Published in 1923, just a year after the appearance of Ulysses and The Waste Land, Marianne Moore's "Marriage" is a landmark of High Modernism and one of her most ambitious and important works. "Marriage" is a long, complicated collage of statements and quotations regarding the institution of marriage and its problems as well as a critical exploration of gender roles and the relations between men and women. This remarkable masterpiece stands apart from the rest of Moore's work for several reasons: it is her longest and one of her most difficult, experimental works; it is perhaps her most openly feminist poem in its critique of marriage and patriarchy; and with its contradictory attitudes, it is also among her most ambivalent and complex. Critics have argued that the persona that accrued around Moore-the reserved, prim, asexual spinster writer of elegant and moralistic poems-has often obscured the radical energy of her poetry, perhaps best exemplified by this aesthetically and politically subversive poem. In an important essay Moore's friend William Carlos Williams astutely highlighted the poem's kaleidoscopic quality, praising its "rapidity of movement" and calling the poem an "anthology of transit" (Tomlinson, 1969). "There is nothing missing," Williams avowed, "but the connectives." With jts jagged discontinuities, sustained indeterminacy, and its iconoclasm, "Marriage" is a classic and influential Modernist poem.
It may seem strange that Moore, who never married, lived most of her life with her mother, and was famously reticent about her personal life, would write a highly regarded poem about marriage and gender dynamics, but in actuality Moore was extremely interested in and troubled by the subject. Keenly aware of the overwhelming societal pressure to marry, especially for young women like herself, Moore remained skeptical of sacrificing her fiercely held independence to any permanent union. She feared that marriage artificially binds two complex, changing, and often incompatible beings into a false and impossible unity. Furthermore, because of the power dynamics in a patriarchal society, Moore felt that such a bond can severely constrain a woman's potential, particularly if the woman is a free thinking, creative artist.
Critics have noted that several crucial events in Moore's life caused the subject of matrimony to be personally vexing to her and helped spark the composition of "Marriage." First, her brother married against their mother's wishes, which unsettled the extremely close-knit family; second, it was rumored that Scofield Thayer, the editor of the literary journal The Dial, courted and proposed to Moore only to be rejected; and finally, there was the sudden, shocking marriage of her close friend, the writer and wealthy heiress Bryher (Winifred Ellerman). Much to the surprise of the New York avant-garde, Bryher, who was the lover of Moore's dear friend, the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), married the struggling bohemian writer Robert McAlmon in 1921. Suspicious of McAlmon's intentions and the marriage'S seriousness, fearful of its impact on her friend's creativity and freedom, Moore was utterly baffled by the entire situation, which she called "an earthquake," wondering why her friend would submit to an arrangement so threatening to her writing and her liberty (Stapleton, 1978).
The strong emotions and philosophical and cultural questions provoked by these events stimulated Moore's poem. Early in 1922 she began the long process of composing this poem in her notebook by jotting under the heading "Marriage": "I don't know what Adam and Eve think of it by this time / I don't think much of it" (Keller and Miller, 1987). Although the finished poem, which appeared as a chapbook in 1923, refers to marriage as something "requiring all one's criminal ingenuity / to avoid!" it is far from resolved in its attitudes about the matter. In fact, with its shifting viewpoints and contradictions, the poem is a study of uncertainty and ambivalence, as it carries on a protracted internal argument. Rather than giving any definitive answer about marriage, Moore explores this strange phenomenon from a dizzying variety of perspectives, fully aware that no single or simple explanation can accommodate something so complex: "Psychology which explains everything," she writes near the beginning, "explains nothing, / and we are still in doubt." Indeed, the pervasive enigma of romantic relationships and marriage is a major theme of the poem, and the final movement begins with the acknowledgment that '''Everything to do with love is mystery.'"
From the beginning "this institution, / perhaps one should say enterprise," is both celebrated-"this fire-gilt steel / alive with goldenness; how bright it shows" -and critiqued:
a kind of overgrown cupid
reduced to insignificance
by the mechanical advertising
parading as involuntary comment.
Moore presents marriage as an intractable paradox: "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility" is alternately a situation in which two people who wish to be alone decide to "'be alone together,'" a "'strange paradise,'" "'a very trivial object indeed,'" and a "rare ... striking grasp of opposites."
Moore qui,ckly introduces two opposed archetypal beings, Eve and Adam, who dominate the poem and serve as vehicles for her ironic commentary on the battle of the sexes. Both are portrayed with a mixthre of positive and negative terms: they are beautiful yet flawed, "alive with words" yet thoroughly narcissistic. At the center of the poem is a heated dialogue between this generic "He" and "She," a vicious conversation that highlights the strife between the genders, in which Moore clearly critiques male domination and misogyny:
She says, "Men are monopolists
of 'stars, garters, buttons
and other shining baubles--
unfit to be the guardians
of another person's happiness.'
He says, ... 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.
Despite the irresolution and multiplicity of the poem, at its heart lies Moore's qnderstated yet chilling observation that
that men have power
and sometimes one is made to feel it.
This capacious, challenging poem erupted out of Moore's turbulent attitudes about the conflict between "liberty" and "union" and the seemingly irreconcilable nature of independence and marriage. Innovative in its use of collage and ellipsis, ground breaking in its feminist cultural critique and its inclusion of so many perspectives and types of discourse, "Marriage" surely stands among the masterpieces of 20th-century American poetry.
Bergman, David, "Marianne Moore and the Problem of 'Marriage,''' American Literature 60, no. 2 (1988).
Heuving, Jeanne, Omissions Are Not Accidents: Gender in the Art of Marianne Moore, Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1992.
Holley, Margaret, The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Joyce, Elizabeth W., "The Collage of 'Marriage': Marianne Moore's Formal and Cultural Critique," Mosaic 26, no. 4 (1993).
Keller, Lynn, and Cristanne Miller, "'The Tooth of Disputation': Marianne Moore's 'Marriage,'" Sagetrieb 6, no. 3 (1987).
Martin, Taffy, Marianne Moore, Subversive Modernist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Miller, Cristanne, Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Molesworth, Charles, Marianne Moore: A Literary Life, New York: Atheneum, 1990.
Parisi, Joseph, editor, Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1990.
Stapleton, Laurence, Marianne Moore: The Poet's Advance, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978; 2nd printing with corrections, 1978.
Tomlinson, Charles, editor, Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969.
From Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. Ed. Eric Haralson. Routledge, 2001. Reprinted with Author's Permission.
The belief that ‘one is a woman’ is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that ‘one is a man’.
And there is one final, and ‘magnificent’ compliment: Miss Moore’s poetry is as ‘feminine’ as Christina Rossetti’s, one never forgets that it is written by a woman; but with both one never thinks of this particularity as anything but a positive virtue.
T.S. Eliot’s discovery of the ‘positive virtue’ in Marianne Moore’s poetry is at best cryptic, at worst patronising. Why enclose ‘magnificent’ and ‘feminine’ within quotations? What are the constant reminders which define the poetry as written by a woman? Eliot’s avuncular appreciation subverts and trivialises ‘feminine’ —female — poetry while marking its difference. The distinctions Eliot finds, the ‘particularity’ — one almost reads ‘peculiarity’ — open a reading of Moore’s poems which assert her difference from the tradition in which Eliot had ensconced himself with The Waste Land, published only the year before Moore’s longest poem, ‘Marriage’.
Those shored fragments in Eliot’s poem, propping the ruins of a blasted literary inheritance, adumbrate the multifarious quotations in ‘Marriage’. Moore’s poetic contraption is disparate and eclectic, an array of linguistic pieces, not shored but careening off one another. Syntactically tortuous, ‘Marriage’ almost defies reading, although Moore provided ‘Notes’, ostensibly to guide the reader through the dense jungle of citations and tangled locutions. Unlike Moore’s earlier syllabic poems, ‘Marriage’ is not anchored to a visual or aural pattern. In fact, those neat patterns which characterise ‘The Fish’ or ‘To a Prize Bird’ are exploded in this ‘colloquy’. While considering the predominant cultural institution, ‘Marriage’ talks and talks. It is Moore’s longest, and most loquacious, poem.
The voices in the poem play with the public/private dichotomy represented by sentimental (especially Victorian) notions of marriage as refuge. Traditional images construct marriage as a private retreat, a locus of respite for the world-weary husband. They posit a (culturally sanctioned) heterosexual union as the venue for revelations of the ‘real’ personality, the (male) identity not encumbered by public ‘self-fashioning’. Although the field and space tropes in Moore’s poem mark marriage as some kind of locus, they do not emblematise a haven where male desires are fulfilled. Rather, the spaces represent the emptiness which characterise a wife’s allotment in the arrangement. Moore’s carefully constructed versions of male and female domains, however, are not stable. They point up the difficulties either sex encounters in attempting to delineate a space that can define identity.
The discourse of ‘Marriage’ is not confined to a male/female dialogue. Indeed, dialogue may be as inappropriate a term for the discursive adventures of the poem as ‘narrative’ or ‘lyric’. The interplay of direct quotation and Moore’s own ground — the unattributed language — juxtapose assumptions about gender roles, sexual identity, and the manipulation of the power inherent in writing. Moore subverts the dialectic of marriage by inserting several voices. A cacophony of sexual rejoinders, tired platitudes, and angry accusations paradoxically generate a sense of emptiness, silences threaten domestic tranquility. Reading ‘Marriage’ in the shadow of Eliot’s fragments, one finds that Moore’s peculiarity derives from her refusal to shore up any of the conventional, sentimentalised beliefs investing marriage or gender roles. Instead, she assembles a poem whose construction both denies a haven and reveals the ruinous assumptions at the heart of this central institution of heterosexual relations.
Moore’s elaborate poetic apparatus plays with the inside/ outside, public/private device of notes. As with many of Moore’s notes, the heuristic devices that accompany ‘Marriage’ are as obfuscatory as illuminating. Moore offers them as ‘Statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly’. Apparently random citations follow each other, strange bedfellows in this baffling arrangement. ‘Everything to do with love is a mystery’ according to ‘F. C. Tilney’ (272), and a reader may well assume that mystery is the basis of ‘Marriage’. The play of voices, the direct discourse of ‘he said/she said’ and the marginalised notes subvert any one-to-one correspondence which romantics, literary and sexual, seek to perpetuate as models for the relationships between people and between words. The binary model, whether male / female, signifier / signified, connotation / denotation, or symbol / reality disintegrates (if indeed it ever existed) under the persistent pressure of an exorbitant clamour.
‘Marriage’ counters the implicit critical hegemony of a male Modernist poetic according to Pound or Eliot. That is, in Moore’s 1923 milieu, poetic authority remains vested in the mandarins of Modernism: they make the rules, they interpret the texts, they theorise, they talk about the writing. Men, then, are the speaking subjects of modernism (although not always the publishers). Or at least they try to be. Dominating the critical discourse, Pound and Eliot ‘make’ modernism with their responses to the tradition erected by previous spokesmen of Western literary culture. ‘Marriage’ also addresses this model of the speaking man, whose presence asserts power, the power of representation. Moore’s position in the early Modernist movement is a priori suspicious because she cannot inherit the mantle of the spokesman.
Her experience as a relatively poor, unmarried woman who writes for a living informs ‘Marriage’’s convoluted presentation of relationships. Moore’s own negotiations with the culture are quite evidently grounded in her otherness As Jeanne Kammer states:
The situation is complicated for the woman poet by a cultural hierarchy of vocal strength: the male voice carries more ‘universal’ authority than the female. In diaphoric poetry, where (as [Hugh] Kenner points out in Moore) the voice is not the universal ‘we’ of bard of orator, but an individual quality as distinctly other as the objects of experience it describes, the sex of the sayer is unimportant: male and female speech has equal validity.
I agree with Kammer’s estimation of the cultural authority of the male voice, and I concur in her reading of the female ‘we’ as distinct from the universal ‘we’ of oratory (‘We the [white, male, propertied] people’). However, Kammer constructs a gendered episteme which I think ‘Marriage’ destabilises. That is, she sees diaphoric forms — juxtaposition without connectives — as the rhetoric of contraction and, ultimately, female identity. Thus, for Kammer, T. S Eliot’s use of diaphor differs from Emily Dickinson’s in this manner:
The effect of ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ is of an accumulation of images and archetypal associations which together suggest a condition of the collective modern temper; the effect of ‘After Great Pain’ is of a group of images and associations gathered in to a singular, interior nerve center.
Both versions offer an identity, one collective and ‘archetypal’, the other ‘singular’. This identity, gathered and generated by a speaking subject, is exactly what ‘Marriage’ defers and, I think, finally repudiates. The idea of one generative voice, ordering and arranging, is abandoned. In the face of traditional male authority, Moore pieces together an allegory of the impossibility of identity, of a writing ‘presence’ in the poem. There can be no one authoritative writing subject, just as no ‘one’ is a ‘woman’. Subjectivity, in its sense as a personal, individualised expression of the artist, cannot be rendered in a world where ‘the strange experience of beauty / tears one to pieces’ (37—39).
As I have said, ‘Marriage’ defies reading. By this I mean it is an example of that ‘incomprehensible’ poetry to which Julia Kristeva refers in Revolution in Poetic Language. This kind of language calls attention to itself as a process of signifying rather than as a product (signification) For Kristeva, marginalised systems reveal a methodology of meaning.
Magic, shamanism, esoterism, the carnival and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structure.
Accordingly, ‘Marriage’ may be read as a revelatory moment in the history of Modernism. The repressions implicit in Eliot’s Modernism — not the least of which is the constitution of the subject as white, Western, and male — surface in Moore’s poem. An encounter with ‘Marriage’ compels the reader to negotiate a series of subjects, none of which can be consistently identified. Even the familiar signs ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ disintegrate under the pressures of an intricate syntactical and graphic apparatus. ‘Marriage’ presumes no one authoritative voice, no one ordering provenance that generates the poem.
Syntactical intricacies combine with quotation and ‘quotation’ to assemble a kaleidoscopic text. Even the term ‘kaleidoscopic’ cannot adequately describe the flux of the text, because it assumes a single focus for the reader, and the discontinuities and juxtapositions which form the poem push the reader into various parallactic movements, adjusting his or her interpretive positioning with each shifting fragment of quotation or phrase. Quotations and their ‘contextualizing’ ‘Notes’ seem less to explain than to complicate.
Turning to the ‘Notes’ provides no relief from the baffling accumulation of citations. Rather, the ‘Notes’ appear to be a random sampling of Marianne Moore’s eclectic reading tastes. And their status in relation to the poem proper is never quite articulated. Quotation functions as predominant rhetorical strategy within ‘Marriage’, although not every phrase enclosed within, quotation marks results in a note. Some ‘quotes’ derive from speaking subjects which only exist in the text of the poem, and, as such, the poem is itself a series of imaginary conversations (significantly not the Pateresque vehicles for the pronouncements of the Great Men of Letters). So, Adam appropriates not only Hazlitt’s words, but ‘quotes’ himself:
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’ (76—83)
‘[T]he speedy stream ... the wind’ is not attributed in the ‘Notes’. Adam invokes the past and then prophesies from it. Only Adam has the authority to quote himself. Eve’s speech throughout the poem is direct discourse, always prefaced by ‘She says’ or, in one case, a colon. Later, I will discuss the significance of oratory to a male stance. For now, I am arguing that the appearance of this ‘imaginary’ quotation undermines the authority of the actual notes. If the poem can quote itself, positing a prior ‘language’ from its speakers which can be recapitulated as readily as the language of different texts, then the poem refuses to mark any interiority/exteriority distinction. In deferring that distinction, ‘Marriage’ violates authorial sanctity: if the parameters of the poem itself are not defined, if there are no clear demarcations between the poet’s poem and its sources, then poetic ‘self’ as arranger and progenitor of the poem is questioned
The question of Moore’s quotations is addressed by various critics and is not confined to a discussion of ‘Marriage’. John Slatin sees quotation as Moore’s acknowledgement of ‘the creative power wielded by other writers’ and of her ‘experience’ of reading them. His estimation presumes a community of creativity which Moore taps in order to represent the orderliness of her experience. Tess Gallagher’s evaluation of Moore’s ‘picking and choosing’ is closer to what I see as a vital recognition of the multiplicity of the speaking subject that writes. But Gallagher, too, wishes to retrieve collectivity rather than dispersal in the quotations:
I prefer to see quotations as proof of Moore’s ambition not to write simply in the isolation of the ego, but to write as if she were a team, or an orchestra. ... She was willing to take responsibility to a new enlarged arena, then, to present and credit views other than her own, and to provide a context for hearing a concert of voices.
I agree that Moore provided a forum for a ‘concert’ of voices’, but not in the sense that Gallagher intends. Moore’s constitution of herself as not ‘ego’ but ‘team’ relies on the collectivity, and ultimately, the identity of that ‘team’. Indeed, the image of the orchestra perpetuates the notion that, however different the music on the stands in front of the individual musicians, they are still playing the same piece.
Rather, I see the ‘concert’ as a disparate mob, shattering with its cacophony the unity presumed in the poetic voice, the voice of the author. Moore may want to be a team player — baseball was a favourite of hers — but the act of writing denies the kind of collective identity implied in shoring up fragments. Here I return to Kristeva for a reading of the dialectic produced by the multifarious quotations of ‘Marriage’. That dialectic, which is figured in the pretence of an inside/outside (poem/notes), defers any combinatory process which will yield a unity. Kristeva’s process of arriving at a dialectical model to understand ‘a theory of signification based on the subject, his formation, and his corporeal, linguistic, and social dialectic’ is akin to the dialectical impetus of ‘Marriage’:
At least indicates its own position, and renounces both the totalizing fragmentation characteristic of positivist discourse, which reduces all signifying practices to a formalism, and a reductive identification with other (discursive, ideological, economic) islands of the social aggregate. ... From this position, it seems possible to perceive a signifying practice which, although produced in language, is only intelligible through it.
I offer this reading as an interpretive entry into the quotations. Several critics want to view them as a basic ‘democratising’ gesture on Moore’s part, but I think her use of quotation exceeds that formulation, while it includes it. That is, although Hugh Kenner discusses the ‘richness of found phrases’ whose effect is ‘to democratize "tradition" very considerably’, the effect goes beyond a sense of community and collectivity. Moore’s ‘Marriage’ opens the language to an inspection not only of the presuppositions about the institution of marriage, but also of the ideological assumptions implicit in the notion of a coherent subject.
Helen Vendler approaches this interpretation when she says of Moore: ‘Perhaps her work is in fact more "feminine" than it may appear to a woman reader, to whom Moore’s angle of vision may seem more congenial." The return of the term ‘feminine’ to a critical appraisal of Moore’s work recalls the (rather patronising) description offered by Eliot in his 1923 review. Although I do not want to argue that Vendler’s is a conscious or unconscious recapitulation of that review, I am interested in her assertion that women may find Moore’s ‘angle of vision’ more ‘congenial’ than men would. Both Eliot and Vendler want to mark that angle as ‘feminine’. Both read a difference in Moore which they want to attribute to a biological fact rather than a linguistic effect. Moore’s strategy of convolution and eclecticism, particularly that found in ‘Marriage’, may be traced to her experiences as a woman living and writing in a patriarchy. But I find the poem to be most compelling as a critique of the coherent subject presumed in literary models up to and including Modernist works like Eliot’s. While I agree that this subject is gendered (male), I think that the evasive discourse of ‘Marriage’ is not merely an indictment of that gendered ‘authority’. Rather, it questions the possibility for any intact subject, gender notwithstanding.
As I noted above, quotations prevent the definition of an authorising subject in ‘Marriage’. In doing so, they also subvert the representation of a public/private dichotomy: the public domain figured in the ‘Notes’ (product of many) and the private space of the ‘personal’ poem (product of the one poet). The description of marriage as ‘This institution ... requiring public promises ... to fulfil a private obligation’ (1—8) inscribes it as a transgressive ‘enterprise’, violating the domains of public and private selves. Marriage functions here as the trope of emptiness, an interstice, the space where either party to the institution dissolves into its ‘circular traditions and impostures’ (14). There can be no privacy in that putatively most private of arrangements because there is no private self to assent to the arrangement ab initio. Marriage, then, is a futility, since no stable identity is available to merge with — or diverge from — another.
The ‘criminal ingenuity’ required to avoid marriage is the same wily process practised by a poet who must (impossibly) posit a coherent authorising voice in order to write. ‘Criminal ingenuity’ thus is the hallmark of writing subjects in ‘Marriage’. The emptiness figured by marriage is the space of writing itself, the possibility for inscription. Filling that space with language, with signification, the writing is an ‘imposture’, because it transgresses any boundaries erected by a putatively discrete, distinctive self. This is one reason for the difficulty of interpreting ‘Marriage’. The poem refuses to display a dichotomous rhetoric. It is not a dramatic dialogue, although there are aspects of the dialogic in the exchange between Adam and Eve. But their voices are not purely oppositional, they babble past each other, careening off shards of discourse generated by the ‘noted’ sources and the ‘I’s and ‘we’s scattered throughout the poem. These various subjects produce the (written) text of ‘Marriage’ through their ‘speech’, the language enclosed within quotation marks.
The tensions which characterise the highly ambiguous language of the poem reflect the internal split of these subjects, a split represented by the opposition of ‘speech’ and ‘writing’. The speaking subjects of ‘Marriage’ lack any identity to which authority can be attributed: authority itself is in question, in the sense that it is able to vest in a subject. Subjectivity, rather than identity, is only constituted as an effect of speech. Because ‘Marriage’ represents an explosion of quotation and speech, that subjectivity disseminates throughout the text. An example of the subjects’ dispersal across the poem is in the shift of the first person singular ‘I’ to ‘we’ and to ‘use’. Significantly, the poem begins with the starkly impersonal ‘one’ as a grammatical subject. From there on, the reader encounters a succession of pronominal metamorphoses.
Initially, ‘I’ appears to be the mark of the (traditional) subject that arranges, that tells the story of Adams and Eve: ‘I wonder what Adam and Eve / think of it by this time.’ (9-10) Then the ‘I’ remarks of Eve: ‘I have seen her / when she was so handsome / she gave me a start’ (22-4). So Eve does give this ‘I’ a start — as an object against which to oppose/compose itself as the seeing ‘I’. That is, the speaking subject is only provisionally constituted against the object with which it has a relationship, in this case, a relationship of specularity. Shortly after ‘I’ sees Eve, Eve emphatically appropriates ‘I’ for herself: ‘"I should like to be alone"; / to which the visitor replies, / "I should like to be alone; why not be alone together"’ (31-4). The subjectivity in both these instances results from both Eve’s and the visitor’s lack of solitude. Indeed, the visitor, sounding much like Groucho Marx, posits the very paradox of subjectivity, the fact that it can only be ‘alone together’.
The (or an) ‘I’ returns with a linguistic vengeance near the end of the poem. There, it emerges from the most syntactically occluded passage in ‘Marriage’ into a seven-line ‘quotation’ set apart from the text by the spaces on either end:
‘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’ (275-81)
The reiteration of ‘I’ and its difference from ‘one of those’ indicates that, here again, subjectivity can only be produced by its opposition to some other object. The insistent ‘I’ is a function of ‘that striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity’ (265-6). I read this last line as another figure of paradox, a recapitulation of the ‘alone together’ figure of subjectivity that operates throughout ‘Marriage’. The series of speaking subjects in the poem rely on oppositions — objects — in order to posit (ion) themselves as speakers. I would like to turn now from a discussion of how subjectivity is constituted and dispersed throughout the poem to the effect that oscillation has on the status of speech and writing
The invocation of ‘the debater’, ‘that orator reminding you’, and ‘Daniel Webster’ at the end of ‘Marriage’ calls to mind the several versions of oratorical posturing which recur throughout ‘Marriage’.
Many of these instances involve Adam, the most verbose of the poem’s speakers. Indeed, Adam is ‘Alive with words, / vibrating like a cymbal / touched before it has been struck’ (74-6). This oratorical positioning, then, is generally a male prerogative, as far as one wants to read ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ as gendered images. When Eve speaks, she either addresses Adam or, in one notorious case, she talks and writes at the same time, ‘equally positive in demanding a commotion / and in stipulating quiet’ (29-30). Although Adam does most of the talking, Eve, too, speaks, but she also writes.
The binary speech/writing does not fracture across a clearly gendered line, then because the poem is full of speaking subjects — ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’. But in all this chatter, different kinds of speech do not carry the same valence, and the powerful speech that holds an entire audience captive is obviously vested in Adam. His oratorical presentations seem to be more authoritative and universal than Eve’s utterances. The exchanges give Adam more to say, and he assumes an authority never attributed to Eve. Adam is not only the speaking subject, but the orating subject, whose authority and ascendancy over Eve depends on the immanence of the speech act. Thus, Adam’s status as the figure of a privileged speaker derives from his asserting presence, the presumption of an orator. Eve’s voice, conversely, is subdued, ‘constrained in speaking of the serpent’ (56), and she ‘speaks’ fewer lines than Adam.
There is one instance in the poem, however, where Adam’s oratorical power is disrupted. ‘[H]e stumbles over marriage’ (124) because he is
Plagued by the nightingale
in the new leaves,
with its silence —
not its silence but its silences, …(103-6)
Although oratory appears to be the privileged mode of speech, ‘silences’ shift the register of power, and Eve controls these oratorical absences: ‘equally positive in demanding a commotion / and in stipulating quiet.’ Eve talks ‘in the meantime’ while she is exhibiting her most startling capability ‘to write simultaneously / in three languages’ (25-6). Eve writes and talks, and Adam only speaks. Adam is plagued and ‘Unnerved’ by silences because they oppose the preeminence of his loquacity. John Slatin supposes this to be Moore’s answer to patriarchal presumptions when he says, ‘Thus Moore uses silence itself with "criminal ingenuity" to circumvent the father’s authority and appropriate it to herself.’ Most recent interpretations of ‘Marriage’ seem to assert, as Slatin does here, that the poem is an antidote to patriarchy because, in the end, Eve/Marianne takes back the power appropriated by the fathers.
In considering this observation, I return now to the discussion in the beginning of this chapter, of a public/private split. There I stated that Moore’s constructions of male and female domains are not stable, because subjectivity — whether gendered male or female— is itself split and dispersed over the poem. So, although I have been reading ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ as conventional signs of different genders, I am not interpreting them as markers for either a male or a female identity. Rather, they are, like ‘marriage’ and ‘space’, tropes that operate in various ways across the text. I align Adam with oratory and Eve with writing, not because I think the poem wants to gender speech and writing, but because the text uses the metaphor of gender difference to mark a distinction between these two functions of language. The sexual aspects of the trope are, of course, charged by the context of ‘Marriage’ itself: a poem written by a woman immersed in the Modernist milieu dominated by men. But ‘Marriage’’s critique of patriarchy does not derive from a simple inversion of conventional power models or the rigid ascription of discursive modes along sexual lines.
One last observation may serve to clarify this distinction. The strategy of citation in ‘Marriage’, which denies an inside/outside reading of the poem, also undermines a writing/speech distinction. ‘Speech’ is represented by inscription: the quotation ‘marks’. All the speaking subjects and their speeches are products of writing, the writing that ‘write[s] simultaneously / in three languages’ and ‘talks in the meantime’. The oratorical privilege is thus subsumed under this writing because the ‘speech’ of the orator is in this sense the text of the speech, the words on paper that govern the oratory. So the orator, near the end of the poem, states, ‘I am yours to command’ (260).
If speech, then, is a function of writing, there would seem to be a totalising power girding the poem. Opposed to the dispersal figured by the constructions of subjectivity, writing per se might be deemed the gathering, generating force that produces the poem, a ‘universal’ subject as dominant as any model of male hegemony. However, writing itself is dispersed by the only writer in the poem, who writes in ‘three languages’ and intersperses the writing with ‘talk’. Even writing is split; its representations of identity and unity are pretences, attempts toward ‘cycloid inclusiveness’. The critique of Western concepts of identity, signalled by dispersed subjectivity, is explicit:
We Occidentals are so unemotional,
self lost, the irony preserved, ... (184-5)
And the final image of the poem explodes the notion of an essential writing, produced by a masterful transcendent subject. I interpret the ‘it’ of this passage as the mark of that unity and essentialism (erroneously) assumed to be characteristic of the writing subject of Western poetry
‘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’ .. (282-90)
This essence, ‘Liberty and union / now and forever’, symbolises the Procrustean effort to collapse heterogeneity to a homogeneous mass: it is the complete denial of ‘the strange experience of beauty’ whose ‘existence is too much; / it tears one to pieces.’
The impulse to deny the splits and disseminations attendant upon writing is the impulse to diminish writing’s energetic play into static objectification. Working through the marriage metaphor, this is akin to an institutional model which constrains difference for the greater good of the marriage, the ‘union’. The poem deflates the possibility of that ‘union’ (‘this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility’) and parodies those who support marriage as a verity. The last lines of ‘Marriage’ figure the intolerance and absurdity of that position, even as they inscribe its dominance. All writing has been reduced to ‘the Book’ and the ‘universal’ subject, the orator, looms smugly over it, ‘the hand in the breast-pocket’, a figure of unyielding convention.
From Carroll, Lorrayne, "Marianne Moore." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.
"Marriage" is unique in containing an extended dramatic dialogue in which the poem's characters argue with each other as Moore's voice temporarily recedes. This open conflict between dramatized speakers, moreover, hints at an uncharacteristic conflict in Moore's feelings toward her subject—as do other less unusual features of the poem. The poet's deep ambivalence about the "enterprise" of marriage reveals itself in the poem's tortuous intellectual movement and in its contradictory tones reinforced by her incorporation of quoted voices as diverse as those of the contemporary feminist M. Carey Thomas and the seventeenth-century divine Richard Baxter. "Marriage," then, contains at least two kinds of debate or "disputation"—Moore's word for the arguments of the poem: one, the dramatized and primarily rhetorical exchange of her stylized characters, and two, the troubled but quieter argument Moore carries on with herself about the virtues and dangers of this relationship.
In what follows, we shall focus on the disputational aspects of the poem as crucial to illuminating not only Moore's passionately mixed feelings on the subject of marriage but also the structure of this particularly obscure work. From this focus we hope a fuller understanding of disputation as a central value of her poetry will emerge. Moore's internal argument about marriage, evident in her personal correspondence and private notebooks leading up to the poem's composition, appears most clearly in the poem's rapidly shifting perspectives. The changing voices and attitudes establish expansive "discursive boundaries" (de Lauretis 4-5) within which Moore explores her subject. Entertaining widely divergent views of marriage simultaneously or in rapid succession enables Moore, and the reader, ultimately to abandon the desire for a single unqualified stance. We contend, moreover, that Moore's dramatization in "Marriage" of several kinds of disputation allows her to enact her fundamental belief that "'no truth can be fully known / until it has been tried / by the tooth of disputation.'" While "Marriage" is anomalous in its explicit invocation and dramatization of argument, a belief in the value of "disputation" tacitly shapes much of Moore's poetic oeuvre. Thus, in the course of this important poem, Moore clarifies for the reader that her internal disputation is not simply evidence of ambivalence or vacillation; it is the model she proposes for the exploration of any truth.
The notable difficulty of "Marriage" derives originally from the degree of turmoil and contradiction in Moore's attitudes toward this particular subject. In some of her other poems, her stance is so complex that she must introduce a great many qualifications and tangents in order to define it properly; but most often the stance itself is resolute and passionately adhered to. "Marriage" stands apart in the degree of inner conflict it contains. For though she had by this time chosen the socially "criminal" stance of one who avoids marriage, and though she was highly critical of marriage as commonly practiced, Moore nonetheless maintained a vision of marriage as an ideal in human relations.
[ . . . . ]
Even about the marriage contract she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, if "we do away with the marriage contract . . . we get back to cave life." On the other hand, she complains that "the whole canker in the situation" is that "people who have no respect for marriage, insist on the respectability of a marriage contract." At one point she flatly states, "I don't like divorce and marriage is difficult but marriage is our attempt to solve a problem and I can't think of anything better" (to Bryher, August 31, 1921; V:08:06, Rosenbach). The letters, like the poem "Marriage," reveal deeply mixed feelings about this relationship and institution: Moore objects to marriage as potentially oppressive to women; she is aware of its immense practical difficulties; and yet she sometimes upholds a vision of it that is idealized and romantic.
Not surprisingly, Moore's earliest workings on the poem also suggest ambivalence. In her poetry workbook, probably around March 1922, she wrote under the heading Marriage:
I don't know what Adam and Eve think of it by this time
I don't think much of it
These lines recall the opening she retained for "Poetry"—"I too dislike it." In that poem, the rhetorical strategy of baldly announcing her dislike allows her to explore as well the attributes and powers of poetry that she admires. Moore's play with a similar opening statement in the "Marriage" workbook indicates her comparable complexity of feeling about this subject: her sharp criticism of the failure of marriage reflects her high standard for the "institution." In the published versions of "Marriage," instead of repeating the opening strategy of "Poetry," Moore reveals the divisions within her thinking by creating an extremely disjunctive structure in which perspectives and voices shift rapidly.
As published, the poem opens with a sharply humorous definition of marriage reminiscent of her other satirical poems.
This institution . . .
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 traditions and impostures,
committing many spoils,'
requiring all one's criminal ingenuity
Yet Moore's wry questioning of "what Adam and Eve / think of it" is followed by her serious admission that even the contemporary science of relationships "Psychology . . . explains nothing," and "we"—herself, and perhaps moderns generally—"are still in doubt." To flesh out her doubts in the poem, she creates portraits of a woman arid man who represent socialized gender as much as figures of biblical or historical reference. At the beginning of the poem, Moore calls them Eve and Adam to evoke prelapsarian possibilities of union as well as to anticipate their fall, in which each succumbs to self-love and becomes bitterly disillusioned with marriage. Throughout the poem, Eve and Adam, or She and He, combine aspects of the modem individual and of ancient archetype. Moore begins by depicting Eve in the first person: "Eve: beautiful woman— / I have seen her . . ." This representative woman is clever, talented, gifted with language, and independent in asserting her own desires. Yet Moore's Eve romantically envisions the first marriage in Eden, "that first crystal-fine experiment," as "'the choicest piece of my life: / the heart rising / in its estate of peace / as a boat rises / with the rising of the water.'" Moore's portrait of Eve is flattering. Correspondingly, the patriarchal story of the Fall, in which Eve is "the central flaw" of Eden, receives mocking treatment; her act is "that invaluable accident / exonerating Adam."
Adam "has beauty also" but Moore depicts him less positively and from a greater distance (she does not "see" him). Some of his attributes are even Satanic: he is snakelike ("'something colubrine'"), "a crouching mythological monster" conscious of and pleased with his own power. In a similar departure from popular stereotypes, Moore stresses Eve's as well as Adam's facility with language, although she notes significant differences in their modes of verbal control. Eve's capacity with language is extravagant, even to the point of freakishness; she is "able to write simultaneously / in three languages . . .and talk in the meantime." Yet despite her multi-lingual fluency, she is "constrained in speaking of the serpent," or of her own history. Moore portrays Adam as the one whose vitality depends on language: he is "Alive with words, / vibrating like a cymbal / touched before it has been struck." In contrast to Eve, his only problem with language seems to be that he "goes on speaking" without end. Moreover, only he converts his control of words into power. He "prophesie[s] correctly" the force of patriarchy—"which violently bears all before it"—and his pronouncements in a "formal customary strain" establish the conventional dichotomous categories of Western culture:
. . . 'past states, the present state,
the evil one suffered,
the good one enjoys,
hell, heaven . . .'
Moore highlights the self-serving pomposity of Adam's pronouncements on the foundations of history and morality in the summarizing phrase—"'everything convenient / to promote one's joy.'" As her irony suggests, the "one" Adam looks out for is probably himself; his categories justify the arrangements that make it possible for him to "experienc[e] a solemn joy" in becoming "an idol."
Rather than enjoying a tranquil paradisal vision of union, as Eve does, Adam is "plagued by the nightingale" that apparently represents both the woman and his own sexuality. Furthermore, his ideal vision of a fire "'as long as life itself" "compared with which / the shining of the earth / is but deformity," although parallel to Eve's vision, stands in elemental opposition to "the heart rising" like a boat on water. The contrast between his metaphor for their union as consuming fire and hers as peaceful water foreshadows the differences that lead the man and the woman into verbal battle later in the poem. Seeking that union lyrically envisioned as "'a fire / effectual to extinguish fire'"—seeking, that is, an experience of passion sufficient to satisfy his sexual desire—Adam instead "stumbles over marriage." In this extension other earlier mockery of the patriarchal myth of paradise, Moore presents marriage in a context that calls attention to Adam's delusive self-satisfaction; marriage is "'a very trivial object indeed' / to have destroyed the attitude / in which he stood— / the ease of the philosopher / unfathered by a woman."
With the introduction of the word marriage ("he stumbles over marriage"), Moore concludes her initial presentation of Eve and Adam. At this point in the shifting tones and perspectives of the poem, Moore has already introduced her own conflicts. She certainly mocks marriage, yet the intense beauty of Eve's and Adam's lyrical visions or union—visions both sexual and transcendent—reveals her genuine attraction to marriage as a glorious, even if "strange," "paradise." Nor is her conflict simply dichotomous: the poem's criticism of marriage employs comic tones that bespeak sympathetic understanding of human limitations more than condemnation, while the fleeting lyric passages may be partially undercut by the preponderance of more ironic lines surrounding them. Rather than seeing the argumentative structure of the poem in terms of oppositions, only one of which could logically represent marriage, it is useful to invoke the idea of "discursive boundaries." The lyrical moments associated early in the poem with Adam and Eve expand the boundaries the reader will ascribe to marriage yet do so without greatly altering its more emphatically presented limits: the "amalgamation" Eve so compellingly envisions" "can never be more / than an interesting impossibility" and Adam's fantasy an "illusion."
As already suggested, the differences between Eve's and Adam's orientations prepare for the later vitriolic dialogue between "She" and "He" (completely post-lapsarian versions of the married couple),and the spectacle of their battle clarifies Moore's implied distinction between the poem's two major forms of disputation: one, the purely antagonistic fight, such as that dramatized by He and She; the other, a battle waged as much with oneself as with another, dubbed by Moore "the fight to be affectionate." As noted above, Moore values the latter kind of conflict tremendously, proclaiming:
"no truth can be fully known
until it has been tried
by the tooth of disputation."
In contrast, and although Moore later asserts that we should not call "friction a calamity," the friction between "He" and "She" is purely destructive. The distinction between these different kinds of disputation provides a basis for analyzing the poem's structure. Alternately, either the antagonistic fight or the "fight to be affectionate" forms the dominant mode of discourse of the text; the poem shifts between these modes which, in different parts, appear in varying degrees of intensity and purity, and support changing positions on the value of marriage. Of course, the distinction between these two modes of conflict is no more dichotomous than the contrast between the poem's lyric and ironic tones. While the antagonistic fight involves simple opposition to another, the fight to be affectionate involves more complex dynamics and may as well characterize a struggle within the individual as a struggle between partners. Here again, the idea of expanding discursive boundaries illuminates Moore's method. The poet clearly deplores hostile conflict, but in its stead she presents a myriad of images, metaphors, and allusions under the general rubric of the "fight to be affectionate." And although she ultimately envisions this fight taking place within the successful union of two married people, in her poem that fight takes the predominant form of a struggle internal to the poet's persona.
Using this distinction between two forms of disputation to analyze the structure of the poem, one may regard the material we've already discussed as constituting the first section: a prelude in which Moore both introduces her own conflicts and sets up the hostile struggle between her gendered characters. What we regard as the poem's second section, extending from the exclamation, "Unhelpful Hymen!" to the argument between He and She, is dominated by internal disputation, part of the fight to be affectionate. That it is the most difficult section of the poem is not coincidence, for this is where Moore is least certain and most conflicted. The third section, the antagonistic argument between He and She, concludes with Moore's analysis of both characters' weaknesses. With the meditative line "'Everything to do with love is mystery'" the final section begins, returning to the mode of internal dispute, though with greater calm than before.
The second section, that containing the most intense internal disputation, is the core of the poem. Moore's strenuous ambivalence appears in every sentence. In the first sentence, for example, Hymen is "Unhelpful," "overgrown," reduced to insignificance by the commercialization of marriage. But having complained about modem marriage, Moore also admires the loveliness of its rituals, their lavishness "augmenting" that of Eden's lush flora and fauna. In the sentence immediately following her sensual catalog of "lotus flowers, opuntias, white dromedaries" and the like, a "he" we take to be Hymen expresses reservations about marriage; love is best "from forty-five to seventy," not the years in which most enter into matrimony, nor the years associated with the sensuality of the poet's previous description. Hymen's attitude at this point may well have regarded as sensible, since in a letter to H.D. she expresses similar doubts as to whether there is such a thing "as a love affair in the case of people under 40" (March 27, 1921). Such timing is belated by the standards of modem expectation, but in the poem's terms it does provide for the real existence of "love that will I gaze an eagle blind," love as heroic as that of Hercules "in the garden of the Hesperides." Yet even this fragile possibility of love for those over forty-five wanes as the sentence returns to mockery: the male speaker flippantly commends love as anything from "a fine art" to "a duty . . . or merely recreation."
Again shifting tacks, Moore's next sentence encourages tolerance for this speaker, implying that she may find his commendation of love's uses as sensible as she finds his recommendation of love for older couples; this calls the fluctuating tone of the previous sentence into further question. Her statement also directly counters her earlier depiction of Hymen as "unhelpful": "one must not call him ruffian," she says; nor should one see "friction" within marriage as a necessary indication of its failure. Following the explanatory note that truth must be ascertained "by the tooth of disputation," Moore presents images of pairs that may exemplify her ideal of marriage as disputation that does not threaten union. The first image is persuasive: an "entirely graceful" pair of panthers are perfect complements in color (blue and black becomes black and blue); in awe as well as fear, "one must give them the path." The subsequent pair, however, reintroduces forces threatening to such harmony. An obsidian Diana is paired with a "spiked hand"—but the presumably male hand is hardly to be trusted in assuring the woman he courts that his impatience will sustain her independence. That he "has an affection for one / and proves it to the bone" suggests the opposite of his claims: spikes do harm, and impatience may lead to "bondage."
In the next sentence, Moore reflects on the troubles that Westerners have in marriage as an overlay to the troubles she has already represented in marriage itself: "Married people" are generally "mixed and malarial"; "We Occidentals" are, in addition, steeped in that mixed attitude, irony. Her two examples here focus primarily on the negative aspects of this irony. The first refers back to a traditional, as it were archetypal, Western scene taken from the Bible: Esther has to bribe her husband Ahasuerus with elaborate banquets in order to attain justice, despite his easy and repeated promise that he would give her anything, up to half his kingdom (Esther 5-7). In the second example, a "quixotic atmosphere of frankness" characterizes the modern world. Here social interaction functions according to preset rules that disguise the power relations of those present. Although "four o'clock does not exist" according to the decorum of social ritual, "the ladies" receive one at five o'clock "in their imperious humility." Yet this atmosphere of apparent feminine governance, absolute even to the erasure of time, provides the setting "in which experience attests / that men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it." The falsity of the teatime ritual parallels the scheming of the "tete a tete Ahasuerus banquet": a banquet not at all intimate (since the king's head servant also attends) and not at all romantically intended (Esther has a clear political goal in mind). Furthermore, just as the "spiked hand" earlier suggests the greater danger to women than to men posed by marriage, both these examples reveal women's lack of power in society if not specifically in marriage.
Overall, in this second section of the poem, Moore vacillates. She asserts that turmoil is inevitable in marriage: Hymen is unhelpful, a hand is spiked, power is unequally distributed. Yet she cautions against seeing Hymen as ruffian and will not relinquish her vision of a powerful harmony like that of the panthers and of the gorgeous "ritual of marriage." This section concludes with special emphasis on the difficulties of women in marriage, an emphasis underlined by Moore in her poetry workbook: on what appear to be the first twenty-nine pages of her working on this poem—pages which contain relatively few repeated long lines—Moore repeats eight times that "men have power and sometimes one is made to feel it" (VII:04:04, Rosenbach Museum and Library). Placing this claim immediately prior to the debate between "He" and "She" also makes it reasonable that "He" should speak first (and so viciously) and locates "his" comments within the context of Patriarchal power.
In the succeeding section, instead of continually qualifying each view with a contrasting one, Moore explores at length the impediments to union posed by the nature of men and women. This she does by dramatizing an argument in which neither side represents her own views, and neither wages the fight to be affectionate. The viciousness of this domestic skirmish between "He" and "She" establishes Moore's dismay at the behavior of men and women in many marriages: both parties are nasty and self-serving, suggesting the "impossibility" of any desirable "amalgamation."
"He" is particularly crude in his accusations: "What monarch would not blush / to have a wife / with hair like a shaving-brush?" Associating women with death, he punningly calls them "mummies" and identifies them with debris from a ravaged corpse and a coffin; Self pitying; he even feels tricked by the shape this wifely object takes: "revengefully wrought in the attitude / of an adoring child." "She" is more witty than her mate, calling him "This butterfly, / this waterfly, this nomad / that has 'proposed to settle on my hand for life'— / What can one do with it?" Some of her insults also reveal a more analytic understanding of gender than his; she presents men in terms of social power as "monopolists of 'stars, garters, buttons / and other shining baubles'— / unfit to be the guardians / of another person's happiness."
Despite Moore's slightly more favorable portrait of "She," both characters are repugnant in their viciousness and both are explicitly condemned for loving themselves too much. This section concludes:
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?
Both married men and women are repulsive enough to alienate all but missionaries. At this point in the poem, all glimpses of an Edenic relation have been lost. The beauty initially associated with both genders has disappeared, as has Eve's striking individuality, and all that remains is mutual hostility.
These two middle sections of the poem illustrate what Moore evidently sees as the primary obstacles to ideal marriage: on the one hand, the danger of domination a possible threat to both parties but one more frequently suffered by women because of the support men receive from patriarchy; on the other hand, the tendency toward overweening self-love in both women and men which blocks the possibility of all but hostile communication. Resisting both these temptations constitutes the individual's and the couple's fight to be affectionate, and it is to this struggle that the poet now returns.
Rather than simply dismissing marriage after the third section's demonstration of its typical failure, Moore in the final section surprisingly reverts to earlier expressions of belief in an ideal, though that belief is heavily qualified and asserted in a different manner. The early passages suggesting the value of marriage do so largely through their lyrical beauty and sensual appeal. Perhaps because such intense beauty exacerbates her conflicts—"it tears one to pieces"—in this later section Moore relies on a more propositional, abstract approach. For the rest of the poem, she will support her claims from the standpoint of reasoning rather than of emotion or lyric eloquence. Yet her belief in marriage, irrational in view of what He and She have just demonstrated, depends on the very recognition that her subject cannot be contained within the bounds of logical argument or casual knowledge: "'Everything to do with love is mystery; / it is more than a day's work / to investigate this science.'" Unwilling to assert that successful union is impossible, Moore concedes only the rarity of a relationship in which the parties fight to be independent yet communicative:
One sees that it is rare—
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity[.]
Moore defines the ideal marriage in terms of ongoing opposition. This is disputation at its best. For her, this "triumph of simplicity" dwarfs Columbus' demonstration with the egg that a seemingly impossible feat (sailing west to the Indies, or standing an egg on its head) may in fact be easy, but its simplicity will be apparent only in hindsight. The result of Columbus' daring to attempt what many thought impossible is well known: he took an exploratory voyage resulting in European discovery of the "new world." Determining for one's self the steps necessary to create a successful marriage, Moore suggests, is more triumphant, and perhaps more difficult, than being the first to attempt sailing to India—and what one discovers in such a marriage may be the equivalent of a new world.
Paradoxically, this comparison of political and personal "triumph[s] of simplicity" appears in the longest and most complex sentence of the poem. The number of parallel phrases serving as subjects in dependent clauses and the number of embedded modifying clauses, combined with the extension of the sentence over thirty-one lines, make the relations of its parts at times nearly incomprehensible. Clear in this confusion, however, is that for Moore simplicity does not entail adhering to a single and exclusive emotion, perspective, or belief. In fact, the wrenched but coherent structure of the sentence embodies "the fight to be affectionate"; this final grammatical unit serves as a tour de force in which Moore syntactically makes opposites one, marshalling a syntactic union where she has not found a logical one. Furthermore, while the final sentence brings together divergent statements of belief, its syntax allows one to establish the contribution of each to Moore's complex understanding.
Analysis of the sentence requires attention to its parallel phrasal structure. Most important is the syntactic parallel that occurs in the two nominative phrases, both beginning with the requisite demonstrative pronoun "that," which serve to replace it in Moore's claim "one sees that it is rare—": first "that striking grasp of opposites," then the equally contradictory "that charitive Euroclydon" (a charitable tempestuous wind). The syntax links the grasp of opposites that Moore clearly applauds with a mythological figure who otherwise has no clear place in her poem's conflicts. Still following the syntax of this sentence, we see that, unlike "the world" in her poem, Moore does not identify herself with those who claim "'I am such a cow, / if I had a sorrow / I should feel it a long time.'" In her orientation, she is closer to those less single-minded, whose feelings shift from having. "'a great sorrow / in the morning'" to "'a great joy at noon.'" Nor does Moore resemble the world in hating Euroclydon's "frightening disinterestedness"; when Euroclydon speaks at the end of the poem (he provides the long closing description of Webster), he expresses what Moore appears also to believe.
This syntactic argument for reading the quote from Daniel Webster as non-ironic is supported by a logical one. Webster is particularly renowned for his advocacy of the union preceding the Civil War, and for the unusual lucidity of his prose in an age of florid oratory. However complex Moore's style may seem, she always had the greatest regard for clarity and simplicity; Webster's oratorical style would appeal to her. Furthermore, as an early 20th-century patriot, she would share Webster's loyalty to the idea of union. In quoting his famous lines "'Liberty and union! now and forever,'" Moore brings together apparent contradictions. Here is the "striking grasp of opposites" she advocates.
The portrait of Webster is undercut, however, by previous passages of the poem. By representing him as the typical nineteenth-century gentleman ("the Book on the writing-table; / the hand in the breast-pocket"), Moore suggests that he may be threatening. In a poem where "experience attests that men have power," and in which male power is wielded in large part through words, a concluding portrait of a very powerful male politician and orator invites wariness. Moreover, Webster's support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the Union may identify him as another male, like Moore's "He," who arrogantly "forgot" "that 'some have merely rights / while some have obligations."' Throughout this last section, then, Moore still hedges. Certainly, her internal disputation is quieter than before. Yet even now, she cannot present one view, one well tested truth, of marriage. She cannot assert that marriage at its rare best remains an ideal to strive for without undercutting that stance by suggesting marriage is a dangerous excuse for the assertion of patriarchal control. To the very end of this anomalous poem, Moore remains in unresolved contest with herself, and the truth tested by disputation remains fluidly multiple.
From "'The Tooth of Disputation': Marianne Moore's 'Marriage.'" SAGETRIEB 6.3
MIMICRY AS "PLAYFUL REPETITION"
The poem "Marriage" is Moore's longest, if not her long poem and contains more quotations and references than most of her work. In fact, it is "made up almost entirely of quotations" (Costello 184). Moore herself once described "Marriage" as "a little anthology of statements that took my fancy—phrasings that I liked" (Reader xv). A similar phrase also introduces the poem's notes in the (rather incomplete) "complete" edition of her work; there, however, the word anthology is elided, and in this way rendered a particularly significant term, a term also that is challenged and redefined by the very text it refers to.
If seen as an anthology, Moore's poem in fact shows little resemblance to its conventional model, the collection of major works by major authors, but instead represents a loose connection of "phrases from the most unlikely sources" (Stapleton 39), often chosen as much for their "raw" materiality as for their meaning (Poems 267), The poem neither shuns citation from the non-canonical, like the Scientific American and a French magazine called Femina, nor is its reference necessarily to a printed text. Identifying the source of a quotation as the inscription on Daniel Webster's statue in Central Park, Moore connects the historical figure with his rhetorical figures, but also gives "body" to rhetoric and its postures. Such idiosyncratic treatment of borrowed discourse may be, as Hugh Kenner suggests, an effective way to "democratize 'tradition'" (111); it certainly highlights the ambivalence of the female talent vis-à-vis tradition. And moreover, it challenges tradition and canonicity as such—some time before literary criticism did.
After all, Moore's "Marriage" is a re-reading of John Milton's Paradise Lost, "the canonical text par excellence of English literature" (Froula 326) written by "English literature's paradigmatic patriarch" and "patron saint of companionate marriage" (Nyquist 101, 99). Moore secularizes Milton's version of the Biblical myth; she revises Eve's conversion to orthodoxy and at the same time recalls emphatic notions and illusions of conjugal love and marital equality, reminding the reader that the Renaissance—like Milton's epic—celebrated marriage as an institution that supposedly unites two incomplete halves. Moore's poem, on the other hand, glances at the flip side of the coin: in early capitalist times, matrimony also became a contract, a "match," as Moore herself calls it in "Spencer's Ireland" (112), an economic necessity and exclusive social norm, which left hardly any other alternative to women's lives. For Moore, marriage means shared loneliness, pure convention or pompous ritual, a mixture of "servitude and flutter" (194)—in short, temptation, but certainly entrapment. And whereas in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton strongly argues for legal separation of the sexes in case of "indisposition, unfitness, or contrariety of mind" (705), this poet does not blame the indisposed individual but rather the institution itself—a "strange paradise," a "crystal-fine experiment," an "amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility" (63).
Moore's poem itself appears like an amalgamation, a combination of different things. But even more than that, lacking connectives—which Moore "despises" (Williams in Tomlinson 54)—the poem becomes a collage, a "dance of broken things" (Tomlinson 16), an assembly of fragments which always function in a way that is particular for Moore's texts. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Moore uses quotation neither to reconstruct or change the content of the canon, nor as mere allusion to literary authority, but rather as an alternative speaking position. Whereas Eliot's and Pound's historical and literary fragments re-collect and often preserve "past states" (Moore, Poems 64), Moore is attracted to statements that "took [her] fancy" and thus makes her readers see significance not in the programmatic but in the accidental. "Mimic Fancy," as fanciful Eve is told by Adam in Book V of Paradise Lost, is one among the lesser Faculties that serve / Reason." [O]f all external things," Eve learns, ". . . She forms Imaginations, Aery shapes," and in reason's absence "wakes / To imitate her; but misjoining shapes / Wild work produces oft" (101-112). Moore's poem rephrases this association of fancy and female, claiming that "there is in woman / a quality of mind / which as an instinctive manifestation / is unsafe" (68). Just this fanciful unreliability, however, is a significant part of Moore's poetic practice and the position, positions, or even "non-positions" from which many of her poems speak. Her alterations of citation, erratic manner of annotation and other idiosyncratic inconsistencies have provoked various, often "contradictory objections." Refusing to turn her work "into a donkey that finally found itself being carried by its masters" (262), Moore nonetheless continued to playfully parody the textual apparatus of poetic authority as much as to exploit it as speaking position and subtext to the dazzling surfaces of her poems.
Consequently, fancy and inconsistency in Moore's poetic practice may not be mistaken as randomness. Her choice of quoted material, for instance, is highly selective and operates both on the surface and in the subtext of her poems. When Moore's modern Eve relies not on Adam's order, but on the authority of Martha Carey Thomas' speech, various intertextual threads are woven between Moore's poem, the issues and bias of liberal feminism, and Milton's epic. In the context of Moore's poem, which depicts and distinguishes its main figures by rhetoric, these threads are foregrounded and converge in the issue of dominant versus subordinate discourse and voice. Reciting—with some poetic license—Carey Thomas' rhetoric, Moore's Eve claims that "[m]en are monopolists / of 'stars, garters, buttons / and other shining baubles'" (67), but she also knows Adam as the monopolist of oration and debate. The poem, in fact, identifies Adam with (Milton's) Eve's apostrophe to her "Guide and Head" (4.440-43), her "Author and Disposer" (4.635). Adam becomes the embodiment of this rhetorical device, "the O thou / to whom from whom / without whom nothing" (63); synonymous with presence and univocality, full of prophecy and void of uncertainty, he speaks "in a formal [customary] strain, / of 'past states, the present state, seals, promises / the evil one suffered, the good one enjoys / hell, heaven / everything convenient / to promote one's joy'" (64). Eve's multiple voices, her ability to write in three languages and talk in the meantime align woman, on the other hand, with the poem's fragmented structure, its shifting tones and dissonances (62). Due to these opposed rhetorical strategies, the couple's attempt at dialogue remains a collage of clashing materials; their marriage is hardly a privileged place for interaction, neither a "blissful coming together of equal voices speaking in unison" nor an "ongoing dialogue between individuals affirming in turn their difference" (Furman 59), connection nor communication, but a "striking grasp of opposites / opposed to each other, not to unity" (69). As in Milton's epic, we find in Moore's poem a shared responsibility for the Fall. For marriage, however, there is no redemption; it is finally dismissed with irony, but without an offer of alternative. As William Carlos Williams put it: "Of marriage there is no solution in the poem and no attempt at a solution" (Tomlinson 57).
During all this, the poem's speaker gradually gives up the center stage and instead claims multiple, indeterminate positions, positions which are present in their very absence. "Robbed of speech by speech that has delighted" (91), she transforms from indefinite "one" and universal "I" into the masterful manipulator of her model discourses; she juxtaposes ironies and illusions, appearances, stereotypes and myths, indeed "playfully repeating" and thus undermining and deconstructing the conventional structures of poetic authority and voice as well as of marriage. Making mimicry and the multiplication of voice go hand in hand, Moore's poem, in some strange way, also enacts the very paradox in Irigaray's notion of the parler femme, her two seemingly contradictory claims that women's language cannot be metaspoken, that woman escapes signification, "remain[s] elsewhere" and that, nonetheless, her voice is unlimited, indefinite and multiple.
From "Snapshots of Marriage, Snares of Mimicry, Snarls of Motherhood: Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich." SAGETRIEB 6.3
Our most fully developed and finely tuned portrait of this feminine temperament appears in Eve in the poem "Marriage." What makes this poem's portrayal of both Adam and Eve so tantalizing is surely their tragicomic blend of the ideal and the real, Woman as she would like to be—"so handsome / she gave me a start, / able to write simultaneously / in three languages" (MM 62)—mingles in one breath with woman in her patriarchal original sin—"the central flaw / in that first crystal-fine experiment" (63). She is temperamental—"equally positive in demanding a commotion / and in stipulating quiet" (62); "'the ladies in their imperious humility / are ready to receive you'" (67); and she is ornamental—"a statuette of ivory on ivory" (68). This Eve is balanced by an Adam who is equally implicated in the fall—he is "'something colubrine'" or snake-like (63)—and equally temperamental and ornamented. This blend of ideal and real, the balance of male and female figures, the mixture of comic, heroic, and sentimental values is the theme of the poem, for its electric charge comes from the meeting of opposites "opposed each to the other, not to unity . . . ‘Liberty and union, now and forever'" (69-70). The portrait of Eve is conditioned throughout by this balance, this progressively rebalancing accumulation that is the poem's procedure and imitation of its subject.
From "Portraits of Ladies in Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop." SAGETRIEB 6.3.
While Moore inserts quotations from other sources in most of her poetry, the most compelling example of her use of such collage is "Marriage." "Marriage" is her longest poem, the closest she comes to the epic form so prevalent among the modernist poets. Moore's epic, however, has a feminist orientation; she relates social and cultural history through an analysis of the institution of marriage instead of through a focus on public politics and national events. The poem also plays a particularly central role in Moore's oeuvre, mainly because its calculated efforts to question marriage as a viable social institution become a marked emblem of the essentially subversive character of her work. As such, this poem is truly Moore's effort at a manifesto.
"Marriage" begins with a general description of the institution in economic language. The poem then looks at the generic figures of the woman and man, at their gendered personalities. Once these figures have been established, a long discussion between a male and female character ensues which is generally backbiting and nasty, particularly on the part of the female speaker. The poem concludes with an overview of marriage, with highly convoluted language which indicates a type of retreat on Moore's part and her overall disappointment with the marital practice.
Little attention has been paid to the social implications of Moore's poetry, although partly the fault lies with the poet herself. Her continued modesty about her work, especially this poem, and her obscure and teasingly unhelpful notes at the end of her Complete Poems, underplay the intensity with which she denigrates social behaviors, from marriage to war. In an interview with Grace Schulman, for instance, Moore described "Marriage" as "just an anthology of words that I didn't want to lose, that I liked very much, and I put them together as plausibly as I could. So people daren't derive a whole philosophy of life from that" (qtd. in Schulman 159). In her quiet dismissive manner Moore deflects attention away from the way the poem uses collage to criticize the marital institution.
Moore's disapproval of marriage is most obvious in her poetry notebook at the Rosenbach Museum and Library which shows her revisions and the process involved in her collection of materials, including her notes for "Marriage" and "An Octopus" (Rosenbach 1251/7). A careful analysis of the notebook suggests that a paradoxical doubleness characterizes her collage techniques. Her revisions of her own words tend to mute her disapproval of the marital conventions, while at the same time her revisions of quotations drawn from other sources tend to sharpen her critical stance toward marriage. Much of this critical aspect of her attitude toward marriage can be traced to Moore's alliance to the Dada movement, which had its strong followers in New York (Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, among them), and which also involved iconoclasm and reclamation.
In "Marriage," Moore's recourse to materials from varied sources serves to fracture the formal patterns traditionally associated with poetry and creates instead the rupturing effects of collage. If she had retained conventional poetic forms, she would have upheld the type of "social authority" that the Dadaists were attempting to overthrow. In her presentation of marriage, Moore is anti-lyrical and aphoristic. She undermines lyrical rhythms through the use of random syllabics--this poem is actually unlike her others in its lack of syllable patterning--and through juxtapositions of disparate ideas. The complexity of the dissociated thoughts thrown together in a seeming jumble dissolves the linguistic and thematic harmonies which are so basic to traditions of lyrical poetry. Technical disruptions, then, play into social subversion by severing formal connections with the traditions of the past.
In addition to the quotations which appear in "Marriage," the notebook at the Rosenbach museum includes early drafts of the poem itself. (As Patricia Willis has noted, these early versions of "Marriage" are often conjoined with those of "An Octopus," as if Moore first thought of the two poems as one ). Early notes on "Marriage" include statements such as the following which were left out of or were changed for the final version: "This institution should one say enterprise which is universally associated with the fear of loss" (Rosenbach 1 25 1/7: 4,15,22,26); "I don't know what Adam and Eve think of it by this time. / I don't think much of it" (5,13,22); "Its [marriage's] mechanical advertising / parading as involuntary comment" (13); "Marriage Is it not like a road uphill in the sand for an aged person?" (18); "my modern friend who says it is useless / to try to demolish a thing / until one can identify it" (23). As this last quotation suggests, if one of the functions of the poem is merely to define marriage, Moore's purpose is equally to undermine it. Excluded from the final version of the poem, such remarks are openly critical of marriage. Clearly Moore felt uncomfortable with expressing hostility directly and thus turned to methods of collage which would allow her to retain her disapproval of marriage, while tempering the intensity of her feelings toward it.
A quotation in "Marriage" continues to bear the meaning it has in its original source, yet it also carries the new meaning it acquires it by its position in the poem, by what surrounds it, by the tenor of the work in general, and by how the poet has cropped it. Moore reminds us of her quotations' original context by giving references, albeit vague, in the back of her Complete Poems. The overall intent of the quotation is then changed from its original one, adjusted in tone, as it were, by the nature of the rest of the poem. Moore thereby makes a new work of art and makes the tradition of marriage new, as well, so that both marriage and poetic conventions can be reassessed for their current value.
Moore's poem is difficult to decipher because the reader has to make connections between seemingly random quotations. In this sense "Marriage" reminds one of Marcel Duchamp's Cubist-Futurist paintings in the Armory Show. Just as he presents clear "splinters" of figures descending a staircase or waiting for a train, so Moore presents precise details and quotations. By interlacing these quotations with her own aphoristic statements, Moore mimics the spliced shapes of Duchamp's figures in motion. An understanding of "Marriage" requires the attempt to "see" all Moore's fragments at once, just as it requires attention to the reverberations between the original contexts of several quotations and their revised contexts in "Marriage."
Our understanding of these intentions is complicated by Moore's ambivalent feelings about the marital state. Although she believes firmly in the continued viability of the institution, as evidenced in her focus on it, she nevertheless also critiques it. Marriage tends to place men in power over women, denigrating women's capabilities. Moore ridicules male authority in this poem, and makes other disparaging remarks about the social form, as a true Dadaist, but she, however reluctantly, admits to its strength. This ambivalence appears in the cutting and shaping of Moore's quotations, as well as in the relationship between the quotations' old and new contexts. Moore almost always changes her quotations when placing them in her poem, no doubt partly for esthetic reasons, partly, however, for argumentative reasons. She wants her quotations to bear certain, highly refined intimations. In this sense Moore adapts to poetry the collage technique of déchirage, "to tear out roughly," as opposed to the technique of découpage, "to cut out neatly."
As Willis points out, Moore drew many of the quotations which she used in "Marriage" from Richard Baxter's The Saint's Everlasting Rest, a 1650 Calvinist prescription for passage to heaven. Three of the quotations from Baxter's work that appear in the Rosenbach notebook are used in the poem to denigrate the marital state. Moore changed the Baxter quotations very little: "the speedy stream and waterfall which violently bears all before it" changes to "the industrious waterfall, /'the speedy stream / which violently bears all before it'" (64); Baxter's words--"seldom and cold, up and down, mixed and malarial with a good day and a bad"--remain the same in the poem (66); and "perceiving a fire effectual to extinguish fire" becomes "the illusion of a fire / effectual to extinguish fire" (65).
These phrases appear in the poem in various forms of criticism of marriage. When Adam begins to speak, his pedantic, ceaseless rambling is compared to the "stream / which violently bears all before it": nothing can stop him or make him shift his course. "Seldom and cold" follows "Married people often took that way" and gives married life a vast depth of ennui. Marriage, in fact, is a state which unmarried people desire as a panacea to their problems (the desire to be married is "'the illusion of a fire / effectual to extinguish fire"'), but it is an illusory desire which dwindles at the moment of entrance into the married state, a state which cannot satisfy desire.
Early in "Marriage," Moore incorporates the cynical language of politics of Sir Francis Bacon: "Of circular traditions and impostures, / committing many spoils" (62). As Margaret Holley has noted, Moore took this quotation from theEncyclopaedia Brittanica: "I have taken all knowledge to be my province and if I could purge it of two sorts of errors, whereof the one with frivolous disputation, confutations and verbosities, the other with blind experiments and circular traditions and impostures hath committed so many spoils, I hope I shall bring in industrious observations..." (Rosenbach 1250/ 4:29-30). Moore's pruning of Bacon's language suggests the way she shapes borrowed quotations to fit her needs. In this case she changes Bacon's topic from knowledge to marriage. She also cuts out "frivolous disputation, confutations and verbosities" as well as "blind experiments," all of which would denigrate the importance of the marital state. What she leaves in, however, equally condemns marriage. Although "Circular tradition" is ambiguous in that it could suggest wedding rings as well as social practices which lead nowhere, the nuances of such words as "impostures" and "spoils" reflect unquestionably negative views of marriage as a type of entrapment.
Moore uses quotations most often to describe the male figure, and in reshaping the words of male writers, she undercuts both his character and language. In identifying the man as Adam, for example, she includes a quotation from Philip Littell's review of George Santayana which appeared in The New Republic in 1923. The snippet of Littell's words in the poem is "something feline, / something colubrine" (63). In different ways, the two adjectives reflect a certain denigration of male power. A description of a male figure as colubrine has phallic overtones, but also the negative connotations of a snake; feline is typically used in reference to a female and thus serves to diminish Adam's masculinity.
The passage Moore quotes reads as follows: "We were puzzled and we were fascinated, as if by something feline, by something colubrine, at the core of his loneliness" (102). Here, Littell is trying to explain his reaction and that of his peers on reading Santayana's early verse in the Harvard Monthly. Littell says that no one could have known at that time that Santayana wanted to "remold his heart's desire" through his poetry. Although his review has only praise for Santayana's philosophy, terms such as "feline" and "colubrine" indicate Littell's own discomfort with the poetry, a mixture of fear and distrust which causes him to distance himself with a feeling nearing distaste. Certainly, this fear and distaste are the sentiments which linger when the quotation is transplanted into the Eden of "Marriage."
Adam's speech, too, is unnerving, but mostly because he pontificates on subjects about which he knows little and on which he has misguided opinions, such as women. In her description of Adam's blundering ramblings to Eve, Moore writes that he is "Treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear" (64). Moore's phrase is an adaptation of William Hazlitt's words in his essay on Edmund Burke's style, "On the Prose-Style of Poets": "It may be said to pass yawning gulfs 'on the unstedfast footing of a spear'" (10). Hazlitt is expressing his admiration at Burke's ability to maneuver through tricky sections of argument with the ease of the warrior. In its new position in Moore's poem, however, Hazlitt's language loses its laudatory aspects and becomes a sneering critique of one who would take the risk of trying to pretend that he knows things of which he is ignorant, "forgetting," as the poem says, "that there is in woman / a quality of mind / which as an instinctive manifestation / is unsafe" (64).
"Marriage" also includes a long quotation from Edward Thomas's Feminine Influence on the Poets, a work of literary criticism published in 1910. Thomas describes at great length "The Kingis Quair," a poem written by King James I, in which the king depicts his love for Joan Beaufort, the daughter of the Earl of Somerset. Thomas writes of King James's first sight of Beaufort in the garden outside his prison:
her dress looped up carelessly to walk in that fresh morning of nightingales in the new-leaved thickets .... The nightingale stops singing. 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 calls out it will not understand; and he begs the wind to shake the leaves and awake the song. And the bird sings again. (Thomas 111)
In "Marriage" Moore quotes these words almost exactly: "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" (65). Prior to this, however, Moore had presented Adam as "plagued by the nightingale / in the new leaves / with its silence" (64). Thus, whereas King james' poem is a description of love at first sight, Moore twists the quotation to indicate frustration-- the male is unable to get his bird to sing. Just by being married, the poem implies, the husband assumes that he can control the wife, the bird, and decide when and how she should give him pleasure. Instead, he looks merely foolish in his failures to manipulate her.
As unsettled as he is by woman and by his desire, sexual or otherwise (that illusory fire), Adam "stumbles over marriage" which, quoting William Godwin, Moore describes as "'a very trivial object indeed"' (65). To Godwin, one recalls, marriage is a silly institution, a "method ... for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow eternal attachment" (507). Godwin believed that marriage should be abolished or at least rendered readily dissolvable. Moore's inclusion of his opinions of marriage in her first description of that "First Marriage" thus undercuts any seriously romantic thoughts that Adam might have entertained about the instituion.
Even love, that most revered of human emotions, is belittled through Moore's déchirage adaptation in this poem of a quotation from Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers. Although Moore renders it: "for love that will gaze an eagle blind, / that is with Hercules / climbing the trees / in the garden of the Hesperides, from forty-five to seventy / is the best age" (66), Trollope's actual wording is:
But for real, true love, love at first sight, love to devotion, love that robs a man of his sleep, love that will "gaze an eagle blind," love that "will hear the lowest sound when the suspicious tread of theft is stopped," love that is like a Hercules, still climbing trees in the Hesperides,"--we believe the best age is from forty-five to seventy. (147)
This is a description of Mr. Thorne,a rural squire of the extinct type, who is infatuated with the manipulative yet paralyzed Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni. Trollope is being highly cynical of love here, but Moore's reshaping of his quotation does not indicate this. She has "cut out" one of Trollope's phrases, a phrase which is in fact a quotation drawn from elsewhere, in order to shape it to her own devices. Specifically, she connects the absurdity of overwhelming passion--"'love that will / gaze an eagle blind'"--with the idea that love and marriage are "a fine art," "an experiment, / a duty or ... merely recreation." Moore overturns the male perspective of marriage as a serious and dignified commitment and presents it as a frivolous pastime.
The "irony" of the now-artificial state of the love relationship is "preserved" in literature and mythology, specifically in the banquet which Esther set up for Haman and Ahasuerus, and in the silly, mismatched love of Caliban for Miranda in The Tempest. "Good monster, lead the way" (67) is taken from The Tempest and changed from "O brave monster! lead the way," one of Stefano's lines (2.2.182). This quoation's position in Shakespeare's play connects it with the buffoonery of Stefano and Trinculo; its position in "Marriage," however, relates it to the banquet which Esther engineered in order to save her people, and is designed to suggest the nastiness of the marital relation. The "Ahasuerus tête-á-tête banquet" suggests that each spouse enters marriage with a separate agenda, to enforce which they will each use whatever sexual and emotional force they can bring to bear, as Esther does to persuade Ahasuerus to kill Haman and save her people (67).
During the most combative section of the poem, where the repartee of the man and woman is at its height, the man decries the very existence of women when he says that "the fact of woman / is 'not the sound of the flute / but very poison'" (67). This quotation is an adaptation of a passage from Abraham Mitram Rihbany's The Syrian Christ (1916) which is an explanation of customs described in the Bible. Moore embellished her note on this quotation by saying, "Silence of women--'to an Oriental, this is as poetry set to music'" (272) even though "not the sound of the flute but very poison" does not appear in The Syrian Christ. Instead, Rihbany writes that it is important for women to remain silent in public, and adds, "To oriental ears, as perhaps to Puritan ears of the good old type, such words are poetry set to music," but he never refers to a flute or to poison (333). In this case. Moore relegated Rihbany's words to her notes and used them as a mere inspiration for the man's opening salvo in his argument with the woman, a volley which stings in its misogyny.
In "Marriage" the explicit argument between the male and female voices (as explored by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller) solidifies the "dialectical interaction between the work and the world" which Stephen Bann has identified as a feature of collage (353). The quotations create a reverberation between the intent and context, the original words and the new meaning they acquire by being placed in radically different surroundings. In this way Moore is able to "subvert" tradition, both formally and institutionally. Within the poem, in other words, Moore is not constrained by external influence, conventional or otherwise. In fact, her use of this technique constitutes an adaptation of the Socratic method of refuting all sides of an argument. Dialogue allows Moore to remove herself from the context of the poem so that the critique of marriage implicit in the poem does not reflect on the poet.
During the course of this dialogue between the male and female--really it is open warfare--the woman's attitude toward men as insignificant and unstable is registered through a quotation: "This butterfly, / this waterfly, this nomad / that has 'proposed / to settle on my hand for life'-- / What can one do with it?" (68). This quotation is from Charles Reade's novel Christie Johnstone (1853). In this silly romance, a young, aristocratic gentleman, Lord Ipsden, who has "neither vices nor virtues," who is wealthy but does absolutely nothing, asks his cousin once removed, Lady Barbara Sinclair, for her hand in marriage. Lady Barbara refuses him because she "kept herself in reserve for some earnest man, who was not to come flattering and fooling to her, but look another way and do exploits." On considering Lord Ipsden's proposal, Lady Barbara thinks: "Accustomed to measure men by their character alone and to treat with sublime contempt the accidents of birth and fortune, she had been a little staggered by the assurance of this butterfly that had proposed to settle on her hand--for life" (14). Treating men as butterflies is a reversal of male and female roles and is a dismissal of the effectiveness of men. Lord Ipsden, and men in general, are superficial, useless, insignificant and narcissistic.
Adam's final word in this dialogue is that there are many people other than artists who are "fools," too, because they get married. Adam, however, as the next line of the poem reminds us, has forgotten that "some have merely rights while some have obligations" (164). The allusion here is to the words of Edmund Burke, who had written: "Asiatics have rights; Europeans have obligations." The obligations of Burke's "Europeans" are like those of men in marriage: behavior structured around the inherent condition of male condescension toward women, the European superior attitude toward its colonies and the male assumption of higher authority over the wife.
Men and women, however, are equally too self-involved to be fit to participate in relations with each other. Though the woman may profess to her husband that she is at his "command," she belies her avowal by leaving him for no more reason than that she has "seen enough of him," and so does not really show "petrine fidelity," though the alternate image of her rocklike composure filters through (69). This quotation of Simone Puget's advertisement in the English Review of June 1914 is highly cynical, referring to wives as "pretty dolls" and to their husbands as "peaceful." Moore's inclusion of Puget's words emphasizes her opinion that marriage is an outdated social form, despite its appeal.
At the conclusion of the poem, Moore quotes Daniel Wester's phrase, "Liberty and union / now and forever" in order to show that the control of a social institution such as marriage is similar to the immutable, implacable form of the motto--neither is ideally suited to anyone. Respected public figures reinforce this idea by treating marriage reductively, as if the complexity of the relationship could be regarded as a matter of ritual, of established "simplicity" (69). The quotation from Webster is optimistic but misguided as applied to marriage, just as Moore sees those who view life as a matter of habits--"the Book on the writing-table; / the hand in the breast-pocket"--as underestimating the overwhelming variety of human nature and relations (70). Moore believes that "Liberty and union" is oxymoronic when applied to marriage, and the statue of Webster in the park is emblematic of the pompously blind nature of man who lives by habits rather than by understandings. According to Margaret Holley, a motto constitutes "a special form of quotation, of language fixed and reproduced, just as the emblem is a special form of spatial imagery, culturally fixed and reproduced" (104). Moore does not change the motto from the statue because she cannot--it is "fixed." Her use of this quotation suggests Moore's feeling that our culture is unwilling or unable to change, particularly with respect to such immutable institutions as marriage.
Moore's use of a collage technique thus becomes her way of questioning marriage in an oblique fashion. She apparently felt that her early drafts of the poem were too angry, or perhaps too personal, to produce a sustained critique. By resorting to collage, with its rejection of traditional mimetic art forms, Moore was able to register her criticisms of the social institution without risking direct confrontation with cultural standards. By allying herself with artists who turned their backs on traditions of perspective in the visual arts, Moore also subverts traditions of perspective in the cultural sphere: a rejection of marriage is a rejection of traditional views of reality. In addition, the collage juxtaposition of unrelated pieces of history and social commentary is also Moore's way of dramatizing the nature of the marital relationship itself--two unrelated people with little or nothing in common (as Moore would have it) thrown into a union "without any connectives to express the quality of their relationship."
In creating works of collage, the artist is like the anthropologist who makes "the familiar strange," in James Clifford's words, so that we can reassess the art and artifacts of our own culture as if it were not our own (121). Moore makes an effort at this: not only does she make the familiar words of the past "strange" by editing them and by placing them in a new context, she makes marriage "strange," and provides a reassessment of an institution which is generally taken for granted. In doing so, Moore gives a practical--what one might refer to as a female-focus to the collagist's attempts to "marry" art forms. Not only does she employ collage techniques; she encourages us to see how they are applicable to "real" situations. In this way, collage also allows her to change the possibilities of that "reality."
From "The Collage of 'Marriage': Marianne Moore's Formal and Cultural Critique." In Mosaic Vol. 26, No. 4.
At first the catalogue of 289 lines seems random, only vaguely associative, but in fact, the dialectic is meticulously woven. Moore frequently claimed that she despised connectives, at least connectives in the obvious sense. In order to see this montage as a whole, the reader must learn to participate in and to enjoy the anthology--without the connecting links most poets provide. One idea merely melts into another, without transitions. (Moore once wrote, "I myself . . . would rather be told too little than too much.") In "Marriage" Moore is assuming that the discriminating reader shares her predilection.
Once again, it is William Carlos Williams who offers a useful critical tool for dealing with the text. In "A Novelette and Other Prose, 1921-1931," Williams wrote of Moore:
A course in mathematics would not be wasted on a poet, or a reader of poetry, if he remember no more from it than the intersection of loci: from all angles lines converging and crossing establish points. He might carry it further and say in his imagination that apprehension perforates at places, through to understanding--as white is at the intersection of blue and green and yellow and red. It is this white light that is the background of all good work. . . . The intensification of desire toward this purity is the modern variant. It is that which interests me most and seems most solid among the qualities I witness in my contemporaries; it is a quality present in much or even all that Miss Moore does.
Later, in 1948 in the Quarterly Review of Literature, he reiterates that point: "Therefore Miss Moore has taken recourse to the mathematics of art. Picasso does no different: a portrait is a stratagem singularly related to a movement among the means of the craft."
Williams also calls Moore's "Marriage" an "anthology of transit," meaning that one must allow all of Moore's directions, insights, tones, quotations, and epigrams--her "crazy quilt," in Hartman's parlance--to move and to intersect. Through the intersection of ideas, one comes to appreciate the profound complexity of one of life's great enigmas, the interaction of one human being with another in the enterprise called marriage. The poem does not precisely "mean" anything. It is instead a conversation, a comprehensive dialectic based upon some of the greatest myths, motifs, symbols, visions, and commentaries on the subject of marriage. It passes no judgment, solves no problems. If, as Doris Lessing has said, people are "hungry for answers, not hungry for ways of thinking toward problems," they will be disappointed. If they are willing to search for truths in the interstices, in the intersections of loci, they will learn a great deal from Moore's "little anthology of phrases [she] did not want to lose."
In "Feeling and Precision," Moore wrote, "Feeling at its deepest--as we all have reason to know--tends to be inarticulate." And that is an important "mathematical" principle in "Marriage." Although the poem is replete with the deepest of human emotions, the intersections of emotional loci occur with such disarming precision that the reader must remain attentive to find them. Taffy Martin has argued that the voice here and in other poems remains deadpan, that it does not seem to convey grand emotions. In such a stance, Martin feels, Moore creates a music particularly suitable for the twentieth century. One might argue instead that there are many voices in the poem and that they are not all deadpan. Sometimes the voice is that of the poet summarizing or synthesizing, but many times the voices are anonymous presenters of information, much of it ready-made from the past. In the intersection of the many voices, which speak but do not always hear, lies real poignancy and intense emotion, but emotion so deep that it tends to seem inarticulate.
In the poem "Silence," Moore observes that "the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint." (The phrase is itself an objet trouvé, borrowed from a friend, Miss A. M. Homans's father.) Perhaps the real intensity lies in the reader's final awareness that although human words attempt to communicate logic and feeling, people seldom really touch each other. Communication is a difficult thing, especially when what is to be communicated is shaded by intense feelings like those of love and desire. The following lines suggest the need for personal uniqueness and privacy in tension with the antithetical desire for intimacy:
"I should like to be alone";
to which the visitor replies,
"I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?"
Moore returns to the same idea late in the poem when she writes:
One sees that it is rare--
that striking grasp of opposites
opposed each to the other, not to unity.
There are actually so many voices in "Marriage" that the poem is orchestrated like a great piece of choral music, a polyphonic, one verging on cacophony but held in place by Moore's own subtle harmonies. It is a kind of chorus where various voices deliver brief soliloquies which are not heard by the other characters. Some of the speeches are comic, some are serious; and one point of view tends to be layered upon another. It is the reader who must sense the tangential quality of the many male and female viewpoints and find where those tangents eventually cross and where they sadly never touch at all. In a chapter entitled "The Principle of Accommodation: Moore, Eliot, and the Search for Community," John Slatin argues convincingly that Moore was affected by many of Eliot's poetic theories and strategies. One must grant that "Marriage" is a response to some of the strategies of The Waste Land, particularly the use of many voices. But the choices--the particular found objects and readymades that create the many voices--are of Moore's own design.
Consider, for example, Moore's leitmotif, which establishes a theme with variations that is echoed in the voices. Her repeated pattern here is not the syllabic line or the repeated stanza. There certainly is not a pattern as obvious as a refrain. The unifying figure is the circle, or perhaps more accurately, what Moore calls the cycloid, structures resembling the circle but overlapping, like scales on a fish or waves of sound. The pattern is repeated with many variations. There is first of all the wedding ring, that "fire-gilt steel / alive with goldenness." It is symbolic of "circular traditions" that have developed around the peculiar enterprise called marriage, itself a union of two intersecting circles. There is the "incandescent fruit," the apple, the visual representation of Eve's (and Adam's) demise. And there is the undulating snake and the colubrine (i.e., snakelike Adam); there is a circular enclosure, a paddock, full of leopards and giraffes, animals whose bodies are marked by circular designs. There is a cymbal that sounds before it is touched. There are stars, garters, buttons. Hercules pursues the labor of finding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. There is a reference to Columbus's trick of making an egg stand on end by breaking the shell. There are the eyes of a panther and the Euroclydon, the Greek explanation for the wave. Everything in the poem about marriage is thematically circular--except that the circles are not concentric. They may intertwine, intersect, pass in and out of each other, overlap, but they are always cycloids, separate circles seeking unity but finding instead the tension of opposites. So the first intersection of loci is visual and circular, a reechoing leitmotif in the poem.
Moore undertakes separate discussions of women and men, not only Eve and Adam, but also of characters that are a montage of many layers of femaleness and maleness. First she responds to Eve's beauty. She is so handsome that "she gave me a start." But she is also intelligent in an oddly funny kind of way, for she is "able to write simultaneously / in three languages" and can "talk in the meantime." (As the note suggests, Moore had actually read of this remarkable ability in the Scientific American.) It seems probable that such praise of a woman's linguistic ability as well as of her propensity for conversation struck Moore as amusing, but rather typical of the world's praise of an intelligent woman's mind: it was merely side-show material.
And Adam too is beautiful, but there is also something distinctly sinister about him as he moves with catlike, snakelike movements, crouching like a mythological monster in a Persian miniature. He is "alive" with words, the namer of things, with his voice like "the industrious waterfall," violently bearing all before it. He goes on speaking like the grand master of
past states, the present state,
. . . . . . . . . .
to promote one's joy.
In his own mind, he has become an idol. The amazing story of the serpent in the garden, which has been recast in the modern idiom and has now "shed snakeskin in the history of politeness / not to be returned to again," that "invaluable accident," has exonerated Adam. Whether in the old tradition or the new, the fall from grace was fortunate for Adam in that a way has been found to attribute the cosmic mistake to Eve. But having passed the blame to Eve, he has nobly chosen to stand beside her. And the world has come to
". . . see her in this common world,"
the central flaw
in that first crystal-fine experiment.
Next Moore expands her "Adam and Eve" into more voices, some of them telling great classical stories of complex marriages. There is the story of Hercules, who killed his own children and his beloved Megara in a fit of mindless rage and then did penance through twelve prodigious labors. And the tale appears of Ahasuerus, who cast off his beautiful wife, Vashti, at the urging of his advisers because she caused him to lose face. Her lack of instant obedience at a banquet might, his advisers said, threatened the obedience of all the women in Persia. And so Ahasuerus commissioned a gathering of virgins, which he dutifully deflowered every night for a year, until he came upon Esther, a beautiful Jewess (incognito, of course), one who was worthy of his discriminating tastes, whom he took as his special concubine. And then it was Esther, who, with her kinsman Mordecai, manipulated Ahasuerus and his adviser Haman at the tête-à-tête banquet until she successfully prevented a pogrom of her people and caused the ignominious end of the evil Haman.
Another voice offers a reference to Diana, the virgin-huntress of Greek mythology, who would not marry at all. From ancient times she was honored by a strange cult in which her votaries dressed as bears. She was sometimes identified with Hecate, the dismal goddess of the darkness of the lower world. In this poem, one myth intersects with another, as we meet the
black obsidian Diana
who "darkeneth her countenance
as a bear doth."
This Diana is
impatient to assure you
that impatience is the mark of independence,
not of bondage.
Moore carefully offers a note about that darkened countenance: "Ecclesiasticus." A major problem for modern readers in this controversial book of the Bible (which Protestants relegate to the Apocrypha but Catholics classify as deuterocanonical) is that the writer, Jesus, son of Sirach, characterizes the wickedness of women as the highest of all evils. In the passage to which Moore refers, he writes: "It will be more agreeable to abide with a lion and a dragon, than to dwell with a wicked woman. The wickedness of a woman changeth her face: and she darkeneth her countenance as a bear" (Ecclus. 25:23-24, DR). He also writes, "For from garments cometh a moth: and from a woman the iniquity of a man" (42:13, DR). But perhaps the most disturbing lines read, "Follow close if her eyes are bold, and be not surprised if she betray you: As a thirsty traveler with eager mouth drinks from any water that he finds, so she settles down before every tent peg and opens her quiver for every arrow" (26:11-12, NAB).
There is no question that Moore was a most fastidious woman and poet. Her only arguments with William Carlos Williams were over matters of good taste. And although she willingly printed stories and poems by D. H. Lawrence in the Dial, she did not hesitate to reject his work when she considered it less than tasteful. And yet her discreet reference to Ecclesiasticus seems to suggest that she wishes to remind the reader that some cultures have found women innately vile. This intersection of voices seems to be suggesting that one should not be surprised to find that some women will always be impatient with such characterization and the bondage it allows; some have a flair for independence.
But the voices are not all such serious ones. The poet-narrator offers some delightful lines, including the suggestion that the fire-gilt steel symbolizing marriage requires "all one's criminal ingenuity / to avoid!" Marriage is so endemic that only a criminal few can manage to escape its snares. There is great charm too in introducing Adam and Eve as spectators to the whole debacle, not unlike the readers of the poem. One does wonder what the "originals" think of marriage by this time. (In a recording of Moore reading "Marriage," there is no doubt that she means to amuse, particularly in the early lines.) She also directs a bit of levity toward Freud, asserting that
psychology which explains everything
and we are still in doubt.
And the poignant lines quoted earlier have a discordantly futile brand of humor:
"I should like to be alone"
to which the visitor replies,
"I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?"
The lines beginning "Unhelpful Hymen!" call up a disintegrating panorama from the Greek wedding song and the god of the wedding to something akin to a tawdry cupid on a modern mechanized billboard display.
a kind of overgrown cupid
reduced to insignificance
by the mechanical advertising
parading as involuntary comment,
by that experiment of Adam's.
The world has gone from magical mythology to a mechanical caricature, something in movable cardboard, one might presume. The speaker also calls up a light and comic voice from a parody of "The Rape of the Lock" (to which Moore herself had contributed) which counters with
... What monarch would not blush
to have a wife
with hair like a shaving-brush?
But serious issues persist. Like a discordant counterpoint, "he" and "she" begin to exchange lists of stereotypical charges, although they do not really listen to one another's complaints, or so it seems, if we identify the speakers thus:
HE: four o'clock does not exist
but at five o'clock
the ladies in their imperious humility
are ready to receive you.
SHE: . . . experience attests
that men have power
and sometimes one is made to feel it.
HE: The fact of woman is
"not the sound of the flute
but very poison."
SHE: Men are monopolists
of "stars, garters, buttons
unfit to be the guardians
of another person's happiness."
HE: These mummies
must be handled carefully--
SHE: revengefully wrought in the attitude
of an adoring child
to a distinguished parent.
HE: turn to the letter M
and you will find
that "a wife is a coffin."
SHE: This butterfly
this waterfly . . .
that has "proposed
to settle on my hand for life"--
What can one do with it?
HE: The fact forgot
that "some have merely rights
while some have obligations."
SHE: he loves himself so much
he can permit himself
no rival in that love.
But all of these differences do not explain what happens "below the incandescent stars / below the incandescent fruit." "Incandescent" can mean "aglow with ardor." That ardor is the great unknown that the poet describes as "the choicest piece of my life," that which starts
the heart rising
in its estate of peace
as a boat rises
with the rising of the water.
One does not need stars or apples or snakes to explain the incandescence of love and desire that overwhelmingly attracts what sometimes seem the most alien of creatures. (Note Moore's note cited above about D. H. Lawrence: "The music of sex itself, which druggedly compels men and women into the still sharp death of each other's arms.") Adam is "plagued by the nightingale / in the new leaves." He says of it, "It clothes me with a shirt of fire." He is afraid to drive the temptation off and yet equally afraid to call it to him. He is "unnerved by the nightingale" and, at the same time,
. . . dazzled by the apple,
impelled by "the illusion of a fire
effectual to extinguish fire."
Adam is overwhelmed by his desire. But then so is Eve:
. . . O thou
to whom from whom
without whom nothing--Adam.
The "strange experience of beauty" is "too much; / it tears one to pieces." So the pair stumble upon the solution of marriage, which William Godwin, the pragmatic philosopher and challenger of institutions, had called "a very trivial object indeed." Until he knew this primal urge, Adam had known "the ease of a philosopher / unfathered by a woman." Now he is reduced from both ease and philosophy by his desire. "Unhelpful Hymen!" a voice cries out.
And so men and women marry, although one observes that
Married people often look that way--
seldom and cold, up and down,
mixed and malarial,
with a good day and a bad.
Some commend marriage "as a fine art, as an experiment, / a duty or as merely recreation." Whichever the institution is, it continues, fueled by a commodity so mysterious it can only be envisioned by the imagination. As the voices cease, the speaker asks:
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?
How does one civilize a primal urge? How does one focus on the nobility of that "noble savage," the human animal? One way is by augmenting marriage with ritual lavishness. But adding mere "fiddle-head ferns, / lotus flowers, opuntias" to the marriage ceremony does not hide "its snake and the potent apple." And so the impossible experiment, "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," continues. One encounters it everywhere, "among those unpretentious / protégés of wisdom" and those "seeming to parade / as the debater and the Roman." With the simplicity of the inscription on Daniel Webster's statue, the impossibly circular quest goes on: "Liberty and union / now and forever." That "striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity" billows forth in the Euroclydon, with wave after futilely overlapping wave.
The poem ends with a visual image, a photograph, the classic wedding picture: "the Book on the writing table; / the hand in the breast-pocket." And all of the Adams and Eves of all time continue their hopeless search for liberty and for union, two antithetical states of being. As D. H. Lawrence had perceived, there are strange enmities between men and women whose wills are crossed. But moved by the mysterious magic of "the incandescent stars" and "the incandescent fruit," the heavy music of the emotions, the music of sex itself, men and women repeat their inevitable cycloid patterns.
"Marriage" is a very effective poem, at least for those readers who, as T S. Eliot had suggested, "are willing and accustomed to take a little trouble over poetry." Moore's success in "Marriage" occurs in part because she has turned to her cabinet of fossils, her "flies in amber," to pull off the shelves of her prodigious memory many different perceptions about the complexities of marriage. Sometimes the found objects, the objets trouvés, are lines that caught her fancy merely because of what they said or the way they said it. Some references carry the baggage of their stories (Diana, Ecclesiasticus, Ahasuerus, Hercules), while others are treasured primarily for their unique beauty ("something feline, / something colubrine," or "treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear"'). Perhaps reflecting some of the theories of Marcel Duchamp, Moore is suggesting that the important thing about a phrase is not that it is original but instead that she, as artist, chose it and placed it in a setting of her making. For the poem occurs, as William Carlos Williams has suggested, not in the originality of the materials but instead in what Moore does with them as she moves ideas and images along lines that will intersect and come alive in polyphonic conversations in the reader's mind. Sometimes the intersection produces laughter; sometimes it offers the most profound sadness. But it is this multiplication, this quickening, this burrowing through and blasting aside in which the poem happens. It is at the intersection of images and ideas that the white light of freshness and new insight really occurs. Moore was confident enough, and humble enough, to understand that she had to use the same materials as others before her. There was no need for pretense. Originality lay in edging ideas against one another in brilliantly novel ways.
There is far more magic to be discovered in "Marriage": the use of color, (the poem is cast primarily in various shades of white, with accents of blue, yellow and black), the use of internal rhyme to create harmony, and her experiments with "thought rhyme" as the Adams and Eves respond in their chorus. By noting her special use of borrowed materials, however, her objets trouvés and readymades in this complex poem, the reader has a useful key to her poetic method. It is possible once again to envision Moore as the imagnifico, the poet humble enough to understand that "the past is the present" and to acknowledge her place in the continuous order of creation, and yet brave enough to dynamite old combinations of ideas and strategies and to set them into new relationships.
From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.
"Marriage" begins in that cool manner for which Moore was already well known among a small circle of connoisseurs:
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
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
"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.)