Elizabeth Gregory: On "Moore's Use of Quotation in "Marriage" and "An Octopus""

References to Milton recur in Moore's pair of long poems, conceived together, "An Octopus" and "Marriage." These poems, which each involve reference to the fall, the garden, and Adam and Eve, both take up where Paradise Lost leaves off: "An Octopus" tells the story of life in exile from Eden, while "Marriage" gives an account of the institution of marriage after the first couple. These poems include an especially high concentration of quoted lines. In both poems the high proportion of quotations, mostly from texts of little standard value ("An Octopus," for instance, depends largely on phrases from the Department of the Interior's Rules and Regulations: Mount Rainier), bespeak an attempt to resituate authority in the ordinary, in the present, and (via the originality of the attempt) in Moore herself.

"An Octopus" describes a trip up Mount Rainier (or Mount Tacoma, by its Indian name) in Washington State (Moore and her brother had scaled it in 1922). The Octopus itself refers to the glacier that covers the mountain's top. The scenery along the way is described in terms borrowed from a variety of sources, both religious and touristic. Though the climbers' staging point, called Paradise Park, goes unmentioned in the poem, many other allusions let readers know they are in Edenic territory. Mentions of falls proliferate. An anxious animal is described, Eve-like, as "the victim on some slight observatory, / of 'a struggle between curiosity and caution.'" Patricia Willis points to specific Miltonic echoes: "Milton's paradise is a garden on a mountain with blossoms of 'gay enaml'd color,' 'rapid current,' sapphires, gold, rich trees, 'Grots and Caves / of cool recess,' waterfalls, and a lake holding 'Her crystal mirror.'" Moore's poem is set on a mountain covered with flowers, some of which stand in "'an arrangement of colors / as in Persian designs of hard stones with enamel,'" and on which there appear "'rapids and high pressured falls'; 'sapphires in the pavement of the glistening plateau'; 'dumps of gold ... ore'; 'grottoes from which issue penetrating droughts'; a 'waterfall which never seems to fall'; and the lake "The Goat's Mirror.'" But Moore's is a postlapsarian Eden; access to the origin is emphatically denied. Here

. . . "guns, nets, seines, traps and explosives,

hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited; 

disobedient persons being summarily removed 

and not allowed to return without permission in writing."

The particular crimes substitute for the "first disobedience" of which we all stand convicted.

This poem attempts to write its own permission for an access to authority, but under heavily qualified terms. For while a return to a simpler world with which such authority might be associated has some allure here (happiness, presumably a desideratum, is declared to have departed with Adam), the poem holds on to the doctrine of the fortunate fall, feeling "the love of doing hard things" and refusing to follow the Greeks in their attempt to resolve "'complexities which still will be complexities / as long as the world lasts.'" This acceptance of complexity goes along with an insistence upon a virtue in America, for all its distance from the origin. The complexity that distance introduces becomes a kind of originality in itself (the same maneuver accomplished with the initial romantic use of the concept), and Moore can mention "the original American menagerie of styles," speaking ostensibly of flowers but pointing at the same time to the mixture of styles included in her own poem via the wide variety of texts quoted. The poem ends with a tableau of fallenness:

the white volcano with no weather side; 

the lightning flashing at its base,

rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak--

the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed, 

its claw cut by the avalanche

"with a sound like the crack of a rifle,

in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall."

With its shot that suggests the source of the wound the earth feels at the fall in Paradise Lost, the closing image offers no nostalgic hope for a way out of the difficulties of the world Moore inherits.

Joanne Feit Diehl offers an excellent reading of this poem's encounter with issues of gender and poetry. Her reading concludes, however, that although ambitious, the poem finally fails to achieve sublimity because it closes without transcendence. We see no evidence, Diehl holds, of Moore's having succeeded in throwing off the grip either of male precursors or of the too-strong maternal influence, represented in the strangling octopus image at the close ("Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth, / its arms seeming to approach from all directions." Instead, the argument continues, we see in the poem's thicket of quotations evidence of the deflection of Moore's own voice, which given rein would have spoken more directly of the woman poet's difficulty in exercising her voice, particularly in combination with her sexuality. The problem with such a reading, of course, lies in its failure to recognize the quotations as an apt means both of expressing precisely those difficulties met by women poets and of critiquing the standard methods of authority that assert self-reliance by denying the assistance of other texts.

Instead of deflecting expression of Moore's profound concerns, the quotations allow it. As we have seen, they are themselves enablers, representing in themselves almost allegorically the difficulty in speech Moore encounters and handles. At the same time, the texts she chooses to quote from support her argument by representing in themselves a critique of standard authority structures. In her notes Moore gives credit for phrases borrowed to a series of Christian moralists: Richard Baxter's Saints' Everlasting Rest; Ruskin; W.D. Hyde's The Five Great Philosophies; and Cardinal Newman's Historical Sketches. These "authorities" of various degree allude as a group in the notes to the biblical model of "original" authority, to which the poet might be assumed, like Milton, to aspire. But beside these authorities Moore cites, along with the Parks handbook, M. C. Carey and "W. M." in the London Graphic, W. P. Pycraft and Francis Ward in the Illustrated London News, John Muir, Clifton Johnson's What to See in America, W. D. Wilcox's The Rockies of Canada, and a conversation "overheard at the circus." This juxtaposition brings the authority of the first set into question, substituting the complexity of unranked sources for the clear hierarchies of both ecclesiastical and traditional literary authorities.

Thirdly, through the difficulty they introduce for readers, the quotations reiterate the point made in the poems' endorsements of complexity (themselves set in quotations), which echo the principle of the fortunate fall (a principle not unrelated to Moore's notion that one must be "hindered to succeed" [from "The Paper Nautilus"]. In Christian doctrine the fall away from the single truth into the mazes of error is fortunate specifically because it opens the way to Christ's sacrifice and to redemption. Within the logic of Milton's poem, however, the fortunateness, of the fall consists in opening the way to interpretation (a capacity modeled by both Satan and Eve). The possibility of interpretation, of recontextualizing what has been said and making it speak anew, is the ground upon which the new poet builds, and so is essential to Moore. Quotations offer her this opportunity both literally, in allowing her to recycle used material, and metaphorically, in giving her an original way to write poetry. Dedication to (re)interpretation as mode also seconds her investment in bringing authority into question. For Moore, and for others who make them, the sticking point in such investments is always how long the principle of questioning authority holds once the old authorities have been tumbled.

The second of the two long poems, "Marriage," addresses related issues, also against a Miltonic backdrop. The poem, which sets itself up from the start as an inquiry into Adam and Eve's view(s) of the institution they inaugurated, neither strongly endorses nor disparages marriage outright. Instead, it offers paired sets of portraits in which both husbands and wives appear equally attractive (both are acknowledged to be beautiful) and flawed:

he loves himself so much, 

he can permit himself 

no rival in that love. 

She loves herself so much,

she cannot see herself enough--

Occasionally, however, the inequality of influence is noted, as when the passage ". . . experience attests / that men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it" is followed by "He says, 'What monarch would not blush / to have a wife / with hair like a shaving-brush?'"

While the poem apparently supports the value of efforts at affection per se, its deep concerns lie with the gendering of the role of writer. The poem is remarkable, as Randall Jarrell has noted, for its lack of discussion of sex and children, generally central to discussion of marital relations. The division demonstrated in Paradise Lost between literary creativity and literal creativity (usually gendered male and female, respectively) leads to a trade-off in this poem. While portraying the standard gender economy in the foreground of the poem, behind the scenes we get Moore, unmarried, childless, writing the poem. The lack of children in the foreground discussion reminds readers of the trade the poet has made, as does the final image, of a Central Park statue of Civil War rhetorician Daniel Webster with its motto. This image gives us

" . . .the essence of the matter:

 

        'Liberty and union 

        now and forever' ;

 

the Book on the writing-table;

the hand in the breast-pocket."

Though the motto espouses union, we are presented here with a solitary figure--an authoritative man who is associated specifically with writing in the second-to-last line. This in itself call be read as a critique of the gendering of creativity (opposed to the woman near the poem's start who is "able to write simultaneously / in three languages" but who seems not to put this skill to much direct use, since she is never allowed to be alone). The opposition of these two images makes dubious the possibility that "liberty and union" can be accomplished under patriarchy. A reminder that women may find ways to write nonetheless appears in the poem's final line, with its gesture at a breast (in disguise as a pocket), which, blended with the awareness that it is in fact a woman who writes this poem, gives its Daniel Webster as cross-dresser. This image works not to deny femininity, but as a step toward changing the definitions of both masculinity and femininity.

In "Marriage," the quotations serve as enablers and ironizers, as they do throughout Moore's work. In addition, in this poem that weds 29 noted quotations of varying length (occupying 83 of the poem's 289 lines, and the number would increase if unnoted borrowings were included as well), the borrowings allow the poem to demonstrate both the troubles and virtues of its namesake in its own constriction. These borrowed phrases, Moore informs us in a headnote, are "statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly," a statement that itself might be read as a metaphor for the randomnness of romance and the efforts couples must make to deal with its consequences. Operating at once at liberty and in union, the quotations make the most positive case in the poem for the possibility that marriage may work under altered conditions.

From Quotation and Modern American Poetry: "Imaginary Gardens with Real Toads." Copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Elizabeth Gregory: On "Moore's Use of Quotation in "Marriage" and "An Octopus"" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Elizabeth Gregory Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Oct 2015
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