Elisabeth W. Joyce: On "Marriage"

While Moore inserts quotations from other sources in most of her poetry, the most compelling example of her use of such collage is "Marriage." "Marriage" is her longest poem, the closest she comes to the epic form so prevalent among the modernist poets. Moore's epic, however, has a feminist orientation; she relates social and cultural history through an analysis of the institution of marriage instead of through a focus on public politics and national events. The poem also plays a particularly central role in Moore's oeuvre, mainly because its calculated efforts to question marriage as a viable social institution become a marked emblem of the essentially subversive character of her work. As such, this poem is truly Moore's effort at a manifesto.

"Marriage" begins with a general description of the institution in economic language. The poem then looks at the generic figures of the woman and man, at their gendered personalities. Once these figures have been established, a long discussion between a male and female character ensues which is generally backbiting and nasty, particularly on the part of the female speaker. The poem concludes with an overview of marriage, with highly convoluted language which indicates a type of retreat on Moore's part and her overall disappointment with the marital practice.

Little attention has been paid to the social implications of Moore's poetry, although partly the fault lies with the poet herself. Her continued modesty about her work, especially this poem, and her obscure and teasingly unhelpful notes at the end of her Complete Poems, underplay the intensity with which she denigrates social behaviors, from marriage to war. In an interview with Grace Schulman, for instance, Moore described "Marriage" as "just an anthology of words that I didn't want to lose, that I liked very much, and I put them together as plausibly as I could. So people daren't derive a whole philosophy of life from that" (qtd. in Schulman 159). In her quiet dismissive manner Moore deflects attention away from the way the poem uses collage to criticize the marital institution.

Moore's disapproval of marriage is most obvious in her poetry notebook at the Rosenbach Museum and Library which shows her revisions and the process involved in her collection of materials, including her notes for "Marriage" and "An Octopus" (Rosenbach 1251/7). A careful analysis of the notebook suggests that a paradoxical doubleness characterizes her collage techniques. Her revisions of her own words tend to mute her disapproval of the marital conventions, while at the same time her revisions of quotations drawn from other sources tend to sharpen her critical stance toward marriage. Much of this critical aspect of her attitude toward marriage can be traced to Moore's alliance to the Dada movement, which had its strong followers in New York (Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, among them), and which also involved iconoclasm and reclamation.

In "Marriage," Moore's recourse to materials from varied sources serves to fracture the formal patterns traditionally associated with poetry and creates instead the rupturing effects of collage. If she had retained conventional poetic forms, she would have upheld the type of "social authority" that the Dadaists were attempting to overthrow. In her presentation of marriage, Moore is anti-lyrical and aphoristic. She undermines lyrical rhythms through the use of random syllabics--this poem is actually unlike her others in its lack of syllable patterning--and through juxtapositions of disparate ideas. The complexity of the dissociated thoughts thrown together in a seeming jumble dissolves the linguistic and thematic harmonies which are so basic to traditions of lyrical poetry. Technical disruptions, then, play into social subversion by severing formal connections with the traditions of the past.

In addition to the quotations which appear in "Marriage," the notebook at the Rosenbach museum includes early drafts of the poem itself. (As Patricia Willis has noted, these early versions of "Marriage" are often conjoined with those of "An Octopus," as if Moore first thought of the two poems as one [247]). Early notes on "Marriage" include statements such as the following which were left out of or were changed for the final version: "This institution should one say enterprise which is universally associated with the fear of loss" (Rosenbach 1 25 1/7: 4,15,22,26); "I don't know what Adam and Eve think of it by this time. / I don't think much of it" (5,13,22); "Its [marriage's] mechanical advertising / parading as involuntary comment" (13); "Marriage Is it not like a road uphill in the sand for an aged person?" (18); "my modern friend who says it is useless / to try to demolish a thing / until one can identify it" (23). As this last quotation suggests, if one of the functions of the poem is merely to define marriage, Moore's purpose is equally to undermine it. Excluded from the final version of the poem, such remarks are openly critical of marriage. Clearly Moore felt uncomfortable with expressing hostility directly and thus turned to methods of collage which would allow her to retain her disapproval of marriage, while tempering the intensity of her feelings toward it.

A quotation in "Marriage" continues to bear the meaning it has in its original source, yet it also carries the new meaning it acquires it by its position in the poem, by what surrounds it, by the tenor of the work in general, and by how the poet has cropped it. Moore reminds us of her quotations' original context by giving references, albeit vague, in the back of her Complete Poems. The overall intent of the quotation is then changed from its original one, adjusted in tone, as it were, by the nature of the rest of the poem. Moore thereby makes a new work of art and makes the tradition of marriage new, as well, so that both marriage and poetic conventions can be reassessed for their current value.

Moore's poem is difficult to decipher because the reader has to make connections between seemingly random quotations. In this sense "Marriage" reminds one of Marcel Duchamp's Cubist-Futurist paintings in the Armory Show. Just as he presents clear "splinters" of figures descending a staircase or waiting for a train, so Moore presents precise details and quotations. By interlacing these quotations with her own aphoristic statements, Moore mimics the spliced shapes of Duchamp's figures in motion. An understanding of "Marriage" requires the attempt to "see" all Moore's fragments at once, just as it requires attention to the reverberations between the original contexts of several quotations and their revised contexts in "Marriage."

Our understanding of these intentions is complicated by Moore's ambivalent feelings about the marital state. Although she believes firmly in the continued viability of the institution, as evidenced in her focus on it, she nevertheless also critiques it. Marriage tends to place men in power over women, denigrating women's capabilities. Moore ridicules male authority in this poem, and makes other disparaging remarks about the social form, as a true Dadaist, but she, however reluctantly, admits to its strength. This ambivalence appears in the cutting and shaping of Moore's quotations, as well as in the relationship between the quotations' old and new contexts. Moore almost always changes her quotations when placing them in her poem, no doubt partly for esthetic reasons, partly, however, for argumentative reasons. She wants her quotations to bear certain, highly refined intimations. In this sense Moore adapts to poetry the collage technique of déchirage, "to tear out roughly," as opposed to the technique of découpage, "to cut out neatly."

As Willis points out, Moore drew many of the quotations which she used in "Marriage" from Richard Baxter's The Saint's Everlasting Rest, a 1650 Calvinist prescription for passage to heaven. Three of the quotations from Baxter's work that appear in the Rosenbach notebook are used in the poem to denigrate the marital state. Moore changed the Baxter quotations very little: "the speedy stream and waterfall which violently bears all before it" changes to "the industrious waterfall, /'the speedy stream / which violently bears all before it'" (64); Baxter's words--"seldom and cold, up and down, mixed and malarial with a good day and a bad"--remain the same in the poem (66); and "perceiving a fire effectual to extinguish fire" becomes "the illusion of a fire / effectual to extinguish fire" (65).

These phrases appear in the poem in various forms of criticism of marriage. When Adam begins to speak, his pedantic, ceaseless rambling is compared to the "stream / which violently bears all before it": nothing can stop him or make him shift his course. "Seldom and cold" follows "Married people often took that way" and gives married life a vast depth of ennui. Marriage, in fact, is a state which unmarried people desire as a panacea to their problems (the desire to be married is "'the illusion of a fire / effectual to extinguish fire"'), but it is an illusory desire which dwindles at the moment of entrance into the married state, a state which cannot satisfy desire.

Early in "Marriage," Moore incorporates the cynical language of politics of Sir Francis Bacon: "Of circular traditions and impostures, / committing many spoils" (62). As Margaret Holley has noted, Moore took this quotation from theEncyclopaedia Brittanica: "I have taken all knowledge to be my province and if I could purge it of two sorts of errors, whereof the one with frivolous disputation, confutations and verbosities, the other with blind experiments and circular traditions and impostures hath committed so many spoils, I hope I shall bring in industrious observations..." (Rosenbach 1250/ 4:29-30). Moore's pruning of Bacon's language suggests the way she shapes borrowed quotations to fit her needs. In this case she changes Bacon's topic from knowledge to marriage. She also cuts out "frivolous disputation, confutations and verbosities" as well as "blind experiments," all of which would denigrate the importance of the marital state. What she leaves in, however, equally condemns marriage. Although "Circular tradition" is ambiguous in that it could suggest wedding rings as well as social practices which lead nowhere, the nuances of such words as "impostures" and "spoils" reflect unquestionably negative views of marriage as a type of entrapment.

Moore uses quotations most often to describe the male figure, and in reshaping the words of male writers, she undercuts both his character and language. In identifying the man as Adam, for example, she includes a quotation from Philip Littell's review of George Santayana which appeared in The New Republic in 1923. The snippet of Littell's words in the poem is "something feline, / something colubrine" (63). In different ways, the two adjectives reflect a certain denigration of male power. A description of a male figure as colubrine has phallic overtones, but also the negative connotations of a snake; feline is typically used in reference to a female and thus serves to diminish Adam's masculinity.

The passage Moore quotes reads as follows: "We were puzzled and we were fascinated, as if by something feline, by something colubrine, at the core of his loneliness" (102). Here, Littell is trying to explain his reaction and that of his peers on reading Santayana's early verse in the Harvard Monthly. Littell says that no one could have known at that time that Santayana wanted to "remold his heart's desire" through his poetry. Although his review has only praise for Santayana's philosophy, terms such as "feline" and "colubrine" indicate Littell's own discomfort with the poetry, a mixture of fear and distrust which causes him to distance himself with a feeling nearing distaste. Certainly, this fear and distaste are the sentiments which linger when the quotation is transplanted into the Eden of "Marriage."

Adam's speech, too, is unnerving, but mostly because he pontificates on subjects about which he knows little and on which he has misguided opinions, such as women. In her description of Adam's blundering ramblings to Eve, Moore writes that he is "Treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear" (64). Moore's phrase is an adaptation of William Hazlitt's words in his essay on Edmund Burke's style, "On the Prose-Style of Poets": "It may be said to pass yawning gulfs 'on the unstedfast footing of a spear'" (10). Hazlitt is expressing his admiration at Burke's ability to maneuver through tricky sections of argument with the ease of the warrior. In its new position in Moore's poem, however, Hazlitt's language loses its laudatory aspects and becomes a sneering critique of one who would take the risk of trying to pretend that he knows things of which he is ignorant, "forgetting," as the poem says, "that there is in woman / a quality of mind / which as an instinctive manifestation / is unsafe" (64).

"Marriage" also includes a long quotation from Edward Thomas's Feminine Influence on the Poets, a work of literary criticism published in 1910. Thomas describes at great length "The Kingis Quair," a poem written by King James I, in which the king depicts his love for Joan Beaufort, the daughter of the Earl of Somerset. Thomas writes of King James's first sight of Beaufort in the garden outside his prison:

her dress looped up carelessly to walk in that fresh morning of nightingales in the new-leaved thickets .... The nightingale stops singing. He dares not clap his hands to make it go on lest it should fly off; if he does nothing it will sleep; if he calls out it will not understand; and he begs the wind to shake the leaves and awake the song. And the bird sings again. (Thomas 111)

In "Marriage" Moore quotes these words almost exactly: "He dares not clap his hands / to make it go on / lest it should fly off; / if he does nothing, it will sleep; / if he cries out, it will not understand" (65). Prior to this, however, Moore had presented Adam as "plagued by the nightingale / in the new leaves / with its silence" (64). Thus, whereas King james' poem is a description of love at first sight, Moore twists the quotation to indicate frustration-- the male is unable to get his bird to sing. Just by being married, the poem implies, the husband assumes that he can control the wife, the bird, and decide when and how she should give him pleasure. Instead, he looks merely foolish in his failures to manipulate her.

As unsettled as he is by woman and by his desire, sexual or otherwise (that illusory fire), Adam "stumbles over marriage" which, quoting William Godwin, Moore describes as "'a very trivial object indeed"' (65). To Godwin, one recalls, marriage is a silly institution, a "method ... for a thoughtless and romantic youth of each sex to come together, to see each other for a few times and under circumstances full of delusion, and then to vow eternal attachment" (507). Godwin believed that marriage should be abolished or at least rendered readily dissolvable. Moore's inclusion of his opinions of marriage in her first description of that "First Marriage" thus undercuts any seriously romantic thoughts that Adam might have entertained about the instituion.

Even love, that most revered of human emotions, is belittled through Moore's déchirage adaptation in this poem of a quotation from Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers. Although Moore renders it: "for love that will gaze an eagle blind, / that is with Hercules / climbing the trees / in the garden of the Hesperides, from forty-five to seventy / is the best age" (66), Trollope's actual wording is:

But for real, true love, love at first sight, love to devotion, love that robs a man of his sleep, love that will "gaze an eagle blind," love that "will hear the lowest sound when the suspicious tread of theft is stopped," love that is like a Hercules, still climbing trees in the Hesperides,"--we believe the best age is from forty-five to seventy. (147)

This is a description of Mr. Thorne,a rural squire of the extinct type, who is infatuated with the manipulative yet paralyzed Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni. Trollope is being highly cynical of love here, but Moore's reshaping of his quotation does not indicate this. She has "cut out" one of Trollope's phrases, a phrase which is in fact a quotation drawn from elsewhere, in order to shape it to her own devices. Specifically, she connects the absurdity of overwhelming passion--"'love that will / gaze an eagle blind'"--with the idea that love and marriage are "a fine art," "an experiment, / a duty or ... merely recreation." Moore overturns the male perspective of marriage as a serious and dignified commitment and presents it as a frivolous pastime.

The "irony" of the now-artificial state of the love relationship is "preserved" in literature and mythology, specifically in the banquet which Esther set up for Haman and Ahasuerus, and in the silly, mismatched love of Caliban for Miranda in The Tempest. "Good monster, lead the way" (67) is taken from The Tempest and changed from "O brave monster! lead the way," one of Stefano's lines (2.2.182). This quoation's position in Shakespeare's play connects it with the buffoonery of Stefano and Trinculo; its position in "Marriage," however, relates it to the banquet which Esther engineered in order to save her people, and is designed to suggest the nastiness of the marital relation. The "Ahasuerus tête-á-tête banquet" suggests that each spouse enters marriage with a separate agenda, to enforce which they will each use whatever sexual and emotional force they can bring to bear, as Esther does to persuade Ahasuerus to kill Haman and save her people (67).

During the most combative section of the poem, where the repartee of the man and woman is at its height, the man decries the very existence of women when he says that "the fact of woman / is 'not the sound of the flute / but very poison'" (67). This quotation is an adaptation of a passage from Abraham Mitram Rihbany's The Syrian Christ (1916) which is an explanation of customs described in the Bible. Moore embellished her note on this quotation by saying, "Silence of women--'to an Oriental, this is as poetry set to music'" (272) even though "not the sound of the flute but very poison" does not appear in The Syrian Christ. Instead, Rihbany writes that it is important for women to remain silent in public, and adds, "To oriental ears, as perhaps to Puritan ears of the good old type, such words are poetry set to music," but he never refers to a flute or to poison (333). In this case. Moore relegated Rihbany's words to her notes and used them as a mere inspiration for the man's opening salvo in his argument with the woman, a volley which stings in its misogyny.

In "Marriage" the explicit argument between the male and female voices (as explored by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller) solidifies the "dialectical interaction between the work and the world" which Stephen Bann has identified as a feature of collage (353). The quotations create a reverberation between the intent and context, the original words and the new meaning they acquire by being placed in radically different surroundings. In this way Moore is able to "subvert" tradition, both formally and institutionally. Within the poem, in other words, Moore is not constrained by external influence, conventional or otherwise. In fact, her use of this technique constitutes an adaptation of the Socratic method of refuting all sides of an argument. Dialogue allows Moore to remove herself from the context of the poem so that the critique of marriage implicit in the poem does not reflect on the poet.

During the course of this dialogue between the male and female--really it is open warfare--the woman's attitude toward men as insignificant and unstable is registered through a quotation: "This butterfly, / this waterfly, this nomad / that has 'proposed / to settle on my hand for life'-- / What can one do with it?" (68). This quotation is from Charles Reade's novel Christie Johnstone (1853). In this silly romance, a young, aristocratic gentleman, Lord Ipsden, who has "neither vices nor virtues," who is wealthy but does absolutely nothing, asks his cousin once removed, Lady Barbara Sinclair, for her hand in marriage. Lady Barbara refuses him because she "kept herself in reserve for some earnest man, who was not to come flattering and fooling to her, but look another way and do exploits." On considering Lord Ipsden's proposal, Lady Barbara thinks: "Accustomed to measure men by their character alone and to treat with sublime contempt the accidents of birth and fortune, she had been a little staggered by the assurance of this butterfly that had proposed to settle on her hand--for life" (14). Treating men as butterflies is a reversal of male and female roles and is a dismissal of the effectiveness of men. Lord Ipsden, and men in general, are superficial, useless, insignificant and narcissistic.

Adam's final word in this dialogue is that there are many people other than artists who are "fools," too, because they get married. Adam, however, as the next line of the poem reminds us, has forgotten that "some have merely rights while some have obligations" (164). The allusion here is to the words of Edmund Burke, who had written: "Asiatics have rights; Europeans have obligations." The obligations of Burke's "Europeans" are like those of men in marriage: behavior structured around the inherent condition of male condescension toward women, the European superior attitude toward its colonies and the male assumption of higher authority over the wife.

Men and women, however, are equally too self-involved to be fit to participate in relations with each other. Though the woman may profess to her husband that she is at his "command," she belies her avowal by leaving him for no more reason than that she has "seen enough of him," and so does not really show "petrine fidelity," though the alternate image of her rocklike composure filters through (69). This quotation of Simone Puget's advertisement in the English Review of June 1914 is highly cynical, referring to wives as "pretty dolls" and to their husbands as "peaceful." Moore's inclusion of Puget's words emphasizes her opinion that marriage is an outdated social form, despite its appeal.

At the conclusion of the poem, Moore quotes Daniel Wester's phrase, "Liberty and union / now and forever" in order to show that the control of a social institution such as marriage is similar to the immutable, implacable form of the motto--neither is ideally suited to anyone. Respected public figures reinforce this idea by treating marriage reductively, as if the complexity of the relationship could be regarded as a matter of ritual, of established "simplicity" (69). The quotation from Webster is optimistic but misguided as applied to marriage, just as Moore sees those who view life as a matter of habits--"the Book on the writing-table; / the hand in the breast-pocket"--as underestimating the overwhelming variety of human nature and relations (70). Moore believes that "Liberty and union" is oxymoronic when applied to marriage, and the statue of Webster in the park is emblematic of the pompously blind nature of man who lives by habits rather than by understandings. According to Margaret Holley, a motto constitutes "a special form of quotation, of language fixed and reproduced, just as the emblem is a special form of spatial imagery, culturally fixed and reproduced" (104). Moore does not change the motto from the statue because she cannot--it is "fixed." Her use of this quotation suggests Moore's feeling that our culture is unwilling or unable to change, particularly with respect to such immutable institutions as marriage.

Moore's use of a collage technique thus becomes her way of questioning marriage in an oblique fashion. She apparently felt that her early drafts of the poem were too angry, or perhaps too personal, to produce a sustained critique. By resorting to collage, with its rejection of traditional mimetic art forms, Moore was able to register her criticisms of the social institution without risking direct confrontation with cultural standards. By allying herself with artists who turned their backs on traditions of perspective in the visual arts, Moore also subverts traditions of perspective in the cultural sphere: a rejection of marriage is a rejection of traditional views of reality. In addition, the collage juxtaposition of unrelated pieces of history and social commentary is also Moore's way of dramatizing the nature of the marital relationship itself--two unrelated people with little or nothing in common (as Moore would have it) thrown into a union "without any connectives to express the quality of their relationship."

In creating works of collage, the artist is like the anthropologist who makes "the familiar strange," in James Clifford's words, so that we can reassess the art and artifacts of our own culture as if it were not our own (121). Moore makes an effort at this: not only does she make the familiar words of the past "strange" by editing them and by placing them in a new context, she makes marriage "strange," and provides a reassessment of an institution which is generally taken for granted. In doing so, Moore gives a practical--what one might refer to as a female-focus to the collagist's attempts to "marry" art forms. Not only does she employ collage techniques; she encourages us to see how they are applicable to "real" situations. In this way, collage also allows her to change the possibilities of that "reality."

From "The Collage of 'Marriage': Marianne Moore's Formal and Cultural Critique." In Mosaic Vol. 26, No. 4.


Title Elisabeth W. Joyce: On "Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Elisabeth W. Joyce Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 26 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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