Something held women back when it came to the writing of poetry, and since whatever it was that held them back failed to hold women back from writing novels, we must suppose that the inhibition had something, at least, to do with the antiquity and prestige of the art. Certainly the social disadvantages under which women labored will not, taken alone, explain the conundrum away. I follow Germaine Greer in this when she writes: “Homer and Milton were blind; can we claim that being female is a worse handicap than being blind?” And when she says that
In large measure it is women who have deified the poet; it was women who fainted when Byron came into a room, who looked for signs of superhumanity in the brow of Wordsworth and grieved over the world-woe engraved in Tennyson’s cheeks. The more women adored poetry, the less able they were to write it. From being practical and external, the obstacles in the path of the woman who wanted to write songs for others to sing became progressively internalized. It is less crucial for women to work out how men did this to women than it is to assess the extent to which women did this to themselves.1
That line—“The more women adored poetry, the less able they were to write it”—leads us straight to the case of Marianne Moore, who claimed of poetry that she too disliked it and implied that the best way to read it was with perfect contempt for it. She wasn’t quite telling the truth, on this as on many other matters. We always expect her to be telling the truth, because we see her as a fearless old lady of an utterly independent mind. But we look at her, as it were, through the wrong end of her biography. It wasn’t the old lady who wrote the poems that made Moore’s reputation, that caused her to be recognized as one of the very best poets writing in America. It was a young woman, already possessed of a trick of sounding quite definite whenever she opened her mouth, but in fact cautious and elusive and quite capable of changing her mind.
Everyone with any interest in Moore would like a new edition of her poetry, one which would bring back rejected poems, show the history of her revisions, and above all make chronological sense. What we have in the first section of the Complete Poems is a reprise of Eliot’s arrangement made for the Selected Poems of 1935. It was a good arrangement in its day, since it began with her most recent work, the poems like “The Steeplejack” which she resumed writing in the early Thirties, after an eight-year silence, during much of which she had been editing The Dial. But Moore was forty-five when she first published “The Steeplejack.” The early poems don’t begin till page 31 of the Complete Poems, and of course many other early poems have been dropped altogether, and the executors of Moore’s estate refuse to allow them to be revived. Moore had written the sentence “Omissions are not accidents.” This was taken to be an expression of her editorial wishes, in perpetuity.2
And just as it is hard to unravel the chronology and textual history of Moore’s poems, so it is easy to find oneself thinking of Marianne Moore, the famous old lady in Brooklyn, as being the definitive version—as it were, the text in its final form. And this leads us straight into error. The American poet April Bernard describes attending Elizabeth Bishop’s modern poetry seminar at Harvard in 1977:
One poor girl announced that she had read somewhere that Marianne Moore wasn’t a “feminist.” Miss Bishop replied: “My goodness, you don’t know what you’re talking about at all, do you?” Then after a pause, she growled: “Feminists!” We were all vaguely scandalized, and didn’t know whether she thought Moore was so obviously a feminist that one shouldn’t have to ask such a stupid question, or whether Miss Bishop (who, after all, did insist on the “Miss”) herself disliked feminists. Later I was to learn it was both.3
Moore was a member of the Women’s Suffrage Party of Pennsylvania and worked for its Committee to Organize Cumberland County. Bishop says in her memoir that she had paraded with the suffragettes led by Inez Mulholland on her white horse down Fifth Avenue and that she had “climbed a lamppost” in a demonstration for votes for women. That would seem to make her unequivocally a feminist—but that was in 1915. The poor girl who was slapped down by Elizabeth Bishop was not necessarily misinformed. Moore had had time to change. Feminism too had changed. In 1957, Moore was asked by the Encyclopedia Britannica Year Book whether the net result of women’s “coming out of the kitchen” had been helpful or detrimental to society. She replied that she thought it had been helpful, citing the activities of a long list of women including Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Marie Curie, and the suffragist Susan B. Anthony. But she goes on:
With regard to careers outside the home, delegated motherhood can be a threat, for I believe that our integrity as a nation is bound up with the home. Good children are not the product of mothers who prefer money or fame to the well-being of their families. Did not the Apostle Paul, in his ardor to afford Timothy a steadying influence, bid him remember his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois?
We dare not regress by suppressing intelligence or forbidding women to be useful. But steadfastness, conscience, and the capacity for sacrifice, on the part of both parents, are basic to good family relations which, in turn, are basic to the well-being of society in general.
Women have the right to be useful, in the highest sense. That is a term which would have been familiar to the feminists of the turn of the century. The lecture halls would have resounded with talk of usefulness, and it is a high moral quality Moore attached to poetry: “These things are important,” she said of certain qualities in poetry (“hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate / hair that can rise / if it must”), “…because they are useful.” But the ambition to be useful and the call to make a sacrifice—to sacrifice all hope of marriage, for instance, if a useful career was in prospect—all this is rather foreign to the feminism of the Seventies. I suspect that the reason why Elizabeth Bishop bit that student’s head off was that she foresaw that the young women might have difficulty in recognizing Moore’s attitudes (as they came to be) as having anything to do with real feminism. How could a feminist base an argument on St. Paul’s epistle to Timothy?
Marianne Moore was, however, a feminist, a sometime socialist and Irish nationalist, a tennis player till her fifties, and a lifelong Presbyterian. She was born in 1887, in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, a year before T.S. Eliot, whose grandparents knew hers. Her father went briefly mad after losing his fortune in the development of a smokeless furnace, and her mother, Mary Warner Moore, left him before Marianne was born. Later, John Moore recovered sufficiently to work for the mental home in which he had been placed, but Mrs. Moore never had anything to do with him again, and lived in dread of his family bringing pressure for a reconciliation. Moore’s biographer, Charles Molesworth, has concluded that Moore never inquired after her father.4 Mrs. Moore kept quiet on the subject, excepting on one of the many occasions when her older child, her son Warner Moore, looked like marrying against her wishes. Then, in a maneuver that strikes one as verging on the wicked, she told Warner that, before proposing to the girl in question, he had better inform her that there was a history of mental instability in the family, which might possibly reassert itself. The engagement didn’t go ahead.
Moore published a poem in 1924 called “Silence.” It goes:
My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.
This is a fictional father. The first part is attributed in a later note to a Miss A.M. Homans. The last—“Make my house your inn”—comes from a biography of Burke. Randall Jarrell took issue with the notion that “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence,” countering it with the line from Spenser “Entire affection hateth nicer hands.” One has to say, though, that he is here taking issue with one of the profound tenets of Moore’s aesthetic—and he is at liberty to do so. Meanwhile we may note that Moore has, in her imagination, equipped herself with a father who was a connoisseur of the behavior of “superior people”—much like her mother, and like what her brother became—a muscular Christian with an alert sense of the social standing of the members of his congregation.
Mrs. Moore took her children to live in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she worked as a teacher in the Metzger Institute, a high school for young women founded by a local Presbyterian, which was where Marianne received the free education which prepared her for Bryn Mawr in 1905. And that was where the feminism was drummed into her, by Bryn Mawr’s redoubtable president, M. Carey Thomas, a figure of such unimpeachable rectitude that she was able to live with her lady friend on campus. “When I was in college,” Moore later wrote, “feminism was not taken for granted; it was a cause. It was ardently implemented and fortified by Miss Thomas….”5 And this feminism was derived from the Quaker tradition, which, as Moore understood it, had always given women the right of leadership. Bryn Mawr was supposed to prepare women to exercise that right.
There is more than one view whether it did so. Moore herself always remained an enthusiast. H.D., who was Moore’s college contemporary but left early, having flunked her exams, believed that Bryn Mawr destroyed the spirit of women. Here she is—in barely disguised fictional form, in Bryher’s novel West. Bryher, born Annie Winifred Ellerman, the daughter of a rich English shipping magnate, met Moore in New York with H.D., shortly after Moore and her mother had moved to Greenwich Village. Her novel was published in 1925, but is set very much in the aftermath of the First World War. West is a short novel, and much of it is concerned with the question: What is wrong with Anne Trollope, the Marianne Moore character? “Why is she so averse to life, any sort of life?” Helga, the H.D. character, says:
“She has never achieved any liberty of conscience. It may be some inherent weakness of will, but I think it is due to her education. None of the girls who did the full course at that college achieved anything. They were bled of will, Anne among them, and set in a groove until they feel unhappy out of narrow limits.”
“Modern education is mechanical, crushing. When it ought to be the way to independence.”
“I dare not think of it. And Anne is really a young Byzantine scribe, all strange colours and angles. Her mind was a bright mosaic.”
“Mosaic is not marble.”
“That would not matter. But her thoughts are still now, they glitter but have no roots. No roots in the earth. It is too late to alter her, I fear. Only I ask always and always, why did no one save her from being blunted?”
“I should like to cut her hair short, her wonderful hair. Break her from everything to which she is accustomed and plunge her into a new world.”
“Too late now. She would only run back to her rock the moment your back was turned, but I wish you could try the experiment.”6
And later in the book Bryher complains of “Anne” that “duty serves for an emotional outlet.”
That Quaker sense of duty to prepare a woman for a leading role in the world was one of many duties which to us would appear civic but which had their origin in religion. The duty to end slavery was one, and thereafter to work to improve the lot of the Negro. Another, which affected Moore closely, was the duty to educate the Indians. You have to remember that she was born only a decade after the Indian campaigns of 1874-1876. A familiar figure in Carlisle when she was growing up was General Richard Henry Pratt, who had fought alongside Custer. “Both General Pratt and his wife were very substantial and imposing,” Moore remembered much later. “They were romantic figures, always dashing up with their horse and carriage.”
Pratt had been left in charge of a group of Plains Indian prisoners, in St. Augustine, Florida, where they arrived “half naked, wild, dirty, vermin-ridden, crazed and in chains.” He taught them English and turned them into a tourist attraction, selling bows and arrows to support themselves. He inserted several of the cleverest of them into Negro schools, and then sent this vanguard back to the West, to persuade the chiefs to send their children to Carlisle to be educated at the establishment he had founded in the old barracks there, the United States Indian Industrial School. Shortly before the Moore family arrived in Carlisle, someone had undertaken to coach the Indians in the complexities of American football, and they soon began to produce a series of remarkable players with names like Isaac Seneca, Brave Thunder, Fast Bear, and Frank Mt. Pleasant. (The greatest of all, of course, was Jim Thorpe, whom she taught, along with his wife, Ida Miller, who was in her typing class.)
All this comes from an article in Sports Illustrated, in 1960, written by an astonished Robert Cantwell, who went to interview the aged Marianne Moore about her recent poem in honor of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and discovered that not only did she remember all the great Indian athletes of the early part of the century—she had their photographs in her scrapbooks. They had been the heroes of her youth. Carlisle, having at first been apprehensive at the thought of housing the Indian School, started to take an intense local pride in it, as it began to produce the most extraordinarily successful football teams. The school received insufficient help from the Indian Bureau in Washington, but it began to be able to boost its finances from the high gate receipts at its games.
Graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1909, Moore went first to business college. The Presbyterian circles in which she moved were particularly keen on the Indian School, and when the commercial English teacher left, and no replacement could be found, she was offered the job. It was more than a job, it was part of a cause. It involved not just the teaching of secretarial skills and math, but also instruction in how to read and draw up a contract—the idea being that when the Indian students went back to the reservation they could avoid being cheated.
Moore remembered pacing up and down the tennis court, wondering whether to take the job. Her math, her simple arithmetic, wasn’t up to it, and she was about to decide against. But then her brother Warner reminded her of her duty, and how her mother had taught in order to support their education, and Moore accepted her duty. “It never occurred to me to be afraid,” she told her solicitous interviewer.
“You know, before I began teaching there was a good deal of uneasiness because it was feared I wouldn’t be able to control the Indian boys. But the athletes helped me. The only trouble came from some neurotic Sioux and Ojibway boys who were a long way from home and lonely and unhappy—there were a few sadists too—but there was really no difficulty. The Indians had great behavior and ceremony and were exceedingly chivalrous and decent and cooperative and…idealistic. There are always recalcitrants in every school, who won’t work and won’t accept discipline, and an Indian recalcitrant, a Sioux, perhaps, tends to be more recalcitrant than the average. A boy like Joseph Loud Bear, who was the worst…”
“Was he a Sioux?”
“Oh he was certainly a Sioux—very much a Sioux! But I had so little trouble it was hardly worth mentioning. My biggest bugbears were mending typewriters and minding the evening study hours.”
In West, the Moore character gives a rather grimmer version of this period, saying it was a man’s job, which was why she stuck to it for the four years, and implying that it interfered with any attempt at a cultural life, and left her little time to write or think. In fact it was during the years between Bryn Mawr and the move to New York in 1918 that a great part of her oeuvre was composed. In her entire career, on Molesworth’s calculation, she published 190 poems; from 1910 to 1917, 51. In addition there are at least 74 unpublished poems in the Rosenbach archive in Philadelphia, of which around half date from the Carlisle period.
It amounts to this: that if we wanted to hold in our minds a single image of the poet Marianne Moore, it should not be the grand old lady of the New York scene so much as the earnest young woman cycling daily to the old Federal Barracks in Carlisle, her head full of George Moore, George Bernard Shaw, and Edward Gordon Craig, a woman desperately isolated but aware of her isolation and aware of what she would do if only she was not obliged by her brother to stick at the teaching. And while she is handling those pioneering generations of homesick Ojibway, or recalcitrant Sioux, all the time she is conducting a passionate conversation with one author or another—Yeats, Moore, Shaw, Tagore. These internal dialogues spill out into her poetry, so much of which, in this period, is written in the second person. This one, “To a Strategist,” was originally called “To Disraeli on Conservatism”:
You brilliant Jew,
You bright particular chameleon, you Regild a shabby fence.
Your stripes and particoloured mind, who could Begrudge you prominence
And call you cold!
But when has prejudice been glad to hold A lizard in its hand—
A subtle thing?
To sense fed on a fine imagining Sound sense is contraband.
The poetic form is seventeenth-century in flavor, but the imagery and the feel are the thing that is already original Moore—startling at first to find a Jew so starkly addressed and immediately compared to a lizard, a comparison which one might expect to be insulting but which seems to be a compliment, even if conservatism is not itself being recommended. Here, in another chameleon poem, called originally—and this is by no means Moore’s longest title in this period—“You Are Like the Realistic Product of an Idealistic Search for Gold at the Foot of the Rainbow”:
Hid by the august foliage and fruit
of the grapevine,
round the pruned and
Fire laid upon
an emerald as long as
the Dark King’s massy
could not snap the spectrum up
for food as you have done.
This by the way is one of the poems Moore reprinted, then suppressed, and then, as late as 1959, reprinted again (with the title “To a Chameleon”) in the volume O to Be a Dragon. In the same volume she seems to have felt the need for a little padding, since she resurrects two of her student efforts from Bryn Mawr, calling one “I May, I Might, I Must”:
If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try. This is something for inscribing in a
Victorian autograph album, and is a poor piece of versification. The other is “A Jellyfish”:Visible, invisible,
a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
you abandon your intent.
This is more promising (both of these poems date from 1909), as long as you can sympathize with someone wanting to catch a jellyfish by hand in the first place. Reading it, however, “with a perfect contempt for it,” we find its rhythms too trivially neat. One wonders how many people, reading the Complete Poems, think that Moore must have been going off, as a poet, when she wrote these; in fact she was only going off, as an editor of her own work, when she republished them in this way.
But the chameleon poem I quoted is on a different level, and it is one of those early essays in syllabics which delight in contrasting very long with extremely short lines. The first and last lines are of thirteen syllables, the second and penultimate have one syllable apiece, which must have felt like a heady experiment when she first made it. But in revised form she breaks the thirteen-syllable line in two, and spoils the symmetry. Originally, the poem was a variant on Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” although set out horizontally (which is the way Herbert’s poem sometimes was and might have been in the edition Moore used).
One wonders whether the early title of “To a Chameleon” was the first, or whether there has been some suppression of subject, just as the poem to Disraeli was first announced as “To Disraeli on Conservatism,” and only later “To a Strategist.” In the same way, “To Browning” becomes “Injudicious Gardening,” while “To Bernard Shaw: A Prize Bird” becomes a much quieter “To a Prize Bird,” with the Shaw connection banished to a footnote.
You suit me well; for you can make me laugh,
nor are you blinded by the chaff that every wind sends spinning from the rick.
You know to think, and what you think you speak
with much of Samson’s pride and bleak finality; and none dare bid you stop.
Pride suits you well, so strut, colossal bird.
No barnyard makes you look absurd; your brazen claws are staunch against defeat.
Who would have guessed that this was a portrait of Shaw had the fact not been disclosed so confidently on first publication? But I suppose it does as well as a portrait of a type, or indeed as a portrait of an animal, which is what I always thought Moore’s poems were until advised otherwise. Moore has this knack of looking confident at any given moment: it is what has happened between the given moments that betrays the lack of confidence. Here is the beginning of “Picking and Choosing,” as it appeared in the first collection:
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. Words are constructive
when they are true; the opaque allusion—the simulated flight
upward—accomplishes nothing. Why cloud the fact
that Shaw is selfconscious in the field of sentiment but is
otherwise rewarding? that James is all that has been
said of him but is not profound?
By Observations (1924), the first volume of her poems over which Moore had editorial control, this confident judgment (James is not profound, and nobody thinks he is) has been changed to
that James is all that has been said of him, if feeling is profound?
and in the Complete Poems:
that James is all that has been said of him.
The revision has pushed the judgment in the direction of meaninglessness.
I mention this not to denigrate her total achievement, but rather to argue that admiration should focus on the admirable, and that, when a line seems to be meaningless or untrue, it is not a bad idea to entertain the possibility that it is indeed meaningless or untrue. “Complexity is not a crime,” says Moore, “but carry it to the point of murkiness/and nothing is plain.” Well, some of the poetry is plain murky, to the point when it comes as a relief to read Moore’s definition, in her review of Wallace Stevens’s Ideas of Order: “Poetry is an unintelligible unmistakable vernacular like the language of the animals—a system of communication whereby a fox with a turkey too heavy for it to carry, reappears shortly with another fox to share the booty….”
We expect Moore to be accurate, and I do not think it is pedantic to pause over “England/with its baby rivers and little towns, each with its abbey or its cathedral” and say—but if they have cathedrals they must be cities. We expect her to tell the truth. But in her Paris Review interview she says she likes end-stopped lines. She could have fooled me. She says she never “plans” a stanza. She couldn’t have written “Virginia Britannia” if this were true. Asked about her extensive use of quotation she says:
I was just trying to be honourable and not to steal things. I’ve always felt that if a thing has been said in the very best way, how can you say it better? If I wanted to say something and somebody had said it ideally, then I’d take it but give the person credit for it. That’s all there is to that.
That’s not all there is to that because her quotations are often modifications of her sources, and by her own admission elsewhere there are times when what looks like a quotation turns out not to be. Here is what she said in a letter to Schofield Thayer: “As for quotations, sometimes I think a triviality gains a little weight by quotation marks; for the most part, however, my quotations have authority.”
We do well, then, not always to believe the utterances of Marianne Moore, or at least to entertain the idea that she often spoke for effect: words were a kind of finery which she loved to put on. Facts were adored for their glamour rather than their factuality. Meaning often had to be patient, waiting till after the fireworks to be fed. And the poet revealed herself in her displays rather than in her nakedness. No one saw her naked. No one was invited to.
I have said that she did not always lead a sheltered life, but she certainly never (after Bryn Mawr) left home, and the home she never left was a force field of astonishing strength and durability. Mrs. Moore was as interested in writing her son’s sermons as she was in her daughter’s poems. Perhaps more so. Warner Moore, as we have seen, made several attempts in the direction of marriage. He had some impulse to escape. But when he finally made his own choice of wife Mrs. Moore does not appear to have felt that she was in any way vanquished. Early on, she tried to demand that his child should be taken from its mother, Constance, to be educated by Marianne and herself. She did not succeed, but she does seem to have succeeded in obliging Warner to be dishonest with his wife when he came to see his mother and sister.
The way I have just expressed that implies that my sympathies are with Constance. So they are. She had married into a family that spoke in a complicated code of nicknames and gender games. When they were not calling each other Rat or Mole, Marianne was depicting herself as Warner’s brother, or Mrs. Moore was referring to Marianne as Warner’s Aunt Fangs. It is touching that Warner, after his marriage, thought that perhaps the era of nicknames should end, and he wrote to his mother suggesting that from now on she might feel happier calling him Warner, as if he recognized that he had grown up.
We may be sure that Marianne watched Warner’s rebellion and drew her own conclusions from it. She rebelled as a writer, against the poetic conventions of the day. She rebelled as a suffragette. She was suspected by the inspector of the Indian School of fomenting dissent, as a socialist, against conditions there—and the Indian School itself was a great-hearted gesture of protest against Washington and the Indian Bureau. She rebelled—she considered herself a pure Celt—with the Irish, writing “Sojourn in the Whale” after the Easter Rising, in which she prophesies the triumph of Irish nationalism and, in the same analogy, the cause of women. Ireland, she says,
you have lived and lived on every kind of shortage. You have been compelled by hags to spin gold thread from straw and have heard men say:
“There is a feminine temperament in direct contrast to ours
which makes her do these things. Circumscribed by a heritage of blindness and native incompetence, she will become wise and will be forced to give in.
Compelled by experience, she will turn back;
water seeks its own level”: and you have smiled, “Water in motion is far from level.” You have seen it, when obstacles happened to bar
the path, rise automatically.
She is no stranger to rebellion, but she never seems to have rebelled against her mother. Rather she seems to have thought that, if a rebellion was in the offing, it would be better to have mother on her side.
It is clear that Bryher and H.D., when they saw her in New York, found this resolute staying at home to constitute some kind of spiritual defeat—although what would have constituted victory is not made clear, and this is one of the many weaknesses of West, viewed either as a novel or (what it really is) a journal. Bryher never makes it entirely clear why it should be so important for the Moore figure to come with the two women to Europe. One supposes that there was an erotic agenda, at least at the level of wishful thinking. Bryher never criticizes Mrs. Moore, and she never expressly identifies Mrs. Moore as the problem. But what she does do is have the Marianne figure, whenever she is becoming evasive, talk in the first person plural:
“But remember New York is my Europe for the moment,” Anne continued. “Even the way the lights burst out on a winter night is still an amazement to us. We have not been here ten months…. Here we have no neighbours but a few friends. And the cinema posters. Occasionally we visit a play. And in themselves the streets are romantic films. The shot bright silks in the windows. The furs one sees. Soft grey and black stripes like a tent. The Museum. Sometimes a circus.”
Anne leaned back with her red hair uncovered and eyelashes as fair as flax from which the gold is drained. “There is at the Zoo a spotted lynx in a cage with markings on its fur as delicate as those frost traces…”
“Stop it. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Sitting here like a pterodactyl on a rock afraid to move. I suppose you feel that if you fell off into the sea you’d enjoy swimming among the anemones. And you don’t quite approve of the freedom of the air…. You don’t deserve a mind if you’re so scornful of it. Cut the masochism out and come with us to England.”7
To which after some evasion the reply is: “Our eagerness to be with you is keen. But we have not yet explored the possibilities of New York.” Bryher asks her readers why women should be reactionary.
Why did Anne carry it on, this Victorian tradition? Was it because America was in the throes of a somewhat similar period that she preferred a spirit already stamped with history. Yet it clashed with her hair, that curious bright forest colour, with her body that had the austere outline of a young scribe’s form, and with the bright mosaic of her mind. Her shrinking from life was a masculine rather than a feminine gesture. It was the boy’s denial of himself for some misunderstood ideal.
There follows a passage which makes one wonder how Moore ever continued her warm relationship with Bryher:
To create meant to live. Anne had denied life so long she was afraid now to leave her barriers behind. Duty served her for emotional outlet. She had shrivelled into an outline on a rock…hard lines from which the colour had been stripped.8
It was all very well for Bryher. Her problem was simply that her father, Sir John Ellerman, thought that it was dangerous for his rich young daughter to gad around the world alone. Bryher solved this in 1921 by proposing to Robert McAlmon, a young writer with ambitions to go to Paris to visit Joyce. Her proposal was that she would share part of her allowance with McAlmon, and they would from time to time pay joint visits to her family, and that was that. McAlmon was bisexual, and innocent enough not to see that he would end up humiliated by this arrangement when Bryher tired of him. He accepted and the couple married on St. Valentine’s Day before sailing to Europe. Moore knew enough about the arrangement to know that it was a marriage of convenience—she apparently discussed it as such in a letter to Amy Lowell. But quite what Marianne knew or wanted to know about H.D. and Bryher, and the reasons why it suited both of them to be married, is a matter for conjecture. She didn’t find Bryher’s marriage very romantic, as she told her friend, the homosexual novelist Glenway Wescott.
When they arrived in Europe, H.D., Bryher, and McAlmon, apparently without telling her, put together a collection of Moore’s poems and published it with the Egoist Press. This was her first appearance in book, or rather pamphlet, form. Meanwhile Moore had been provoked into thought about the subject of marriage, and two years later Wescott’s boyfriend, Monroe Wheeler, published Moore’s poem on this subject as number three of the magazine Manikin, together with an appreciation of Moore’s poetry by Wescott himself. “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.”9 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.10
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.
It is easy sometimes to miss the touches in the major poems that show that the young radical spirit has not been suppressed. But she means us to pause and think when she calls the Negro, in “Virginia Britannia,” “inadvertent ally and best enemy of tyranny.” And the insistent returnings to Indian themes in the same poem are a strategic reminder that, as she puts it, “no imperialist,/not one of us, in taking what we/ pleased—in colonizing as the/saying is—has been a synonym for mercy.” Just as the steeple-jack’s sign will turn out, in that poem, to be an emblem for hope, so “Virginia Britannia” resolves into a child’s intimation of glory. But we are only going to be allowed that resolution if we understand that there were losers as well as winners in the fashioning of that glory. “The redskin with the deer-/fur crown, famous for his cruelty, is not all brawn/and animality.” The understatement is supposed to be weighty. The Young Moore and the Older Moore are alike in this—they are great respecters of other peoples. And while it may be true to say that this respect for others has its origins in religion, still we cannot help noticing how many people belong to the same congregation and somehow manage to miss out on that respect.
She was a modernist, and I always find it touching to think of her gravitating to New York and going straight to Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, where she sees Steichen’s photograph of her hero (but she can hardly have been to the theater at the time) Edward Gordon Craig. She tells Stieglitz that she had not known there was anything like it. Stieglitz replies: “Well, there is nothing like it.” Somehow she made sure that the same could be said of her.
April 24, 1997
Germaine Greer, Slip-Shod Sybils: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet (Viking, 1995), pp. xi-xiii. ↩
I cannot see why the same procedure should not be followed for Moore as has been done so successfully for Auden: that the Complete Poems remains in print as she wanted them, but other supplementary publications make available the juvenilia and uncollected work. At the very least, a facsimile reprint of the 1924 Observations would be a welcome alternative to paying $1600 for a first edition (the current going rate). ↩
Charles Molesworth, Marianne Moore: A Literary Life (Atheneum, 1990). Despite the fact that Molesworth, in this excellent and respectful biography, was extremely sparing in his quotations from Moore’s work, he was sued by the Moore estate and forced to settle out of court for $12,000. It is obvious that the estate would have been better advised to allow Molesworth to quote extensively, and to charge him the going rate. That way, his biography would have been that much better, and Moore would have been better served. For a concise account of the lamentable early history of the Moore estate, see the February issue of the magazine Brooklyn Bridge. ↩
Cited in The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value by Margaret Holley (Cambridge University Press, 1987). This work contains a helpful chronology of Moore’s published poems. ↩
Bryher, West (Jonathan Cape, 1925), pp. 101-102. ↩
Bryher, West, p. 148. ↩
Bryher, West, p. ↩
Cited in David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), p. 25. ↩
Moore’s own footnote in Complete Poems, p. 272, citing “Miss M. Carey Thomas, Founder’s address, Mount Holyoke, 1921.” 158. ↩