A Mannered Grace
The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson
by Elizabeth Friedmann
Persea Books, Inc. 2005
"A Karen and Michael Braziller book"
ISBN 0-89255-300-6 (hardcover)
From the Preface
No other woman writer in the twentieth century had comparable impact on the literature of America and England, yet Laura (Riding) Jackson remains one of our most elusive and puzzling literary figures. When she died in Florida in September 1991, at the age of ninety, the New York Times printed a sedate, two-column obituary identifying her as a "poet, critic, and co-founder with Robert Graves of various literary publishing ventures," and brief obituary notices were also carried in a few other major American newspapers; but when news of her death crossed the Atlantic, portions of the English press responded with a sensationalism usually reserved for the supermarket tabloids. "She was a witch," Sir Stephen Spender told the London Evening Standard, and soon afterward Jill Neville announced in the pages of the Independent Magazine: "I detest this woman," going on to characterize Laura Riding as a "megalomaniac" who "ran off with Robert Graves to Deya, Majorca, and caused immense suffering to his four children by his first wife, Nancy Nicholson". Full or half-page obituaries, with photographs, were carried in all the leading English newspapers, though there was considerable disagreement as to Laura (Riding) Jackson's literary importance. The Times obituarist concluded: "When the final verdict on twentieth-century poetry is given, she will have a very high place," and the Independent predicted that "it is as a gloriously practical visionary of language that Laura (Riding) Jackson will eventually be justly valued," but according to the Daily Telegraph, "In the last analysis the life of Laura Riding must serve chiefly as a cautionary tale-of cleverness unsanctified by humility, of power unredeemed by benevolence, and above all of human presumption swallowed up in the vast indifference of eternity".
Few writers have been so highly praised and fiercely damned as Laura (Riding) Jackson. Although her extraordinary poetry has drawn acclaim from some of the major literary figures of our time, her later work has been generally ignored or undervalued, while the incidents of her remarkable life have been exploited in the making of a grotesquely distorted legend. As is often the case with those whose intellectual quests do not follow fashion. she has been scorned, patronized, dismissed, even despised by those who have sought to inflate their own reputations by belittling her achievements. The fact of her being female has made possible the epithet of "witch". It is a label that has been employed throughout history to defuse the power of women whose presences did not fit into conventional ideas of female propriety and passivity.
Today Laura (Riding) Jackson is probably best known as Robert Graves' first "muse" or, among those whose interest is literature rather than literary journalism, the poet who renounced poetry. The former designation is one that has been applied repeatedly by Graves' biographers, who portray their subject as having been enchanted by Laura Riding, falling helplessly pathologically under her spell. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that Robert Graves produced his best work during his 14-year association with Laura Riding in England and Mallorca.
In 1938 W.H. Auden called her "the only living philosophical poet," and in 1939 Robert Fitzgerald expressed the hope that with the publication of her Collected Poems, "the authority, the dignity of truth-telling, lost by poetry to science, may gradually be regained." Such leading contemporary poets as John Ashbery and Ted Hughes have acknowledged their indebtedness to her, and in awarding her the Bollingen Prize in 1991, the judges cited her "originality" that "continues to astonish". But although her lifelong commitment was to literature, she never looked at that commitment in a narrow sense. Even in her earliest days as a poet, she felt that literature offered opportunity for the interpretation of individual experience as a contribution to the realisation of the highest aspirations of human existence.
"Life is a mannered grace of moving," she wrote in an early poem, and that mannered grace that she so assiduously maintained throughout her life brought accusations of egotism, snobbery, personal vanity and megalomania. She has been described as a divided woman, continually re-creating herself, but those who knew her well recognised that her life had an inner consistency of thought and purpose rare in her time. What has been characterised as judgmental egotism was a scrupulosity of adherence to the principle of the good in human conduct and relations. What has been described as vanity was a healthy self-respect. What has been described as obscurity in her writings is in fact a care in word-use virtually unknown in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Laura (Riding) Jackson's renunciation of poetry has been dismissed as inexplicable eccentricity or laboriously explained in psychoanalytical terms. Yet her final apprehension of the flawed nature of poetic utterance came as the result of an arduous intellectual journey that spanned two decades.
"To be alive is to be curious," she wrote in another early poem, and her intense curiosity never waned - even as a bed-ridden octogenarian she read the latest books in science and philosophy and questioned her nurses about their experiences and beliefs. Decades before feminists coined the catchphrase equating the personal and the political, Laura Riding was exploring ways in which a sense of personal integrity could bring about world order and peace. She is the first modern woman to discern that gender differences must be neither ignored nor magnified, but identified and reconciled. She recognized the flaws in the socialism of her father's generation and in the feminism of her own, and some of her earliest writings presage the ecological dilemmas facing generations to come. Her lifelong quest was for a way of right living, based on right speaking. Though serious in her dedication to finding solutions to the problems of human existence, she refused to be aligned with any 'isms,' insisting that human beings should abjure what is divisive and temporal and concentrate their efforts toward communicating to one another the innate spiritual knowledge that is their human legacy.
For her, the bonds of love and friendship were never to be loosely tied. She expected loyalty from her friends and often felt herself betrayed by those in whom she placed the greatest trust. There were lovers, but only one enduring love, Schuyler Jackson, who engaged her body, mind, and spirit in full devotion.