Cristanne Miller

Cristanne Miller: On "Spenser's Ireland"

"Spenser's Ireland' (1941) would seem to be Moore's most specific poem about race since here she refers to the poem's "I" as "Irish," and since the poet's own multiple public and private references to her Irish heritage imply the identity of that speaker with herself. Yet the speaker knows Ireland only through reading and myth. The poem begins with its title: "Spenser's Ireland //has not altered;-- / a place as kind as it is green, / the greenest place I've never seen. / Every name is a tune." Mythical elements predominate even in the primary didactic statement of this poem, which occurs at its center:

[Miller quotes lines 30-37]

Typically for Moore, this didactic statement couches itself as a conditional description, contains a double negative (never . . . not free), and ends with a question that undercuts the speaker's stance--all aspects modifying the absolutism of its claim. Presumably, stubbornly independent people (all Irish?) do not know that their freedom lies in supreme belief, hence their "obduracy," continuous fighting, and dissatisfaction. In a more directly conditional query, the speaker previously asks

[lines 12-19]

But it isn't clear why the condition is necessary or who the recipient of the reinstating should be--today's Irish recovering their lost heritage? the rest of the world learning from mythically "[un]altered" Ireland? Moreover, she implies that even this heritage may be a mixed blessing. "Hindered characters / seldom have mothers / in Irish stories," Moore states, "but they all have grandmothers"; she then follows this generalization about loss by quoting a hopelessly bigoted ancestor:

[lines 23-30]

Irish heroes may need both to escape or "unlearn" such closed-minded "native genius for disunion" at the same time that they reclaim a heritage of almost magically skilled craft and kindness.

As racial portrait, this is myth-making par excellence. Moore's knowledge of earlier extreme discrimination against the Irish in the United States may contribute to her strong allegiance to that part of her heritage, but it does not enter the poem. Similarly, Moore's concern for the political and religious factionalization of Ireland and its continuing semi-colonial status appears nowhere in this poem, as it does in the earlier "Sojourn in the Whale." Instead, she identifies her speaker with a country of garrulously cantankerous individuals who live a life of antithesis to the rational materialism and selfishness characterizing the United States.

Nonetheless, the final lines of "Spenser's Ireland" emphasize the distance between the speaker and Ireland, even as they assert identity: "The Irish say your trouble is their / trouble and your / joy their joy? I wish / I could believe it; / I am troubled, I'm dissatisfied, I'm Irish." By rhyming "I'm Irish" with "I wish," by denoting the Irish "they" (rather than "we"), and by stating that she can't believe what "the Irish" do, Moore allies her speaker with the earlier skeptical "you" ("credulity you say?") rather than with the Irish themselves. The poet's acknowledged borrowing from Don Byrne's "Ireland: The Rock Whence I Was Hewn" in the 1927 National Geographic Magazine for much of the description of her poem further dislodges any claim to authority through identity (see "Notes," CP, 280). This is an intertextually constructed portrait, not a racially or culturally "inherited" one.

As with "Enough: Jamestown," I do not find that this poem accounts for all its own implications and detail--perhaps in this case because the poet has restricted herself to the mythological and personal, yet places the poem in a temporal context and thereby hints both at the country's history of strife and at its neutrality during a "world" war against fascism. "Sojourn in the Whale" more successfully combines the mythological, political, personal, and didactic in its representation of Ireland.

From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Copyright 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Cristanne Miller: On "Silence"

Moore's poem "Silence" reveals most clearly the politics of form that may inhere in quoting, and speech-act theory provides perhaps the clearest description of its functions, for while the words Moore quotes may be identical to those previously used, the speech-act is inevitably different. To repeat J. G. A. Pocock's dictum, words constitute not just actions but "acts of power toward persons." In a poem consisting, except for two and a half lines, entirely of quotation and depicting the relationship between a daughter and a father, it is particularly crucial to understand how speech-acts are performed on others, and where negotiations of power enter into the performance(s).

[. . .]

This poem has long been read as a sincere appreciation of a father's dictum that "superior people" may be known by their independence and "restraint"--and in her Notes Moore reports that the appreciation is a daughter's (Miss A. M. Homans). Recently, however, various critics have read the poem differently. Jeanne Heuving argues that the daughter quotes her father's words ironically to show both his dominating will-to-power and her subversion of it: "Inns are not residences," the poem ends--which is to say, that even if a literal, or a poetic, daughter rests within the house of a father, she does not and perhaps cannot spiritually or practically "live" there. Slatin sees the daughter using silence with what Moore in "Marriage" calls "criminal ingenuity," to circumvent the father's authority and appropriate it to herself as restrained speaker. Charles Altieri observes that "Silence" concludes Moore's Selected Poems and hence suggests "that everything in the book contributes to, and is modified by, this dialectical assertion of her female strength. This assertion, in turn, depends on a controlled manipulation of the very "restraint" that the father assumes epitomizes his word and that the daughter acknowledges as exemplifying her very different values. "Should [the daughter] either overestimate her power or underestimate the task [of fixing her father and freeing herself], she is likely to trap herself in poses of hatred and obsessive resistance that only confirm his victory . . . One in her situation must refrain from any self-staging."

A return to speech-act theory strengthens such readings. By structuring the poem as representing a two-way process of communication, Moore reveals and establishes her moral insistence on the possibility of response: anyone can talk back, as it were, and the most responsible rhetorical and poetic stance is to abet that possibility. By emphasizing the imperfect character of her verse--those characteristics that distinguish it from traditional poetry, or the perfect(ed) literary icon--Moore seems to encourage readerly intervention or response, and hence a structure of freedom. Again, as J. G. A. Pocock suggests, because we do not initiate and cannot monopolize the language we use, we neither fully control its power nor prevent others from sharing it: "In performing a verbalized act of power, I enter upon a polity of shared power"--even if that power is shared unequally, and against the will of the institutionally more empowered speaker.

Using this vocabulary, one could say that "Silence" quotes a father performing an act of power upon his daughter, in a way that presupposes her silent, or restrained, obedience. The daughter responds however by repeating this father's words at length, in a new performative act that undermines, if it does not transform, the power structure assumed. She changes the father's pronouncement--which apparently was intended to prevent the freedom of a two-way process of communication--into an opportunity for response. Moreover, her statement implies that now be is the one incapable of response: one of the few nonquoted lines reads, "my father used to say"--suggesting that he can no longer repeat this behavior (emphasis mine). She manipulates the father's words so as to structure a "polity of shared power" rather than a relationship of "power over."

That she does not simply reverse the situation so that she now assumes "power over" the father is revealed, as Altieri implies, by the fact that her response does not voice simple resistance: she accepts the father's words and his concept of restraint. What she rejects is his elitist and controlling uses of language which assume that behavioral "superiority" and all other power relationships are stable--hence that response can be prevented. And by rejecting his concept of language even while using every one of his words, she suggests that response to her own speech-act is welcome. The poem offers a concise paradigm for feminist analysis of any daughters relationship to patriarchal or phallic language.

More to the point of my discussion of quotation, however, is the poet Moore's use of the daughter's quotation of the father--which again constitutes a separate speech-act and performance of power from either the father's or the daughter's. By structuring this poem as a monologue, without dramatic context, Moore implies that it addresses a general audience. And in this context, the poem's text at first seems to function analogously to the father's words: as an unexplained directive to the reader about how "superior people" act, or read poems. The politics of the daughters speech-act within the poem and of Moore's poetry, generally, however, suggest a more complex relationship. Again language theory may be useful. In The Poem as Utterance, R. A. York hypothesizes that a poem may "reverse[ ] the usual polarity of language, in which presupposition ... act[s] as an inconspicuous background for a dynamic speech act" by instead making the reader work to understand not just the content of its words but the conditions of the utterance, the presuppositions, that make them appropriate. In "Silence," Moore indeed leaves the conditions for both the fictionalized utterance (the daughter's to the father) and the poetic utterance (hers to the reader) a matter of interpretation--that is, she constructs the poem as a speech-act that functions as the opposite of a command.

Pocock refers to the inherent uncontrollability of language. Annotated quotation provides a stunning instance of Moore's more radical because chosen relinquishment of the claim to original control of her words: here, the poet doubly documents (through quotation marks and through notes) that she borrows from others. Moore, in such a reading, functions simultaneously as father and daughter--as she perhaps does in all her quoting. As poet, she is structurally the father--even as woman--and therefore, as I have argued, resorts to a variety of formal strategies and themes to undermine that structure of (patriarchal) authorial authority. Through that undermining, she is also structurally the daughter, debunking the notions that any text is "superior" to others (using quotation to place overheard speech on the same level as literature) and that any speech-act unilaterally prevents the possibility of response or alternative political structuring--including her later revisions of her own words. As daughter, the poet marks the uncontrollability of language that has allowed her own response. As discussed earlier, Moore indeed prefers the unlovely, the not fully controlled--the "mere childish attempt to make an imperfectly bal- / lasted animal stand up"; she has a "very special fondness for writing that is obscure, that does not quite succeed." Such imperfection--born of "ardor, of diligence, and of refusing to be false"--gives freedom of both expression and response.

From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Cristanne Miller: On "Sojourn in the Whale"

"Sojourn in the Whale" appears to claim that women (represented by the Irish) may "rise" without doing battle. The poem ends with indirect dialogue between the British ("men") and Ireland ("you," a woman).

Here is the poem's conundrum. The last lines, and the woman's smile, imply that she knows more than the men who criticize her. Having "been compelled' to perform impossible deeds for centuries ("thread[ ] / the points of needles," "spin / gold thread from straw") and having not just survived but abundantly "lived and lived on every kind of shortage," she knows with absolute clarity her own endurance and strength. Yet if water rises "automatically," there is no need for thorns or weapons.

In the context of other poems, however, such a passive reading becomes implausible, and the poem's analogy between women and nature seems more problematized than problematic. According to "Roses Only," the natural woman has both intellect and "thorns"; according to "Those Various Scalpels," women are capable of aggression and weaponry far beyond that natural state; and according to all of Moore's poems, one is limited in one's effectiveness and success by one's determination and wit--not by "nature." The "rise" predicted in "Sojourn" may occur because a woman--or at least a New Woman--"automatically" responds with whatever "weapons or scalpels" she has at her command; her nature, as it were, may appear the same but has changed in its determination to respond. Unlike most of Moore's poems, this one predicts revolution. Inspired by the resurgence of Irish rebellion against British colonialism in 1916, this poem suggests the necessity or "nature" of the downtrodden to rise.

From Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Lynne Keller and Cristanne Miller: On "Marriage"

"Marriage" is unique in containing an extended dramatic dialogue in which the poem's characters argue with each other as Moore's voice temporarily recedes. This open conflict between dramatized speakers, moreover, hints at an uncharacteristic conflict in Moore's feelings toward her subject—as do other less unusual features of the poem. The poet's deep ambivalence about the "enterprise" of marriage reveals itself in the poem's tortuous intellectual movement and in its contradictory tones reinforced by her incorporation of quoted voices as diverse as those of the contemporary feminist M. Carey Thomas and the seventeenth-century divine Richard Baxter. "Marriage," then, contains at least two kinds of debate or "disputation"—Moore's word for the arguments of the poem: one, the dramatized and primarily rhetorical exchange of her stylized characters, and two, the troubled but quieter argument Moore carries on with herself about the virtues and dangers of this relationship.


In what follows, we shall focus on the disputational aspects of the poem as crucial to illuminating not only Moore's passionately mixed feelings on the subject of marriage but also the structure of this particularly obscure work. From this focus we hope a fuller understanding of disputation as a central value of her poetry will emerge. Moore's internal argument about marriage, evident in her personal correspondence and private notebooks leading up to the poem's composition, appears most clearly in the poem's rapidly shifting perspectives. The changing voices and attitudes establish expansive "discursive boundaries" (de Lauretis 4-5) within which Moore explores her subject. Entertaining widely divergent views of marriage simultaneously or in rapid succession enables Moore, and the reader, ultimately to abandon the desire for a single unqualified stance. We contend, moreover, that Moore's dramatization in "Marriage" of several kinds of disputation allows her to enact her fundamental belief that "'no truth can be fully known / until it has been tried / by the tooth of disputation.'" While "Marriage" is anomalous in its explicit invocation and dramatization of argument, a belief in the value of "disputation" tacitly shapes much of Moore's poetic oeuvre. Thus, in the course of this important poem, Moore clarifies for the reader that her internal disputation is not simply evidence of ambivalence or vacillation; it is the model she proposes for the exploration of any truth.


The notable difficulty of "Marriage" derives originally from the degree of turmoil and contradiction in Moore's attitudes toward this particular subject. In some of her other poems, her stance is so complex that she must introduce a great many qualifications and tangents in order to define it properly; but most often the stance itself is resolute and passionately adhered to. "Marriage" stands apart in the degree of inner conflict it contains. For though she had by this time chosen the socially "criminal" stance of one who avoids marriage, and though she was highly critical of marriage as commonly practiced, Moore nonetheless maintained a vision of marriage as an ideal in human relations.


[ . . . . ]


Even about the marriage contract she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, if "we do away with the marriage contract . . . we get back to cave life." On the other hand, she complains that "the whole canker in the situation" is that "people who have no respect for marriage, insist on the respectability of a marriage contract." At one point she flatly states, "I don't like divorce and marriage is difficult but marriage is our attempt to solve a problem and I can't think of anything better" (to Bryher, August 31, 1921; V:08:06, Rosenbach). The letters, like the poem "Marriage," reveal deeply mixed feelings about this relationship and institution: Moore objects to marriage as potentially oppressive to women; she is aware of its immense practical difficulties; and yet she sometimes upholds a vision of it that is idealized and romantic.


Not surprisingly, Moore's earliest workings on the poem also suggest ambivalence. In her poetry workbook, probably around March 1922, she wrote under the heading Marriage:


I don't know what Adam and Eve think of it by this time


I don't think much of it

                    (VII:04:04 Rosenbach)


These lines recall the opening she retained for "Poetry"—"I too dislike it." In that poem, the rhetorical strategy of baldly announcing her dislike allows her to explore as well the attributes and powers of poetry that she admires. Moore's play with a similar opening statement in the "Marriage" workbook indicates her comparable complexity of feeling about this subject: her sharp criticism of the failure of marriage reflects her high standard for the "institution." In the published versions of "Marriage," instead of repeating the opening strategy of "Poetry," Moore reveals the divisions within her thinking by creating an extremely disjunctive structure in which perspectives and voices shift rapidly.


As published, the poem opens with a sharply humorous definition of marriage reminiscent of her other satirical poems.


This institution . . .

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 traditions and impostures,

committing many spoils,'

requiring all one's criminal ingenuity

to avoid!


Yet Moore's wry questioning of "what Adam and Eve / think of it" is followed by her serious admission that even the contemporary science of relationships "Psychology . . . explains nothing," and "we"—herself, and perhaps moderns generally—"are still in doubt." To flesh out her doubts in the poem, she creates portraits of a woman arid man who represent socialized gender as much as figures of biblical or historical reference. At the beginning of the poem, Moore calls them Eve and Adam to evoke prelapsarian possibilities of union as well as to anticipate their fall, in which each succumbs to self-love and becomes bitterly disillusioned with marriage. Throughout the poem, Eve and Adam, or She and He, combine aspects of the modem individual and of ancient archetype. Moore begins by depicting Eve in the first person: "Eve: beautiful woman— / I have seen her . . ." This representative woman is clever, talented, gifted with language, and independent in asserting her own desires. Yet Moore's Eve romantically envisions the first marriage in Eden, "that first crystal-fine experiment," as "'the choicest piece of my life: / the heart rising / in its estate of peace / as a boat rises / with the rising of the water.'" Moore's portrait of Eve is flattering. Correspondingly, the patriarchal story of the Fall, in which Eve is "the central flaw" of Eden, receives mocking treatment; her act is "that invaluable accident / exonerating Adam."


Adam "has beauty also" but Moore depicts him less positively and from a greater distance (she does not "see" him). Some of his attributes are even Satanic: he is snakelike ("'something colubrine'"), "a crouching mythological monster" conscious of and pleased with his own power. In a similar departure from popular stereotypes, Moore stresses Eve's as well as Adam's facility with language, although she notes significant differences in their modes of verbal control. Eve's capacity with language is extravagant, even to the point of freakishness; she is "able to write simultaneously / in three languages . . .and talk in the meantime." Yet despite her multi-lingual fluency, she is "constrained in speaking of the serpent," or of her own history. Moore portrays Adam as the one whose vitality depends on language: he is "Alive with words, / vibrating like a cymbal / touched before it has been struck." In contrast to Eve, his only problem with language seems to be that he "goes on speaking" without end. Moreover, only he converts his control of words into power. He "prophesie[s] correctly" the force of patriarchy—"which violently bears all before it"—and his pronouncements in a "formal customary strain" establish the conventional dichotomous categories of Western culture:


. . . 'past states, the present state,

seals, promises,

the evil one suffered,

the good one enjoys,

hell, heaven . . .'


Moore highlights the self-serving pomposity of Adam's pronouncements on the foundations of history and morality in the summarizing phrase—"'everything convenient / to promote one's joy.'" As her irony suggests, the "one" Adam looks out for is probably himself; his categories justify the arrangements that make it possible for him to "experienc[e] a solemn joy" in becoming "an idol."


Rather than enjoying a tranquil paradisal vision of union, as Eve does, Adam is "plagued by the nightingale" that apparently represents both the woman and his own sexuality. Furthermore, his ideal vision of a fire "'as long as life itself" "compared with which / the shining of the earth / is but deformity," although parallel to Eve's vision, stands in elemental opposition to "the heart rising" like a boat on water. The contrast between his metaphor for their union as consuming fire and hers as peaceful water foreshadows the differences that lead the man and the woman into verbal battle later in the poem. Seeking that union lyrically envisioned as "'a fire / effectual to extinguish fire'"—seeking, that is, an experience of passion sufficient to satisfy his sexual desire—Adam instead "stumbles over marriage." In this extension other earlier mockery of the patriarchal myth of paradise, Moore presents marriage in a context that calls attention to Adam's delusive self-satisfaction; marriage is "'a very trivial object indeed' / to have destroyed the attitude / in which he stood— / the ease of the philosopher / unfathered by a woman."


With the introduction of the word marriage ("he stumbles over marriage"), Moore concludes her initial presentation of Eve and Adam. At this point in the shifting tones and perspectives of the poem, Moore has already introduced her own conflicts. She certainly mocks marriage, yet the intense beauty of Eve's and Adam's lyrical visions or union—visions both sexual and transcendent—reveals her genuine attraction to marriage as a glorious, even if "strange," "paradise." Nor is her conflict simply dichotomous: the poem's criticism of marriage employs comic tones that bespeak sympathetic understanding of human limitations more than condemnation, while the fleeting lyric passages may be partially undercut by the preponderance of more ironic lines surrounding them. Rather than seeing the argumentative structure of the poem in terms of oppositions, only one of which could logically represent marriage, it is useful to invoke the idea of "discursive boundaries." The lyrical moments associated early in the poem with Adam and Eve expand the boundaries the reader will ascribe to marriage yet do so without greatly altering its more emphatically presented limits: the "amalgamation" Eve so compellingly envisions" "can never be more / than an interesting impossibility" and Adam's fantasy an "illusion."


As already suggested, the differences between Eve's and Adam's orientations prepare for the later vitriolic dialogue between "She" and "He" (completely post-lapsarian versions of the married couple),and the spectacle of their battle clarifies Moore's implied distinction between the poem's two major forms of disputation: one, the purely antagonistic fight, such as that dramatized by He and She; the other, a battle waged as much with oneself as with another, dubbed by Moore "the fight to be affectionate." As noted above, Moore values the latter kind of conflict tremendously, proclaiming:


"no truth can be fully known

until it has been tried

by the tooth of disputation."


In contrast, and although Moore later asserts that we should not call "friction a calamity," the friction between "He" and "She" is purely destructive. The distinction between these different kinds of disputation provides a basis for analyzing the poem's structure. Alternately, either the antagonistic fight or the "fight to be affectionate" forms the dominant mode of discourse of the text; the poem shifts between these modes which, in different parts, appear in varying degrees of intensity and purity, and support changing positions on the value of marriage. Of course, the distinction between these two modes of conflict is no more dichotomous than the contrast between the poem's lyric and ironic tones. While the antagonistic fight involves simple opposition to another, the fight to be affectionate involves more complex dynamics and may as well characterize a struggle within the individual as a struggle between partners. Here again, the idea of expanding discursive boundaries illuminates Moore's method. The poet clearly deplores hostile conflict, but in its stead she presents a myriad of images, metaphors, and allusions under the general rubric of the "fight to be affectionate." And although she ultimately envisions this fight taking place within the successful union of two married people, in her poem that fight takes the predominant form of a struggle internal to the poet's persona.


Using this distinction between two forms of disputation to analyze the structure of the poem, one may regard the material we've already discussed as constituting the first section: a prelude in which Moore both introduces her own conflicts and sets up the hostile struggle between her gendered characters. What we regard as the poem's second section, extending from the exclamation, "Unhelpful Hymen!" to the argument between He and She, is dominated by internal disputation, part of the fight to be affectionate. That it is the most difficult section of the poem is not coincidence, for this is where Moore is least certain and most conflicted. The third section, the antagonistic argument between He and She, concludes with Moore's analysis of both characters' weaknesses. With the meditative line "'Everything to do with love is mystery'" the final section begins, returning to the mode of internal dispute, though with greater calm than before.


The second section, that containing the most intense internal disputation, is the core of the poem. Moore's strenuous ambivalence appears in every sentence. In the first sentence, for example, Hymen is "Unhelpful," "overgrown," reduced to insignificance by the commercialization of marriage. But having complained about modem marriage, Moore also admires the loveliness of its rituals, their lavishness "augmenting" that of Eden's lush flora and fauna. In the sentence immediately following her sensual catalog of "lotus flowers, opuntias, white dromedaries" and the like, a "he" we take to be Hymen expresses reservations about marriage; love is best "from forty-five to seventy," not the years in which most enter into matrimony, nor the years associated with the sensuality of the poet's previous description. Hymen's attitude at this point may well have regarded as sensible, since in a letter to H.D. she expresses similar doubts as to whether there is such a thing "as a love affair in the case of people under 40" (March 27, 1921). Such timing is belated by the standards of modem expectation, but in the poem's terms it does provide for the real existence of "love that will I gaze an eagle blind," love as heroic as that of Hercules "in the garden of the Hesperides." Yet even this fragile possibility of love for those over forty-five wanes as the sentence returns to mockery: the male speaker flippantly commends love as anything from "a fine art" to "a duty . . . or merely recreation."


Again shifting tacks, Moore's next sentence encourages tolerance for this speaker, implying that she may find his commendation of love's uses as sensible as she finds his recommendation of love for older couples; this calls the fluctuating tone of the previous sentence into further question. Her statement also directly counters her earlier depiction of Hymen as "unhelpful": "one must not call him ruffian," she says; nor should one see "friction" within marriage as a necessary indication of its failure. Following the explanatory note that truth must be ascertained "by the tooth of disputation," Moore presents images of pairs that may exemplify her ideal of marriage as disputation that does not threaten union. The first image is persuasive: an "entirely graceful" pair of panthers are perfect complements in color (blue and black becomes black and blue); in awe as well as fear, "one must give them the path." The subsequent pair, however, reintroduces forces threatening to such harmony. An obsidian Diana is paired with a "spiked hand"—but the presumably male hand is hardly to be trusted in assuring the woman he courts that his impatience will sustain her independence. That he "has an affection for one / and proves it to the bone" suggests the opposite of his claims: spikes do harm, and impatience may lead to "bondage."


In the next sentence, Moore reflects on the troubles that Westerners have in marriage as an overlay to the troubles she has already represented in marriage itself: "Married people" are generally "mixed and malarial"; "We Occidentals" are, in addition, steeped in that mixed attitude, irony. Her two examples here focus primarily on the negative aspects of this irony. The first refers back to a traditional, as it were archetypal, Western scene taken from the Bible: Esther has to bribe her husband Ahasuerus with elaborate banquets in order to attain justice, despite his easy and repeated promise that he would give her anything, up to half his kingdom (Esther 5-7). In the second example, a "quixotic atmosphere of frankness" characterizes the modern world. Here social interaction functions according to preset rules that disguise the power relations of those present. Although "four o'clock does not exist" according to the decorum of social ritual, "the ladies" receive one at five o'clock "in their imperious humility." Yet this atmosphere of apparent feminine governance, absolute even to the erasure of time, provides the setting "in which experience attests / that men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it." The falsity of the teatime ritual parallels the scheming of the "tete a tete Ahasuerus banquet": a banquet not at all intimate (since the king's head servant also attends) and not at all romantically intended (Esther has a clear political goal in mind). Furthermore, just as the "spiked hand" earlier suggests the greater danger to women than to men posed by marriage, both these examples reveal women's lack of power in society if not specifically in marriage.


Overall, in this second section of the poem, Moore vacillates. She asserts that turmoil is inevitable in marriage: Hymen is unhelpful, a hand is spiked, power is unequally distributed. Yet she cautions against seeing Hymen as ruffian and will not relinquish her vision of a powerful harmony like that of the panthers and of the gorgeous "ritual of marriage." This section concludes with special emphasis on the difficulties of women in marriage, an emphasis underlined by Moore in her poetry workbook: on what appear to be the first twenty-nine pages of her working on this poem—pages which contain relatively few repeated long lines—Moore repeats eight times that "men have power and sometimes one is made to feel it" (VII:04:04, Rosenbach Museum and Library). Placing this claim immediately prior to the debate between "He" and "She" also makes it reasonable that "He" should speak first (and so viciously) and locates "his" comments within the context of Patriarchal power.


In the succeeding section, instead of continually qualifying each view with a contrasting one, Moore explores at length the impediments to union posed by the nature of men and women. This she does by dramatizing an argument in which neither side represents her own views, and neither wages the fight to be affectionate. The viciousness of this domestic skirmish between "He" and "She" establishes Moore's dismay at the behavior of men and women in many marriages: both parties are nasty and self-serving, suggesting the "impossibility" of any desirable "amalgamation."


"He" is particularly crude in his accusations: "What monarch would not blush / to have a wife / with hair like a shaving-brush?" Associating women with death, he punningly calls them "mummies" and identifies them with debris from a ravaged corpse and a coffin; Self pitying; he even feels tricked by the shape this wifely object takes: "revengefully wrought in the attitude / of an adoring child." "She" is more witty than her mate, calling him "This butterfly, / this waterfly, this nomad / that has 'proposed to settle on my hand for life'— / What can one do with it?" Some of her insults also reveal a more analytic understanding of gender than his; she presents men in terms of social power as "monopolists of 'stars, garters, buttons / and other shining baubles'— / unfit to be the guardians / of another person's happiness."


Despite Moore's slightly more favorable portrait of "She," both characters are repugnant in their viciousness and both are explicitly condemned for loving themselves too much. This section concludes:


What can one do for them—

these savages

condemned to disaffect

all those who are not visionaries

alert to undertake the silly task

of making people noble?


Both married men and women are repulsive enough to alienate all but missionaries. At this point in the poem, all glimpses of an Edenic relation have been lost. The beauty initially associated with both genders has disappeared, as has Eve's striking individuality, and all that remains is mutual hostility.


These two middle sections of the poem illustrate what Moore evidently sees as the primary obstacles to ideal marriage: on the one hand, the danger of domination a possible threat to both parties but one more frequently suffered by women because of the support men receive from patriarchy; on the other hand, the tendency toward overweening self-love in both women and men which blocks the possibility of all but hostile communication. Resisting both these temptations constitutes the individual's and the couple's fight to be affectionate, and it is to this struggle that the poet now returns.


Rather than simply dismissing marriage after the third section's demonstration of its typical failure, Moore in the final section surprisingly reverts to earlier expressions of belief in an ideal, though that belief is heavily qualified and asserted in a different manner. The early passages suggesting the value of marriage do so largely through their lyrical beauty and sensual appeal. Perhaps because such intense beauty exacerbates her conflicts—"it tears one to pieces"—in this later section Moore relies on a more propositional, abstract approach. For the rest of the poem, she will support her claims from the standpoint of reasoning rather than of emotion or lyric eloquence. Yet her belief in marriage, irrational in view of what He and She have just demonstrated, depends on the very recognition that her subject cannot be contained within the bounds of logical argument or casual knowledge: "'Everything to do with love is mystery; / it is more than a day's work / to investigate this science.'" Unwilling to assert that successful union is impossible, Moore concedes only the rarity of a relationship in which the parties fight to be independent yet communicative:


One sees that it is rare—

that striking grasp of opposites

opposed each to the other, not to unity[.]


Moore defines the ideal marriage in terms of ongoing opposition. This is disputation at its best. For her, this "triumph of simplicity" dwarfs Columbus' demonstration with the egg that a seemingly impossible feat (sailing west to the Indies, or standing an egg on its head) may in fact be easy, but its simplicity will be apparent only in hindsight. The result of Columbus' daring to attempt what many thought impossible is well known: he took an exploratory voyage resulting in European discovery of the "new world." Determining for one's self the steps necessary to create a successful marriage, Moore suggests, is more triumphant, and perhaps more difficult, than being the first to attempt sailing to India—and what one discovers in such a marriage may be the equivalent of a new world.


Paradoxically, this comparison of political and personal "triumph[s] of simplicity" appears in the longest and most complex sentence of the poem. The number of parallel phrases serving as subjects in dependent clauses and the number of embedded modifying clauses, combined with the extension of the sentence over thirty-one lines, make the relations of its parts at times nearly incomprehensible. Clear in this confusion, however, is that for Moore simplicity does not entail adhering to a single and exclusive emotion, perspective, or belief. In fact, the wrenched but coherent structure of the sentence embodies "the fight to be affectionate"; this final grammatical unit serves as a tour de force in which Moore syntactically makes opposites one, marshalling a syntactic union where she has not found a logical one. Furthermore, while the final sentence brings together divergent statements of belief, its syntax allows one to establish the contribution of each to Moore's complex understanding.


Analysis of the sentence requires attention to its parallel phrasal structure. Most important is the syntactic parallel that occurs in the two nominative phrases, both beginning with the requisite demonstrative pronoun "that," which serve to replace it in Moore's claim "one sees that it is rare—": first "that striking grasp of opposites," then the equally contradictory "that charitive Euroclydon" (a charitable tempestuous wind). The syntax links the grasp of opposites that Moore clearly applauds with a mythological figure who otherwise has no clear place in her poem's conflicts. Still following the syntax of this sentence, we see that, unlike "the world" in her poem, Moore does not identify herself with those who claim "'I am such a cow, / if I had a sorrow / I should feel it a long time.'" In her orientation, she is closer to those less single-minded, whose feelings shift from having. "'a great sorrow / in the morning'" to "'a great joy at noon.'" Nor does Moore resemble the world in hating Euroclydon's "frightening disinterestedness"; when Euroclydon speaks at the end of the poem (he provides the long closing description of Webster), he expresses what Moore appears also to believe.


This syntactic argument for reading the quote from Daniel Webster as non-ironic is supported by a logical one. Webster is particularly renowned for his advocacy of the union preceding the Civil War, and for the unusual lucidity of his prose in an age of florid oratory. However complex Moore's style may seem, she always had the greatest regard for clarity and simplicity; Webster's oratorical style would appeal to her. Furthermore, as an early 20th-century patriot, she would share Webster's loyalty to the idea of union. In quoting his famous lines "'Liberty and union! now and forever,'" Moore brings together apparent contradictions. Here is the "striking grasp of opposites" she advocates.


The portrait of Webster is undercut, however, by previous passages of the poem. By representing him as the typical nineteenth-century gentleman ("the Book on the writing-table; / the hand in the breast-pocket"), Moore suggests that he may be threatening. In a poem where "experience attests that men have power," and in which male power is wielded in large part through words, a concluding portrait of a very powerful male politician and orator invites wariness. Moreover, Webster's support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the Union may identify him as another male, like Moore's "He," who arrogantly "forgot" "that 'some have merely rights / while some have obligations."' Throughout this last section, then, Moore still hedges. Certainly, her internal disputation is quieter than before. Yet even now, she cannot present one view, one well tested truth, of marriage. She cannot assert that marriage at its rare best remains an ideal to strive for without undercutting that stance by suggesting marriage is a dangerous excuse for the assertion of patriarchal control. To the very end of this anomalous poem, Moore remains in unresolved contest with herself, and the truth tested by disputation remains fluidly multiple.

From "'The Tooth of Disputation': Marianne Moore's 'Marriage.'" SAGETRIEB 6.3

Cristanne Miller: On 601 ("A still——Volcano——Life——")

"A still -- Volcano -- Life -- " begins by making disruptive thoughts or feelings of "Life" concrete through the metaphor of a (nongendered) volcano. . . .

The poem's first two stanzas emphasize the secrecy of such a life. At the end of the second stanza, however, Dickinson moves out from the abstract soul to the physical (and in this case implicitly gendered) body to give more intimate and immediate impact to her metaphor:

The North cannot detect

The Solemn -- Torrid -- Symbol -- The lips that never lie -- Whose hissing Corals part -- and shut –  And Cities—ooze away--

The multiple suggestive aspects of female sexuality in the final stanza's images (the speaker's undetected, clearly non-phallic, metonymic ability to "ooze"; the coral lips which might belong either to the mouth or to the more frighteningly "quiet" vagina; and perhaps even the volcanic heaving bosom) point to the centrality of the body in imagining this Life's eruption.

As with all of Dickinson's metaphors of grotesquerie, this stanza offers two surreal pictures. In the first, a speaker's "hissing Corals" part to release lava--like words, expressions, or fluid so destructive that "Cities" are destroyed. One of the more chilling aspects of this image lies in the lack of anger or intention in the volcano's action: whether the speaker utters curses or merely parts her lips in a smile, the result is equally destructive. At the same time, the metaphor depicts a volcanic mountain with the "lips" of a siren, sensuously "hissing," "part[ing]" and "shut[ting]" as it slowly releases its molten rock. In either case, the body disappears except for the magnified and red lips, which give immediate and frighteningly controlled release to the "Volcano -- Life" within. In a grotesque metonymy, a woman becomes a mouth--or that other dangerous and lipped female orifice--spewing violent destruction. Here there is no obvious humanity to which a victim of the "hissing Corals" might appeal.

[. . . .]

A human volcano, with lips prominent and sensual, whose expressions make "Cities -- ooze away" evokes horror, disbelief, but also amusement at the incongruity of the speaker's self-aggrandizing fantasy: the speaker implies that she might at any time choose to open her coral lips and release destruction, that beneath her white dress lies volcanic fury. . . .

This poem suggests a sensibility that values a sexually female power wholly alien to (or in tension with) notions of femininity in a staid New England community. . . .

[T]he speaker reveals a kind of glee in knowing what the "North cannot detect" . . . . The speaker is not interested in politeness but in volcanic honesty that simultaneously reveals and devastates.

From Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. By Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. (University of Texas Press, 1993). Copyright © 1993 by the University of Texas Press.

Cristanne Miller: On 520 ("I started Early--Took my Dog--")

My favorite among Dickinson's multiple unexpected changes in verb tense occurs in the deceptively innocent "I started Early—Took my Dog-- / And visited the Sea--" (520). Here the speaker presents herself as walking quietly by the sea, seeing its landscape, in childish metaphors, until stanza 3 . . . .[There the] sudden introduction of the conditional "Would," however, gives the speaker away, This auxiliary changes the mood of the verb and of the poem: what seemed a single action in the past now seems to be either a hypothetical or a customary, repeated action. The speaker's tale becomes a sexual fantasy--repeated either in her imagining of what it would be like to walk by what she sees as a masculine and therefore dangerous sea, or in her imagination as she in fact walks by the sea, or in her metaphorical representation of real dealings with the world of men. The speaker teases the reader, and perhaps herself, just as much as she does the sea/Man. She pretends to be entirely innocent in her motives for going to the sea (walking the dog) and then repeatedly lets it touch her to the point of mutual arousal before she runs away to the "Solid Town." The last lines of the poem give the sea dignity in his lovely but otherwise undignified chase and underline the sexual content of the poem:

Until we met the Solid Town—

No One He seemed to know—

And bowing—with a Mighty look—

At me—The Sea Withdrew—

As with Dickinson's mixture of past and present tenses in other poems, her combination of differing verb tense and mood in this narrative, remove it from any simple, temporal context. The poet does not let us place her speaker easily, and the speaker is allowed her coy retreat to apparent innocence and safety.

Dickinson's gravitation toward the simple (habitual) present and toward the uninflected verb may suggest her overriding concern to escape the historicity of time, to make herself in some way timeless and thus safe from the forces of death and loss she feels . . . strongly . . . It seems to me, however, that these verb forms (and Dickinson’s poems) point more toward a concern with ongoing process, revelation, continuous perception, and change than toward the lyric suspension exemplified by the dancers on Keats's Grecian urn or the predictable return of Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," The teasing disappearance of Dickinson's verbs from any single time or person repeats itself in her experiments with other parts of speech, and in the narratives of her poems generally. . . .

From Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Copyright © 1987 by Harvard University Press.

Cristanne Miller: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

In "My Life had stood" [. . .] Dickinson compares an action in the present tense to one in the past or present perfect:

And do I smile, such cordial light

Upon the Valley glow--

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let its pleasure through--


And when at Night--Our good Day done—

I guard My Master's Head--

'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's

Deep Pillow--to have shared--

In the first instance, the speaker/Gun compares her smile to the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. Her smile is not like the volcano's fire or threat but like its completed act: when she smiles it is as if a volcano had erupted. The past perfect verb is more chilling than the present tense would be because it signals completion, even in the midst of a speculative ("as if') comparison; her smile has the cordiality of ash, of accomplished violence or death, not just of present fire. In the second instance, the speaker prefers guarding the master to having shared his pillow, that is, to having shared intimacy with him--primarily sexual, one would guess from the general structure of the poem. Again, the comparison contrasts action with effect rather than action with action (and when I guard . . . 'tis better than sharing ... ). As a consequence, the speaker seems ironically and almost condescendingly distant from the world of life (here, of potential life-creation or love). Shared intimacy, in her view, would bring nothing better than aggressive self-reliance does. Both uses of the perfect tense in this poem distance the speaker from humanity, perhaps as any skewed analogy would. Yet by allying herself with catastrophic power rather than sexual intimacy, she may also be indicating that the former seems more possible or safer to her; even the power of volcanoes may be known. The change in tense alerts the reader to the peculiarity and the importance of the comparisons.

From Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Copyright © 1987 by Harvard University Press.