Taffy Martin: On "Marriage"
In "Marriage," an all-seeing speaker catalogues pain and confusion. The poem ends pessimistically by equating artificially regulated promises with closed books and empty gestures. "An Octopus" records another sort of confusion. Rather than denying the fear involved in facing the unknown, the poem argues that the fear itself can become a positive adventure.
"Marriage" begins by categorizing its subject with unremitting equanimity and precision. The poem's subject, identified in its title, will be dismissed as
perhaps one should say enterprise
out of respect for which
one says one need not change one's mind
about a thing one has believed in,
requiring public promises
of one's intention
to fulfill a private obligation
Moore continues the attack by piling one devastating anecdote upon another. Marriage is both preposterous and painful. As in "Melancthon," Moore ridicules insincere attempts at communication. Here, however, the mistaken approach leads to warfare. Instead of conversing, the participants in that war exchange mechanical nonsequiturs.
"I should like to be alone";
to which the visitor replies,
"I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?"
Beneath this "conversation" lurks a subsurface of churning passion that recognizes beauty but distorts the perception.
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
Indeed, overwhelming passion so distorts perception that even pristine beauty leads to disaster. Such is the case in the lines describing the poem's occasionally nameless "he," who in this case becomes Adam.
he has beauty also;
it's distressing--the O thou
to whom from whom,
without whom nothing--Adam;
something colubrine"--how true!
a crouching mythological monster
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.
Alive with words,
vibrating like a cymbal
touched before it has been struck,
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."
This same vibrant Adam, "Treading chasms / on the uncertain footing of a spear," finally becomes so self-absorbed that his "formal customary strain" of speech and thought allows no intrusion of undesirable fact. Beauty disintegrates and turns sour as Adam inevitably
perceives what it was not
intended that he should;
"he experiences a solemn joy
in seeing that he has become an idol."
"She" is no less attractive and no less able to resist her own charm. In each case, the excess arises from a common error.
The fact forgot
that "some have merely rights
while some have obligations,"
he loves himself so much,
he can permit himself
no rival in that love.
She loves herself so much,
she cannot see herself enough--
a statuette of ivory on ivory,
the logical last touch
to an expansive splendor
earned as wages for work done:
one is not rich but poor
when one can always seem so right.
Wrong from the start, then, any attempt at marriage, "this amalgamation which can never be more / than an interesting impossibility," will be doomed to failure. Moore's criticism has been impartially distributed since each participant in the union shares the same faults. Her attack becomes even more successful because she reinforces this impartiality with relentless dispassion. The poem offers neither a death blow nor an alternative to the institution but a depressing version of half success. The partners are sentenced to "cycloid inclusiveness," a "striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity. . . . " Moore's argument that there can be no respite in this struggle intensifies throughout the poem until she asks a question to which she already knows the answer.
What can one do for them--
condemned to disaffect
all those who are not visionaries
alert to undertake the silly task
of making people noble?
Since nothing can be done to aid the self-deluded, Moore ruthlessly concludes that this naive but mistaken belief in the efficacy of "public promises ... to fulfill a private obligation" dictates that "the statesmanship / of an archaic Daniel Webster / persists to their simplicity of temper / as the essence of the matter." Meaningless contradiction, a passive symbol of church or state, and the withdrawal of personal contact close the poem and become Moore's enigmatic representation of "the essence of the matter."
'Liberty and union
now and forever';
the Book on the writing-table;
the hand in the breast-pocket,"
One can claim to be attempting liberty and union, but the combination is a farce. A book on a writing table may block as many thoughts as it inspires, and if the capitalization in "Book" signifies the Bible, a book Marianne Moore certainly knew well, the passive image is even more damaging. A hand in the breast pocket cannot offer to shake another nor can it signal any other traditional pledge of disarmament. The posture is unequivocally closed and defensive. The institution has been dismissed. The issue is closed.
"Marriage" is an unusual poem in the Moore canon because its treatment is more openly personal than that of most of her poems. More important, Moore's treatment of passion, confusion, and deluded vision is undeniably negative. The fact that her sensuous language vividly captures the attraction of one party to another only intensifies the shock of the rest of the poem. In most poems, Moore treats such confusion and deluded vision as positive qualities, as opportunities for wordplay or enjoyment.
From Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the University of Texas Press.