Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry


The poem endeavors to examine how choice modifies pre-defined boundaries. The  opening and concluding interrogative statements anchor the poem  and allow the relationship of author and reader to become more fluid. The reader’s role in the poem, constantly being given a position of power, demonstrates a larger conceit of the poem–that choice begets more opportunities for choice. To attend an institution like Bryn Mawr in the time that Moore did, was as a female the ability to have options, despite societal pressures.  The poem presents this in a multitude of ways. First, by it’s structure, at it’s base, consisting of two interrogative statements. Both are a repetition of the same question–”Lady or tiger-lily?” The “or” construction forces a choice but also emphasizes it.

The question itself alludes to a story by Frank Stockton “The Lady or the Tiger.” In the story, the lover must choose between two doors, behind one is his lady love, behind the other is a tiger. The end leaves the reader to decide which door the man picked. Moore borrows that structure, inviting the reader to decide. But Moore does have a specific reader in mind, her “Cup-bearer.” This distinction is necessary, because it is a woman, educated at Bryn Mawr, who would be able to make this choice in the spirit that Moore suggests. Moore purposefully reclaims a male dominated narrative in the context of her poem. By revising Stockton’s question to become “lady or the tiger-lily,” we step outside the male narrative that Stockton created and are reframed in a female one. By placing the narrator in the position of the male perspective, Stockton’s story equates masculinity with choice. By being given the choice as a female reader, we then must assume a newly created female identity. Moore’s allusion to this story, especially knowing it is referring to a tradition at an all-female college, uses gender to complicate the choice.

The repetition of the question in the poem, “A lady or a tiger, Can you /come tell me which” creates a mimesis of the cyclical structure of female tradition. In focusing the attention on the question, we as readers are made aware that even as the perspective changes with time, the basic inquiry remains the same. The question becomes the heart of the poem which solidly grounds it as the speaker transforms and time leaps backward and forward. The question becomes representative of tradition. Tradition is based on a foundational truth or sentiment which becomes timeless. Reflecting on the success of this poem, the reader must decide for her or himself whether a woman’s choice is still so polarized. By specifying the gender in the question, Moore suggests that the dichotomy of this choice is inherently female.

By presenting an alternative to becoming a lady, especially one that is so obscure that its possibility cannot be comprehended,  Moore suggests creativity breeds opportunity. Rather than accepting confines of gender, time, or expectations, Moore advocates fashioning one’s own life. To fully live out this path, however, would necessitate the commitment to re-choosing radical positions, such a becoming a tiger-lily.