The Poem

Marriage is relatively long for a non-narrative poem, nearly three hundred lines. The unidentified speaker retains distance from the subject, offering comments as a neutral “one” and as a more personal “I,” but depending throughout on a technique characteristic of Marianne Moore: the interpolation of quotations as part of the poem’s statement. The general tone is of detached, wry observation.

The poem opens with a characterization of marriage as either an institution or an enterprise, followed by a query as to what Adam and Eve would think about it. The speaker then extends the Adam and Eve allusion to describe a generic bride and groom. The Eve-bride is characterized by beauty, accomplishment, and contradiction; she upsets the careful rationality of ordered creation with the disturbance of passion. The story of the snake in the garden of paradise is referred to as a convenient exoneration of Adam. The lengthy description of the Adam-groom begins with a vision of Adam in paradise as if depicted in a highly detailed Persian miniature. The speaker goes on to enumerate the man’s assertive qualities, which can lead him to overlook the potential dangers of women as he maintains a formal pose, speaking with a specious sense of ownership of public accomplishments and external qualities; eventually, he foolishly begins to believe in his own image, satisfied that he has become an “idol.” In the next several lines, he is described as being...

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Forms and Devices

Marianne Moore’s most characteristic poetic device was quotation of passages taken from her wide reading. Marriage makes liberal use of this device, drawing upon many sources for its far-flung allusions. An article in Scientific American, for example, provides an account of a young woman who writes simultaneously in three languages; Marriage incorporates the description into a characterization of the ideal bride as formidably and aggressively accomplished. Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (1857) provides the quotation commending the age of forty-five to seventy as the best time for a man to marry, sentiments ascribed to the fatuous groom in Moore’s poem.

While the sources for her citations are disparate, ranging from scientific reports to women’s magazines to the classics, a significant few recur in this poem. Richard Baxter’s treatise on Christian doctrine and piety, The Saints Everlasting Rest (1649), is the source for four of the passages in Marriage. Baxter was an eighteenth century Puritan, and although she respected him as an authoritative spiritual voice, Moore’s displacement of his words to an alien context might be seen as satirizing her sources. Thus, she makes Baxter’s enumeration of the comprehensiveness of God’s interest in humans (“past states, the present state,” and so forth) into the pompous speech of her self-absorbed, immature Adam-groom. Along with Baxter,...

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