Marianne Moore: Poetry

April 9, 2010

Sound Mind and Sound Body at Bryn Mawr

Filed under: Biographical Essays — by moore123 @ 12:47 pm
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Constance Applebee. 1873-1981

British born Constance Applebee graduated from the British College of Physical Education. When she came to Harvard to take a summer course, classmates asked her to demonstrate field hockey, then popular in England. She soon became Director of Aathletics at Vassar and she traveled among women’s colleges introducing the sport.

In 1904, M. Carey Thomas appointed Constance Applebee Athletic Director at Bryn Mawr College. Many “scientists” of the era thought that women were too frail for active sports or–worse–that vigorous physical activity endangered their reproductive ability. Miss Applebee, in establishing the school’s Department of Health, is said to have told President Thomas: “You want all these students to go out and do something in the world, to get the vote. What’s the good of their having the vote if they’re too ill to use it?”

Moore, of course, played field hockey and underwent all the other strenuous athletic assignments Applebee demanded (tennis was the sport that stuck). But Applebee did not limit her advice to the athletic field. In a letter home of February 21, 1909, Moore says that Applebee gave her a book to read, a kind of manual for success that advocated memory training and bemoaned  “vagueness” and lauded “docility and initiative” and memory training.

The book was Rational Living: Some Practical Inferences from Modern Psychology by Henry Churchill King (New York: Macmillan, 1908).  Chapter VII, “The Unity of the Mind: Suggestions for Living,” has this to say: “Among the intellectual hindrances to character, there should be named one special effect of intellectual vagueness. It is intellectual vagueness, I believe, which gives the chief danger to many forms of temptation.” (p. 130).

And concerning Josiah Royce’s promoting docility and initiative: “[Royce says:} ‘The sort of mental initiative which is especially in question in the present discussion is that which appears when already acquired, and intelligent habits are decidedly altered, or are decidedly recombined, in such fashion as to bring to pass the novel readjustment to our environment.’ This is the recognition of “critical points” in our development. Now, our mental life and growth manifestly require both docility and initiative; each must have its due place and recognition.” (p. 34)

Churchill exalts memory training: “But the most direct intellectual help to a wise conduct of life comes from clearness and definiteness in memory, imagination, and thinking. To remember with distinctness the entire and exact consequences of previous experiences, to be able to set before oneself with vivid and detailed imagination even the remote results of the action now contemplated—this is to be able to call to one’s aid the strongest motives to righteousness.”

“Vagueness” is of interest to Moore’s readers since it was a theme of her English professors’ lamentations about her prose and is perhaps not far from her later “obsurity.” Docility and initiative and give the reader of Moore’s early poems that take critical stances much to ponder. Memory training certainly served the poet well, at least as an aid to observation.

But as Moore concludes in her letter, in the words of philosophy professor Thedore De Laguna, Churchill is “a little pious.” Moore was studying with De Laguna that semester and taking psychology as well.

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