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Morals, Manners, and "Marriage": Marianne Moore's Art of Conversation.

Contemporary accounts indicate that in addition to her other skills, Marianne Moore was a formidable talker. It also seems that she could be encouraged, or dared, to display this talent. Two anecdotes suggest her ability and her friends' reactions to it. Elizabeth Bishop relates the first:

A friend has told me of attending a party for writers and artists at which she introduced a painter to Marianne by saying, "Miss Moore has the most interesting vocabulary of anyone I know." Marianne showed signs of pleasure at this, and within a minute offhandedly but accurately used in a sentence a word I no longer remember that means an addiction, in animals, to licking the luminous numbers off the dials of clocks and watches. (153)

Miss Moore's "interesting" acquaintance with a surprising range of information is the subject of the second anecdote, told by Alfred Kreymborg:

Never having found [Moore] at a loss on any subject whatsoever, I wanted to give myself the pleasure of at least once hearing her stumped about something [so] I invited her to a ball game at the Polo Grounds.... The "L" was jammed... Marianne was totally oblivious to the discomfiture anyone else would have felt and, in answer to a question of mine, paraded whole battalions of perfectly marshaled ideas into long columns of balanced periods which no lurching... or pushing... disturbed....

Well, I got her safely to her seat and sat down beside her.... I... touched her arm and, indicating a man in the pitcher's box winding up with the movement Matty's so famous for... I quickly turned to her with: "Do you happen to know the gentleman who threw that strike?"

"I've never seen him before," she admitted, "but I take it it must be Mr. Mathewson."

I could only gasp, "Why?"

"I've read his instructive book on the art of pitching ... and it's a pleasure . . . to note how unerringly his execution supports his theories." (qtd. in Molesworth 164)

These anecdotes show the double edge of Moore's conversational brilliance. If at Bishop's "party for writers and artists" it nets Moore the flattering recognition of her peers, in Kreymborg's story it functions more aggressively: her "battalions" of ideas and "columns" of periods sound like the talk of someone who is out of her element but in no mood to surrender to unfamiliarity. The nature of what is at stake in Moore's facility with verbal thrust and parry is the subject of "To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity:"

"Attack is more piquant than concord," but when

You tell me frankly that you would like to feel

My flesh beneath your feet,

I'm all abroad; I can but put my weapon up, and

Bow you out.

Gesticulation--it is half the language.

Let unsheathed gesticulation be the steel

Your courtesy must meet,

Since in your hearing words are mute, which to my senses

Are a shout. (Observations 52)

Here Moore puts her conversational weapon up after realizing that her boorish antagonist is fighting with much cruder tools. Encountering his naked belligerence in the form of a wish to feel her "flesh beneath [his] feet," [1] she resorts to mute gesture as the only dignified response. Her triumph in this encounter is twofold. On the one hand, she has shown her opponent the door and kept her self-possession. On the other, she has emphasized the keenness of her verbal sword by declining to use it against an unworthy foe. In this way she excludes her attacker not only from her own company but also, implicitly, from the company of all people skillful, tactful, and alert enough to engage in real conversation. [2] Thus the poem articulates what the anecdotes suggest: for Moore conversation is as much a mixture of elan, defiance, and aggression as it is a socially cohesive practice. This side of Moore's interest in conversation tends to get lost when critics focus on the contemporary resonances of the term and thereby obscure the tensions that it reveals when Moore uses it in regard to poetr y. [3]

Commentary on conversation and its role as a guide to her writing runs throughout Moore's prose; often when she writes about literary style and rhythm conversation comes up as the test of each. Moore uses conversation to express a range of purposes, including confrontation, subterfuge, artistic expression, politeness, and the exchange of sympathies and ideas. She uses it, to borrow Pamela White Hadas's elegant phrase, to engage in "the fight to be affectionate and the fight not to be" (152). Conversation is a kind of shorthand for Moore's ideas about honesty, naturalness, taste, and the ways in which such moral bearings show through in the work one does. In order to understand how such bearings may become a style, I will first read the moments in her critical prose when she defines the moral and tonal valences that the word conversation takes on when she uses it with regard to poetry. These valences include its disparaging resonance when used by her male peers to describe how women spend their time and Moore 's reappropriation of the word as a positive description of a complex aesthetic act. On this basis I will then read "Marriage" to elucidate her understanding of a conversational style as a response to her demands of herself to be rigorously and unapologetically true to her gift for invention as well as responsible for the clarity and moral force of her work.

As an early example of her response to the charged status of women's conversation as cultural artifact and poetic subject, Moore's review of T. S. Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations is instructive. In Eliot's first book of poems Hawthorne's "d--d mob of scribbling women" is still very much present, except that it has become a mob of chattering women. Women get to speak (or at least cry or laugh) in five of the book's 12 poems. The emblematic nature of their conversation is striking in "Portrait of a Lady," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and "Conversation Galante" in particular.

In the first poem, a young man makes three visits to an older woman's drawing room; each time he visits, she attempts to draw him further into intimacy, conversational and perhaps otherwise, than he is willing to go. The young man who narrates the poem, and whose half self-reproaching, half coldly contemptuous reflections are the medium of the "portrait," says nothing back to her. Instead, she speaks into a void; the one-sided conversation "slips / Among velleities and carefully caught regrets / Through attenuated tones of violins" (18). If the youth recognizes his callowness in refusing to respond to her overtures ("youth is cruel, and has no remorse / And smiles at situations which it cannot see") his is nonetheless the privileged viewpoint. Her talk is, finally, too cliched, too cloying to be taken seriously, and the speaker wonders "if she should die some afternoon, ... should I have the right to smile?" (23).

"Prufrock's" famous refrain "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" is perhaps the most direct instance of what women's talk stands for in educated, cosmopolitan poetry of the time. The room in which the women are talking is a drawing room; outside, Prufrock stands and observes the social life for which he feels himself unfit by his age and his timidity, and from which he is divided by a cold, sleeping, city fog. Despite his sure knowledge of his defects, however, Prufrock, in Stephen Spender's reading, "is like an eel at the bottom of a tank. He knows the depths and the darkness which the deceived creatures who swim around in their artificial light do not know" (34). Certainly the most deceived creatures in the poem are the women, who think they display their culture and wit by "Talking of Michelangelo." In fact, as the poem's perspective makes clear, they present what Hugh Kenner calls "a simple contrast of conceptions: talking women, and a heroic visionary" (7). The only women in the poem worth listening to are mermaids, who do not say but sing. Prufrock does not think they will sing to him, but in any case he has an edge over them for, as Spender argues, "alongside all this negativeness of statement there is the paradoxical nature of the life of the dream or imagination [:] if ... I have walked on the beach and envisioned them in imagination ... then in imagination they have sung to me" (34). The reactions to this poem by readers as canny as Spender and Kenner indicate not only that the misogyny is and was legible in nonfeminist readings, but also that it is intrinsic to the poem's consideration of life and art. [4]

"Conversation Galante," the third poem in which a woman speaks, is a duologue in which, if the man is being as "inane" as he gallantly says he is, the woman is, it seems, not even quite aware that he knows he is being fatuous, and that he is making fun of her as well as of himself in doing so:

And I then: "Someone frames upon the keys

That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain

The night and moonshine; music which we seize

To body forth our own vacuity."

She then: "Does this refer to me?"

"Oh no, it is I who am inane."

"You, madam, are the eternal humorist,

The eternal enemy of the absolute,

Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!

With your air indifferent and imperious

At a stroke our mad poetics to confute--" (38)

My summary treatment of Eliot's book ignores most of what Moore herself valued in it. However, it is not unfair to observe that in it women's conversation bears much of the brunt of the young Eliot's dissatisfaction with modern society's dishonesties and pretensions. Indeed, the mere fact that women are talking is all Prufrock needs to note in order for Eliot to gesture at a world of deadening, elitist, ignorant social chat.

The first paragraph of Moore's review of this book (for Poetry, in 1918) demonstrates her mixed reactions:

It might be advisable for Mr. Eliot to publish a fangless edition of Prufrock and Other Observations for the gentle reader who likes his literature, like breakfast coffee or grapefruit, sweetened. A mere change in the arrangement of the poems would help a little. It might begin with "La Figlia che Piange," followed perhaps by the "Portrait of a Lady"; for the gentle reader, in his eagerness for the customary bit of sweets, can be trusted to overlook the ungallantry, the youthful cruelty, of the substance of the "Portrait." It may as well be admitted that this hardened reviewer cursed the poet in his mind for this cruelty while reading the poem; and just when he was ready to find extenuating circumstances--the usual excuses about realism--out came this "drunken helot" (one can hardly blame the good English reviewer whom Ezra Pound quotes!) with that ending. It is hard to get over this ending with a few moments of thought; it wrenches a piece of life at the roots. (Complete Prose 34)

Perhaps the most striking feature of this paragraph is the number of characters who inhabit it. There is "the gentle reader" and his half-empathetic adversary "this hardened reviewer." There is "Mr. Eliot" and his alterego the "drunken helot," a "good English reviewer," and "Ezra Pound." This review is unique in Moore's prose for the degree to which Moore "tells all the truth but tells it slant," shifting voice and attitude to accommodate contradictory judgments.

At pains not to suggest that she would have Eliot "sweeten" his poems, Moore creates the "gentle reader" as her repository of squeamish, sentimental feeling about literature. So tone-deaf is this reader that the elements of "ungallantry" and "youthful cruelty" to which the reviewer objects, and to which the gentle reader surely would as well, are "overlook[ed]" by him. In taking on a persona capable of registering cruelty without necessarily wishing it different, Moore chooses that of the "hardened reviewer," a male figure who, presumably, curses Eliot out of noble-mindedness rather than a sense of personal injury. This persona allows Moore the strength of disinterestedness; a male reviewer cannot be accused of partisan feeling in objecting to "ungallantry." The levels of distancing Moore affects in order to criticize Eliot are remarkable. By calling its author the "good English reviewer," the first adjective slyly indicating his affiliation with the ignorant "gentle reader," she is able to employ the description of the poem's narrator as a "drunken helot" to indicate the heedless savagery she feels in the poem's end. Indicating that even this strategy of remove is not quite sufficient, she mentions the name of Ezra Pound, borrowing his literary authority to back her judgment and perhaps to license her repetition of the slightly crude "drunken helot" remark.

The attitude of restrained protest with which the review begins shades into unambiguous approval by its end. "Whatever one may feel about sweetness in literature," she concedes, "there is also the word honesty, and this man is a faithful friend of the objects he portrays; altogether unlike the sentimentalist who really stabs them treacherously in the back while pretending affection." The progression of standards to which Moore holds Eliot in this review--from gallantry to accuracy to honesty--is revealing. By the end of the review the only one who needs no excuses made for him is Eliot; Moore's own inclination to curse, to protest having "a piece of life wrenched at the roots," has been apologized for ("It may as well be admitted...") and her inclination to find some palliation in accuracy dismissed as "the usual excuses," so that Eliot may be accorded "honesty," a moral stance that can claim that the best friendship is the most uncompromising in its perceptions.

The self-abnegation and impulse to disguise criticism in matters of gender that characterize this early review disappear in favor of something sharper in Moore's later criticism. In 1924, for example, she notes of Maxwell Bodenheim that "the writer's attitude of pronouncement reaches its apex in the statement by one of his dramatis personae, that there is zest in bagging a woman who is one's equal in wits; the possibility of bagging a superior in wits not being allowed to confuse the issue" (Complete Prose 104). By 1931 she asks directly "is not the view of woman expressed by the Cantos older fashioned than that of Siam and Abyssinia? knowledge of the femaleness of chaos, of the octopus, of Our mulberry leaf, woman, appertaining more to Turkey than to a Roger Ascham?" (Complete Prose 272). The starkness with which Moore later puts her complaints about sexism highlight the layers of hesitation and concealment in which she wraps them at the beginning of her critical career. [5] Moore was no mermaid; if she was to be taken seriously as a critic it would be in the persuasive power of her speech, whether she was speaking of Michelangelo or of Mr. Eliot, and Eliot's book makes clear the difficulties of establishing oneself as a woman talking high culture.

Not that such talk often seems difficult as Moore performs it in her poetry. Moore "talks" about, or within, or by means of high cultural references in many poems, and her tone as she does so is quite different from the one Eliot envisions. In "Prufrock" the women talking of Michelangelo are guilty of a number of crimes: they are women talking about a great male artist, they are doing so as a means of social interaction rather than intellectual engagement, and they are talking about Michelangelo in particular because his work is so widely familiar that it is not necessary to learn much in order to sound knowledgeable. Presumably, the name Michelangelo fills in their minds the same popular slot for "great artist" that Shakespeare would for "great writer." When Moore, on the other hand, writes about what she looks for in paintings, in "When I Buy Pictures" (1921), her tone is casual but her intent is not:

When I Buy Pictures

or what is closer to the truth,

when I look at that of which I may regard myself as the imaginary possessor,

I fix upon what would give me pleasure in my average moments:

the satire upon curiosity in which no more is discernible than the intensity of the mood;

or quite the opposite--the old thing, the medieval decorated hat-box,

in which there are hounds with waists diminishing like the waist of the hour-glass,

and deer and birds and seated people;

it may be no more than a square of parquetry; the literal biography perhaps,

in letters standing well apart on a parchment-like expanse;

an artichoke in six varieties of blue; the snipe-legged hieroglyphic in three parts;

the silver fence protecting Adam's grave, or Michael taking Adam by the wrist...

The casual tone of this poem comes from several places: the immediate modification of the phrase which is also its tide, as though the speaker were speaking without much planning, making necessary corrections as she goes; the focus on the personal experience of the "I" who speaks, including the admission that she is guided by her "average moments"; and the eclecticism of her examples, as though she were looking around a room at her accumulations and mentioning each as she sees it. As a model of a lady speaking casually about her preferences in art it differs considerably from Eliot's depiction. In the first place, this poem is structured around a particular list. If the speaker is casual she is also informed, and ready to be precise about her responses: the diminishing waists of the hounds and the six (she has counted) varieties of blue are what please her. Unlike the women in "Prufrock," this conversationalist has a varied and exact idea of what she responds to in art and has examples at hand to discuss thos e responses. Unlike the woman in "Conversation Galante," this conversationalist needs no gallantry to compensate for her talk; she is not flirting but discussing art.

Thus, when Moore describes her poetry as conversational, she is assuming, in the face of stereotypes to the contrary, a certain level of conversation, in which the talk is in some ways informal but nonetheless pointed, precise, and informed. These were qualities she looked for in other poets, qualities she sought at the level of their phrasing; recurrent throughout her reviews of poetry is the question of how poems sound. Vachel Lindsay, for example, comes in for criticism because Moore finds it difficult to enunciate some of his word combinations (Complete Prose 282). When she is displeased with Conrad Aiken's poetry, it is because "one is not always sure whether the note is that of singing or speaking" (282). In contrast, some of her highest praise goes to poets who write in ways that make her think of the spoken word. For example, she says of H.D. that her aesthetic "values simultaneously ivory and the chiseled ivory of speech" (81) and of Hardy that his phrases "stay in the mind like the timbre of heard speech" (195). In describing the special "virtuosity or prodigiousness of diction" of certain writers she admires, she says it comes from "a kind of effortless compactness,. . suggesting conversation and strengthened by etymology" (165) [6]

The essay "Feeling and Precision" comments on the issue in a wellknown passage:

One of New York's more painstaking magazines asked me, at the suggestion of a contributor, to analyze my sentence structure, and my instinctive reply might have seemed dictatorial: you don't devise a rhythm, the rhythm is the person, and the sentence but a radiograph of personality. The following principles, however, are alds to composition by which I try, myself, to be guided: if a long sentence with dependent clauses seems obscure, one can break it into shorter units by imagining what phrases it would fall into as conversation; in the second place, expanded explanation tends to spoil the lion's leapuan awkwardness which is surely brought home to one in conversation; and in the third place, we must be as clear as our natural reticence allows us to be. (396)

The role of conversation in these principles is varied, standing as an example both of technique and of tact. Paraphrased, the three principles might be that well-composed sentences must have conversation's intelligibility, agility, and sense of propriety Moore's description of the corrective value of conversation in written composition suggests also that conversation may be presumed to have all of those qualities, that it is a medium in which matters of form and taste act instinctively (like the lion leaping) and reliably (as awkwardness is "surely" brought home in it). These are high standards for conversation, but they make sense if conversation is the public face of "rhythm [which] is the person, and the sentence [which is] a radiograph of personality." The conception of the sentence as an X ray indicates the intimate links Moore sees between style and person, a connection she makes explicit more than once.

When Moore writes of the "unequivocal accents which are responsible for" an author's "distinct tone of voice" (32), and when she says flatly, "you don't devise a rhythm, the rhythm is the person," she means by "rhythm" qualities different from those that can be caught on tape. To understand a poet's rhythm, in Moore's scheme, is to understand a great deal about how she thinks, about the sources as well as the habits of her expression. In this way it resembles an intricate slang, if slang is understood as a conversational idiom that grows increasingly intelligible as one becomes more familiar with the community where it is in use. Apropos of slang Moore says regretfully, "it is true that in America we sometimes lack altitude and as masters of slang, we do, as we are often told, excel" (165). However, the insider's knowledge on which slang depends allows the poet certain freedoms. For example, Moore describes the conversational intimacy between her and her mother with reference to the slangy word rump:

Ordinarily, I would never use the word rump. But I can perfectly well say to Mother, "Mother, there's a thread on your rump," because she knows that I'm referring to Cowper's pet hare, "Old Tiney," who liked to play on the carpet and "swing his rump around!" (qtd. in Bishop 130)

One implication of this story is that Moore's reader knows when to insert quotation marks. Thus Moore can be sure that her intellectual and moral bearings will be read correctly; in this case, that she is someone who has read and remembered Cowper's poem, not someone who would ordinarily use a slang, and therefore slightly disrespectful, word in reference to her mother. It also implies that a word can be rendered usable by deft recontextualization; if Moore uses rump in the knowledge that her mother will catch the allusion, then rump is a permissible word, and it is the context of mutually understanding conversation as much as Cowper's precedent that has made the difference.

Moore's story about the word rump and the conversational context that makes it possible to use nicely illustrates the bridging of private and public usage that conversation effects for Moore. It allows her to reinvent rules of propriety to accommodate her natural sauciness, so that she gets to refer to her mother's rump at the same time that she shows her understanding of convention: "ordinarily," she would never use the word. A similar process is at work when Moore negotiates the demands of private glee and public accountability with respect to her poetic style by calling it conversational. Moore values the competing imperatives in her work--to be confident in her innovations no matter how strange they might seem, and to remain comprehensible to a reading public--differently over the course of her career. The reader can trace her changing evaluations of which responsibility is the most pressing in the evolution of her stylistic inventions. One of her most commanding solutions may be read in "Marriage," a po em that concerns itself with the possibility of making poetry conversational.

"Marriage," Moore's longest and perhaps most difficult poem, represents the high point of her work in free verse. [7] During the years from 1921 to 1925, when she was publishing primarily in the Dial, Moore's poems turn from eccentric syllable grids and elaborate rhyme schemes to free verse in which quotation plays a newly important role. "Marriage" is the most formally self-reflective of these poems. Read as an experiment in pushing certain of her stylistic innovations to their limits, it has much to say about the skepticism with which Moore regarded her fascination with unsociably complicated forms. [8] From its opening lines onward, "Marriage" poses its subject as a problem, a set of alternatives to be tested and explored, whether by disputation or conversation, as the case may turn out. Part of the difficulty of "Marriage" lies in its rapid, unmarked stylistic shifts. To the eye the poem is a long column of free verse, unpunctuated by stanzas, syllable grids, or rhymes. Within that uniformity, however, l ies a bewildering array of stylistic modes. As I will argue, a consideration of how these modes do and do not harmonize will show one way that Moore found to write in the complicated registers of conversation. [9] The first 15 lines introduce possibilities for thinking and talking about marriage that the rest of the poem will follow:


This institution,

perhaps one should say enterprise

out of respect for which

one says one need not change one's mind

about a thing one has believed in,

requiring public promises of one's intention

to fulfill a private obligation:

I wonder what Adam and Eve

think of it by this time,

this firegilt steel

alive with goldenness;

how bright it shows-

'of circular traditions and impostures,

committing many spoils,'

requiring all one's criminal ingenuity

to avoid! (Selected Poems 72)

While posing the definitional problems of marriage (institution or enterprise?) that will become the subject of the poem, these first lines also lay out the various stylistic tools with which the poem will consider "opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity" (80). In wondering "what Adam and Eve think of it by this time," they begin by introducing a mythical, allusive framework for marriage, a thread that will run through the poem as it uses images of Eden and its inhabitants to discuss the allurements and dangers of marriage. Immediately after these lines, the poem turns from literate, ironical allusiveness to vivid metaphors of the poet's own devising: "this firegilt steel / alive with goldenness; / how bright it shows." The reference to Adam and Eve suggests to the reader that this poem has a history in a much older story, and that the poet's relationship to that story is likely to be both witty and serious. The quick shift to a descriptive metaphor for a wedding ring, however, changes the poem' s register; suddenly the poet is working in a contemplative and lyrical vein, albeit one still tempered by a certain skepticism: the ring glittering in this poem is not in fact gold, but gilt steel.

The next four lines display two of Moore's most familiar stylistic devices: quotation and epigram. By way of amplifying her own metaphor for the wedding ring, she quotes Francis Bacon: "of circular traditions and impostures, / committing many spoils." The manner in which the poet adduces this quotation is logically audacious. It does not in fact refer to marriage at all, but by virtue of the word circular, a link to the ring implicit in the preceding lines, Moore is able to treat it as though it does. With this verbal sleight-of-hand in mind, Moore writes of "Marriage," in the notes at the end of the Complete Poems, that it is made of "statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly" (271). [10] While this description drastically understates the force of the poem, it does mark one of its persistent methods: the assemblage of independent verbal objects against the organizing backdrop of the idea of marriage.

The section ends with one final stylistic shift, into epigram, as the poet exclaims of marriage that it requires "all one's criminal ingenuity / to avoid!" The dramatic suspension of the enjambment in these lines, a brief suspension that lends force to their wit, is a device Moore uses sparingly, as in "The Labors of Hercules" when she notes "it is one thing to change one's mind, / another to eradicate it" (Selected Poems 60). Her more usual mode is aphorism: "distaste which takes no credit to itself is best" (67), "It is not what I eat that is / my natural meat" (5), "The gleaning is more than the vintage" (14). In "Marriage," however, Moore interlaces her tendency to moral formulations with humor, as in the lines about "criminal ingenuity," and a kind of doubt, which turns what might elsewhere have been instructive aphorism into something more cutting. For example, she says of Adam that "he loves himself so much, / he can permit himself / no rival in that love" (79) and says "there is in woman / a quality of mind / which as an instinctive manifestation / is unsafe" (74) and calls marriage itself "Unhelpful Hymen! / a kind of overgrown cupid" (76).

If the poem "Marriage" has a motto, it might well be the 19th line: "we are still in doubt." As an exposition and as an experiment in style, the poem asks the same question: is the "striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity," an "amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility" (73)? Expositionally, it wonders about the possibility of amalgamating in marriage public and private, institution and enterprise, man and woman, individual and community. Stylistically it combines "experiment," "fine art," "ritual," and "recreation" (76) in conjoining its disparate tools: allusion, metaphor, citation, and epigrammatic commentary. This combination is itself an uneasy marriage, which verges frequently on unintelligibility as competing modes work side by side. Like the idea of marriage that the poem investigates, the poem itself keeps asking whether the "disputation" (77) by which it must prove itself is a fight that will tear it apart or a conversation that will bind it together, in however uneasy a peace.

In this sense, the question of how "plausibly" the poet manages to arrange her different poetic materials is of the essence. Like a good conversationalist, she should be able to inflect each change in tone, image, idea, and method so that the whole to which they contribute has a discernible shape that does not distort any one of its elements. The possibility of achieving such a balance is an issue that concerns Moore from some of her earliest poems onward. [11] "Marriage" poses the problem of complexity that must not become murkiness, either formally or thematically. Formally, as we have seen, it moves in undemarcated, rapid-fire transitions between stylistic methods, principally allusion, metaphor, citation, and epigram, challenging the reader and the poet to find the "hidden principle" by which they may be understood to belong to the same poem. Thematically, it concerns the confusion that results when Adam and Eve talk to each other, implicitly asking if their conversations can be understood to constitute the "unity" of marriage. More specifically, it asks what efficacy "politeness" can have in making conversationalists out of these opposed people, who stand in unequal relations to the social structures of the world they inhabit.

Eve's role in the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of their communication is pivotal. On the one hand, she is an appealing conversationalist,

so handsome

she gave me a start,

able to write simultaneously

in three languages--

English, German and French--

and talk in the meantime (72)

On the other hand, marriage is a realm in which her evident powers may not help her much. The poet intimates this by juxtaposing two aspects of marriage, the drawing-room banter that accompanies a proposal and the sensually charged strangeness of physical union that comes afterward:

I have seen her...

equally positive in demanding a commotion

and in stipulating quiet:

"I should like to be alone";

to which the visitor replies,

"I should like to be alone;

why not be alone together?"

Below the incandescent stars

below the incandescent fruit,

the strange experience of beauty;

its existence is too much;

it tears one to pieces

and each fresh wave of consciousness

is poison. (73)

In both situations Eve is somewhat at a loss; her positive desire to be alone is met with a wily countersuggestion, and the prospect of the actual union, "the strange experience of beauty," is both alluring and "poison." There are several reasons for her ambivalence, the first of which is intrinsic to her: even in this poem she is the object of suspicion, "the central flaw / in that first crystal-fine experiment, / this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility." As the smooth shading of "that first crystal-fine experiment" into "this amalgamation" shows, Eden and marriage are closely allied in this poem, each an experiment, each doomed because of Eve's presence as "the central flaw."

Her "flaw," however, is complicated, and has more to do with the strictures of marriage than with an original sin on her part. The poet establishes this connection right before introducing Adam into the poem by noting that Eve is "constrained in speaking of the serpent-- / shed snakeskin in the history of politeness / not to be returned to again-- / that invaluable accident / exonerating Adam" (73). The "history of politeness" is an unusual description of the context in which the first fall occurred; we might have expected the history of knowledge, or presumption, or sin. Instead, Moore frames her discussion of Eve's trespass as an issue of manners: Eve's in trying what the snake suggested, Adam's in doing what his wife urged. That Moore calls this trespass an "accident" implies that it need not have been Eve who made the mistake; Adam, had he been as alive as his wife to the demands of social intercourse, might have done the same. It also suggests that what was lost in the first fall was not only marriage's innocence but also its politeness; the first marriage, we are to gather, involved a species of courtesy that we can now only imagine.

What has replaced this original courtesy, the poem suggests, is a struggle for power and an adherence to forms without an animating desire for spiritual unity. [12] A long passage in the latter half of the poem, immediately preceding the onset of Adam and Eve's talk, paints an intimidating picture of marriage:

"Married people often look that way"--

"seldom and cold, up and down,

mixed and malarial

with a good day and a bad."

"When do we feed?"

We occidentals are so unemotional,

we quarrel as we feed;

self lost, the irony preserved

in the Ahasuerus tete-a-tete banquet"

with its small orchids like snakes' tongues,

with its "good monster, lead the way."

with little laughter

and munificence of humor

in that quixotic atmosphere of frankness

in which, "four o'clock does not exist,

but at five o'clock

the ladies in their imperious humility

are ready to receive you;"

in which experience attests

that men have power

and sometimes one is made to feel it. (77-78)

The first four lines establish that marriage has a "look" and that it is not always pleasant. The glances that the married people exchange are distant and evaluative, continually "up and down" as they take each other's measure. This is a couple that would seem to be losing what the poem earlier terms "the fight to be affectionate," and the subsequent lines illuminate some of the obstacles which have to be overcome in that fight. By way of characterizing marriage, this passage focuses on the domestic ritual of mealtime, the traditional meeting ground of families, and hence the arena of both conversation and disputation. In establishing the function of the table in family life, Moore notes that "we occidentals are so unemotional, / we quarrel as we feed." This is a curious observation, since the cliche is that "orientals" lack emotion. In making such a statement, however, Moore links an "oriental" tradition of dining rituals to "emotion." She implies that in "occidental" life, the elaborate rituals surrounding food have been reduced to a thoughtless habit, signified by the crude question "when do we feed?" This contrast, between a meaningful ritual and a mindless habit, mirrors the larger split between ideas of marriage that we have previously examined: on the one hand, a splendor that is foreign but alluring and weighted with significance; on the other, a social form that binds people to custom but not to each other.

The next lines sketch the cost of this form to each of its participants by describing the "Ahasuerus tete-a-tete banquet." Ahasuerus's banquet occurs in the book of Esther, the central element in a story about the successful attempt of one woman to use the forms of marriage to overcome a power structure opposed to her and her people. This air of subterranean power play pervades the characterization of marriage in the lines that follow, in which the "snakes' tongues" remind the reader that this "banquet," which is also a microcosm of marriage, is never free from an original stain, while the orchids hint at the curious lavishness of the rituals surrounding marriage, including shared meals. Meanwhile, everything else is bloody-mindedness as the banquet becomes the playing field for different kinds of power. One voice, presumably the husband's, commands, "good monster, lead the way," as the drunken Stephano commands a fawning and servile but ultimately resentful Caliban in The Tempest (2.2.165). There is humor, as the reader sees the false securities of the husband and the manipulations of the wife, but little laughter since this is a bitter joke at best. It is also a structurally necessary irony; given the forms of obedience and command assigned in traditional marriage roles, the participants are bound to blindness and deception as long as they work within them. The passage links this necessity to the forms of genteel feminine life generally, by calling it "that quixotic atmosphere of frankness / in which, 'four o'clock does not exist, / but at five o'clock / the ladies in their imperious humility / are ready to receive you.'"

This training in righteous hypocrisy, combined with the fact that "men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it," begins to explain the mistrust that fuels the long duologue between "He" and "She" (presumably Adam and Eve) that follows. Adam's principle grievance is Eve's duplicity. He calls her "uniquely disappointing, / revengefully wrought in the attitude / of an adoring child / to a distinguished parent." [13] Eve, on her part, complains of Adam's thoughtless power, claiming that "men are monopolists / of 'stars, garters, buttons / and other shining baubles'-- / unfit to be the guardians of another person's happiness." The only point of contact their monologues can manage is the final, pointed interchange in which Eve notes, "you know so many artists who are fools," to which Adam replies, "you know so many fools who are not artists" (79). Otherwise their "conversation" is really an alternation of incompatible perspectives from people too distant from each other to actually converse. This is a pe ssimistic poem about the possibility of real communication between the most intimately connected people; the narrator, having reported the strange nonconversation of Adam and Eve, remarks that "he loves himself so much, / he can permit himself / no rival in that love. / She loves herself so much, / she cannot see herself enough--" (79). Moore equals this distaste only in "Novices," published in the same year. In that poem she chastises "stupid man; men are strong and no one pays any attention: / stupid woman; women have charm, and how annoying they can be" (Selected Poems 69).

The narrator ends on this note, with a long, ironic portrait of Adam and Eve, locked together and fighting their battles:

What can one do for them-

these savages condemned to disaffect

all those who are not visionaries

alert to undertake the silly task

of making people noble?

This model of petrine fidelity

who "leaves her peaceful husband

only because she has seen enough of him"-

that orator reminding you

"I am yours to command." (79-80)

In representing the deadlock between the flighty wife and the pompous husband, the poem turns increasingly to emblems of restrictive and distorting form:

One sees that it is rare--

that striking grasp of opposites

opposed each to the other, not to unity,

which in cycloid inclusiveness

has dwarfed the demonstration

of Columbus with the egg--

a truth of simplicity--

that charitive Euroclydon

of frightening disinterestedness

which the world hates (80)

The idea of "opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity" demonstrates that in fact the problem lies not so much in the man or in the woman but in the "unity" to which they are asked to submit. The reference to Columbus illustrates the damage of such enforced conformity. An old and cranky Columbus, so the story goes, claimed to be able to make an egg stand up straight on one end. When asked to prove it he gently crunched in one end of an egg shell, giving it a flat surface on which to balance. This is a less than optimistic view of what marriage asks of its participants, and an equally skeptical image for literary form. Not surprisingly, the poem ends in increasing stylistic fragmentation and thematic suspicion. The introduction of the Euroclydon, a tempestuous wind (Acts 27:14), blows the rest of the poem out of joint as its shape, the remaining force of continuity, alters for the first time:

that charitive Euroclydon

of frightening disinterestedness

which the world hates,


"I am such a cow,

if I had a sorrow

I should feel it for a long time;

I am not one of those

who have a great sorrow

in the morning

and a great joy at noon";

which says: "I have encountered it

among those unpretentious

proteges of wisdom,

where seeming to parade

as the debater and the Roman,

the statesmanship

of an archaic Daniel Webster

persists to their simplicity of temper

as the essence of the matter:

`Liberty and union

now and forever';

the Book on the writing-table;

the hand in the breast-pocket." (80-81)

When this wind speaks it sounds like the cat in "My Apish Cousins," a voice dripping with disdain for its subject, in this case the moralizing that surrounds people's attempts to make marriage an object of veneration rather than critical study. [14] In portraying this attitude the speaker, and the poem, can offer only an absurd emblem of self-satisfaction in the statue of Daniel Webster, who proclaims that "Liberty and union / now and forever" are "the essence of the matter." The problem with such an assertion is that it relies for its authority simply on the gravity of the tableau: "the Book on the writing-table; / the hand in the breast-pocket." The insufficiency of such authority will be the subject of the much later poem "The Jerboa" (1932), in which the immobile grandeur of the Romans is contrasted unfavorably with the limber jerboa who "honors the sand by assuming its color" and travels "by fifths and sevenths, in leaps of two lengths."

The extent to which she herself could achieve a similarly limber poetics was a perplexing question for Moore, early and late. In 1916, at the very beginning of her career as a published poet, Moore writes to H.D.:

I have always been disappointed not to be able to put into my work... a fighting spirit, and it delights me that anything I have written should... seem to you to set itself in opposition to mediocrity and the spirit of compromise. (Selected Letters 113)

This early desire to oppose mediocrity and compromise, however, would keep uneasy company with an equally strong regret at "anything that is a stumbling block to my reader," and more importantly, "a real Christ-like desire to aid, tolerate, and endure,--without any desire to dazzle" (Selected Letters 123, 39). In writing conversational poetry, Moore kept faith with both of these different impulses, insisting on the one hand that others recognize her "fighting spirit" in the force and dexterity of her linguistic inventiveness, and on the other that she herself remain aware of the necessity for clarity and intelligibility. "Marriage," a poem about the irreconcilabilities that make up the most intimate of conversations, expresses the inherent tension between conversation as a forum for individual power and conversation as a game of social convention and cohesion. In this respect, the poem's searching critique of marriage and the forms it imposes on people is matched by its own stylistic self-interrogation. The a mbivalence with which it views the idea of marriage as "liberty and union, now and forever" is also directed at the mixture of liberty and union it attempts in making a poem out of as mixed and yet distinct materials as it does. In the edgy disgruntlement of its final image, "Marriage" prefigures the mixture of pride and isolated mournfulness with which Moore came to imagine her style in "The Monkey Puzzle" (1925), the last poem she published for seven years: [15]

This porcupine-quilled, complicated starkness-

this is beauty--"a certain proportion in the skeleton which gives the best results."

One is at a loss, however, to know why it should be here,

in this morose part of the earth--to account for its origin at all;

but we prove, we do not explain our birth.

HEATHER CASS WHITE teaches at the University of Rochester. She writes about modern and contemporary American poetry.


(1.) There is no pronoun in the poem to indicate that its addressee is male rather than female. Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes, however, that

the opening line is taken from a Hardy novel called A Pair of Blue Eyes, in which an earnest young woman writer of a poorish medieval romance finds herself more interested and provoked by her unknown (male) reviewer than in a letter from her apparent fiance.... Using Moore's source makes a palimpsest of a literary and a quasi-romantic relationship. (21)

That the "you" addressed in this context is male seems reasonable to me, given the likely gender of her critics. David Bromwich argues:

Every reader, I think, will feel that the person addressed in this poem is a man ... together with the authority of "bow you out," [the phrase "my flesh beneath your feet"] points to a sexual undercurrent that is apparent throughout the poem. (71)

(2.) My argument with respect to this poem, and to Moore's understanding of conversation generally, has affinities with Robert Pinsky's. Of "To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity," Pinsky writes: "The poem is indeed about conversation that does not take place, words that are withheld, language as a social weapon that goes unused except in Moore's powerful imagination" (14). Pinsky's larger concern is to show that

Repeatedly and characteristically, Moore's poems construct an elaborate social presence that contrives to disguise or protect, just as manners sometimes do in life. Moore's ambivalent attraction toward the idea of communal life expresses itself, then teasingly cancels itself, characteristically, in a conversation that is not conversation. (14)

(3.) See, for example, Cristanne Miller: Moore's poetic

authorizes itself through inclusiveness, an assumed commonality of interest that does not claim universal insight or conclusive knowledge...Moore's poetic is remarkably engaging and interactive, suggesting an aesthetic of correspondence, conversation, and exchange rather than one of mastery. (3, 18)

As we will see, the opposition presumed here between "conversation" and "mastery" is in fact directly at odds with a substantial part of Moore's usage of the term. Robert Pinsky provides a more useful formulation when he writes:

From a feminist perspective, Moore's declining to reproduce something like the social art of conversation in her poems, even parodying that art by an autocratic system of apostrophe and quotation, is a way of refusing the realm stereotypically assigned to women of intelligence and force: polite conversation, the little room in which Jane Austen's heroines must exercise their wills. (21)

(4.) Christopher Ricks (12-24) persuasively argues that Eliot does not share his readers' perfect confidence that the women's talk is not worth listening to; in the course of making this argument, however, he provides a detailed history of how consistently and vindictively Eliot's readers have understood the lines about women and Michelangelo to confirm what "everyone" knows: women talking about literature must be trivial and fatuous.

(5.) Which should not obscure the considerable self-assertiveness of devoting one half of a two-paragraph review to Eliot's treatment of a female character.

(6.) The writers she names as examples are "Machiavelli, Sir Francis Bacon, John Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Doctor Samuel a special way different from the admirableness of Wordsworth or of Hawthorne."

(7.) Not only was it her longest and most difficult, but it was also the only long poem of this period that Moore reprinted unchanged in all subsequent collections of her work. There are two commonly conjectured biographical sources for Moore's interest in marriage at that particular time. One is the marriage between her friend Bryher and Robert McAlmon, of which Moore disapproved (see Bergman 248-250 for a discussion of her feelings about the match). The other is a possible proposal to herself from Scofield Thayer, editor of the Dial and Moore's friend and consultant when she took over the editorship (Newlin 220-222).

(8.) I am indebted to John Slatin's reading of the distinct formal periods in Moore's work (esp. 1-17) and to Margaret Holley, who provides a chronology of Moore's publications (195-202).

Reading the poem in this self-reflexive way, I will intersect at certain points with a history of critical readings of "Marriage" as Moore's most "feminist" poem. There are a number of recent critics who read "Marriage" not only as a manifestly critical and ironic consideration of a cherished cultural institution but as Moore's definitive statement on women's oppression by patriarchal culture (see for example Durham [240-41], Keller [228-36], Joyce, and Hogue [95-98]). Such readings tend to sympathize with the poem's Eve and excoriate its Adam. As I will show, the poem does not support an uncritical judgment in Eve's favor; more importantly, reading the poem exclusively as a critique of gendered power cannot account for its almost anarchic interest in linguistic play and texture--for the way the poem moves in and Out of its subject at unpredictable intervals. In order to more fully highlight and investigate these elements, my analysis will treat a critique of social institutions both as one of the poem's sub jects and as its chief figure for Moore's relationship to poetic conventions as themselves "institutions."

(9.) In doing so, my argument will add to an established minigenre of Moore scholarship: descriptions of the strange movement of "Marriage." See for example Bonnie Costello, who writes: "as the language rises and falls, strokes and bites its subject, as Adam's view of Eve is set against her view of him, the poem's dialectical structure shuttles across its linear advance" (175). See also Hadas, who observes

how Moore extends and retracts, extends and again retracts the feelings of her poem. She will envision a scene, be filled with it, and make us passive in looking at it ... she will then turn against this instinct for beauty and mock it with words that require from us, as well as from her, an active intellectual evaluation. (162)

(10.) Moore added this explanation in 1951, itself an indication of how far away from her combative origins she moved during her career.

(11.) For example, one can trace in such poems as "Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight," "To a Snail," and "In the Days of Prismatic Color" the history of Moore's concern that her delight in invention, compression, and complexity will make her poetry needlessly obscure.

(12.) Cynthia Hogue argues that the struggle for power against which Moore is writing in "Marriage" is women's struggle against "the institution that symbolizes for Moore the hierarchization of the sexes and the concomitant attempt to contain women in marriage and motherhood" (95). Hogue bases her claim that this is a poem of protest against women's subjection on a perceived identity between the narrator and Eve, because they share "linguistic facility" (97), and on a monolithically sympathetic reading of Eve. When the poem notes Eve's "petrine fidelity," for example, Hogue writes:

This model of "petrine fidelity" can see enough of her husband but not of herself. As the etymology of petrine connotes, she is petrified in marriage into "a statuette," "the logical last touch / to an expansive splendor," the decorous objet d'art shaped by an economy of masculine reflexivity. (98)

For this reading to work, however, one has to overlook the meaning of petrine: "of, relating to, or characteristic of the apostle Peter." Thus the poem links Eve's capricious abandonment of her husband to Peter's cowardly betrayal; for Moore, a devout Christian, this is an association it would be impossible to whitewash.

(13.) Adam is not, in this poem, a reliable judge of character, but there is evidence that he is not wholly wrong in this estimation of Eve. See Hadas's persuasive reading of an earlier (1923) version of "Marriage," in which she argues that Moore originally had Eve confuse marriage with an idealized childhood. On the basis of this reading, Hadas asks "Could it be that [Eve's] 'innocent' heart rises with the expectations of what she will get by marriage, by returning to weak dependency? One suspects that Moore certainly thought so" [155].

(14.) My reading of the tone of this passage agrees with Taffy Martin's. She writes: "The poem offers neither a death blow nor an alternative to the institution but a depressing version of half success" (23). To which I would only add that although the portrait of marriage is certainly depressing, I think the adjective does injustice to the energy of the verbal clash.

(15.) Between 1925 and 1929 Moore was editor of the Dial and published no new poetry until "Part of a Novel, Part of a Poem, Part of a Play" in 1932.


Bergman, David. "Marianne Moore and the Problem of 'Marriage.'" American Literature 60.2 (May 1988): 241-54.

Bishop, Elizabeth. The Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, 1984.

Bromwich, David. "'That Weapon, Self-Protectiveness.'" Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist. Ed. Joseph Parisi. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1990. 67-82.

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "No Moore of the Same: The Feminist Poetics of Marianne Moore." The William Carlos Williams Review 14.1 (Spring 1988): 6-32.

Durham, Carolyn A. "Linguistic and Sexual Engendering in Marianne Moore's Poetry." Engendering the Word: Feminist Essays in Psychosexual Politics. Ed. Temma F. Berg. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. 224-43.

Eliot, T. S. Prufrock and Other Observations. London: Egoist, 1917.

Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1977.

Hogue, Cynthia. Scheming Women: Poetry, Privilege, and the Politics of Subjectivity. Albany: State U of New York P, 1995.

Holley, Margaret. The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Joyce, Elisabeth W. "The Collage of 'Marriage': Marianne Moore's Formal and Cultural Critique." Mosaic 26.4 (Fall 1993): 103-18.

Keller, Lynn. "'For Inferior Who Is Free?' Liberating the Woman Writer in Marianne Moore's 'Marriage.'" Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Ed. Jay Clayton and Eric Rothstein. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 219-44.

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T S. Eliot. New York: McDowell, 1959.

Martin, Taffy. Marianne Moore, Subversive Modernist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

Miller, Cristanne. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990.

Moore, Marianne. The Complete Poems. New York: Penguin, 1982.

_____.The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. New York: Penguin, 1987.

_____.Observations. New York: Dial, 1924.

_____. The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore. Ed. Bonnie Costello, Celeste Goodrich, and Cristanne Miller. New York: Knopf, 1997.

_____. Selected Poems. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Newlin, Margaret. "Unhelpful Hymen!' Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle." Essays in Criticism 27 (1977): 216-30.

Pinsky, Robert. "Idiom and Idiosyncrasy." Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist. Ed. Joseph Parisi. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1990. 13-26.

Ricks, Christopher. T. S. Eliot and Prejudice. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Slatin, John. The Savage's Romance. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1986.

Spender, Stephen. T. S. Eliot. New York: Penguin, 1975.
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