Sabine Sielke: On "Marriage"


The poem "Marriage" is Moore's longest, if not her long poem and contains more quotations and references than most of her work. In fact, it is "made up almost entirely of quotations" (Costello 184). Moore herself once described "Marriage" as "a little anthology of statements that took my fancy—phrasings that I liked" (Reader xv). A similar phrase also introduces the poem's notes in the (rather incomplete) "complete" edition of her work; there, however, the word anthology is elided, and in this way rendered a particularly significant term, a term also that is challenged and redefined by the very text it refers to.

If seen as an anthology, Moore's poem in fact shows little resemblance to its conventional model, the collection of major works by major authors, but instead represents a loose connection of "phrases from the most unlikely sources" (Stapleton 39), often chosen as much for their "raw" materiality as for their meaning (Poems 267), The poem neither shuns citation from the non-canonical, like the Scientific American and a French magazine called Femina, nor is its reference necessarily to a printed text. Identifying the source of a quotation as the inscription on Daniel Webster's statue in Central Park, Moore connects the historical figure with his rhetorical figures, but also gives "body" to rhetoric and its postures. Such idiosyncratic treatment of borrowed discourse may be, as Hugh Kenner suggests, an effective way to "democratize 'tradition'" (111); it certainly highlights the ambivalence of the female talent vis-à-vis tradition. And moreover, it challenges tradition and canonicity as such—some time before literary criticism did.

After all, Moore's "Marriage" is a re-reading of John Milton's Paradise Lost, "the canonical text par excellence of English literature" (Froula 326) written by "English literature's paradigmatic patriarch" and "patron saint of companionate marriage" (Nyquist 101, 99). Moore secularizes Milton's version of the Biblical myth; she revises Eve's conversion to orthodoxy and at the same time recalls emphatic notions and illusions of conjugal love and marital equality, reminding the reader that the Renaissance—like Milton's epic—celebrated marriage as an institution that supposedly unites two incomplete halves. Moore's poem, on the other hand, glances at the flip side of the coin: in early capitalist times, matrimony also became a contract, a "match," as Moore herself calls it in "Spencer's Ireland" (112), an economic necessity and exclusive social norm, which left hardly any other alternative to women's lives. For Moore, marriage means shared loneliness, pure convention or pompous ritual, a mixture of "servitude and flutter" (194)—in short, temptation, but certainly entrapment. And whereas in Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Milton strongly argues for legal separation of the sexes in case of "indisposition, unfitness, or contrariety of mind" (705), this poet does not blame the indisposed individual but rather the institution itself—a "strange paradise," a "crystal-fine experiment," an "amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility" (63).

Moore's poem itself appears like an amalgamation, a combination of different things. But even more than that, lacking connectives—which Moore "despises" (Williams in Tomlinson 54)—the poem becomes a collage, a "dance of broken things" (Tomlinson 16), an assembly of fragments which always function in a way that is particular for Moore's texts. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Moore uses quotation neither to reconstruct or change the content of the canon, nor as mere allusion to literary authority, but rather as an alternative speaking position. Whereas Eliot's and Pound's historical and literary fragments re-collect and often preserve "past states" (Moore, Poems 64), Moore is attracted to statements that "took [her] fancy" and thus makes her readers see significance not in the programmatic but in the accidental. "Mimic Fancy," as fanciful Eve is told by Adam in Book V of Paradise Lost, is one among the lesser Faculties that serve / Reason." [O]f all external things," Eve learns, ". . . She forms Imaginations, Aery shapes," and in reason's absence "wakes / To imitate her; but misjoining shapes / Wild work produces oft" (101-112). Moore's poem rephrases this association of fancy and female, claiming that "there is in woman / a quality of mind / which as an instinctive manifestation / is unsafe" (68). Just this fanciful unreliability, however, is a significant part of Moore's poetic practice and the position, positions, or even "non-positions" from which many of her poems speak. Her alterations of citation, erratic manner of annotation and other idiosyncratic inconsistencies have provoked various, often "contradictory objections." Refusing to turn her work "into a donkey that finally found itself being carried by its masters" (262), Moore nonetheless continued to playfully parody the textual apparatus of poetic authority as much as to exploit it as speaking position and subtext to the dazzling surfaces of her poems.

Consequently, fancy and inconsistency in Moore's poetic practice may not be mistaken as randomness. Her choice of quoted material, for instance, is highly selective and operates both on the surface and in the subtext of her poems. When Moore's modern Eve relies not on Adam's order, but on the authority of Martha Carey Thomas' speech, various intertextual threads are woven between Moore's poem, the issues and bias of liberal feminism, and Milton's epic. In the context of Moore's poem, which depicts and distinguishes its main figures by rhetoric, these threads are foregrounded and converge in the issue of dominant versus subordinate discourse and voice. Reciting—with some poetic license—Carey Thomas' rhetoric, Moore's Eve claims that "[m]en are monopolists / of 'stars, garters, buttons / and other shining baubles'" (67), but she also knows Adam as the monopolist of oration and debate. The poem, in fact, identifies Adam with (Milton's) Eve's apostrophe to her "Guide and Head" (4.440-43), her "Author and Disposer" (4.635). Adam becomes the embodiment of this rhetorical device, "the O thou / to whom from whom / without whom nothing" (63); synonymous with presence and univocality, full of prophecy and void of uncertainty, he speaks "in a formal [customary] strain, / of 'past states, the present state, seals, promises / the evil one suffered, the good one enjoys / hell, heaven / everything convenient / to promote one's joy'" (64). Eve's multiple voices, her ability to write in three languages and talk in the meantime align woman, on the other hand, with the poem's fragmented structure, its shifting tones and dissonances (62). Due to these opposed rhetorical strategies, the couple's attempt at dialogue remains a collage of clashing materials; their marriage is hardly a privileged place for interaction, neither a "blissful coming together of equal voices speaking in unison" nor an "ongoing dialogue between individuals affirming in turn their difference" (Furman 59), connection nor communication, but a "striking grasp of opposites / opposed to each other, not to unity" (69). As in Milton's epic, we find in Moore's poem a shared responsibility for the Fall. For marriage, however, there is no redemption; it is finally dismissed with irony, but without an offer of alternative. As William Carlos Williams put it: "Of marriage there is no solution in the poem and no attempt at a solution" (Tomlinson 57).

During all this, the poem's speaker gradually gives up the center stage and instead claims multiple, indeterminate positions, positions which are present in their very absence. "Robbed of speech by speech that has delighted" (91), she transforms from indefinite "one" and universal "I" into the masterful manipulator of her model discourses; she juxtaposes ironies and illusions, appearances, stereotypes and myths, indeed "playfully repeating" and thus undermining and deconstructing the conventional structures of poetic authority and voice as well as of marriage. Making mimicry and the multiplication of voice go hand in hand, Moore's poem, in some strange way, also enacts the very paradox in Irigaray's notion of the parler femme, her two seemingly contradictory claims that women's language cannot be metaspoken, that woman escapes signification, "remain[s] elsewhere" and that, nonetheless, her voice is unlimited, indefinite and multiple.

From "Snapshots of Marriage, Snares of Mimicry, Snarls of Motherhood: Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich." SAGETRIEB 6.3


Criticism Overview
Title Sabine Sielke: On "Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Sabine Sielke Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 26 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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