American Literature Marianne Moore
Ellen Levy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0108


“Everything is worthless but the best and this is the best,” William Carlos Williams said of the poetry of Marianne Moore (b. 1887–d. 1972) in The Dial, though “only,” he warned, “with difficulty discerned” (p. 310). Moore’s brand of modernist difficulty won her the admiration of peers such as Williams, H.D., T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens and has exercised a powerful influence on later poets from Hart Crane to Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery. However, her poems, composed of sinuous Jamesian sentences tightly encased in Moore’s signature syllabic stanzas and packed with citations from a dizzying array of sources high and low, have, as Williams suspected, proven a challenge to less discerning readers. “Critical curiosity, which has fussed over so many twentieth-century pages, has tended to leave Miss Moore’s poems approvingly uninvestigated,” Hugh Kenner lamented in 1963 in Poetry (102.2, p. 115), and although the situation has improved since then, Moore remains understudied relative to her achievement and influence. Born in 1887 and raised in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, by her brilliant, pious mother, Moore never knew her father, who had a breakdown and left the family shortly before her birth. Mother, daughter, and Marianne’s brother, Warner, came to form an extraordinarily close unit, with its own private language and etiquette, and Moore’s writing would be marked by this hermetic family style. In the years after her graduation from Bryn Mawr in 1909, Moore’s poems were rejected by the mainstream publications to which she first sent them, but by the mid-1910s her terse, spiky verses had begun to appear in modernist little magazines like The Egoist, Poetry, and Others. In 1918, Moore moved with her mother to New York City, where her presence on the scene in Greenwich Village accelerated her success. Moore became especially closely associated with the influential journal The Dial, publishing her book, Observations (1924), with the Dial Press, receiving the Dial Prize in 1925, and taking up the magazine’s editorship in that same year, a job she held until it folded in 1929. Selected Poems (1935), edited by T. S. Eliot, included much of the strong, politically charged work Moore published in the early 1930s and solidified her reputation with the cognoscenti, but it was her Collected Poems (1951), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, that finally gained the poet a wider readership. By the end of the 1950s, in a strange twist of fate, the notably esoteric and eccentric Moore had become a much-photographed celebrity, America’s favorite spinster aunt, a role she inhabited almost until her death in New York in 1972.

General Overviews

Book-length studies of Moore’s oeuvre had begun to appear while the poet was still alive, in the mid-1960s, but serious scholarly work on the subject began only once the Rosenbach Library opened its archive a decade later (see Manuscripts and Papers). To date, twenty-one monographs on the poet have been published, more than half of which are designed as general overviews. The first of the two listed here to be published, Garrigue 1965 and Hadas 1977, are by writers primarily known as poets, continuing a tradition that dates to the first years of Moore’s career, when peers such as H.D., Eliot, Pound, and Williams promoted her work in reviews and essays (see Reception and Reputation). Even among later academic critics of Moore, many have substantial poetic careers. Margaret Holley is one of these (see Holley 1987), and of the overviews, hers provides the most comprehensive account of Moore’s poetics. Conversely, relatively few academics committed to producing big-picture works of literary history or theory have chosen to write at length about Moore. Prominent among them is Bonnie Costello (Costello 1981; see also Costello 1980, cited under Moore and Feminism, and Costello 1984, cited under Elizabeth Bishop), who published the first major overview of the post-Rosenbach era. Although more appreciative than critical, Stapleton 1978 is notable as the first book-length survey to make extensive use of the Rosenbach archive. Costello’s and Stapleton’s books also initiate one of the major debates in Moore studies, over the relative strengths of the poet’s early and late work (pre- and post-1935): Costello 1981, along with Slatin 1986, argues strongly for the superiority of early over late, while Stapleton 1978 and Holley 1987 speak for what Stapleton, in her book’s title, terms “the poet’s advance.” Another contentious theme is established by Costello in her discussion of Moore’s “humility,” a quality related to the poet’s moralism and conservative social (and also, Costello implies, aesthetic) stance. Martin 1986 opposes to this view a more assertive and adventurous Moore, “the poet as writing master” (p. 3). Miller 1995 marshals a more systematic and thorough argument than Martin 1986 for an unambiguously masterful Moore while also taking the poet’s moralism and conservatism into account; it takes a similarly balanced view of the arguments for the respective virtues of Moore’s early and late work. Slatin 1986 is distinguished by its effort to root Moore’s authority in a wider literary tradition, emphasizing in particular her connections to the Emersonian line.

  • Costello, Bonnie. Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

    Although organized by themes rather than chronologically, paints the first full and coherent picture of Moore’s achievement. Valuable both as a scholarly work and a reader’s guide: makes groundbreaking use of Rosenbach material and provides standard-setting, fluently written close readings of dozens of poems.

  • Garrigue, Jean. Marianne Moore. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

    Long essay in book form offers a compact tour of Moore’s rhetoric, themes, and, above all, the sound and rhythm of her poems, to which Garrigue, a musical poet herself, is wonderfully sensitive.

  • Hadas, Pamela White. Marianne Moore, Poet of Affection. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1977.

    An impressionistic set of readings sharply criticized by Moore specialists (see, e.g., Marianne Moore Newsletter [cited under Journal] 1.2 [1977]: 17–18) for its lack of a factual framework and free-associative style. Still, Hadas’s poetic instincts lead her to brilliant insights into poems deemed insuperably difficult by many more scholarly critics.

  • Holley, Margaret. The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    This career study traces the full arc of Moore’s development with focus and precision. Especially illuminating on Moore’s prosody and poetics as these change over time. One of the best introductions to the work, along with Costello 1981, whose thematic approach complements Holley’s developmental one.

  • Martin, Taffy. Marianne Moore, Subversive Modernist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.7560/738195

    As against critics who emphasize Moore’s normative aspect, her striving for moral and aesthetic “stability and harmony” (Costello 1981, p. 109), Martin presents Moore as “subversive” avant-gardist, “the most consistent quality of [whose] poetry is its instability” (p. 92). More lively polemic than true overview, but a course-changer in Moore studies.

  • Miller, Cristanne. Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674430655

    In the course of drawing out the political implications of Moore’s poetic practice, deftly works through several major debates in the literature: around Moore’s relation to feminism (see Moore and Feminism), the relation of her conservative personality to her radical aesthetic, and the relation of her rebarbative early poems to the more ingratiating late work.

  • Slatin, John M. The Savage’s Romance: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.

    Penetrating account of the life and work to 1935; dismissive of Moore’s later development. Virtuosic close readings, with particular attention to Moore’s use of quotation, into which Slatin reads an “allusive code” (p. 19) that links Moore’s writing to “the Anglo-American poetic tradition from which she seems to stand aloof” (p. 11).

  • Stapleton, Laurence. Marianne Moore: The Poet’s Advance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

    Mixes belletristic appreciations of the poems with innovative applications of materials from the archive. Still valuable for its archival discoveries, and for its extended argument in favor of Moore’s late work. Only overview to devote a chapter to Moore’s translation of the Fables of La Fontaine.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.