Marriage (Poem)

Marriage (Poem) Summary and Analysis of "Marriage"


Moore begins by wondering what Adam and Eve would think about the institution—rather, the “enterprise”—of marriage. It is essentially a public promise to perform a private obligation, symbolized by a bright, round ring and concerned with adherence to its rules. Psychology cannot help us figure any of this out.

Eve is a beautiful, seemingly quite modern woman, who writes in three languages (French, German, and English) and can talk while doing so. She demands both commotion and quiet. A visitor, most likely Adam, suggests to her that while he knows she likes to be alone, they ought to be “alone together.”

The stars and fruit radiate a destructive beauty; growing consciousness of this beauty is like a "poison." As Eve contemplates marriage—the first ever—her heart rises in “its estate of peace / as a boat rises /with the rising of the water.” As for the Fall, this “invaluable accident” is not just Eve’s fault; yet Adam is exonerated.

Adam is beautiful too, but he is “distressing.” He is like a “crouching mythological monster” and is full of formal words. He talks on and on of evil and good, hell and heaven, history, and more; he is pleased that he is now an idol. However, the silences of the nightingale bother him, and the allure of the shiny apple is more powerful than the “deformity” of the Earth itself.

Hymen, the god of marriage, is unhelpful; he is more like an “overgrown cupid” and has rendered marriage lavish and full of ways out but not in. He mentions Hercules grasping for the Hesperides apples and calls marriage a “fine art,” an “experiment,” a “duty,” and even “recreation.” One must make way for it, aware that the spiked hand will show affection even if it has to cut to the bone. Marriage wants us to see impatience as part of independence, not bondage.

A few observations on married people: they look a certain way, they are up and down, their days good and bad. As Occidentals, Moore writes, we lose our selves and are unemotional. It is also our experience that men in particular have power and “sometimes one is made to feel it.”

A dialogue between “He” and “She” (most likely Adam and Eve) commences. He says he is proud to have a wife whose hair is like a shaving brush, and that the essence of a woman is poison. She says men love to collect shiny things but should not be guardians of another’s happiness. He says to handle mummies carefully and that a wife can be a “coffin,” because she refuses to be buried and is disappointing in the way an adoring child is to their remarkable parent. She says that she wonders what to do with the butterfly that landed on her hand and plans to settle there for life. There must have been more time for plays in Shakespeare's time; many artists are fools. He says that there are a lot of fools who are not artists.

He loves himself so much that he cannot allow himself to love anyone else that much because they would get in the way. She too loves herself, and to the extent that she cannot truly see herself. She is just a “logical touch” to his collection, a payment for work well done.

What, then, Moore asks, should be done for these people who attempt to convince others to enter into this “silly task / of making people noble?” There is the wife who leaves her husband because she has seen enough of his face, and an “orator” telling someone to command him. Love is a mystery and takes great effort to investigate. A good marriage is rare; mostly they are made up of opposites “opposed each to the other, not to unity,” stuck in a situation of “cycloid inclusiveness.” This situation is worse than Columbus smashing the egg or the wind of Euroclydon.

A speaker is quoted as saying that their sorrows last all day, and they are not one of the people who has a sorrow in the morning and joy in the afternoon.

The “archaic” statesman Daniel Webster said, “‘Liberty and union / now and forever.’” The Book is on the writing table and the hand is in the breast pocket.


A difficult but immensely fascinating poem, “Marriage” demands a lengthy and thorough discussion of the many allusions and quotes Moore used in order to form her work. We will move in a linear fashion through the poem and identify these sources along with the larger themes and possible meanings.

The first twenty lines consist of Moore’s introduction to the subject of her poem—marriage, and why there needs to be a public promise for a private obligation. She refers to the institution as an “enterprise,” which makes it sound like a business, something utilitarian and anonymous rather than passionate and personal. “Institution,” though, is not without its own problematic connotations. As critic David Bergman notes, because marriage is an institution “it escapes critical scrutiny. Institutions become articles of social faith…’the world’ itself blindly to wedlock. Even when the world recognizes that matrimony is painful and destructive, it takes pride in its heroic sacrifice.” Moore then references the earliest couple in (Christian) history, Adam and Eve, wondering what they’d think of marriage; later in the poem, their Fall in the Garden of Eden will be mirrored by the demise of their marriage.

Francis Bacon is Moore’s first quote; his lines of “circular traditions and impostures, / committing many spoils,” which in his own day were about knowledge, are now used to expatiate on the idea of the wedding ring as a symbol of the commitment between man and woman. Harold Bloom wonders if this allusion implies a “secular ethos” and evokes the “impostures” of courtship and rituals. The science of psychology (is this a dig at Freud?) fails to explain why people act the way they do in matters of love and marriage, though it is upheld as an authority on human behavior.

Lines 21-60 describe Eve. Eve is an alluring, independent, complex woman who writes three languages while speaking at the same time; she likes both commotion and quiet and seems reluctantly to give in to Adam, when asks to “be alone together.” Moore then segues into an evocation of the Garden, and the growing passion between Adam and Eve in some of the poem’s loveliest lines -”Below the incandescent stars / below the incandescent fruit, / the strange experience of beauty.” Eve thinks about marriage, the “first crystal-fine experiment,” and is initially excited. However, the serpent soon entices her and she eats from the Tree of Good and Evil, sealing the couple’s fate. Importantly, Moore does not let Adam off the hook although history has.

Lines 61-129 turn to Adam, who is also beautiful but in a “distressing” way. Many critics have commented on Moore’s more cynical and dismissive account of her masculine subject. Indeed, he is described by Moore as a “crouching mythological monster” and, quoting Philip Littell’s review of George Santayana in which Littell expressed his discomfort with and near-distaste for the poet, as “something feline, / something colubrine.” Critic Elisabeth Joyce sees these words as a “sort of denigration of male power” because “feline” is usually used for women. Adam is unnerved by the silences of the nightingale, a reference to Edward Thomas’s Feminine Influence on the Poets in which Thomas describes King James I’s poem “The Kingis Quair.” The poem concerns love at first sight, but here the lines seem to express Adam’s frustrations that Eve, his bird, will not sing. As for Adam, he loves to speak and does so at length (the lines about “past states, the present state” here reference the American Puritanical writer Richard Baxter); he also enjoys the fact that he has become an “idol.” He is clearly self-absorbed and is delusional that marriage, essentially flawed, can solve problems—“the illusion of a fire / effectual to extinguish fire.” Finally, Moore quotes William Godwin, an avowed foe of the institution (though married to Mary Wollstonecraft), stating that marriage is “a very trivial object indeed.” Due to his self-absorption, Adam ultimately “stumbles over marriage.”

In lines 130-193, Moore picks up her analysis of the inherent problems with marriage. She lambasts the Greek god of marriage, Hymen, calling him a “kind of overgrown cupid / reduced to insignificance / by the mechanical advertising parading as involuntary comment.” She refers to marriage as nothing more than a ritual. Following this she includes a few lines from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers regarding Hercules climbing the trees for the apple of Hesperides. She slightly alters them to elide Trollope’s cynicism and make passion seem absurd, and its concomitant of marriage as simply “a fine art, as an experiment, / a duty or as merely recreation.” The word choices of “friction,” “calamity,” and “tooth of disputation” also suggest unceasing conflict and a dearth of emotional intimacy; while the marriage ceremony is depicted as full of lovely flora and fauna, marriage itself is not.

Moore then returns to woman, here embodied by Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt. She was sometimes identified with Hecate, the goddess of the darkness of the lower world, and was occasionally said to have been honored by a cult of votaries dressed as bears. The lines of “black obsidian Diana / who ‘darkeneth her countenance / as a bear doth’” refer to this myth, but, to complicate the lines, actually come from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus in which the writer, Jesus son of Sirach, labeled women’s wickedness as the highest of evil. Critic Darlene Williams Erickson suggests that in this reference Moore “wishes to remind the reader that some cultures have found women innately vile. This intersection of voices seems to be suggesting that one should not be surprised to find that some women will always be impatient with such characterization and the bondage it allows; some have a flair for independence.” This set of lines ends with an excerpt from the painter C. Bertram Hartmann commenting on the vicissitudes of the lives of married people as well as a biblical reference to King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus was the husband of Esther and dragged his feet on punishing the evil Haman, thus leaving the punishment to Esther. The lines: “ladies in their imperious humility / are ready to receive you,” written by Comtesse de Noailles, shift the scene to the life of a contemporary married woman. The sense is of a contentious social scene but also an attempt to counteract the very verbal power of men.

Lines 194-230 contain one of the most famous sections of the poem -the dialogue between Adam and Eve, identified as “He” and “She.” Adam begins, quoting Mary Francis Nearing’s parody The Rape of the Lock in lines about how men feel pride in having a beautiful wife and quoting A. Mitram Rihbany’s The Syrian Christ, a work in which the author speaks about the need for a silent wife. Eve interjects and calls men “monopolists” and depicts the disparity of social power between the genders. Adam retorts by calling women “mummies,” which Bloom says shows woman as “an embalmed figure, already dead, the leftovers presumably of a sexual conquest, or another form of consumption of identity via the male predator.” Moore takes lines from Ezra Pound—”a wife is a coffin”—and intimates how women become like disappointing children to their husbands. The acrimony continues with Eve’s musing about what is to be done with this marriage, using lines from Charles Reade’s novel Christie Johnstone that suggest men are delicate, useless, and narcissistic as butterflies. Adam gets one final retort in, and the dialogue ceases. Joyce discusses this dialogue in her article on the poem, referencing other scholars’ comments on the dialectical relationship between the work and the world as well as how that fits within the aesthetic context of the collage (the poem’s form, which we will discuss momentarily). She continues, “The quotations create a reverberation between the intent and context, the original words and the new meaning they acquire by being placed in radically different surroundings. In this way Moore is able to ‘subvert’ tradition, both formally and institutionally...In fact, her use of this technique constitutes an adaptation of the Socratic method of refuting all sides of an argument. Dialogue allows Moore to remove herself from the context of the poem so that the critique of marriage implicit in the poem does not reflect on the poet.”

The bitter dialogue ends and in the remainder of the poem Moore returns to her ruminations. She uses Edmund Burke’s words “some merely have rights / while some have obligations,” which referred to Europeans’ superiority and obligations to preside over its colonies, in order to suggest how men preside over their wives. Both Adam and Eve, though, are filled with self-love and have little to give the other. Moore expresses her disgust and frustrations with these “savages” urging others to undertake this “silly task” with its false message of ennoblement. Marriage makes people bored of each other; true partnerships are almost impossible to achieve because, in the words of F.C. Tilney’s translation of the Original Fables of La Fontaine, “Everything to do with love is mystery.” She refers to the story of Christopher Columbus who when asked to make an egg stand on end broke it instead; this, along with the allusion to Euroclydon, the wind that destroyed Paul’s boat but saved the lives of the men, “[illustrates] the necessity of sacrifice if the marriage is to succeed” (Bloom).

The lines regarding sorrow do not have a specific derivation, but may perhaps be influenced by Psalms 30:5, which read “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (New International Version). They suggest the pain marriage causes and how it cannot be easily alleviated.

The very last lines of the poem deal with Daniel Webster, who famously said “Liberty and union / now and forever.” In her notes Moore described how she was skating in Central Park and came across a statue of Daniel Webster on which was etched his well-known words. She takes out part of them, though—“Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable”—to make the phrase seem essentially impossible as a marriage of opposites. Furthermore, as critics Lynne Keller and Christanna Miller note, in his oratory supporting a compromise between North and South in 1850, Webster was advocating for liberty for all except slaves. He seems to be another arrogant, hypocritical male figure who loves to speak but tramples over those whom he considers lesser beings. The Euroclydon, that entity of “frightening disinterestedness,” speaks these last words, which bring the poem to an ambiguous, if not negative, end. Critic Taffy Martin comments, “One can claim to be attempting liberty and union, but the combination is a farce. A book on a writing table may block as many thoughts as it inspires, and if the capitalization in ‘Book’ signifies the Bible, a book Marianne Moore certainly knew well, the passive image is even more damaging. A hand in the breast pocket cannot offer to shake another nor can it signal any other traditional pledge of disarmament. The posture is unequivocally closed and defensive. The institution has been dismissed. The issue is closed.” William Carlos Williams’s assessment of the poem rings true: “Of marriage there is no solution in the poem and no attempt at solution.”

There are a few final things to note before concluding this analysis. The first is the oft-discussed collage technique Moore used in this poem. Not only was she aware of T.S. Eliot’s famed “Wasteland,” also a poem using collage, she was familiar with the work of modernist Cubist and Dada artists. She cut out six articles about the 1913 Armory Show and pasted them in her scrapbook, prefiguring her collage poem of a decade later. “Marriage” is in free verse, full of allusions assembled without a center; it is an amalgam of speakers, subjects, types of texts, and tones. As critic Elizabeth Phillips writes, “the collage becomes appropriately witty for the subject of marriage, its tensions, disharmonies, and irreconcilables.” Bloom agrees, saying Moore ultimately chose the form “because it is the most public of forms, creating the cacophony one hears about marriage, its form ranging from the self-absorbed modern man, to the petty bickering of Adam and Eve, to the Biblical commentary.” Other critics have noted its almost choral texture, while still others have discussed how the collage technique allows Moore to get away from the poet-as-authority-figure, a goal of modernist poetry. Joyce notes, “By resorting to college, with its rejection of traditional mimetic art forms, Moore was able to register her criticisms of the social institution without risking direct confrontation with cultural standards.”

The second is the almost unabashedly feminist perspective. Moore acknowledges that the man and woman are both self-absorbed, but has the man, Adam, come across as more arrogant, tedious, ignorant, and oppressive. Eve comes first in the poem, has impressive linguistic abilities of her own, and has a harder fight ahead of her. Moore undercuts the man, subtly criticizing him. In multiple instances she remarks how much he likes to talk but how bombastic and empty much of that speech is. However, Moore is very aware that women seek out marriage (after all, this poem may have been written to sort through her feelings about her friend Bryher Ellerman's loveless marriage). She does not have much sympathy for either men or women engaging in this complicated and contentious institution.

Ultimately, what do we conclude about this beautifully incisive, provocative poem? As Erickson writes, we need to be okay with the fact that perhaps the poem does not have any single moral "lesson": “It is instead a conversation, a comprehensive dialectic based upon some of the greatest myths, motifs, symbols, visions, and commentaries on the subject of marriage. It passes no judgment, solves no problems. If, as Doris Lessing has said, people are ‘hungry for answers, not hungry for ways of thinking toward problems,’ they will be disappointed. If they are willing to search for truths in the interstices, in the intersections of loci, they will learn a great deal from Moore's ‘little anthology of phrases [she] did not want to lose.’”