Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry

cupbearer-lady or tiger-lily?

In this poem, Moore demonstrates her ability to maneuver through reality and the imaginative with dexterity to provoke thought that would continue throughout her career. The gap between the analogy and little guidance from Moore leaves the reader the job of making the connection between the lady and the tiger-lily. They must be similar enough to be confused, but also must somehow be antithetical. The gap between the two choices is the key to unraveling the poem. Later in her career, Moore describes the polarizing options as she saw them for women:

Women are regarded as belonging necessarily to either of two classes–that of the intellectual free-lance or that eternally sleeping beauty, effortless yet effective in the indestructible limestone keep of domesticity (citd. in Bergman 243).

Knowing that Moore holds this belief later in life, we can see that she begins to develop this philosophy at a young age. Moore employs catachresis to disfigure choice so that we as readers feel the separation between the two. Though we may attempt to reason through it, disparity shocks us.  The use of the classification “lady” goes beyond that of gender. In a similar way, “lady” when compared to female, becomes a richer classification. Lady indicates a more refined and gentler constitution, even aristocratic. Rather than asking a lady or a spirited woman or a white lily or a tiger-lily, Moore forces the reader to make that jump—a lady or a tiger-lily? The ambiguity embodies the brazen spirit with which Moore writes. The analogy in the poem embraces the source of tension in the poem.

The ceremony represents Moore’s passage as a woman as well as scholar, leads Moore to question what kind of woman she will become. Earlier in a letter to her mother, Moore mentions that she saw A Doll’s House and enjoyed it. She summarizes “the principle, is for all, individual liberty, and manliness enough to sacrifice for the people you love even your honor. The end, however, would be harrowing to any man of spirit” (Letter to Mary Warner Moore and John Warner Moore 46). What is particularly intriguing about this quote is that A Doll’s House is seen as one of Ibsen’s most feminist. The audience often sides with Nora, the housewife for leaving her possessive husband, Torvald. Moore, however, sides with Torvald. She considers the it virtuous to “sacrifice” one’s own freedom for familial obligation. This particular opinion of Moore’s enriches our understanding of her struggle of what to do after leaving Bryn Mawr. Although Moore praises self-sacrifice, she recognizes the power of a bold spirit. The struggle to be honorable but the desire to live with the vitality of a tiger-lily reverberates within the poem.