Critics have long attended to Marianne Moore’s paradoxical drawing together of such opposites as freedom and discipline, commonality and quiddity, and celebrity and celibacy. This article explores another paradoxical vein in her poetic career: public solitude. For her, public life and solitude were not only compatible but, in fact, depended on one another. Moore had a high view of public (and especially civic) virtue and responsibility, which she brought to bear on her late-life celebrity, but for her it was solitude that made both literary productivity and public life possible in the first place. As her own social life suggests, solitude need not be synonymous with isolation. But if, as in her view, public life is defined by service to a community, such service is rooted in a reserve of solitude. In Moore’s poetry, then, a public is constituted of solitary persons, and living a useful life is made possible by nourishing one’s own solitude and valuing the solitude of others. Ultimately, this essay argues that the idea of public solitude can help us understand Moore’s poetics, the strategies and structures that defined her engagement with poetry. Although consistently important, public solitude took on new urgency for her in the World War II years and beyond, when Moore developed from an obscure champion of modernism to a widely read national figure.
Marianne Moore’s Public Solitude
Alex Mouw is a doctoral candidate and Lynne Cooper Harvey Fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. His scholarship and poems have appeared in a variety of venues, including recent work in Literature and Theology, Southern Review, and Massachusetts Review.
Alex Mouw; Marianne Moore’s Public Solitude. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2022; 68 (4): 409–436. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-10237782
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