Reviving The Life Of The Dead


 Jack Blackmore

Since it was first published nearly ninety years ago, at near the peak of the poet’s reputation and powers, The Life of the Dead has attracted little attention, critical or explanatory. This essay points out the originality of the work and of the collaboration between poet and artist. It offers a reading that elucidates the work’s structure and meaning and reflects upon its place in the author’s life and thought. 

The Life of the Dead was first published in a limited edition of two hundred by Arthur Barker Ltd in September 1933, each numbered copy signed by the author, Laura Riding (1901-1991), and by the illustrator, John Aldridge (1905-1983), who was given a prominent billing on both cover-label and title-page. Aldridge’s ten striking illustrations, one for each poem, had been engraved on wood for the book by R.J. Beedham. This was the second of three books by Riding to be published by Arthur Barker in 1933, the first being Everybody’s Letters in February; the third, in December, was her crucial and penultimate collection of poems, Poet: A Lying Word. She was then at, or near, the peak of her career as poet.[1]

The Life of the Dead was reprinted in Riding’s Collected Poems (1938, 1980, 2001) as one of three long poems not incorporated within the main body of the book but included as ‘prides of the workshop’ by the author. This means that the work is still fairly readily available (in copies of the 1980 and 2001 editions, at least) for those without the means to access a copy of the original.[2] Unfortunately, however, the morbid effect of the cover, an ugly, thick, mottled brown paper (which suggests a wooden coffin, with the beige square enclosing the title representing a name-plaque on the lid), is lost in the Collected Poems version. More seriously the quality of the illustrations suffers from their being reproduced photographically rather than printed from the engraver’s block, and is damaged further by the reduction in scale from quarto to octavo, to an area less than half that of the original. Ignoring the white border, the actual pictures themselves come down from just under 10 inches by 8 to 6.5 inches by 5. As a result it is difficult, sometimes barely possible, to make out the detail, and the impact is diminished.

This is particularly regrettable as Riding makes it clear in her short but pithy ‘Explanation’ prefacing the book that the illustrations came first, albeit, paradoxically as so often with her, ‘as verbal comedies’:

The illustrations are the germ of the text:  I conceived them before the text, as verbal comedies. Their final form, however, was arrived at by a compromise between the illustrator and myself on the pictorial values of the subject.[3]

This is a highly original way of proceeding. We are familiar with poems inspired by paintings, but these are pictures conceived by the poet and executed by the artist, Aldridge. Although we are prepared in advance by the poet’s ‘Explanation’ it still comes as a surprise to find how closely her text describes, illustrates verbally what is in the pictures, inverting the expected relationship between picture and text. Most of the significant features of the pictures are recounted in the text. Good examples of this can be found in ‘Dead Birth’ and ‘The Galleries of Day-Break’. However, there is a degree of imaginative elaboration and interpretation, notably in the case of the opening picture of the dry heart. The use of pictures in this way, as the basis for a meditative text, might have been suggested in the first place by Francis Quarles’ Emblems; although after ‘The Dry Heart’, which has a starkly emblematic quality, the other pictures are mostly far more elaborate and dynamic than one would expect to find in emblems.[4]

Aldridge, a long-time friend of both Riding and Graves, was an enthusiastic collaborator in the project, not a hired hand, and he made a vital contribution to its success, but it is clear that Riding was the driving visionary force behind it. The powerful pictures by Aldridge have no antecedents or successors that I can trace in his other work. He is best known for his depictions not of imaginary but of real-life scenes, serenely beautiful landscapes, strongly reminiscent of Constable, with close attention to clouds and trees and buildings, although there are also some detailed interiors. There is an echo of other landscapes that he painted around Deià in his illustration for ‘The Transformation of Romanzel’, but otherwise nothing in his other work, before or after, prepares one for the grotesque and surrealistic visions realised in The Life of the Dead.[5]

A second, equally original, formal feature of The Life of the Dead is the use of French as, in the author’s words, ‘the critical intermediary between the pictures and the English’. This was well before Samuel Beckett’s more celebrated adoption of French, which only began in 1938, and came to fruition in his En attendant Godot written in French in 1948-1949 before he translated it into English. Beckett’s stated reasons for writing in French were that the language offered greater clarity, forced him to think more fundamentally, to write with greater economy. In his case it enabled him, as well, to escape from under the literary shadow of James Joyce. Riding’s reasons are given in her ‘Explanation’ and while they are not entirely at odds with Beckett’s they are different, more specific to her immediate purpose:

The text illustrated by these designs was first written in French, in order that the English might benefit from the limitations which French puts upon the poetic seriousness of words. For French is a language better adapted than English to the rhetorical naïveté of manner necessary in a ‘literal’ account of the world in which the dead live—the precision of French being designed to create impressions, of English to convey meanings. As the subject is almost entirely one of nice impression—an incomplete, momentary subject—I had to be careful not to put English to uses improper to it.

For her, then, French acted ‘as a safeguard against inappropriate poetic seriousness’, and she concluded:

The usefulness of French in fixing the poetic degree of my outrageous subject suggests that it might not be unreasonable to impose on those writers who have a weakness for poetic prose the discipline of first writing their text in French; so that they must label their English text: ‘From the French’. English makes things so real.

Although she is careful to point out that French was not ‘her’ language, and in general she played down her accomplishments as a linguist, she seems to have been sufficiently comfortable in French for her poems in the language to appear accomplished, even idiomatic at times. It is worth noting that one of her first publications was a translation from French of a book about Anatole France (1926), that her first published long poem was Voltaire: A Biographical Fantasy (1927), and that she was more than familiar with modern French poets as evidenced in ‘The Cult of Failure’, her wide-ranging essay in Epilogue I (1935) focused primarily on Rimbaud, and her active involvement in the production of Norman Cameron’s well-known translations of the same.

On the other hand her English translations from her French are at times as free as she is entitled to make them. A typical example is in her description of Amulette in ‘The Three Men-Spirits of the Dead’: the French ‘bien belle elle est’ becomes more suggestive and nuanced in the English poem as ‘and saucy-fair is she’. In ‘Within the City: Day-time’ she translates the bland ‘A autre égards, c’est un ville des plus modernes’ into the punchier ‘In other respects it is a bigot of modernism’. Perhaps arbitrarily ‘la trompette du beau nègre’ in ‘Mortjoy’s Theatre’ becomes ‘the massive negro’s trumpet’.

A further ‘explanation’—of what Riding meant by The Life of the Dead—can be found not in her short prefatory note but in a letter. Amusingly enough, the first recorded reaction to the book was that of its engraver, Mr Beedham, who was apparently disturbed by the morbidity of the designs. This prompted Riding to write to him to explain, in words that are still helpful to an understanding of what she was about:

Perhaps I can make them seem less terrible to you. They are not meant to be a record of a true motion of life; there is no emerging from the level in which they are conceived to the angelic or even the human (by which you must mean the living), exactly because they are a record of the life of the dead: meaning by ‘dead’ the necessarily unrelieved repetition of living ways that take place in minds which, when they die, remain so to speak in their graves—go on being depressing little human individuals. As this is really the way most human beings understand death, and so are destined to live death, it is rather important that there should be some record of it. I hope this explanation will not be even more depressing to you than the designs themselves.[6]

This explanation still begs the question of what impulse drove her to write such a biting satire, with, in the first half of the book, such a harsh parody not of mankind in general (that comes in the second half) but of male poets and artists, the sort of creative people whose company she chose. The question can be answered in part by a consideration of the state of her friendships at this time? In the preface to Poems: A Joking Word in 1930, not long after the crisis of 1929, the only people with whom she seems to have a full understanding are ‘Gertrude’ (Stein) and ‘Len’ (Lye). The relationship with Stein, who appears to have been offended by a flippant reference Riding made to homosexuality, ended in 1930; that with Len Lye had cooled by 1932/3. The other person referenced positively in the preface was Robert Graves, not by name but as ‘that third one’, whose friendship with her survived where those with Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Phibbs had not. However, the sexual relationship with Graves had begun to cool from her side as early as 1927, and some time after the move to Deià she renounced the distraction that physical sex represents, for the most part. The incredibly productive literary partnership with Graves, and his devotion to her, still continued, but while being appreciative she was also critical of him and felt that he (with others) was insufficiently committed to her Epilogue project, which was increasingly important to her. The longing for, and belief in, true and equal companionship is expressed in one of her earliest poems, ‘Because I Sit Here So’, and her anger, frustration and loneliness at her failure to find it comes out in a poem of the early 1930s, ‘The Unthronged Oracle’, which was published in Poet: A Lying Word (1933).

Turning to the work itself, structurally it is book-ended by ‘The Dry Heart’, the opening piece which prepares us for an unsentimental journey through the world where the dead live, and by ‘The Playful Goddess’ at the end, in which that headless figure’s robe or grave-shroud is opened up to reveal an upside-down version of the initial image of a love-heart, this time with six little humans in the veinage of the heart itself and four rats running through arteries/entrails. The playful goddess is depicted within as a cat. ‘The lifelike dead their living lives reclaim’, she tells us:

But not so that goddess by whose wit and patronage
They cry unchallenged their mournful ecstasies:
A gay rogue she!
Who would believe, under the tall, sombre folds,
A toying inner creature, mind and mischief
Of the gigantic all-ghoul Death?
Cat-seeming, in lazy thought-games tangled
While the rats teem […]

Between the book-ends of the opening and closing pieces there is a discernible structure to the other eight, albeit that the links between them are often more the associative links of a dream-sequence than those of a logical narrative or plot. The second to fifth concern a cast of five main personae who are all introduced in the second poem, ‘The Three Man-Spirits of the Dead’, the longest of the ten poems, which is important in setting the scene, and which is structurally balanced by the ninth, ‘The Galleries of Day-Break’, which is the climax and the setting for the conclusion. In the second half of the book the individual characters fade out,  be succeeded in poems six to nine by a series of social and crowd scenes, before the book closes with ‘The Playful Goddess’.

Who and what are the personae supposed to represent? They are Romanzel (the Romantic poet), Mortjoy (playful favourite of the goddess), Unidor (dreamer, city-maker, husband), Amulette (voluptuous wife, cynosure of men’s eyes, baby-maker extraordinaire) and ‘the unknown goddess, death itself’ who, both times she is portrayed (in the second and the final image), is headless, emblematic perhaps of the dead minds referred to in the letter to the engraver. It is noteworthy that the two female figures are not referred to in the poem’s title. Why should this be? Other work on which Riding was engaged at the time may cast some light.

In 1932 the poet had begun work on her most serious prose project to date, which became the first three volumes of the periodical, Epilogue (1935, 1936 and 1937) and led on to the post-poetic work which only began to be published in the late 1960s. In the lead essay of the first volume, ‘The Idea of God’ she compares man’s attitude towards ‘God’ with his attitude towards woman:

Woman is something other than man. She is the contradictory being by whom man attempts both to identify himself with the something else [the something else, God or woman,that he cannot possess or know], and to exorcize it; and she apparently yields to the contradiction. But she is not in herself contradictory; she is the answer to man’s contradictory behaviour toward the something else, which is both insulting and propitiatory. She is the answer to the question ‘Does God exist?’ [….]

Man does not willingly think about woman; when he does the result is either obscene (irreverent) or sentimental (guilty). He interprets her behaviour either as endearingly submissive complaisance or as devilishly inhuman caprice. But man’s most constant conclusion about woman is that she is something not to be understood. [Passage in square brackets added for clarification]

At around the same time Riding was working on a longer essay, near book-length, on woman’s role in the story of human identity, only published finally in 1993, after the author’s death, as the core piece in The Word, “Woman” (the dates given for its writing there are 1933-1935). Relevant here is the following passage:

Men, as separate individualities, may in fact be reduced to kinds of interest in woman: the interest is always on their own behalf; but it represents, nevertheless, a preoccupation of a particular kind with woman. Woman is not preoccupied with man in the same way as he with her. She concerns herself with man, but not on her own behalf except as it is her responsibility to know what man is and to establish, finally, the unity of all being. Woman has no particular, no personal interest in man. She is concerned with man, not men, as she herself is woman, not women. Men are characters: the good and the bad, the this and the that. Woman is the universal character: she is the balance-point of various being, the crucial law of proportion in a complex universe.

She adds a further twist:

The universal character would, one might think, occupy an honourable position in the universe. But on second thoughts one might decide that a universal character which is only a law of proportion between particularities is a universal nobody.[7]

The three man-spirits in The Life of the Dead represent three different male attitudes to (life and) death. All are active ‘characters’ in relation to the two female figures, neither of whom, by contrast, do anything for or react to the man-spirits. Romanzel is greedy for life; his head is ‘avide de mots’, in ‘word-lust’; his hands covetously reach down (see the picture) for Amulette. Unidor does not recognize the difference between life and death, is dreamily oblivious, wrapped up in his elusive, intermittent vision of Amulette:

And Unidor? He does not puzzle where, when, what, who.
His back is turned on death: staring straight before,
His eyes live by the conjured figurine
Whose sly loose magic loses her each moment,
That the next moment she may show again.

By contrast with those two the third man-spirit, Mortjoy, accepts and is content in the world of the dead:

[…] Mortjoy, our gentle favourite,
He is well advised that he is dead, and well pleased. […]

Mortjoy, the preferred, at her [the goddess’] side kneeling,
Makes play as might a knowledgeable child […]

Mortjoy, gentle and brave, turned death wide-open eyes […]

Death does not little him with fear. ‘More, more!’ he cries.

Unlike the othe male figures he shows no interest in the sexy Amulette, and indeed is wearing what looks suspiciously like a chastity belt. He is described, tellingly, both as our favourite (note the first person, indicating the poet’s sympathy, as she steps momentarily into the story-frame) and as the goddess’s preferred man-spirit. It is hard to avoid the temptation to identify aspects of this character with John Aldridge himself. While the figure of Mortjoy in ‘The Three Man-Spirits of the Dead’ is boyish and quite abstract, the illustration of the following piece, ‘Mortjoy’s Theatre’, shows what I take to be a self-portrait of Aldridge presiding over his emptied theatre from the royal box, with a crown over his head, king of all he surveys. Mortjoy represents someone who is well-adjusted both to ‘death’ and to his role in the life of the dead—which is to enjoy the play and (stepping out of the masque) to depict the action, of course, as its illustrator.[8]

In her biography Deborah Baker goes on over-confidently to identify specific figures from the Deià group as the source for each of the characters, Robert Graves for Romanzel, Tom and Julia Matthews for Unidor and Amulette.[9] It is certainly true that during this period (from 1929 to 1938) Riding quite often referred, in her poems and prose, to friends and others close to her either directly, by first name, or by a transparent alias, and she always responded immediately to what was before her. Examples of such direct reference are to Gertrude (Stein), Len (Lye) and Robert (Graves) in the central essay of  Experts Are Puzzled (1930), ‘Obsession’. Gertrude and Len also appear in the preface to Poems: A Joking Word  (1930) where Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Phibbs are lightly veiled but satirized. ‘Norman’ Cameron and ‘John’ Aldridge appear in the poem ‘Autobiography of the Present’ and ‘Robert’ in Laura and Francisca (1931). The whole of the crisis period around 1929 was lightly fictionalized in her novel, written with George Ellidge, 14A (1934).

However, the very fact that Riding did not baulk at referring to individuals when she felt like it, even with satirical or critical content, argues against specific identification of Graves with Romanzel. The grounds for identification of the Matthewses with Unidor and Amulette are thinner still. Romanzel, Unidor and Amulette are best viewed as fictional characters. Aspects of them may have been suggested by experience of poets (and how many of these did Riding know well, intimately indeed, from Allen Tate to Hart Crane onwards to Graves, Geoffrey Phibbs and Norman Cameron?) and the many artists and women of her close acquaintance, including herself. As with other great writers, she drew alike in her mature work on experience, imagination and wide-ranging perception for her purpose, which was not to provide a personal memorandum; but at the same time I think we can see aspects of both Aldridge and herself in The Life of the Dead, private jokes embedded in the wider satire.

Not so well-adjusted as Mortjoy appears the cruelly portrayed Romanzel, a slightly Germanic name for a Romantic poet, who appears in both ‘The Three Man-Spirits of the Dead and ‘The Transformation of Romanzel’. Both poems satirize the ‘luckless poet of the dead’ (with ‘luckless drought of soul’) who hovers over the figure of the goddess in the first of the poems in which he features, ‘soaring round in word-lust’, his huge beak poking greedily, almost obscenely, into the headless female figure’s shroud-like garment?

He has the wings of a vulture,
The head of a bird vain of its manhood.
His feet are of lost roads and endlessness,
Hollowed up with anger, devil-toed.
And blacker than death, his body—
The black of furious silences.
Romanzel, doubtful such abstruse goddess be
Terrible to know, since only silence-mighty,
Thinking amid grim confusions
Struggling ribbon-wise where seems her head
To find a poetry of living death, resurrection
Of all that dropped down false in life, impossible—
Romanzel, spreading his tormented wings,
Spreads the blank sky of the blank-eyed dead.

There is not much sympathy there. In the fourth piece, the second in which he features, ‘The Transformation of Romanzel’, it gets even worse for him, as he is portrayed lusting not after words (and the mind of the goddess) but after the body of Amulette. He is shown in a series of five images in the one picture, as it were circling over her before leaping down ‘[l]ike metric slowness anatomizing the rash down-tumbling’ and disintegrating into a pile of bones—to the indifference of both Amulette and Unidor:

The sorrows of the dead who die—such matters cannot give them pause.

The obvious part of the transformation of Romanzel is his fall and disintegration, but going into the background to the first of the series of images . . . what is this? The burly-buttocked falling male figure had started his career as a girl, reminiscent in her angelic outline

Of girls like evening angels
From the mass of heaven fluttering
To earth in wanton whispers […][11]

And then one notices the gradual transformation of the willowy angelic girl into the brutally-beaked predatory male figure who by the fourth in the sequence of images has shed his wings, before disintegrating altogether in the fifth and final image.

Amulette and Unidor appear in the second, fourth and fifth pieces. After the demise of the lustful male poet in ‘The Transformation of Romanzel’ the fifth poem, ‘Dead Birth’ tells the story of the spectacularly bizarre domestic life of Amulette and Unidor, after which they too disappear from the story. I feel even more certain than in the case of Romanzel that any specific identification of Amulette and Unidor is neither possible or necessary. While they are recognizably human in the pictures, they are deliberately pictured generically, distinguished by their sex but not much else. The story of Amulette and Unidor is an amusing and fanciful satire on domestic bliss, on female fecundity and male ‘creativity’. Some have (understandably enough) found the idea of the birth of dead babies to be particularly horrible (the mention of foetuses doesn’t help), but the actual story-imagery, unlike that of the ‘The Transformation of Romanzel’, ‘Within the City: Day-Time’ or ‘The Galleries of Day-Break’, is playful, dreamy and positively benign, with babies born as easily as smoke-rings (wouldn’t that be nice?) and being packed toddling off to help their father Unidor with his chimerical city-making. The babies are only ‘dead’ in that they are doomed like their parents to ‘unrelieved repetition of living ways’ rather than physical death.[12] In this illustration the painter who comes to mind is Escher with his logical but impossible physical perspectives and stairways.[13]

The name Amulette signifies more than just a lucky charm. There is an innocence about her that reminds one of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s later description of herself in the literary scene in New York in ‘An Autobiographical Summary’, an innocence which wards off evil intentions, as an amulet does.[14] At the time of writing ‘Dead Birth’ Laura Riding herself spent a lot of time in bed both dreaming and writing and smoking, so there is perhaps here something of a light-hearted satire of herself. Amulette’s open garments here also echo the imagery of the shroud of the goddess, making a link between the two female figures, as both being aspects of woman?

‘Dead Birth’ brings to a close the stories of the individual characters, with the exception of the story of the playful goddess of death, their sponsor, whose story is resumed in the final poem (with perhaps a ghostly echo of the other characters in the six etiolated human figures—or perhaps more likely, as numerically concordant, the hapless figures of the four rats being toyed with by the goddess).

The upside-down domestic interior of ‘Dead Birth’ is followed by (in the French) a city ‘interieure’, with both a verbal and a pictorial link from the poem before, in which the city (grimly industrial, in that piece, rather than modern-medieval) is in the background, with Unidor at work, his just-discernible (and then only in the original) hammer raised in his ‘constructive’ city-making activity. ‘Unidor’ is a Spanish word meaning ‘uniter’, ‘binder’, or ‘joiner’. Looking back over the book one can see that as well as being the last in the sequence of stories about individual characters, ‘Dead Birth’ is not just the first in a series of interiors which take us to the end of the book, but it also begins the temporal sequence as Amulette is described puffing out her smoke-ring babies as casually as she would deal with a breakfast cigarette:

And in the morning, Unidor off to city-making,
She lies abed a luxury-long half-hour:
This is her fondest greed, to have the bed all to herself,
And, eyes full awake and yet not in focus of thought,
To bubble babies lazily from her mouth,
Like idle smoke-puffs, fanatically precise.
Indeed, one would not say her mind was on the business
More seriously than any woman’s on the cigarette
That gently ushers in the discipline of breakfast.


‘Within the City: Day-Time’, the sixth piece, then begins the second half of The Life of the Dead. The picture, as the poem reinforces, combines medieval and modern imagery, Aldridge drawing on elements of Futurism and de Chirico’s Surrealism, with perhaps a suggestion of the crowd scenes of Hogarth, such as his ‘Gin Lane’. The eye is drawn excitedly from one scene to another. Particularly effective is the way the modern passenger in the car exiting the picture bottom right (the car dragging a victim behind it) looks back in detached amusement at the whole horrible scene. In the left foreground Aldridge added a playful touch of his own (one in which Riding happily acquiesced) of a small cartoon-like figure of the poet in profile, the only woman in the otherwise exclusively male scene, gazing up in horror at the hanging. At the heart of the horror is the upside-down figure pitchforked into the flames. Is that a monk in the left foreground, looking towards a Christ-like figure? Is there a suggestion here that the victims of the burning are heretics? It is dealt with briskly, dismissively, in Swiftian fashion, as are the other horrors on show:

The great bonfire signalling the middle of the square
Is not a sight to claim much of your time.
One deals there only with the unimportant cases.

The poem concludes with an ironically comic passage about the martyrdom of people without foibles:

On the pillar not far off are left marooned
Those tiresome neighbours without foibles—one at a time.
Often a whole month goes by before the righteous one
Transpires in martyrdom, to make room for the next.
But come—these are indeed palling frivolities
In which the dead themselves take little interest.
As in the newspapers of foreign countries
Treatises on native modes do not abound.

Next in the sequence of interior scenes is the beautifully conceived and executed café scene, ‘Within the City: Night-time’ which takes over where the day-time scene, full of anguished humanity, leaves off:

At night the city narrows into a populous café.
At night the city of the dead becomes a shrunken framework
Into which pour mincingly these uninspired wanderers.
All are but apathetic game-automata now.[15]

Cards, dominoes, a roulette-wheel and dancing chess-pieces are depicted as these game-automata, but despite the description it is a lively scene. The poem ends with a description of the gramophone, the arm of which is the only fleshly human feature (if one discounts the card Queen of Hearts and King of Diamonds) in the scene, a woman’s arm and fingers, echoed by the outline of feminine black fingers plucking a lyre on the front of the record player. There is a touch of pathos, of compassion, and of deeper feeling than in the rest of The Life of the Dead in the final lines:

And the gramophone? I believe you are familiar with it:
It is the voice of all those races that time has not admitted
Into the lavish happenings and courses
That make life so full of interest, and death so foul.

The voice, or voices, could include those of Paul Robeson, a friend, as well as of Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald, whose work the poet loved, and perhaps too those of the poet’s own Jewish forebears. At this point only is the heart not quite dry.

These final lines of ‘Within the City: Night-time’, with their mention of ‘lavish happenings and courses’ provide a verbal link forward to ‘When the Dead Banquet’, perhaps the least successful piece in the book. The picture is witty enough, a parody of a still-life, where the food, which a conventional still-life would show as fruit detached from the live plant, and/or as dead bodies of game, such as rabbits, boar, ducks and hens, is shown here as a dense living jungle of indigestible comestibles in which the ‘food’ dwarfs the little human figures circling it. The illustration is cluttered, though, and lacks dynamism; the sea looks feeble, the hanging chairs just look daft, rather than comic or surreal.  Predictably, the feast is swept away uneaten:

No, this promissory banquet has no dietetic sequel.
Soon the table will fly off into the wan expanse
Where the feigned visions of the dead expire
In slow-heaved sighs of false contentment.[16]

However, the story of the non-banquet effectively completes the quotidian sequence of interiors begun in the city in day-time (or begun before that with Amulette’s morning lie-in), preparing us for the new dawn of ‘The Galleries of Day-break’. This is the climactic illustration and poem of the book, a tour de force summing up the poet’s paradoxical comedy of life and death, of life-in-death and death-in-life. It is notable that where the other poems are more or less the same length in English as in French, the ninth poem consists of 65 lines in English, 16 lines (or 30%) more than the 49 of the French version. The speech given to the dead is 11 lines in French, but 16 (45% longer) in English. Here it becomes clear what Riding meant in her ‘Explanation’ when she said:

The English text is therefore not so much a translation from the French as a piece of writing in English which contains in itself its improvised French model—as a safeguard against inappropriate poetic seriousness. [Italics added]

The dead in ‘The Galleries of Day-break’ are torn between returning to their places in the crypt and attempting resurrection. The illustration and the English text are actually at odds at this point.Is the cadaverous, skeletal figure in the foreground lifting the tombstone to get out of or to get into the grave? The text is clear that they are getting back into the grave, but responding to the illustration one’s first reaction is that the three foreground figures are getting out, as on Resurrection Day.Behind these three, ambiguously portrayed, are three or four shadowy dead in a catacomb, described as ‘clambering to the cellulate recesses’ but again it is unclear whether it is a hive of returning torpor and hibernation (perhaps aestivation, as the rays of the dawn are associated with icicles ‘the feverish snow of sudden day’, a simultaneous contradiction of heat and cold) or a hive of returning activity. After the 16-line speech given to the dead, apparently in favour of returning to the grave, the poem acknowledges that ‘some few, impatient of such wisdom’:

As secretly as others to their tombs
Up dawn’s deceptive stairway creep
And, feeble with rebellion, seem to grow strong
At each step left behind, but strong in folly only.

These few unwilling to return to the grave are shown failing to rise to the sky, or to the heavens above.

A few years after The Life of the Dead Riding wrote a wholly serious poem, ‘We Are the Resurrection’ (1938) using some of the same imagery and words as ‘The Galleries of Day-break’, but without the Gothic element. It begins:

We are now about to die the death of endeavour.
We have lain down on the old weary-bed […]

And it ends, unlike ‘The Galleries of Day-break’, in a quietly triumphant and unambiguous resurrection:

We are now about to live the life we have lived.
We have got up upon the floor of time
And composed our limbs and faces
To the picture rising up within us
Out of invisible ages of endeavour
To postpone the moment of looking.

We are about to rescue ourselves from eternity
With a picture-magnet surely irresistible,
Since it is now later than eternity
Whose picture of us on the wall of heaven
[Of an angel copied out of sleep]
From angel-blankness has enlivened
To be a mirror: which, though we deny ourselves,
In mirror’s punctuality insists
The posthumous reflection.[17]

[Line in square brackets added]

The author’s letter to Beedham quoted earlier makes it clear that The Life of The Dead represents the death-in-life side of the coin of life-in-death, death-in-life. In religion a similar perspective is expressed in Christ’s ‘let the dead bury their dead.’ The characters in The Life of the Dead are unable to emerge from the level in which they are conceived ‘to the angelic or even the human.’ For Riding the angelic level was one to which to aspire; it is the other side of the coin, that of finding life-in-death. In her poems it is found in the soaring-spirited ‘The Wind Suffers’:

And what the cure of all this?
What the not and not suffering?
What the better and later of this?
What the more me of me? […]

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?

By no other miracles,
By the same knowing poison,
By an improved anguish,
By my further dying.

In later life Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote an unfinished short story for children with reference to angels, which was published only posthumously. The following quotations, which include her definition of ‘angels’ seem pertinent here:

Angels are the livest, most quick-moving and quick-acting beings that can be thought of—besides being the very best kind of beings; this is why, when they are pictured in the mind or represented in actual pictures, they are given wings. […]

I must immediately explain that while, according to my ideas, angels are beings who have never died, who can’t die, the people whose better selves they are can die, and, as things have been going ever since there came to be people, do die. [Italics added][18]

Critics have been exasperated by Laura Riding’s apparent obsession with death, and by her seeming addiction to paradox, but what she was doing was sticking with the big unanswered questions which dog us all, restlessly coming at them from one direction and in one format after another, until she got as close to a resolution as possible. In this case, in poetry, I feel that in ‘We Are the Resurrection’ she came near to describing a resolution to the problem of life-in-death, of how to become an ‘angel’. In prose, at around the same time, she wrestled with and to her mind, at least, produced a resolution to the problems in ‘From a Private Correspondence on Reality’ (1937). Inevitably an excerpt, which is all we have space for here, does violence to the integrity of the whole sweeping argument, but perhaps the following gives a flavour:

Life is the exercise of consciousness in individual contexts; death is the critical phase of consciousness—the nullification of the merely individualistic meanings. To know that the truth of any act or utterance is qualified by the degree to which it is entailed in the peculiar circumstances giving rise to it, that its application is limited by the nature of the field to which it is designed to apply: this is death. Criticism is death.

It is not, that is, necessary to ‘die’ in order to experience death. And the more actively death is experienced in life—the more precisely co-incident its accent with the life-accent—the less significance it has as a physical event.

To return to ‘The Galleries of Day-Break’, to the story of death-in-life, the feebly creeping-upward dead come to the galleries of the title. First we have a sculpture of three figures, ‘the memorial soul| Transfixed in sculptural battle with self and self’ reflective of the conflict between the desire to rise up from or sink back into the grave. Then, and less consequentially, surely, there are pictures of a ‘lady’ on a horse (but is that a highwayman’s mask she is wearing, a suggestion that we are being ambushed?), and a working family at a meal (perhaps a reference back to the non-banquet of the previous piece), before the final Magritte-like picture of the sky, adjoining the ‘real’ sky, or heaven, of the illustration:

[…] And where the walls are nearly sky, the sky pictured,
Nearly sky, scarcely that most reckless one
Thus become deathly mist in yielding to the dawn,
The ecstasy of rising toward a future
That never to that world descends, all hope there
Being but of things long gone, and better not missed
Lest death float up and like aspiring smoke
Lead into nothingness greater than itself.

As in ‘Within the City: Day-time’ there is a medieval air, Gothic laughter and cruelty combined with up-to-date references to modernism.

The final piece is ‘The Playful Goddess’, contains a sort of self-portrait of (aspects of) the poet as a goddess as a cat:

Who would believe, under the tall sombre folds,
A toying inner creature, mind and mischief
Of the gigantic all-ghoul Death?

Thus beats, in false-earnest, a dry heart once a heart,
Rejoicing to be heart, however dead.
However ’tis only Death’s jocose agitation,
However but the heart of a goddess at play,
Pretending, in her large make-believe of vesture,
A heart like a world a-toss, a live heart,
A veinage of people like a live world seeming—
Seeming, like her, eternal.

Then you can shut the book’s coffin-lid, reminded, perhaps of the final lines of a poem from The Close Chaplet, ‘The Virgin of the City’ (1926):

The stricken crowds sink ages into death,
Fall back into their coffins, pull down the lid,
And think of plays in theatres till morning. [22]

[1] Elizabeth Friedmann’s invaluable biography, A Mannered Grace (New York, Persea Books, 2005), 192 and 201, tells us that although the book appeared under Arthur Barker’s imprint she and Aldridge (who had a comfortable private income) paid for its production costs, which included £100 for the engraver, Beedham. Beedham (1879-1975) may have been the last person to have served an apprenticeship as a professional reproductive wood-engraver. He never produced his own creative work, but was a highly regarded professional and close associate of the well-known artists Eric Gill and Robert Gibbings.

[2] After writing this I checked online the availability of Collected Poems (re-titled The Poems of Laura Riding in the 2001 centennial edition). I could not readily find copies of the 1980 edition (badly produced, so that it fell apart easily) or of the much better produced 2001 edition, which contains an introduction by Mark Jacobs and much helpful material from the author’s prefaces and post-poetic pronouncements. There were, however, quite a few copies available of the original 1938 editions from Cassells (London) and Random House (New York), from £50 upwards.

[3] Laura Riding is hardly celebrated for her comedy, but there is a subtle humour at work in many of her serious poems, and what might politely be called a robuster strain would break out at times. As with everything else she took humour seriously, and James Reeves and she wrote an essay ‘Humour and Poetry as Related Themes’ for Epilogue III (Majorca, Seizin; London, Constable: 1937), 173-190. Her sense of fun comes out clearly in Mark Jacobs’ memoir of ‘A Journey to Wabasso’ in Jack Blackmore’s The Unthronged Oracle (Cirencester, Mereo Press: 2016), 272-298.

[4] Riding uses, approvingly, a quote from Quarles’ Enchiridion as epigraph to ‘Homiletic Studies’ in Epilogue II, Summer 1936, 63. Elsewhere she also uses the word ‘emblematic’ for certain poetic figures rather than  ‘symbolic’ or ‘metaphorical’, perhaps because it implies more restraint, better control in the use of imagination and imagery.

[5] Except, perhaps, for his severe portrait of Laura Riding, unlike any other picture of her, and one which gave her pause, but which she described loyally as ‘a very good murderous-looking one.’ Aldridge (1905-1983) was close to Riding for a considerable period, going back to 1927, and she seems to have rather fancied him.[Would you consider omitting the British slang expression and just use the quote that follows, without parentheses?] (At around this time she wrote that there was ‘no one I am so happy with as with John’: A Mannered Grace, 202). He was one of the first of several painters, poets, artists and intellectuals who were drawn to Deià in Mallorca into the orbit of Riding and Robert Graves in the period 1930-1936. Aldridge contributed the cover engraving and four black-and-white photographs of his paintings, to the first issue of  Epilogue in 1935, including three of scenes in Deià and one from Great Bardfield in Essex, where he had bought a house in 1933, joining the now celebrated artist residents of the village Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious. His four pictures in Epilogue are enclosed by a seven-page essay by Riding called ‘Picture-Making’ which distinguishes three types of artist, exemplified by Picasso, Ben Nicholson (who she knew and corresponded with) and John Aldridge. Aldridge’s reputation has always been good, but his stock seems to be rising, with justification. A beautifully produced recent book, Bawden, Ravilious and the artists of Great Bardfield , edited by Gill Saunders and Malcolm Yorke (London, V&A Publishing, 2015), despite the title, devotes a full chapter (by Peter Donovan) and equal space to Aldridge, including six of the illustrations (miniaturized, but well-reproduced otherwise, on a single page) from The Life of the Dead (see pp93-111).

[6] A Mannered Grace, op.cit, 192, 502. Friedmann’s index entries on John Aldridge enable one to trace the history of the relationship between him and Laura Riding, and there is a clear and helpful summary of The Life of the Dead at 190-192—the only worthwhile account of the poem to date.

[7] ‘The Idea of God’ is reproduced in Essays from Epilogue, edited and introduced by Mark Jacobs (Manchester: Carcanet, 2001), 5-37; quotations from p6. The Word “Woman” and other related writings, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann and Alan J.Clark (New York: Persea Books, 1993), 17-122, quotation from p61. Anyone who reads Riding’s The Word, “Woman” (regrettably, there have not yet been many) can see whence Graves lifted her succinct ideas for his The White Goddess.

[8] In a response to an earlier version of this essay Elizabeth Friedmann drew my attention to Aldridge’s 1928 portrait of his sometime lover, Cedric Morris, whose naked torso could arguably be taken as the model for the torso of Mortjoy, but Morris’s somewhat irregular face, seems to me less like that of Mortjoy than Aldridge’s rather more refined features.

[9] Deborah Baker, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993), 262-269.

[10] I have lifted key phrases of this sentence from an apposite description of Hardy’s mature method, defending him against attempts at the close identification of Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure with Tryphena Sparks or Florence Henniker, in Timothy O’Sullivan’s Thomas Hardy: An Illustrated Biography (London: Macmillan, 1975), 137.

[11] From ‘The Reasons of Each’, first published in Epilogue I (Majorca, Seizin; London, Constable, 1935), 224-226; later in Collected Poems, 310-12.

[12] Riding’s hopes for children who would break out of the repetitious cycle of living death are expressed eloquently in her beautiful quasi-sonnet ‘On a New Generation’ (first published in Epilogue II in 1936).

[13] The idea of city-making as a typically male, and flawed, activity is to be found in the beautiful late poem, ‘Auspice of Jewels’, where men’s ‘conniving’ at women’s ‘jewelled fascinations’ is compared to their construction of towns and cities:

We are studded with wide brilliance
As the world with towns and cities—
The travelling look builds capitals
Where the evasive eye may rest
Safe from the too immediate lodgement.

There is a similar idea in the much earlier poem, ‘No More Are Lovely Palaces’ (1926).

[14] Laura (Riding) Jackson, ‘An Autobiographical Summary’, PN Review 97, Vol 20, No 5, May-June 1994, 27-34.

[15] In Deià the Riding/Graves circle would go to the café in the evening for games and entertainment. There is a reminder here, too, of Riding’s essay in Epilogue I on the French poets ‘The Cult of Failure’, which begins with a section called ‘The Rimbaud’: ‘The Rimbaud is a café, a café abroad where a certain intoxication of mind is cultivated in a certain mood of despair.’ (Op.cit., 60-86).

To ply the mingled banquet
Which the deep larder of illusion shed
Like myth in time grown not astonishing.
Lean to the cloth awhile, and yet awhile,
And even may your eyes caress […]

[17] Collected Poems, 313-314.

[18] ‘The Serious Angels: A True Story’, in Chelsea 69 (2000), 19-25.

[19] Laura Riding and Robert Graves, ‘From a Private Correspondence on Reality’, Epilogue III (Mallorca, Seizin Press; London, Constable: 1937), 107-130; reprinted in Essays from Epilogue, 1935-1937, edited and with an introduction by Mark Jacobs, (Manchester, Carcanet: 2001), 163-179, quote from 176. I cannot resist quoting further, as an antidote to Larkin’s mawkish but so-celebrated ‘Aubade’:

Yet how can we speak with awe of nothingness, if by somethingness we mean only self-existence? There is no one who whimpers at the notion of nothingness who means more by it than the disappearance of his local, vital self. Fundamental somethingness is not proved or disproved by what becomes of each of us, personally. It is the implicit source from which our individual existence derives; and indeed we disappear, and to petty nothingness, if we do not belabour ourselves, without mercy to our individual obduracies, until we are the passionately flexible instruments by which fundamental somethingness is transformed from an implicit to an explicit reality. (177)

[20] The title given in the Epilogue reproduction. He later retitled the picture ‘A Garden, Mallorca’ (in Bawden, Ravilious and the Artists of Great Bardfield, op.cit., p100.) See too Mark Jacobs’ contribution on Epilogue to The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines (Oxford: OUP, 2009), 819-820, in which the picture is reproduced.

[21] ‘Rejoice, Liars’; Laura and Francisca, in Collected Poems, 130, 402.

[22] See Joyce Wexler, Laura Riding: A Bibliography (New York, Garland: 1981), 126. Wexler has a fascinating if incomplete section on ‘Writings about Laura Riding’. She records only two critical contemporary responses to the publication of The Life of the Dead: a review by Louis MacNeice in New Verse which compares it favourably with her ‘appallingly bleak and jejune’ previous work; and an anonymous one from the Times Literary Supplement  which is concerned ‘noting her skill, what weariness or accident has turned her from the objective sensuous world of poetry to explore the inarticulate deserts, which she calls death.’ Much later, in Roy Fuller’s wide-ranging review of her poetic achievement in response to her Selected Poems: In Five Sets (1970) he makes a self-deprecating acknowledgement that his own poem ‘End of a City’ ‘… is a direct crib from her splendid sequence The Life of the Dead .’ Fuller was clear about her beneficial influence on other poets, Graves himself of course, ‘that excellent poet Norman Cameron’ and W.H. Auden; in his unfortunately titled ‘The White Goddess’, The Review 23, 1970.  The

Transformation of Romanzel

Dead Birth

Within the City: Day-time
Within the City: Night-time
The Galleries of Day-break

The Playful Goddess