Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry


Click in the bracketed link to hear my reading of “To My Cup-bearer”[to-my-cupbearer1]. When the reading is finished, click the back arrow on your browser to return to this page.

Like Marianne Moore, I too, have felt the presence of President M. Carey Thomas. When I was a freshman, Thomas always seemed hospitable. I was not one who went wild for traditions, but I did wear the traditional white dress come May Day  my freshman year. As rain reports circled in on our holiday, I was told not to worry — M. Carey Thomas would not let it rain on May Day. I remained skeptical, and then as the seniors lined up along Senior Row for the hoop race, the clouds opened and sun streamed through. Someone turned to me and said, “It’s the doing of M. Carey Thomas. She sold her soul so it would never rain on May Day.” I have to sheepishly admit that just for a moment I was convinced.

When I decided to write my thesis on Marianne Moore, my relationship with both her and M. Carey Thomas became more complicated. To write about Marianne Moore’s time at Bryn Mawr, I had to know Bryn Mawr in the 1900s. I plunged into research, everything I could find about Moore’s time at Bryn Mawr. She arrived soon after the founding of the college. As I kept reading, I began to understand how integral M. Carey Thomas was to the shaping of Bryn Mawr. M. Carey Thomas seemed to permeate the culture–setting our traditions, shaping the architecture of the campus, and cultivating a sense of intellectual rigor.

Late at night, I would sit in Special Collections reading through Marianne Moore’s letters to Marcet Haldeman as if they were to me. She discusses buildings that I know, traditions in which I partook, and anxiety about life after Bryn Mawr that I have felt. She described M. Carey Thomas reading her poem at Chapel, and I felt proud and connected. The letters allowed me to transcend time, viewing Moore as a guiding senior through whose writings I was uncovering a rich history of Bryn Mawr. As I left the library, I would recall Moore’s nighttime escapades on the campus. In fact, in my own nighttime escapade, visiting the cloisters for my twenty-first birthday, I was chilled to see the bust of M. Carey Thomas illuminated through the library window as if she kept watch over the campus. The lines from Moore’s “To My Cupbearer” seemed to linger in the air, “I see her when I wake at night/Incanting, like witch.”

Leaving my carrel, I would pass this bust of Thomas and feel her gaze as if she was asking, “Have you completed your tasks today?” As I began to uncover more of Bryn Mawr’s history, I felt the cup grow heavier in my hands. I was beginning to fill the role of cupbearer as I sat in the closet-like room with the microfilm machine, reading Thomas’ letters, understanding her desires for Bryn Mawr  through a grainy microfilm lens. Somewhere in between deciphering each letter heavy with intention and gambling with the movement of time, I have entered a gap. I cannot trace the boundaries of this lacuna, but I know somehow that I am placed at the table. I can feel the weight of the cup, and my hands are outstretched.

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