Marianne Moore Moore, Marianne (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

One of America's foremost literary figures, Moore has been considered by feminist critics to be a singular and important female poetic voice. She is known for creating verse characterized by loose rhythms, carefully chosen words, close attention to descriptive detail, and acute observation of human character. Her poems often reflect her preoccupation with the relationships between the common and the uncommon; advocate discipline in both art and life; and espouse virtues of restraint, modesty, and humor. She frequently used animals as a central image to emphasize themes of independence, honesty, and the integration of art and nature. Although some critics consider much of her poetry overly affected and her subject matter inconsequential, Moore has been praised as an important poetic voice by such outstanding literary figures as T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Hilda Doolittle, and Ezra Pound.


Moore was born November 15, 1887, in Kirkwood, Missouri. She attended Bryn Mawr College, where she published her early poetry in the campus literary magazine, and received a degree in biology and histology in 1909. At Bryn Mawr, Moore established an enduring friendship with Doolittle as well as with Williams, Pound, and Eliot, to whom her work would later be compared. From 1911 to 1915 Moore taught stenography at the U.S. Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1915 her poems began to appear in such respected literary periodicals as the Egoist, Others, and Poetry; her first volume, Poems (1921), includes many of these early pieces. Moore moved with her mother to Greenwich Village in New York City in 1918, and worked as an assistant at the New York Public Library branch in Hudson from 1921 to 1925. In 1925 she became editor of the Dial, a position she retained until the magazine ceased publication in 1929. Her experiences with the Dial brought her into contact with many of the noted literati of the time and helped advance her international reputation. In 1951 her Collected Poems (1951) was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and a National Book Award, awards which brought her more widespread recognition outside the literary world. Moore died February 5, 1972.


Much of Moore's early verse is marked by stylistic originality, unique subject matter, and unconventional humor. Such poems as "Critics and Connoisseurs" and "Poetry" reflect Moore's concerns with literature and art. One of Moore's best-known pieces, "Marriage," is a long experimental work written in free verse that features collage-like assemblages of quotations and fragments. In this poem, Moore employs wit and satire to comment on the tensions of marital coexistence. Critics have noted the distant, often sexless perspective not only of "Marriage," but of all Moore's work.

The content of Moore's first book, Poems, was arranged by Doolittle and others; however, Moore chose the poems in her second volume, Observations (1924), to represent the variety of her themes and forms. Observations includes a scrupulously described exploration of the flora and fauna of Washington state's Mount Rainier in the poem "An Octopus." The poem derived its name from the shape of the glacier that surrounds the mountain peak, and it is often regarded as one of the twentieth century's great odes to nature.

Among Moore's other volumes are The Pangolin and Other Verse (1936), which reflects her interest in animals as subjects for art; What Are Years (1941), which combines poems from The Pangolin with several previously uncollected works; and Nevertheless (1944), which captures Moore at perhaps her most impassioned. One of her later poems, "In Distrust of Merits," details Moore's condemnation of the atrocities of war. This poem was singled out by W. H. Auden as the best poem to emerge in reaction to World War II, and the poem remains highly regarded and widely discussed. Publication of The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967) prompted poet John Ashbery to predict that Moore's work would "continue to be read as poetry when much of the major poetry of our time has become part of the history of literature."


Moore has been the subject of much feminist criticism. Some critics regard her work as an example of a strong female voice, as demonstrated by specific elements of her poetry in addition to her prominence in literary society. A few critics have contended that Moore emerged as an important poet because she denied femininity and sexuality in her work. Other critics fault Moore for this denial, claiming that her disregard for such central subjects as gender and sexuality reinforces the limitations society places on women. In the latter part of her life, Moore's literary contributions were recognized with a host of awards and honors, including the Poetry Society of America's Gold Medal for Distinguished Development, the National Medal for Literature, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. In the twenty-first century, noted poets and commentators continue to praise Moore's verse, hailing the poet as one of the most important in modern literature.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Poems (poetry) 1921

Observations (poetry) 1924

Selected Poems (poetry) 1935

The Pangolin and Other Verse (poetry) 1936

What Are Years (poetry) 1941

Nevertheless (poetry) 1944

Collected Poems (poetry) 1951

The Fables of La Fontaine (translation) 1954

Predilections (essays and criticism) 1955

Like a Bulwark (poetry) 1956

O to Be a Dragon (poetry) 1959

A Marianne Moore Reader (poems and prose) 1961

The Absentee (play) 1962

The Arctic Ox (poetry) 1964

Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (poetry and prose) 1966

The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (poetry) 1967; also published as The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore [revised edition], 1981

The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (prose) 1986

The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore [edited by Bonnie Costello] (letters) 1997

Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924 (poetry) 2002

The Poems of Marianne Moore [edited by Grace Shulman] (poetry) 2004

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Moore, Marianne. The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, edited by Bonnie Costello, pp. 63-6, 175-79. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

In the following letters, written in 1909 and 1921, Moore discusses her thoughts on the suffragist movement and the institution of marriage.

To Mary Warner Moore and John Warner Moore

FEB[RUARY] 14, 1909

Dear Family,

I hate to think of your taking so hard, my anxieties. To think I could ever come so near the ragged brink though and miss it, makes me squirm. I find I did not have to get Merit in Philosophy. I merely had to get half 15 hours, but of course with persistent drawing of Passeds, it's very pleasant to have 10 hours. Mary Allen has 2 too few and Hilda S.-S. failed Philosophy (pretty badly), so there has been a general slaughter. Hilda will get her degree of course, for she can take the exam. at Easter.

Elsie failed English Comp.—(technically. Her critical papers are passed)—so she feels very sore but she got H.C. in one Mathematics and in Latin Comp.—and is so "proud of her High Credits," I feel they should salve her pain. She says not infrequently, "I'm pretty proud of my High Credits. Wouldn't you be?" I said I think I would and that I think I'll go in for one in Philosophy in June, ([J. M.] Barrie like).

I have a verse of not very high character which is coming out in The Lantern. I gave it to Tip. But Ruth George wrested it away to my ineffable joy.

Ennui I call it—
He often expressed
A curious wish
To be interchangeably
Man and fish
To nibble the bait
Off the hook said he
And then slip away
Like a ghost in the sea.

I am not proud of it, but I like the rhythm and I intend to try, till I do write something. (I intend to try too for H.C. in Philosophy and in Daddy.)1

These sporadic poems I don't work over, (though my stories I do), so I smile, (as if I had found a penny) when people tell me how they like them and talk about writing poetry and so on as if it were gymnastics or piano practice.

Miss Shaw spoke last night on the Modern Democratic ideal. I couldn't say how she delighted me. No decent, half-kind, creature could possibly think of fighting suffrage if he or it had heard her arguments. They hold water so that they stand repeating, too. Elsie didn't go, so I gave her an extract today, (we went walking)—and she is "on the fence." (Flourish of trumpets.) I said when Elsie said for the 12th time she didn't see what difference voting would make in "making people better," I said, if you want to oppose women's voting I said, you merely say you are willing to tramp over people's bodies to get all these luxuries you take so calmly. I said, "if women are going to support children and perhaps unproductive adults they ought to have as much pay as men and ought to work eight hours if men work eight hours, and not work ten." I delivered a cruel flow on the score of men. I said the men are all that keep you respectable. Just because they don't choose to grind women down more than women are ground down, is not the fault of the women. I said, (Educated!) women say, men give us every thing we want why try to get the ballot. I said, "the men give you what you want because they are a high grade of animal. The clothes of every woman in N.Y. a few years ago, belonged to her husband, no widow could legally be buried in the state—a widow inherited ⅔ of her husband's property—(during her life). The cemetery lot came in the property, so the woman had ⅔ of the cemetery lot during her lifetime and to get any use out of it would have to be buried before she was dead." Elsie laughed quizzically. I said also that the eight hour day was all a question of the ballot. Elsie said she didn't see how it could be. I said, "well, in Colorado, the men had an eight hour day, the women, a ten hour day, the women got an eight hour day because they put a bill in as voters (for state legislature). In N.Y. they did not." The philanthropy argument I think was Miss Shaw's best. But I think Elsie "tried not to pay attention"—and didn't see what I was talking about—the idea that if you prevent all babies from drinking infected milk, you do more good than if you solicit money and supply 200 with Pasteurized milk. Miss Shaw said, people were bringing up the argument that women would neglect charity (Dr. Lyman Abbott)2 the idea of the ballot being to obviate the necessity of charity. She quashed the unladylike argument and the time argument. She said the ladies of Colorado get a bill through in one year and the ladies of N.Y. take a trip up the Hudson every year for seven years and don't get a bill passed then. She said the legislative measures were often more ethical than partisan and that feminine women oughtn't to feel too ignorant to care what happened. The point about the industrial school I thought squashing but Elsie did not. That you can't tell girls to stay at home when the girls who are fit to stay at home are a million in three and the girls that need to stay at home or get positions as housemaids have run on the streets all their lives and don't know what clean beds are or what cooking utensils look like. I wasn't as rabid as I sound here, but I was pretty bulldoggy. I said "of course woman suffrage doesn't mean much to you, because you're petted and have money lavished on you and you wouldn't think what a slum looks like and wouldn't think of touching an infected horse-hide or dangerous machinery for anything, but a lot of girls that haven't quite your chances could see why it might help some." Elsie said, "Did you see that bunch of flowers Glady Spry had on?" and I could have beat her with a book. But my words sank in, as someone asked Elsie in my presence later what she thought of woman suffrage and she said, "I can't decide."

Pres. Thomas had us at the Deanery after the lecture (the Suffrage Society) and I was struck dumb, the place is so beautiful. It's more educational than an art course. It rambles a little and there is a narrow passage I don't like, but the whole, is an Elysian garden. The reception hall, is a big square place with a tiled floor and gold (burlap!) on the walls and a hammered brass ceiling of which little shows for heavy brown beams go across—and sparsely filled with antique, capacious chairs, inlaid with gilded legs. The bedrooms upstairs are indescribable. The one I left my wraps in had a punctured bed, square, Indian brass (square posts and low head and foot boards) with a pale silk spread (embroidered flat) across it. The bathroom adjoining is a square room, size of my college room, mosaic floor, white tiled walls. All the ceilings through the house are stenciled, the lamps—Favrile glass—and the woodwork the color of the walls. In Pres. T's study the walls are blue and the window frames blue and the chandelier a bunch of (five) pale pepper shaped, conical lobes, greenish yellow. The Dean came in as we were looking at it, (standing in the doorway, Sh. Warner and Mabel Ashley and some Freshman and I) and said, "I think we shall have it done and have the curtains up, by the time of the Senior reception—the first after Easter." This room was adjacent to the "salon" so it was suitable we should be there, (we were encouraged moreover to circulate). I did the talking about the stone in the gymnasium, the stain on the wood, the gargoyles in the cloister and dozens of kindred topics. The Dean was more charming than I've ever known her. The way she has worked too for the gym. excites my admiration. Hours she worked every day in the hottest part of the summer, on the plans, Miss Lawther says. She said finally, "Now, won't you have some lemonade, nuts, cakes (in the dining-room). See how you like our grape-juice lemonade." The grape-juice lemonade, nuts, cakes and candy were fine, a tinge of Deanery luxury. The old pieces of furniture decorated with brass and the electric lamps and the windows and rugs and the piano—and red patterned East Indian cover made me gasp. My suffrage experiences in New York hearing Mr. Zueblin stood me in good stead—(he is very well known and apparently universally liked) as I first shook hands, for I feel the ice thin at any party when I have to bow and grin and go and haven't time to get into a mellow conversation.

In the middle narrow passage I speak of there are low dark bookcases on which were various pieces of rainbow peacock glass. In the middle room (centre) from which opened the salon, and the office and the narrow hall was a table (low) but square with all the periodicals neatly arranged in columns and here and there on other tables, upstairs were odd modern books, Nonsense verses etc. The servants were masters—at their tasks—neat, very tall, very sagacious—the maids obsequious and busy, (upstairs). I smiled with satisfaction at the whole affair.

Today I went to church—took a walk with Elsie (after dinner) went to the Musseys', (with Elsie) and am now going to bed—10:15. Elsie is provoked with me because I didn't introduce her round, at the Musseys'. But I introduced her to Mrs. Mussey and after the spiel made a dart for the man to ask him a question which right Elsie had also as none of us knew him. Dr. de Laguna was there and I nosed out a seat near him on the sofa, (next to him) and of course left him to speak to Mr. Meeker afterward so I don't think Elsie has really a casus belli. Besides she had 3 years in which to make his acquaintance. Mr. Meeker was very delightful, had a drawl and a shy very humorous way of saying things. But I think Dr. Mussey beats them all. He is sound as a bell. He is crude occasionally, he is so much in earnest, but his clean way of looking at things and his energetic openminded broad-minded face is enough to set you housecleaning yourself. He looks like an inspired fieldhand very square and homespun with respect to ties and shoes. He is the finest type of social evangelism I've seen. He told a funny story (informally). He said a boy was telling about his brothers who had learned to play...

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Tess Gallagher (Essay Date 1985)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Gallagher, Tess. "Throwing the Scarecrows from the Garden." Parnassus 12, no. 2 (1985): 45-60.

In the following essay, Gallagher outlines and counters the negative critical reaction—particularly from feminist commentators—to Moore's poetry.

In 1970 when I began to read Marianne Moore in a class with the poet Jean Garrigue, I was determined not to like Moore's poems. But they were on the menu and I allowed my nose to be pressed into the plate—not by Ms. Garrigue, who was the gentlest of teachers, but by the poems themselves. I resented what I took to be their holier-than-thou, near...

(The entire section is 6076 words.)

Charles Altieri (Essay Date Summer 1988)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Altieri, Charles. "The Powers of Genuine Place: Moore's Feminist Modernism." Southern Humanities Review 22, no. 3 (summer 1988): 205-22.

In the following essay, Altieri explores the ways in which Moore's gender influenced her modernist verse.

Perhaps nothing captures the fundamental values projected by Modernist American poetry better than William Carlos Williams's image of the "artist figure of / the farmer—composing/—antagonist" who

in deep thought
is pacing through the rain
among his blank fields, with
hands in pockets,
in his head

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Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)



SOURCE: Henderson, Bruce. "The 'Eternal Eve' and 'The Newly Born Woman': Voices, Performance, and Marianne Moore's 'Marriage'." In Images of the Self as Female: The Achievement of Women Artists in Reenvisioning Feminine Identity, edited by Kathryn N. Benzel and Lauren Pringle De La Vars, pp. 119-33. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.

In the following essay, Henderson considers "Marriage" to be "the most complicated treatment by Moore of issues typically associated with the lives of women as...

(The entire section is 5263 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Abbott, Craig S. Marianne Moore: A Descriptive Bibliography, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977, 265 p.

Lists primary and secondary material on Moore through 1975.

Willis, Patricia, ed.. Marianne Moore, Woman and Poet. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1990, 636 p.

Extensive bibliography of Moore with critical essays included.


Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore: A Literary Life. New York: Atheneum, 1990, 472...

(The entire section is 813 words.)