Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry


Moore’s affinity to characterize herself as a wild flower in her youth was apt. Lilies often connote motherhood. In Greek myth, it is Hera’s excess breast milk which fell from the sky and created the lily. In Christian religion, it is Eve’s tears of shame while being banished from the garden. In both myths, the lily symbolizes a purity of the female sex in being sacrificial. However, it is not the white lily that Moore conjures it is the tiger-lily. By calling attention to this particular species of flower, we alerted to its divergence; it is not the white lily that so often is associated with femininity. The tiger-lily is mutinous —less feminine, more wild, more exotic. The color of the tiger-lily is blood red orange with dark hues strongly contrasting the virginal white of the lily. This stark color contrast informs a symbolic one. Even within the same family of flower, there are diversions of boldness within it that create a radically different impression.

Critic David Bergman sustains the use of floral imagery to describe Moore (though later in her career) but does so to demonstrate the loss of vibrancy that occurs over time. Rather than sustain a symbol of rejuvenation and revision with each season, Bergman denies Moore capacity  to renew:

The tendency to see Moore as a delicate, exotic flower– ‘one touch and the bloom is gone’–derives perhaps from her later years when she gave in to a certain gentility–the fragile old maid who found snakes to have the texture of rose petals. However, in her youth she wished to be seen as a rebel and the ‘new poetry’ as ‘revolutionary’ (247).

Bergman does not cite “To My Cup-bearer,” and it is likely that he was unfamiliar with it. But he contextualizes Moore’s earlier work to be as she predicted that of a “tiger-lily.” Bergman’s conclusion, however, is that by the end of her life and career, Moore submitted to becoming a “lady.”However in this poem, Moore makes it clear that one must choose a path and follow it with conviction. She classifies herself as an exotic flower, and by remaining single and continuing to revise (a type of re-blooming of ideas) her poems, she ensured that remained so. Thus her own classification would not be that of a fragile old maid but a free, rebellious tiger-lily.