Form and Content
In 1908, as a junior at Bryn Mawr College, then one of the most progressive women’s colleges in the United States, Marianne Moore published a story in the student literary magazine in which she expressed one of the most fundamental contradictions operating in the life of an artist obsessed with a task. “There are times,” she wrote, “when I should give anything on earth to have writing a matter of indifference to me.” Thus at the age of nineteen she acknowledged with characteristic ardor and reluctance the major motivating force of her life. While contending that she never intended to be a writer, explaining that everything she wrote was “the result of reading or of interest in people,” Moore realized early in her life that her development as a person would be inextricably bound to some form of artistic expression, and that the moral and social issues that concerned her would have to be addressed through the formulation of insights, which required the mastery of a singularly individual language. She has been rightfully acknowledged with T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens as one of the great poets of the modernist era, but her critical and appreciative essays, written across a wider arc of time than her poetry, are a revealing complement to the poems, expressing a sensibility and intelligence that shaped and reflected the cultural complex of which she was an important element for half a century.
Born in the year following Emily Dickinson’s death, Moore was reared by her mother and her mother’s family in an ethos of propriety, decorum, and intellectual freedom. Like Dickinson, she was pressed toward a private existence by the compulsion of circumstance and by inclination. Unlike Dickinson, she determined how she might set the terms of both her removal from and active engagement with the vital social issues of her times. She had been deeply influenced by M. Carey Thomas, president of Bryn Mawr, whom she described in tribute as “for woman an impassioned emancipator.” She was strongly encouraged by her family to act on her convictions, especially with respect to woman’s suffrage and a woman’s right to...
(The entire section is 885 words.)