Marianne Moore

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 36)

On May 15, 1886, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson died. Exactly eighteen months later, on November 15, 1887, Marianne Craig Moore was born. Both of these extraordinary women changed the direction of American poetry. Certain similarities between them, though not remarkable in themselves, considering the era in which they were reared and the social class from which they came, are worth noting. Both came from Puritan stock, from families filled with ministers; both were in their own ways reclusive, and both employed nature-related themes in their verse. Dickinson had a close relationship, despite occasional frictions, with her father and brother. Moore’s father died legally insane before she was born, but her mother and brother played important roles in her artistic development. Both Dickinson and Moore had superb educations for women of their era: Dickinson at Mount Holyoke and Moore at Bryn Mawr. Both families faced serious financial difficulties involving bankruptcy. The poetry of both women came to be accepted only in the 1920’s.

Then there is this remarkable little poem, written by Moore when she was twenty-six:

The clouds between
Perforce must mean

The broken crock’s

Condition mocks

Were Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (the poet’s sister) to have found it among the 1775 poems that Thomas H. Johnson published in 1955 as Dickinson’s complete oeuvre, not a critic in the world would have challenged its authorship. Even so, Moore’s poetry is distinctive. All indications, based on her college studies and lists of personal readings, are that she had not read any of Dickinson’s poetry and that she likely had barely heard of the “Queen Recluse of Amherst” in 1913. Charles Molesworth, author of this first full-length biography, mentions almost nothing about the Dickinson-Moore similarities, nor should he have done so, for his is a study based on facts. It is a welcome study, which examines carefully the heady twentieth century environment that produced an American genius and much-loved poet.

Much was against Moore’s becoming an important literary figure, or for that matter much else of importance. Her mother, Mary Warner Moore, reared her and her brother Warner in the manse of John Riddle Warnei; pastor of the Presbyterian church in Kirkwood, Missouri, near St. Louis. Warner was the poet’s maternal grandfather and was financially secure with some private income from property in Kirkwood and in Pueblo, Colorado. For her first seven years, then, Moore and her brother lived a relatively peaceful life, not directly affected by the financial collapse and early death of her mentally unstable father. Nevertheless, her grandfather was an old man, even at Moore’s birth, and he died in 1893. This left Moore’s mother with two children, ages seven and eight, and virtually no family members upon whom she could depend. Their subsequent eventual move to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, came about primarily because of the Reverend Warner’s previous ministerial service in Pennsylvania and the presence of a strong Presbyterian congregation there.

The three Moores remained in Carlisle for the next twenty years. Mary joined the Second Presbyterian Church of Dr. George Norcross, taught at the Metzger Institute there, and sent her children to the best schools: Warner to prepare for the ministry at Yale University, Moore to a newly founded but already excellent college for women named Bryn Mawr, after the town in which it was located.

Moore came to love Bryn Mawr, though, as often happens, she did not fully realize how much its values had influenced her until her later life. Though she wrote for Tipyn O’Bob (Welsh for “a bit of everything”) and became a consulting editor of this Bryn Mawr literary magazine in the final years of her college career, she rarely had the unqualified support of her instructors. Indeed, one, a Miss Donnelly, advised her not to major in English. She considered Moore’s logic too disjunctive for academic criticism. Ironically, Moore’s reviews in The Dial, the influential literary publication originally founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, are some of the most perceptive and thoughtful ever written. Instead, Moore majored in politics, continued to write verse, and adopted a socialist veneer, radical for the times and primarily based on the contemporary issue of women’s suffrage.

Even as Moore continued to distinguish herself at Bryn Mawr, her brother was making his own reputation at Yale. He worked hard, with relatively little financial support from home, and determined during his years there to pursue graduate ministerial studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. Though the Moores lived apart during these college years, they remained close through relayed letters. Warner consistently restates his intention to reunite the family after his ordination, and for a time it appeared that he would succeed by his acceptance of a New Jersey pastorate. As it happened, marriage and World War I intervened. He joined the Navy as chaplain and subsequently settled with his wife in California. Still, the Moores remained close, and Moore and her mother would establish residence in Brooklyn in the mid-1930’s, primarily to be closer to Warner when he subsequently worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Throughout the 1920’s, though, Moore and her mother lived in Greenwich Village, during that decade a magnet for artists of all varieties. It is difficult to imagine what two essentially conservative women made of bohemian life there, but it is undeniable that Moore’s residence in this lower Manhattan haven brought her into close proximity with those who would shape her career. Molesworth explores a number of these unlikely friendships, most notably with H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, a protegee of Ezra Pound) and H. D’s companion Winifred Ellerman...

(The entire section is 2417 words.)

Marianne Moore

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The life and work of Marianne Moore (1887-1972) abound in paradoxes. In her later years she was a public figure, featured in LIFE magazine and VOGUE, interviewed and consulted and feted at every turn. Was she then that rarity in the United States, a popular poet? Not exactly; in fact, her most characteristic poems have a self-contained quality that scares off casual readers. Her work combines steely intelligence, playfulness, and moral argument. In many ways the very model of a modernist, she was in other respects extremely conservative. The style she developed was original, highly distinctive, yet one of its most distinctive features is the extent to which she appropriated for her poems lines taken verbatim or nearly so from museum catalogs, magazine articles, and all manner of sources: poetry as collage.

These and other paradoxes have yet to be fully explored, though several excellent critical studies of Moore appeared in the 1980’s. Also lacking has been a full-fledged biography. What Charles Molesworth has produced is somewhere between straight biography and literary criticism. In part because of limitations placed on him by the Moore estate, in part because of his own sense of his subject, Molesworth focuses on Moore’s work and the development of her thought, yet he also provides valuable biographical context.

In addition to this book Molesworth has published shorter critical studies of Donald Barthelme and Gary Snyder. Barthelme, Snyder, Moore: It would be hard to name three more disparate subjects. This catholicity of taste points to Molesworth’s greatest virtue as a biographer/critic: He takes Moore on her own terms and allows her work to dictate his approach. He doesn’t come to her poems armed with critical jargon. Molesworth’s study has its drawbacks. His sentences are often clumsy and convoluted, and there is evidence of extremely sloppy editing throughout. Nevertheless, anyone interested in Moore will want to read this book. The text is supplemented by photographs, a selected annotated bibliography, very scanty notes, and an index.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. September 23, 1990, p.43.

Chicago Tribune. July 22, 1990, XIV, p.3.

Choice. XXVII, August, 1990, p.2146.

Chronicles. XV, February, 1991, p.22.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, June 1, 1990, p.782.

Library Journal. CXV, June 15, 1990, p.113.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, August 26, 1990, p.8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, July 13, 1990, p.45.

San Francisco Chronicle. August 26, 1990, p. REV8.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, August 19, 1990, p.7.