Marianne Moore
Marianne Moore; drawing by David Levine

Large as it is, The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore is not complete. It doesn’t contain the Ford Correspondence, in which she offered Ford’s Marketing Research Director Robert B. Young many wondrous names for the car eventually called Edsel, or the waywardly informative interview with Donald Hall. These items have appeared in A Marianne Moore Reader (1961). Some juvenilia remain unrescued from the Carlisle Evening Sentinel, to which she contributed, according to her “Subject, Predicate, Object” (1958), “woman’s suffrage party notes.”

The book begins in 1907, when Moore, in her junior year at Bryn Mawr, started writing stories, sketches, subdued melodramas, drawing-room episodes, the dialogue aphoristic and in other respects neo-Wildean. The remark that “angels are not happier than men because they are better than men, but because they don’t investigate each other’s spheres” is well and characteristically met by the response: “You don’t separate pedantry from art, I see.” Already, Moore had a mind inclined to make itself up. In 1908 Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review showed her several of the discursive forms available to an untimid intelligence. But she was slow in getting started. Although her first poems were published in The Egoist in May 1915 and later in Poetry, her work was much rejected, and she withdrew from occasions of disappointment. “I do not appear,” she informed Ezra Pound in January 1919, as if she were Emily Dickinson.

But she was returning to authorship, encouraged by Alfred Kreymborg and his companions in the magazine Others. When Scofield Thayer and J.S. Watson took The Dial upon themselves in 1920, she contributed reviews—of T.S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell, Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, and many minor works—in a style equably responsive to procedures she did not choose to emulate. Welcoming Eliot’s appreciation of Swinburne’s genius, and receiving the point that appeal from Swinburne’s words to the objects supposedly denoted by them is not in general rewarding, she went beyond Eliot to say that “there is about Swinburne the atmosphere of magnificence, a kind of permanent association of him with King Solomon ‘perfumed with all the powders of the merchants, approaching in his litter’—an atmosphere which is not destroyed, one feels, even by indiscriminate browsing—and now in his verse as much as ever, as Swinburne says of the Sussex seaboard, ‘You feel the sea in the air at every step.”‘

Moore became acting editor of The Dial, and took first responsibility for the issue of July 1925. She was not, on the whole, a daring editor. In matters of style and structure, she trusted her judgment more than anyone else’s. Without hesitating, apparently, she turned Hart Crane’s “The Wine Menagerie” into a new poem, “Again,” and published it under his name in May 1926. “His gratitude was ardent and later his repudiation of it commensurate—he perhaps being in both instances under a disability with which I was not familiar,” she loftily reminisced in 1960. But she never published anything she thought might displease Mr. Thayer and/or Dr. Watson. In 1926 she let the opportunity of publishing Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle” recede, even though Watson told her he thought its publication in The Dial would not trouble Thayer. She disagreed.

Moore thought well of criticism. “A genuine achievement in criticism is an achievement in creation,” she said, and in the poem “Picking and Choosing” the reflection that “the critic should know what he likes” is prefaced by considerations that tell the critic the particular temptations to overcome:

Literature is a phase of life. If one is afraid of it,
the situation is irremediable; if one approaches it familiarly,
what one says of it is worthless.
The opaque allusion, the simulated flight upward,
accomplishes nothing.

Those who in criticism accomplish something are typified by Gordon Craig, “so inclinational and unashamed,” and Kenneth Burke, “a psychologist, of racoon-like curiosity.”

The Dial elicited many of Moore’s most formidable essays, and established not only her assured presence but the particular form of her probity. She required of herself, and therefore of other writers, selfless attention to the matter in hand. The choice of matter was rarely questioned; enough that she disliked coarseness and revered Henry James. Not “daft about the meaning,” and hardly preferring one theme to another, she consulted a poet’s diction, the brio of phrase without which no theme mattered. Reviewing Harmonium, she didn’t think it necessary to say what the book was about: she concentrated on indicating how Stevens chose his words and how opulently he moved among them. Her commentary placed beside Stevens’s poems unvying sentences celebrating the poet’s “immunity to fear”:

The riot of gorgeousness in which Mr. Stevens’ imagination takes refuge, recalls Balzac’s reputed attitude to money, to which he was indifferent unless he could have it “inheaps or by the ton.”…One is met in these poems by some such clash of pigment as where in a showman’s display of orchids or gladiolas one receives the effect of vials of picracarmine, magenta, gamboge, and violet mingled each at the highest point of intensity.

At which point Moore quotes a passage from the second part of “The Comedian as the Letter C” to remark of it not what it is or what it is doing there but the excitement it provides “of proximity to Java peacocks, golden pheasants, South American macaw feather capes, Chilcat blankets, hair seal needle-work, Singalese masks, and Rousseau’s paintings of banana leaves and alligators.”


The Complete Prose verifies the sense one has of the Complete Poems, that Moore’s chief companions were Pound and Williams. Literary historians are justified in seeing her work in some relation to Objectivism, which Williams described as a development of Imagism concerned with “an image more particularized yet broadened in its significance,” but Moore never allowed her temperament to settle upon any of the categories available to it. She was drawn to Pound and Williams, rather than to Yeats or Eliot or Stevens. Yeats’s majesty she admired from a distance; she reveled in Stevens’s poems without for a moment thinking that his pagan spiritedness pointed a direction she should take, and she raised the question of producing “a fangless edition of Prufrock and Other Observations” which, by arranging Eliot’s poems in a milder order, would mitigate the impression “of ungallantry, the youthful cruelty” of his “Portrait of a Lady.” She was much happier with Eliot’s middle poems, especially with “Marina” and “Ash-Wednesday,” their method

lean cartography; reiteration with compactness; emphasis by word pattern rather than by punctuation; the conjoining of opposites to produce irony; a counterfeiting verbally of the systole, diastole, of sensation—of what the eye sees and the mind feels; the movement within the movement of differentiated kindred sounds.

But Pound and Williams were her companions in style, especially in the quality of her poems which Williams praised as rapidity, “a swiftness that passes without repugnance from thing to thing.” Her respect for surfaces, including unpestered appearances, was unconditional: to merit her attention, an object was not required to plead that it had more within—an essence or pure spirit—which surpassed its showing. So she admired the acknowledged “pressure of business” that modified self-consciousness, as in the writings of natural scientists, geologists, ornithologists. Her exemplars were not only Thoreau for his curiosity, Henry James for his accessibility to experience, and Pound for unfussy precision, but Darwin, Audubon, Ruskin—did she forget Agassiz?—for their “faithfulness to the scene—to the action and aspect of what makes the scene important, alive or stationed there.”

In such men, the grace of paying attention to the matter in hand creates an informal morality. But it doesn’t follow that in Moore’s poems and essays a visual imagination, however acute, is the only means of grace. It is sometimes maintained, as if the duty of looking hard and selflessly at something needed an extreme logic, that Moore’s poems were written to be seen rather than heard or spoken; as if their character were most fully expressed as a phalanx of neatnesses and deliberations enabled by her typewriter, appealing to the eye and enacting the probity of unbiased seeing before reaching the inner ear. This seems implausible. I am willing to be informed that she composed on a typewriter, though in the Complete Prose she speaks of marking the end rhymes and internal rhymes of her poems in different colored pencils. But the acoustic value of her poems is quietly enforced: her favored practice of rhyming an accented and an unaccented syllable—fan/an, egg-shell/jewel, known/illusion—doesn’t register on the retina, but in the voice. The rapidity that Williams described in Moore’s poems must be sensed in a voice trying to keep up with it. The difficulty of the relations between the words shouldn’t be eased by letting the eye slide across printed lines. Tongue, throat, and teeth should acknowledge the labor as much as the play of mind that issued in such mobility.

I would go further. It is regularly claimed that Moore’s pervasive concern for accuracy was a visible sign of her morality. Smudged effects, like simulated flights upward, she regarded as immoral. I agree that moral considerations are implicit in her sense of formal decorum. “Rectitude has a ring that is implicative,” she said. A just relation between phenomenon and concept is possible only if each is decently precise, the one well seen and described, the other tested by equity.


But there is much evidence in the Complete Prose, as in her poems, that for Marianne Moore the supreme poetic value is beyond morality, while in keeping with morality. The merit of a poem, a novel, a book about landscape gardening, The Magic Flute, or a sculpture by Malvina Hoffman consists in the personality it discloses when disclosure is not intended and the artist is minding his proper business. What she asked, in behalf of objects, was that each should be allowed to appear, to shine forth from the surrounding opacity, to disclose its “personality.” Personality, the flare of being, is beyond good and evil, though Moore expected to find it issuing from the one and rebuking the other. She often quoted the passage in The American where James’s Christopher Newman is urged: “Don’t try to be anyone else; if you triumph, let it then be all you.” But being “all you” was not reducible to the moral exactitude that enabled it.

Moore’s common word for the flare of personality, the unity of being in which one’s action is true epitome of one’s self, was rhythm; “the clue to it all (for me originally)—something built-in as in music.” “If I succeeded in embodying a rhythm that preoccupied me,” she said, “I was satisfied.” She associated it, in poetry, with a tone of voice, “that intonation in which the accents which are responsible for it are so unequivocal as to persist, no matter under what circumstances the syllables are read or by whom they are read.” Its informal form is conversation, and “when we impart distinctiveness to ordinary talk,” William Archer says, “still keeping it ordinary, we have literature.”

Evidence of personality may be come upon suddenly or sensed as conviction over a long stretch. Moore liked to quote Coleridge’s remark that “our admiration of a great poet is for a continuous undercurrent of feeling everywhere present, but seldom anywhere a separate excitement.” But she loved to find a separate excitement, like a whirlpool, verifying the undercurrent and at last returning to it. Often she found it in English writers of the seventeenth century, Bacon, Donne, Browne, the King James translators of the Bible; later in Defoe, and in Johnson, in whose work she noted “a nicety and point, a pride and pith of utterance, which is in a special way different from the admirableness of Wordsworth or of Hawthorne.” When she needed a name for this quality, she called it—using Hazlitt’s word for its force—gusto, as in finding Cowper’s “The Snail” “a a thing of gusto.” Alert to it, she didn’t bother to mention the most obvious aspects of its setting. In reading Spenser’s “The Shepheardes Calender,” the passage in which Thomalin tells Willye about the occasion on which he fought against Cupid’s arrow, Moore left everything unsaid except that “the impulsive intimacy of the word “‘pumies”‘ substituted for a repetition of pumie stones brings the whole thing to life”:

The pumie stones I hastly hent And threwe; but nought availed:
He was so wimble and so wight,
From bough to bough he lepped light, And oft the pumies latched.

In Christopher Smart, Moore found gusto in practice and another name for it, “impression,” “the gift of God, by which genius is empowered to throw an emphasis upon a word in such wise that it cannot escape any reader of good sense.” The stanza she quoted from Smart’s A Song to David caught Theodore Roethke’s attention, too:

But stronger still, in earth and air
And in the sea, the man of pray’r, And far beneath the tide;
And in the seat to faith assign’d,
Where ask is to have, where seek is find, Where knock is open wide.

Gusto, impression, “domination of phrase”: under any name it was the sign for which Moore, an undozing reader, stayed vigilant. Tokens of it might be found anywhere, hence distinctions between the constituents of popular culture and high culture didn’t preoccupy Moore. She found instances of gusto in a handout from The New York Yugoslav Information Center, the Duke of Windsor’s account of his garden, the Central Park Zoo, certain paper knives, strokes in penmanship, the sinuousness of a snake, clothes designed by Worth. Surrounding such gusto, there are the values upon which it thrives: concentration, humility, reserve, reticence, precision, simplicity, equity. Indeed, one feasible way of reading the Complete Prose is to look out for references to gusto, and consider the signs of it in the examples she cites.

But Moore’s criticism, glorious as it is in quirky detail and things seen in ways no other critic has ever seen them, is more than a Golden Treasury or a Commonplace Book of Ingenuities. She didn’t regard herself as a critic in any systematic sense: for her, Kenneth Burke was superbly enough in that capacity. “I have been accused of substituting appreciation for criticism,” she said, “and justly, since there is nothing I dislike more than the exposé or any kind of revenge.” She construed criticism as appreciation of the gusto of other people, continuous with that of certain birds, animals, and flowers: some of the favored people were writers, others baseball players. So a critical essay was an occasion for the display of a personality not her own except that she partook of its life and rejoiced in it. But she thought of criticism as having three obligations: testimony, quotation, and judgment.

In testimony, her aim was to compose sentences as adequate as possible to her sense of the work in hand, and such as to put the reader into a proper frame of mind and sentiment to receive it. I give a few examples. On Emily Dickinson:

A certain buoyancy that creates an effect of inconsequent bravado—a sense of drama with which we may not be quite at home—was for her a part of that expansion of breath necessary to existence, and unless it is conceited for the hummingbird or the osprey to not behave like a chicken, one does not find her conceited.

On Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos:

“The heart is the form,” as is said in the East—in this case the rhythm which is a firm piloting of rebellious fluency; the quality of sustained emphasis, as of a cargo being shrewdly steered to the edge of the quai.

Reviewing Owl’s Clover and Ideas of Order, Moore says that Stevens

is a delicate apothecary of savors and precipitates, and no hauteurs are violated: his method of hints and disguises should have Mercury as consultant-magician, for in the guise of a “dark rabbi,” an ogre, a traveler, a comedian, an old woman, he deceives us as the god misled the aged couple in the myth.

Williams, Moore says, on the reviewed evidence of Collected Poems, 1921–1931:

objects to urbanity—to sleek and natty effects—and this is a good sign if not always a good thing.

Reviewing Elizabeth Bishop’s North & South:

With poetry as with homiletics, tentativeness can be more positive than positiveness; and in North & South a much instructed persuasiveness is emphasized by uninsistence.

Such testimony is not meant to give the gist of what Moore has already said about the poems at hand: it comes, usually, after the detail, and implies a larger sense of acknowledgement. The face of the poetry is looked at again, as if aslant, its vitality undiminished but gathered up into a consideration of similar and different forms of it. Personality is still the issue, testimony a matter of willing duty, quotation the detailed tribute.

Moore justified her quotations sufficiently by saying that “when a thing has been said so well that it could not be said better, why paraphrase it?” Besides, paraphrase would take the individual flare out of the occasion, and leave the need of it. Comparison of Eliot’s quotations with Moore’s discloses two different relations to the matter being read. When Eliot quotes a passage from Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy

Does the silkworm expend her yellow labours
For thee? For thee does she undo herself?

—his aim is to show that the words hold at bay “a combination of positive and negative emotions” which, arising from the dramatic situation, can’t be reduced to it or to the speaker or to Tourneur the man. The words don’t entirely issue from a self, or return to a self. “The poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.” It follows that “impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.”

When Moore quotes, she displaces the item quoted so that it may be read, for the time being, as a phenomenon rather than as words compromised by their context. In that removed character, the quotation exerts, like the jerboa and the pangolin in her poetry, the force of irregular detail pulling against a system otherwise in place. She never doubts that the quoted words have a valid adjectival relation to the personality from which they have issued; nor does she concern herself with values embodied in the linguistic medium rather than in a personality deemed to precede it. Many theorists would deny the merit of positing a personality separate from its linguistic form. But Moore resorted to words to assure herself of a personal force as if behind them. “Self flashes off frame and face,” Hopkins wrote, an affirmation close to Moore’s untheological conviction that a writer’s style is his frame and face, domination of phrase being the flash of self. Quotation marks arrest the flash, and hold the writer’s sprezzatura separate from her own.

Judgment was delicately enforced, for the most part, and often left to be inferred from testimony and quotation. Moore preferred to be an appreciator, a connoisseur, an encomiast. Compelled to report a defect, she chose to make much of the corresponding merit which the defect regrettably postponed or concealed. When she thought Williams wrong about rhetoric, she said that with his wrongness “we are merely poorer by one, of proofs for his accuracy.” She made a note of bad writing, but usually as lapses of otherwise admirable tongues. “One wishes that Ellen Glasgow’s sanity, moral courage, and contagious spontaneity were not marred by inadvertent triviality.” Blame was often removable from one’s character to nature or the weather. The critic Elizabeth Drew, who complained that Addison was a “dull writer,” has herself “not been proof against the mildew of the stock phrase.”

Moore could be, you see, severe. She never indulged herself in gladiatorial vivacities, but the astringency of “Marriage” and other poems was always available to her prose. Admiring Kenneth Burke, she found it necessary to purse her lips. “Complaints? With Rabelais and Joyce to brother him, Mr. Burke is sometimes coarse.” Even then, she left the reader free to decide that a little coarseness was a fair price to pay for fraternity with such masters. Appreciative of Robert Frost, she did not approve his “Masque of Reason”: “One does not parody the Book of Job.” Reviewing Alexander King Presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love (1960), Moore indicated that she knew where lines should be drawn:

That a scene is set in Vienna by no means compensates for an affront dealt one by the courage of too much nudity on the part of waitresses conveying champagne to clothed patrons.

Courage? She is ready to concede that courage, of a kind, may be in evidence, and that timidity would have left the situation unevoked. Again, the reader is free to think that the scene might be redeemed by having the patrons remove their clothes.

But in speaking of testimony, quotation, and judgment, I should not give the impression that Moore’s essays are predictably ordained, or that she moved from one duty to the next in a regimental style. Often it is hard to see how she moves from one sentence to the next. Here is a passage from the foreword to A Marianne Moore Reader, where the theme is the rhythm of a personality, and the provocation two famous lines from Skelton’s “Upon a Dead Man’s Head.” Moore quoted the lines again in the poem “Sun” and, confessing that she could be enchanted by lines that broke her rules, in her contribution to Mary Brannum’s When I Was Sixteen:

No man may him hyde
From Deth holow-eyed.

I dislike the reversed order of words; don’t like to be impeded by an unnecessary capital at the beginning of every line; I don’t like, here, the meaning; the cadence coming close to being the sole reason for all that follows, the accent on “holow” rather than on “eyed,” so firmly placed that the most willful reader cannot misplace it. “A fig for thee, O Death!”—meaning the opposite—has for me the same fascination. Appoggiaturas—a charmed subject. A study of trills can be absorbing to the exclusion of everything else—“the open, over-lapping, regular.”… A London Times Literary Supplement reviewer (perforce anonymous), reviewing The Interpretation of Bach’s Keyboard Works by Erwin Bodky (Oxford University Press) on April 7, 1961, says, “phrasing is rarely marked by Bach…except as a warning that something abnormal is intended”—a remark which has a bearing, for prose and verse, on the matter of “ease” alluded to earlier. I like straight writing, end-stopped lines, an effect of flowing continuity, and after 1929—perhaps earlier—wrote no verse that did not (in my opinion) rhyme.

Only a conviction that Moore’s trusted and trusty personality is in charge of these details keeps the reader confident that the passage is authoritative rather than distrait. No other critic would step from Skelton’s lines straight to appoggiaturas, which the dictionary explains as “a grace-note or passing tone prefixed as a support to an essential note of a melody; from Italian appoggiare, to lean or rest upon.” It is a shorter step to trills, “a tremulous utterance of a note or notes, as a ‘grace’ or ornament.” The sentences are grace notes adorning a melody Moore knows to be firm. The detour to London, the TLS, anonymous reviewing, the book about Bach’s keyboard music, the phrase about Bach’s phrasing, would in other hands betoken doodling, but Moore knows her way back through phrasings and continuities to the finality—itself suspended by the parenthetical phrase—of rhyme. It is not a method to be recommended to neophytes, but it produces the “tame excitement” on which Moore claimed to thrive. If personality is the secular war for the soul, with rhythm its audible or suggestive form, we are close to the exalted issues which she chose to weigh in silence.

In her later years Moore too willingly settled into the category of a personage, and colluded with people who wanted to think that poetry is no more of a problem than tricorn hats, black capes, and talk about baseball players. Publishers in search of thrilled endorsements too often found that with a knock her door was open wide. The Complete Prose includes the blurbs she emitted, and dismal they are: “I read with reverence anything that Father Berrigan writes.” “I find him prepossessing,” this of John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath. Readers of Harper’s Bazaar discovered at little cost the food the famous poet liked—“honey, Anheuser-Busch high-potency yeast, dehydrated alfalfa, watercress, buckwheat cakes, fruit of all kinds.”

There are disagreements about early Moore and late Moore. The early poems seem to me her best work, on the whole, though some of her second thoughts exceed her first. I think World War II forced her into a more expansive style and rotundities which the acting editor of The Dial would have expunged. I think the same of her prose, and find most memorable the astringency of the early essays and reviews. I am sorry that she disliked John Crowe Ransom’s Chills and Fever so immoderately—“mountebank persiflage, mock medieval minstrelsy”—and didn’t celebrate his better poems which are as fine as her own and in a manner she might have admired. But that is my sole complaint. For the rest, I am inclined to say of Moore what she said of Samuel Johnson: “In his writings we have so competent a grasp of what was to be said, that we have the effect of italics without the use of them.”

This Issue

December 4, 1986