James Fenton: On "Marriage"

 

"Marriage" begins in that cool manner for which Moore was already well known among a small circle of connoisseurs:

This institution,

perhaps one should say enterprise 

out of respect for which 

one says one need not change one’s mind 

about a thing one has believed in, 

requiring public promises 

of one's intention 

to fulfill a private obligation: 

I wonder what Adam and Eve 

think of it by this time, 

this fire-gilt steel 

alive with goldenness; 

how bright it shows—

"of circular tradition and impostures,

committing many spoils," 

requiring all one's criminal ingenuity

to avoid!

These lines could never have been written by the devout Catholic daughter of a domineering Catholic mother, because to Catholics marriage is a sacrament, whereas to Protestants there are only two sacraments, as mentioned in the Gospels--baptism and communion. But even so, even from a devout Presbyterian, the mockery comes as a bit of a surprise, and we remember that every line by Moore went first past her mother's censorship and was later offered to her minister brother, who considered each of her poems as a spiritual event.

It must surely be that neither Moore nor her mother saw the mockery as in any way directed against the Church, and it seems likely that they would both have understood a part of the sarcasm to be directed at women like Bryher and H.D., who entered into matrimony and at the same time preached freedom. One remembers too that Mrs. Moore had fled her marriage, and had seen to it that she was never drawn back into it either by her husband or by any obligation to his family. She had taught rather than go to them for money. Elizabeth Bishop, whose mother also went mad, wrote much later in a letter to Anne Stevenson: "That generation took insanity very differently than we do now, you know. . . . After a couple of years, unless you cured yourself, all hope was abandoned." We do not know what Mrs. Moore had been through, and I certainly do not want to suggest that she was hypocritical as a Christian, in the matter of her marriage. But one can at least see that there might have been something welcome, something understandable too, in her daughter's decision to use all her "criminal ingenuity" to avoid marriage, if that was the form her rebellion was now taking.

Below the incandescent stars 

below the incandescent fruit, 

the strange experience of beauty;

its existence is too much; 

it tears one to pieces 

and each fresh wave of consciousness

is poison.

"See her, see her in this common world, "

the central flaw 

in that first crystal-fine experiment, 

this amalgamation which can never be more

than an interesting impossibility. . .

Is marriage no more than an interesting impossibility? She backs away from interpretation later, appending the note which calls this poem "statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly," but what took her fancy includes an allusion to Godwin in "a very trivial object indeed," which the notes expand to "Marriage is a law, and the worst of all laws ... a very trivial object indeed." And we go back to the spirit of Bryn Mawr with the lines:

She says, "Men are monopolists 

of 'stars, garters, buttons 

and other shining baubles’—

unfit to be the guardians 

of another person's happiness.

Which is sourced to Miss M. Carey Thomas:

Men practically reserve for themselves stately funerals, splendid monuments, memorial statues, membership in academies, medals, titles, honorary degrees, stars, garters, ribbons, buttons and other shining baubles, so valueless in themselves and yet so infinitely desirable because they are symbols of recognition by their fellow-craftsmen of difficult work well done.

And among the titles that men had, by some mechanism, contrived to reserve to themselves was, by and large, the title of poet. If West is to be believed, even Moore, in her mid-thirties, did not believe that it would be as a poet that she made her name. She thought her poems might be appended to some prose work. She also thought, and told her would-be liberators as she saw them off, that she would come into her own as a writer at the age of forty-five. And in this you could well say she was right. She published her first full collection, Observations, in 1924, then nothing for the next seven years. But then, as I said, came "The Steeple-Jack," "The Jerboa," "Virginia Britannia," "The Pangolin," and so forth, the poems which we take as most typical today.

From "Becoming Marianne Moore," New York Review of Books (April 24, 1997.)

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Criticism Overview
Title James Fenton: On "Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author James Fenton Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 26 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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