LRJ In The 21st Century

Laura (Riding) Jackson in the Twenty-First Century

Cornell University, October 28, 2010

Laura (Riding) Jackson’s “Universal Linguistic Solution”
Anett Jessop, University of California, Davis

“The universality of meanings is the inspiration of language, the soul
of being is in this.”

Under the Mind’s Watch1

As concluding speaker at this conference, I offer some final words on this immediate occasion, in preparation for Laura (Riding) Jackson’s words continual—her vision and its promise in the 21st century. I intentionally evoke the organizing categories of the 1938 Collected Poems—“Poems of Immediate Occasion,” “Poems of Final Occasion,” and “Poems Continual”—and more specifically this definitive collection in its 1980 materialization, as it preserves the belief Riding once had in poetry and offers her reflections for poetry’s afterwards in language. (Riding) Jackson was always and ever in pursuit of “a universal linguistic solution”—first in poetry-writing and in her writings-about-poetry, then in the many lexicographical projects across the 1930s as well as in her collaborative advocacies (“The Covenant of Literal Morality” and The World and Ourselves), and finally in her linguistic investigations culminating in the Jackson’s opus, Rational Meaning. She persisted throughout her life as, in her words, “a traveller in a path in which I have moved by the three human orientation-scanners language, literature, life, as covering the entire topography of human existence, and as magnetized to the same pole of truth.” [2] (Riding) Jackson’s triumvirate— Language-Literature-Life— embody the coordinating commitments upon which she forged her vision of a “universal linguistic solution,” where the “linguistic ultimate” would manifest the truth about ourselves and our world.


Riding first believed in the special property of poetic language to access truth. Her preface, “To the Reader,” to the Collected Poems of 1938, asserts her conviction in poetry’s potential: “A poem is an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth.” [3] What the reader will gain in the difficult task of reading poetry is the development and exercise of a unique faculty of discernment, an expansion of the mind in its encounter with truth in language. This truth that poetry uncovers, she tells us, is a universalizing reality which encompasses and comprehends the parts in terms of the whole and offers a heightened experience of being: “To live in, by, for the reasons of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence. When we are so continuously habituated that there is no temporal interruption between one poetic incident (poem) and another, then we have not merely poems—we have poetry; we have not merely the immediacies—we have finality. Literally.” [4] At this stage of first achievement, Riding realizes the fusion of literature in language and life. However, the status of poetry as a separate discourse was what came to be its disappointment. As a poet, Riding could pen: “…For in peculiar earth alone can I / Construe the word and let the meaning lie / That rarely may be found” (“As Well as Any Other”) [5] ; her growing concerns about language that lead to her renunciation required a turn from private expression to the literal, and what she came to believe to be the responsibilities of language-users to their language. In the retrospective “Author’s Introduction” to the 1980 reissue of the collection, The Poems of Laura Riding: A Newly Revised Edition of the 1938/1980 Collection, (Riding) Jackson explains: “I did not know when I put the final touches to Collected Poems for the 1938 edition that I had reached a limit in the possibility of holding these commitments within one frame of endeavor….The universal linguistic solution hangs suspended in poetry, and, so long as it does, human beings cannot know what kind of beings they are, cannot speak themselves with whole consciousness of their being speaking beings, and what this lays upon them to require of themselves.” [6] What was to come for Riding, following the 1938 Collected Poems, was, in many ways, less a renunciation of poetry than poetry’s something after, an evolvement she describes as “a developing sensibility, above the personal or professional, reflecting consciousness-at-large of the approach of human life in the whole to a term, and of there being, to come, something after.” [7] Riding’s post-1940 researches would commit to an unequivocal ‘literal’ through the investigation of linguistic principles. Still, she never did forsake literature—it remained for Riding a frame of endeavor where minds co-occur and, in its best manifestations, is “a love-letter addressed by human beings to themselves.” [8]

The epiphany at the center of her renunciation was that it was not the poets who would lead us to language rather that language which should lead us. This realization dethroned the poet as an especially-appointed speaker and instead made language’s providence the inheritance of all. “My faith in poetry,” she wrote, “was at heart a faith in language as the elementary wisdom.” [9] Language is the “teacher, the revealer both of how much exists to be known, and of ways of knowing it.” [10] Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words is the Jacksons’ dedication to “teach[ing] how language’s teachings might be freshly understood.” [11] At core, Rational Meaning is concerned with meaning, truth, knowledge, responsibility, and ultimately human survival. Riding’s “general actuality of language” sits squarely on the premise that the nature of language and human nature are intrinsically bound, and bridged by mind: “We see people and language as inseparable, in the relationship—see language as organically necessary to human nature, coming into existence as a possession of human beings following from their nature.” [12] Language is the “human mind’s organ of rationality” with a “function of ordering thought into the express forms we call truth.” [13] As such, language rationally orders thinking, emotion, and communications in the linguistic articulation of truth, in the sense of “true” meaning.

To know language, fundamentally, is to distinguish the definitions of words and to use words in a deliberate and mindful way. Words are a language’s “internal content” and its “apparatus of meaning.” [14] Conjoined in Rational Meaning as “meaning-entities,” words and their meanings are inextricable and self-completing. Knowing language is more than vocabularistic fluency; it is an ontological rapport with words as thought-entities. Countering much modern theory, Riding refused to make peace with “indeterminancy”: (Riding) Jackson held that linguistic stability establishes trust and constancy in language and aligns the integrity of meanings to words. Indeed, words serve as anchors of stability in a world commonly believed to be relativistic. Riding moved to stabilize linguistic meaning—not as a reactionary and conservative strategy—but as an intellectual, humanistic, and ultimately civic strategy for survival. To know language is as much a requirement for conscious life as self-knowledge; in fact, they are coequivalent inasmuch as “language is the human mind’s organizer of knowledge, the knowledge of it is the prerequisite of intellectually responsible existence.” [15] The drive behind Rational Meaning is ethical and educative, for “good” usage always generates truth and will occasion “the reinvigoration of the intellectual processes of modern consciousness.” [16]

From Emergencies to Emergence

Rational Meaning’s pressing objective is a conviction of modernity’s failure, or, more precisely, modernity failing humanity. During the modern period, (Riding) Jackson claims, there has been a weakening of “linguistic consciousness” and erosion of knowledge as “definitive,” down to “the experimental, the qualified, the relative.” [17]The problems of language are problems in the decline in modern intellectual life and a loss of faith in reason. The world is in disorder because we cannot think in an orderly way and do not hold human nature up as “not senseless,” that is, believe nihilistically that human life has no meaning.[18]  With increasing urgency (and often biting criticism)—expressed across the three prefaces and one forward (1973, 1976, 1985, 1986) written as the author awaits publication—(Riding) Jackson sees this “book of hope” as “the only medicine” for a failing age: “the immurement of contemporary human life in a programmatic disestablishment of the will-to-think—and intellectuality of mechanistic, self-performing, theory preempting the role of mind.” [19] Collapse of intellectual responsibility has resulted in a privileging of scientific method (as inquiry from the outside, usurping a human-centered search for knowledge), the atomization of knowledge into specificity camps, tolerance for ambiguity and indeterminacy, a model of contemporary mind as “ancillary cybernetics to the operations of the ‘unconscious,’” [20] and collective alienation that is “not meeting of minds, but scattering of minds.” [21] The present emergency in language, literature, and life has “[t]he bonds of language droop in a vast slackening, words spoken without the force of sure meaning, in mutual poor faith. The literary dedication has diminished to a career of aggrandized mind fulfilling itself in public strutting….The pursuit of literature has become the public arena of an irreligion in which the import of human life is thinned away into a free-for-all diversity of opinion on it, the absolute sense of the total relativity of which is no-opinion.”[22]

The New Foundation proclaimed in the book’s title is a reconstitution of language, a program for a “humanly new, and humanly remedial, reapproach to language.” [23] (Riding) Jackson explains: “I had my eyes on a general human emergence into a state of complete linguistic responsibility, in which the life-quality of words and that of the use of them would be the same through adherence to meaning-values as truth-criteria.” [24] It is a utopian project that goes beyond standardizing, to reimagining. No linguistic community, she states, has ever achieved “rational identity with the common language,” in effect, the union of reason and speech as an ontological state. At once radical and recuperative, Riding proposes Rational Meaningas “a charter of human rights to the dignity of a speech of unlimited truth, and a declaration of linguistic independence from ideas of language that enslave the mind to other laws than those of its natural relation with its words.” [25] This is more than the ‘dream of a common language’; it is an ultimate prescription for a literate society.

“The Linguistic Ultimate” and the “Universal Linguistic Solution”

(Riding) Jackson came to require of all speech what she once saw as poetry’s special linguistic providence: a “purity of meaning and fullness of communication.” [26] “The linguistic ultimate,” she wrote, “—what language, of its provision for complete thinking and the saying of it, makes naturally possible—requires complete address of the mind to the undertaken commitment of human presence to communicate the mind’s humanly pertinent content….What is said is what there is in the mind to be said: and it is said with desire for its full delivery—and for its full reception. The ultimate in language is the ultimate in human self-identification as mind, minds.” [27] For (Riding) Jackson, the problems of language lie not in language but squarely in its speakers’ speaking. Our obligation to struggle “toward articulate intensification of thought” is the highest mission of human being and the way to comm-unity. The universal linguistic solution is the resolution of part and whole, the individual in the collective; it is a re-solution of ourselves in language. When reading pronouncements such as those above, one feels transported to a state that resembles the “poetic”—precisely because it is expansive, illuminating, and full of promise. In fact, (Riding) Jackson’s “linguistic ultimate” tells more than poetry ever could, and in the mind’s plain speaking.

(Riding) Jackson speaks her vision of the “good existence”: “I see a world of human existences, advanced to a high point of general awareness of the freedom of the individual human life to choose its individual nature, to be tearing off from itself the envelope of existence by which it is a world, and constituting itself a free condition, making human existence as a world of existence extracted from existence. I see myself, one who apprehended early the inclusive character of language, how in words human existence and all existence mingle in understandability, come to full pervadedness with the force of this actuality.” [28] Laura (Riding) Jackson reminds us that human being is a “matter of words” and that language gives us what the spirit wants: unity, interconnection, to know and to be known.


[1] Laura (Riding) Jackson, Under the Mind’s Watch: Concerning Issues of Language, Literature, Life of ContemporaryBearing. Ed. John Nolan and Alan J. Clark (Oxford, UK: Peter Lang, 2004) 145.
[2] Under the Mind’s Watch 25-26.
[3] Laura Riding, “To the Reader,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1938) xviii.
[4] Collected Poems  xxvii.
[5] Under the Mind’s Watch 25-26.
[6] Laura Riding, “To the Reader,” Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1938) xviii.[1] Collected Poems  xxvii.
[7] Laura Riding, “As Well as Any Other,” Collected Poems 43.
[8] Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Author’s Introduction,” The Poems of Laura Riding: A Newly Revised Edition of the 1938/1980 Collection. Ed. Mark Jacobs (Persea Books, 2001) xxxix.
[9] The Poems of Laura Riding: A Newly Revised Edition of the 1938/1980 Collection 494.
[10] “Preface,” Under the Mind’s Watch 24.
[11] Laura (Riding) Jackson, “The Road To, In, And Away From, Poetry,” The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Friedmann (New York: Persea Books, 2005) 251.
[12] Under the Mind’s Watch 27.
[13] Under the Mind’s Watch  27.
[14] Laura (Riding) Jackson and Schuyler B. Jackson. Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words. Ed. William Harmon (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997) 20.
[15] Rational Meaning 39.
[16] Rational Meaning 15.
[17] Rational Meaning 14.
[18] Rational Meaning 41.
[19] Rational Meaning 13.
[20] Rational Meaning 43.
[21] Rational Meaning 34-35.
[22] Rational Meaning 35.
[23] Rational Meaning 42.
[24] Rational Meaning 30.
[25] Rational Meaning 20.
[26] “The Road To, In, And Away From, Poetry,” The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Friedmann (New York: Persea Books, 2005) 250.
[27] Rational Meaning 8.
[28] “The Road To, In, And Away From, Poetry,” The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader 249.
[29] “Body & Mind And the Linguistic Ultimate,” The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader. Ed. Elizabeth Friedmann (New York: Persea Books, 2005) 331.
[30] Under the Mind’s Watch 26.