Robert Graves

Laura (Riding) Jackson

and the Problem of Robert Graves and Public Schools


Much of of the lamentable lack of recognition of Laura (Riding) Jackson in current times, whether as a poet or a prose writer, has been caused by the popular reputation of her once literary partner, Robert Graves, who, over the years, has helped himself to a great deal of her work and, equally, her thought, after 1940 when the two separated, and then presented it as his own. A simple and unchallenged example of this is the recorded fact of his pretence that the famous analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 in A Survey Of Modernist Poetry (1927), in which they were co-authors, was his work alone. It was, in fact, and provably so, her work, her analysis, issuing from the principles of her book, Contemporaries And Snobs (1928), which was written at the same time and published three months after A Survey by the same publisher, Jonathan Cape.

 The Shakespeare analysis was one among many ideas crucial in A Survey. It was, for instance, the starting-place of the 'New Criticism' method in England which was to flood English departments for the next four or five decades in the close scrutiny of poems, and lingers well into the present day, in various English literary quarters, as a highly practicable method in the examination of complex and not-so complex poems of literary and contemporary history. The analysis was sped on its way by William Empson via Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), who claimed Robert Graves as the inventor, entirely ignoring the first-named author on the title-page of the Survey, Laura Riding, whose name did not appear in his acknowledgements. The 'new criticism' was also adopted by English literary academics and teachers in America, as Cleanth Brookes, it’s leading exponent recognized. These facts in recent years have come to light in several English journals. And yet any number of well-known literary critical academics have continued over the years, quite erroneously, to quote Graves as the prime author of the book, with Laura Riding, the true expositor, either named as second author or left out of the picture altogether. It has to be mentionedIn this context that the very word ‘Modernist’ as applied to ‘Modernist literary studies’ in university English departments, as well as academic and other publishers, begins with A Survey Of Modernist Poetry. The book still serves as a primer for students.

This is but one example in a literary partnership that was later (1940) to go wrong. It will, for example, come as a surprise to any number of readers to know that Graves' The White Goddess springs in large part, not from Laura Riding herself as imagined goddess, but from an everywhere unread exploration by Laura Riding, published in 1935 in Epilogue, called 'The Idea of God'. Graves based his work on this, in, for instance, his presentation of the 'sympathetic association' of words, a key principle in the book, and one which is taken directly from Riding's essay (but from other essays of hers on language, and from her poems, too, of the same time). His notions of a matriarchal goddess are also taken from here, although, pivotally, he relied on her poems for his central ideas of 'the Goddess' - poems which, except for a handful of admirers (four? five?) no one has understood or read. Her very first book of poems, The Close Chaplet, 1926, is a prime source for Graves. Another work of his, The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1946), published not long after the two had split up (1940), in which his co-author was Alan Hodge, similarly directly plagiarises one of her essays in the Seizin Press journal Epilogue, 1936, 'The Exercise Of English'. Put the book and the essay side by side, as with ‘The Idea Of God’ and The White Goddess, and it becomes immediately plain.

Another steal by Graves of Riding work is his publication of the essay ‘Nietsche’. In The Common Asphodel, and, later, in the Penguin and American editions of The Crowning Privilege, he presents as his own an essay on Nietzsche. The essay, in fact, is by Laura Riding and first appeared in Epilogue I under her nom de plume ‘Madeleine Vara’, a name she used in various essays and books, such as Convalescent Conversations. It is listed in Alan Clark’s bibliography of her work as

'Germany', by Laura Riding, John Cullen, Madeleine Vara, Epilogue I, Autumn 1935, pp. 93-129. [includes 'Nietzsche', by M.V., pp. 113-125; 'Germans as a Social Problem', by L.R., pp. 126-129.]

For reasons known only to himself and with no evidence offered, Higginson, Graves’ bibliographer, in his entry for Epilogue I, offers the note:

‘Germany’ (signed M[adeleine] V[ara], a house pseudonym, and reprinted as ‘Nietzsche’ (p.192)

There are no grounds for describing ‘M. V.’ as a ‘house pseudonym’. Thus Miranda Seymour in her biography of Graves probably re-asserted this misinformation, not finding it, as she claimed in a letter, in the Berg Library in New York, a letter which does not, according to the librarian, exist nor ever existed.

Ripples of this kind of scholastic mendacity appear in the oddest of places. So, for example, to take another case. Warren Hope in his otherwise carefully researched biography of Norman Cameron: His Life, Work and Letters (2022), is at pains to follow Cameron in his various translations of Rimbaud, published in 1949 as A Season In Hell, and mentions, decently, the co-operation on translations and the discussions between Cameron and Riding on the subject of Rimbaud, but nowhere does he mention 'The Cult Of Failure', by Laura Riding and Madeleine Vara (i.e., Laura Riding), in Epilogue I, Autumn 1935, this a detailed essay on Rimbaud, Verlaine and others which, as Alan Clark records, consists of

“contents: 'The Rimbaud', by L.R. (includes note on Rimbaud by T.E. Lawrence), pp. 60-66; 'Critical Detail', by M.V., pp. 66-86]”

That Laura Riding was at ease in the French language is evident elsewhere in her work (see for example The Life of the Dead) whereas, as Hope points out, Cameron left university with a poor degree and learnt French and German in his later travels, albeit he was well equipped with his university study of classics and philosophy. He met Laura Riding when he was an undergraduate in 1927. Possibly he was sufficiently well-equipped in French by 1935 to join Laura Riding in discussions or even work on Rimbaud, but – and this is at the forefront of all the work published in the three volumes of Epilogue – everyone who contributed to the Epilogue essays was named (Cameron’s name appears in a later Epilogue essay), so that he would have been attributed here. Why does Hope not mention this particular essay, one which has so much in common with the translations Cameron is later to undertake, translations, it needs to be added, that Riding encouraged him to do? It may be, of course, that Warren Hope simply didn’t see this essay, which is excusable, although he does mention Epilogue elsewhere in his book and has some familiarity with those volumes, as he also does with Riding’s long poem The Life of the Dead (which is written first in French by Riding). Nor does Cameron acknowledge either her or it in his 1949 A Season In Hell, which is odd in itself.

All this spirals down to Robert Graves’ determination after 1940 to rid his work of any suggestion that Laura Riding played any part in it, as I have explained elsewhere,[1] so that her work has become elided in the consciousness of those engaged in English studies, especial with those who abet him, as with Gravesian scholars, or the unwary, such as Warren Hope.

 Such has been the literary history since the late 1950s of how things are between Laura (Riding) Jackson and Robert Graves and, of course, the so-called 'Deia circle' of friends and quondam friends, most of whom, as with Norman Cameron, Graves turned to his advantage, publishing his letters, for instance, as though they were to him when in fact they were  letters written to Laura Riding. 


[1] ‘The Question Of Bias: Some Treatments Of Laura (Riding) Jackson’, Mark Jacobs and Alan Clark, Hiroshima Studies in English Language and Literature, Vol. 21, Nos. 1 and 2, 1971. 1-29.