One Self by Jack Blackmore

Notes for a reading of two poems by Laura Riding:
One Self and The Signature

Jack Blackmore
One Self

One self, one manyness,
Is first confusion, then simplicity.
Smile, death, O simultaneous mouth.
Cease, inner and outer,
Continuous flight and overtaking.

(Collected Poems, 1938)

During the period of their creation Laura Riding was moved to present her poems as being ‘instead of my life’. This is one statement in the startling preface to Poems: A Joking Word published in 1930. As with any of her work this preface has to be read as a whole, but the following paragraphs are relevant:

Before anything has got to be, it has got to be preceded by something that has not got to be. These poems have got to be. Or rather, when they weren’t they had got to be. Or rather, I had got not to feel myself and think doom but to think myself and feel doom. (p 9)

My poems then are instead of my life. I don’t mean that in my poems I escape from my life. My life itself would be nothing but escaping, or anybody’s. I mean that in my poems I escape from escaping. And my life reads all wrong to me and my poems read all right. And by doom I don’t mean the destruction of me. I mean making me into doom – not my doom but doom. Made into doom I feel made. I also feel making. I feel like doom and doom feels like me. (pp 10-11)

As in some of her other prose work of this period, for example parts of Anarchism Is Not Enough, there is an intense playfulness-in-earnest about this preface. ‘Doom’ is a highly charged term: as well as the sense ‘fated ending to a person’s life’ it contains the Old English sense of judicial decision and the Middle English sense of personal opinion or judgement and the Last Judgement. (OED)

Laura Riding in her poems sought to achieve that finality, to be not just creative but creator.

Laura Riding was interested in modernism, as evidenced by A Survey of Modernist Poetry, inclusion of a selection of her poems in at least two anthologies of modern poetry (despite A Pamphlet Against Anthologies) and continuing critique as Laura (Riding) Jackson of poets contemporary and younger in a number of publications (Chelsea 69 is just one example).

Her poetry, though, has much closer affinities with the personal radicalism and commitment of some of the English late 18th and early 19th Century poets – with the Romantics Shelley (evident in her early work) and Coleridge, and with William Blake. The affinities vary, but there is a common optimism and conviction: that one’s self, one self, through the most intense scrutiny of and engagement with language and life, can take the measure of the universe.

The Poet is not only the man who is made to solve the riddle of the Universe, but he is also the man who feels where it is not solved and which continually awakens his feelings … (Coleridge, Lecture on Poetry, 12 December 1811)

The way that Laura Riding conceives of ‘dust’ in her major poem Incarnations

Do not deny,
Do not deny, thing out of thing,
Do not deny in the new vanity
The old, original dust …

- is not like that of Eliot (‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’) but is reminiscent of Blake (‘To see eternity in a grain of sand’; ‘Energy is eternal delight’). Her ‘old original dust’ is the stuff of the universe of which we aremade.

Earlier versions of One Self appeared as One Sense in Riding’s first selection of poems, The Close Chaplet in 1926 and under the same title in Poems A Joking Word in 1930. The final version appeared in Collected Poems in 1938 and was unaltered in later editions (including the 1970 Faber edition, Selected Poems in Five Sets).

More than any poet in recent times Laura Riding conceived of her poems as a whole work, a universe. She improved many of her poems through a number of published versions. There are some striking features of these improvements.

Firstly there is increased precision, with the introduction of exact almost technical terminology. In The Rugged Black of Anger, for example, she alters the ninth line from ‘Strikes the broadening edge and discourages’ to ‘Confutes [proves false] the broadening edge and discourages’. In Incarnations the 1930 version ‘Lest, like a statue’s stone that will not die’ becomes ‘Lest like a statue’s too transmuted [changed into another form or substance, as in alchemy] stone’ in the 1938 edition.

In her ‘manifesto’ poem As Well as Any Other, which opens the 1926 edition, the clinching final lines in the original read:

For in untraveled soil alone can I
Unearth the gem or let the mystery lie
That never must be found. (My italics)

In the 1930 (and subsequent) version the lines read:

For in peculiar earth alone can I
Construe the word and let the meaning lie
That rarely may be found. (My italics)

These are substantial changes. As Robert Nye observed, ‘construe’ is a very sharp word to find at the heart of a song. ‘It pricks the mind into remembrance that meaning is all, and that for this poet nothing but heart-felt meaning finally matters.’ (Introduction to A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, 1994, p3)

The poet has quite radically changed the language and the sense in the final version. From a mystery that never must be found to a meaning that rarely may be found – the language is cooler; the increased confidence in her powers is clear.

The introduction of ‘peculiar’ is telling. The meanings include: ‘that is one’s own private property’, ‘of separate or distinct constitution or existence’, and ‘distinguished in nature, character or attributes from others’. This (if we can look forward to One Self at this point) is consistent with the revisions in that poem. While not ruling out companionship she is conscious of going it alone, and of doing so with her own resources.

The second feature of the improvements is the unique ruthlessness she displays in discarding parts of lines or several lines or whole sections of poems. At the same time the fragments or sections that remain are re-presented sometimes out of the context of the original poem but contributing to a new collection, a whole ‘poems’. As she said in her 1930 preface:

I have left out here any poems in already printed work that I came round to strange doom in – any poems where poems couldn’t be said to be a joking word. I found many poems that were poems again in early unprinted work. Wherever anywhere I found poems again but also a strangeness as of poems once, I cut away the strange part and the familiar part became more familiar. And there are the poems now, no less poems now, no less poems again if again is, as I have reason to believe, now. (Poems: A Joking Word, p22)

Poems A Joking Word has five sections or ‘poems’ entitled Fragments, not counting Fragments from Alastor. Strangest is number 3 of the first group of Fragments on page 43 where parts of lines appear like bits of papyrus out of the Alexandrian desert with most of the text missing. This process of refinement, of creating a whole of a new arrangement of parts, continued with the 1970 edition Selected Poems: in Five Sets.

In the poem One Sense, in the 1926 Close Chaplet version, there are three lines, given here in italics, between lines 2 and 6, which were removed from subsequent versions.

Under apparel, apparel lies
The recurring body.
Night to uncover the surprise
Of nakedness is deep flesh,
Is abyss and body under body:
O multiple innocence,
O fleshfold dress.

The three lines appear to be more explicitly sensual than the revised version. Removing them (as was done for the 1930 version and thereafter) concentrates meaning and gives more delicacy of movement than the earlier version.

There is an opening doubleness of meaning: under apparel lies apparel, under apparel lies the recurring body. The word ‘apparel’ is the first of several interesting words in the poem. Its connotes appearance as well as dress, as is clinched in the wonderful expression ‘fleshfold dress’ which conjures up a living sculpture, ‘fleshfold’ being a creation of Laura Riding’s. ‘Recurring’ is also a rich term: it connotes reappearance, suggesting persistence through a number of incarnations (leading one back to the poem of that name).

Perhaps the most striking expression in this section of the poem is ‘O multiple innocence’. There is no Fall, no guilt in this (post-Darwinian) garden.

The 1926 poem has a middle section, excised in later versions. The final section of the poem was revised in 1930 and improved again in 1938. The 1930 poem reads

One sense, one mutualness
Is first confusion, and then peace.
Smile, death, O simultaneous mouth.
Be clear, identical brow, O death.
Cease, inner and outer,
Continuous flight and overtaking.

This becomes, in 1938:

One self, one manyness
Is first confusion, then simplicity.
Smile, death, O simultaneous mouth.
Cease, inner and outer,
Continuous flight and overtaking.

Again this is more concise, and the rhythm is tighter. What is being described here is like a metamorphosis. ‘Death’ is used in a characteristic and paradoxical fashion by Riding. We are reminded of the words of the 1930 Preface ‘In my poems I escape from escaping’. This poem/the self ends its life in achieving its ‘final’ and unchanging form; at the same time there is a wonderful sense of movement being both stilled and enacted by the resolution of the poem’s meaning and rhythm.

What are we to make of the change of the title, and of a crucial word in the poem itself – from ‘One Sense’ to ‘One Self’?

The word ‘sense’ incorporates a cluster of meanings: meaning, perception, feeling and soundness of judgement. The key difference between the 1930 and 1938 versions of the poem lies in the change from ‘mutualness’ to ‘manyness’, both rare words. ‘Mutualness’ brings into the poem involvement of at least one other, as in love. Supporting this interpretation one could adduce the following lines from Lucrece and Nara:

Astonished stood Lucrece and Nara
Face flat to face, one sense and smoothness … (My italics)

In the 1970 selection Laura (Riding) Jackson placed One Self immediately after Lucrece and Nara.

The self can be ‘any of various conflicting identities conceived as existing within a single person’ and the ‘true or intrinsic identity’ (Shorter OED). The move from ‘sense’ to ‘self’ involves the whole person, but the person alone. My reading would link the poem back to The Quids (the manyness of the Quids contained within the Monoton) and forward to Nothing So Far:

Yet here, all that remains
When each has been the universe:
No universe but each, or nothing.
Here is the future swell curved round
To all that was. (Lines 9-13).

The Signature

The effort to put my essence in me
Ended in a look of beauty.
Such looks fanatically mean cruelness
Toward self; toward others sweetness.

But ghostly is that essence
Of which I was religious.
Nor may I claim defeat
Since others find my look sweet
And marvel how triumphant
The mere experiment.

So I grow ghostly,
Though great sincerity
First held a glass up to my name
And great sincerity claim
For beauty, the live image,
But no deathly fame:
The clear face spells
A bright illegibility of name.

(Collected Poems, 1938)

In some respects this is a fairly traditional poem. It does not have a regular metre or rhyme scheme, but it begins with unobtrusive half-rhymes (me, beauty; cruelness, sweetness) and assonance (effort, essence, ended) and finishes with a set of emphatic strong rhymes – name, claim, fame and name (again).

A signature is a person’s name or a distinctive mark or stamp, typically used in demonstrating something’s authenticity and unique individual identity.

The theme of the poem is the tension between the achievement of a look of beauty, sweetness to others (something socially acceptable) and the achievement of (or failure to achieve) a legible name, or fame. This knot of tension is set up in the opening lines and pulled tight in the climactic final couplet:

The clear face spells
A bright illegibility of name.

The poem is placed early in the CP, the eighth poem. The theme relates to that of As Well As Any Other, in that it concerns the need to go beyond repetition on poetry’s well-trodden path in the production of beauty. At first reading the language could hardly be simpler, although as always with this poet there is a complexity of meaning that requires meditation on the poem itself and on its relation to other poems in the whole before a wider simplicity emerges.

An immediate impression of the opening lines is of a person (a woman) making the effort to create and present her ‘best’ self, her essence, for others. A second impression includes the effort involved in producing a poem, ending in a look of beauty. Taking these two impressions together the word ‘me’ refers to both the person and the poem, or rather at once to the ‘poem-person’ (to borrow a term from p73 of A Survey of Modernist Poetry). But there is a problem:

Such looks fanatically mean cruelness
Toward self; toward others sweetness.1

A problem has been created for the self by the ‘effort to put my essence in me’, which has produced sweetness for others. Why is this?2

The first striking word in the poem is ‘essence’. This word refers to the intrinsic nature or character of something, but it incorporates the notion of a spiritual or immaterial entity. In ancient and medieval philosophy an essence was a spiritual element additional to the four elements of the material world, as in the quintessence (‘fifth essence’) . This latter interpretation would be supported by reference to the following stanza:

But ghostly is that essence
Of which I was religious.
Nor may I claim defeat
Since others find my look sweet
And marvel how triumphant
The mere experiment.

The effort to put her essence in her was a successful experiment from the point of view of others but that essence is ‘ghostly’. What does ‘ghostly’ mean here?

Riding uses the term paradoxically and characteristically. At its simplest a ghost is an appearance without substance, and that is the meaning Riding is after here. (In that sense a ghost can be ‘alive’ in the usual sense). The spiritual essence has excluded the material elements (‘the old original dust’ of Incarnations; the full material of ‘in my material’ of Prisms) of the whole self. Hence the ghostliness (both spiritual and immaterial) of the essence.

The first three lines of the third and final stanza read:

So I grow ghostly,
Though great sincerity
First held a glass up to my name.

She grows ghostly, ‘a shadow of what she might have been’ one might say; though great sincerity (honesty, lacking dissimulation or falsity) first held up a glass to her name. There is ambiguity here. The glass may be both a mirror (as it would be for personal beauty), and also a magnifying glass (to examine her name, her identity); in both cases it involves close scrutiny.

The final lines read:

And great sincerity claim
For beauty the live image,
But no deathly fame:
The clear face spells
A bright illegibility of name.

The ‘I’ (from the previous sentence) must be understood after ‘And’ or after ‘sincerity’.

There are slight but noteworthy variants from the PAJW version of 1930. There the final lines read:

For beauty, the actual image,
But no actual fame:
The clear face spells
An illegibility of name.

The final version introduces an opposition not in the 1930 version, which has ‘actual’ as the adjective for both ‘image’ and ‘fame’. The final version has ‘live image’ and ‘deathly fame’.

‘Actual’ is opposed to potential, virtual, theoretical. ‘Actualness’, a rare word, is used in The Wind Suffers:

How for the wilful blood to run
More salt-red and sweet-white?
And how for me in my actualness
To more shriek and more smile? (CP)

The introduction of the contrast between ‘live image’ and ‘deathly fame’ sharpens the paradox. If she ‘grows ghostly’ with the look of beauty why is it a ‘live image’? It is because in Riding’s usage she is not referring to the appearance of a dead person (currently the common usage) but of the spiritual or immaterial part of a person.

The paradox is further sharpened by the introduction of ‘bright’ into the final line of the CP version. For Riding brightness is primarily a characteristic of the sun and of the dependence of men on external visibility. This is set out in the opening lines in the fourth poem in CP, How Blind and Bright:

Light, visibility of light
Sun, visibility of sun.
Light, sun and seeing,
Visibility of men.

How blind is bright!
How blind is bright!

(Although there is a subtlety, not explored here, in how that poem concludes: ‘How bright is blind!’)

‘Beauty the live image’ is contrasted with ‘deathly fame’. Why should fame be ‘deathly’ (as opposed to ‘actual’, in the earlier version)? ‘Deathly’ is used, as ‘death’ is used in One Self in a characteristic and paradoxical fashion by Riding.

There we were reminded of the words of the 1930 Preface ‘In my poems I escape from escaping’. Here what comes to mind is the passage in Chapter VI of A Survey of Modernist Poetry ‘The Making of the Poem’, in which Shakespeare’s failure to have his plays uniformly printed in his lifetime is addressed:

But the process of externalisation must be seen to have two aspects: externalisation for the sake of a legitimate vanity in the poet, a curiosity in him about his own poems; and externalisation as a poet’s duty towards his poem. When both of these aspects are balanced the poem has an inward and an outward sincerity.

‘Name’ was of extraordinary significance to Laura. Born Laura Reichenthal she published her first book of poems in the name of her first marriage, Laura Gottschalk. She changed her name by deed poll to Laura Riding in 1927 (the background to this is given in Elizabeth Friedmann’s biography) and following her marriage to Schuyler B Jackson changed it again to Laura (Riding) Jackson (containing the poetic identity). The name on her tombstone reflects a further and final evolution, to Laura Reichenthal Jackson.

Relevant here are the opening lines from The Wind Suffers:

The wind suffers of blowing,
The sea suffers of water,
The fire suffers of burning,
And I of a living name. (CP)

And the following from As Many Questions as Answers:

What is it to be?
It is to bear a name.
What is it to die?
It is to be name only.
And what is to be born?
It is to choose the enemy self
To learn impossibility from. (CP)

There is an apparent paradox here. This is the poet who aims at ‘perfection’ (as in ‘only perfection matters’) and at ‘finality’, who ‘bids for absolute rightness in her poetry’ (in the words of the critic Martin Dodsworth). At the same time this is a poet, a poet-person, of protean shape-shifting change.

The resolution of the apparent paradox is in the simultaneous and continuous commitment of the poet, or the poem-person, both to the ever-present ‘now’ and to the eternal, ‘the old, original dust’.


1. Cruelness is a rare word, obsolete according to the 1971 OED, but the choice of a word with the ‘-ness’ suffix, as opposed to the commoner and more obvious ‘cruelty’, is characteristic of Riding. Why choose this word? It gives the half rhyme with ‘sweetness’, but I believe that we can infer from other choices made by Riding that this would not be a reason for choosing the word; nor would she normally avoid a common term in preference for something unusual, as is evident throughout her work. The reason I put forward is that ‘cruelness’ carries fewer (potentially diffuse) associations than ‘cruelty’ (one use of which includes harshness of smell). It is, therefore, simpler and more to the point: the quality of being cruel, severe and pitiless.

2. A third meaning of ‘essence’ is distillation, as of perfume, which is perhaps relevant here in relation to the ‘sweetness’ of the look. (I am reminded of an expression of my Scottish mother-in-law: ‘Too sweet to be wholesome’.)

Jack Blackmore, 2010-11