Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry


In choosing to write about the ceremony and publish the poem specifically in a Bryn Mawr literary magazine, Moore closely considers the question of audience. Briscoe mentions in her description that anyone who was not a junior or a senior was asked to leave the ceremony. Moore makes the consciousness choice to broaden the audience by allowing students who had not yet participated in the ceremony to get a glimpse. Furthermore, Moore archived the ceremony so that students today can reflect on a past tradition. [Click here to unfold another layer ]. A gap of time separates the upper and underclasswomen in Moore’s time, and another gap separates Moore and all Bryn Mawr students after her. The questions Moore raises about female identity and how to progress after obtaining a Bryn Mawr education are ones which were not buried with the ceremony.

Rather than fix a measurement of time, the poem exposes the mental transitions that occur from junior to senior year. The first two lines are a remembering of the past, “A lady or a tiger-lily/ can you tell me which” address questions to a junior. The middle lines, “I see her when I wake at night/Incanting, like a witch/Her eye is dark, her vestment rich/Embroidered with a sliver stitch” (lines 3-6) demonstrates the struggle that Moore must undergo once faced with this question. In this middle section, the passage of a year occurs, but a year of great importance. Here, Moore is demonstrating the subjectivity of context.It is between her junior and her senior year at this ceremony that Moore must answer this question of what she will become “a lady or a tiger-lily” and what she will pursue once she leaves Bryn Mawr. With the final line, “Slave, come tell me which?” Moore has become the senior asking the question to a junior who will undergo the same process of questioning.

Moore compresses time within the poem, and  attempts to recreate the sensations and anxieties of a women’s college education. In doing so, Moore radically revises the notion of time. Rather than allowing time to evolve organically, the poem grapples with how a participant’s relation to the ceremony evolves. As readers, we are taken from the experience of a Bryn Mawr junior to a Bryn Mawr senior, and by the end, we enfolded into the ceremony and the poem itself.