Donald Hall: On "Marriage"

Williams called "Marriage" "an anthology of transit" because of its method of swift, verbally unconnected transition from thought to thought. The effort required of the reader to follow the sense of the poem through these transitions accounts in part for the poem's effectiveness. Loss of focus does not occur because nothing is held too long in focus. As one cannot look too long at a picture without beginning not to see it, so one cannot dwell too long on an idea without its beginning to lose its first power. If one looks away from the picture and then looks back, vision is refreshed and reintensified. Painters have sought to eliminate this fuzzing of attention by means of distortion or abstraction: if a greater effort of imagination is required to recognize a pear or an apple in geometric abstraction, then the attention is automatically increased. Similarly, the speed of transition and the lack of verbal connection in "Marriage" engage the imagination of the reader to such a degree that every few lines produces a shock of reintensified understanding. Another way of saying somewhat the same thing is this explanation that Williams gives of good modern poetry. "It is a multiplication of impulses that by their several flights, crossing at all eccentric angles, might enlighten." This is the method of "Marriage." The poem is a mixture of dialogue and speculation, witty and paradoxical, sometimes serious, impelled by a tempo that leaps from point to point like an astronaut leaping at one-sixth gravity.

The poem begins with an ironic comment on the institution "perhaps one should say enterprise" itself, its essentially private nature and its thoroughly public manifestation. Miss Moore wonders how modern marriage would seem to Adam and Eve. She posits a modern Eve, beautiful, accomplished, and demanding. As Eve was the central flaw in the "first crystal-fine experiment" that was Eden, so modern woman in her independence is often considered the central flaw in the ordinary marriage. Marriage, like Eden, is "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," human independence and curiosity being what they are. As long as the institution involves bondage, it will, for people of certain temperaments, not succeed. As Eve was blamed for eating the apple, "that invaluable accident exonerating Adam," so modern woman bears criticism for her wish for independence.

Adam, too, is beautiful, and he is a sage and a prophet. He takes himself rather too seriously though: "'he experiences a solemn joy / in seeing that he has become an idol,"' and he forgets that there is an independent quality of mind in woman that in marriage makes his pontificating unsafe.

He is plagued by the nightingale, by "not its silence, but its silences." There follows a quotation from Edward Thomas's Feminine Influence on the Poets concerning the frustration of trying to induce that state of imaginative intuition which he regards as essentially feminine. The nightingale's fitful song, the imagination's intermittent flashes, unnerve Adam. Even here, in his own mind, be cannot control the independent female principles fact which irritates him.

In this state off frustration, Adam "stumbles over marriage, / ‘a very trivial object indeed'" that for all its triviality can present formidable challenges. Friction is inevitable and is not a calamity for "'no truth can be fully known / until it has been tried / by the tooth of disputation.’" There follow several lines I simply do not understand, ending with the ironic remark that the special hand of affection that squeezes one to the bone does not intend by this a species of bondage. "'But at five o'clock / the ladies in their imperious humility / are ready to receive you,’" showing that "men have power / and sometimes one is made to feel it." Both man and woman, then, reserve to themselves the right of independence. Men are more blatant in their assertion, but women in their paradoxically "imperious humility" make assertions of their own.

A dialogue between this modern Adam and Eve follows, each expressing unflattering opinions of the other. They love themselves too much, Miss Moore suggests, to permit them to love each other and "one is not rich but poor / when one can always seem so right."

A marriage of independence within union is rare but still to be desired. It would be "that striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity," "that charitive Euroclydon / of frightening disinterestedness."' Miss Moore quotes Daniel Webster speaking of the state, "’Liberty and union / now and forever,’" and ends the poem by suggesting an old tintype wedding picture in the lines, "the Book on the writing table; / the hand in the breast-pocket."

There are lovely flights of lyricism in this poem. I find particularly affecting these lines:

Below the incandescent stars 

below the incandescent fruit, 

the strange experience of beauty; 

its existence is too much; 

it tears one to pieces 

and each fresh wave of consciousness 

is poison.

But there are others, as when marriage is described as "this fire-gilt steel / alive with goldenness," as in the lines:

in that Persian miniature of emerald mines 

raw silk--ivory white, snow white, 

oyster white, and six others--

that paddock full of leopards and giraffes--

long lemon-yellow bodies

sown with trapezoids of blue.


The blue panther with black eyes, 

the basalt panther with blue eyes,

entirely graceful—

one must give them the path—

the black obsidian Diana

who 'darkeneth her countenance 

as a bear doth.'

These last two passages happen, as well, to be the most impenetrable in the poem. I have tried to decide whether their very obscurity in some sense explains their beauty, whether because the meaning is unclear the words themselves command disproportionate attention. I think, rather, that both passages are evidence of an intensity of imagination and a concentration of feeling so private that, although the meaning is hidden, the quality of emotion remains. They are like music in their resistance to paraphrase and like music, too, in their weight of ineluctable feeling.


From Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal. New York: Pegasus, 1970. Copyright © 1970 by Western Publishing Company.


Title Donald Hall: On "Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Donald Hall Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 26 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal
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