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Steepletop Library: The Books of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Marianne Moore, Poems

Poems

Title page of Marianne Moore's Poems, London: The Egoist Press, 1921. Screenshot from copy posted on the Internet Archive.

Marianne Moore’s first book, Poems, was published on July 7, 1921 without her knowledge or consent. Two friends, the poet H.D. and a rich young Englishwoman named Bryher, were convinced that she was a genius and must publish a book. So, despite Moore’s own repeated demurrals, they appropriated some of the poems she had been publishing in modernist magazines and some that she had given them in manuscript, arranged them in an order of their choosing, and published them through the Egoist Press, a small London-based concern run by Harriet Shaw Weaver (also a fan of Moore’s) that had been created for the purpose of publishing modernist works.

Moore was understandably angry: she’d have called her first book Observations instead of Poems and would have picked different poems and put them in a different order. She also believed that she hadn’t written enough poems for a book yet and that those she had written weren’t as good as she could manage. Still, it can only have been flattering to have such determined admirers, and she remained on good terms with everyone who had been involved in the book’s production. (Leavell 3351–3421)

This first book of Marianne Moore’s is not the only book by Moore in the Steepletop library: there is also a copy of Moore’s 1941 collection What Are Years. Two other books published by the Egoist Press are also in the Steepletop Library: Richard Aldington’s Greek Songs in the Manner of Anacreon of 1919 and H.D.’s Hymen, also published 1921. Given that the Egoist Press was active only from 1916 to 1930 and published only a few dozen titles by a dozen or so modernists, three titles from that press is a fairly large number to own. It may well be that Millay bought these books during her 1921–1922 trip to Europe, perhaps in early September 1922, when Millay was in London staying at the American Women’s Club, less than a mile and a half from the headquarters of The Egoist Press (Macdougall 159).

Millay and Moore were similar in a few respects, though chiefly in shallow commonalities of place and time and generation rather than in poetic style and subject. Moore was just five years older than Millay, and in the 1910s and 1920s they were both soaking up the literary passions and principles of Greenwich Village, often living within a few blocks of one another (Village & Soho Map). Yet the two poets certainly felt very different from one another and were so regarded by their contemporaries as well as by later readers. Millay took lovers and Moore did not, but that difference is almost inconsequential compared to the difference in their work. Millay had little interest in modernist innovations in language and image, while Moore’s work so exemplified modernism that modernism’s evangelists ignored Moore’s own wishes in order to draft her on their side of the great new literary battle. In the twenties at least, Millay’s modernity was all in her life and Moore’s was all in her poetry.

Millay’s third book of poems, Second April, was also published in 1921, and that work’s themes of love and death, its botanic imagery of blue-flag and bayberry, its allusions to and echoes of classical lyrics, Renaissance libertine sonnets, and folk ballads could not be more dissimilar from Moore’s Poems. Compare, for instance, Moore and Millay treating a similar image, that of the rose. Moore’s “Roses Only” is a tonally learned philosophical exercise in appreciating roses (and by extension, women) for their defenses instead of for their beauty:

                    But rose, if you are brilliant, it
is not because your petals are the without-which-nothing of pre-eminence.
     You would look, minus
thorns, like a what-is-this, a mere

peculiarity. They are not proof against a worm, the elements, or mildew
     but what about the predatory hand?

The octave of Millay’s sonnet VI, by contrast, adopts a deliberately archaic language and treats the rose in the traditional poetic manner as an emblem of love. But the first eight lines set up a typical Millay twist in the sestet, one in which her own modern freedom to take a number of lovers is slyly declared, predicated on the simultaneously transitory and eternal nature of both roses and love:

No rose that in a garden ever grew
In Homer’s or in Omar’s or in mine,
Though buried under centuries of fine
Dead dust of roses, shut from sun and dew
Forever, and forever lost from view,
But must again in fragrance rich as wine
The grey aisles of the air incarnadine
When the old summers surge into a new.
Thus when I swear “I love with all my heart,”
’Tis with the heart of Lilith that I swear,
’Tis with the love of Lesbia and Lucrece;
And thus as well my love must lose some part
Of what it is, had Helen been less fair,
Or perished young, or stayed at home in Greece.

Marianne Moore was not a fan of Millay’s: Leavell reports that Moore "had never approved of Edna St. Vincent Millay or her poetry, but watching Millay play ‘the extreme damsel in distress’ at the [Brooklyn] Institute [in the 1930s], she acknowledged that Millay ‘sells herself well’ (254). Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, there is no evidence that Moore returned the compliment Millay paid her of owning her books. The Rosenbach Museum and Library owns Marianne Moore’s books, a collection of about two thousand volumes sold to them by the poet in 1968: none of them are by Millay (Rosenbach, Fuller).

References

Abbott, Craig S. Marianne Moore : A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977. Print.

Bazin, Victoria. Marianne Moore and the Cultures of Modernity. Farnham, Surrey, GBR: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2010. Ebrary e-book.

Fuller, Elizabeth E. Phone call with Elizabeth E. Fuller, Librarian at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. 14 Jan. 2015.

Leavell, Linda. Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore. Reprint edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. Kindle e-book.

Macdougall, Allan Ross, ed. The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1952. Print.

Molesworth, Charles. Marianne Moore : A Literary Life. New York : Atheneum, 1990. Print.

Rosenbach Museum and Library. “Marianne Moore Collection.” Rosenbach Museum and Library. Web. 13 Jan. 2015. http://rosenbach.org/learn/collections/marianne-moore-collection.

“Village & SoHo Map - Literary & Writers.” Web. 27 Oct. 2014. http://www.nycatelier.com/map-writers.html.

Marianne Moore, Poems