune with water-clear crystals and clear ice. We have had Jupiter, of course. Now we have Pluto, the grave.

This discursive paraphrase of the poem does violence to its logic, which is poetic rather than expository. Moore refused the label "Imagist," but the poem makes meaning in much the same way as the Ur-imagist poem, "In a Station of the Metro." Like Pound's poem, Moore's advances its meaning by juxtaposing various elements. The connections between quartz clocks, wartime radio broadcasts, lemurs, puns, and myth are not spelled out, nor even asserted. They are merely made by their placement next to each other. Nor is this the only possible interpretation of such a placement. This is merely one attempt, and other readers will find other meanings. The point of a poem is not so much what meaning it makes, as how it does so, and Moore's careful craft gives her poems many layers of meaning to discover.

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    I'd just like to add a few comments. The four quartz clocks were a set of four linked clocks kept at Bell labs to provide a time standard (before they were superseded by atomic clocks). They were kept in ovens to assure stable temperature - temperature stability is more important than low temperatures Commented Jun 8 at 11:39
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    and the "clear ice" crystals refers to the Ancient Greek work for quartz, κρύος, meaning "ice cold" Commented Jun 8 at 11:40
  • One more comment: some versions of the poem do indeed have the misprint "bell-boy".
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 8 at 16:08
  • Collected Poems (1951, page 217) and Complete Poems (1954, page 116) both have "bell-boy", so that seems to be the poet's settled intention; the spelling "bell-buoy" in the Kenyon Review version was probably a misprint. The line was supplied to Moore by Elizabeth Bishop in a context where only "bell-boy" makes sense: see Poems, Prose and Letters, page 487. Commented Jun 8 at 18:55
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez fixed. I read 41º and assumed Fahrenheit, but of course it's Celsius.
    – verbose
    Commented Jun 8 at 22:09

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