Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry


The characterization of “slave” in “To My Cup-bearer” is a prime example of how necessary the context of Bryn Mawr is to the reading the Moore’s work. In Omissions are Not Accidents, Jeanne Heuving concludes in a paragraph discussion of “To My Cup-bearer” that the poem’s attention to erotics is one of denial:

In this poem [Moore] evades [same-sex identification] by interjecting another presence and asking this “slave” to answer her question. However, the poem’s forced final line, extremely uncharacteristic of Moore even at an early stage reveals the poem’s ultimate irresolution(56).

In naming the ceremony, Moore does not omit feminine identity as Heuving suggests. In fact, the title suggests that Moore purposefully evokes an all female community/ audience. Moore knew that the poem, if selected for publication, would be published in the Tipyn O’ Bob. The context indicates that Moore does not obscure female-female relations, in fact it speaks to the contrary. In fact, it might seem that Moore is lifting the framework of “The Lady or the Tiger” to fit a lesbian relationship. If the poem was read as lesbian re-working then the speaker would be facing the choice of whether to continue this relationship or not. Moore’s twist of the “tiger-lily” does more than just change gender; it transforms the framework moving before the narrative that Stockton presents. Moore provides us with the choice that the woman faced before she became the “lady” subservient to the wishes of the male gaze. Moore empowers the female perspective.

Furthermore, the title addresses “slave” from the onset, for traditionally, the cup-bearer would be a slave. The designation, “slave” alludes to a more complicated relationship within the context of this ceremony. In Alma Mater, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz discusses the relationships between women at women’s colleges during this period which she attributes partially the cultural construct of the institution and maintains their complex foray into positions of authority:

The ‘crush’ linked an erotic element to a power relationship. However official opinion might condemn the sexual feelings college women had for each other, from the beginning the women’s colleges built into their design dominant-subordinate relationships which fostered these feelings (167).

Through Horowitz’s historical insight, we can see that Moore’s poem draws from the culture of Bryn Mawr, thus making it more bound to College and the community. It also also helps to navigate the ambiguity of the narrative structure. Moore, does not use the “slave” in the poem to escape gender, rather she uses the classification. In this poem, Moore engages with the female community with specificity. She chose to the be explicit about the by framing the poem to acknowledge one of Bryn Mawr’s most prominent and secretive ceremonies at the time.

In the article “To Work Lovingly,” Hicok writes, “Mrs Moore had written back encouraging Moore to think of one of her friends as, ‘one of [her] flesh and blood belongings’(491) thus creating a female community that is bound by something stronger than friendship and blurs the lines between family and eroticism. Through this insight into Mrs. Moore, we are allowed to espy they ways in which Marianne Moore was encouraged to challenge socially constructed boundaries and live beyond them.