What a Mother

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • BuyHolding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell
    Farrar, Straus, 455 pp, $18.00, September 2014, ISBN 978 0 374 53494 3

Marianne Moore was born in her mother’s childhood bedroom; grown up, she lived with her mother – most often shared her bed – until her mother died. She was then 59 and her mother 85; she lived another 25 years and died in 1972 a happy spinster, a famous poet and a grande dame.

Mary Warner Moore – the mother in question – had scarcely had a mother, which must be to the point. The one she was born to died two years later and the aunt who replaced her was judged unsatisfactory and dismissed after less than a year – two mothers lost before she was three. The family was Scotch-Irish, stern, devout and patriotic. Her father, Reverend Warner, was pastor to the Presbyterian church in Gettysburg; he watched the battle from a trapdoor in his roof and when it ended delivered his eyewitness account not only in churches and lecture halls up and down the East Coast, but in the House of Representatives with Lincoln himself in the audience.

It was said that Mary was ‘a beauty’ with many young men to choose among. That the one she decided on, John Moore, was known only for his sense of humour and love of the theatre is puzzling at first – she has seemed so earnest – but it turns out that performance was something she too enjoyed. Pretending to be someone or something else, preferably a small fluffy animal or a character from The Wind in the Willows, suited her well. Speaking in her own voice never got her as far. She married John Moore in 1885 in her father’s church and settled down in a Boston suburb where Moore thought he had prospects. Marianne’s brother, Warner, was born the following year. The prospects didn’t materialise and by the time of Marianne’s birth a year after that, John Moore was in an insane asylum. Mary left him to the care of his family and, children in tow, returned to her father.

Marianne never met her father and claimed not to know what he looked like until she was practically middle-aged (had no one told her about the red hair that the two of them shared?); asked what he did, she said she couldn’t remember. There were no recriminations. Mary had what she wanted: her children to herself; and if either child gave any sign of minding we’re not told of it here. ‘We are the happiest people in the world,’ the young Warner told his mother, who wasn’t in the least surprised. The March sisters could well have said the same: happiness was a duty as well as a right in pre-Freudian America, an acknowledgment that God wished America well. But God, as Mary told her children, wished them and their mother especially well. ‘Don’t forget that we three are “a peculiar people”,’ she used to tell them. ‘That is, according to the Scriptures, a people set apart.’ A family, she would also say, whose members were so close to each other that ‘we are like people interrupted in love-making the minute any outside persons come in.’ It sounds ominous – Helen Vendler refers to ‘the dreadful pathology’ of the Moore household – but Linda Leavell speaks of a ‘family idyll’ in her illuminating biography and describes a memoir Marianne began many years afterwards as making ‘a utopia of her childhood’. Being ‘set apart’ had its uses; and while Marianne sometimes chafed, she didn’t complain. Her mother, she said many years later, was ‘the least possessive of beings’. It’s hard to know how she can have meant it but clear that she – sort of – did.

In that utopia nothing was straightforward. Words had their own usages, and ages and genders were never quite settled. Make-believe was pervasive. Early on Marianne decreed that she was Warner’s brother not his sister, and in family letters (there are more than 30,000 in the Rosenbach archive in Philadelphia) she is consistently, and at all ages, referred to as ‘he’. ‘Although they assumed many different personae over the years,’ Leavell writes, ‘the one constant past childhood was Marianne’s insistence that she be Warner’s brother and hence he in the home language.’

Leavell doesn’t speculate about these things. Freud and Co aren’t called on: the story tells itself. Warner, the sturdy male, was a less agile shape-shifter, but Mary was interchangeably Bunny and Fawn and on occasion stay-at-home Mole – always a delicate creature who had to be humoured and looked after by her ‘two uncles’. ‘If you had a family, you might go home, but as you’re an orphan fawn I’m obliged to keep you, and do for you,’ Marianne wrote in 1904. It’s one instance among hundreds. Indulging their mother – making it a rule to put her concerns first – allowed Mary to get her own way and at the same time helped Marianne and her brother to bear it.


Mary didn’t worry that her children would one day grow up and leave her: she determined early on that there would be no growing up. In the summer of 1911, she visited Europe for the first time (London and Paris principally), accompanied by Marianne. The high point of the trip, she told Warner, was a visit to Kensington Gardens to pay homage to Peter Pan. ‘Since I am very indulgent to my childhood romances, and keep holiday with them almost religiously,’ she wrote, ‘I just bowed the knee and worshipped like the Oriental or the Romanist at the sound of prayer bells.’ It was another role she’d assigned herself in the family fairy tale. ‘Be a little child again,’ she repeatedly advised Marianne, and with that in mind did her best to ensure that neither of her children, though both by now were college students, had interests that weren’t communal, friends who weren’t ‘our kind’, likes that weren’t hers, thoughts she couldn’t share. ‘Remember how well Peter Pan flew, till he began to consider the manner of his flying,’ she wrote to Warner: ‘Oh! don’t be introspective!’ What she meant, I imagine, was ‘don’t keep anything from me.’ Warner by then was 18.

Marianne enrolled at Bryn Mawr, the high-powered women’s college in Pennsylvania, in 1905. When in her second year she developed a crush on her fellow student Peggy James, Mary ‘courted’ her too (‘courted’ is Leavell’s word): William James’s daughter was very much ‘our kind’, and since Mary expected her family to live together always, she could only assume that Peggy would be joining the household – whether as Marianne’s partner or Warner’s was immaterial. But Marianne’s feelings for Peggy wore off – ‘I shan’t play with Peggy anymore’ – and there wouldn’t be anyone else, of either sex, in Marianne’s life for Mary to court. Not then and not later. Her masculine appearance was commented on, maybe unfairly – she wore big jackets. She had never weighed enough, she would say later, to be ‘matrimonially ambitious’.

From Mary’s point of view Bryn Mawr was safe; it wasn’t far away and the terrain was familiar: she too had taught at women’s colleges and had crushes on her fellow teachers and students (see below). Though she was less close to Warner, his departure for Yale in 1904 had been more upsetting. ‘It is sad almost to the degree of unbearable to think the old life is gone,’ she wrote to him. The rituals of college life – football, dating – were so alien she didn’t even have the vocabulary with which to disparage them, and the prevailing secularism only made everything worse. ‘O I wish I wish you were not out on the wild wild sea of “this generation”,’ she wrote a few weeks later.

Punishing Warner for being too much a boy didn’t stop there. When he decided to buy a car – he was by now 28 and a clergyman like his grandfather – Marianne wrote to warn him of the danger his getting a car would pose to Mary’s health: ‘It would seem morbid to you perhaps to think that Mole could get sick again because you thought of getting a car but … it isn’t so unreasonable, for Mole would wish that without a suggestion from anyone you ought to know just what is unsuitable.’ When a little later he decided to marry, Mary wrote to her future daughter-in-law to warn her that she didn’t approve of the match. She expected to be listened to but she wasn’t. When eventually she came to terms with the new arrangement Warner, by this point on the cusp of middle age, described himself as ‘a sick, sick boy, coming to life’.

The rules were different for Mary. Sometime in the course of 1900, before either of her children had left home, she began a relationship with another English teacher, a woman called Mary Norcross, younger than her, a friend of the family, again ‘our kind’. Being in love with a woman, sleeping together, sometimes living together: none of it was a big deal, Leavell stresses: there was a lot of that sort of thing around and no one called it ‘lesbianism’. For ten years Norcross was like a fourth member of the family; then at the end of 1909 she fell in love with a rich cousin. Mary was distraught and Marianne was trapped: ‘You can certainly feel assured that you were never more needed in your life and probably never will be more needed than you are just this winter by the Fawn,’ Norcross wrote to her in September 1910. She would live with her mother for a further 37 years, playing ‘the role’, as Leavell puts it, ‘of indulgent Uncle to her adorable Bunny’.

‘The Paper Nautilus’, Marianne’s most nearly autobiographical poem, published in 1940, describes the ‘thin glass shell’ secreted by the mother for herself and her eggs, a kind of hatchery. It would be a challenge to read it without thinking of Mary recalling Marianne to the shell and the pair crawling inside like two cephalopods recolonising the nursery. The first stanza speaks of entrapment but in the last lines the argonaut clinging to its little edifice suggests that

is the only fortress
strong enough to trust to.

Love, it seems, is something Marianne is allowed to experience only in the form Mary wished her to experience it – as her mother’s daughter and Warner’s sister/brother.


Marianne first published some of her poems in Tipyn o’Bob, the Bryn Mawr student magazine; jaunty, decidedly un-introspective poems like this:

He often expressed
A curious wish;
To be interchangeably
Man and fish;
To nibble the bait
Off the hook,
Said he,
And then slip away
Like a ghost
In the sea.

It was ‘impersonal’ and to her mind ‘unforced’. (The first draft was written in a philosophy class and called ‘The Bored Lady’ – the eventual title was ‘Ennui’.) Though simpler, it wasn’t very different from the later poems that would lead Eliot to place her ‘among the half-dozen most “exciting” contemporary European and American poets’. Asked about the poem’s meaning by one of her teachers, she skirted the question and said ‘that it was simply living in the pleasure of the moment’. ‘I am governed by the pull of a sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity,’ she would tell the Paris Review several decades later – the interviewer was the poet Donald Hall. Her teachers for the most part had more old-fashioned tastes; and the writers they admired tended not to be the same as those – Browning, Yeats, James – she would pick out. She had no time for Edwardian sentiment and shied away from the prevailing pieties. When, a few years on, Mary complained of a lack in her daughter’s work of the ‘stinging greatness of truth and high principle’, Marianne was unfazed: ‘spiritual aspiration, love and meditation,’ she remarked, ‘are themes no puppy can do justice to.’ The full-grown dog would have much the same view.

In 1907, while still a student, she was invited by a friend to spend a few days in New York. A letter to her mother more than 150 pages long described in prodigious detail what she’d seen in the city – the layout of the Tiffany shop as well as the jewellery, the design of Carnegie Hall as well as the concert. This interest in things to the side of things, in ‘the fringe of the important fact’, as Marianne put it, hadn’t helped her get good grades (her academic work, one teacher said, was ‘like unsettled coffee’) but it would in time define her poetry; its movement from one apparently unconnected fact to another, one quotation to another, one image to another, allowing her, Leavell writes, ‘to let the rhythm of a poem create the mood even if her readers missed the “meaning”’. ‘Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!’ she exclaimed in ‘An Octopus’:

Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.

Asked by Donald Hall how she came ‘to be an artist’, she replied: ‘Endless curiosity, observation, research – and a great amount of joy in the thing.’

In place of a diary she kept a notebook – ‘I salvage anything promising and set it down in a small notebook.’ She didn’t use it to write about her feelings or about herself. She was interested in the fate of her poems, not in the mood she was in. Her mother had warned against introspection; consciously or unconsciously, she’d taken the lesson to heart. Or perhaps she didn’t need a lesson. Ideas, attitudes to this and that were more rewarding, and more fun to think about and make fun of, even her own. But words principally gave her pleasure. Sentences, metaphors, tropes, her own – she worked constantly at them – and other people’s, including her mother’s, were noted down and reappear in the poems, which borrow many of Mary’s mannerisms as well as those of the home language more generally: not its sentimentality but its histrionic tone and nursery décor and its tendency to metonymise and otherwise play the figures of speech. Like Wallace Stevens, whom she much admired, she made jokes, and even more than in Stevens’s case, the jokes were sly, hardly perceptible, there for her own pleasure. Yet for all the ironies, visible and invisible, some of the poems even have a moral.

She graduated in 1909 and over the next five years, while working in one clerical job or another, weathered the rejections of every magazine that published poetry other than the Bryn Mawr literary annual. The first editor to recognise her work was Floyd Dell, at the Masses; he didn’t want to publish her – or not yet – but he saw what she was trying to do and wrote to tell her so. That was in March 1914. It was the first acknowledgment she received, and it augured a change in her – or in modernism’s – fortunes. In July, Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, accepted five poems; in April 1915 two of her poems appeared in the Egoist, the paper Richard Aldington edited (‘I am so delighted to have them take me I shouldn’t mind if they charged me’); in August, HD invited her to come to London (she didn’t take up the invitation); and in October Alfred Kreymborg, the editor of Others, took five poems – these were all magazines whose modernist line she approved of and whose contents she’d carefully studied. In November, invited again to spend a few days in New York (Mary was also asked but they claimed not to be able to afford two sets of new clothes), she ‘made her modernist debut’, as Leavell puts it, meeting artists, poets, editors – people whom she understood and who understood her. Ten days later she returned full of excitement to the small town in Pennsylvania where Mary and she were then living. ‘He knows not what he eats nor what he sees at Riverbank,’ Mary reported to Warner, ‘can think only of the edge of the great sea, where he has sojourned. I look very gravely, not to say sternly, at some of the experiences unfurled – and think I ought to have taken the scull myself … after eleven … I stuck him into the tub, and he subsided partially until he was taken out and dried when away [his tongue] went fast as ever.’ That’s how it would be from now on. One minute hobnobbing with the poets and editors in New York, the next minute babbling in the tub with the Bunny.

Mary didn’t understand her daughter’s poetry. Marianne’s ‘dogged pursuit of unconventional metre’, Leavell explains, ‘unsentimental subject-matter and cryptic language ran counter to all that her English-teacher mother held dear’. Mary expected poems to have a meaning and as far as she could see there was very little meaning in Marianne’s work. Her first collection – Poems – came out in 1921. She hadn’t wanted a book published (Bryher arranged it behind her back): there were too few poems (24 in all) and the moment wasn’t right. Reviewers in the mainstream press who accused her of ‘superficial unconventionality’ proved her point. Mary, no less perplexed, accounted for her bewilderment by likening the collection to ‘a veiled Mohammedan woman’, an image that expressed both the distance between the two women and the pleasure in language that they shared. Mary had always been fussy about the way her children spoke (‘language was never a trivial matter to the Moores’); and whatever the content of Marianne’s poems, her diction at least was as precise and grammatically correct as her English-teacher mother could have wished. Right to the end she showed Mary everything she wrote before any outsider was allowed to see it and would change a word if Mary thought she had used it wrongly. No poem left the house unless she sanctioned it. ‘Last evening my hair turned grey, and I took on ten years, when I had to say that poems he has worked on for months, – for days unremittingly and speechlessly – were not just right yet,’ Mary wrote to Warner on 18 June 1921. ‘I was determined to finish some poems for the Dial,’ Marianne wrote to him the next day, ‘but Mole doesn’t commend them for presenting so I have painfully and reluctantly scrapped them.’ Yet Leavell is adamant that Marianne didn’t want her work to have her mother’s approval. She did and she didn’t: she did and didn’t want to be understood. In ‘An Ardent Platonist’, an unusually messy poem published in 1918 and never reprinted though often quoted by critics trying to describe Marianne’s relationship to her work, and to her mother, she wrote:

One is not to find one formidable …

            to be philosophical is to be no
          longer mysterious; it is to be no
Longer privileged, to say what one thinks in
                        order to be understood.

The veiled Mohammedan woman stood at the gate.


Mother and daughter moved to New York in 1918. In the small towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where they’d lived until then Marianne was seen as ‘a rather mousy little person’ with nothing much to say for herself. In New York a wand was waved; and in the company of her fellow modernists she turned into an ‘astonishing’ figure ‘with Titian hair … and a mellifluous flow of polysyllables which held every man in awe’ (as Kreymborg described her). After the five lean years during which no editor bothered to acknowledge her poems almost everyone (of her kind) wanted to publish them. Though some found Marianne prim, her devotion to her mother annoying, her opinions too fierce, no one now ignored her. The heroes of modernist poetry each praised her verse for what he himself set most store by. For William Carlos Williams, she had achieved modernism’s ‘unbridled leap’; for Eliot she was an enduring member of the ‘tradition’; for Stevens a romantic and for Pound someone who had resisted the romantic impulse from the start. Both Pound and Eliot championed her. She was even being paid for her work.

But for all that a wand had been waved there were no pumpkins turned into carriages waiting at the door of the apartment they rented when they got to New York. They lived as if they didn’t quite know how to do it, not as bohemians but as characters in a fairy tale who might prefer to have a white marble fireplace than a bed to themselves. The apartment was on a pretty street in Greenwich Village, and that was important, but it was also below ground, had only one room and that barely big enough for a bed, a sofa and some chairs; there was no kitchen, no fridge, no phone: ‘Mary prepared meals on a hotplate in the bathroom throughout the 11 years they lived there,’ Leavell reports. They ate the meals sitting on the edge of the bath or in the bath itself. Although Mary constantly worried that Marianne was too thin, too frail, too delicate (‘my mother comes in 16 times a day bringing me apples and things to eat’), her attitude to food was all her own: on one occasion she ‘planned to serve onions and prunes for lunch. Then she decided to invite a guest and scraped together a menu of cooked apples, canned corn, salad dressing and cocoa.’

The various poetry magazines and their crowds came and went – Others, the one to which Marianne had been closest, ceased publication in 1919, so did the Egoist, but Scofield Thayer, Marianne’s staunchest advocate, took over the Dial and in 1925 asked her to be its acting editor while he went to Vienna to be psychoanalysed by Freud. Two years later when his shaky grip on reality obliged him to resign, Marianne took his place. Asked by Donald Hall what had made the Dial such a good paper in the years when she was editing it, she said ‘lack of fear’: ‘We didn’t care what other people said … Everybody liked what he was doing and when we made grievous mistakes we were sorry but we laughed over them.’ (How bad were those mistakes, I wonder, and did everyone really laugh?) In ‘The Dial: A Retrospect’ Marianne makes out that it was even more fun for everyone when Thayer was in charge: ‘there was for us of the staff, whatever the impression outside, a constant atmosphere of excited triumph; and from editor or publisher, inherent fireworks of parenthetic wit too good to print.’ Her own editorship was steadier and more modest than Thayer’s and sometimes it doesn’t get the credit it deserves – especially, Leavell implies, from men. Yet in his autobiography the hyperbolic Williams describes Marianne as ‘a rafter holding up the superstructure of our uncompleted building, a caryatid … our saint – if we had one – in whom we all felt instinctively our purpose come together to form a stream’.

In 1929 the Dial ceased publication. Of the two owners, one was mad and the other, James Sibley Watson, a rich philanthropist, had new interests. Marianne, who wasn’t pleased, chose to describe the decision as ‘largely chivalry’ on their part: ‘I didn’t have time for work of my own,’ she told George Saintsbury, the English man of letters who’d been one of her contributors. At Warner’s insistence, she and her mother left Greenwich Village for a more suitable – ‘spacious’ would be the word – apartment in Brooklyn: they could have had a bed each had they wanted to. Marianne hadn’t written any poems since ‘The Monkey Puzzle’ in 1924 and wouldn’t write any now until she gave ‘Poetry’, or a version of it (as always there were many), to Harriet Monroe in 1931. Time passed; bursitis, bronchitis, laryngitis filled the day as first Mary, then Marianne and sometimes the two at the same time would take to the bed. For Mary illness offered a further call on Marianne’s sympathy; for Marianne it provided a moment of calm in which to write. But as her connection with the world began to fade (there would be a late rebound) the poems were more inclined to speak plainly, or even preach; to come closer, in other words, to something Mary might like.

In 1935 Faber published Marianne’s Selected Poems. Eliot himself wrote the introduction; and it was there that he spoke of her work forming ‘part of the small body of durable poetry written in our time’ – the quote reproduced on the cover of every edition of her poems. To begin with Mary ‘deplored’ the selection: she ‘investigated me till my very fleas blushed and I had to do over a great deal of the work,’ Marianne told her brother as she got out the ‘synonym books and small dictionaries’ that she and her mother had used when they were editing her prose – and other people’s – for the Dial. Marianne had told Thayer at the start of her editorship that she wouldn’t have time to see contributors or to write letters. By the end answering letters filled her day: Mary drafted them, Marianne spent hours perfecting them. ‘Readers of the Dial,’ Leavell writes, ‘would have been shocked to learn the extent of Mary’s involvement,’ but readers of her own book would have been surprised had that not been the case. ‘Mon dieu! What a mother,’ Alyse Gregory, who’d worked at the Dial and was more than anyone Marianne’s friend, wrote to Thayer: ‘so large, pale, refined, washed over by the years, but inexorably, permanently, eternally rooted and not to be overlooked, and remorselessly conversational, sentences with no beginning and no end, and no place left to jump in and stop them’. Mary’s presence is no less insistent in Leavell’s book: every time you want to say something about Marianne, you find yourself confronted with her mother.

Mary died in 1947; Marianne, worn down by years of anxiety on Mary’s behalf, went to pieces.

She dropped things, lost things, and broke things. Her hair whitened. Her skin sagged. Crying made her eyes puffy. She looked exhausted and old beyond her sixty years. In the company of others she ate well but at home ate little because she so hated dining alone.

Warner took matters in hand. Not long before she’d been photographed by Cecil Beaton for Vogue. Far from being flattered she thought she looked terrible. ‘Now, now my boy,’ Warner wrote to her, ‘you and I can do something about “that face”.’ Bit by bit, massage by massage, facial by facial, homage by homage she recovered. In September she moved out of the bedroom she’d shared with her mother.

Fame came in a rush. Leavell dates it to 28 February 1950, when she addressed a ‘large, formally attired’ audience at the Museum of Modern Art, sharing a double bill with Auden. In 1952 her Collected Poems won the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize and the Pulitzer Prize; Life magazine published a photo essay in their issue of 21 September 1953; in 1957 she was profiled (not very flatteringly) in the New Yorker. In 1968 she threw out the ball at the Yankee stadium to inaugurate the new baseball season (she’d always been a Dodgers fan) and wrote the liner notes for Cassius Clay’s I Am the Greatest. She met Norman Mailer, ‘whom she liked immensely’, and George Plimpton and James Baldwin, ‘a fine youth’; in 1968 Harry Belafonte invited her onto The Tonight Show along with Petula Clark and Dionne Warwick; he had been going to ask Robert Kennedy but didn’t because she hadn’t liked his brother – she was a supporter of Eisenhower and Nixon but also of LBJ, calling herself ‘one of his most fervent admirers’, Vietnam and all. She was an old lady now, New York State’s Senior Citizen of the Year for 1969, both the wrong kind of woman, an insider, and the wrong kind of poet – an elite figure, a poets’ poet. Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich counted for more, as Leavell points out with some displeasure. Her mother had consistently worried that Marianne was too susceptible to other people’s attention; that she was too fragile to go out into the world, that it was bad for her health to leave the house, to meet new people, to attend a large gathering. But it seems that few other poets, women poets especially, have enjoyed the world so wholeheartedly or received from it such a ringing endorsement.