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Marianne Moore - An Analysis Of Her Poetry

Updated on February 20, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Marianne Moore
Marianne Moore | Source

Marianne Moore and her Poetry

Marianne Moore's poetry is playful, serious, eccentric and quirky. She produced lots of animal poems in her time and was not afraid to spice up her unusual forms with philosophy, history and art.

Some of her poems are written in idiosyncratic style it is true but for all the twists and turns of style 'one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine.'

Awarded several literary accolades during her long career, she also has a wry sense of the somic. When the Ford motor company asked her to think of a name for their new model in 1955 she suggested Turcotingo, Mongoose Civique and Utopian Turtletop. Ford decided on Edsel, unfortunately.

Born in Kirkwood, Missouri, in 1887, she eventually moved to Brooklyn, New York, via Greenwich village and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A teacher, secretary and librarian she was also editor of the influential magazine Dial, from 1925-29. Unmarried, Marianne Moore lived most of her adult life with her mother in a Brooklyn apartment.

Whilst in New York she got to know such luminaries as H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) , William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

A lifelong sports fan she was also keen on visiting the zoo, took an interest in socialism and was a Presbyterian church goer. She passed away in 1972.


Three Poems

What Are Years is perhaps her most famous poem. After the 9/11 tragedy Robert Pinsky, the then Laureate, recited this poem and it was shown on Newshour. It seemed to capture the nation's and the world's mood at that time.

What Are Years?

        What is our innocence, 
      what is our guilt? All are 
   naked none is safe. And whence 
 is courage: the unanswered question, 
    the resolute doubt -
 dumbly calling, deafly listening - that
 in misfortune, even death, 
      encourages others 
    and in its defeat, stirs

    the soul to be strong? He
    sees deep and is glad, who 
    accedes to mortality 
  and in his imprisonment rises 
       upon himself as 
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be 
       free and unable to be, 
         in its surrendering 
       finds its continuing.

      So he who strongly feels, 
       behaves. The very bird, 
     grown taller as he sings, steels 
his form straight up. Though he is captive, 
          his mighty singing 
     says, satisfaction is a lowly 
   thing, how pure a thing is joy. 
         This is mortality, 
          this is eternity.


The opening line of this deceptively simple poem goes straight to the human soul. This double question immediately churns the reader up, the rest of the poem being a searching response for adequate answers.

Innocence and guilt (echoes from William Blake) form a part of all our lives, they are with us right to the end. And living with the knowledge of both isn't easy; it can be dangerous out in the big, wide world. Marianne Moore is saying that as weak and sensitive as we are, showing courage when the odds are against us can overcome any adversity, even death.

She uses metaphor to go deeper into the idea that the spirit is imprisoned - in the flesh, in our humanity - yet for all the restrictions we can still turn our hearts and minds to higher things and bring joy to the world.

Note how the captive bird still sings joyfully, future echoes of Maya Angelou here, and in Nelson Mandela's imprisonment and subsequent release.

Marianne Moore's poem captures the idea that as humans we have untapped depths of pure joy but need the trials and weight of living to truly express this inner untapped energy.



Merged with the wilting apex of the tide,

without colliding with the rock,

they came back multiplied.

They kept up with the water's glassy stride,

to the sea's edge encrusted with white grit,

advancing as one bird against the ocean's tilted side,

and carried back

from barnacles adhering by their heads-

minute marine steam dredges with large mouths,

their base of operations designated by the sun,

mouths shut but living every one,

their jaws swung out and made voracious in the thin

translucent ferment of the sea as it comes in.



This is one of Marianne Moore's early animal poems, written probably in her late teens or early twenties. It has an experimental feel about it. Perhaps it started out life as a sonnet of some kind (it's 13 lines long as opposed to the classical 14 for a sonnet), the rhyme scheme hints at something more symmetrical and there's loose iambic pentameter in certain lines.

Read through it as a whole and you get the feeling of being on the ocean's swell, just like the guillemots. You feel the pull and push of the current as it works with and against the tidal impulse.

This is a common theme in her poetry - the sense that life is cyclic, the end is the beginning, the snake bites its own tail on and on.

Why had no one ever written about things in this clear and dazzling way before?

— Elizabeth Bishop

The Whole World in her Poetry

The Poems of Marianne Moore published by Faber and Faber in 2003 (UK) is well worth reading. It has all of her best poems plus many written in her early years and on right through towards the end of her life.

You get to read some of her notes too - references and research notes related to certain poems and specific lines within her poetry. She was a well read person and must have spent years gleaning facts and snippets of wisdom from writers, historians and fellow poets.

The titles of her poems reflect the huge interest she had in the world of objects and things as well as the abstract. For example:

To a Steam Roller

The Steeple-Jack

Light Is Speech

No Swan So Fine

Holes Bored in a Workbag by the Scissors

The Mind Is an Enchanting Thing

Granite and Steel


We Call Them the Brave

who likely were reluctant to be brave.

Sitting by a slow fire on a waste

of snow, I would last about an hour.

Better not euphemize the grave.

In this fashionable town, endearments are the mode

though generals are appraised - not praised -

and one is not forced to walk about

where a muddy slough serves as a road.

"What are these shadows barely

visible, which radar fails to scan?"

ships, "keeping distance on the gentle swell."

And "what is a free world ready

to do, for what it values most?"

bestow little discs the bereaved may touch?

forget it even when dead-

that congressionally honored ghost

mourned by a friend whose shoulder sags-

weeping on the shoulder of another

for another; with another sitting near,

filling out casualty tags.

What of it? We call them the brave

perhaps? Yes; what if the time should come

when no one will fight for anything

and there's nothing of worth to save.


Six stanzas, a traditional form, with rhymes to sandwich each stanza and give it solidity. This is a poem that conforms - on the page - but read it and you discover that the poet is questioning the nature of war and those who fight wars.

Written at a time when the world was at war against the Nazis it is a kind of lament for the dead, all who die fighting in battle for the powers that be. It's one of her most direct creations.


O to be a Dragon

If I, like Solomon,...

could have my wish -

my wish..O to be a Dragon,

a symbol of the power of Heaven - of silkworm

size or immense; at times invisible.

Felicitous phenomenon!


Marianne Moore's poems are both beautiful and poignant, though sometimes a challenge because of her tendency to use quotes and references. Complex inner shifts also take the reader up and down and all around. It takes a special kind of patience to read a Marianne Moore poem!

I really enjoy her animal poems, they're so original and based on strict observation. Her phrases are often memorable - what about this from Bird Witted:

A piebald cat observing them,

is slowly creeping toward the trim

trio on the tree-stem.


Published Books

1921 Book of Poems

1924 Observations

1935 Collected Poems

1936 The Pangolin and Other Verse

1941 What Are Years

1944 Nevertheless

1956 Like A Bulwark

1959 O to be a Dragon

1966 Tell Me, Tell Me

!967 Complete Poems


© 2015 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment
  • stuff4kids profile image

    Amanda Littlejohn 

    5 years ago

    Great stuff, Andrew! I love the Guillemot poem. Moore is definitely one to read more!

    Bless :)

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Theresa, thank you for the visit, I appreciate it. Some of Marianne Moore's poems are quirky and off beat and do take a bit of extra effort on the part of the reader. Glad you enjoyed this relatively unknown poet's work.

  • phdast7 profile image

    Theresa Ast 

    5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Excellent Hub on Marianne Moore. I have admired her work, but never really made time to study her work in depth. I appreciate your analysis and critique. Blessings. Theresa Sharing.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Chitrangada many thanks for the visit - so happy to know you got something out of this article.

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 

    5 years ago from New Delhi, India

    This is another great hub about Poet and Poetry!

    Very well researched, nicely presented and equally informative hub! I learnt a lot about Marianne Moore from you.

    Thanks and voted up!

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    I appreciate your visit Jamie. With a mix of research, reading and a bit of luck I get there eventually!

  • jhamann profile image

    Jamie Lee Hamann 

    5 years ago from Reno NV

    I am excited when I see you have written a new hub on poets. You always provide such wonderful insight and information. Thank you. Jamie


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