Elizabeth Gregory: On "Silence"

I would like here to look at Moore's poem "Silence" as a remark on its own methods and on Moore's use of quotation as prosodic device in general. . . .

The poem presents itself as an exercise in the very restraint bordering on silence that the father recommends. This restraint is demonstrated on two levels, and the relation of the two informs the poem's meanings importantly as any reading of the words. At the first of these levels the speaker restrains her speech, repeating two sayings of "her father" and herself offering only the three lines "My father used to say," "Nor was he insincere in saying" and the concluding "Inns are not residences."

At the second level arrived at through reference to the notes, we learn that the poet also has restrained herself, giving place to the words of others in two instances. Thus, the quotation marks function not merely as signs of the difference between reported speeches and prefatory remarks. They note also the actual quieting of a poet, though the notes demonstrate that she has exercised some vocal power as well, altering the material she borrows and adding to it freely.

Though it is full of assertions, the poem does not tell us anything definite. We do not know, for instance, how to take the central lecture on restraint, since the dad's expansive chat works in opposition to the point of his talk. This opposition seems to mean to mock the father, but not, since the poem bases itself on his advice, in an entirely condemning or dismissive manner.

The uncertainty that arises here arises in all Moore's poems that involve quotation marks. In none of those poems can we assume that the speaker or the poet endorses the words set in quotes. Indeed we must assume that not only is there no way to resolve the question but that failure of resolution is part of the point.

The marks themselves participate in the ambiguity they help establish, by signaling things in addition to the fact that a word or phrase is borrowed. They can indicate dialog, suggest irony, indicate that the phrase they set off is not part of the speaker's normal diction, and mark off titles and mottoes. And all of these other uses come into play at some point or another in Moore's work. Moore's quotation marks function as elements of her poetry per se. Integral constituents of the objective texts, their multiple ways of meaning are engaged as might be the case with any word in any poem. Though in most instances Moore employs quotation marks around phrases that she did in fact borrow--and then, very often, substantially changed--her notes tell of many cases in which she borrowed a line and chose not to set it within marks. And phrases that are neither marked nor noted often prove borrowed as well. In spite of her disclaimer of any intention but acknowledgement in her "Note on the Notes," Moore's inclusion of both quotation marks and notes must be considered aesthetic choices. . . . .

To return now to "Silence," we can recognize in the father, whose words his daughter the "speaker" recites in the great part of the poem, a representative of the culture that has long taught its daughters to not speak. And we can recognize that the quotations in this poem stand in metonymically for the quotations that fill so much of Moore's other poetry. Through the interplay of method and discussion in "Silence," Moore's uses of the words of others in this poem and throughout her oeuvre are revealed at once as signs of her speech anxiety and as enablers, the means by which she overcomes the worst effects of that anxiety and, in the guise of not speaking, begins to speak.

The evidence of the notes also suggests this double attitude of simultaneous self-effacement and -assertion. On the one hand it is the notes that first make clear that the quotation marks in the poem indicate the borrowedness of the words they set off as well as that these words are offered as dialog, something we would have had no reason otherwise to suspect. On the other hand the variation between the original and Moore's version of it apparent on comparison of the two establishes her skill as maker and, indisputably, her authorship of the poem's poetry--that Moore and no earlier employer of her phrases has charge of all the poem's meaning.

Again, Moore's notes are not apart from but part of the poems they annotate. Hugh Kenner pointed out some time back that her notes have very little in common with the usual scholarly note and do not refer readers to earlier texts (Kenner 102). Moore uses the evidence of arting that her notes provide as a means of introducing herself as a character--the poet as character--into her own poems. In "Silence" this poet/character's restraint, demonstrated through her employment of words written or spoken first by others, comments, as I began to suggest at the start of this essay, on the restraint displayed by the poem's speaker in quoting her father. For the speaker/character, not to be confused with the Miss Homans of the note, gives a portrait of a woman stopped at the door of poetic expression--constrained by the old structures and able to do nothing more than repeat them in phrases not her own.

The poet/character who emerges through comparison of notes and text has made advances on the speaker/character's position. She can speak and does, with her own phrases, though she disguises them as those of others and though she bases them on an already existent structure (i.e., the structure of female silence) and on already existent phrases (i.e., the actual quotations that she cites in the notes). The new poem transforms both the old structure and the old phrases. In setting up the levels of text to speak in their relation, and not in their specific phrases, Moore makes further creative, transformative use of the silence traditionally assigned to women.

The poem's sustained concern with visiting does a turn on the poet's effort to break silence, requesting the silence of others in order that she may work. Visits and visitors that do not much trouble the host either with excessive need of direction or entertainment or with excessive length of stay appear at the opening and at the close. In expressing need of time alone and a place apart from others, Moore makes the point that Virginia Woolf later made in A Room of One's Own: though she have all the world's genius and the most fortunate of situations in relation to the tradition to which she responds, a poet with too many social obligations is no poet at all. The poem is not a rejection of visitors altogether, or a demand for total silence on the part of others. It is rather a request for some say in how one's time and space are apportioned, and for the right sometimes not to be available to others.

* * * *

Having offered the argument that the "father" of the poem stands in for the shapers of Western civilization in general, especially in their literary aspect, I would like to go on to suggest that Moore refers to some particular literary fathers as well.

The poem shouts Longfellow insistently at us in line 3, and he is in fact buried not far beneath its surface. Lines 11 and 12 echo and revise the final stanza of Longfellow's "Resignation": "We will be patient, and assuage the feeling/We may not wholly stay;/By silence sanctifying; not concealing,/The grief that must have way." Longfellow's poem gives advice on how to deal with the death of a young girl: he recommends accepting it without moan for the time being, in expectation of meeting her, full grown, in heaven. Though its terms differ slightly from the usual, "Resignation" does follow the basic quest pattern. The poet's beloved is lost and their reunion put off until the last possible moment. In the meantime, her loss gives him occasion for song. Although he claims to advise silence to the girl's mourners, himself most prominent among them, it is not they who fall silent (certainly the poem is evidence that he does not), but she--another sacrifice to art.

In responding to Longfellow, Moore begins with an echo of his sentiment: "By silence sanctifying; not concealing,/The grief that must have way" becomes "The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence." But in the line that follows, in language that does a turn on the structure of his own, she rejects Longfellow's point--"not in silence, but restraint"--thereby making room for her own poetry to develop, not as silence, but, as this poem demonstrates, as restraint. In a parodic turnabout, in Moore's poem Longfellow is dead, and his grave the object of a quest, though the poet is not the speaker. And the quest for his grave does not go on long, for visitors, albeit superior visitors, can find the grave without aid.

Her neat settling of accounts with Longfellow demonstrates that his memory did not trouble Moore terribly. Moore invokes him for the opportunity his heavy-handed blows give her to display her skill in parrying. The phrases of another father figure, whose memory poses more, and more unsettling, problems, echo here also, however. The arguments for female silence of Emerson, father of American letters, give Moore more difficulty and she pays them greater respect. The easily dealt with Longfellow is present in the poem as a cover for the poem's struggle with Longfellow's friend and contemporary, the much more challenging Emerson.

All Americans since Emerson have been essentially informed in some measure by his doctrine. Emerson's image of the self-reliant man who is able to "enjoy an original relation to the universe" (1960, 21) strikes such a resonant chord in American breasts because it responds to the deep anxiety over secondary status that permeates American culture, isolated offspring of the culture of the old world. Out of need to deny dependence on what went before, Emersonian men (and, in a more complicated maneuver, Emersonian women as well) construct fictions of their independence and originality, which allow them to go forward with a new sense of their importance in the universal scheme. Their self-confidence frees them to act purposively and without hesitation.

This model has immense attractions for Moore. As a woman poet in search of new modes, as a Modern poet, and as an American, Moore shares Emerson's obsession with originality. His doctrine of self-reliance makes possible her doctrine of self-conquering, which responds to and revises his. But the clear case of influence anxiety implicit in such revision is made even more problematic for Moore by the tendency of Emerson's model to obscure all notion of dependency in the process of establishing the idea of a self independent of earlier source. Emerson's model in a world made of human relations, rather than honoring others goes far toward denying that others exist at all though this denial lessens the actual dependency of the "self-reliant" man on others not one whit and probably increases it. Like the quest, the transcendent Emersonian self depends on the silence of those who make it possible. The self as Emerson defines it is a general model for suppression of otherness, of which the quest relation of male poet/female object of description is a particular case.

Emerson is not entirely ignorant of the dependence implicit in his models. In spite of his best efforts, a covert awareness of this "self" deception haunts his work, expressing itself through troubled tropes and through the very frequency with which Emerson denies it. In "Silence," Moore begins her critique of Emerson and the Emersonian elements of her own work by putting pressure on some of these tropes.

We can recognize a response to Emerson in the first few fines of the poem in the concerns with both superior people and self-reliance. The definition and value of these ideas come into question here and contribute to the poem's general mood of uncertainty. The atmosphere of doubt introduced by the quotation marks--whose ideas are these, and how should we view them?--builds progressively, with the poem. Even as the reader recognizes the possibility that the quotation marks may mean to mock the father's speech, other elements of the poem also prove unstable. The validity of the claim to superiority comes fast into question. Do truly superior people go about expounding rules for superiority, after all? And to whom, exactly, are they superior?

The at-first-apparently-ordinary simile for self-reliance self-destructs when you notice that the cat's "self"-reliance depends on the sustenance he will take from the mouse he will soon devour. Moore's image redoes Emerson's famous "puss with her tail" simile near the end of his essay "Experience." Emerson, arguing that we all make our own worlds and that what we perceive is not independent of us but shaped by our seeing, offers a kitten as example:

As I am, so I see; use what language we will, we can never say anything but what we are.... Do you see that kitten chasing so prettily her own tail? If you could look with her eyes you might see her surrounded with hundreds of figures performing complex dramas, with tragic and comic issues, long conversations, many characters, many ups and downs of fate,--and meantime it is only puss and her tail. How long before our masquerade will end its noise of tambourines, laughter and shouting, and we shall find it was a solitary performance? A subject and an object--it takes so much to make the galvanic circuit complete, but magnitude adds nothing. What imports it whether it is Kepler and the sphere, Columbus and America, a reader and his book, or puss with her tail?

In pointing out that "use what language we will, we can never say anything but what we are," Emerson, as Moore will after him, tells us that language silences what it describes; but he presents the notion in a way that realizes his point. For he manages here to speak of silencing what he describes while barely acknowledging the existence of what gets silenced. "As I am, so I see" does not note the existence of, let alone inquire into the effect on, the "object" onto which this "subject" projects its image.

Of course Emerson does use the word object, but the principal metaphor he takes to express the object's status avoids the issue by confusing things. His choice of part of the cat's own body as the object of her pursuit/interpreta-tion blurs the distinction between subject and object. We do not immediately perceive that puss and her tail are not one, and so do not recognize the tail as object. The phrase "solitary performance" heightens the confusion. It seems most sensibly to distinguish between the cat's fantasy of a drama involving hundreds of others besides herself and the fact that she plays her game with herself alone. In fact, in a rather alienated image, it distinguishes between the cat and her tail, telling us that the tail has no part in the game as far as the cat is concerned. But the oddness of the image makes it hard to register thus.

Emerson obscures the aggressive nature of interpretation as well in representing the cat's fantasy so sweetly. Harmless though it may be in itself, the kitten's pursuit is not merely a good time; it prepares her for hunts to come.

Even without reference to "Experience," the apposition of "self-reliant" and the cat and mouse image in Moore's poem strikes the ear dissonantly. The example undermines the statement. With "Experience" in mind, we can recognize in Moore's image a corrective response to the wisdom of the father of American letters; we might call it a subversive clarification of his cat and mouse game. By revising the cat's tail into a mouse's tail and changing the game into a murderous hunt, Moore makes explicit what Emerson's simile would conceal: the predatory nature of interpretation and the unpleasant fact that the terms of existence forbid anyone's relying on herself or himself solely; that life as we know it requires victims.

Just as her notion of self depends on Emerson's while it takes exception to it, so Moore's use of quotation imitates Emerson even as it provides her with means of overcoming his demands that, she be mute. Like Moore, Emerson quotes extensively. At the start of his essay "Quotation and Originality" he remarks on the world's scarcity of original ideas and the consequent inevitability of quotation:

Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant,--and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing,--that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote.... By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. (1889,170)

He goes on to note that all our habits of living quote the habits of our ancestors:

Our knowledge is the amassed thought and experience of innumerable minds; our language, our science, our religion, our opinion, our fancies we inherited. Our country, customs, laws, our ambitions, and our notions of fit and fair,--all these we never made, we found them ready-made; we but quote them. (1889,190)

His own quotations are not of this democratic sort, however. Emerson quotes for power. In quoting he means to borrow the authority of famous men along with their words. The first of the many quotations with which Emerson studs this essay comments on this very intention:

"He that borrows the aid of an equal understanding," said Burke, "doubles his own; he that uses that of a superior elevates his own to the stature of that he contemplates." (1889, 170)

Emerson's witty setting of this quotation so that it compliments his enterprise even as it feeds his argument prefigures the sly multiple uses Moore makes of the quotations she weaves into poetry.

Having acknowledged the importance of the past, Emerson then goes on to recuperate the argument for independence and to assert the reconstitutive powers of individual genius:

But there remains the indefeasible persistency of the individual to be himself.… He must draw the elements into him for food, and, if they be granite and silex, will prefer them cooked by sun and rain, by time and art, to his hand. But, however received, these elements pass into the substance of his constitution, will be assimilated, and tend always to form, not a partisan, but a possessor of truth. To all that can be said of the preponderance of the Past, the single word Genius is a sufficient reply. The divine resides in the new. The divine never quotes, but tis, and creates. (1889, 191)

Moore's habits of quotation build on Emerson's, but where Emerson emphasizes borrowings for power and the assertion of individuality through transformation of the material quoted, Moore stresses the interconnectedness of all elements of our culture. Quoting to emphasize her dependence as poet on the world around her, Moore cites borrowings from newspapers, conversations and books of the sort we generally consider "secondary material"--sources that are not considered valuable literature, that we would not recognize if she did not document their borrowing in her notes, and that do not impart authority to her work. Most of this material she has substantially altered in the process of incorporating it, so there is often small similarity between her line and the line she cites as source, and therefore no need to direct attention to her indebtedness. But time and again she makes a point of highlighting that debt.

In spite of these efforts, Moore's method does not cease to be original. If Emerson precedes her in quoting widely, she quotes a very different sort of text, and in poetry, where the device is not much used. Moore continues an Emersonian then, though with important differences. The unresolved nature of her relation to Emerson gives rise to her inability to deal with him directly or to name him in her poem. But he is present in both the direct references to famous men she does make. Where Longfellow enters the poem as Emerson's follower, Burke enters as his model--the one to whose height Emerson claims, obliquely, to aspire in "Quotation and Originality."

In quoting Burke at the close of "Silence" (actually Moore quotes Prior who quotes Burke), Moore plays on Emerson’s playful use of his quote from Burke at the start of his essay. Her quotation alludes to Emerson's quotation, and, again, we are treated to a sophisticated display of skill at making silence speak. In making punning use of a quotation from Burke, Moore "quotes" Emerson, and thus, like Emerson, she too makes claims to the stature of her model. Her concluding line, which interprets and revises the precise meaning of the line from Burke in the process of explaining it (his line is much more hospitable than hers), can thus be read as a revisionary response to Emerson, whose method she adopts, with altered emphasis.

In a wider sense, the revisionary reading in the final lines suggests the situation of the woman poet, working to redefine the tradition that inspired her to poetry. The evidence of reworking given in the final lines supports the understanding that the poet transforms the father's legacy even as she embodies it. And she saves for herself the final word.

Excerpted from "’Silence’ and ‘Restraint,’" a longer essay in Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Ed. Patricia C. Willis. Copyright © 1990 by the National Poetry Foundation, Inc. Please consult the original book for footnotes to this essay. Reprinted with permission.

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Title Elizabeth Gregory: On "Silence" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elizabeth Gregory Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 Oct 2015
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