Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry

“Councell to a Bachelor” in The Lantern Magazine

Publication in The Lantern

Moore’s publishing of the poem at Bryn Mawr elicits questions of the social implications of knowledge and access á la gender. Moore commandeers knowledge from an elite institution which specifically excludes women and places it in The Lantern, an alumnae literary magazine of a women’s college. The title of the publication suggests an enlightening through literature and access. Moore illuminates the motto through a re-contextualizing to challenge the  exclusion of women  by placing the motto in an intellectual space for which it was never intended. Moore does not include the specificity of citation that she does later in poetry; in the Bryn Mawr publication, she merely includes the citation “Elizabethan Trencher.”  Moore textually cross-dresses by claiming this poem for the Bryn Mawr literary magazine as hers–even her name as author of the poem challenges authority and gender.

Marianne Moore’s act of reclamation in this poem is a feminist one. However, Moore’s feminist poetics are often diminished when considered by other feminist poets. For example, in “When We Dead Awaken,” Adrienne Rich says of female poets and particularly of Moore,

I discovered that the woman poet most admired at the time (by men) was Marianne Moore, who was maidenly, elegant, intellectual, discreet. But even in reading these women I was looking in them for the same things I had found in the poetry of men, because I wanted women poets to be the equals of men, and to be equal was still confused with sounding the same(19).

In this particular instance, I disagree with Rich’s characterizations of Moore. Moore is not “maidenly” in this poem, rather she initiates a linguistic copulation which she dominates. Moore penetrates the poem’s structure and inserts her voice into the pre-existing male articulation. Also, the “discretion” that Rich cites seems to connote a weakness or a shrinking from confrontation. Moore’s techniques are “discrete” but they are purposefully so. 
When Rich  suggests that equal is synonymous with sounding the same, she mistakes Moore’s language as attempting to conform. However, Moore works within the male language to reorder and re-vision.

Moore takes on Oxford and the academic institution in much of the same sprit as  President M. Carey Thomas did when she decided to model the architecture of Bryn Mawr after certain buildings at Oxford (Horowitz 104-133). In so far as Oxford becomes a model for Bryn Mawr, it might seem that Oxford retains its supremacy. However, as in the case of Moore, Thomas reclaims academia for women. Thus the act of modeling is not a passive mimicking; it is a way to reshape the intention. Here, we also see the ways in which Thomas has provided an example for Moore.

By introducing the concept of marriage into one  the  Bryn Mawr literary magazines, Moore questions how marriage, especially a marriage that calls for a wife’s submission to her husband, fits into the intellectual life that  Bryn Mawr prepares students for. “Councell to A Bachelor” challenges women to think about what choice they are going to make upon leaving the College. Implicitly the poem’s setting, a literary magazine at a women’s college, also devalues its original content. In its own historical moment,  the motto  must have been taken as serious advice, but now, women are becoming independent and educated. As the students of Bryn Mawr read this, they can reflect on their options and their fortune–they were born in a time where women’s colleges existed and Suffrage was a major movement.

Adrienne Rich and many other feminists have rejected Moore for lack of active feminism, perhaps because of  what Rich calls Moore’s “discretion.” In her poetry, this characteristic allows for her use  gaps and spatiality, discourse and textual elements to contribute to gesture towards “what remains unsaid”. Perhaps, however, Rich was also criticizing Moore’s personal life. Many critics have attempted to label Moore as sexless or as the unimpassioned spinster; some have claimed that she repressed her sexual desire for woman. These poems at Bryn Mawr mark for Moore the beginning of her complex relationships with women, art and independence. I do not speculate that by toying with the fluidity of gender, by textually cross-dressing, or investigating the ways in which women create community, Moore commits to an explicitly erotic desire for men or women. I do contend that by carefully investigating the detail and precision of the poems, it is clear that Moore was invested in furthering women’s independence; such poems could not have been written by someone who did not feel intense passion for life. Moore’s poetry has enough substance and complexity that we, as readers,  do not need to include speculations about her own sexual life; she provides us with enough to consider.