Lorrayne Carroll: On "Marriage"

The belief that ‘one is a woman’ is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that ‘one is a man’.

And there is one final, and ‘magnificent’ compliment: Miss Moore’s poetry is as ‘feminine’ as Christina Rossetti’s, one never forgets that it is written by a woman; but with both one never thinks of this particularity as anything but a positive virtue.

T.S. Eliot’s discovery of the ‘positive virtue’ in Marianne Moore’s poetry is at best cryptic, at worst patronising. Why enclose ‘magnificent’ and ‘feminine’ within quotations? What are the constant reminders which define the poetry as written by a woman? Eliot’s avuncular appreciation subverts and trivialises ‘feminine’ —female — poetry while marking its difference. The distinctions Eliot finds, the ‘particularity’ — one almost reads ‘peculiarity’ — open a reading of Moore’s poems which assert her difference from the tradition in which Eliot had ensconced himself with The Waste Land, published only the year before Moore’s longest poem, ‘Marriage’.

Those shored fragments in Eliot’s poem, propping the ruins of a blasted literary inheritance, adumbrate the multifarious quotations in ‘Marriage’. Moore’s poetic contraption is disparate and eclectic, an array of linguistic pieces, not shored but careening off one another. Syntactically tortuous, ‘Marriage’ almost defies reading, although Moore provided ‘Notes’, ostensibly to guide the reader through the dense jungle of citations and tangled locutions. Unlike Moore’s earlier syllabic poems, ‘Marriage’ is not anchored to a visual or aural pattern. In fact, those neat patterns which characterise ‘The Fish’ or ‘To a Prize Bird’ are exploded in this ‘colloquy’. While considering the predominant cultural institution, ‘Marriage’ talks and talks. It is Moore’s longest, and most loquacious, poem.

The voices in the poem play with the public/private dichotomy represented by sentimental (especially Victorian) notions of marriage as refuge. Traditional images construct marriage as a private retreat, a locus of respite for the world-weary husband. They posit a (culturally sanctioned) heterosexual union as the venue for revelations of the ‘real’ personality, the (male) identity not encumbered by public ‘self-fashioning’. Although the field and space tropes in Moore’s poem mark marriage as some kind of locus, they do not emblematise a haven where male desires are fulfilled. Rather, the spaces represent the emptiness which characterise a wife’s allotment in the arrangement. Moore’s carefully constructed versions of male and female domains, however, are not stable. They point up the difficulties either sex encounters in attempting to delineate a space that can define identity.

The discourse of ‘Marriage’ is not confined to a male/female dialogue. Indeed, dialogue may be as inappropriate a term for the discursive adventures of the poem as ‘narrative’ or ‘lyric’. The interplay of direct quotation and Moore’s own ground — the unattributed language — juxtapose assumptions about gender roles, sexual identity, and the manipulation of the power inherent in writing. Moore subverts the dialectic of marriage by inserting several voices. A cacophony of sexual rejoinders, tired platitudes, and angry accusations paradoxically generate a sense of emptiness, silences threaten domestic tranquility. Reading ‘Marriage’ in the shadow of Eliot’s fragments, one finds that Moore’s peculiarity derives from her refusal to shore up any of the conventional, sentimentalised beliefs investing marriage or gender roles. Instead, she assembles a poem whose construction both denies a haven and reveals the ruinous assumptions at the heart of this central institution of heterosexual relations.

Moore’s elaborate poetic apparatus plays with the inside/ outside, public/private device of notes. As with many of Moore’s notes, the heuristic devices that accompany ‘Marriage’ are as obfuscatory as illuminating. Moore offers them as ‘Statements that took my fancy which I tried to arrange plausibly’. Apparently random citations follow each other, strange bedfellows in this baffling arrangement. ‘Everything to do with love is a mystery’ according to ‘F. C. Tilney’ (272), and a reader may well assume that mystery is the basis of ‘Marriage’. The play of voices, the direct discourse of ‘he said/she said’ and the marginalised notes subvert any one-to-one correspondence which romantics, literary and sexual, seek to perpetuate as models for the relationships between people and between words. The binary model, whether male / female, signifier / signified, connotation / denotation, or symbol / reality disintegrates (if indeed it ever existed) under the persistent pressure of an exorbitant clamour.

‘Marriage’ counters the implicit critical hegemony of a male Modernist poetic according to Pound or Eliot. That is, in Moore’s 1923 milieu, poetic authority remains vested in the mandarins of Modernism: they make the rules, they interpret the texts, they theorise, they talk about the writing. Men, then, are the speaking subjects of modernism (although not always the publishers). Or at least they try to be. Dominating the critical discourse, Pound and Eliot ‘make’ modernism with their responses to the tradition erected by previous spokesmen of Western literary culture. ‘Marriage’ also addresses this model of the speaking man, whose presence asserts power, the power of representation. Moore’s position in the early Modernist movement is a priori suspicious because she cannot inherit the mantle of the spokesman.

Her experience as a relatively poor, unmarried woman who writes for a living informs ‘Marriage’’s convoluted presentation of relationships. Moore’s own negotiations with the culture are quite evidently grounded in her otherness As Jeanne Kammer states:

The situation is complicated for the woman poet by a cultural hierarchy of vocal strength: the male voice carries more ‘universal’ authority than the female. In diaphoric poetry, where (as [Hugh] Kenner points out in Moore) the voice is not the universal ‘we’ of bard of orator, but an individual quality as distinctly other as the objects of experience it describes, the sex of the sayer is unimportant: male and female speech has equal validity.

I agree with Kammer’s estimation of the cultural authority of the male voice, and I concur in her reading of the female ‘we’ as distinct from the universal ‘we’ of oratory (‘We the [white, male, propertied] people’). However, Kammer constructs a gendered episteme which I think ‘Marriage’ destabilises. That is, she sees diaphoric forms — juxtaposition without connectives — as the rhetoric of contraction and, ultimately, female identity. Thus, for Kammer, T. S Eliot’s use of diaphor differs from Emily Dickinson’s in this manner:

The effect of ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ is of an accumulation of images and archetypal associations which together suggest a condition of the collective modern temper; the effect of ‘After Great Pain’ is of a group of images and associations gathered in to a singular, interior nerve center.

Both versions offer an identity, one collective and ‘archetypal’, the other ‘singular’. This identity, gathered and generated by a speaking subject, is exactly what ‘Marriage’ defers and, I think, finally repudiates. The idea of one generative voice, ordering and arranging, is abandoned. In the face of traditional male authority, Moore pieces together an allegory of the impossibility of identity, of a writing ‘presence’ in the poem. There can be no one authoritative writing subject, just as no ‘one’ is a ‘woman’. Subjectivity, in its sense as a personal, individualised expression of the artist, cannot be rendered in a world where ‘the strange experience of beauty / tears one to pieces’ (37—39).

As I have said, ‘Marriage’ defies reading. By this I mean it is an example of that ‘incomprehensible’ poetry to which Julia Kristeva refers in Revolution in Poetic Language. This kind of language calls attention to itself as a process of signifying rather than as a product (signification) For Kristeva, marginalised systems reveal a methodology of meaning.

Magic, shamanism, esoterism, the carnival and ‘incomprehensible’ poetry all underscore the limits of socially useful discourse and attest to what it represses: the process that exceeds the subject and his communicative structure.

Accordingly, ‘Marriage’ may be read as a revelatory moment in the history of Modernism. The repressions implicit in Eliot’s Modernism — not the least of which is the constitution of the subject as white, Western, and male — surface in Moore’s poem. An encounter with ‘Marriage’ compels the reader to negotiate a series of subjects, none of which can be consistently identified. Even the familiar signs ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ disintegrate under the pressures of an intricate syntactical and graphic apparatus. ‘Marriage’ presumes no one authoritative voice, no one ordering provenance that generates the poem.

Syntactical intricacies combine with quotation and ‘quotation’ to assemble a kaleidoscopic text. Even the term ‘kaleidoscopic’ cannot adequately describe the flux of the text, because it assumes a single focus for the reader, and the discontinuities and juxtapositions which form the poem push the reader into various parallactic movements, adjusting his or her interpretive positioning with each shifting fragment of quotation or phrase. Quotations and their ‘contextualizing’ ‘Notes’ seem less to explain than to complicate.

Turning to the ‘Notes’ provides no relief from the baffling accumulation of citations. Rather, the ‘Notes’ appear to be a random sampling of Marianne Moore’s eclectic reading tastes. And their status in relation to the poem proper is never quite articulated. Quotation functions as predominant rhetorical strategy within ‘Marriage’, although not every phrase enclosed within, quotation marks results in a note. Some ‘quotes’ derive from speaking subjects which only exist in the text of the poem, and, as such, the poem is itself a series of imaginary conversations (significantly not the Pateresque vehicles for the pronouncements of the Great Men of Letters). So, Adam appropriates not only Hazlitt’s words, but ‘quotes’ himself:

he has prophesied correctly—

the industrious waterfall,

‘the speedy stream which violently bears all before it,

at one time silent as the air

and now as powerful as the wind’ (76—83)

‘[T]he speedy stream ... the wind’ is not attributed in the ‘Notes’. Adam invokes the past and then prophesies from it. Only Adam has the authority to quote himself. Eve’s speech throughout the poem is direct discourse, always prefaced by ‘She says’ or, in one case, a colon. Later, I will discuss the significance of oratory to a male stance. For now, I am arguing that the appearance of this ‘imaginary’ quotation undermines the authority of the actual notes. If the poem can quote itself, positing a prior ‘language’ from its speakers which can be recapitulated as readily as the language of different texts, then the poem refuses to mark any interiority/exteriority distinction. In deferring that distinction, ‘Marriage’ violates authorial sanctity: if the parameters of the poem itself are not defined, if there are no clear demarcations between the poet’s poem and its sources, then poetic ‘self’ as arranger and progenitor of the poem is questioned

The question of Moore’s quotations is addressed by various critics and is not confined to a discussion of ‘Marriage’. John Slatin sees quotation as Moore’s acknowledgement of ‘the creative power wielded by other writers’ and of her ‘experience’ of reading them. His estimation presumes a community of creativity which Moore taps in order to represent the orderliness of her experience. Tess Gallagher’s evaluation of Moore’s ‘picking and choosing’ is closer to what I see as a vital recognition of the multiplicity of the speaking subject that writes. But Gallagher, too, wishes to retrieve collectivity rather than dispersal in the quotations:

I prefer to see quotations as proof of Moore’s ambition not to write simply in the isolation of the ego, but to write as if she were a team, or an orchestra. ... She was willing to take responsibility to a new enlarged arena, then, to present and credit views other than her own, and to provide a context for hearing a concert of voices.

I agree that Moore provided a forum for a ‘concert’ of voices’, but not in the sense that Gallagher intends. Moore’s constitution of herself as not ‘ego’ but ‘team’ relies on the collectivity, and ultimately, the identity of that ‘team’. Indeed, the image of the orchestra perpetuates the notion that, however different the music on the stands in front of the individual musicians, they are still playing the same piece.

Rather, I see the ‘concert’ as a disparate mob, shattering with its cacophony the unity presumed in the poetic voice, the voice of the author. Moore may want to be a team player — baseball was a favourite of hers — but the act of writing denies the kind of collective identity implied in shoring up fragments. Here I return to Kristeva for a reading of the dialectic produced by the multifarious quotations of ‘Marriage’. That dialectic, which is figured in the pretence of an inside/outside (poem/notes), defers any combinatory process which will yield a unity. Kristeva’s process of arriving at a dialectical model to understand ‘a theory of signification based on the subject, his formation, and his corporeal, linguistic, and social dialectic’ is akin to the dialectical impetus of ‘Marriage’:

At least indicates its own position, and renounces both the totalizing fragmentation characteristic of positivist discourse, which reduces all signifying practices to a formalism, and a reductive identification with other (discursive, ideological, economic) islands of the social aggregate. ... From this position, it seems possible to perceive a signifying practice which, although produced in language, is only intelligible through it.

I offer this reading as an interpretive entry into the quotations. Several critics want to view them as a basic ‘democratising’ gesture on Moore’s part, but I think her use of quotation exceeds that formulation, while it includes it. That is, although Hugh Kenner discusses the ‘richness of found phrases’ whose effect is ‘to democratize "tradition" very considerably’, the effect goes beyond a sense of community and collectivity. Moore’s ‘Marriage’ opens the language to an inspection not only of the presuppositions about the institution of marriage, but also of the ideological assumptions implicit in the notion of a coherent subject.

Helen Vendler approaches this interpretation when she says of Moore: ‘Perhaps her work is in fact more "feminine" than it may appear to a woman reader, to whom Moore’s angle of vision may seem more congenial." The return of the term ‘feminine’ to a critical appraisal of Moore’s work recalls the (rather patronising) description offered by Eliot in his 1923 review. Although I do not want to argue that Vendler’s is a conscious or unconscious recapitulation of that review, I am interested in her assertion that women may find Moore’s ‘angle of vision’ more ‘congenial’ than men would. Both Eliot and Vendler want to mark that angle as ‘feminine’. Both read a difference in Moore which they want to attribute to a biological fact rather than a linguistic effect. Moore’s strategy of convolution and eclecticism, particularly that found in ‘Marriage’, may be traced to her experiences as a woman living and writing in a patriarchy. But I find the poem to be most compelling as a critique of the coherent subject presumed in literary models up to and including Modernist works like Eliot’s. While I agree that this subject is gendered (male), I think that the evasive discourse of ‘Marriage’ is not merely an indictment of that gendered ‘authority’. Rather, it questions the possibility for any intact subject, gender notwithstanding.

As I noted above, quotations prevent the definition of an authorising subject in ‘Marriage’. In doing so, they also subvert the representation of a public/private dichotomy: the public domain figured in the ‘Notes’ (product of many) and the private space of the ‘personal’ poem (product of the one poet). The description of marriage as ‘This institution ... requiring public promises ... to fulfil a private obligation’ (1—8) inscribes it as a transgressive ‘enterprise’, violating the domains of public and private selves. Marriage functions here as the trope of emptiness, an interstice, the space where either party to the institution dissolves into its ‘circular traditions and impostures’ (14). There can be no privacy in that putatively most private of arrangements because there is no private self to assent to the arrangement ab initio. Marriage, then, is a futility, since no stable identity is available to merge with — or diverge from — another.

The ‘criminal ingenuity’ required to avoid marriage is the same wily process practised by a poet who must (impossibly) posit a coherent authorising voice in order to write. ‘Criminal ingenuity’ thus is the hallmark of writing subjects in ‘Marriage’. The emptiness figured by marriage is the space of writing itself, the possibility for inscription. Filling that space with language, with signification, the writing is an ‘imposture’, because it transgresses any boundaries erected by a putatively discrete, distinctive self. This is one reason for the difficulty of interpreting ‘Marriage’. The poem refuses to display a dichotomous rhetoric. It is not a dramatic dialogue, although there are aspects of the dialogic in the exchange between Adam and Eve. But their voices are not purely oppositional, they babble past each other, careening off shards of discourse generated by the ‘noted’ sources and the ‘I’s and ‘we’s scattered throughout the poem. These various subjects produce the (written) text of ‘Marriage’ through their ‘speech’, the language enclosed within quotation marks.

The tensions which characterise the highly ambiguous language of the poem reflect the internal split of these subjects, a split represented by the opposition of ‘speech’ and ‘writing’. The speaking subjects of ‘Marriage’ lack any identity to which authority can be attributed: authority itself is in question, in the sense that it is able to vest in a subject. Subjectivity, rather than identity, is only constituted as an effect of speech. Because ‘Marriage’ represents an explosion of quotation and speech, that subjectivity disseminates throughout the text. An example of the subjects’ dispersal across the poem is in the shift of the first person singular ‘I’ to ‘we’ and to ‘use’. Significantly, the poem begins with the starkly impersonal ‘one’ as a grammatical subject. From there on, the reader encounters a succession of pronominal metamorphoses.

Initially, ‘I’ appears to be the mark of the (traditional) subject that arranges, that tells the story of Adams and Eve: ‘I wonder what Adam and Eve / think of it by this time.’ (9-10) Then the ‘I’ remarks of Eve: ‘I have seen her / when she was so handsome / she gave me a start’ (22-4). So Eve does give this ‘I’ a start — as an object against which to oppose/compose itself as the seeing ‘I’. That is, the speaking subject is only provisionally constituted against the object with which it has a relationship, in this case, a relationship of specularity. Shortly after ‘I’ sees Eve, Eve emphatically appropriates ‘I’ for herself: ‘"I should like to be alone"; / to which the visitor replies, / "I should like to be alone; why not be alone together"’ (31-4). The subjectivity in both these instances results from both Eve’s and the visitor’s lack of solitude. Indeed, the visitor, sounding much like Groucho Marx, posits the very paradox of subjectivity, the fact that it can only be ‘alone together’.

The (or an) ‘I’ returns with a linguistic vengeance near the end of the poem. There, it emerges from the most syntactically occluded passage in ‘Marriage’ into a seven-line ‘quotation’ set apart from the text by the spaces on either end:

‘I am such a cow, if I had a sorrow

I should feel it a long time; I am not one of those

who have a great sorrow in the morning

and a great joy at noon’ (275-81)

The reiteration of ‘I’ and its difference from ‘one of those’ indicates that, here again, subjectivity can only be produced by its opposition to some other object. The insistent ‘I’ is a function of ‘that striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity’ (265-6). I read this last line as another figure of paradox, a recapitulation of the ‘alone together’ figure of subjectivity that operates throughout ‘Marriage’. The series of speaking subjects in the poem rely on oppositions — objects — in order to posit (ion) themselves as speakers. I would like to turn now from a discussion of how subjectivity is constituted and dispersed throughout the poem to the effect that oscillation has on the status of speech and writing


The invocation of ‘the debater’, ‘that orator reminding you’, and ‘Daniel Webster’ at the end of ‘Marriage’ calls to mind the several versions of oratorical posturing which recur throughout ‘Marriage’.

Many of these instances involve Adam, the most verbose of the poem’s speakers. Indeed, Adam is ‘Alive with words, / vibrating like a cymbal / touched before it has been struck’ (74-6). This oratorical positioning, then, is generally a male prerogative, as far as one wants to read ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ as gendered images. When Eve speaks, she either addresses Adam or, in one notorious case, she talks and writes at the same time, ‘equally positive in demanding a commotion / and in stipulating quiet’ (29-30). Although Adam does most of the talking, Eve, too, speaks, but she also writes.

The binary speech/writing does not fracture across a clearly gendered line, then because the poem is full of speaking subjects — ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’. But in all this chatter, different kinds of speech do not carry the same valence, and the powerful speech that holds an entire audience captive is obviously vested in Adam. His oratorical presentations seem to be more authoritative and universal than Eve’s utterances. The exchanges give Adam more to say, and he assumes an authority never attributed to Eve. Adam is not only the speaking subject, but the orating subject, whose authority and ascendancy over Eve depends on the immanence of the speech act. Thus, Adam’s status as the figure of a privileged speaker derives from his asserting presence, the presumption of an orator. Eve’s voice, conversely, is subdued, ‘constrained in speaking of the serpent’ (56), and she ‘speaks’ fewer lines than Adam.

There is one instance in the poem, however, where Adam’s oratorical power is disrupted. ‘[H]e stumbles over marriage’ (124) because he is

Plagued by the nightingale

in the new leaves,

with its silence —

not its silence but its silences, …(103-6)

Although oratory appears to be the privileged mode of speech, ‘silences’ shift the register of power, and Eve controls these oratorical absences: ‘equally positive in demanding a commotion / and in stipulating quiet.’ Eve talks ‘in the meantime’ while she is exhibiting her most startling capability ‘to write simultaneously / in three languages’ (25-6). Eve writes and talks, and Adam only speaks. Adam is plagued and ‘Unnerved’ by silences because they oppose the preeminence of his loquacity. John Slatin supposes this to be Moore’s answer to patriarchal presumptions when he says, ‘Thus Moore uses silence itself with "criminal ingenuity" to circumvent the father’s authority and appropriate it to herself.’ Most recent interpretations of ‘Marriage’ seem to assert, as Slatin does here, that the poem is an antidote to patriarchy because, in the end, Eve/Marianne takes back the power appropriated by the fathers.

In considering this observation, I return now to the discussion in the beginning of this chapter, of a public/private split. There I stated that Moore’s constructions of male and female domains are not stable, because subjectivity — whether gendered male or female— is itself split and dispersed over the poem. So, although I have been reading ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ as conventional signs of different genders, I am not interpreting them as markers for either a male or a female identity. Rather, they are, like ‘marriage’ and ‘space’, tropes that operate in various ways across the text. I align Adam with oratory and Eve with writing, not because I think the poem wants to gender speech and writing, but because the text uses the metaphor of gender difference to mark a distinction between these two functions of language. The sexual aspects of the trope are, of course, charged by the context of ‘Marriage’ itself: a poem written by a woman immersed in the Modernist milieu dominated by men. But ‘Marriage’’s critique of patriarchy does not derive from a simple inversion of conventional power models or the rigid ascription of discursive modes along sexual lines.

One last observation may serve to clarify this distinction. The strategy of citation in ‘Marriage’, which denies an inside/outside reading of the poem, also undermines a writing/speech distinction. ‘Speech’ is represented by inscription: the quotation ‘marks’. All the speaking subjects and their speeches are products of writing, the writing that ‘write[s] simultaneously / in three languages’ and ‘talks in the meantime’. The oratorical privilege is thus subsumed under this writing because the ‘speech’ of the orator is in this sense the text of the speech, the words on paper that govern the oratory. So the orator, near the end of the poem, states, ‘I am yours to command’ (260).

If speech, then, is a function of writing, there would seem to be a totalising power girding the poem. Opposed to the dispersal figured by the constructions of subjectivity, writing per se might be deemed the gathering, generating force that produces the poem, a ‘universal’ subject as dominant as any model of male hegemony. However, writing itself is dispersed by the only writer in the poem, who writes in ‘three languages’ and intersperses the writing with ‘talk’. Even writing is split; its representations of identity and unity are pretences, attempts toward ‘cycloid inclusiveness’. The critique of Western concepts of identity, signalled by dispersed subjectivity, is explicit:

We Occidentals are so unemotional,

self lost, the irony preserved, ... (184-5)

And the final image of the poem explodes the notion of an essential writing, produced by a masterful transcendent subject. I interpret the ‘it’ of this passage as the mark of that unity and essentialism (erroneously) assumed to be characteristic of the writing subject of Western poetry

                            ‘I have encountered it

among those unpretentious

protégés of wisdom.

where seeming to parade

as the debater and the Roman,

the statesmanship

of an archaic Daniel Webster

persists to their simplicity of temper

as the essence of the matter’ .. (282-90)

This essence, ‘Liberty and union / now and forever’, symbolises the Procrustean effort to collapse heterogeneity to a homogeneous mass: it is the complete denial of ‘the strange experience of beauty’ whose ‘existence is too much; / it tears one to pieces.’

The impulse to deny the splits and disseminations attendant upon writing is the impulse to diminish writing’s energetic play into static objectification. Working through the marriage metaphor, this is akin to an institutional model which constrains difference for the greater good of the marriage, the ‘union’. The poem deflates the possibility of that ‘union’ (‘this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility’) and parodies those who support marriage as a verity. The last lines of ‘Marriage’ figure the intolerance and absurdity of that position, even as they inscribe its dominance. All writing has been reduced to ‘the Book’ and the ‘universal’ subject, the orator, looms smugly over it, ‘the hand in the breast-pocket’, a figure of unyielding convention.

From Carroll, Lorrayne, "Marianne Moore." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.


Title Lorrayne Carroll: On "Marriage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Lorrayne Carroll Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 26 Oct 2015
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