Marianne Moore

’s Life And Career Essay, Research Paper

Elaine Oswald and Robert L. Gale


was born Marianne Craig Moore in Kirkland, Missouri, the daughter of John Milton Moore, a

construction engineer and inventor, and Mary Warner. Moore had an older brother, John

Warner Moore. She never met her father; before her birth his invention of a smokeless

furnace failed, and he had a nervous and mental breakdown and was hospitalized in

Massachusetts. Moore’s mother became a housekeeper for John Riddle Warner, her father, an,

affectionate, well-read Presbyterian pastor in Kirkwood, until his death in 1894. Moore’s

mother, always overly protective, moved with her children briefly to Pittsburgh,

Pennsylvania, and then to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Moore attended the Metzger

Institute (now part of Dickinson College) through high school. In 1905 she entered Bryn

Mawr College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; published nine poems, including "A

Jelly-Fish," in its literary magazines Tipyn O’Bob and the Lantern; and

majored in history, law, and politics, graduating with a B.A. in 1909. Much–perhaps too

much–has been made of Moore’s later casual assertion that laboratory studies in biology

and histology caused her to consider studying medicine; at any rate, one result of such

work was her love of intricately shaped animals and also a lifelong respect for precision

in description. She also expressed a desire to become a painter. After taking secretarial

courses at Carlisle Commercial College (1910-1911), she taught bookkeeping, stenography,

and typing and commercial English and law at the U.S. Industrial Indian School at Carlisle

with admirable success until 1915. One of her students was Jim Thorpe, the famous Native

American athlete.

In the summer of 1911 Moore and her mother traveled in England, Scotland, and France,

and while abroad they visited art museums in Glasgow, Oxford, London, and Paris. In 1915

Moore began to publish poems professionally. Seven poems (including "To the Soul of

‘Progress,’" displaying her early habit of rhyming single-syllable lines,

sometimes spaced apart) appeared in the Egoist, a London bimonthly edited by Hilda

Doolittle (H.D.) and featuring modern imagist poets, whose delicacy and compression she

admired. Four (including "That Harp You Play So Well" about David the psalmist,

and two about Robert Browning and George Bernard Shaw) appeared in Poetry: A Magazine

of Verse (Chicago), which featured innovative writers quickly admired and influential.

And five (including two on William Blake and George Moore) were published in Others, a

magazine Alfred Kreymborg coedited. During these years Moore was reading much avant-garde

poetry and criticism and was beginning to publish subjective reviews and critical essays.

In 1916 Moore moved with her mother from Carlisle to Chatham, New Jersey, to help keep

house for her brother, by then a Yale University graduate and a Presbyterian minister.

When in 1918 he joined the U.S. Navy as a chaplain, Moore and her mother moved to

Manhattan. By this time she was friendly with Kreymborg, photographer Alfred Stieglitz,

and poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams and was also esteemed by H.D., T. S.

Eliot, and Ezra Pound. H.D., with the help of her patron Bryher (Winifred Ellerman), who

was then H.D.’s lover, selected twenty-four of Moore’s poems, many of which had appeared

in the Egoist, and published them in a small book titled Poems (1921)

without her knowledge. From 1921 until 1925 Moore worked part-time in the Hudson Park

branch of the New York City library. Her London book was expanded to include fifty-three

poems and was published in the United States as Observations (1924). In 1924 she

won an award of $2,000 for achievement in poetry given by the Dial, the

distinguished monthly pro-modernist magazine edited and partly financed by wealthy

Scofield Thayer, whom Moore had met in 1918 and who was regularly publishing her verse.

Especially significant in winning the award were three poems. "A Graveyard"

(later called "A Grave") is a Melvillean picture of the ocean, seemingly

inviting but in reality rapacious and devouring. It was Moore’s first poem to be

translated into a foreign language and appeared in Anthologie de la nouvelle po?sie (1928).

Her "New York" criticizes the city for general viciousness (synecdochized as a

fur-trade center) but also praises it as a center for experience-seekers. And "An

Octopus," one of Moore’s most splendid long poems, is a scientifically accurate,

highly colored word picture, with annotated quotations, of Mount Rainier, in Washington

State, which she had climbed in 1920 with a group including her brother.

In 1925 Moore took over from Thayer as editor of the Dial, remaining there until

1929, at which time the journal was discontinued. After this, never marrying, Moore

supported herself by freelance writing and with occasional help from former Dial

backers. In 1929 she and her mother moved to Brooklyn, where Moore remained after her

mother’s death in 1947 and until her own final move back to Manhattan in 1966. Moore’s

years at the Dial were part of a hiatus in her publishing life. But in 1933 she was

awarded the Helen Haire Levinson Prize from Poetry, which gained her national

attention and spurred her to renewed creativity. Her next volume, Selected Poems (1935),

which included several of the fifteen poems she had recently published between 1932 and

1935 in periodicals and anthologies (including "Camillia Sabina" in Active

Anthology, ed. Ezra Pound [1932]), confirmed her position as a leading modernist poet.

T S. Eliot provided a laudatory introduction for the collection, writing in part: "My

conviction … for the last fourteen years … [is] that Miss Moore’s poems form part of

the small body of durable poetry written in our time, of that small body of writings,

among what passes for poetry, in which an original sensibility and alert intelligence and

deep feeling have been engaged in maintaining the life of the English language."

Despite Eliot’s well-founded praise, the book sold poorly, and in 1940 nearly 500 copies

were remaindered at thirty cents apiece.

Some critics feel that from about this time in her career Moore made little progress;

she herself described her artistic development as jerky. In addition, such evolution as

there was seems hard to track because of her habit of revising old poems for

republication, composing new poems–for example, "To Victor Hugo of My Crow

Pluto" (1961) and "To a Giraffe" (1963)–on subjects similar to those of

old efforts, and creating later poems with fresh or at least newly modulated insights–for

example, "Rescue with Yul Brynner" (New Yorker, 20 May 1961), praising

the actor’s relief work for refugee children, and "Baseball and Writing" (New

Yorker, 6 Dec. 1961), celebrating her beloved Yankees but mainly comparing two painful

arts. It is also true that the first version of "Poetry," undoubtedly her

best-known work, first appeared in Others in 1919. Considerably revised, it

contains her arresting dictum that poetry should offer true-to-life toads in gardens of

the imagination. Furthermore, "No Swan So Fine" and "The Jerboa," both

often anthologized, were first published in 1932. "No Swan So Fine" suggests

that a beautiful china swan, symbol of art, has serenely outlasted Louis XV of France, its

cocky whilom owner. "The Jerboa" celebrates the enviable naturalness of the

jerboa, an African jumping rat, interfering with which will curse you.

Moore continued to place poem after poem in reputable periodicals such as the Kenyon

Review, the Nation, the New Republic, and the Partisan Review and

then collect them, and others, in book form–for example, in The Pangolin and Other

Verse (1936), What Are Years? (1941), and Nevertheless (1944).

The title pieces of these books are excellent. "The Pangolin" stunningly equates

the pangolin, a scaly African and Asian ant-eating mammal, with Leonardo da Vinci, both

being alike artists and engineers, and goes on to compare the pangolin’s graceful,

functional form to that of the spruce cone, the artichoke, and Westminster Abbey ironwork.

Moore’s annotations make it clear that while her sources may include direct observation

they are mainly esoteric reading. "What Are Years?"–a stellar lyric–ends by

paradoxically equating a bird’s joyful song with both mortality and eternity. In

"Nevertheless" Moore implicitly praises her own life and creativity when she

images the red of the cherry as the miraculous result of a bit of thread-thin sap. In 1945

she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for creative writing and a year later a $1,000

joint grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of

Arts and Letters. With leisure thus provided, she followed her friend W H. Auden’s

suggestion and began meticulously translating the Fables choisies, mises en vers of

Jean de La Fontaine, whose realistic moral messages and ingenious craftsmanship she had

long admired. The project took too much of Moore’s creative energy for almost a decade and

cost her considerable self-confidence when the first publishing firm to which she

submitted the work rejected it. While laboring over this work, she occasionally conferred

with Pound, then confined to Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. During this

time she also wrote Pound and sent him a little spending money.

The 1950s brought Moore several more awards and growing public recognition, which

thereafter never abated. Her Collected Poems (1951) won the Pulitzer Prize and the

National Book Award in 1952 and the Bollingen Prize in 1953; it sold almost 5,000 copies

by 1952. When she formally accepted the National Book Award, she made the often-quoted

remark that her work is called poetry for lack of any other category to put it in and

added that she was "a happy hack." Her Fables of La Fontaine, after going

through four painstaking drafts, finally appeared in 1954. Although many reviewers praised

her translations, some found fault in them, and the prevailing opinion is that they do not

represent her best poetic accomplishment. The French government, however, was sufficiently

impressed by her Fables to award her the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.

Her critical essays on writers and artists such as Louise Bogan, Jean Cocteau, E. E.

Cummings, Pound, and Anna Pavlova, among many others, are collected in Predilections (1955).

Moore saw Pavlova in November 1921 and wrote H. D. and Bryher (10 Nov. 1921) a long

description as minutely detailed as a five-minute color film. In "Anna Pavlova"

(Dance Index, Mar. 1944) Moore reveals her awareness of the interrelationship of

various art forms when she defines Pavlova’s performance as "flawless" because

"she affectionately informed her technique with poetry." Moore gathered more

poems in Like a Bulwark (1956), O to Be a Dragon (1959), and Tell Me,

Tell Me (1966) and more prose pieces in Idiosyncrasy and Technique (1959) and Poetry

and Criticism (1965).

While Moore was steadily writing during these years, she also emerged as somewhat of a

celebrity. Her tricorn hat and black cape became her personal insignia at public events.

She liked the shape of such hats, she said, because they concealed the defects of her

head, which, she added, resembled that of a hop toad. She was featured in Life

magazine, the New York Times, and the New Yorker and acted as an unofficial

hostess for the mayor of New York. She was even asked by Ford Motor Company officials to

suggest names for a new series of cars. She gamely offered at least nineteen, the worst

being "Magigravue," "Pastelogram," and "Turcotingo," and the

best perhaps including "Chaparral," "Mongoose Civique," and

"Silver Sword." Declining all of her suggestions, Ford chose the name

"Edsel." A climax of a sort came for Moore when, though in poor health, she

tossed out the baseball to open the 1968 season at Yankee Stadium. She once said she would

give much to have invented the admirably intricate stitch pattern of baseballs. Publishing

only six poems after the summer of 1968, Moore suffered a series of strokes, was a

semi-invalid for nearly two years, and died in her New York City home.

Moore has proved to be an engaging puzzle, not only to critics of her time but to later

ones as well. It is seen that her themes broadened to a degree as she matured. In early

works she emphasized a need for discipline and heroic behavior. Later she stressed the

need for spiritual grace and love. To survive, she hinted, one must be alert, disciplined,

and careful. Gradually she moved from scrutinizing one object to comparing several

objects. She delighted in whimsically describing characteristics of animals and athletes,

seeing both organisms as subjects and exemplars of art. Never dogmatic in propounding her

morality, she often distanced herself and remained furtive by attributing declarative

dicta to others and by commenting on quotations and even photographs expressing the point

of view of others. For these reasons, critics have not yet reached a consensus–is she

modern or anachronistic, imagistic or objectivistic? Regardless, Moore tremendously

relished her quietly intense, largely bookish, often convivial life, made memorable to a

host of friends by her rapid-fire talk. She was superb at her chosen craft. Her expression

is notable for deftness and sharpness of detail, linguistic experimentation, and

integration of fresh observation and obscure reading. She teases the reader into looking

at reality with keener vision, as though, like her, seemingly for the very first time;

challenges the reader to accept the relationship of big and little, animate and inanimate,

ideal and object; and invites the reader to note, and practice, the power of words. To

those who complained that her poetry often seemed obscure, she once replied that something

that was work to write ought to be work to read. Her life displayed and her writings

expressed the virtues of courage, loyalty, patience, modesty, spontaneity, and


Most of Moore’s manuscripts, letters, notebooks, and diaries are in the Rosenbach

Foundation in Philadelphia, Pa. Other repositories are the Humanities Research Center of

the University of Texas, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University,

and the Newberry Library in Chicago, Ill. Collections of her writings are A Marianne

Moore Reader (1961), The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (1967; rev. ed.,

1981), and The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, ed. Patricia C. Willis

(1986); although neither of the last two books is "complete," both are

generously representative. Craig Stevens Abbott, Marianne Moore: A Descriptive

Bibliography (1977), and his Marianne Moore: A Reference Guide (1987), list,

respectively, primary and secondary material. Margaret Holley, The Poetry of Marianne

Moore: A Study in Voice and Value (1987), includes a chronology of Moore’s published

poems, pp. 195-202. The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, ed. Bonnie Costello et

al. (1997), reveals much personal information. Charles Molesworth, Marianne Moore: A

Literary Life (1990), is an illuminating biography. The following discuss Moore’s

professional friendships: Celeste Goodridge, Hints and Disguises: Marianne Moore and

Her Contemporaries (1989); Joan Feit Diehl, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore:

The Psychodynamics of Creativity (1993); and Robin G. Schulze, The Web of

Friendship: Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens (1995). The following analyze Moore’s

subjects, themes, and techniques: Donald Hall, Marianne Moore: The Cage and the Animal (1970);

Pamela White Hadas, Marianne Moore: Poet of Affection (1977); Taffy Martin, Marianne

Moore: Subversive Modernist (1986); John M. Slatin, The Savage’s Romance:

The Poetry of Marianne Moore (1986); Darlene Williams Erickson, Illusion Is More

Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore (1992); and Linda Leavell, Marianne

Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color (1995). Bernard F. Engel, Marianne Moore,

rev. ed. (1989), valuable throughout, is especially admirable in treating Moore’s Fables

of La Fontaine; Elizabeth Phillips, Marianne Moore (1982), also fine

throughout, explicates "An Octopus" especially well. Numerous critical essays on

Moore are collected in Charles Tomlinson, ed., Marianne Moore: A Collection of Critical

Essays (1969); Harold Bloom, ed., Marianne Moore (1987); and Joseph Parisi,

ed., Marianne Moore: The Art of a Modernist (1990). An obituary, beginning on the

front page and with two photographs, is in the New York Times, 6 Feb. 1972.


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