Laura Riding and The Close Chaplet1
LAURA RIDING LEFT NEW YORK on Boxing Day, 1925, to travel to England with her newly received passport, largely to escape, she said, the ‘literary bug-eyes of Greenwich Village, always following you around to see who was up-and-coming and who wasn’t.’2 The bug-eyed, she believed, were the ruin of her friend Hart Crane. She arrived in Plymouth on January 3rd, 1926, at 5 a.m., a Sunday, to travel by train to Paddington, London, where she was met by Robert Graves. She carried with her a collection of poems, some already published in magazines, many of these in The Fugitive3, where Graves had read them after they had been pointed out to him by a friend, and some entirely new poems. At the time her name by marriage was Laura Gottschalk, which she extended to ‘Laura Riding Gottschalk’, ‘Riding’ replacing her family name, ‘Reichenthal’, which she thought too long and awkward and less euphonious. These were the poems of The Close Chaplet, published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in 1926, partly through Graves’ acquaintance with them, with the name ‘Gottschalk’ cancelled with ruled lines on the title-page.4
The Close Chaplet, along with an essay she published in The Reviewer, in 1925, ‘A Prophecy or a Plea’, sets the foundation for, as she points out, has always been written according to an accepted formula, of looking at the world and writing from it, which is an experience in which we are the passive objects of a force to which our nature offers no resistance, but transmits the shock of impact to the functions of poetry. In this definition man is but a stream of passage between the source that is life and the outlet that is poetry. The climate of this stream, its slight waves and winds and temporary havens constitute the notion of beauty. The artist of this mood sees it not as an inexhaustible infinity of the source whose entirety he is able to reconstruct from his partial vision of it or as the ultimate mold of the mysterious vessel into which life flows. The quality of beauty is rather an accidental, a peculiar flavor of the poet’s own soul, an isolated phenomenon, the taste of a wine rather than the very pulse of running blood. The taste may be whatever pleases the whim of the moment. There is no eternal form, no ideal. Something vague as a flood pours in upon the being, something in excess of it that becomes unbearable until poetry or another muse, like an old phlebotomist, performs the operation that lets the magic or the accursed fluid out. It is this attitude toward life that has inspired almost every poet who has suffered or rejoiced in living and cried out in art. To the poet of classical tradition art is the measure of self-control against the violence of existence.
She might well be thinking here of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ or ‘To Autumn’ in which meaning is wrested from the objects, lending the poet a spiritual sheen or mysticism, but it might equally be any poem by Yeats, such as ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, or Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ with its bleak vision of the unreal world. Art, we might repeat after her, ‘is the measure of self-control against the violence of existence' coloured by the ‘peculiar flavour of the poet’s own soul’. She proposes an alternative:
Now I am insisting that the pressure is a challenge not to a retreat into the penumbra of introspection but to the birth of a new poetic bravery that shall exchange insight for outsight and envisage life not as an influence upon the soul but the soul as an influence upon life.
She quotes Francis Thompson as one poet who stumbled into a vision of this:
In his [Thompson’s] own terms he certainly succeeded, certainly realized life through art, made his soul the agent of perfection in an imperfect life:
Lo, here stand I and Nature, gaze to gaze, And I the greater!
The source of his faith we need not accept or reject. The real source was Francis Thompson. It does not matter what the source of Francis Thompson was. We need only see the identity of faith and the spirit of his art in him as a first cause from which life followed as an emanation, in Francis Thompson almost as a radiation, to which he gave meaning, truth, and, because his vision was complete, an organic beauty.
Such poets in future, she says,
will be egoists and romanticists all, but romantics with the courage of realism: they will put their hands upon the mysterious contour of life not to force meaning out of it, since unrelated to them it must be essentially meaningless to them, but press meaning upon it, outstare the stony countenance of it, make it flush with their own colors.
In the short five-and-a-half-page compass of this essay in its original Reviewer version she turns poetry completely on its head, for herself if for no one else at this stage, but with the ensuing poems of The Close Chaplet as the offered consequence, and the aftermath in her thought and work having profound implications not just for poets but for the entire Western tradition of thought.
For her, ‘the function of the poet, of the poetic mind, is inductive rather than deductive.’ One may, for example, see this instantly in poems in this volume such as ‘The Quids’, which first drew Robert Graves’ attention when he saw it in The Fugitive in 1924, or ‘Prisms’, or ‘The Lady of the Apple’, poems which are not mere observations of reality, or outer things, which strike the mind’s eye, but put meaning into what is observed, make sense, so to speak, of what is ‘there’. ‘The Quids’, for instance, offers a view of existence, world-existence, of how things and humans emerge in existence from the mystery of their creation, from a vantage point preceding the Darwinian view; while ‘The Lady of the Apple’ lays siege to the everywhere accepted historical version of the biblical Creation myth as centred in God (but other versions, too). In such poems Laura Riding was on the move.
Poets, lovers of poetry, critics, fight shy of this sudden shift- ing of the ground of poetry, sensing the augury of the earthquake behind it, while also sensing they might have to do almost as much work as the poet herself in following her thought, a little perceived factor in the general dislike of Riding’s poems. On top of this they also refuse to accept that Riding means, literally, what she says, a problem that she squared up to in the Preface of her Collected Poems of 1938 where she urges the reader to read her poems ‘liter- ally, literally, literally, without gloss, without gloss, without gloss.’
So read, so exist: with your very best reasons. Any other reasons are not reasons, or no longer reasons— mere compulsions from without, or mere glosses upon nightmares long ago ridden off the map of experience.
The refusal to accept her meanings literally has been the bane of all commentators, with the rare exception of a few, leading to a widespread fear of her work. This is its power.
She lays her intentions bare in a passage in a later book, Experts Are Puzzled (1930):
And Science itself, all that is less than people defining people, intellectual, dumbly prognosticating Matter— Science itself is slowing saying that Science, or Slowness, is soon over, soon-now over. The game which was no game is up, the real business is at hand. What real business? Real business is how Science says business. The business. What business? Am I a mystic? No, I am not a mystic, I am Laura. What business? Laura. How can Laura be a business? How can she not? Complete obsession. Never before, now at last. Until now, delusion of completeness, unavowed delusion. Now, complete obsession, avowed completeness, now Laura.6
The problem for readers of Laura Riding in my experience has been that they have never accepted she was speaking literally. This passage from Experts Are Puzzled demonstrates her literalness. It needs to be read word for word. Science is discredited: it is a mere prolonged discussion of ‘Matter’. Or to put it another way, Science studies nothing more than ‘things’, reduces everything to ‘things’, the smallest atom or the largest universe, or social reality, or matter. But the ‘real business’ is not about ‘things’. It is about the mind, and because the mind names (gives language to) all things, all reality that we can know, Science has no place in the ‘real business’ and is merely an off-shoot. What matters is what we think7. Laura Riding turned her ‘self ’ (herself) into the ‘complete obsession’ on the grounds that there is nothing more ancient, more real, more directly sprung from the advent of the universe, than the human being and the mind – far more real, if we think about it, than the microscopic, or the planets, suns or moons we might observe, all of which are either dead or burning to extinction, none of which think, or have a language to think with. Human beings might be directly descended from the slithery spirits of Teilhard de Chardin’s reconstructions or from Neanderthal man, right from the beginning of the universe, but they extend further than the universe – immortally, one might say. The real business is ‘Laura’ (or any other person), the oldest, most advanced thinking ‘thing’, or piece of reality, the complete and necessary ‘obsession’. She began this journey definitively in her earliest poems prior to 1926, and in The Close Chaplet where they are collected.8
Now eighty years after they appeared in her Collected Poems in 1938, Laura Riding’s poems are still, widely speaking, a mystery for their readers. Several critics have now written on her work, some focusing on the poems themselves to give clues and directions, but none of it (their work) seems somehow quite adequate, and she herself was to say harsh words on the critical analyses of her work which appeared in her lifetime up to 1991, judging them in the main wrong, or wholly wrong, even the friendliest of them. A number of essays have also appeared, both since her death and before, which rely in part – greater or smaller part – on a reading of her poems, and these too do not make understanding the poems easier. My fairly informed guess is that readers might approach her poems with up-to-date critical information in their hands and still be baffled by what they encounter. Many poems might be plucked randomly from her Collected Poems,9 or from The Close Chaplet, to illustrate poems which puzzle readers, at least at a first reading and no doubt for much longer. Take this, for example:
What is beheld through glass seems glass.
The quality of what I am
Encases what I am not,
Smoothes the strange world.
I perceive it slowly,
In my time,
In my material,
As my pride,
As my possession:
The vision is love.
When life crashes like a cracked pane,
Still shall I love
Even the slight grass and the patient dust.
Death also sees, though darkly,
And I must trust then as now
Only another kind of prism
Through which I may not put my hands to touch.
Such a poem invites one’s interest followed by any number of questions. It is not the kind of poem which describes things – a nature poem, a love poem, a poem of sensory experience – but a poem which draws the reader into its thinking-course rather than providing an emotional jolt of some kind. Then, it raises questions seemingly impossible to answer, such as: How may one love the ‘strange dead’? How does ‘another kind’ of prism differ from the title? How does love resolve any of the issues raised? And so on.
Nor does such a poem meet our contemporary expectations of what a poem should be or might be, however various our educational backgrounds. It is not conventionally ‘pretty’, even though the lines run fluidly. It is not emotionally satisfying in an immediate way. It does not make us gasp. It leaves us, in fact, slightly floundering behind, looking for a pay-off in the concluding lines which is not quite there. Nevertheless, there is something about it which looms intelligent:10 the poem actually does seem to say something, although we might not grasp what it is, and so we go to another poem and, disappointingly or not, as the case might be, we find poems which have a similar if not indeed the same effect on us, and some, especially the longer ones, seem wholly mystifying. The opening lines of ‘Disclaimer of the Person’ (p.251 in Collected Poems) offer an outstanding example of the second kind:
I say myself.
The beginning was that no saying was.
There was no beginning.
There is an end and there was no beginning.
There is a saying and there was no saying.
In the beginning
God did not create.
There was no creation.
There was no God.
There was that I did not say.
The poem continues for 296 lines, each no less seemingly baffling than these.
I want at this point to reassure the reader that Laura Rid- ing’s poems are not baffling,11 that this poem and any others make perfect sense, indeed, beautifully lucid and lyric sense, once the underlying themes are understood, and that these themes are to be discovered either by following the poems very carefully from the first one in Collected Poems (‘Forgotten Girlhood’), and not moving from one poem to the next until each is fully understood – a laborious feat but attainable (‘laborious’ because there is much to be understood) – or, by beginning at the actual beginning with The Close Chaplet. As Robert Nye has said:
[…] I have never found these poems wanting in their account of how it is, essentially, with a result that now I might claim not just to believe them true, but to know them truthful. Here is poetry as an articulation of the most exquisite consciousness, poetry as completely wakeful existence realised in words, with at the end of it the news that even poetry will not do. Here is work that reads the person reading it.’12
My intention in this introduction is to begin to demonstrate that The Close Chaplet contains all the themes that will be developed in Collected Poems, 1938, and that a clear understanding of these themes will then be found to make the subsequent poems, and her later prose work, such as The Telling (1972), perfectly accessible. It incidentally suggests why Robert Graves admired her work so much from this time on and what he learned from it.
The Close Chaplet was published on October 9, 1926, by the Woolf ’s Hogarth Press. According to Elizabeth Friedmann13, ‘[…] many of the poems for The Close Chaplet were brought in typescript from New York, a few were added in Egypt, and the entire text was carefully edited by Robert [Graves].’ And she notes:
A creative symbiosis was developing between Laura and Robert that allowed them to collaborate for years to come. As one wrote, the other was continually looking over the writer’s shoulder with suggestions, comments, criticism.
The book’s title is taken from a stanza of a Robert Graves’ poem, ‘The Nape of the Neck’, acting as an epigraph to the book:
To speak of the hollow nape where the close chaplet
Of thought is bound, the loose ends lying neat
In two strands downward, where the shoulders open Casual and strong beneath, waiting their burden,
And the long spine begins its easy journey:
The hair curtains this postern silkily,
This secret stairway by which thought will come
More personally, with a closer welcome
Than through the latticed eyes or portalled ears […]
The Close Chaplet was initially printed under her then married name ‘Laura Riding Gottschalk’, and a number of the poems in the book were first published in the Fugitive magazine in 1924 and 1925, when her name is first listed on the editorial mast-head.14
That Laura Riding knew early on that she was doing, or would be doing, something quite different in poetry from what is normally accepted as poetry or the writing of poems (however ‘abnormal’ poetry may seem in one poet or another, whether Rimbaud or E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, or surrealists, or language poets as currently), is put forward first in her essay ‘A Prophecy or a Plea’, as we can see, or, as here, in the opening poem of The Close Chaplet, ‘As Well as any Other’. Written in regular rhyming stanzaic form, the irony becomes clear as the poems that follow it unfold.
As Well as any Other
As well as any other, Erato,
I can dwell separately on what men know
In common secrecy,
And celebrate the old, adoréd rose,
Retell – oh why – how similarly grows The last leaf of the tree.
But for familiar sense what need can be
Of my most singular survey or me,
If homage may be done
(Unless it is agreed we shall not break
The patent silence just for singing’s sake)
As well by anyone?
Reject me not, then, if I have begun
Unwontedly or if I seem to shun The close and well-tilled ground:
For in untraveled soil alone can I
Unearth the gem or let the mystery lie
That never must be found.
She shuns ‘The close and well-tilled ground’ of traditional lyrical poetry (Erato is the muse of lyrical poetry) in order to move in the ‘untraveled soil’ where the ‘mystery’ all poets search for, the ‘gem’, lies. The ‘gem’ is the yearning of all people but especially those who work with words, specifically poets: the desire for ultimate knowledge, peace, oneness or wholeness – call it what you will (perhaps ‘truth’ is the apposite word). One should not underestimate the serious positioning of this particular poem at the opening of The Close Chaplet. In every subsequent collection of her poems, including Collected Poems, Riding was careful to place her poems in an unfolding sequence, each poem, or cluster of poems, a clue leading to the next one, and each one setting the context for what follows. But to turn briefly, first, to a poem the haunting beauty of which foreshadows this one, ‘Dimensions’, which appeared in The Fugitive magazine (but not in The Close Chaplet) in 192315 where Riding puts her theme in a more forthright way. It begins:
Measure me for a burial
That my low stone may neatly say
In a precise Euclidean way
How I am three-dimensional…
and it concludes with a similar determination to that of ‘As Well as Any Other’, that is, that she will be herself—
Measure me by myself
And not by time or love or space Or beauty.
Give me this last grace:
That I may be on my low stoneA gage unto myself alone.
I would not have these old faiths fall
To prove that I was nothing at all.
Time, love, space, beauty – these are then, if not renounced, of secondary interest to the young poet, then twenty-two years old, who looked for something more in life than life normally offers, something that is substantially of life-meaning substance, the two dissolving to one. One glimpses in the penultimate stanza of ‘Dimensions’ her sweeping passion—
Measure me then by love – yet no,
For I remember times when she Sought her own measurements in me,
But fled, afraid I might foreshow
How broad I was myself and tall
And deep and many-measured, moving
My scale upon her and thus proving
That both of us were nothing at all.
It is difficult to understand why this poem wasn’t included in either The Close Chaplet or the Collected Poems. I can only think that one or two of the grace notes, such as ‘Euclidean’ and ‘gage’, may have been too reminiscent of (i.e., ‘borrowed’ from) other Fugitive contributors, notably John Crowe Ransom, but it is a very fine poem anyway,16 beautifully cadenced.
The very next poem in The Close Chaplet after ‘As Well as Any Other’ is the all-important ‘The Quids’, published in The Fugitive in 1924 and which first caught Robert Graves’ attention, causing him shortly afterwards to invite her to England to collaborate in a book informally commissioned under T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber.17 The poem illustrates nicely Laura Riding’s way of looking directly at the larger picture of life, somewhat beyond the (mere!) personal emotions the vast majority of poems – or I might say, poets – rest upon, to the wider, widest, traverse of the earth and further. It begins:
The little quids, the million quids,
The everywhere, everything, always quids,
The atoms of the Monoton,
Each turned three essences where it stood,
And ground a gisty dust from its neighbors’ edges,
Until a powdery thoughtfall stormed in and out,
The cerebration of a slippery quid enterprise.
Each quid stirred. The united quids
Waved through a sinuous decision.
The quids, that had never done anything before
But be, be, be, be, be,
The quids resolved to predicate And dissipate in a little grammar.
‘The Quids’ has appeared in a number of anthologies18 and several critics have read it as metaphysical satire (Allen Tate, for example19), and, sometimes wildly inaccurately (Deborah Baker), as a satirical riposte to the Fugitive group of poets.20 Barbara Adams21 hardly mentions it except in passing. Joyce Wexler,22 who devotes almost two pages of discussion to it, views it as a poem describing the ‘variety of the natural world’ which ‘conceals the underlying sameness of all the quids.’ That is, while each thing (‘quid’) differs from any other thing (‘quid’), they fundamentally share the same identity because they derive themselves from the same material background, depicted in the poem as the ‘Monoton’ which represents the universal reality from which all things derive. Joyce Wexler’s view is that the ‘quids’ share a same physical identity, and she sees the ‘Monoton’ as their physical background. This permits her to employ the word ‘universality’ when applied to the ‘quids’ (ultimately humans), but, at least to this reader, she fails to elaborate beyond this. Only Elizabeth Friedmann, to the best of my knowledge, hits upon its central significance to Riding’s work as a whole.23 ‘“The Quids”’, she judges, ‘is in rudimentary form a universal view of human existence that would find its full expres- sion in the writings of its author’s later life.’
‘The Quids’ is a poem which takes a straight-eyed look at the essence of life, the stirrings of the universe in fact, and what, crucially, lies behind it. Yes, there is a universe of planets, suns, galaxies, black holes, endlessness, as explained by science, but where does it all come from, and why? From what, out of what, the poem asks, does all life and all the universe emerge, and more importantly, why, or for what reason, if any, does it emerge in the first place? ‘God’ is the reply given by the religions, but Riding thought differently, as we shall see.
It is a mistake to see ‘The Quids’ as merely social satire, although one can quickly see why critics have been misled. There is a great sense of fun and high-jinks here, the myriad squirming little ‘quids’ (roughly, Latin for ‘the essence of a thing’ but connately the question ‘what?’ or ‘why?’) gambolling on life’s holiday, finding themselves uniquely alive, and eventually, the poem suggests, becoming human, ‘a powdery thoughtfall’ and ‘cerebration’, predi- cating and dissipating into ‘a little grammar’, more than suggesting the discovery of language and the advent of the human. It should be noted, however, that the poem opens with a description of the ‘quids’ as ‘atoms’, thus adumbrating all existence, and not just the human, and that these ‘atoms’ issue from something called ‘the Monoton’, a rather bleak-seeming name in English, (pointing to Latin mon, mons, etc.,) meaning something huge (e.g., a mountain) or something that instructs and advises (as in OED ‘demonstrates’), or simply 'droning'. The next verse of the poem quickly moves in to focus on this:
Oh, the Monoton didn’t care, For whatever they did—
The Monoton’s contributing quids—
The Monoton would always remain the same.
It is from this point forwards that the major themes of Laura Riding’s poems, and the prose, quickly broaden out and develop right into the work of her last days. All her orientations are taken from this thing, this query, the ‘Monoton’, fancifully sketched in here, in keeping with the tone of the poem but wholly serious, in her first foray into her personal alternative vision of the Creation as it might be presented in the Bible and other works. As we shall see, she will probe and home in on the subject of the Creation in The Close Chaplet, in ‘The Lady of the Apple’ on page 62, and the poems in between touch on the same subject in various ways, but ‘The Quids’ is the first instance of the major theme elaborated throughout Collected Poems, and beyond that to the prose, both pre- and post-1940,24 all-present, for example, in The Telling, as in the following passage:25
|28| Yes, I think we remember our creation! – have the memory of it in us, to know. Through the memory of it we apprehend that there was a Before-time of being from which being passed into what would be us [...] another and another and another, to that rounding-in and exhaustion of diversity which is human. Thus from physicality emerge persons – ourselves.
One might not grasp entirely what she is saying here in The Telling, or one might reject it, out of context though it be, on presumably rationalist or Darwinistic principles, but it is clear she is speaking of the ‘creation’, and yet in terms of a ‘Before-time’, which is a time preceding Creation itself (and therefore before the idea of God, as indicated above in ‘Disclaimer of the Person’). The ‘Monoton’ can be seen as an early forerunner of such thinking, though carefully left as a blank cypher at this beginning-stage in her career.
Not to press the post-1940 work too hard at this point, Collected Poems itself gives a record of her thinking on the subject of creation and pre-creation, and her adoption of it as the base- point of her poetry. Her vision, to call it that for the moment, is easily overlooked in the apparent light-heartedness (but in fact ultimate seriousness) of ‘The Quids’, and it is from there that the poems of The Close Chaplet move inexorably to her reformulation fifty pages later in ‘The Lady of the Apple’ of the biblical account of the Creation.
‘The Lady of the Apple’ boldly asserts that the cause or begetter of creation – that is, what happened before God, called the Monoton in ‘The Quids’ – is female.
Of old there was a spirit, it was dark
Until it felt a pity for itself,
When the tremendous darkness shrieked and broke
Of its extreme and shone, mothering the light
That had been once but pain in the heart of night,
The night original and nameless. What
Brought morning and what made the dark a mother
To light and men?
Nothing but woman in
A spirit could have wrought so safe and slow
Its ruin in perpetuity and peace.
In contradistinction to the distinctly male creation stories of the Bible, Torah, Koran and other creation myths, Riding here offers an alternative vision from woman’s standpoint. That the poet has been working her way towards this position is clear, as The Close Chaplet shows, in the poems between ‘The Quids’ and ‘The Lady of the Apple’. We are able to see, for example, the drift of her meaning in a poem such as the startling ‘Back to the Mother Breast’, which, read out of the context of the book, seems a little. curious or mysterious:
Back to the mother breast
In another place
Not for milk, not for rest,
But the embrace
Can give alone.
The cushioning flesh
Afraid of closer kiss
And the spurned infant cheek Turned away to speak.
Now back to the mother breast, The silent lullaby exploring
The frank bequest
And happy singing
Out of the part
Where there is no heart.
This is the kind of poem in The Close Chaplet (or in Collected Poems) that immediately catches the readers’ attention. It is clean, crisp, imagistic. The rhythms flow as do the rhymes, buttressed by consonance and assonance. It looks like a ‘traditional’ poem of the infant at the breast, but one is immediately halted by the apparent contradictions, as in the first stanza, of the image of breast coupled with ‘bone’ which is the infant’s – or the poet’s – preference. The second stanza extends the paradox with the mother spurning the ‘infant cheek’, as though rejecting her child, which in turn rejects the mother by turning ‘away to speak’. The third stanza is almost baffling and raises more questions than answers. How, we wonder, can there be ‘happy singing’ where ‘there is no heart’? And why has the poet (or infant) returned to the ‘mother breast and what exactly for? Yet the poem is striking – it demands attention (we will see this kind of effect again later, in such poems as ‘Her Ageless Brow’).
The ‘clean bone’ and the place ‘Where there is no heart’ are inexplicable unless they refer to the origin of life, the Monoton’, itself – she wills herself to look at everything from its perspective. She is not content in life with the solace of the ‘milk’ and ‘rest’, symbolized by the ‘breast’. The infant, turning away from the breast (‘spurned’ by the mother after just so long) learns to speak, and by implication becomes lost for a time (a ‘quid’) in the by-ways of the world, whereas the solution to life’s mystery is to return or get back to what is behind and before the breast, pictured as ‘clean bone’. ‘[N]o heart’ means roughly ‘no sentiment’ which might distract thought, so that the poet can return to ‘analysis’ without the hindrance of all those Freudian or historical overtones, but it is also oddly factual or logical: the pre-beginning would not have ‘heart’, not, at least, in the human sense. We can also now begin to see what she means in ‘Prisms’, quoted above where she views the world from the positioning of herself in creation, identifying herself, that is, with the female pre-beginning—
In my time,
In my material,
As my pride,
As my possession:
The vision is love [...]
and how she
[…] must trust then as now
Only another kind of prism
Through which I may not put my hands to touch.
In another poem which comes before ‘The Lady of the Apple’, ‘Virgin of the Hills’ the poet has already placed herself in what we might describe as the long view:
My flesh is at a distance from me.
Yet approach and touch it:
It is as near as anyone can come.
Already this vestiary stuff
Is all that’s left of me,
Though I have never worn it,
Though I shall never be dead.
‘Vestiary’ here is immediately accurate and illustrates Riding’s thorough examination of the words she employs in her poems, but in her actual life too: (OED), a robing room, but also ‘vest’, as in to furnish with authority, powers, property; and ‘vesta’, goddess of the hearth or fire, as well as connately ‘vestal’, a virgin priestess consecrated to Vesta and vowed to chastity.26 She is imaginatively casting herself in the role of the creatrix. Her body, her ‘flesh’, is merely an incidental result of ‘the tremendous darkness’ of ‘The Lady of the Apple’ when it ‘shrieked and broke’ into creation, an almost-accident which she has never really ‘worn’.
And here we get to the crux of the matter. What Laura Riding was centrally doing in The Close Chaplet, and what she continued to develop in her subsequent poems, was identifying herself with the pre-moment, the ‘what-was-there’ before Creation. How did the world, the universe, come to exist, why does it exist, why does it die or we die? The answer for her was in its origin, pictured rather tentatively and cautiously first as the Monoton and then as ‘the Lady of the Apple’.
What is the logic of this? Does it make sense? Step by step in the work that follows The Close Chaplet, she homes in and broadens her thought. To state the case briefly, she discovered (her favoured word is ‘uncovered’ as in the Preface to Collected Poems27) that it is not by studying the universe and the planets, nor their inverse the atom, as she points out in the quotation which opens this essay, that human beings will find an answer to the question of ‘creation’ or what scientists call the ‘big bang’, but by studying the oldest, most advanced object on the planet: the human person itself. The most real thing in the universe – more real than anything else – she held, is the human, which issues in a direct line by physical birth-on-birth (via woman, it is worth adding) from the very beginning of time and therefore logically and necessarily before time began (readers might wish to compare Teilhard de Chardin’s findings some thirty years later28). And because the pathway is through birth, woman stands at the beginning and the end. The human being is also the only creature (creation) equipped to ask and answer the questions ‘Why?’, ‘What?’: language is its unique gift. Even this – language – is present, Riding argues, from the very beginning because of sound, which must also be contained and then released into the universe. Without sound, she says, there would be no language, as similarly she will later say there could also be no soul or spirit. As she is to put it later in ‘Come, Words, Away’ (Collected Poems, p.137) –
But never shall truth circle so Till words prove language is
How words come from far sound away
Through stages of immensity’s small
Centering the utter telling
In truth’s first soundlessness.
Whether or not we believe, comprehend or agree with this, it forms the basis of her work, and if we wish to understand her we have to go along with her, willingly or unwillingly. She seated herself in a direct line with the pre-beginning of the universe. This immediately makes sense of, or begins to make sense of, such later poems as the witty ‘Then Follows’ in Collected Poems (p.174):
It came about by chance— I met God.
‘What,’ he said, ‘you already?’ ‘What,’ I said, ‘you still?’
He apologized and I apologized. ‘I thought I was alone,’ he said. ‘Are you displeased?’ I said.
‘I suppose I should not be,’ he said. A dove hopped out of his sleeve And muted well in his palm.
Frowning, he wrung its neck.
‘Are there any more of you?’ he said, Tears in his eyes, but politely.
‘As many as you care to meet,’ I said. Tears falling, he said politely,
‘I can’t wait, but remember me to them.’
The narrator is older than God and, as it were, has been waiting in the wings along with the whole of humanity (‘As many as you care to meet’) to come on stage. She is speaking of something older than God and is not pretending she is God.29 She has, she explains to her readers, existed ‘always’—
You wished to learn courage
For a certain destined major event
By flattering me to go first.
But, being not of your long ranks
Of hour-strung distances from death,
I have been here always
And so have only to report
A certain chance minor event That fell to me by chance alone Of walking into where I was.
She has ‘been here always’, from the beginning to the end of time. In the words of ‘The Lady of the Apple’, to return to that poem:
[...] Only the ancient dark is sure.
Woman is there, the sombre of every woman
Remembering the black, when it was all.
It shall not be forsaken.
She is content
With faith, to stay.
The derivations lie
Too far away, though she deliver them,
And though they be lovely to think upon.
It is a mission for men to scare and fly After the siren luminary day.
Someone must bide, someone must guard the night
In sorrow and tearless, understanding how
Night was a quiet always, and was first.
Again and again in the poetry, Riding returns to this stark question of ‘the black, when it was all’. Significantly placed, the very second poem in Collected Poems (although composed just a few years after The Close Chaplet was published), ‘Incarnations’ opens with—
Do not deny,
Do not deny, thing out of thing. Do not deny in the new vanity The old, original dust.
To the poet, the ‘old, original dust’ is ungainsayable, and she (or we) is a ‘thing out of thing’ of direct lineage.
The lines from ‘The Lady of the Apple’ bring to attention Riding’s understanding of the difference between men and women, a prominent theme everywhere in her work. Man’s ‘mission’ is ‘to scare and fly/After the siren luminary day.’ (Those lines are included in Collected Poems in ‘Echoes’, p.63.)
Men have their fealty in franchise, and
Their grief as well, for while the world is old
In all the stolid wombs, they must go far
To bear the new fruit to its season ahead.
The ‘siren luminary day’ is the world lit by the sun, which men (and men specifically) are seduced by, pursuing it like quids. Their loyalty and faith (‘fealty) in this chosen world is licensed or made free (‘franchise’) by that original ‘tremendous darkness’ which
]…]shrieked and broke
Of its extreme and shone, mothering the light
That had been once but pain in the heart of night,
which is the sun’s source (‘mothering the light’).30 Love, she continues, can be a saving grace, to remind both sexes of the oneness, ‘the night original and nameless,’ that was once everything:
[...] Sometimes a clasp can bring
A memory of origin to stay
The fever and in the pause resume once more
The ancient emblem, the immense control
Of all that might be in what might be nothing.
But it is more than fever.
Men go on,
And they are not consumed, and space leaps up
From the swift foot.
Earth is made of flesh and wind,
Paced into arpents of a Marathon.
Men are not ‘consumed’ by the ‘fever’ (while by implication women may be), but continue to pace and measure (‘arpents’, meaning one hundred perches or about five-sixths of an acre, OED) the sun-lit world.
A number of the poems in The Close Chaplet dwell on men and women and the difference she perceives between them, but while what the author thinks of men is pretty straightforward, her thought on woman is complex and subtle. Indeed, although exploring the theme constantly in her work, it is to take her some years before she can state categorically the difference of woman from man31, but at this point it is more a matter of conviction – as a woman she knows, thus the poems emphasise, what it is to be a woman – than a matter of reasoning or saying outright. She voices the quandary, for instance, much later, in her novel A Trojan Ending:
‘Diomedes is in no danger of losing himself in me’, Cressida said, ‘and because I am more interested in finding out about myself than in helping to deliver him – or any man – to his fate. And is there anything new to be learned about the fate of men? But the fate of women! Is it such a mystery – what men are? Women know what men are, and, though men do not know it from themselves, they learn it from women. But women can learn nothing about themselves from men. If this had not happened to Troy, I think that one day, there, by the power of Cybele, we should have come to know the meaning of women. For what is Cybele herself, if not the sum of women? A man is himself, a solitary fragment, but surely every woman is a part of Cybele [. ]’32
The tragedy for women, her argument runs, is that they simply do not know themselves, fail to understand themselves – they are, even though they believe themselves to be companions to and reflections of men, a blank33. But, and the poems persuasively explore this, the reason they are blank is because they have thus far in history, and longer than recorded history, placed themselves in ‘fealty’ (to use that word) to men. Men are their children. They must be cared for and permitted to do whatever they wish to do until they have grown up. Women have thus far been the accomplices of men, tried to think as they do, tried to belong to man’s world, for the sake of peace, or, more stridently in this century, attain sexual equality, although this, too, is an attempt to be ‘like’ men. Historically, if they have refused to be like men, they have, for example, been burned or rejected as witches.
‘Mortal’, the third poem in The Close Chaplet immediately after ‘The Quids’, directly and straightforwardly faces into the poet’s problem of her identity as a woman and her apprehensions of death:
There is a man of me that tills. There is a woman of me that reaps.
One is true
And one is fair.
Scarce I know where either are.
But I am seed the man should give,
And I am child the woman should bear,
And I am love
That cannot find them anywhere.
Father and Mother and God and my shadowy ancestry—I think there’s no way of making anything more than a mortal of me.
That deliberately awkward closing line intimates the uncertain plaintiveness of her feelings, as does the word ‘scarce’ and the ‘love’ that ‘cannot find them anywhere.’ The poem’s closing awkwardness centralises or clinches her dilemma. As if to answer her question, the next poem, ‘The Sad Boy’, opens with a single event which then gets more and more confused as it all goes horribly wrong, and makes the contrast between her situation and that of a boy a contrast between male and female. ‘The Sad Boy’ is a rumbustious frolic, as the opening lines suggest:
Ay, his old mother was a glad one
And his poor old father was a mad one,
The two begot this sad one.
Alas for the single shoe
The Sad Boy pulled out of the rank green pond,
Fishing for fairies
On the prankish advice
Of two disagreeable lovers of small boys.
Pity the unfortunate Sad Boy With but a single magic shoe And a pair of feet
And an extra foot
With no shoe for it.
This was how the terrible hopping began…
The frantic boy is no better off than she is—
Wherever he went weeping and hopping
And stamping and sobbing,
Pounding a whole earth into a half-heaven,
Things split where he stood[…]
He pounds ‘a whole earth into a half-heaven’ like a quid, in his adventure, tragically unaware of what he does, but, ‘sobbing’, knows he is desperately unhappy. Everything in the poem’s story becomes confused – ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’, to quote Dr. Johnson. When he returns to the pond to fish for his other shoe he is ‘quickly (being too light for his line)/Fished in’, along with his mother and father. One might say the poem is a miniature history of men, pounding the earth looking for answers which they dimly realise are there (the ‘half-heaven’) but succeed- ing only in smashing things, but it is plainly a sympathetic poem and not a satire. Both ‘Mortal’ and ‘The Sad Boy’ face the same question: Is this all the meaning to life there is?
The poems which follow continue to examine the difference of women from men in a variety of ways, but, because, as she says in A Trojan Ending, ‘women know what men are,’ the real struggle is to know what, as a woman, she is. We have already seen some of this in such poems as ‘The Virgin’, ‘Back to the Mother Breast’ and especially ‘The Lady of the Apple’. Another poem looks at the myth of Amalthea, foster-mother of Zeus, goddess of nature and the cornucopia of plenty, mythologically depicted as a goat. In mythological terms, Amalthea originates from the matriarchal society of Crete, preceding Zeus and probably Cronus. So in ‘Samuel’s Elegy for Amalthea of the Legends’, Riding identifies Amalthea as beginning and end:
[…]Amalthea is a thread In strands so silk,
They are wind in my mad head And swirl where the knot is.
For Amalthea is dead[...]
She fell of no plague or passion.
She was only swift, so swift, they say,
She ran till she stood still
As a bell swung round more than rings,
And was alive and dead in one day.
When the day went she was dead most fully. She knew all.
Now it is always snow[…] [… ]
I have come with Amalthea in my veins
Into a fifth season.
Time drops slow.
For winter is over, yet I see no summer.
Now it is always snow.
While the poem is narrated as a man’s complaint (Samuel’s), nevertheless we can see that Riding identifies Amalthea as an emblem of the earliest woman, as she will also do with Helen of Troy in a subsequent cluster of poems, but in the end neither Amalthea nor Helen are sufficient. The poet is in the ‘fifth’ sus- pended season, a no-season, a time of waiting, specifically the twentieth century when history has come to an end34. Her next step will be ‘The Lady of the Apple’, her alternative version of the biblical creation myth, whom she dares to identify both with the pre-beginning of creation and with woman generally and herself in particular, but before she takes this step, she writes one of her most puzzling but beautiful poems, ‘Her Ageless Brow’, which is placed just before ‘The Lady of the Apple’. To the best of my knowledge no critic apart from Jack Blackmore35 has commented on ‘Her Ageless Brow, with good reason. It is one of those Riding poems that simultaneously strikes the intelligence and seems to baffle it. The opening two stanzas immediately draw the eye:
This resolve: with trouble’s brow
To forget trouble and keep
A surface innocence and sleep To smooth the mirror
With never, never And now, now.
Her celebrations were one by one
Awakened hurriedly to pass
Out of remembrance, into the slow glass.
The image, not yet in recognition, had grace
To be lasting in death’s time, to postpone the face Until the face had gone.
The first four lines seem straightforward enough if we take them as an image of a woman, the narrator herself perhaps, looking into a mirror frowning and then determining to keep the innocence of her face and mind, but we cannot be certain what ‘never, never/ And now, now’ signifies. But we are immediately confronted with the switch to ‘her’ in the second stanza and the tense-change to ‘were’, not to mention the fact that the face in the reflection now transmutes ‘into the slow glass’ and is then ‘gone’. If readers think they can make some sense of that, then they are immediately confronted by:
Her regiments sprang up here and fell of peace,
Her banners dropped like birds that had never flown.
‘Her’ is the ‘lady’ of creation and her ‘regiments’ are women: women fall of peace. Unlike men, by inference, they have no war to wage against the world. The history of war is a history, as well as that of power-mongering, of male hatred directed at women (chronicled in millennia of rape and murder), which continues today all over the world, existing in subdued form in the ‘civilized’ world where sporadic outbursts of horrific violence occur still. In this poem, ‘Here’ is where the poet is, in her time alive, ‘now, now.’ Her determination is to do something that has never been done until ‘now’, to be fully herself:
One memory remained, slower than glass,
The most forgettable, forgotten,
Made the face stay, be sooner:
In her complete hand, clasping its open palm,
The broad forehead from finger to finger,
The stroke withheld from trouble
While trouble found its brow , Saw first the previous double
Of itself, this resolve of calm ,
Of never, never, and now, now.
The ‘One memory’ is the memory of origin, barely remembered and so far away it is almost, but never quite, ‘forgotten’, the haunted beginning of mankind framed in ‘The Lady of the Apple’, the alternative female creation myth to the male book of Genesis. The poet makes the ‘resolve’ to be calm. What has ‘never’ happened in history, the self-assertion of a woman to be nothing but her self, may – although the poet insists will – happen ‘now’. In a later poem in Collected Poems, ‘And I’ (first published in 1930), and a number of other poems, she re-states her position:
But now, in what am I remiss? Wherein do I prefer
The better to the worse?
I will tell you.
There is a passing fault in her: To be mild in my very fury.
And ‘Beloved’ she is called,
And pain I hunt alone
While she hangs back to smile, Letting flattery crowd her round— As if I hunted insult not true love.
But how may I be hated
Unto true love’s all of me?
I will tell you.
The fury will grow into calm As I grow into her
And, smiling always,
She looks serenely on their death-struggle,
Having looked serenely on mine.
The ‘Beloved’ is the poet herself viewed simply as a woman, one among many, her social and sociable self, crowded by ‘flattery’. To be her true self she must be ‘hated’ by being ‘true love’s all of me’, that is, her autochthonous self. This personal ‘resolve’ to be nothing but herself, ‘now, now’, as in ‘Her Ageless Brow’, intensifies exponentially as her work everywhere advances, right to the present day and the publication of such posthumous new work as The Person I Am.36 In another late poem, ‘Disclaimer of the Person’ (quoted at the beginning of this introduction), occur the following lines for instance,:
Never was I.
Always am I.
I am whatever now is always.
I am not I.
I am not a world.
I am a woman.
I am not the sun which multiplied,
I am the moon which singled.
The ‘sun which multiplied’ belongs to the brightly lit world where ‘quids’ run amok, while the ‘I’ of ‘the moon which singled’ belongs to the ‘Monoton’ and ‘The Lady of the Apple’. In the Persea Books edition of Collected Poems,37 (Riding) Jackson comments specifically on the sun and moon images, and the question of ‘woman’ here:
Nowhere should I be taken as speaking by what are called ‘symbols’. If, for instance, I say ‘the sun which multiplied’ or ‘the moon which singled’, as I do in one poem, I am endeavouring to indicate actualities of physical circumstance in which our inner crucialities are set.
And a little further on, with regard to her view of ‘woman’:
[...]my use of the word ‘woman’ [...] was literal on a large scale [....] I conceived of women under this identity as agency of the intrinsic unity-nature of being, and knew myself as of the personality of woman [....]
What Laura Riding knew, although it may seem crass to say so, was that as a woman she was different from men, but in a radical and fundamental way. There are a number of poems in The Close Chaplet which illustrate her sense of this difference, such as ‘John and I’:
John sets a frame
That any reasonable makeshift for
A man can stoop into...
And John looked out,
Deduced his world and wisdom from the sins
And freaks of creatures not designedly
Alive, but born just in the course of things;
Construed his house among the others, found
The worm of time carousing on his eardrum—
He was a man as far as he could see,
And where he could not, I, the chronicler,
Such differences as must lie between
Phantoms like us put John outside the game.
I can remember only certain rules
That make John rhetoric to prove I am
The puzzled one who sets the problem, breathes
Uneasily about the light and dark
While John denies what I have granted him,
Slips back among the shadows that are mine.
He reminds us of quiddishness (‘freaks of creatures’, born merely to die), while she ‘breathes/Uneasily about the light and dark’ – as befits a Lady of the Apple – as though worrying about John, concerned for him, as a mother might, but he evades her to ‘slip back’ into the shadows that are hers, the history that she created, as it were, where he becomes lost. His eyes are on the world. Hers are elsewhere. So, similarly in another poem, ‘Druida’:
Her trance of him was timeless. Her space of him was edgeless.
But the man heard the minute strike,
Marked the spot he stood upon.
When a leaf fell, when the minute struck,
When a star stopped, when the plot was drawn,
The man called farewell to Druida.
The man is wholly absorbed by what is around him, forgetting the woman, his soul-partner, by his side. His eyes are upon the visible sun-lit world. She looks elsewhere (the second stanza quoted below is not in Collected Poems):
Not to bless him, not to curse him,
Not to bring back the bridegroom,
But to pass him like a blind bird As if heaven were ahead. [...]
Druida found the sky.
Earth was no more native,
Love was an alienation of the dust,
Man but a lover not love,
Woman but a form of faith,
Yet enduring in a heaven of earthly recantations.38
Again the distinction between the sexes is made. As Cressida said, ‘Women know what men are, and, though men do not know it from themselves, they learn it from women. But women can learn nothing about themselves from men.’
If women can learn nothing about themselves from men, then the only alternative is to learn from themselves. They must, the poet is insisting, look into themselves, search themselves, to find their true nature and meaning: they must stay true to themselves, their nature, their origin, as woman.
As we have seen, this first meant returning to the ‘mother breast’, the creation myth, as in Genesis, and daringly rewriting it as a woman and from woman’s viewpoint (and it is hardly less credible than the male version), pushing the creation myth far further back to its logical origin, the ‘Monoton’. Then it meant looking at other women of the mythological past, such as Amalthea and Helen of Troy (which is why the first section of Collected Poems is subtitled ‘Poems of Mythical Occasion’), imaginatively recasting their experience as it accorded with her own. She had, to return for a moment to the puzzling words of ‘Disclaimer of the Person’, to ‘say’ herself:
I say myself.
The beginning was that no saying was.
There was no beginning.
There is an end and there was no beginning.
There is a saying and there was no saying.
In the beginning God did not create.
There was no creation.
There was no God.
There was that I did not say.
This, along with language, and words, were to be the major themes of Collected Poems. Any number of poems in the collected edition have this ‘myth’ as their subject (‘Incarnations’, ‘Helen’s Burning’, ‘The Tiger’, ‘Originally’, ‘World’s End’, ‘Dear Possible’, ‘Come, Words, Away’, ‘The Biography of a Myth’, ‘The Un- thronged Oracle’, and others), and her poems on a wide variety of subjects take it as their inspiration.
This is not, however, to say that Laura Riding held or believed in the superiority of one gender above another, that is, that women were superior to men. She believed that women, the unknown half of humankind, will bring the human dilemma, a male-made dilemma illustrated by the Creation myths and their emphasis on the man-God, of being alive while at the same time seeking resolution, to a close (and there begin a new beginning, as she envisages in The Telling). Men, she believed, were, in the twentieth century, at the desperate end of their madness to find a solution to what they perceived as life’s madness. Their desperation, she points out, is historically to be or to become or make themselves everything that they can see, to make sure that everything is themselves, even God. Their essential thinking-mode is that of antagonism39 to the world they inhabit which, by conquering it (including woman), they include it inside themselves, as themselves, masters, so to speak, of all. Women, she believed, do not function in that way.
Her writing-career focused, as well as on the fact of primordial creation, on the study of woman and man in relation to woman. Most remarkably, she pursued this in the poetry, but her prose books and essays also look in depth at the subject. This might be novels such as A Trojan Ending (1937), or Lives of Wives (1939), based on the experience of wives of famous emperors of the early Christian era; or a more up-to-date study of women in The Word “Woman” (published in1993, but composed before 193640) where the title tells all; Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (1930) is, generally, advice given to a young girl on how to avoid thinking like men. These were all books written or published in the 1930s. Earlier books, such as Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928), look specifically at male ways of thought (it opens on philosophy, for example), while the penultimate essay on sex, ‘The Damned Thing’, strongly puts the woman’s point of view, trenchantly at times:
There develops, as a counterpart to public sex [monogamy], not private sex but academic sex, sex the tradition rather than sex the practice. Sex shows itself proudly as an art. It is art. And as it is the male not the female who tends to express himself traditionally as man, art is male art. It is therefore foolish to point out that there have been very few female artists: why should one look for women artists at all in male art? Art is to man the academic idea of woman, a private play with her in public. It is therefore foolish to point out that many artists, perhaps the best, are homosexual. They are not homosexual. Art is their wench.41
Books, such as Progress of Stories (1935), are a tour de force on the subject of woman, while The World and Ourselves (1938) views the state of the world in the years leading up to the Second World War from woman’s ‘inside’ point of view, delineating the monstrosities of the pre-war climate of thought, and offering detailed practical remedies. Much or even most of the later work post-1940 offers her mature thought on the subject of woman (see ‘The Bondage’, 1972, for example, or ‘On the Role Of Women in Contemporary Society’ (1963).42)
But it is in the poems that she first refines and defines the problem, as we might expect. We have seen a good deal of this in the poems discussed thus far in The Close Chaplet, and the story is continued and extended throughout Collected Poems. A brief look at the opening lines of ‘The Tiger’ in Collected Poems suggests a good deal.
The tiger in me I know late, not burning bright.
Of such women as I am, they say,
‘Woman, many women in one,’ winking.
Such women as I say, thinking,
‘A procession of one, reiteration
Of blinking eyes and disentangled brains
Measuring their length in love.
Each yard of thought is an embrace.
To these I have charms.
Shame, century creature.’
To myself, hurrying, I whisper,
‘The lechery of time greases their eyes.
Lust, earlier than time,
Unwinds their minds.
The green anatomy of desire Plain as through glass
Quickens as I pass.’
Earlier than lust, not plain,
Behind a darkened face of memory,
My inner animal revives.
Beware, that I am tame.
Wherein I yield.
Once again there are several narrators. ‘They’ of ‘they say’ in the second line refers to men in the generalised sense of ‘mankind’ (i.e., male-thinking). ‘Such women as I’ refers to herself in her ordinary appearance and self, simply as a woman, and sketches how women historically have viewed themselves in relation to men. ‘To myself’ is the poet as her contemporary self, recording what she sees as she passes by men (lust ‘Quickens as I pass’). The final six lines and the ‘darkened face of memory’ take us straight back to ‘The Lady of the Apple’, the ‘darkened face of memory.’ As Jack Blackmore says, ‘The Tiger’ is in part a riposte to William Blake, the best poet of the Romantic era but very much his own man – but still a man:
The [...] point is how much this [‘The Tiger’] is a poem of new and challenging ideas. Right at the beginning the reader is faced with a bewildering cluster of ideas around time. This cluster of ideas is linked with lust and lechery and ‘the beast in me’; what it is to be a woman, or a ‘lady’ in a world of men or by herself: vulnerable, powerful, idealised and ravaged.
[...] right at the start of her poem we get Laura Riding’s personal, apparently angry reaction to William Blake. This poet’s, this woman’s experience is different, as is made immediately clear: ‘The tiger in me I know late | Not burning bright.’ Equally relevant to ‘The Tiger’ are Blake’s long ballad-style poems ‘The Little Girl Lost’, ‘The Little Girl Found’ from Songs of Innocence. The little girl is called ‘Lyca’ (a name echoed in that of ‘Lida’, of Riding’s ‘’Forgotten Girlhood’, surely?). Blake’s poems are about sexuality, about how innocence deals with, transmutes, experience. (Remember, by contrast, Riding’s ‘But who has ever learned anything from experience? We get nothing from it, we give everything to it.’) There are echoes in Riding’s ‘The Tiger’ of the oft repeated sleeping/weeping lines in the Blake poems, for example: ‘How can Lyca sleep | If her mother weep’; ‘Weep not for the maid | In the palace deep | Lyca lies asleep’; ‘And saw their sleeping child|Among tygers wild.’ The woman’s experiences, as related in ‘The Tiger’, are less fulfilling [...]43
The immense difficulty readers and critics think they encounter in Laura (Riding) Jackson’s work – and, it has to be said, especially critics because they have trained and vested interests – arises be- cause she single-handedly confronted and opposed the historically established male world-construct. Intellectually she came from nowhere – nowhere, at least, that was understood – and yet her entrance into the literary world, the Fugitives aside, was via A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), a highly respected book in its day and for long thereafter and still today. Few readers then or now have understood that that book drew heavily upon the principles of her other book, Contemporaries and Snobs, published a few months after (1928) but composed at the same time as A Survey. Critics (then as now) preferred to think of A Survey as primarily written by Robert Graves, her co-author, which had the effect of making its downright challenging views on poetry somehow acceptable (how challenging A Survey really is has seldom been understood; the book’s polemic is still barely comprehended be- cause of the widespread tendency to ascribe its lead authorship to Robert Graves). Contemporaries and Snobs, from which it is drawn, is far more dangerous than A Survey, challenging the whole (male) poetico-critical establishment of its day, especially T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the London set, but including tradition-favoured figures of the past such as Dryden, Pope and Wordsworth, and in particular Edgar Allen Poe. In turning attention to Robert Graves and denying Laura Riding her place as prime mover, critics could safely disregard any threat she posed. Robert Graves,44 however, who, as her companion, knew her closely, was well aware of what she represented, recording her effect on him in a number of places, as in the extraordinary epilogue to Goodbye To All That (1929), and in poems such as ‘On Portents’:
If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.
And ‘The Terraced Valley’:
But you, my love, where had you then your station?
Seeing that on this counter-earth together
We go not distant from each other;
I knew you near me in that strange region,
So searched for you, in hope to see you stand
On some near olive-terrace, in the heat,
The left-hand glove drawn on your right hand,
The empty snake’s egg perfect at your feet[…]
Robert Graves’ unflagging respect for Laura Riding during their fourteen or so years together, to the extent of deference, has been widely recorded by his biographers, critics and reviewers, although they dismiss his attitude towards her as entirely misplaced, given what they view as her ‘megalomania’, ‘hypnotic’ and ‘despotic’ control of him, a view advanced because they themselves have not been able to see anything in her poetry or prose that he could possibly admire, and thus they frequently put down his apparent ‘worship’ of her to his post-war neurasthenia, or problems he felt he had with his mother, or his need for Nancy Nicholson, and so on.45 But one might see here quite clearly in The Close Chaplet the kind of impact she would have had on his work from this time on, reinforcing his loose earlier (i.e., pre-1926) recorded thoughts and ideas of goddesses and an historic matrilineal society, ideas much in the air at the time via James Frazer 46 and others, which led eventually to the publication of The White Goddess in 1948, while one might also see the part she played generally in his work, poetry or prose. Up until their split just after 1940 he was never less than grateful in the generous acknowledgements he made of her assistance in his various books, not least among which was her actual thinking. As he put it himself in Epilogue III in 1937:
[...] I have always had a blind but obstinate will to discover a consciousness of this quality [a consciousness of final quality of mind] and a realist’s conviction that it was to be found in my time, and a painful frankness with myself that it was not my consciousness, and a physical intuition that it would be a woman’s. And the process of elimination points to you, with a fantastic kind of logic.
Her fundamental (and the word is apposite) view is that women, while sharing the human frame, are radically different from men, both in thought and being. Her later unapologetic view is given in her essay ‘The Sex Factor in Social Progress’:
The essence of my view of the human situation in regard to women (that is, men and women) is that the content of the human reality (by which I mean that interrelated being which human beings have in having human nature) is of cosmic dimensions, and that only when seen in its cosmic frame – the cosmic frame as against the frame we call “society” – can it be comprehended and talked about as a whole. The actual relations of men and women are seeable in the cosmic setting as survivals of a play of opposite forces as old as primordial creation in beings whom the forces of universal unity claim for their own. In this setting, human beings as women show themselves to have the part of guardianship of the human reality against the divisive dispositions that prepossess human beings as men, the instinctive antagonism to the cosmic unities – and, indeed, to the human reality itself. 47
The ‘cosmic force’ is that as set forth the in ‘The Lady of the Apple’ and in the poems generally of The Close Chaplet, and thereafter in Collected Poems. According to the above passage, men, women, male, female, issue from the tearing asunder of the ‘primordial’ action of creation itself, the ‘Monoton’ (‘primordial creation’) splitting in two to create the universe, in which human beings are the most advanced kind of ‘thing’ (quid), gifted with language, both to ask the question and to answer it: ‘What is the meaning of the universe?’ She replaces, with a certain sense of justice, the early Pentateuchal story-version of men of a male God creating the universe (in which woman, originally Lilith, a name Riding adopted from time to time, is banished along with the devil), with a woman’s alternative version – as much to say, how it would be if a woman re-wrote the his-story. From The Close Chaplet onwards she proceeds to develop and demonstrate the logic of the ground of her thinking: the logic that, at the least, it has never before been tried.
For the purposes of this essay, whether one agrees with Laura (Riding) Jackson or not, this is the basis of her work, both poetry and prose, and if accepted as such, what appears to be obscure in her work becomes plain. Readers and, along with them, critics, need to understand that the concentration and preoccupation in her work on language and words arises directly from her confronting the world and the universe with nothing more (one might hazard there could be nothing less) than her minded voice. As she says in The Telling (Passage 30):
[…]there is room in what I say for going onward – whether it be taken to mind or not. And I split Incontrovertibles barring the way, to make onward passages in them – admitting no necessity of turning aside.
That is no empty boast.
- A version of this essay was originally published in Gravesiana, The Journal Of The Robert Graves Society, Volume 3, Number 3 ⁄ Summer http://robertgraves.org/gravesiana/issues.php?id=41&group_id=2 [accessed 26/12/17 Tuesday].
- Conversation with Mark
- Fugitives: An Anthology Of Verse.-New York: Harcourt, Brace,
- 'A Prophecy Or A Plea', The Reviewer, 5, April 1925, pp. 1-7. Reprinted in First Awakenings, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann, Alan Clark and Robert Nye, 1992, pp. 275-280. The quotation by Riding comes from Thompson's 'Of Nature: Laud and Plaint' and can be found in Poems of Francis Thompson, (Boston: Boston College, 2001)341.
- See the excellent A Mannered Grace, Elizabeth Friedmann, New York: Per- sea Books, 2005, for a full Friedmann was Laura (Riding) Jackson’s authorised biographer, with free access to all her work and papers.
- Experts Are Puzzled, London: Cape, 1930, ‘Obsession’ (p.107).
- Which, incidentally, lies at the heart of the antagonism between pro-evolu- tionists or Darwinists and religion – Darwinists assemble facts, but the mind outstrips
- The Close Chaplet, Hogarth Press: London, 1926. This appeared under her married name of the time, ‘Laura Gottschalk’. The last name was heavily barred out out by the Hogarth Press in her next volume, Voltaire: A Biograph- ical Fantasy, 1927, to give ‘Laura Riding’. I should note that much nonsense has been written about Laura (Riding) Jackson’s name-changes. See Alan Clark's sensible account in Chelsea 69: The Sufficient Difference: A Centenary Celebration, p.178, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann, New York: Chelsea As- sociates, 2000; or at http://www4.ntu.ac.uk/laura_riding/bibliography/ notes/index.html (accessed 20 February 2018).
- Collected Poems, Cassell: London, 1938; Carcanet: Manchester, 1980; Per- sea Books: New York, 1980; Persea Books: New York,
- See Roy Fuller, the Review, Number 23, September-November 1970, 5- 6: ‘Intellectual acuity: there is no doubt that she is one of the most intellectu- ally gifted writers of the century [...]This almost unique power to dazzle one intellectually appears again and again throughout her verse.’
- Jack Blackmore demonstrates this superbly in his book, The Unthronged Oracle, Cirencester: Mereo Books, 2017, in which he takes us through fifteen of Riding’s poems to point to their remarkable consistency of increasing logic and beauty in the Collected Poems.
- A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, edited with an Introduction by Robert Nye, 1994, Carcanet:
- Friedmann, Chapter
- I mention this fact because several prominent critics of the Fugitive poets have dismissed the idea that she had much, if anything, to do with the Fugitive group, notably Louise Subsequent critics such as John M. Bradbury followed her example. Riding’s name, in fact, appears alongside the other Fugitives on the magazine’s mast-head from March 1925 on, and from her first appearance in the magazine the editors wrote with admiration of her work in their various editorials. Louise Cowan is a clear example of one critic among others who failed to comprehend Laura Riding and in her ignorance, or it might be simple dislike, airily dismisses her work. See her The Fugitive Group: A Literary History, Louisiana State University Press: USA, 1959.
- The Fugitive, 2, 1923, Nashville,
- It is republished in First Awakenings, Manchester: Carcanet Press Ltd; June 1992, which gathers together the poems which do not appear in her Collected Poems, 1938, but were printed variously elsewhere. The poem also reminds one of Emily Dickinson and her similar dedication of herself to herself, but the two poets are quite different in significant Dickinson tends to be generally far more of a descriptive poet of the things that surround her, for instance, and Riding more insistent, relentlessly so at times, on the actual words that constitute the poem, even if it might be descriptive, as can be seen in ‘Disclaimer of the Person’ quoted on page 2.
- The book never came to realisation under Faber, but the project seems to have been the basis of A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, by Laura Riding and Robert Graves, London: Cape, See Friedmann, p.78.
- It ‘…got away from me…like a bush-fire…’ In one of her essays which I have failed to
- ‘Metaphysical Acrobatics,’ The New Republic, March 9, 1927, 76, quoted by Joyce Wexler.
- In Extremis, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993, 73 ff. Since Laura Riding was to continue to publish poems in The Fugitive until it ceased in December 1925, it could hardly be considered a ‘riposte.’ Laura Jackson rejected Baker's book. and refused to help her.
- The Enemy Self: Poetry & Criticism of Laura Riding, Ann Arbor/London: U.M.I Research Press, with a Foreword by Hugh Kenner, 1990.
- Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth, Joyce Piell Wexler, Ohio University Press, Athens: Ohio, pp.23-4; passim. Wexler has been the only critic apart from Jack Blackmore to write intelligently and extensively on Riding’s poems and prose.
- Ibid, 54.
- Laura Riding deliberately ceased writing poems after 1940 and came to see poetry as irrevocably flawed as a means of She returned to America, continued the themes of her poetry but now in prose, and married Schuyler B. Jackson, the two of them devoting their lives to the study of words and language, finally resulting in their book, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation For the Definition Of Words, edited by William Harmon, introduction by Charles Bernstein, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville and London, 1997.
- Laura (Riding) Jackson, The Telling, The Athlone Press: University Of London, 1972; Harper and Row; New York, 1972; Fyfield Books, Carcanet Press: Manchester, The Telling first appeared in 1967 in the New York magazine Chelsea, New York: Chelsea, May 1967, Issue 20/21. The core of the book consists of sixty-two numbered passages. It is a re-visioning, in fact, of the Creation myth as found in the Old Testament in Genesis and elsewhere, from, it should be added, the woman’s point of view. In retrospect in can be seen that the whole of her work, both poetry and prose, was always headed in this direction.
- The remarkable precision of ‘vestiary’ importantly reminds of (Riding) Jackson’s life-long devotion to words and their meanings, beginning here in the early 1920s and remaining her life’s work-preoccupation from the poems onward to the end of her life Her devotion to words and their meanings is attested to everywhere in her life's
- Preface to Collected Poems, Cassell: London 1938, xvii.
- Teilhard de Chardin, Le Phenomenene Humain, Paris, Seuil, 1955; The Phenomenon of N.Y.: Harper, 1959; 1961 p.b. 1965 revised p.b.
- Literary gossip has it that Riding had ‘God is a woman’ painted on her bedroom wall in She dismissed this as nonsense. One can see from this poem why, and her extended work refutes such a notion.
- There are significant parallels in these lines to the creation myth in the book of Genesis’ account of the ‘dark’ and the ‘light’. For an exemplification of this, see Thorleif Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, in which it is a predominant theme. 31 See especially her essay in ‘On The Role Of Women In Contemporary Society’, Civilta delle Macchine, July-August 1963. Reprinted as ‘The Sex Factor In Social Progress’, Chelsea 16, March 1965, pp. 114-122, and The Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader, edited with an introduction by Elizabeth Friedmann, New York: Persea Books, 2005, pp.220-227. But also her other work such as The Telling, etc.
- A Trojan Ending, Deya, Majorca: Seizin Press, and London: Constable, 1937, 322.
- She is to pursue and further define this matter of woman’s self-ignorance up to her latest writings. The Telling. It should be pointed out, in this context, that The Telling is Laura (Riding) Jackson’s personal vision of the Biblical story of the Creation as it is conventionally understood in the Book of Genesis. Her work, almost from its beginnings in 1920s, can be seen as a critical disagreement with story of the Creation as one written from a male viewpoint.
- Laura Riding refers to the twentieth century as the ‘end’ of history in several See inter alia the introductory motto, for instance, in Epilogue I, and the Preface to A Trojan Ending, p.xxvii.
- Jack Blackmore, The Unthronged Oracle. See the whole of chapter 9. Blackmore's study is the only one so far that concentrates exclusively on fifteen poems, each in a separate chapter, from Riding's Collected Poems, 1938, exploring them according to the principles laid down in A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, by her and Robert Graves (1927) in Chapter VI, ‘The Making Of The Poem’, and her later strictures, such as those she makes in First Awakenings in the ‘Author's Preface’. Not even Joyce Wexler, who is exceptionally good on any number of poems in her The Pursuit Of Truth, nor, equally, Elizabeth Friedmann similarly in her biography, engage with this particular
- The Person I Am, edited by John Nolan and Carroll Ann Friedmann, published by Trent Editions, Nottingham Trent University: K., 2011.
- See The Poems of Laura Riding: Newly Revised Edition of the 1938/1980 Collection, New York: Persea Books, 2001, 496-7.
- The following midrash featuring Lilith is attributed to Ben Sira, and dates from approximately 1000 E.: “He created a woman, also from the earth, and called her Lilith. They quarrelled immediately. She said: “I will not lie below you.” He said, “I will not lie below you, but above you. For you are fit to be below me.” She responded: “We are both equal because we both come from the earth.” Neither listened to the other. When Lilith realized what was hap- pening, she pronounced the Ineffable Name of God and flew off into the air.” 39 See Civilita delle Macchine, Note 31.
- Laura (Riding) Jackson, The Word “Woman” and Other Related Writings, edited by Elizabeth Friedmann and Alan Clark, New York: Persea Books, 1993 (see the editors’ introduction).
- Anarchism Is Not Enough, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1928, p.205; California: University of California Press, 2001, edited with an Introduction by Lisa
- Chelsea 30/31, June 1972, pp. 24-33; Civilta delle Macchine, July-August 1963 (reprinted as ‘The Sex Factor In Social Progress’, Chelsea 16, March 1965, pp. 114-122.
- See Note 11 above, 103.
- Robert Graves’ poetry, as he has himself said, will not be understood until hers See Douglas Day, Swifter Than Reason: The Poetry and Criticism of Robert Graves, University of North Carolina Press, 1963, inter alia.
- See inter alia, for example, three of the biographies of Robert Graves, by Martin Seymour-Smith, Robert Graves: His Life And Work, Hutchinson: UK, 1982; Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves: The Years With Laura 1926-1940, Weidenfeld and Nicolson: UK, 1990; Miranda Seymour, Robert Graves: Life On The Edge, Doubleday: UK, All three books denigrate and seek to dismiss Laura Riding’s literary influence on Robert Graves as, apart from her alleged ‘hypnosis’ of him, either minor or non-existent, while failing at the same time to give a satisfactory explanation of any of her work. See my essay 'The Question Of Collaboration', for example, in Gravesiana, Volume 3, Number 2 ⁄ Summer 2010, p.331; and see Jacobs and Clark, ‘The Question Of Bias: Some Treatments Of Laura (Riding) Jackson’, Hiroshima Studies in English Language and Literature ,Vol. 21, Nos. 1 and 2 (Hiroshi- ma English Department,1971), pp.1-29; http://www4.ntu.ac.uk/laura_riding/ scholars/58471gp.html (accessed March 2nd, 2018).
- The Golden Bough, New York: The Macmillan ,1922. 47 The Word “Woman” and Other Related Writings.