The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore Analysis

Marianne Moore

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The emergence of a focused feminist consciousness in literary studies in the middle of the twentieth century has led to the development of a much more complete understanding of Marianne Moore’s work, but it has not diminished debate concerning her importance in women’s literature. As Sandra Gilbert points out, Moore was “fetishized” as a woman poet as her reputation grew, and she was compelled to work with or against the public conception of a “feminine” writer, “simultaneously impersonating and analyzing . . . the newly public role of ‘poetess’ laureate.” While some critics such as John Slatin have noted the difficulties in trying to speak “publicly as a woman” when every form of discourse available was already “marginal” and sympathized with her efforts to redefine such concepts as heroism and pull into a field of vision the culturally marginal and repressed, Suzanne Juhasz in 1977 described what she considered an avoidance, if not a betrayal, of crucial feminist concerns on Moore’s part.

Juhasz’s critique depends upon a supposition that Moore was “trying to get into the tradition,” not start her own, and that she translated her experience into “masculine forms and symbols” that a male cultural hierarchy deemed correct. Juhasz has been directly challenged by Tess Gallagher, who has examined Moore’s poetry in conjunction with her essays, letters, and unpublished but extensive personal data—the widening angle of...

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The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

ph_0111201253-Moore_M.jpg Marianne Moore Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, which was published in anticipation of Marianne Moore’s centenary in 1987, presents all of her published prose except for letters, interviews, and quotations in the writings of others. The body of the text consists primarily of reviews and essays in chronological order of publication; the works published when Moore was editor of The Dial (1921-1929) are subdivided by kind into reviews, “Comment” (the name of a regular feature in The Dial), and “Briefer Mention,” containing one-paragraph notices of books published. The appendix comprises separate sections for “letters to the editor,” dust-jacket blurbs for the works of others, miscellaneous short pieces, book lists, and questionnaire responses. The editor, Patricia C. Willis, curator of the Marianne Moore Collection at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, supplies a four-page introductory appreciation and notes of the original place and date of publication at the end of each piece.

Although Moore’s reputation will continue to be based primarily upon her poetry, this collection affords readers the opportunity to trace over the course of some sixty years her influence as a critical reader and her refinement as a prose stylist. Her acutely perceptive sensibility and delicately resilient control are displayed everywhere in the text, and by making available virtually the whole corpus of her work, this volume reinforces Moore’s important position in twentieth century American letters.

Even the earliest works, eight stories and a review published between 1907 and 1909 in the literary magazine of Bryn Mawr College, Moore’s alma mater, show the characteristically precise diction that later typified all of her writing, even though the felicity of language in these pieces is obscured by mannered, derivative settings and slight plots. In spite of these defects, however, the undergraduate pieces are interesting because they show that Moore’s turn to nonfiction prose and criticism was deliberately chosen, not coerced through lack of other talents: In her later career, she abandoned fiction in favor of poetry, and prose became the medium through which she surveyed the literary world. These stories do not hint at the acute critical intellect that, within fifteen years of their publication, would establish itself as a potent voice in American literary culture.

To be a literary critic requires first of all that one be a reader. The “Briefer Mention” section shows more succinctly than any other how broad and deep Moore’s reading ran. These capsule reviews are marvels of economy and productivity: Few of the 125 she published in The Dial ran to more than 250 words, and to some of the monthly numbers she contributed as many as four short notices. Books of poetry, criticism, and literary history predominate, but the number also includes works on history, politics, art, music, philosophy, and the popular culture of various historical periods. This breadth of reading, astonishing in itself, is matched by the terse and pungent (although seldom pugnacious) judgment of the work’s quality and worth. In poetry and other literary works, Moore swiftly picks out the best and most original elements in each book, pointing out, where necessary, infelicities or “disaffecting” characteristics that mar its quality. In other works, Moore states the principal subject or argument, summarizes its development, and finally judges its success and stature in the range of work on similar subjects. In each case, regardless of the work’s kind or quality, Moore demonstrates a sympathetic understanding both of the author and of the reader: On the one hand, she points out excellences that might escape a hasty reader; on the other, she warns against the superficial or defective reasoning of an inexpert writer. Considered as a part of Moore’s own work overall, the “Briefer Mention” section accurately outlines her intellectual wealth and range for the larger portrait that the rest of the volume completes at greater length and with finer detail.

Important in this larger portrait are the numerous longer reviews that Moore wrote throughout her career. Her manner in the capsule reviews is characteristic also of the full-scale reviews that appeared not only in The Dial but also in The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review. As a whole, the longer reviews provide ample insight into and definition of the sometimes vague phrase “a woman of letters.” Whatever her other concerns and interests, from these reviews it is apparent that Moore was in touch with the key movements not only in American letters but also with parallel forms and movements in England and Europe.

The list of poets whose work she reviewed includes most of the major names in modern literature in English as well as many less familiar. From these reviews can also be traced a genealogy of modern poetry with its complex...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Goodridge, Celeste. Hints and Disguises: Marianne Moore and Her Contemporaries. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989. A critical study of Moore’s work as a critic “reconstructing the public dialogue” she had with the writers she admired.

Martin, Taffy. Marianne Moore: Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. A lucid, perceptive, intellectually challenging study of Moore’s development as a critic and a poet.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990. The first biography of Moore, a thorough, factually accurate account that deftly connects her life and thought to all of her writing.

Parisi, Joseph, ed. Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Press, 1990. The transcripts of a symposium that covered Moore’s public persona and reputation, with a survey of the writing gathered in The Complete Prose. Enthusiastic if not always completely informed about Moore’s life and work.

Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore: Woman and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1990. An excellent collection of critical essays, expertly edited by Willis, who provides a good introduction. Includes an indispensable annotated bibliography by Bonnie Honigsblum, covering work done from the 1970’s to 1990 on Moore.