Pamela White Hadas: On "Marriage"
Truly as the sun
can rot or mend, love can make one
bestial or make a beast a man.
wholesomeness? best say efforts of affection—
attain integration too tough for infraction.
("Efforts of Affection")
MARIANNE MOORE'S "MARRIAGE" begins with superb lack of passion, on the far abstract end of the continuum of meaning that reaches between it and dream. It is a purely verbal consideration:
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.
Enter Adam and Eve, not as immediate protagonists, but as absent mentors who, having been the first to propose conjugal bliss, so the myth has it, might have some useful observation to make. Their answer is of course entirely a matter of our own imaginations. It is really we who are asked to reflect on the glint of a wedding ring and some cynical words drawn from Francis Bacon. Not love, but an "enterprise," is the center of attention as the poet wonders
what Adam and Eve
think of it by this time,
this fire-gilt steel
alive with goldenness;
how bright it shows—
"of circular traditions and impostures,
committing many spoils,"
requiring all one's criminal ingenuity
Moore's quotation of Bacon, so aptly placed for rendering the symbol of love into an image of social greed, and the eternal circle into an image of unprogressive self-interest, applies as much to a style of writing and speaking as it does to the life style of prospective husbands and wives. Social mores, ingenious in the enshrinement of the original felix culpa, must be fought with like ingenuity. What Adam and Eve might think of it is certainly no consolation.
The "hand" that is offered the reader in "Marriage" is, like the hand offered in marriage described by the poem, "impatient to assure you" that its groping is free of obligation. Whatever they say, though, both poet and lover know that this is not true. The poet beginning an ambitious poem is not unlike the applicant for marriage in that there is an obligation to fulfill at least one's own definition of a plausible poem, and at most to make a lasting and public union of words and sense. The applicant for marriage is squeezed between the danger of uncontrollable affection, something alive with goldenness which requires criminal ingenuity to obtain as well as to avoid, and a certain abstract bondage to universal meaning. To maintain a balance between the inner irrationality and the outer reasonableness of any such "enterprise" leads almost inevitably to a moral strain; it is perhaps this strain, more than any other, that holds the fragments of a life, a marriage, or a poem together.
Late in the poem "Marriage" someone is quoted as saying:
"Married people often look that way—
seldom and cold, up and down,
mixed and malarial
with a good day and a bad."
Marriage is a strain. A poem of more or less loosely "married" images also looks a bit "mixed and malarial," with a good line and a bad, according to its various mental predispositions, chance associations, arid a certain amount of unconscious fastidiousness. Part of the strain of "Marriage" is due to the intended comprehensiveness of it despite the knowledge, or intuition at least, that such an enterprise is to be necessarily incomprehensible in the end. What Allen Tate has said about Hart Crane's poem The Bridge is splendidly true of Marianne Moore's "Marriage." He is speaking of the image or central idea of "bridge"; we can easily substitute "marriage."
Because the idea is variously metaphor, symbol, and analogy, it tends to make the poem static. The poet takes it up, only to be forced to put it down again when the poetic image of the moment is exhausted. The idea does not, in short, fill the poet's mind; it is the starting point for a series of short flights, or inventions connected only in analogy—which explains the merely personal passages, which are obscure, and the lapses into sentimentality. . . . Crane's difficulty is that of modern poets generally: they play the game with half of the men, the men of sensibility, and because sensibility can make any move, the significance of all moves is obscure.
"Marriage" is obscure for these reasons, for the brevity of its insights and the lack of smooth transitions between them. The poem is true to the "conscientious inconsistency" of the mind described by Moore in "The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing"; it is a poem that describes the poet's mind with as much faithfulness as it describes what is in the poet's mind. "Marriage" is constantly changing tones, seemingly in response to itself, its own inner need to leave an unsatisfactory phrase or unexplainable or unenlargeable image. Clearly Moore thinks of "marriage" not so much as an event as a set of attitudes toward a hypothesis. It is centrally concerned with mental, not physical actions, and it leads eventually to a marriage within one mind of its various attitudes toward marriage rather than to a marriage of different minds.
Moore's initial picture of Eve, for instance, marries the old my thy attractiveness with a very peculiar mental ability:
Eve: beautiful woman—
I have seen her
when she was so handsome
she gave me a start,
able to write simultaneously
in three languages—
English, German, and French—
and talk in the meantime;
This Eve gives us a start, too, but not because of her alleged handsomeness. Moore's note on this passage refers us to an article in the Scientific American entitled "Multiple Consciousness or Reflex Action of Unaccustomed Range." We are done with Eden. Babel is behind us. Finnegans Wake is before us, unwritten as yet, a threatening potential of multiple consciousness turned literary. Eve is modern and it is her mind, the incomprehensible comprehendability of it, that attracts us. But if amazing Eve is busy scribbling and talking at the same time, relying on unconscious fastidiousness, we suspect, as she could not possibly be thinking of everything "equally positive in demanding a commotion / and stipulating quiet," where is there room for dense old Adam? He enters the room of the poem and of the scribbling Eve when we are not looking; he is an unwelcome "visitor." "I should like to be alone," says preoccupied Eve,
to which the visitor replies
"I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?"
A modest proposition, surely. On the surface it is good natured enough, or pleasantly devious. Any second thought about it, though, is sure to be made uncomfortable with its glibness, vulgarity, and sad presumption with regard to what could be a sacred human relation. There is an insidious remoteness and literally embarrassing sentiment in the proposal of being alone together. It is all mildly funny, too, but the poem, resisting its own impulses with a vengeance, glances suddenly back to Eden and seriousness, as it was seen to glance for just a moment near the beginning, at a live goldenness. Here, despite a warning given earlier that "psychology . . . explains nothing," we are offered a psychological reason:
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
We welcome the new inspiration and relief from the offhand proposition that immediately precedes it, but are we to welcome the news that each such fresh wave is poison? Although sudden beauty saves us from the poetic sterility of "alone together," it transports us to the only slightly more poetically fertile ground of being alone alone, savoring a disjunction of senses that we know is poison.
From affectation to affection, in poem after poem, Marianne Moore writes, or seems to write, in self-defense against this poison. At the same time she cannot help seeking it out. She may remind one of the small animal, observed observing, in her poem "An Octopus,"
the victim on some slight observatory,
of "a struggle between curiosity and caution,"
inquiring what has scared it.
This is a "victim" not only of some hidden predatory thing in man or in nature, but of its own struggle between the instinctive desire to know and the fear that by venturing out to know, it will be known. In the poem "Marriage," no matter how much the mind wants to be alone, there is the very existence of "Adam" to contend with. Adam is tantamount to a world; he is the general "other" as well as the particular "other" who is dangerous to the self precisely because he is equipped by beauty to invade it, because he may not remain quite "other" enough.
And he has beauty also, it's distressing . . . a crouching mythological monster.
The "beauty" in "Marriage" seems always to be crouching and waiting for a chance to break in and overwhelm the careful cerebrations, the witty satire, the pure descriptions, in short, all the defensive maneuvers, the silences, the necessary restraints.
In The Philosophy of Literary Form, Kenneth Burke assures us that
when you begin to consider the situations behind the tactics of expression, you will find tactics that organize a work technically because they organize it emotionally. . . . Hence, if you look for a man's burden, you will find the principle that reveals the structure of his unburdening, or in attenuated form, if you look for his problem, you will find the lead that explains the structure of his solution.
The burden of the poem "Marriage" is one with the witty confusions (read con-fusions) of style in the poem. The poet, in presenting her broad subject in a way that is so willfully confusing, is also stipulating a kind of solitude. The woman of "multiple consciousness" defies "psychology" to explain her abilities.
Psychology which explains everything
and we are still in doubt.
She should like to be alone. It is possible that in solitude the poet finds the complexity of consciousness, and its ability to change energy states like an excited electron, less frightening. "In the Days of Prismatic Color" is a poem that considers the fine clarity of the world "when Adam was alone." Alone he is able to perceive things clearly and with no obscurity, as a green thought in a green shade perhaps. The entrance of Eve is not an explicit event in this poem, but we are made to know that when Adam 's solitude was lost, so was his uncomplicated vision. Admit the presence of an "other," explain or try to explain yourself and exactly how you see things, and all becomes complex, obscure.
The obscurity in Marianne Moore's vision of marriage lies in attempted explanations that are highly personal and shared only through "efforts of affection" not quite equal to affection. The obscurity, the single self confronting another with marriage in mind, says to the reader in each unprepared-for leap of sensibility, "I should like to be alone." But here we are, and the poem, pulled in the direction of silence by its desire for solitude and unapproachability, is acknowledging us in every image restrainfully given over to language. It is also daring us to make at least equal efforts of affection on its behalf. It is an effort of communication, an uncomfortable one. Nevertheless, in that discomfort is a real truth about the human predicament. We can never have the occasional comfort of affection, of the beautiful image that strikes love in us, without the pain of reaching out, offering something too personal for words, in words, in other words, and in yet other words.
"Marriage" begins with Adam and Eve. The poem is "about" a mythical situation. Without telling us the whole story, it makes jerky guesses pertaining to the meaning of it. This reflects the critical modern quandary of a literature that is over-conscious of itself. The question we are expected to ask of literature is not an absorbed "what happens next?" but a beard-stroking "what does it mean?" Each fragment has its burden. Each must signify. Divorce—between absorption in a mythic story and detached analysis of its parts—is written into the engagement.
"Mythological statements lead to questions," observes Elizabeth Sewell. Whether the statements really do precede the questions as Sewell's phrasing would have it, or vice versa, it is true that in Moore's poem "Marriage" both are present and are connected causally, however casually. We do not want to see the same old Adam and Eve go through their old routine, we want to know what they think about our own blundering imitation of it. We want to see them respond to our myth. We imagine their responses in our own fears and hesitations, desires and aggressions, and last but not least, rhetorical persuasions.
The poem "Marriage" may be seen as a rhetorical response to the idea of marriage, to the myth of confrontation between man and woman, a man and woman who may be asked to stand for opposed forces in general. The "Eve" and " Adam" of the poem are each imagined in the separate rhetorics of each, their separate self-persuasions and persuasiveness. Underlying all the rhetoric, however, we are always aware that there is a question as motivation. And the one affirmative answer, "I do," is never given.
"Unhelpful Hymen!" the poet exclaims near the center of the work, after giving us images of the beauty and monstrousness and triviality of marriage. "Hymen," that purely mythical tissue, that rhetorical ploy, cannot solve the insoluble elements of "Marriage." "Hymen" is described as
a kind of overgrown cupid
reduced to insignificance
by the mechanical advertising
parading as involuntary comment,
by that experiment of Adam's
with ways out but no way in—
the ritual of marriage,
augmenting all its lavishness.
The "criminal ingenuity" of "mechanical advertising" replaces childlike dreams with those of adult-infantile cupidity. Simple self-expression learns calculation and the art of seeming to be what it has lost by calculation, the artlessness of being itself. The poet has no choice but to fight fire with fire. The poem "Marriage" parades as "statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly" (Moore's first note on the poem). Actually, it is forced to partake of the same evilly conscious rhetorical techniques that it damns. It courts us, woos us with the propaganda of poetry, wants to bond our senses to it for life. It is greedy for our affections. There the difference begins. Moore wants our affections not for a material greed which goes beyond them, and not for a social-commercial commitment, but for a spiritual and moral commitment. We cannot escape the original greed of Adam's experiment, but we can recognize that it was a greed for life and love and not twist those things to mean aimless possessiveness and a willingness to be possessed.
If Moore's cynicism throughout the poem seems excessive, we might note that cynicism, although not always so witty, is a part of every mythic quest and every quest for meaning. Adam and Eve mistrust their creator and accept the cynical rhetoric of the serpent; Psyche turns her light on what should be dark, and loses what is central to her life; the Red Cross Knight abandons Una and tends to believe the rhetoric of Despair. All these stories illustrate the moral strain of life itself. There is something right and realistic about what all of them do, even when they are broken, having broken their words. Words are made to be broken, and some of the tentative answers to mythical questions have to be informed by the consciousness of evil in order to make new words, new promises, new lives, and new poems for ourselves.
Moore's allusion to "mechanical advertising" follows kind and lovely images of affect-dazzlement of apple and nightingale and fire. Her crafty alternations are analogous to the reversals and surprises that must be a part of any narrative quest. Here the "victim" of reversals, the "hero" of the "story," is the reader insofar as she lets herself be involved. If we are not involved by the very technique of the poem, in other words, then we are doomed to read a story without character and without point. "Marriage" is boring for those with no "way in" to the myth. Life can be boring for the same reason.
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
. . .
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) 'Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
(John Berryman, Dream Song #14)
Berryman confesses, for the moment of this song, that he is bored, and that this is the reason. It is a warning (among other things) to the reader of modern poetry, whose "inner resources" are constantly in demand in the reading of poems that come close to the confusions of life, confusions which, when we cannot meet them with "inner resources" or find a "way in" to the myth, we are quite ready to ignore or to dismiss as "boring." If we believe that "the mind is an enchanting thing," we must admit that its inconsistencies and confusions, inseparable from most of its most interesting functions, are by no means the least of its enchantments. Nevertheless, in the interests of integrity, the poet presenting such confusions must not herself be confused, as the poet presenting us with his boredom must not, in the writing itself, be bored or boring. "Unconfusion submits / its confusion to proof," says Moore in "The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing," and the burden of the "proof" lies with the reader, the observer of the mind and the life of the mind.
"Good art never bores one," says Ezra Pound in the preface to The Spirit of Romance. "By that I mean that it is the business of the artist to prevent ennui; in the literary art, to relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the reader—at reasonable intervals—with some form of ecstasy, by some splendor of thought, some presentation of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase—laughter is no mean ecstasy. Good art begins with an escape from dullness." Marianne Moore accepts this responsibility and proves it in the technical brilliance of the poem "Marriage," a technical brilliance that illuminates confusion, controls it, and presents it as central to life and the decisions one must make about it. She pays her readers the compliment of trust in their inner resources. She does this by never explaining or visibly pontificating; by sharing carefully selected and suggestive facts, quotations, and images without enslaving them to a single vision; by never staying too long with one of these, and by never forcing an issue. She assumes that we have an interest in the way our minds leap between mundanity, ecstasy, and humor and that we can bear the tension of never quite coming to a conclusion. She assumes that we do not find life boring.
If in all the reversals and surprises of the poem, the accumulations of words around a single magical image, or in suddenly changed pace the reader feels she is approaching a climactic statement of some kind, something that will suddenly make all the pieces fit into the puzzle, she will be disappointed. "Marriage," like life, presents anticlimax after anticlimax with only slight build-up and, significantly, no climax at all. There is no "I do" in the poem, no consummation, and by the time we do catch a glimpse of an actually married couple they are already seen to be preparing for divorce. In the essay "Feeling and Precision," Moore comments on the madness behind this method:
Intentional anticlimax as a department of surprise is a subject by itself; indeed, an art, "bearing," as Longinus says, "the stamp of vehement emotion like a ship before a veering wind," both as content and as sound; but especially as sound, in the use of which the poet becomes a kind of hypnotist—recalling Kenneth Burke's statement that "the hypnotist has a way out and a way in."
The poet's technique is not superadded to an enchanting story. It is an enchantment in itself in its provision, not of continuity, but of a continuous and (if we can allow ourselves to submit to it as we would to the continuity of dream) hypnotic tension.
According to Marianne Moore's intentionally anticlimactic summaries of marriage up to the point of the Hymen passage quoted earlier, Adam's experiment has "ways out but no way in— / the ritual of marriage, / augmenting all its lavishness." That is, the ritual aspects of marriage, in providing and perpetuating a kind of false and lavish substitute for the largesse of the relinquished garden, only make the original sin more contemptible, not necessarily more bearable. Hymen—the myth of Hymen—is unhelpful unless we are capable of reevaluation. The poem "Marriage," with its ability to withdraw from the mythical situation and to disdain the "way out," mythical escape from real consequences, makes a new myth in the process of examining itself. It has a "way in" to an interior reality and the devious workings of the mind that make myth attractive and necessary in the first place.
Manipulation by sound is used as a "way in" with the same "criminal ingenuity" in poetry as it is used in advertising, but with quite a different moral intent. The rough sound of "insignificance," "mechanical advertising," and "involuntary comment" wakes us from the trance of "unnerved by the nightingale / and dazzled by the apple"; it spoils the illusion with a purpose. A matter mainly of the arrangement of long and short syllables, of consonance and assonance, it is a "way out" of the illusion of Eden or a childhood paradise or whatever fine nostalgic fantasy one would dream oneself into. Technical manipulation is a "way out" as Adam's tasting the fruit of consciousness was a "way out." Paradoxically, it is also a "way in," as only through this kind of withdrawal from illusion can one retrieve a precise understanding of it. Only the Adam who does not willingly give up Paradise in favor of the enchantments of mortal and moral confusions, the Adam who once he is forced out tries to imitate a lost lavishness and convince himself it is the real thing, has no "way in" to the meaning of the myth. It may sound melodramatic, but it is true: the meaning of the myth contains, like the flower its seed, the meaning of Adam's existence.
Marianne Moore's style and structuring of poems is what provides for her the balance between the fight to be affectionate and the fight not to be. It is for this that the paper nautilus "constructs her thin glass shell." She guards her "eggs," scarcely eating until they are hatched:
Buried eightfold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil—
fish, her glass ram's-horn-cradled freight
is hid but not crushed.
The poet's "freight" is the substance of her poems; they will hatch as the tentative communications that come from efforts of affection. Feelings, in Marianne Moore's scheme of things, must be hidden but maintained whole in hiding. Their existence, more than any other force, dictates the form and beauty of the shell that holds them. Perhaps this is why the typical man and the typical woman who seek each other and each other's feelings in marriage must use, at least in Moore's poem "Marriage," the careful rhetoric they use, and why the poet must arrange her poem so as neither to express too early an unformed and unprotected feeling nor to deny the loving motives that underly and oversee the finished form.
The poet may have the appearance, in jumping from image to image, of a ship veering in the wind, like the cruising frigate pelican "allowing the wind to reverse [his] direction," "quiver[ing] about / as charred paper behaves—full / of feints," but the apparent aimlessness is important; it reflects the true character of wind, wings, and words-an end that is not at all aimless. The poem "Marriage" veers in the wind, so to speak, on both rhetorical and psychological levels; this is one of the things that makes the poem "work." The poet no more makes her cynical comments on the lavishness of the false rituals of marriage, than she must be off again, with extraordinary lavishness of her own, describing it with images of eccentric beauty:
its fiddlehead ferns,
lotus flowers, opuntias, white dromedaries,
nose and mouth combined
in one magnificent hopper—
[its crested streamer—
that huge bird almost a lizard,] *
its snake and the potent apple.
*(bracketed lines in 1923 Manikin edition only)
Henry James, speaking of "men of largest responding imagination before the human scene," notes that they provide generous mixtures of the two tones or attitudes toward experiencing the world that James calls the romantic and the real. "His current," says James, "remains therefore extraordinarily rich and mixed, washing us successively with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock, as may be, of the far and strange." Certainly the poem "Marriage" is evidence of this sort of "largest responding imagination before the human scene." In it we are given the most realistic, not to say prosaic, view of marriage at the outset ("an enterprise . . . requiring public promises / of one's intention / to fulfill a private obligation") and we are given as well the "tonic shock" of strange beauty below incandescent stars and incandescent fruit where "each fresh wave of consciousness is poison." The "real" says James, is composed of "things we cannot possibly notknow," and the romantic or strange, of "things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire." The word "subterfuge," associated here with desire, seems particularly apt with respect to the work of Marianne Moore, for many of her most beautiful images seem to come, not through the conscious fastidiousness that informs her observations of the "real," but through that unconscious fastidiousness which lets certain "efforts of affection" bloom into real longing. The lavishness of exotic detail in the Persian miniature that she describes at one point in "Marriage," for instance, is a desired extravagance. In the very remoteness of its fantastic animal-figures and jewels from "real" life is hidden the remotest (to common sense) and the nearest (to sensibility) object of the imagination—the "crouching mythological monster" that is seen to be Adam himself. Or Love, or Evil. In " An Octopus" Moore describes the mysterious bear's den "composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars / topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz" where the bear, unseen for all this extravagance, is known to lurk. The danger is not dangerous when it is hibernating in such dreamed beauty. The mythological monster is never fully revealed; what is revealed in Moore's poetry inspired by him is the primal desire for excess and love that escapes her everyday ascetic attitudes toward marriage and life. The greediness that she despises is a greediness that she knows, as we all must know it, from self-inspection.
One finds in Moore's calculated alternations between lavishness and stoicism, "rigid fidelity and the most fanciful extravagance" (to use Hazlitt's words concerning Burke's style), a coincidence of moral and psychological responses to the possible richness of experience. Whether it is called, with moral prejudice, "the garden of earthly delights," or, with psychoanalytic prejudice, the "nurturing other," the reader must have an affection for it, as Marianne Moore herself does. One must have both moral and psychological defenses against the hunger and the affection, however, as well as ways of expressing both. The questions and the statements Moore presents us with by first indulging and then damning material and verbal extravagance embody her method, make up the "story" that almost, but never quite, answers the mythical quest for meaning. When the artistic defenses become too rigid, one begins again "the fight to be affectionate" as in "Marriage." One must begin the fight over and over, as one loses it.
Thus Eve must be introduced, and introduced again, as she loses her original brilliance and, chameleon-like, takes on a new but still transitory brilliance.
"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
as "that strange paradise
unlike flesh, stones,
gold or stately buildings,
the choicest piece of my life:
[I am not grown up now;
I am as little as a leaf,]*
the heart rising
in its estate of peace
as a boat rises
with the rising of the water."
*(bracketed lines in 1923 version only)
In this rather long description of Eve describing paradise in Richard Baxter's words, there are actually two descriptions of paradise—the one the poet sees surrounding Eve, surrounding "the central flaw," and the paradise within her. Outside of her it is disaffected, or disinfected, by intellect and abstraction; it is an "experiment," an "amalgamation," and "interesting impossibility" (a good description: incidentally, of the poem "Marriage" itself). Within Eve, Paradise or "marriage" is associated with nostalgia for childhood, "the choicest piece of my life." But there are problems beyond inner and outer paradise in this passage; there is a central flaw deeper than simple Eve.
Eve is "in this common world" describing marriage as a strange "paradise" (an idea she picked up from "mechanical advertising" most probably) or quality of soul that is unlike material wealth. She describes it as "the choicest piece of my life." We have assumed she refers to a real childhood on the basis of the lines later removed, but there is another possible reading, also based on the excised lines but more closely connected with the rest of the poem. Later on the woman, the "she" of the lovers' debate, is described in rather unfavorable circumstances and in a nasty tone by the "he" of the debate as "uniquely disappointing, / revengefully wrought in the attitude / of an adoring child." In the earlier passage we hear only Eve's thoughts on the matter, in which the idea of marriage seems to remind her of being a child. This makes her heart rise exactly as Richard Baxter describes the hearts of ambitious and covetous men rising in the passage from which Moore quotes to supply her Eve with words. Could it be that her "innocent" heart rises with the expectations of what she will get by marriage, by returning to weak dependency? One suspects that Moore certainly thought so. Seen in this cynical light, the loveliness of the passage partakes of the "circular traditions and impostures/ committing many spoils" that were part of Moore's initial definition of marriage. If the lines specifying childhood are removed from the passage, the connection is lost. For better or for worse?
In Marianne Moore's own retreat from beauty that "tears one to pieces" (a retreat which is at least partially distinct from Eve's), we note that she first pulls back to the safety of abstraction, in the description of Eve's outward circumstances, then allows a measure of release in giving us her inner perceptions of "paradise." We are, in this reflection of Eve's, still safely removed from the place where consciousness itself is poison. The Eve of this common world needs this safety, for she is
constrained in speaking of the serpent—
shed snakeskin in the history of politeness
not to be returned to again.
Because Eve cannot speak of the serpent, she reminds herself of childhood, when one is ''as little as a leaf," free from consciousness that can kill, and ignorant of the potency of the apple. Marianne Moore, however, often speaks of the serpent, which in one poem she describes as
This animal which from the earliest times, importance has attached,
fine as its worshippers have said—for what was it invented?
To show that when intelligence in its pure form
has embarked on a train of thought which is unproductive, it will
("Snakes, Mongooses, Snake Charmers, and the Like")
"There is something attractive about a mind that moves in a straight line," as Moore observes in "People's Surroundings," but there is a remedy for, as well as something attractive in, one which does not. The snake was "invented" so that we can, when thinking scatters itself (as it so consistently does in Moore's poems and in the reading of them) come back to snakedom as to a basic premise, a hidden principle of consciousness, of life and evil. For instance, when one sets one's "intelligence in its pure form" a task, such as defining so broad a thing as "marriage," and when one finds oneself talking instead about somebody or other's ability to write in three languages simultaneously and the unproductive paradise of childhood in which you are a vegetable and there is no serpent to speak of, one finds oneself returning to intelligence in a less pure form, a kind of ur-intelligence of images. The dazzling image throughout Moore's work more often than not comes back to a simple and dangerous consciousness of the identity of beauty and evil in the snake or some related animal-the chameleon in "People's Surroundings" for example. Possibly more central than Adam to the various hypotheses of the poem "Marriage" is the serpent that constrains us.
The encounter between Eve and the evil beauty of serpentine intelligence is referred to in the poem as "that invaluable accident/ exonerating Adam." This allusion to Eve's seduction is a little resentful, but mostly witty, as is the "shed snakeskin in the history of politeness." The humor relieves the tension underlying Eve's attraction to "the strange experience of beauty" that will tear her to pieces. It begins with Adam:
And he has beauty also;
it's distressing—the O thou
to whom from whom,
without whom nothing—Adam;
something colubrine"—how true!
a crouching mythological monster
in that Persian miniature of emerald mines,
raw silk-ivory white, snow white
oyster white, and six others—
that paddock full of leopards and giraffes—
long lemon-yellow bodies
sown with trapezoids of blue.
Adam is so distressingly beautiful, and Eve's dependence on him so utter, that he must, like a god, be seen in the mystery of creation that surrounds him to be seen at all. We cannot look at him directly. Adam's being swallowed up by this particular Persian miniature characterizes one aspect of all of Marianne Moore's poems; in her the experience of intense beauty inspires both fear (of her own seduction by it) and praiseful wonder, and she summons all creatures here below to help her, to help her conceal and control her feelings through their own artful armorings and their lending of them to her. Animals and the art of others help her praise the origin of an individuality that cannot be explained, but that must be proved. Art provides a necessary retreat from the feline and serpentine beauty of Adam, specifically from his sexual attractiveness. Sublimation is the fate of this poet, whose fate is con-fused with verse :
Alive with words,
vibrating like a cymbal
touched before it has been struck.
The crash never comes, but the instrument lightly agitated keeps trembling out a message of possibility. It is a possibility that could not help but call attention to itself among the rest of Moore's orchestration, her "tuned reticence with rigor" that belongs to her "Propriety."
The image of vibration in the touched cymbal is attributed to the words of someone who "has prophesied correctly," but the reader is left in doubt about the prophecy itself and the person who made it, and the passage in quotation marks is not acknowledged in the notes.
Alive with words,
vibrating . . .
he has prophesied correctly—
the industrious waterfall
"the speedy stream
which violently bears all before it,
at one time silent as the air
and now as powerful as the wind."
The stream, related to the Pierian spring perhaps, is, in all its violence, the same stream that at another time was quiet. The latent power of the stream is analogous to the latent power of still air, which as wind can be felt. This power is analogous to the latent power of sound in a vibrating cymbal, or the latent power of words that, as prophecy, can become truly enacted. It encompasses possibilities within realities. Verse can become fate. "The power of the visible is the invisible" ("He 'Digesteth Harde Yron"'). The associations that these ideas of latent power have with marriage are made clearer by the statements that caught Moore's fancy in presenting the second proposal scene in the poem:
on the uncertain footing of a spear,"
forgetting that there is in woman
a quality of mind
which as an instinctive manifestation
he goes on speaking
in a formal customary strain,
of "past states, the present state,
the evil one suffered,
the good one enjoys,
to promote one's joy."
The first proposal was a simple "Why not be alone together?" This, its "formal customary strain" more apparently calculated and seriously thought about, nevertheless has similar dramatic and ironic elements. We as readers have information about Eve's mental qualities—in the first such scene they were the freak ones of "multiple consciousness" that allowed her to write in three languages with both hands and talk at the same time, and here they are informed by sinister instincts connected with the garden of Eden and a childish greed. Into such hostile or unsafe atmosphere comes the man with his inept proposals. He is persistent here, though his proposal may seem to go off in many different directions at once—heaven, hell, past, present, and everything convenient, coming together. Moore, by quoting Hazlitt on Burke's style in this passage, is commenting on the style of the proposal and on the style of the poem as a whole. Because it contains such an important double commentary, here is the quoted passage and environs from Hazlitt:
Burke's style is airy, flighty, adventurous, but it never loses sight of the subject; nay, is always in contact with and derives its increased or varying impulse from it. It may be said to pass yawning gulfs "on the unsteadfast footing of a spear": still it has an actual resting place and tangible support under it—it is not suspended on nothing. . . . The principle which guides his pen is truth, not beauty—not pleasure, but power. He has no choice, no selection of subject to flatter the reader's idle taste or assist his own fancy: he must take what comes and make the most of it. . . . It is all the same to him, so that he loses no particle of the exact, characteristic, extreme impression of the thing he writes about, and that he communicates this to the reader, after exhausting every possible mode of illustration, plain or abstracted, figurative or literal. . . . The most rigid fidelity and the most fanciful extravagance meet and are reconciled in his pages.
One can easily see how this praise of Burke can be turned into a rationale for the poem "Marriage," which does proceed by fancy and by "exhausting every possible mode of illustration, plain or abstracted" in offering us its hand. And we have seen how it does not cater to the reader's natural idleness. The man proposing marriage within "Marriage" does not flatter the idle tastes of the woman to whom he speaks, either. He is like the writer who assumes his readers must admire him because of the integrity he knows is inside himself. Marianne Moore makes fun of this, but it is also something which the writer or suitor or reader must believe in order to go on.
In the situation at hand, then, the suitor continues his little lecture without seeming to be aware of the woman's mental state, which is, like his, one of lonely calculation. So he goes on talking to himself, unaware that he is on dangerous ground with respect to her and that there are chasms between them which his rhetoric barely crosses, "speaking/ in a formal customary strain" which has to do with customs that are a strain for both of them. We feel it is the woman in the poem—the mental Eve—who appreciates the wit of "everything convenient" in his talk of good and evil, heaven and hell. For her, joy is different than for him. It is from her point of view that his joy is mocked in the following passage:
In him a state of mind
perceives what it was not
intended that he should;
"he experiences a solemn joy
in seeing that he has become an idol."
Is this really what he sees or what he is made to think he sees by the "masked ball attitude" ("Nothing Will Cure . . .") in her, an attitude that is instinctive and self-destructive.
Marianne Moore abandons this particular irony for a different level of consciousness in this "Adam" in which his mental state is taken much more seriously; and it is, as are all the most emotionally charged insights of the poem, conveyed by image rather than by verbal wit or abstract rhetoric.
Plagued by the nightingale
in the new leaves,
with its silence—
not its silence but its silences,
he says of it:
"It clothes me with a shin of fire."
"He dares not clap his hands
to make it go on
lest it should fly off ;
if he does nothing, it will sleep;
if he cries out, it will not understand."
Efforts of affection are efforts of communication and this Everyman has chosen to appeal to a creature who, although she may be able to understand many languages simultaneously, cannot seem to understand or respond to his language. The situation is similar to one Moore presents in "Half-Diety," where a butterfly, conscious that a "nymph" is pursuing it, proves to be inaccessible to her efforts of affection toward it; the butterfly is "indifferent to her. Deaf to ap-/ proval." The nightingale is, like the butterfly, or the unicorn, a creature of "miraculous elusiveness" ("Sea Unicorns . . .") ; it is hidden and silent where visible and affirmative responsibleness is most fervently desired of it. The pursuer of this elusive creature knows that it will be frightened by too obvious a gesture, yet will ignore him if he makes no gesture at all.
Later in "Marriage" the man is described as an "orator," master of rhetoric, skillful but of questionable sincerity; there is no real or personal communication between him and the lady he importunes. Whims and studied effects cannot compose themselves into a whole; perhaps "Marriage" is partly about the divorce of poetry and prose. Both bad poetry and bad prose, or whimsical arbitrariness and sterile rhetoric, are meant to appeal to the psychology of the auditor, as advertisement and cliché do. But calling the prospective or actual husband "orator" looks not just to the ironic scene of private argument or imprecation, but beyond that to the culminating figure of the poem, Daniel Webster, an orator who failed to make a "marriage" work between civil warriors. "Marriage" becomes more and more a poem about political America at the same time as it is a critique of the personal lives of Americans.
The man, despite his being on stage, an "orator," has deep feelings that lessen our possible contempt for him. The following presentation of "Adam" balances Eve's meditation on paradise quoted earlier.
Unnerved by the nightingale
and dazzled by the apple,
impelled by "the illusion of fire
effectual to extinguish fire,"
compared with which
the shining of the earth
is but a deformity—a fire
''as high as deep
as bright as broad
as long as life itself,"
he stumbles over marriage,
"a very trivial object indeed"
to have destroyed the attitude
in which he stood—
the ease of a philosopher
unfathered by a woman.
The vision of the nightingale—a creature of myth in its own right—and the apple, which in this context is the apple of dazzling and poisonous consciousness identified with Eve's accident, creates in the aspiring suitor the illusion of an eternal love, "compared with which/ the shining of the earth is but a deformity." It is the highest illusion possible; it defies the precision of a certain woman's freak multiple abilities, of the definitions of paradise as "crystal-fine experiment" and "interesting impossibility," and of the particularization of shades of white in the Persian miniature. It may be the highest possible illusion, but it is still only illusion. It is the shocking irrelevance, or perhaps it is relevance (the issues are so mixed on this level), of this image of desire, of "fire effectual to extinguish fire" that jolts the poem back to the relative clumsiness of wit and verbal precision. The suitor "stumbles" over the reality of marriage, over the realization that it is not a legalization of his affection for his own images of desire but legalization on an earthly plane, "a very trivial object indeed"; and somehow—he cannot understand how—this trivial object is able to destroy the ease of his imaginings and his narcissistic philosophy of eternals. His extravagant desire was "unfathered by a woman." She obviously can "father" nothing. He has fathered his vision himself, plagued by her uncanny silences.
Just as the "O thou/ to whom from whom,/ without whom nothing—Adam" was at the center of the "emerald mines/ raw silk—ivory white, snow white/ oyster white, and six others—/ that paddock full of leopards and giraffes," Adam is at the center of the ritual of marriage with its ferns, flowers, prickly pears, dromedaries, hippopotamus, crested bird-lizard, snake, and apple. The hippopotamus is described specifically as a huge mouth, a "magnificent hopper," and this is, perhaps, one of the most germane images in "Marriage"—the mouth that needs to be filled—with vows, with irony, but most important, with beauty and love. We have seen how Moore extends and retracts, extends and again retracts the feelings of her poem. She will envision a scene, be filled with it, and make us passive in looking at it (i.e., we do not act upon it intellectually, ask is this true, are giraffes "sown with trapezoids of blue"?); she will then turn against this instinct for beauty and mock it with words that require from us, as well as from her, an active intellectual evaluation.
In the following passage from "Marriage" the Manikin edition is used because it contains lines, indicated by brackets, that the other editions do not possess and that in my reading of the poem are significant. (One might speculate that they were taken out because their private significance was greater than their artistic contribution to the poem; but one can contend, too, that they are poetically justified.)
["When do we feed?"]
We Occidentals are so unemotional,
[ we quarrel as we feed;
one's] self [love's labor] lost
the irony preserved
in "the Ahasuerus tête-à-tête banquet"
with its small orchids like snakes' tongues,
with its "good monster, lead the way,"
with little laughter
and munificence of humor
in which "four o'clock does not exist,
but at five o'clock
the ladies in their imperious humility
are ready to receive you";
in which experience attests
that men have power
and sometimes one is made to feel it.
"When do we feed?" is a slyly vulgar question at this point in the poem. It is a barbarian talking, surely, or a husband demanding service. The animal-monster and the prospective husband are not always separable, and the gratification of food is not always far from that of the marriage bed. It is a more jocular than affectionate communication, and it leads to the observations which follow, on the prearranged meetings of men and women over food. Dining, which could be an intimate and serious mutual occupation between husbands and wives, is called "feeding," is denied grace and communion. The "quarrel as we feed" is perhaps the only communication, and is engaged in for its own sake. The "quarrel as we feed" may also be a witty but not complicated slur against those whose tastelessness in love is brought to table; or it may be a quarrel with the food itself, fighting against what one knows one needs, as a poet may fight her own images.
The line "one's self love's labor lost," which is shortened in subsequent printings to "self lost," has, in its original willful ambiguity the tone of preoccupation with one's own language that Moore makes fun of in the language of the lovers throughout the poem. One's self is one's greatest labor of love, of course, and it is a labor in vain. There is no real love left, or no self, but there is irony, the irony of having unwittingly made one's efforts of affection in the wrong direction.
The "Ahasuerus tête-à-têtes banquet" is a reference to the story of Esther (chaps. 5-7) and the two banquets she prepares to give Haman his just desserts. Ironically, Haman feels himself to be specially favored by the royal attentions the first night, only to be hanged upon the second. The small orchids with snakes' tongues are Moore's own sinister decoration of the banquet table; we know her attitude toward feasting together and betrayal. Esther's story emphasizes the power a wife may have over her husband while he still retains the illusion of freedom. The quotation from The Tempest, "Good monster, lead the way," is associated with Esther's banquet by virtue of the scene in which it occurs. In this scene (Act 11, scene ii), it will be remembered, Stephano and Trinculo discover Caliban, get him good and drunk, and enlist his services in their scheme. Caliban, poor monster, under the influence of their spirits,. thinks mistakenly that he has found new freedom whereas he has merely found new bondage. "O brave monster, lead the way," ends the act, and the next act opens with a love scene between Ferdinand and Miranda wherein she offers to be his wife, or servant, however he is willing to take her—another example of bondage exchanged for a new bondage. The "monster" has led the way; feasting, drinking, loving, one must beware.
The feast is set "with little laughter/ and munificence of humor," much as the gems of warning are set into the poem "Marriage." We do not laugh at the ironies, but they have a "quixotic atmosphere of frankness" that makes us smile to ourselves as we imagine the civilized gentlemen and ladies at their tea. The ladies who serve it have "imperious humility" because they know the men have the real power and because they have learned in their own way how to manipulate it. Only sometimes is it felt. The whole passage beginning with the uncivilized "When do we feed?" and progressing through time and literature—from the Bible to Shakespeare to a dissertation on La The (by the Comtesse de Noailles)—attests to the fact that the obligation to satisfy one's own body and to serve another's are inseparable in life and ritualized by art.
In this passage, as in most of Moore's poems, the conscious fastidiousness of the rhetoric of the sequence and the unconscious fastidiousness of the motives behind it are equally thorough. The close association of the tête-à-tête banquet, the drunk monster, and the affectatious tea, is not unlike the "condensation" of dreamwork. Kenneth Burke, in "Freud and the Analysis of Poetry," argues that poetry uses such phenomena as "condensation" and "displacement" as dreams do, and that poetry is therefore susceptible to the kind of analysis that is applied to dreams. "In so far as art contains a surrealist ingredient (and all art contains some of this ingredient), psychoanalytic coordinates are required to explain the logic of its structure." The "psychoanalytic coordinates" of the passage just discussed, and perhaps of the whole poem "Marriage," would seem to be on one hand the desire to be satisfied, to be "fed" and treated royally, as if one had power; on the other hand, we have the coordinate of fear of betrayal, enslavement, and physical injury to which any intimacy with another human being makes one vulnerable. It is summed up in "the spiked hand/ that has an affection for one/ and proves it to the bone." The "displacement" of this desire and this fear is, as is characteristic in Moore's poetry, raised to the level of art—the Old Testament, the Elizabethan play, and the western tea ceremony—and to the level of occasions where people get especially dressed up and speak in carefully calculated phrases which invariably mean something other than they seem to mean. Sublime sublimation.
Next we overhear a debate between a "he" and a "she" which shows superlative lack of mutual understanding.
He says, "What monarch would not blush
to have a wife
with hair like a shaving brush?"
The fact of woman
is "not the sound of the flute
but very poison."
In other words, if she must be at all, she must be beautiful; but it would be even better if she were invisible and inaudible. This little speech shows Moore characteristically using negatives to introduce associations as extraordinary as possibilities. If she is not getting ready to symbolically castrate him with her shaving-brush hair, she will poison him with her decidedly unflute-like assaults on silence. What he would like is something sublime and artistic, not physically embarrassing and humanly noisy.
She answers his rebuke with one of her own:
"Men are monopolists
of 'stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles'—
unfit to be the guardians
of another person's happiness."
This observation, Moore's notes tell us, is taken from a Mount Holyoke Founder's Day address (1921) in which Miss M. Carey Thomas goes on to say that these "baubles" are "so valueless in themselves and yet so infinitely desirable because they are symbols of recognition by their fellow-craftsmen of difficult work well done." This does not seem to convey the insult intended by Moore's woman's statement. The Holyoke address, furthermore, reads, "men practically reserve for themselves," not "men are monopolists of," the latter being much more definitely denunciatory. Moore is outdoing her sister feminist as well as paying tribute to her.
"He" is allowed to rally, though, with a stranger insult than he has received :
He says, "These mummies
must be handled carefully—
'the crumbs from a lion's meal,
a couple of shins and the bit of an ear';
turn to the letter M
and you will find
that 'a wife is a coffin,'
that severe object
with the pleasing geometry
stipulating space not people,
refusing to be buried
and uniquely disappointing,
revengefully wrought in the attitude
of an adoring child
to a distinguished parent."
The physicality, and it is not a sheer but a dense one, of his perceptions of woman is meant to be appalling. These "mummies" are delicate, for they exist only as the leftovers of a lion's meal. The quotation is from the book of Amos (III, 12): "Thus saith the Lord; As the shepherd taketh out of the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear; so shall the children of Israel be taken out that dwell in Samaria in the corner of a bed, and in Damascus in a couch." Now what makes Moore think of this particular verse of Amos in connection with marriage? The passage in Amos has nothing in it about marriage, but it is about punishment for transgression, the punishment being to be all but eaten by the metaphorical lion of Assyria. The remains from the lion's meal are moral remains, and they must be retrieved from the beds and couches of the Samarians. One commentator on the Bible suggests that the morally despoiled people are found in the corners of beds because they have grown to love the evil luxury of soft cushions; another suggests that they are there out of cowardice, hiding with only legs and perhaps an ear showing. In the context of Moore's poem we think of the marriage bed, of course, but this is not the sort of bed anybody thinks Amos had in mind—except her.
What is the speaker's interest in "mummies?" Is he simply talking to himself about some archeological interest apart from women, or is he suggesting that these "mummies"—mothers?—are like the horribly evil remains of women after the "lion" has satisfied himself? Can we see in the lion a continuance of the animal and monster imagery in the rest of the poem? This would be to see him as the pursuing lover. Can we connect the "meal" with the other references in the poem to feeding? "But questioning is the mark/ / of a pest!" ("For February 14th"), and these may be too monstrously leading.
If the lion's meal is not enough to convince us that we are on dangerous ground when debating marriage, we can "turn to the letter M"—for Marriage, Murderousness, Moore?—and find Ezra Pound's claim that "a wife is a coffin." She is, in fact, less than two shins and an ear; she is an "object," a "geometry," a "space" unaccommodating of living people. You would like to bury her like a coffin, but unfortunately she is only like one, and in reality is a dependent object "wrought in the attitude of an adoring child." The remains of passionate wickedness, the helplessness of a child—what compliment can the "she" of the debate return?
She says, "This butterfly,
this waterfly, this nomad
that has 'proposed
to settle on my hand for life'—
What can one do with it?
There must have been more time
in Shakespeare's day
to sit and watch a play.
You know so many artists who are fools."
There is "munificence of humor" in this transition, and considerable irony. He speaks of lion 's hunger, and death, and ponderous object-worship, with allusion to punishment by an angry God, and she comes back at him with butterflies and waterflies, nomadic and undependable creatures.
The lady is obviously flustered. She is almost muttering to herself when she says "What can one do with it?" "It," not "him"; he is an object to her as she is an object—no more—to him. She goes on to speculate on what two people can do together. Go to a play? One can only guess why she thinks there was more time in Shakespeare's day. Perhaps she believes that if one did have time one would find out enough about the trials of love not to want to try it out oneself. Or that one would find out enough about writing plays to be more than just a foolish artist. It does not matter much; she may be stalling for time, filling her part of the conversation with whatever occurs to her, as if she were free-associating. It is practically her last freedom.
When the lady criticizes the proposing or imposing gentleman for having so many foolish artist friends, he immediately retorts that she has foolish friends who are not even artists. I suspect this is one of the "statements which took Moore's fancy" that is inserted into the poem merely for the delight of it. We may think of it as an overheard and remembered conversation. Here ends the "debate,"
The fact forgot
that "some have merely rights
while some have obligations,"
he loves himself so much,
he can permit himself
no rival in that love.
He cannot let anyone love him more than he himself does, but it doesn't matter, because she feels the same way about herself: "she loves herself so much,/ she cannot see herself enough—." "She" sees herself as an object in a household of objects,
a statuette of ivory on ivory,
the logical last touch
to an expansive splendor
earned as wages for work done.
She believes she deserves this fate, and she does. Moore caps this little aside on the utter barrenness of narcissistic enchantment with a moral: "one is not rich but poor/ when one can seem so right." One that does not question one's position has no way into the meaning of the myth. These people are poor in their self-satisfied segregation from each other. The "vermin-proof and pilfer-proof integration/ in which unself-righteousness humbles inspection" that Moore indicates would be welcome in "Efforts of Affection" would be welcome here.
A Striking Grasp of Opposites
What can one do for them—
condemned to disaffect
all those who are not visionaries
alert to undertake the silly task
of making people noble?
Lovers are "savages" in Marianne Moore's book because of their primitive self-interest. The "savage" asks, "When do we feed?" and, as we see in the poem "Marriage," this savage sentiment is only thinly disguised by such civilized ceremonies as tea at five o'clock precisely. We recall that Moore has said first of all in the poem "New York" that it is "the savage's romance." The city is the center of the fur trade, commerce, excessive materialism, and has a "dime-novel exterior" which she imagines as portraying "Niagara Falls, the calico horses and the war canoe"—in other words, honeymoon sentimentality, animal-wildness, and battle. Not that she objects to these things unequivocally, but she does make fun of all of them as they are related to "Marriage." In the end, "New York" is seen as important not for all these qualities but for "accessibility to experience." This is also one importance of courtship and marriage and all thought about these, but does not make them any less a "savage's romance."
The "savages" must inevitably alienate all those who see the world plainly and unenchantedly, "all those who are not visionaries." "Visionaries" is an extravagant word here and, I think, meant to strike us as funny and impossible—like "Marriage"—impossible that a "visionary" would want to undertake the task of making ordinary and narcissistic people into noble and true lovers, to go so far as to see them as Adam and Eve. The only "visionaries" who would undertake it are the politicians, like the Daniel Webster of dubious morals with whom "Marriage" will end, or those visionaries who make up the "mechanical advertising" that sells Bride magazine and home insurance, and we know what their visions are. But Moore's "Marriage" is an American poem about American-style marriages, and we have been blessed with many visions of low nobility. There is another breed of visionaries however—visionaries in the sense that Moore might be said to be one—those who see the "rock crystal thing", or at least know that it is there to see. These will not be alert to the "silly task." They will produce instead the witty commentary called "Marriage" and save vision for the pangolin or plumet basilisk.
Up to this point the poem "Marriage" has been about the uncomfortable preliminaries, the initial attractions, self-interested courtship, and mutual abominations. We skip the marriage ceremony itself and come next upon a glimpse of the couple after they have been married a while:
This model of petrine fidelity
who "leaves her peaceful husband
only because she has seen enough of him"—
that orator reminding you
"I am yours to command."
The words which describe this "model" wife are, Moore's notes tell us, taken from an advertisement in the English Review of June, 1914 (actually the English Review Advertising Supplement), for new Paris fashions. The advertisement is mostly descriptive of new tissues and colors and shapes of bodices and other "elegancies," except for Madame Puget's one indulgent condescension to women of bad taste, and it is revealing of Marianne Moore that she was enough struck to enshrine this piece of prose in a poem fashioned eight or nine years after.
Now everything has changed, without any other reason than "for change." Thus proceed pretty dolls when they leave their old home to "renovate their frame," and dear others who may abandon their peaceful husband only because they saw enough of him. The worst is that the alteration is far to be a success. The elegant of 1914 are actually hoisting a few horrid imaginations that one must declare, and try to ruin under the weight of their own ridicule. It is first the coiffure in the shape of a pumpkin which uncovers foreheads and lengthens occiputs. The "Simple Simon" collar with its absurd long points. The flounces and different engines which play an anker's effect round the middle of the body. And then the awful evident little drawers.
Clearly Marianne Moore fancied this sort of "advertisement" with as much enthusiasm as she felt for the need to ridicule such things. This double feeling—curiosity and fantasy about the richness of a fallen world and simultaneous disdain—corresponds with her feelings toward marriage itself and toward her own poem about it. On one level, she regards courtship as no better than a "mechanical advertising" of the self. In "Armor's Undermining Modesty" she quotes an advertisement put out by a publishing firm which seems ambivalent in its intent to mock. In "The Arctic Ox" she says, in a lighter vein, "If you fear that you are/ reading an advertisement,/ you are." Neither women nor strong native attitudes of any son can make true and workable marriages of different styles—that of freedom and bondage, New York and Paris, evident underpants and modesty—with mere rhetorical rufflings. Poems, which are also a kind of advertising of the self, cannot do it either. The point is that advertisement, the often deceptive rhetoric of change, is central to affectation as well as to affection, meaning to stir and invent no more than the illusion of affection.
Moore is both in and out of sympathy with Noras who slam the door. If they had not lei themselves be so easily carried over the threshold in the first place such scenes might be avoided altogether. Fashion and marriage along with most social attitudes are centrally pretense; they are awful-ly attractive. Awe-fully. "Certain white crapes embroidered with coloured cotton wool," remarks Madame Puget in the same article from which Moore quotes, "are fascinating when they are new, but the effect is deceitful after washing." Moore is constantly aware of this danger of "style" and may not always be able to avoid it herself, despite the "criminal ingenuity" that at the beginning of the poem "Marriage" she attributes to both social impostures and means of avoiding them (poetry being one of the latter).
One sees that it is rare—
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity,
which in cycloid inclusiveness
has dwarfed the demonstration
of Columbus with the egg—
a triumph of simplicity—.
"That striking grasp of opposites" is a concisely humorous way to de- scribe the relationship of Moore's model marriageables—her Adam and Eve, her poetry and prosy rhetoric, her ideas of freedom and bondage, her own feelings and the things she "quotes." All are striking out at each other in the poem "Marriage" as well as striking us. "Striking" is associable with aggressiveness and attractiveness both, as is the "spiked hand/ that has an affection for one" that occurs earlier in the poem. And the "grasp" may be one of affection, or bondage, or abstract understanding. And the "opposites"—well, they are, both abstractly and particularly, "opposed each to the other, not to unity," which is to say they are, and they aren't. They tend most strongly, though, to the protection of abstraction, the first abstract view of "Marriage" as "this institution/ perhaps one should say enterprise."
This unity in its "cycloid inclusiveness" makes other explorations, other "sciences," look insignificant. Columbus, when challenged to make an egg stand on end, realized he had to break the shell, and sacrifice wholeness to do so. To Moore's way of thinking, making a marriage stand solidly also requires sacrifice, and to a much more complicated degree. The poem itself stands on broken ends, for to pretend that anyone perception about her subject could be perfectly conceived as an egg would be less than honest. Columbus is also invoked because of his discovery of America, and if we see this as a poem that comes to be about America as well (the "integration" of North and South), we see that Moore is comparing Columbus' discovery in its relative insignificance to the discovery of a first love, each leading in its own way to the quarrels of compromise, and of settling in. "Marriage" shows us the New World with all its paradisal illusions unveiled, its unnoble savages having tea at five o'clock and calculating spoils, its bickering Adams and Eves submitting to each other's serpentine logic.
In Moore's anti-epic, Columbus' important discovery was not of the roundness of the world, but discovery of a joke with cynical implications, the discovery of gravity, and of "uniting strength with levity" ("The Frigate Pelican"). Moore breaks the myth of "Marriage" to make it stand up; it is done with style and an air of innocence, acquisitiveness and wit, a willingness to sacrifice meaning without sacrificing moments of accuracy.
that charitive Euroclydon
of frightening disinterestedness
which the world hates,
"I am such a cow,
if I had a sorrow
I should feel it a long time;
I am not one of those
who have a great sorrow
in the morning
and a great joy at noon."
"That charitive Euroclydon" is identified syntactically with "that striking grasp of opposites"; it is another metaphor for love that is rare, that has both destructive and constructive qualities. Euroclydon is the name given to a tempestuous wind, which in Acts 27 threatens the lives of Paul and other prisoners as they sail near Crete. An angel of God comes to Paul and explains that the men will be saved but the ship will be wrecked, the connection with "Marriage" being, one must suppose, that the tempestuous wind, like love and wars fought for love, is both charitive and dangerous. The wind, like a tempestuous emotion, has a "frightening disinterestedness" or may seem to by virtue of its blindness; the world hates this wind because it is a force which cannot be controlled with human reason. The allusion to storm and shipwreck is not surprising in connection with what Moore feels to be dangerous and attractive—we may see the image invoked by her to represent unconscious emotion in many different poems. Again, if this poem is "the vestibule to experience" of an American "epic" and we are approaching civil war, the "charitive Euroclydon" is the wind that will wreck the ship of state.
This rare thing, this love of unified opposites and storm of simultaneous charitiveness and disinterestedness must be hated by a world that cannot accept paradox. It must see marriage, or any other enterprise, as either bountifully good or bountifully bad. This world, which cannot accept the simultaneity of joy and sorrow, of freedom and slavery, admits, "I am not one of those/ who have a great sorrow/ in the morning/ and a great joy at noon";
which says: "I have encountered it
among those unpretentious
protégés of wisdom,
where seeming to parade
as the debater and the Roman,
of an archaic Daniel Webster
persists to their simplicity of temper
as the essence of the matter:
'Liberty and union
now and forever';
the Book on the writing table;
the hand in the breast pocket."
The war is over, but the rhetoric and the sorrow persist. The "statesmanship" of a Daniel Webster, as far as the simple masses of Americans are concerned, is the essence of the wise democracy that spawned and protects them. He is part of our tradition. The essence of Webster's statesmanship was, however, less than a moral success. Moore uses the word parade at one other point in the poem, also placing it strikingly, where "mechanical advertising" is seen "parading as involuntary comment." Devious rhetoric is an American tradition. Daniel Webster had complete mastery of the rhetoric of resistance and secession; he had celebrity; he had plenty of money and plenty of power. He said, as if it came as naturally as leaves to the trees, "Liberty and union, now and forever," and died. His statue remains, and the sorrow of disunion remains, in this peace of art.
The cowlike world admits its unrelieved state of unhappiness, admitting it is not in its nature to change from sorrow to joy. Neither divorce nor civil war will bring instant cure to a family or country whose union was brought about in the first place through selfish verbal manipulation. Is there, somewhere behind this confession of the "world," the sentiment that worldly things and a heavy, cowlike existence are inextricably bound to long sorrow and that joy is to be reserved for some unearthly place, not the noon of everyday, but the Noon that Emily Dickinson sees as Heaven? The poem "Marriage" is permeated with the wickedness of mundane aspirations, the most thoroughly pessimistic work Marianne Moore ever produced for public consumption. It admits the attractiveness of earthly affection, of the idea of love, of the possibility of a new world, a paradise that "works," but love is damned in every instance by false affection, by affectation and insincere speeches, by the "savage's romance." Marianne Moore does not say that there is another kind of love in this poem, unless it is love of art; but the earthliness, the "faulty excellence" of this love too is undercut, here as in other poems of hers.
"Marriage" appeared in 1923, one year after T. S. Eliot had shown the literary world what could be done with a fragmented experience in The Waste Land. An extraordinarily long poem for Marianne Moore to have written, running to ten pages in the Complete Poems, it was first brought out by the Manikin Press in London (was it thought to be unacceptable in America?) as a book in itself. "Marriage" is seldom, if ever, mentioned in connection with what have come to be known as the standard long poems or neo-epics of the present century, including The Waste Land, the Cantos, certain long poems of Stevens, Crane's The Bridge, and Williams' Paterson. Though Marianne Moore's "Marriage" is not as flamboyant as some of them, not perhaps as painstakingly conceived (though one may have doubts about this), or as successful, it shares with these poems certain origins in late nineteenth-century (French) and twentieth-century poetic speculations, and certain "originalities"—disjunctiveness, obscurity, implied criticisms and cynicism about modern society, a free combination of poetic styles. The relations these poems bear to each other and to literary and social traditions are expressed not by logical or continuous argument, but by glancing allusions and sly parataxis. It is helpful to think of Moore's "Marriage" in relation to these poems, as an experiment partly influenced by other experiments in poetry and partly by the social and literaryZeitgeist that influenced them all. She refers both to marriage and to Adam's mishap as "experiments," and almost certainly she considered her poem as a similar consciousness-expanding experiment. Experimenting is, after all, something one does when one is not satisfied with the way things are and wants to find something better; an experiment is also often a bid for power, whether it occurs in Eden or in a fallen world.
"Marriage" may be seen as a woman's bid for power in a man's world, or a poet's bid for power in a prosaic world. Yet "Marriage" was never acclaimed as the men's experiments were. It was perhaps felt too strongly that a woman could not propose it. When she did, there was an embarrassing silence. Somebody blushed to imagine "a wife/ with hair like a shaving brush." Years later T. S. Eliot chose to admire "The Jerboa." Marianne Moore is best known for her elegant and eccentric descriptions of harmless animals. Her passion was for baseball. No one until lately has thought of her in connection with marriage. But enough of that.
All the long poems produced in and about America in the modern period, in addition to what they were trying to "say" about the state of the external world, say something also about highly personal states of being. Their very "original" confusions and inturnings of sense seem somehow purposeful and necessary to the poets' own lives as well as to the poets' observations upon the disorder of the human community. The institution of marriage, certainly, is as flexible an image for the joining of disparate elements, in self or society or both, as is the bridge, the growth of a city-man, a general quest in a wasted land, the journey of a comic Crispin or blue guitarist. The concept of "marriage" is as abstract as the basic concepts of any of these. The poem "Marriage," proposes, as the other long poems do, to investigate rather abstractly, through all its imagistic and rhetorical particulars, the possibility of joining, of making sense of bits and scraps of experience—a past there, a present here, and so forth. These go forth to some implied future and have no small pretensions to a kind of prophecy. Whether it is the clairvoyance of a Madame Sosostris, the babble of the falls in Paterson that contains history and prefigures the future, or the statue of the failed statesman at the end of "Marriage," all look to some difficult future, some further fall of man which, like past falls, may not be without its rewards (mainly for sensibility, one suspects), but which is somehow without epic, or even true or traditional poetic dignity.
So, after the long-range ineffectiveness of everything, what is left? "The statesmanship/ of an archaic Daniel Webster" seems to be all. The victim of lingering sorrow in Moore's poem says, "I have encountered it." Love? The grasp of opposites? The birth of a nation? The God-exploited storm? The sorrowful world has encountered a language of "cycloid inclusiveness," as the sorrowful poet has, which can transform hopeless complexity into simple statements, a language that can arrange marriages between entities that are as fundamentally opposed as North and South. The summary: "Liberty and union/ now and forever." Liberty is not union and now is not forever, but one can say it; it sounds nice and people want to believe it, and they do. They even say "I do." Marianne Moore, a Secretary of State in her own right, as Daniel Webster was in his, finds this remarkable, and the poem "Marriage" may be regarded as her series of remarks on this very peculiarity of language, its ability to persuade.
I find the last two lines of "Marriage" devastating in their anticlimactic oddness and complacency: "the Book on the writing table;/ the hand in the breast pocket." After all that! After a poem of such strange complexity, after all the wit and the rich allusiveness and elusiveness of style, we are left with a cold statue, paralyzed. The Book on the writing table is naturally the Bible. That must be all that is left if the world has failed one utterly: hypocrisy and self-satisfaction punished, heaven promised. The hand in the breast pocket is not the hand given in "Marriage," or, if it is, it has been retracted to the self in a stiff pose, for the sake of an image really. And what is in the breast pocket that the hand should go after it? Is it love, or money? If "Marriage" is to be seen ultimately as an act of statesmanship, a record of articulate language and worldly calculation, which is worth its while whether it works or not, this, I suppose, is a good way to end.
Excerpted from a longer essay in Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Copyright © 1977 by Syracuse UP. Reprinted with the author's permission.
|Title||Pamela White Hadas: On "Marriage"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Pamela White Hadas||Criticism Target||Marianne Moore|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||26 Oct 2015|
|Publication Status||Original Criticism||Publication||No Data|
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