Darlene Williams Erickson: On "Marriage"

At first the catalogue of 289 lines seems random, only vaguely associative, but in fact, the dialectic is meticulously woven. Moore frequently claimed that she despised connectives, at least connectives in the obvious sense. In order to see this montage as a whole, the reader must learn to participate in and to enjoy the anthology--without the connecting links most poets provide. One idea merely melts into another, without transitions. (Moore once wrote, "I myself . . . would rather be told too little than too much.") In "Marriage" Moore is assuming that the discriminating reader shares her predilection.


Once again, it is William Carlos Williams who offers a useful critical tool for dealing with the text. In "A Novelette and Other Prose, 1921-1931," Williams wrote of Moore:


A course in mathematics would not be wasted on a poet, or a reader of poetry, if he remember no more from it than the intersection of loci: from all angles lines converging and crossing establish points. He might carry it further and say in his imagination that apprehension perforates at places, through to understanding--as white is at the intersection of blue and green and yellow and red. It is this white light that is the background of all good work. . . . The intensification of desire toward this purity is the modern variant. It is that which interests me most and seems most solid among the qualities I witness in my contemporaries; it is a quality present in much or even all that Miss Moore does.


Later, in 1948 in the Quarterly Review of Literature, he reiterates that point: "Therefore Miss Moore has taken recourse to the mathematics of art. Picasso does no different: a portrait is a stratagem singularly related to a movement among the means of the craft."


Williams also calls Moore's "Marriage" an "anthology of transit," meaning that one must allow all of Moore's directions, insights, tones, quotations, and epigrams--her "crazy quilt," in Hartman's parlance--to move and to intersect. Through the intersection of ideas, one comes to appreciate the profound complexity of one of life's great enigmas, the interaction of one human being with another in the enterprise called marriage. The poem does not precisely "mean" anything. It is instead a conversation, a comprehensive dialectic based upon some of the greatest myths, motifs, symbols, visions, and commentaries on the subject of marriage. It passes no judgment, solves no problems. If, as Doris Lessing has said, people are "hungry for answers, not hungry for ways of thinking toward problems," they will be disappointed. If they are willing to search for truths in the interstices, in the intersections of loci, they will learn a great deal from Moore's "little anthology of phrases [she] did not want to lose."


In "Feeling and Precision," Moore wrote, "Feeling at its deepest--as we all have reason to know--tends to be inarticulate." And that is an important "mathematical" principle in "Marriage." Although the poem is replete with the deepest of human emotions, the intersections of emotional loci occur with such disarming precision that the reader must remain attentive to find them. Taffy Martin has argued that the voice here and in other poems remains deadpan, that it does not seem to convey grand emotions. In such a stance, Martin feels, Moore creates a music particularly suitable for the twentieth century. One might argue instead that there are many voices in the poem and that they are not all deadpan. Sometimes the voice is that of the poet summarizing or synthesizing, but many times the voices are anonymous presenters of information, much of it ready-made from the past. In the intersection of the many voices, which speak but do not always hear, lies real poignancy and intense emotion, but emotion so deep that it tends to seem inarticulate.


In the poem "Silence," Moore observes that "the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; / not in silence, but restraint." (The phrase is itself an objet trouvé, borrowed from a friend, Miss A. M. Homans's father.) Perhaps the real intensity lies in the reader's final awareness that although human words attempt to communicate logic and feeling, people seldom really touch each other. Communication is a difficult thing, especially when what is to be communicated is shaded by intense feelings like those of love and desire. The following lines suggest the need for personal uniqueness and privacy in tension with the antithetical desire for intimacy:


"I should like to be alone";

to which the visitor replies,

"I should like to be alone;

why not be alone together?"


Moore returns to the same idea late in the poem when she writes:


One sees that it is rare--

that striking grasp of opposites

opposed each to the other, not to unity.


There are actually so many voices in "Marriage" that the poem is orchestrated like a great piece of choral music, a polyphonic, one verging on cacophony but held in place by Moore's own subtle harmonies. It is a kind of chorus where various voices deliver brief soliloquies which are not heard by the other characters. Some of the speeches are comic, some are serious; and one point of view tends to be layered upon another. It is the reader who must sense the tangential quality of the many male and female viewpoints and find where those tangents eventually cross and where they sadly never touch at all. In a chapter entitled "The Principle of Accommodation: Moore, Eliot, and the Search for Community," John Slatin argues convincingly that Moore was affected by many of Eliot's poetic theories and strategies. One must grant that "Marriage" is a response to some of the strategies of The Waste Land, particularly the use of many voices. But the choices--the particular found objects and readymades that create the many voices--are of Moore's own design.


Consider, for example, Moore's leitmotif, which establishes a theme with variations that is echoed in the voices. Her repeated pattern here is not the syllabic line or the repeated stanza. There certainly is not a pattern as obvious as a refrain. The unifying figure is the circle, or perhaps more accurately, what Moore calls the cycloid, structures resembling the circle but overlapping, like scales on a fish or waves of sound. The pattern is repeated with many variations. There is first of all the wedding ring, that "fire-gilt steel / alive with goldenness." It is symbolic of "circular traditions" that have developed around the peculiar enterprise called marriage, itself a union of two intersecting circles. There is the "incandescent fruit," the apple, the visual representation of Eve's (and Adam's) demise. And there is the undulating snake and the colubrine (i.e., snakelike Adam); there is a circular enclosure, a paddock, full of leopards and giraffes, animals whose bodies are marked by circular designs. There is a cymbal that sounds before it is touched. There are stars, garters, buttons. Hercules pursues the labor of finding the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. There is a reference to Columbus's trick of making an egg stand on end by breaking the shell. There are the eyes of a panther and the Euroclydon, the Greek explanation for the wave. Everything in the poem about marriage is thematically circular--except that the circles are not concentric. They may intertwine, intersect, pass in and out of each other, overlap, but they are always cycloids, separate circles seeking unity but finding instead the tension of opposites. So the first intersection of loci is visual and circular, a reechoing leitmotif in the poem.


Moore undertakes separate discussions of women and men, not only Eve and Adam, but also of characters that are a montage of many layers of femaleness and maleness. First she responds to Eve's beauty. She is so handsome that "she gave me a start." But she is also intelligent in an oddly funny kind of way, for she is "able to write simultaneously / in three languages" and can "talk in the meantime." (As the note suggests, Moore had actually read of this remarkable ability in the Scientific American.) It seems probable that such praise of a woman's linguistic ability as well as of her propensity for conversation struck Moore as amusing, but rather typical of the world's praise of an intelligent woman's mind: it was merely side-show material.


And Adam too is beautiful, but there is also something distinctly sinister about him as he moves with catlike, snakelike movements, crouching like a mythological monster in a Persian miniature. He is "alive" with words, the namer of things, with his voice like "the industrious waterfall," violently bearing all before it. He goes on speaking like the grand master of


past states, the present state,

seals, promises,

. . . . . . . . . .

everything convenient

to promote one's joy.


In his own mind, he has become an idol. The amazing story of the serpent in the garden, which has been recast in the modern idiom and has now "shed snakeskin in the history of politeness / not to be returned to again," that "invaluable accident," has exonerated Adam. Whether in the old tradition or the new, the fall from grace was fortunate for Adam in that a way has been found to attribute the cosmic mistake to Eve. But having passed the blame to Eve, he has nobly chosen to stand beside her. And the world has come to


". . . see her in this common world,"

the central flaw

in that first crystal-fine experiment.


Next Moore expands her "Adam and Eve" into more voices, some of them telling great classical stories of complex marriages. There is the story of Hercules, who killed his own children and his beloved Megara in a fit of mindless rage and then did penance through twelve prodigious labors. And the tale appears of Ahasuerus, who cast off his beautiful wife, Vashti, at the urging of his advisers because she caused him to lose face. Her lack of instant obedience at a banquet might, his advisers said, threatened the obedience of all the women in Persia. And so Ahasuerus commissioned a gathering of virgins, which he dutifully deflowered every night for a year, until he came upon Esther, a beautiful Jewess (incognito, of course), one who was worthy of his discriminating tastes, whom he took as his special concubine. And then it was Esther, who, with her kinsman Mordecai, manipulated Ahasuerus and his adviser Haman at the tête-à-tête banquet until she successfully prevented a pogrom of her people and caused the ignominious end of the evil Haman.


Another voice offers a reference to Diana, the virgin-huntress of Greek mythology, who would not marry at all. From ancient times she was honored by a strange cult in which her votaries dressed as bears. She was sometimes identified with Hecate, the dismal goddess of the darkness of the lower world. In this poem, one myth intersects with another, as we meet the


black obsidian Diana

who "darkeneth her countenance

as a bear doth."


This Diana is


impatient to assure you

that impatience is the mark of independence,

not of bondage.


Moore carefully offers a note about that darkened countenance: "Ecclesiasticus." A major problem for modern readers in this controversial book of the Bible (which Protestants relegate to the Apocrypha but Catholics classify as deuterocanonical) is that the writer, Jesus, son of Sirach, characterizes the wickedness of women as the highest of all evils. In the passage to which Moore refers, he writes: "It will be more agreeable to abide with a lion and a dragon, than to dwell with a wicked woman. The wickedness of a woman changeth her face: and she darkeneth her countenance as a bear" (Ecclus. 25:23-24, DR). He also writes, "For from garments cometh a moth: and from a woman the iniquity of a man" (42:13, DR). But perhaps the most disturbing lines read, "Follow close if her eyes are bold, and be not surprised if she betray you: As a thirsty traveler with eager mouth drinks from any water that he finds, so she settles down before every tent peg and opens her quiver for every arrow" (26:11-12, NAB).


There is no question that Moore was a most fastidious woman and poet. Her only arguments with William Carlos Williams were over matters of good taste. And although she willingly printed stories and poems by D. H. Lawrence in the Dial, she did not hesitate to reject his work when she considered it less than tasteful. And yet her discreet reference to Ecclesiasticus seems to suggest that she wishes to remind the reader that some cultures have found women innately vile. This intersection of voices seems to be suggesting that one should not be surprised to find that some women will always be impatient with such characterization and the bondage it allows; some have a flair for independence.


But the voices are not all such serious ones. The poet-narrator offers some delightful lines, including the suggestion that the fire-gilt steel symbolizing marriage requires "all one's criminal ingenuity / to avoid!" Marriage is so endemic that only a criminal few can manage to escape its snares. There is great charm too in introducing Adam and Eve as spectators to the whole debacle, not unlike the readers of the poem. One does wonder what the "originals" think of marriage by this time. (In a recording of Moore reading "Marriage," there is no doubt that she means to amuse, particularly in the early lines.) She also directs a bit of levity toward Freud, asserting that


psychology which explains everything

explains nothing,

and we are still in doubt.


And the poignant lines quoted earlier have a discordantly futile brand of humor:


"I should like to be alone"

to which the visitor replies,

"I should like to be alone;

why not be alone together?"


The lines beginning "Unhelpful Hymen!" call up a disintegrating panorama from the Greek wedding song and the god of the wedding to something akin to a tawdry cupid on a modern mechanized billboard display.


Unhelpful Hymen!

a kind of overgrown cupid

reduced to insignificance

by the mechanical advertising

parading as involuntary comment,

by that experiment of Adam's.


The world has gone from magical mythology to a mechanical caricature, something in movable cardboard, one might presume. The speaker also calls up a light and comic voice from a parody of "The Rape of the Lock" (to which Moore herself had contributed) which counters with


... What monarch would not blush

to have a wife

with hair like a shaving-brush?


But serious issues persist. Like a discordant counterpoint, "he" and "she" begin to exchange lists of stereotypical charges, although they do not really listen to one another's complaints, or so it seems, if we identify the speakers thus:


HE:        four o'clock does not exist

              but at five o'clock

              the ladies in their imperious humility

              are ready to receive you.


SHE:      . . . experience attests

              that men have power

              and sometimes one is made to feel it.


HE:        The fact of woman is

              "not the sound of the flute

              but very poison."


SHE:      Men are monopolists

              of "stars, garters, buttons


              unfit to be the guardians

              of another person's happiness."


HE:         These mummies

               must be handled carefully--


SHE:       revengefully wrought in the attitude

               of an adoring child

               to a distinguished parent.


HE:         turn to the letter M

               and you will find

               that "a wife is a coffin."


SHE:       This butterfly

                this waterfly . . .

                that has "proposed

                to settle on my hand for life"--

               What can one do with it?


HE:          The fact forgot

                that "some have merely rights

                while some have obligations."


SHE:        he loves himself so much

                he can permit himself

                no rival in that love.


But all of these differences do not explain what happens "below the incandescent stars / below the incandescent fruit." "Incandescent" can mean "aglow with ardor." That ardor is the great unknown that the poet describes as "the choicest piece of my life," that which starts


the heart rising

in its estate of peace

as a boat rises

with the rising of the water.


One does not need stars or apples or snakes to explain the incandescence of love and desire that overwhelmingly attracts what sometimes seem the most alien of creatures. (Note Moore's note cited above about D. H. Lawrence: "The music of sex itself, which druggedly compels men and women into the still sharp death of each other's arms.") Adam is "plagued by the nightingale / in the new leaves." He says of it, "It clothes me with a shirt of fire." He is afraid to drive the temptation off and yet equally afraid to call it to him. He is "unnerved by the nightingale" and, at the same time,


. . . dazzled by the apple,

impelled by "the illusion of a fire

effectual to extinguish fire."


Adam is overwhelmed by his desire. But then so is Eve:


. . . O thou

to whom from whom

without whom nothing--Adam.


The "strange experience of beauty" is "too much; / it tears one to pieces." So the pair stumble upon the solution of marriage, which William Godwin, the pragmatic philosopher and challenger of institutions, had called "a very trivial object indeed." Until he knew this primal urge, Adam had known "the ease of a philosopher / unfathered by a woman." Now he is reduced from both ease and philosophy by his desire. "Unhelpful Hymen!" a voice cries out.


And so men and women marry, although one observes that


Married people often look that way--

seldom and cold, up and down,

mixed and malarial,

with a good day and a bad.


Some commend marriage "as a fine art, as an experiment, / a duty or as merely recreation." Whichever the institution is, it continues, fueled by a commodity so mysterious it can only be envisioned by the imagination. As the voices cease, the speaker asks:


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?


How does one civilize a primal urge? How does one focus on the nobility of that "noble savage," the human animal? One way is by augmenting marriage with ritual lavishness. But adding mere "fiddle-head ferns, / lotus flowers, opuntias" to the marriage ceremony does not hide "its snake and the potent apple." And so the impossible experiment, "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," continues. One encounters it everywhere, "among those unpretentious / protégés of wisdom" and those "seeming to parade / as the debater and the Roman." With the simplicity of the inscription on Daniel Webster's statue, the impossibly circular quest goes on: "Liberty and union / now and forever." That "striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity" billows forth in the Euroclydon, with wave after futilely overlapping wave.


The poem ends with a visual image, a photograph, the classic wedding picture: "the Book on the writing table; / the hand in the breast-pocket." And all of the Adams and Eves of all time continue their hopeless search for liberty and for union, two antithetical states of being. As D. H. Lawrence had perceived, there are strange enmities between men and women whose wills are crossed. But moved by the mysterious magic of "the incandescent stars" and "the incandescent fruit," the heavy music of the emotions, the music of sex itself, men and women repeat their inevitable cycloid patterns.


"Marriage" is a very effective poem, at least for those readers who, as T S. Eliot had suggested, "are willing and accustomed to take a little trouble over poetry." Moore's success in "Marriage" occurs in part because she has turned to her cabinet of fossils, her "flies in amber," to pull off the shelves of her prodigious memory many different perceptions about the complexities of marriage. Sometimes the found objects, the objets trouvés, are lines that caught her fancy merely because of what they said or the way they said it. Some references carry the baggage of their stories (Diana, Ecclesiasticus, Ahasuerus, Hercules), while others are treasured primarily for their unique beauty ("something feline, / something colubrine," or "treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear"'). Perhaps reflecting some of the theories of Marcel Duchamp, Moore is suggesting that the important thing about a phrase is not that it is original but instead that she, as artist, chose it and placed it in a setting of her making. For the poem occurs, as William Carlos Williams has suggested, not in the originality of the materials but instead in what Moore does with them as she moves ideas and images along lines that will intersect and come alive in polyphonic conversations in the reader's mind. Sometimes the intersection produces laughter; sometimes it offers the most profound sadness. But it is this multiplication, this quickening, this burrowing through and blasting aside in which the poem happens. It is at the intersection of images and ideas that the white light of freshness and new insight really occurs. Moore was confident enough, and humble enough, to understand that she had to use the same materials as others before her. There was no need for pretense. Originality lay in edging ideas against one another in brilliantly novel ways.


There is far more magic to be discovered in "Marriage": the use of color, (the poem is cast primarily in various shades of white, with accents of blue, yellow and black), the use of internal rhyme to create harmony, and her experiments with "thought rhyme" as the Adams and Eves respond in their chorus. By noting her special use of borrowed materials, however, her objets trouvés and readymades in this complex poem, the reader has a useful key to her poetic method. It is possible once again to envision Moore as the imagnifico, the poet humble enough to understand that "the past is the present" and to acknowledge her place in the continuous order of creation, and yet brave enough to dynamite old combinations of ideas and strategies and to set them into new relationships.

From Illusion is More Precise than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Alabama Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.


Criticism Overview
Title Darlene Williams Erickson: On "Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Darlene Williams Erickson Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 26 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Illusion is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media