Marianne Moore’s “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns”: The “Unreal realities” of Early Modern Maps and Animals

Adele J. Haft


This paper is about a poet and two cartographers. The poet is Marianne Moore, one of the most lauded and loved American poets of the twentieth century. In 1924 she published “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” a poem examining four exotic beasts—narwhals, unicorns, sea lions, lions—and their celebrated, if unreal, relationships to one another. While describing sea unicorns early in the poem, Moore specifies “the cartographers of 1539.” The date can only allude to the Carta Marina of the Swedish mapmaker and historian Olaus Magnus, whose famous 1539 “marine map” features a profusion of Scandinavian land and sea creatures. Moore’s “cartographers of 1539” compels us, in turn, to consider other mapmakers who crowded their maps with animals. The plural phrase also balances and anticipates her comparison, near the end of the poem, of the unicorn and “an equine monster of an old celestial map.” Though vague, the simile may suggest the winged figure of Pegasus on a celestial chart by Peter Apian. This popular German cartographer and astronomer originally designed his chart in 1536, then reproduced it—a year after the Carta Marina—in his exquisite Astronomicum Caesareum (1540). In the end, Moore’s portrayal of animals in “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns” captures the spirit that animated mapping, art, and science during the sixteenth-century Age of Exploration.


Marianne Moore; Olaus Magnus; Peter Apian; pictorial maps; celestial maps; sixteenth-century cartography

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