Michael Kirkham Focus On Robert Graves

[A Note by Jack Blackmore is appended beneath this essay, followed by a letter of response to Michael Kirkham from Laura (Riding Jackson.]


Edited by Ellsworth Mason, University of Colorado Library, Boulder, Colorado

Number 3, December 1973.

Robert Graves’s Debt to Laura Riding 

by Michael Kirkham

A greater familiarity with Laura Riding’s work, acquired since the publication of my study of Graves’s poetry in 1969, has involved for me a reassessment of Graves’s achievement. As I tried to show in my book, he derived much in manner and thought from Laura Riding’s work, and the signs of ‘discipleship[1] in his poems offer a unique opportunity for comparative evaluation.

The fact itself of his indebtedness suggests certain questions. What actually happens to the thought, manner and diction of Laura Riding when they are evacuated from their original context and resettled in the very different environment of his? Do they lose their original potency? If so, do they gain a different kind of life? Are his motives for using them different from hers in creating them? To know how he uses her work, I decided, would be to know how good his poetry is.

I have discovered that the extent of Graves’s dependence upon Laura Riding’s work is even more considerable than I had inferred from the limited evidence gathered for my book; and this needs to be demonstrated at some length before one can attempt to answer the questions posed in the previous paragraph. I do not want to be mistaken: my primary intention is not - or not merely - to establish and illustrate Graves’s indebtedness, but to lay the ground for a critical comparison between the two poets.

The chief premise of Laura Riding’s thought is that the truly contemporary mind is “finally, rather than historically, alive”[2]. By “finality,” she means the end of existence dominated by the physical and circumstantial and the beginning of life lived in the mind. “The human mind has reached the end of temporal progress... The future, that is, contains nothing but scientific development. It is an involuntary spending and manipulation of physical forces, empty of consciousness: it no longer matters”[3]. We are alive finally “by the degree to which we ourselves exist in thought rather than in history, and place reality in meanings rather than things”[4]. The missing factor from historical living is value, and to exist in thought is to create a world of “completeness and order ­a universe of values”[5].

Graves’s association with Laura Riding ended in 1939 but her work has continued to provide material for his poems. In the sixties the notion of finality, time’s end, became a central one. We hear of the Black Goddess, who succeeds the White Goddess as, in Laura Riding’s thought, finality and full consciousness succeed history and merely bodily existence: for the Black Goddess represents “a final reality of love”, and where the poet’s sufferings under the rule of the White Goddess resulted from his embroilment with Time and the compulsions of the flesh, now he has come to a condition of timelessness and her dark sister “may even appear disembodied rather than incarnate”[6]. The lovers in ‘Iron Palace”[7], a poem contemporary with this statement, “live detached from force of circumstance, / As history neared its ending.” ‘Fact of the Act'[8] speaks of “True love uncircumstantial.” ‘The Worms of History’, written in the early forties, describes an end of history, after which “excellence” (Laura Riding’s “universe of values”) continues to live. God, says the poem, is only a name for “excellence”, which is contrasted with “those lesser powers of life that God had groaned against but not annulled.” This distinction copies one drawn by Laura Riding: “The lesser realities have now been articulated in their possible numbers, and the human mind is on the verge of the greater reality”[9].

‘End of Play’ is also about the supersession of historical, physical existence by life in the mind. But it employs another set of images, for which, however, Laura Riding is also the source. In an essay entitled ‘The End of the World, And After’ she writes: “We have been lolling about in a perfectly disgusting way for thousands and thousands of years;” against such idleness she argues that “to reduce existence...to the size of active thought is surely more exciting than pleasure”[10]. Both indictment and assertion reappear in Graves’s poem. “We have reached the end of pastime,” it begins, and “We have at last ceased idling”. Though the old deceitful love of the senses has died,

Yet love survives, the word carved on a sill
Under antique dread of the headman’s axe;
It is the echoing mind, as in the mirror
We stare on our dazed trunks at the block kneeling.

Bodily existence has been not so much “reduced” as cut off, and the disembodiment of thought is represented as a more painful business by Graves than by Laura Riding. What is metaphor here becomes myth in The White Goddess and the poems which, like ‘Darien’, came out of it.

The underlying distinction in ‘End of Play’ is between the sloth of body and the alertness of mind, and it is basic to Laura Riding’s view of things. “Our bodies may sleep, our bodies which exist in the past” - that is, in a historical rather than a final consciousness - “but our minds do not, cannot - our minds which once shared in the sleep of our bodies”[11]. Often in her work the distinction is rendered as the difference between the sleep of life and the final waking of death. “The ages of time represent degrees of wakefulness merely... We are now wide awake - or we are not. So ends the world, so ends sleep, so ends the physical diffusion of our minds”[12]. Set this with her poem ‘Sleep Contravened’[13]:

Sleep forgotten is sleep contravened,
Sleep contravened is much longer mind,
More thought, more speaking....

Graves’s ‘Like Snow’ depends heavily on this constellation of images:

She, then, like snow in a dark night
Fell secretly. And the world waked
With dazzling of the drowsy eye....

Snow falls like finality - “holding” yet cancelling “the histories of the night,” or the night of history.

Frequently the contrast is simply between nature - life of the senses and mind. To start with Graves: Nature, notoriously, gets short shrift in his poem ‘Nature’s Lineaments’: her “pleasures are excreting, poking, / Havocking and sucking, / Sleepy licking.” Tacitly the poem is about sex - the speaker seems to be a disgruntled lover - and, in fact, the idea seems to derive from an early essay about sex by Laura Riding. The child, she notes, “innocently indulges it­self in sensual pleasures. It loves kissing and to be kissed, stroking and to be stroked, fondly contemplating its excretions”[14].

Again, with the poem’s jibe against Nature, “That all she has of mind / Is wind,” compare the same essay’s indictment: “This grotesque of socialized sex comes of the stupid attempt of intelligent man to make nature intelligent”[15]. We have the same contrast between mind and nature in ‘Recalling War’, one of Graves’s best poems. Part of the falsity of the war experience, the poem states, is that after twenty years, in retrospect, it “now assumes the nature-look of time,” and that “Our youth became all-flesh and waived the mind.” ‘Ulysses’ speaks bitterly of sex: “flesh had made him blind... Flesh set one purpose in the mind/ Triumph of flesh....”  In ‘Down, Wanton, Down!’ the male organ is addressed as “my wit­less”. The jeering question that follows - “When were you made a man of parts / To think fine and, profess the arts” - recalls a satirical reference by Laura Riding to man’s “fine phallus-proud works-of-art”[16].

Her views about man and woman follow from the ideas connected with the words ‘history’ and ‘finality’. Man lives in history, the physical, temporal world; woman lives in the final reality of general meaning and value - the eternal here and now. This is the reason, in Graves’s ‘Theseus and Ariadne’ for the quietly drawn distinction between her living in the present and his almost lachrymose insistence upon the power of time. “[H]e dreams”, in the sleep of time, of the past, in memory dwelling on, finding reality in, what he imagines is decayed:

He sighs: ‘Deep sunk in my erroneous past
She haunts the ruins and the ravaged lawns’.

And thus he misses the timeless reality. She, on the other hand, lives only in that “greater reality.”

Of him, now all is done, she never dreams
But calls a living blessing down upon
What he supposes rubble and rank grass.

The word often used by Laura Riding - she once apologized for overusing it[17]­ is ‘immediacy’. When we have “reached the end of temporal progress”, she writes, we “behave with more and more fatally decisive immediacy”[18]. It is a word which Graves has found similarly useful. In a late poem, ‘The Wedding’, the miracle hailed by the poet is the lovers’ living with immediacy: while they are joined “forever and a day” (a kind of punning adaptation of the fairy tale formula to the double meaning of ‘immediacy’), “crowds of almost-men and almost-women / Howl for their lost immediacy.”

To continue with Laura Riding’s respective characterizations of man and woman. Woman is whole and single, man is divided and various. (Male and female are also classifications. “Female consciousness personalizes the singleness of truth in an entirety of diversified meaning; male consciousness personalizes diversity of meaning in an entirety of unique truth”[19]). This has influenced Graves’s conceptions. In The White Goddess he says that woman is divine because she is whole; man “is divine not in his single person, but only in his twinhood”. “Man envies her and tells himself lies about his own completeness.”[20] Again, as with the figure of beheading in ‘End of Play’, an idea of Laura Riding’s has become, by way of metaphor, an important element in Graves’s myth; for ‘twinhood’ here, of course, refers to the poet’s light and dark selves represented by the two heroes that do battle for the favor of the Goddess. Interestingly, in Collected Poems 1914-1947 Graves amended one word in an early poem, ‘The Hills of May’: the inaccessible woman in the poem, who originally “loved with a calm heart”, now “loved with a whole heart.”

A development of this last of Laura Riding’s characterizations of the sexes is this: “Variety is the male making, oneness is the female consistency of the making”[21]. This formulation may be set alongside some sentences written in a language adapted to the understanding of Graves’s young daughter: “People [she means men] who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing”[22]. It needs no ingenuity to find in all this the source of the title of a late Graves poem, and of the thought it summarizes: ‘Man Does, Woman Is’.

With this character woman has some of the attributes of deity, and there are several mother-goddesses in Laura Riding’s work. But Laura Riding is no mythographer; for her the sexual division is a universal classification, and her goddesses are presented wittily, ironically, and fantastically, and clearly figure the female category of general Truth, Reality as One. They prefigure, of course, Graves’s own White Goddess, whose thought-status, however, is not so clear; in Her he converts a playful fiction which is yet of serious ontological intent into a solemn legend of spine-chilling intent. In Laura Riding’s story ‘Eve’s Side of It’[23] we meet the creatrix Lilith. There is the “mother-god” in‘A Film Scenario’[24], and Lady Port Huntlady in ‘Reality as Port Huntlady’[25]. But let me take Miss Banquett[26] as an example. As her name suggests, she represents the abundance of Reality-in-itself, reality before realization, Life in its essence. In the story she takes a voyage and populates the world of Cosmania so that Truth may be seen as Truth (manifest itself as Beauty). Each race created in Cosmania is a partial manifestation of Miss Banquett, never the whole of her. She becomes Love-goddess to each race, choosing (like the White Goddess) a man from each as partner. Finally, she withdraws from her created world, back into herself, Reality, and there she is “sufficient to herself”[27].

Resistant, impenetrable self-sufficiency is the quality in woman most admired by Graves. In ‘New Legends’ he pictures a new Andromeda, “Chained to no cliff, / Asking no rescue of me,” and a new Atalanta, “Ever ahead, / Acquitting me of rivalry.” But this quality is also the cause most frequently mentioned in the poems for the poet’s torment. In ‘Deed of Gift’ the loved woman “gave her­self to herself, this time for good”, but, the poet is constrained to ask, “What debt of true love did she leave unpaid?” In ‘Lyceia’ she has to protest, against the animal solicitations of men, that “My beauty is my own.” Compare also these lines -    

All the wolves of the forest
Howl for Lyceia,
Crowding together
In a close circle
Tongues a-loll 

with these from Laura Riding’s ‘The Last Covenant’, in which Reality is personalized as female:

Over this seeming she now rises.
Venus, they say, so rose.
But shameful, to be loved, divided,
Fed to the mathematic hounds
Whose pack increased of her,
Made whelpish worlds to howl profusion.

It is notable that Laura Riding’s goddesses are mother-goddesses. The “pretty masterpieces”, man’s works-of-art, earn “woman’s maternal indulgence; she is full of admiration, kind but weary. When, she sighs, will man grow up, when will he become woman, when will she have companions instead of children?”[28] The tone of this, “kind but weary”, is to be heard in some of her poems too. A deity addresses her subjects in ‘Benedictory’, assuring them in spoken-to-the-child accents, that final Reality will not hurt when she brings it to them: “My loves, it happens sweet. It is a mothering wisdom.” It is exactly the goddess’s tone in Graves’s poem ‘Rhea’ as she addresses the elements (from whose violence so-called “divine” Augustus and Gaius have fled in fear):

Rain, thunder, lightning: pretty children.
‘Let them play’, her mother-mind repeats;
They do no harm, unless from high spirits
Or by mishap.

For Graves, as for Laura Riding, woman’s role is primarily maternal. He notes it in The White Goddess: “Woman worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man’s dependence on her for life”[29].

Laura Riding’ theory of the sexual relationship, as set out in an essay entitled ‘Idea of God’,[30] starts from a distinction between a subjective and an objective orientation of the mind. Subjective feeling is to rest your understanding of something on the emotions you have about it; it constitutes an attempt to possess what is felt. Objective feeling is “to feel in the sense of being affected without trying to understand it”; it applies “to what resists incorporation ­what is ‘bigger’ than yourself.” Starting from here Laura Riding develops a critical account of male attitudes. Man sees that woman exists behind the boundaries of his rational world - “the overflowing unknown quantity”[31]. Because he “has cultivated subjective feeling at the expense of objective feeling”, he feels his self-sufficiency endangered by the existence of this “something else”, this not-self unadaptable to his mode of understanding; he must impose himself on the universe, expunge the unknown. He therefore seeks to annul the mystery represented to him by woman. He does this either by deifying her - removing the challenge of the unknown to a distance - or by possessing her sexually, making “his subjective experience of her the complete experience.” Laura Riding speaks, in this connection, of “the emotional confusion of one mind with another”[32]. Graves’s satirical poem ‘The Thieves’, in which it is featured as the vice of lovers, evidently originates in this interpretation of sexual relations:

Lovers in the act dispense
With such meum-tuum sense
As might warningly reveal
What they must not pick or steal,
And their nostrum is to say:
‘I and you are both away’...
Neither can be certain who
Was that I whose mine was you.

Man uses woman, the essay continues, as “an instrument of his subjectivity; as such she is what he ‘loves’, identifies with himself.” Therefore she has only two aspects for him, according to whether she complies or does not comply with his desires: he “interprets her behaviour either as endearingly submissive complaisance or as devilishly inhuman caprice.” This view of male psychology Graves adopted for his own in the early years of his association with Laura Riding, and it has remained with him ever since, tempered now, however, with a more indulgent attitude towards man. In the sixties he wrote that a poet “rejects the crude self-sufficient male intelligence, yet finds the mild complaisant Vesta insufficient for his spiritual needs.” He instead elects to worship “renascent primitive woman”, who treats him with cruel capriciousness[33]. The truth of the matter, of course, is that she only seems capricious, to the male eye. Cruelty is merely man’s interpretation of her need to defend, against his possessiveness, in Laura Riding’s words, “that aspect of her which is only accessible to objective feeling.” His refusal to acknowledge the limits of his subjective understanding, his persistence in trying to “incorporate” what is bigger than himself, combined with her refusal to be so possessed, turns woman into “the terrifying female figure of judgement” and leads, in terms of the White Goddess myth, to the ‘death’ of the poet-hero. Before that the clearest account in a poem by Graves of man behaving with the presumption of subjective feeling, suffering ‘death’, and being compelled to keep his distance, is in ‘A Love Story’. Woman’s consistency only seems self-contradiction, her wholeness ambivalence, to man, who seeks to use her for his own ends. It is male love that divides. As Graves writes in ‘To Sleep’, “The mind’s eye sees as the heart mirrors” - which is subjective seeing; “Loving in part I did not see you whole.” And, actually, a verbal model for this line appears in Laura Riding’s ‘It Is Not Sad’:

Not me you sat with, but a pathos
My partial image torn out of me.
Nor did you have me whole.

There are several Graves poems which diagnose subjectivity in man – ­lustfulness and romanticism are its symptoms - and implicitly or explicitly contrast it with woman’s objectivity. ‘The Foolish Senses’[34], for example, explains contemptuously that the lover’s suffering was self-engendered, not love at all:

That view is inward, foolish eye: your rolling
Flatters the outward scene
To spread with sunset misery.
Foolish throat,
That ill was colic, love its antidote...

The fear-created imaginings of the man in ‘A Jealous Man’ are also due to subjectivity - they create “a mind dream-enlarged” - and are contrasted with the calm if cold sanity of the woman. ‘Green Loving’[35] opposes two kinds of loving. “Green loving” is merely natural, mortal, physical love - green is “The hue loyal to beauty below sky seen - and it is man’s love.” (‘Green’ is used by Laura Riding in this sense in ‘The Tiger’[36] - “Eyes still from trees green-fresh / And full of tangled nature.”) “Green loving” is to hold “no more / Than dreaming images of your own substance.” It is distinguished from “clear sky, the clear eye” of objectivity, female love, and immortality:

You in woman’s beauty
 I shall love till I die,
As living green earthily
The immortal sky.

Lilith, creatrix and personalization of Reality-as-One, in Laura Riding’s story ‘Eve’s Side of It’, “knew there were going to be men, and that they were doomed creatures - creatures with hopeless ambitions and false thoughts.... They wanted to make more than there actually was.” This is man’s romanticism, his dissatisfaction with things as they are and blindness to what actually is. It is interesting that, although Graves’s evaluative standpoint has changed, he is referring to this element in man’s character when he speaks, as he has done recently, of a “solar perfectionism” in man and how the Muse-woman “could not be bound by his hopes for her perfectibility”[37]. Sun and moon symbolism plays an important part in Graves’s poems and mythological writings (and, as we shall see, even this is not without its precedents in Laura Riding): Sun for man, male love, the male mind, Moon for woman, female love, the female mind. The poet, he writes, is “Sun-like in his maleness and heroic pride.” In the same essay he says that the “final reality of love” will come about by a reconciliation of “lunar with solar time,”[38] repeating Laura Riding, who had declared that “love between male and female consciousness is the method by which life as love of truth is generated”[39]. ‘The Challenge’[40] the poem of Graves’s that most completely expounds her conception of the man-woman relationship, portrays the poet as a solar hero who once held woman in sexual dominion but has since been punished for his presumption.

In ancient days a glory swelled my thighs....
Sun was my crown, green grassflesh my estate....
Queens I had to try my glory on....
Time was my chronicler, my deeds age-new,
 And death no peril, nor decay of powers.
Glory sat firmly in my body’s thrones.

The sun of male love was lust, bound by time, nature and the senses. But the moon rose and “drained the wholesome colour from my realm.” The moon, then, is “another crown”, which man cannot possess, though “thievishly he longs / To diadem his head with stolen light”:

The Moon’s the crown of no high-walled domain
Conquerable by angry stretch of pride.

The moon’s rule broke the dominion of bodily love: “Glory was gone, and numb was all my flesh”. The poet’s physical world is now bounded by woman’s mental world, - "White horizons beyond touch”. Not only in general conception but in the kinds of meaning mediated by the symbolism this poem owes something to Laura Riding. From three of her poems I select the following lines for comparison. ‘Tale of Modernity ‘[41] speaks of lust as known by Shakespeare:

By night Lust most on other men
Its swollen pictures shone...
The sun in guise of Truth gave pardon...
‘0 sexual sun...’
The sun the bold, the moon the hidden...
The moon a whispering, white, smothered...
Truth seemed love grown cool as a brow,
And young as the moon...

‘All Things’[42] identifies man’s inordinate, romantic ambition with his “pride”, as Graves much later associated his “solar perfectionism” with his “heroic pride”:

All things once sun were
Which more and more was
The pride that could not he...
Impossibility of being sun,
Death’s too proud enemy.

The flaw in his pride is the impossibility of unaided nature surpassing nature (sun defeating death). The mind alone, in transcending nature, can transcend death. In ‘The Signs of Knowledge’[43] it is called “moon-sense”:

Let the thought see, let moon undazzle sun.
Sun of world, moon of word...
...undeath of mind-sight.

After this far from exhaustive investigation of Graves’s indebtedness to Laura Riding - I have avoided duplicating what is already adduced in my book - I can return to the question of their relative standing as poets. It is notable that, despite his heavy reliance on the content and style of her work, he never ceased to be a very different poet from her. The difference in their relation to a common body of thought (hers) is, it seems to me, the difference between a major and a minor poet. Comparison of her ‘World’s End’ with his ‘End of Play’ – each presenting an image of the same event, the end of history and the coming to a finality of consciousness - should be a fair test of this judgement..‘World’s End’ - to confine comment to the essential - lives entirely in the developing logic of its images.

The typanum is worn thin.
The iris is become transparent.
The sense has overlasted.
Sense itself is transparent.
Speed has caught up with speed.
Earth rounds out earth.
The mind puts the mind by.
Clear spectacle: where is the eye? 

All is lost, no danger
Forces the heroic hand.
No bodies in bodies stand
Oppositely. The complete world
Is likeness in every corner.
The names of contrast fall
Into the widening centre. 

A dry sea extends the universal.
No suit and no denial
Disturb the general proof.
Logic has logic, they remain
Locked in each other’s arms,
Or were otherwise insane,
With all lost and nothing to prove
That even nothing can live through love.

The feeling within the logic is the feeling of finality, of having arrived at the ultimate goal; one hears it in the end-stopped lines, the short unflowing rhythm with its emphatic, conclusive stresses. The feeling might be called impersonal, in the sense that it reflects, so to speak, everybody’s response to a general condition; a better word would be ‘suprapersonal’, to signify a going-beyond personality rather than a denial of it. A personal engagement is inherent in the wit that, contrasting “All is lost” with “no danger...”, triumphs  over the contrast and makes them mean the same. It is not a state without appropriate emotion, but the poet is there, living with unselfquestioning assurance within it: “No suit and no denial / Disturb the general proof.”

‘End of Play’, on the other hand, is full of strenuous personal emotion.

We have reached the end of pastime, for always,
Ourselves and everyone, though few confess it
Or see the sky other than, as of old,
A foolish smiling Mary-mantle blue;

Though life may still seem to dawdle golden
In some June landscape among giant flowers,
The grass to shine as cruelly green as ever,
Faith to descend in a chariot from the sky... 

We have at last ceased idling, which to regret
Were as shallow as to ask our milk-teeth back;
As many forthwith do, and on their knees
 Call lugubriously upon chaste Christ.

We tell no lies now, at last cannot be
The rogues we were - so evilly linked in sense
With what we scrutinized that lion or tiger
Could leap from every copse, strike and devour us...

Yet love survives, the word carved on a sill
Under antique dread of the headsman’s axe;
It is the echoing mind, as in the mirror
We stare on our dazed trunks at the block kneeling.

Though he says “We have reached the end of pastime” in the first line, the rest of the poem is not implicit in that statement, as Laura Riding’s poem is in her first line. The conclusiveness of Graves’s line is not a settled conclusiveness. Even there, and certainly in the whole stanza, Laura Riding’s merely unflowing rhythms have been exchanged for a movement curt with contempt and a vindictiveness that lashes out in “foolish”. Contempt that strikes out vindictively expresses insecurity in the poet: the excess of rejection implies the poet’s emotional involvement in the attitudes he rejects - the grass had been cruel to him, the pastoral illusions of golden times of infinite leisure in a larger-than-life landscape were his. The conclusiveness of the new love, that “survives”, does not bring real conclusion, for it is expressed in an image of pain, which brings the poem, as usually in Graves, to a deadlock of opposing emotions, not as in ‘World’s End’ to an identity of opposites. Laura Riding’s poem has a securer grasp of its experience, an inwardness with her values. I do not ‘believe in’ Graves’s surviving love as a thing-in-itself: the image is there as a whip to beat the dog (of himself) with. The loud excess of “foolish”, ”lugubriously”, “evilly”, as often in Graves, asks to be taken as a satiric gesture, a struck attitude; but if we take it as such the nature of the poem is left in doubt: does he feel like this or doesn't he? Laura Riding means what she says, is where the poem says she is; and this being so, we have participated in an experience that expands us: with Graves we have merely watched someone under­going personal conflict, thrashing about, and coming to a token conclusion.

This comparison makes clear one thing, that what Graves takes from Laura Riding, though large, does not become the focus of his poem. The focus is the poet, the gesture made, the attitude taken - always personal. In a Riding poem the focus is the thought, defined with precision and fineness of distinction; the feeling is of the sort appropriate to a focus that is general, suprapersonal, an index of the poet’s engagement with what is not merely personal. Where Graves seems to be defining something, as her poetry defines, or making a statement, he is really drawing our attention to the emotional situation that issued in the statement and to feeling that may either accord with or contradict the statement or do both at once. Thus, whereas she lives in her thought, for the truth of her vision of finality, he seeks a personal certitude with her thought, uses it to bring certainty, impose discipline, to punish himself or to settle scores with the world, not for the truth of the thought itself. The difference is between thought felt (Riding) and the subjecting of emotion to the rule of ideas (Graves).

The sense of their relationship disclosed by Laura Riding in some of her writings supports the distinction I draw between them as poets. In a prose piece that has direct reference to him she writes: “And Robert, you say, ‘Be still while I add up again’. No, I will not be your perhaps greater result, I will not be your to be. I will not be a proof that any more can be of making sure, of the fear that having may be not having, when right seems too right”[44]. He wants the emotional assurance of knowing the truth rather than the truth itself. He even has a fear that in gaining truth he may be losing more than he can afford. Many of Laura Riding’s poems are addressed to Graves, a few openly, most anonymously; others are about, or addressed to, man. Her reference may be both specific and general when, in one poem, ‘The Need To Confide’[45], she diagnoses a lack of final commitment - “Yours, man, was but the language of the wish” - and in another, ‘The Dilemmist’[46], a fear of yielding himself to the ultimate thing desired.

Why, you’d rather again the old hours,
The swift deaths and new lives and changes,
Than to be dawdling-dead like a poet
With but one death to die, and that everyone’s.

Certainly, Graves has always been a poet of desire and will, not statement, and except during the years of his association with Laura Riding his critical pronouncements have suggested that he knows it. In his earliest criticism he maintained that all poetry originates in emotional conflict and indeed that its vitality springs from that, specifically from what he called “the old pulse of love and fear”[47]. In 1962 he said the same thing, in mythological terms: in the Muse, he wrote, the poet is invoking “the ancient power of love and terror”[48]. Love, for Graves, is what may bring emotional equilibrium, certitude; fear is the fear of its non-arrival. Desire and will, in Graves’s poetry, are partnered by their negatives, hatred and rejection. ‘The Dilemmist’ concludes with a prediction that Graves will subject himself to the new timeless love only in “mad hate of self.” The “scorching” of the old love (“swift deaths and new lives and changes”) will “send him all speed”

To look for other clime than body-heat
Be that however sunless other-place,
And he in such made hate of self
To swear madness against his likest love - ...

the love most like him and the one he likes best. There are many poems which this description fits. Besides those already mentioned in this essay, two spring immediately to mind - ‘Trudge, Body, Trudge’ and ‘The Furious Voyage’.

The difference between Graves and Laura Riding illustrates, then, one distinction that exists between some minor and some major poetry. Where Graves’s poetry is subjective in the sense that it reduces themes of potentially general significance to the narrow compass of a personal situation, Laura Riding’s poetry expands the personal situation to include the suprapersonal. From Graves’s subjectivity follows his inability to make a final, objective commitment. This is what emerged from my discussion of ‘End of Play’ and ‘World’s End’. All I can do now is fill out my case a little with further examples.

If we compare Laura Riding’s ‘Earth’ with an admittedly much less ambitious poem by Graves, ‘The Next Time’, which, however, has drawn on the Riding poem for its central idea, we may note a tendency characteristic of Graves to make something merely charming out of what at source has weight and seriousness. In her poem Earth symbolizes our deepest humanity, the ultimate reality of ourselves­ one is tempted to use Tillich’s phrase, “the ground of being.” She is addressing someone, possibly Graves himself, who seeks but fears to commit himself to this reality.

Have no wide fears for Earth:
Its universal name is ‘Nowhere’.
If it is Earth to you, that is your secret.
The outer records leave off there...

Our human nature is not fully described in terms of the physical and external. Heavens of otherness, known and imagined, constitute

A time before Earth was
From which you inward move
Toward perfect now.

Ultimate reality, the Earth whose universal name is ‘Nowhere’, is “potential here of everywhere.” Finally,

Earth is your heart
Which has become your mind
But still beats ignorance
Of all it knows -
As miles deny the compact present
Whose self-mistrusting past they are.
Have no wide fears for Earth.
Destruction only on wide fears shall fall.

In ‘The Next Time’ Graves speaks hypothetically, using only “the language of the wish”, of the same condition.

And that inevitable accident
On the familiar journey - roughly reckoned
By miles and shillings - in a cramped compartment
Between a first hereafter and a second?

And when we passengers are given two hours,
The wheels failing once more at Somewhere-Nowhere,
To climb out, stretch our legs and pick wild flowers ­
Suppose that this time I elect to stay there?

This takes from ‘Earth’ the “Somewhere-Nowhere”, and from “As miles deny the com­pact present” elaborates the journey metaphor for life in time and space. ‘Earth’ presents a general condition and the emotion accompanying the definition of it is serene, confident self-possession with a kindness toward the person addressed. In ‘The Next Time’, the notion of an “inevitable accident” releasing the poet from the prison of time has more of superstition - the glamor, shall we say, of ghosts and haunted houses: - than ontology in it, and Laura Riding’s conceit about “miles” and the “compact present” acquires a sort of nursery rhyme homeliness when it becomes “miles and shillings.” Graves has substituted for the serious thought of ‘Earth’ the pleasant fancy of picking wild flowers and, in the supposition of the last line, a romantic tentativeness.

It is also notable that the tone of the poem directs our attention more to the poet than to what he is saying - to his offhand manner, the poise that discloses the easy familiarity with this experience of one who is too well-bred to give it an immodestly full treatment. This personal focus is a characteristic not only of Graves’s slighter poems. Is not ‘The White Goddess’ - a poem that converts ultimate reality, romantically, into a person - similarly limited by the self-praising words “scorn”, “virtue”, “headstrong and heroic”? They reduce our view of that reality to a view of the poet’s (not entirely edifying) excitement. Deification, oddly enough, is a strategy for avoiding objective commitment. It sets this greater reality (Goddess) at a distance, where it may remain no more than an exciting possibility: actual dwelling in it is unnecessary. Laura Riding’s theme is precisely this strategy in ‘Divestment of Beauty’, where she speaks of the “long robe of glamour” bestowed upon women by men and “the homage of the eye” that deifies them. She asks what would happen if the real woman were discovered beneath her “lady swaddlings”:

It were a loathsome spectacle, you think?
Eventual entrails of deity
Worshipful eye offending?....
Forswear the imbecile
Theology of loveliness,
Be no more doctor in antiquities -
Chimeras of the future
In archaic daze embalmed...
[M.K. italics]

The last lines might almost be referring to the White Goddess enterprise - astonishingly, since they date from well before the time of its conception.

A mirror-watching self-consciousness on occasions damages Graves’s satirical poems. Thus ‘The Legs’, a satire on the mindless conformism of people emblematized as walkers “from the knees down”, is less interested in hitting any target than enjoying striking an attitude. At one point he wonders whether he might not be immune from the same fate, but this is no real interruption to the poem’s flow of self-approval. We share the pleasure of arrogance with the poet - ­the pretence of self-doubt is only a refinement of the arrogant lip-curl. Of course, it is satirical routine to strike such poses and make such feints, but a satirist must not rest there. A more serious poem, ‘To Walk On Hills’, is not so much uninterested in as uncertain of its target. (The interested reader might look up the poem in the Collected Poems to check the accuracy of my reading). It has the air of defining something in the Riding manner:

To walk on hills is to employ legs
As porters of the head and heart
Jointly adventuring towards
Perhaps true equanimity.

Compare the opening of Laura Riding’s ‘Death as Death’: “To conceive death as death / Is difficulty come by easily.” Graves is supposedly defining and satirizing the sentimental-romantic quest, but the poem reads more like the dramatic monologue, as does ‘Nature’s Lineaments’, of a disaffected romantic. He has not decided whether he is satirizing romanticism or parodying the sourness of the ex-romantic, and allows both impulses into the poem without resolving them. Both poems betray the discomfort that Graves felt in adopting views not his own - for the ostensible targets, nature, life of the senses and the emotions, are, of course, Laura Riding’s. And this is where I would lay my final stress. He went to her to enlarge his poetry, to stiffen it with intellectual authority. In most cases her thought - felt as inseparable from her personality - merely became another source of conflict within the poem; ideas became an expression of violent emotion.


[1] Quoted from a Graves letter by Douglas Day, Swifter Than Reason (University of North Carolina Press, 1973), p. 152.

[2] Epilogue I (Seizin: Constable, 1935), p. 4.

[3] Epilogue III (Seizin: Constable, 1937), pp. 116-17.

[4] Epilogue III, p. 20.

[5] Epilogue I, p. 3

[6] Mammon and the Black Goddess (Cassell, 1965), p. 165.

[7] Except where otherwise noted Graves’s poems are quoted from Collected Poems
1965 (Cassell, 1965).

[8] Poems 1965-1968 (Cassell, 1968).

[9] Epilogue III, p. 108.

[10] Epilogue III, p. 4.

[11] Epilogue III, p. 2

[12] Epilogue III, p. 3.

[13] Except where otherwise noted Laura Riding’s poems are quoted from Selected  Poems (Faber, 1970).

[14] Anarchism Is Not Enough (Cape, 1928), p. 187.

[15] Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 196.

[16] Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 208.

[17] Epilogue II (Seizin: Constable, 1936), p. 134.

[18] Epilogue III, pp. 116-17.

[19] Epilogue III, p. 21.

[20] The White Goddess, 3rd, amended and enlarged ed. (Faber, 1952), p. 109.

[21] Experts Are Puzzled (Cape, 1930), p. 21.

[22] Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (Hours Press, 1930), p. 11-12.

[23] Progress of Stories (Seizin: Constable, 1935).

[24] Epilogue II.

[25] Progress of Stories.

[26]  “Miss Banquett; or the Populating of Cosmania”, Experts Are Puzzled, pp. 49-94.

[27] Experts Are Puzzled, p. 85.

[28] Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 208.

[29] The White Goddess, p. 109.

[30] Epilogue I.

[31] Madeleine Vara, Convalescent Conversations (Seizin: Constable, 1936), p. 97. Madeleine Vara is a pseudonym of Laura Riding. This identification is here authorized for the first time by the writer herself, Laura (Riding) Jackson.

[32] Epilogue III, p. 3.

[33] Mammon and the Black Goddess, p. 161-2.

[34] Poems 1930-1933 (Barker, 1933).

[35] Collected Poems (Cassell, 1938).

[36] Collected Poems (Cassell, 1938).

[37]  “Intimations of the Black Goddess”, Mammon and the Black Goddess, p. 159.

[38] Mammon and the Black Goddess, p. 164.

[39] Epilogue III, p. 20.

[40] Collected Poems (1938).

[41] Collected Poems (1938).

[42] Collected Poems (1938).

[43] Collected Poems (1938).

[44] Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 97.

[45] Collected Poems (1938).

[46] Collected Poems (1938).

[47] Poetic Unreason (Cecil Palmer, 1925), p. 83.

[48] Oxford Addresses On Poetry (Cassell, 1962), p. 61.

(This article is a revision of a paper presented for the first Seminar on Robert Graves at the MLA annual meeting, 27 December 1972.)

A Note on Michael Kirkham and Laura (Riding) Jackson

Michael Kirkham was a young academic preparing a book on the poetry of Robert Graves when he wrote an article for the Minnesota Review (Issue 3, Volume 6, 1966) which began to identify how aspects of Laura Riding’s thought and work had ‘influenced’ that of Robert Graves. The following year Laura (Riding) Jackson (as she was by then) wrote a response which the Minnesota Review published, and which also appears on this website, upbraiding Kirkham for the skimpiness of his background research (he had quoted only from her Anarchism Is Not Enough, 1928, and The World and Ourselves, 1939), and pointing out some key aspects of her thought and wider writings to which he might more pertinently have referred.

Although Kirkham went ahead with publishing The Poetry of Robert Graves in 1969 (he had a contract to fulfil) he had begun to realise, aided by a correspondence with Mrs Jackson, just how dependent on Riding’s ideas Graves’ poetry is, not just at the time of the Riding/Graves literary partnership, but subsequently. The essay by Kirkham that we reproduce here was written four years after the publication of his book, and makes an elegant point for point comparison of the two poets’ work, words and thought. It demonstrates the dependence of Graves upon Riding and concludes, emphatically, that the difference between them is that between a major poet (Riding) and a minor one (Graves). Given the scholarly intensity of Kirkham’s commitment to his work on Graves’ poetry this is quite extraordinary, and comes over with the force of a revelation.

The evidence set out so clearly in his short, concentrated essay has been assiduously ignored by Graves’ scholars and promoters; it is unanswerable; at least, it has never been answered. Eventually justice will be done, as new generations discover Riding’s work, but as things stand there are still too many vested literary and academic interests at stake in preserving Graves’ reputation as the greater of the two partners. It is striking, shameful really, that there is no reference by subsequent writers on Graves to Kirkham’s arguments in this essay. Even his book, arguably the best yet on Graves’ poetry, attracts little more than a bare mention in bibliographies. Yet as Graves himself, in a moment of frankness, many years after his partnership with Riding had ended, advised his critic-biographer Douglas Day—until readers understood her, they would never understand him. Unfortunately, to the detriment of his own work, Day studiously ignored his subject’s advice.

The question arises as to why Michael Kirkham, having opened the door to an understanding of Laura Riding’s poetry and thought, and having , in effect, discovered a major poet, did not press ahead with a larger work, perhaps a book entitled The Poetry of Laura Riding, for which he would have seemed well equipped. As it was he remained in close and friendly contact with Mrs Jackson through the mid-1970s, but communication ceased shortly after that. Perhaps he himself had been dependent for some of his insights on the correspondence between them, which came to an end in the late 1970s? Whatever the cause, the lack of a follow-up is a matter for regret, given the clarity and quality of the essay of 1973. Michael Kirkham himself came deeply to regret it, as he indicated in correspondence shortly before his death in 2018. Although others, including Robert Nye, George Fraser, Edwin Morgan and Robert Fitzgerald, had asserted unequivocally the importance of Laura Riding’s poetry, Kirkham was the first to demonstrate that importance with clear argument, evidence and examples.

Jack Blackmore, May 2022

Minnesota Review:
A Letter to the Editor
Laura (Riding) Jackson

I am writing to you in comment upon Mr. Michael Kirkham’s article "The Poetic Liberation’ of Robert Graves,” which appeared in your issue Number 3, Volume VI, 1966. I saw this article long after its publication, through a friend’s sending me this issue, for the possible interest to me of the references to myself contained in the article. For years 1 have proceeded without interest in such things; and, indeed, I have seen little of them, as it has happened. Very recently, I had reason to feel that they ought not to be entirely disregarded.

Mr. Kirkham traces certain of Mr. Graves’ stands, positions, notions, to my thinking, citing two books, only, and quoting passages from but one, The World And Ourselves, to substantiate his points. The comments I offer concern a striking blankness I find, rather than outright error, in Mr. Kirkham’s deductions. So far I know, he has gone beyond any other in this identification of source-material. It is his setting off on the right track, and then discontinuing the journey, that makes his procedure remarkable. There is plenty of track for further exploration, in the grassy confusion with which the subject is over-grown. But there is also much to call the inquiring mind back from such a journey; a lap or so gratifies the scholarly appetite, but a critic feels other responsibilities, naturally, besides those of scholarship—indeed, scholarship can sometimes make a mess of criticism. So much matter has accumulated for critical attention, all vibrant with the personal touch of authorship, that even for the conscientious it must be difficult to decide what weight to give to evidence that certain components of the authorial matter did not originate in the authorial mind. The self-emphatic seal of authorship soon charms away the lie’s initial sense of the significance of the discovery, and focus-upon-it blurs. Not only is the question “And what further?” not asked, but the documented fact becomes immediately submerged and subsumed in a description of the situation of which the fact was part that gives the critic more elbow-room than mere fact.

Mr. Kirkham describes Mr. Graves as revising his attitude to poetry under influence, “much of which was now occupied with defining and analysing an ethic of the emotions and behavior which is closely related to Laura Riding’s, as expressed, for instance, in Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928) and The World and Ourselves (1938).” Not only is the first item instanced in no wise textually adduced: the second item, which is brought by quotation into critical court, is a small portion of the articulated whole of my thought of the period in question. That whole was no background of influence to which ‘much’ of Mr. Graves’ activity as a poet was ‘closely related.’ That whole was an action of a primary order of vision and comprehension, and its values, ‘ideas,’ belonged organically to it: people could share, or try to share, in it (and it was shaped towards being shared in by others), but it was not a point vantage from which to revise a former attitude, or define and analyse an ethic of the emotions and behavior. Mr. Graves had no need of revisions, or of ethic-creating.

Here at hand was a pattern of related value-notions, embracing the woman-man problem in its aspect of universal significance, and conceptions such as that of history come to its term, and time to its finalities. In my thinking, the categorically separated functions termed intellectual, moral, spiritual, emotional, were brought into union, into joint immediacy; other conceptions put the sun and moon in their right rational places as emblems of poetic emotionalism, and lengthened the perspective of Origin back from the skimpy historical heavens of masculine divinity through a spacious dominion of religious symbolism, pre- sided over, for the sake of poetic justice, by a thing I called mother-god. Here was a unity of thought practiceable widely, variedly, strictly, with latitudes combining ascesis with the pursuit of literal fulfilments of the good potentials of being, not yet more than figuratively enjoyed; and a rationale of linguistic proofing against the play of literary temptations on the poetic, and prose, roof of the tongue—excellence of word tied into truth’s linguistic anatomy (not a matter of mere preachment, this, but a sustained impartment to the writings of interested associates — with some lessoning in the form of demonstration of the linguistic bad in the reputedly literary good). And, of one internality with the rest, not dependent on external assistance (from psychology, for instance), a critical diagnostics of workaday practicality, simplifying judgements to unfrightened identifications (as, the mendacious drive of Yeats, the mortuary distinction, safe from living vicissitudes, of Eliot, the Dylan Thomas equations of juvenile intractability with poetic integrity). Etcetera.           
And all this was under the auspices of what I have since called the ‘creed’ of poetry, which sounds the hope of that “love or utterance” (a same miracle of “knowing the words for what we mean”) which “shall preserve us / From than other literature / We fast exerted to perpetuate / The moral chatter of appearance.” The quoted words are from one of the last poems I wrote. Though I ultimately renounced poetry, I did not renounce the creed it harbored, which has pined in the grip of its craft. And I think well enough of all I put forth, formally and informally, from the poetic center to which I orientated my logical sensitivity, to say of it that, even with its flaws of poetic falling-short of the actual truth-line, it was, as far as it went, a uniquely abundant provision, affording exercise of all kinds to the self-improving faculties—for a lifetime, it might seem.

Although Mr. Kirkham, to be properly informed on the underestimated phenomenon that he terms 'influence,’ would need to consult, at the least, the published entirety of my work, from before the cited Anarchism, etc., to" close of the period in question (1939), and to do this with continual airing of his judgement of fumy preconception (not all his fault), what he found in The World and Ourselves ought—in a normal atmosphere—to suffice to establish that what I said here (in somewhat publicist manner) was vitally of my determination, and that the finding of the same or the like in what others said (be it without marks of derivation-identity) should be interpreted accordingly. As to the letter Mr. Graves contributed to the book, featuring the man-woman relationship in large terms of definition: it would require some extended study (and clear-aired evaluation) to apprehend that the theme of the man-woman relationship as embodying principles at the core of being, with attendant characterizations of the respective nature of woman-character and man- character of a radically new temper, was part and parcel of my working vision of the universal outcome spelt in the human outcome (thought I industriously endeavored to share with others in what I called ‘the work’.) There was no need of ‘developing awareness’ in this regard. It was all there to my associates, as far as I succeeded in those times in developing the theme, and I was there to assist in their trying themselves out in this and other thematic areas; a profuse exemplification of this in the Epilogue volumes, of which I was editor and Graves associate editor—much of the assistance is evident as editorial lance, but much is textually unmarked (was so, in glad voluntariness). — As to the uneasy period of ‘moral’ emphasis of which Mr. Kirkham speaks: piety is a danger, where the ideas of ‘goodness’ are not autochthonous, and I was sensitive to this, generally. But such piety cannot be plucked out, any more than can other deliberate propensities. Later, when the personality feels liberated to its single devices, and with ‘achieved possession’ of the goodness,’ then the piety is (out of ‘honest human nature’?) diluted with cynicism, and all is done with an agnostic ‘poise of being’ that makes the sacred and profane one uniformly fine stretch of literary ploughland, so that there can be doing unlimited. (As to doing, and the male zest for it, Four Unposted Letters To Catherine (1930) contained some modest little thoughts—which the fact of a B.B.C. reproduction of it some years ago proved to be still viable. I quote a little. “People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make for not thinking with doing.” “ . . The wrong kind of doing is doing people do ... in order to prove to themselves and other people that they are people. . . .” “The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this is a world ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but over-doing. . . .” But, I wander.)

I compress what I might further say into (1) the opinion that Mr. Kirkham could form a better historical understanding of his subject by beginning at the beginning and reading forward instead of reading the later back into the earlier, and (2) a profession of regret that such comments as I have made should need to be made by myself.

Laura (Riding) Jackson