The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

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...

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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 overcome with passion, against which his rational qualities are helpless, eventually “stumbling” over marriage, which will prove his (literal) downfall.

At this point, the speaker intervenes with a commentary on “Unhelpfuwl Hymen,” the classical god of marriage, characterizing the social institution as a lavish, artificial attempt to re-create lost paradisiacal bliss. The following fifty lines of the poem offer comments on the superficial outward forms of marriage in polite society, with teas, banquets, and social rituals, contrasted with the passionate and even violent reality underneath, in which assault may be called affection and male power may be asserted arbitrarily and destructively.

The next fifty lines offer alternating commentary from the two partners. The man criticizes women for disappointing men by not always being beautiful; the woman accuses men of being obsessed with trivia. He retorts with a characterization of woman as nothing but a deceptive vessel (a coffin at that), and she replies that men’s affections are shallow and inconstant. She accuses him of knowing “so many artists who are fools”; he shoots back that she surrounds herself with “so many fools/ who are not artists.” Both individuals are absorbed in self-love: He is oblivious to the existence of other people, and she focuses narcissistically on her appearance. The speaker of the poem then intervenes with another question, asking what can be done for these “savages,” and continues the commentary on the mystery of love and commitment, so impenetrable as to seem unreal. A successful marriage as a true union of opposites is rare, the speaker goes on to say; it is a matter of deceptive simplicity and a profound enigma. In the closing lines of the poem, the speaker tries to sum up the essential paradox of a successful marriage in the lines of Daniel Webster, “Liberty and union, now and forever,” and offers an emblem of this union in a cryptic allusion to the cliché of the wedding portrait.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

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, the Bible is quoted more than once (Ecclesiastes and Amos), which with the pervasive allusion to the biblical myth of Adam and Eve sets the poet’s meditation on marriage firmly within the western Judeo-Christian tradition. The tradition itself, however, forms an object of satire as the poem’s speaker pokes fun at this central institution. Also, Moore draws on more varied and secular sources, which counterpoint the religious sources: William Godwin(agnostic philosopher) and M. Carey Thomas (feminist educator) also provide citations, as do William Hazlitt and Francis Bacon.

Moore’s method of developing her argument in Marriage is highly allusive and associational. The reader is expected to absorb allusions to Adam and Eve, Hymen, Ahasuerus (the so-called Wandering Jew of European folklore), the garden of the Hesperides (where the golden apples of Greek myth grew), William Shakespeare and a quotation from his play The Tempest (1611), and the nineteenth century American senator Daniel Webster. The associations surrounding these allusions, like the focus on a wedding masque in The Tempest in which the goddess Hymen appears, are expected to become part of the radiating meanings of the poem. The method also combines extremely abstract and analytic language with an intense pictorial sense. The narcissistic bride, for example, sees herself as “a statuette of ivory on ivory,” a highly vivid image conveying the illusive fragility, purity, subtlety, and value of the art object. The icon of bride-as-statuette is followed by a sententiously precise abstract motto: “one is not rich but poor/ when one can always seem so right.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 125

Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

Joyce, Elisabeth W. Cultural Critique and Abstraction: Marianne Moore and the Avant-Garde. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1998.

Miller, Christine. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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

Stamy, Cynthia. Marianne Moore and China: Orientalism and a Writing of America. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. 1978. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Tomlinson, Charles, ed. Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Willis, Patricia C., ed. Marianne Moore. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.

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