The Question Of Bias

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.

This essay has its origins in our reading of Anthony Thwaite's Contemporary English Poetry: An Introduction, a textbook first published in Japan in May 1957, and revised for publication in Britain in April 1959 (Heinemann); it was re-issued in 1964. The book, with its treatment of Laura (Riding) Jackson's work and of herself, did not come to our attention for some time, but so much of a similar sad nature has been published both before and after its appearance that we have found it to provide an adequate focus for thought on the matter of misreporting of critical fact.

It has long been recognised that some of the best-known authors writing in English in this century have used as source material the inspirational work of Laura (Riding) Jackson. There is, however, a tendency - generally an incorrect one - to regard this use of her work as somehow confined to a pre-1940 period, when she was active as a poet, with some drifting over to a post-1940 period, of short duration, after which a writer who is said to be 'influenced' by her is seen as having recovered. Names such as W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, James Reeves and Roy Fuller spring to mind. Further, a host of minor and not so minor writers today, taking their lead from Mr. Graves' mythologizing in The White Goddess, fail to realize that that book takes its direction from Laura (Riding) Jackson's work, its detailed thesis being a distorted expansion of her primary thought on the subject of woman's nature, and woman as seen from the male viewpoint; [1] these writers also may be said to be 'influenced'.

From the early 1920's to 1940 - in which year she renounced poetry, for reasons of linguistic principle - Laura Riding, as her name was then, was greeted by some critics as a writer of great importance and distinction. In 1924, for instance, the prize-awarding committee of the Fugitive group of poets in the United States recorded their sense of her work as having 'a substance not often found in contemporary American poetry,' and as being 'concerned with profound issues. Furthermore, she has developed her own idiom of expression . . .' (The Fugitive, p. 130); in 1930 Michael Roberts - who later included a representative selection of her poems in his Faber Book Of Modern Verse (1936) - observed that 'Miss Riding . . . is a poet who may be the precursor of a new mental attitude. She has written poems which are valuable whatever our attitude may be . . .' (Poetry Review, 1930, pp. 365-366). She brought to the poetic practice and theory of the day much-needed visionary insights into the roots of poetry's nature and being - roots identified as located in lasting humanly good and truthful values. Those values had existed hitherto half-glimpsed by poets here and there in isolation, but had not been comprehensively formulated as a whole. The poetic climate of the day was one of stale disillusionment, concerning itself with the expression of a cynical technique of disillusion; into this climate Laura Riding tried to breathe, with all she wrote, values of wholeness of thinking and being. For her, poetry was truth, and a poem 'an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth.' She saw poetry as having come to a stage of finality in history where the practice of it became 'more real than existence in time - more real because more good, more good because more true.' Poetry, in her view, offered a practical and immediately attainable final reality of being:

'To live in, by, for the reasons of, poems is to habituate oneself to the good existence. When we are so continuously habituated that there is no temporal interruption between one poetic incident (poem) and another, then we have not merely poems - we have poetry; we have not merely the immediacies - we have finality. Literally.'

Those three quotations are taken from the Preface to Laura Riding's Collected Poems (1938). Writing of that volume in 1939, the poet and critic Robert Fitzgerald - who was later to produce widely-admired translations of Homer, and who was appointed Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard - said:

'Of all the contemporary poems I know, these seem to me the furthest advanced, the most personal and the purest. I hope, but hardly believe, that they will be assimilated soon into the general consciousness of literature.

The authority, the dignity of truth telling, lost by poetry to science, may gradually be regained. If it is, these poems should one day be a kind of Principia. They argue that the art of language is the most fitting instrument with which to press upon full reality and make it known.' (Kenyon Review, 1939, pp. 341-345)

But from some quarters her work was viewed with hostility, often combined with utter blankness of comprehension of what she was 'about'; the criticisms taking the form of diatribe, not that of close inspection and study - the warp being, as it were, the critic's frustration at being left behind. The treatments of her work by Geoffrey Grigson and by Louis MacNeice in New Verse - the magazine edited by Mr. Grigson from 1933 to 1939 - and that by Hugh Gordon Porteus in Julian Symons' Twentieth Century Verse (1937-1939), are essentially of the diatribe variety. In other quarters her work was disliked as taking upon itself too much in what it said of the fundamental issues of poetic practice, and in its demanding from poets greater concern with the moral principles implicit in poetry, rather than the poetic-technique principles fostered by literary: criticism. Such an attitude is strikingly revealed by W. B. Yeats, in a letter written to Lady Dorothy Wellesley on May 22, 1936 - Yeats was editing his Oxford Book Of Modern Verse (1936) at the time, and had refused to include the work of James Reeves in it:

'I wrote today to Laura Riding, with whom I carry on a slight correspondence, that her school was too thoughtful, reasonable & truthful, that poets were good liars who never forgot that the Muses were women who liked the embrace of gay warty lads. I wonder if she knows that warts are considered by the Irish peasantry a sign of sexual power?' (Letters On Poetry From W. B. Yeats To Dorothy Wellesley, 1940, p. 69)

Since the mid-1940's the nature of the hostility within the general critical discussion-area of Laura (Riding's) Jackson's 'influence,' or of 'discipleship' of her. has changed. Increasingly, there have been manifestations of deception, and of distortion of literary and historical fact. Their contexts range from certain petty-spiteful slurs on her character such as can be found in some writings on the Fugitives, to some more broadly antagonistic criticism dealing with the subject of how others have been affected by her work. But it is most notably in the discussion-context of the work of Robert Graves that treatment of Mrs. Jackson as subject repeatedly fails to square with the ascertainable character of her work. Thus, in Douglas Day's book on the poetry and criticism of Robert Graves, Swifter Than Reason (1963), and, as will shortly be seen, in Anthony Thwaite's Contemporary English Poetry, mounting contradictions of statement betoken something more than a basic ignorance of Mrs. Jackson's work.

Part Three of Swifter Than Reason is entitled 'Self-Exile to Majorca: the Influence of Laura Riding'; its forty-seven pages include two chapters headed 'Poetry of the Laura Riding Years.' Professor Day's initial statement, in these chapters, seems unequivocal enough in its caution: 'Without more tangible vidence of the exact nature of Miss Riding's influence [on Robert Graves], it is impossible to determine precisely the extent of that influence' (p. 118). On page 120, however, speaking of a Riding poem, he moves to a denial of 'influence': 'Such lines as these, moreover, so lacking in verbal discipline and rhythmic pattern of any kind, cause one to disbelieve that Miss Riding could have taught Graves, from the earliest days of his career a highly skilled technician, much about prosody.' Still on page 120, he goes on to blur the issue: 'There are, however, certain aspects of Graves's poetry during this period that probably reflect the practical influence of Miss Riding.' He does not expand upon the difference between the nature of this 'practical influence' and that of the 'influence' he finds 'impossible to determine,' nor upon how either might relate to the teaching or not teaching Graves 'much about prosody.'[2] To these confusions he adds another when he suggests that two poems of Laura Riding's, 'The Quids' and 'The Tillaquils,' 'probably prompted Graves to revive his early fondness for the grotesque' [our emphasis] (p. 121). There are three further observations of Professor Day's which concede the possibility, at least, of 'influence':

p. 124: 'Many of Graves's poems during this period also reflect Laura Riding's fondness for ingenuity and the exercise of wit.'

p. 120: 'There is one other note in Graves's poetry during this third phase of his career which seems derived from Laura Riding: a scorn for society in general . . .'

p. 129: '. . . we are likely to agree that Laura Riding's influence was a substantial factor in determining the course Graves took at this time in his poetry.'

Such self-contradictions are extraordinary in a serious critic. It may be that Laura Riding's influence was a 'substantial factor' in Graves's poetry - it may indeed well be that, as Professor Day has said in his Introduction (p. xvi), 'The influence of Laura Riding is quite possibly the most important single element in his poetic career' - but he does not let the matter rest there. His see-saw series of comments finally settles at the negative, to the reader's utter confusion, with:

p. 130: 'We cannot, then, assume with finality that Miss Riding's poetic techniques or subjects had any very great impact on Graves's practice.'

Thus, however far his later perceptions drive him away from it, Professor Day appears to feel impelled to return to his first denial. Significantly, he ignores, in his final assessment, the plain meaning of two of Mr. Graves' own statements, both of which are quoted in Swifter Than Reason. The first is to be found in the Foreword to Graves's Collected Poems (1938, p. xxiv), where Laura Riding is thanked for 'her constructive and detailed criticism of my poems in various stages of composition . . .' (Professor Day does not, however, complete the quotation; '. . . a generosity from which so many contemporary poets besides myself have benefited'). The second statement is elicited from Mr. Graves by Douglas Day himself. Another critic has described Norman Cameron and Alan Hodge - who published their own poems alongside Graves's in a small three-part volume, Work In Hand, in 1942 - as Graves's 'disciples': Professor Day reports 'Graves's comment on this . . . : "They were in fact disciples of Laura Riding's"'. Disciples or not, one has only to glance through the volumes of the 'critical summary' Epilogue (1935-36-37), edited by Laura Riding - in which Cameron and Hodge, and Graves, the 'associate editor', appear among the twenty or more contributors - to see how much of her time and energy had been spent in helping others. [3]

Another oddly widespread tendency in the critical treatment of Laura (Riding) Jackson is also exhibited by Professor Day: it is the using of her earlier name in a manner which tends to extinguish sense of a continuance of her actuality. Even in the last few years, almost wherever there is mention of her, she is still referred to as 'Laura Riding', though the subject itself be post-1940 and her name of the later period of her life and work has, in any case, become Laura (Riding) Jackson. The results of this kind of treatment are exemplified by an essay-collaboration by James Jensen (Modern Language Quarterly, 1966, pp. 243-259) on the derivation of the key-idea of William Empson's Seven Types Of Ambiguity (1930) from A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, by Laura Riding and Robert Graves (1927). Mr. Jensen invites three of the four authors concerned - William Empson, I. A. Richards, and Robert Graves - to contribute to his argument, and completely ignores 'Laura Riding'. Mr. Jensen thinks her (there are no other presumptions to make) either of little account or else dead. Mr. Anthony Thwaite acts in a similar manner. By discussing Laura (Riding) Jackson in the name of 'Laura Riding', Mr. Thwaite fixes her field of endeavour in a pre-1940 context, as though after that point she ceased to be, in literature and as a person. Like others with minds thus released from all sense of 'Laura Riding' as possessing current human reality, he feels free to take liberties with her work; while her real substantial present pertinence to his subject is inevitably blurred.

Had Mr. Thwaite and the others maintained an awareness of the continuing reality of Laura (Riding) Jackson as one committed not just to poetry (whether pre-1940 or later) but to understanding and realizing, as placed within language's reach, the full potential of human aspiration toward what is wholly good, wholly true, and that she continues to work long and hard for that understanding and realisation - as long and as hard as she formerly worked for it within poetry - then their writing on her would have undergone a change for the better, at least, if not for the adequately good. Let it be understood, then, that if we speak, as the context sometimes forces us to, of 'Laura Riding', there is a same-breath consciousness of Laura (Riding) Jackson, whose human reality is no less substantial than that of Anthony Thwaite, Douglas Day, or Robert Graves.

In the British edition of Mr. Thwaite's Contemporary English Poetry (1959), the Author's Note speaks of '. . . as close and careful a revision as I can . . .' (p. viii). Indeed the narrower actualities of the work - titles, places, dates - are in general accurate and reliable: decent use of standard sources appears to have been made. It is only when Mr. Thwaite's treatment of Robert Graves is reached that the reader encounters factually inaccurate statements: two of them occur, conjoined, in the second paragraph of the following passage (p. 131):

'To Graves, the answer to his neurosis was apparently work; in 1925, for example, he published six books, and eight in 1927. Yet much of what he was doing at this time was fragmentary; though everything he wrote - both in verse and prose - had a tart, individual flavour, there seemed to be little "body"; many of his poems, in particular, were simply pieces of fancy or whimsy.

However, in 1929 he left England to settle in Mallorca (one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean), and from that time on his gifts have grown and matured. His self imposed isolation from English literary life has left him free to work out his own poetic salvation and to take an idiosyncratic view of what everyone else is writing. In Mallorca, too, he met Laura Riding, the American poet, and collaborated with her in many ventures . . .'

This passage immediately follows a quotation from Martin Seymour­-Smith's British Council pamphlet Robert Graves (1956); Mr. Thwaite appears to have made a count of items in the bibliography of that work to arrive at his figures for Graves's publications in 1925 and 1927. Yet although the 1927 publications include A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, and the 1928, A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, both by Laura Riding and Robert Graves (Mr. Seymour-Smith lists them as by Graves 'with L Riding'), and although Mr. Seymour-Smith elsewhere in his pamphlet gives the correct date - 1926 - for the 'meeting' of the two writers, Mr. Thwaite goes on to give an account by which - and unwary or uninformed readers would be forced to assume this - such collaborations could not have become possible until 1929, or even later.

If, in connection with the matters with which Mr. Thwaite is here attempting to deal, 'standard' sources are to be looked for in Mr. Graves's own writings, two at least might be identified in works readily available for many years before 1957/59: the well-known Goodbye To All That (1929) and Mr. Graves' Collected Poems (1938). In the first, Mr. Graves's early autobiography, there is a 'Dedicatory Epilogue to Laura Riding', which tells how Nancy Nicholson, Graves's wife at that time, and he '. . . happening by seeming accident upon your teasing Quids, were drawn to write to you, who were in America, asking you to come to us . . . you forthwith came' (p. 444); there is also reference to Riding and Graves 'printing and publishing in partnership as The Seizin Press' (p. 443). The Foreword to Collected Poems (1938) records that, 'In 1925 I first became acquainted with the poems and critical work of Laura Riding, and in 1926 with herself; and slowly began to revise my whole attitude to poetry. (The change begins halfway through Part II [of this volume])' (p. xxiii). The Foreword concludes, as we have noted, 'I have to thank Laura Riding for her constructive and detailed criticism of my poems in various stages of composition - a generosity from which so many contemporary poets besides myself have benefited.' (p.xxiv). Knowledge of the import of passages like these should be demonstrated by anyone venturing on such comparisons of Laura Riding and Robert Graves as Mr. Thwaite undertakes, such offerings of judgement and 'information' as to how things were. Critics whose admitted cynosure is the Robert Graves of 'what may be called the years in which he emerged into world fame' - a recent phrase of Mr. Seymour-Smith's - regularly exhibit their need of the corrective of such contemporary statements. The need arises, in some part, through a misplaced reliance on later editions of the two Graves's books we have cited. The revised edition of Goodbye To All That, published in November 1957, omits both the whole of the 'Dedicatory Epilogue To Laura Riding' and Laura Riding's poem 'World's End', used as the 'introductory motto' in the original edition; her name, in fact, has been 'revised' out of the volume completely. The case is similar with the later recensions of Robert Graves's Collected Poems: in the 1948 edition there is a brief prefatorial acknowledgement of Laura Riding, while in editions after that she is not named at all.

If information available to Mr. Thwaite in Mr. Seymour-Smith's British Council pamphlet is added to that derivable from the source-passages quoted above, a simple chronology may be constructed. It is given here, with a few additional facts in parentheses:

(1924), (Feb.) Laura Riding's 'The Quids' published (in The Fugitive)
1925 (early) Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson 'happen upon' 'The Quids'
(early?) R. G. and N. N. write to L. R.
(Jul.) R.G's. Contemporary Techniques Of Poetry (reprints 'The Quids')
(Dec.) (L. R. sails for England)
1926 (Jan ) 'You forthwith came': L. R. meets, R. G. and N. N.
1927 (Nov.) A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, by L. R. and R. G.
1928 (Jul.) A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, by L. R. and R. G.
'Printing and publishing as The Seizin Press': (Love As Love, Death As Death, by L.R., the first S. P. book)
1929 L. R. and R. G. go to Mallorca
(Nov.) Goodbye To All That, by R. G.
(Dec.) Poems 1929, by R. G. (the third S. P. book)

. . . all this before Mr. Thwaite allows his curtain to rise on the association! Why did his facts go wrong there, in the Graves/Riding context? And why did they go so wrong? The rest of this essay should suggest directions in which answers to such questions may be sought; here we must note how Mr. Thwaite's inaccuracies well accord with the general tendency of his treatment of Mr. Graves. He first introduces the notions of 'growth' and 'maturity', and of Mr. Graves's working out 'his own poetic salvation'; only after these things have been lodged in the reader's mind as virtually accomplished by Mr. Graves in 'his self-imposed isolation' does the name of Laura Riding appear. Even then, it does not come as the name of one eagerly and specifically invited by Graves: instead, the initiation of their association is given a flavour of the accessory, the incidental - it happened, we are told, 'in Mallorca, too'. Only after question of Laura Riding's contribution to the earlier 'growth' of Mr. Graves's 'gifts', his work's acquisition of "body", has been thus obfuscated does Mr. Thwaite tell us that they 'collaborated in many ventures'. However, the substitution of 'England, 1925-26' for 'Mallorca, 1929', simply of its accurate self, brings into just perspective the drift of Mr. Thwaite's entire handling of the Riding-Graves relationship. [4]

The second half of Mr. Thwaite's account runs:

'. . . collaborated with her in many ventures. Most important of all was the mutual influence of each other's poems and, as is often the case, the work of the less important poet served as stimulus to the better. Laura Riding's work has never been well known, but I guarantee that if some of her poems were read out to a competent audience, nine out of ten would say that they were by Graves. Yet what is abstract and delicate in Laura Riding becomes concrete and tough in Graves; his poetic tone of voice is wry, ironical, reserved, and yet immensely strong.'

Here Mr. Thwaite's intentions can be clearly seen in the contradictory procession of his thought. After he has asserted that there was 'mutual influence' - a statement which refers to a two-way process, and from which it is proper to infer that each of the two poets admired the other sufficiently to want to exchange tone, ideas and style - he brings us to the curious proposition that one poet, Laura Riding, whose 'work has never been well known', is the 'less important' poet, and this even while managing to serve (his use of 'served' is not without interest) as 'stimulus' to the other poet, the 'better' one. And what does Mr. Thwaite mean by the lesser poet stimulating the better poet 'as is often the case'? Is he thinking of Shakespeare and the pre-Elizabethans? Johnson and Pope? Wordsworth and Coleridge? Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot? or W. B. Yeats? Which of these are 'less important'? There is, in truth, no legitimate 'case' to which to refer. Mr. Thwaite's use of the phrase is an attempt to lend the air of historical authority to what follows, as an aid in his rapid manoeuvre from the ascription of 'mutual influence', denoting equality, to the observation that the 'less important poet', even though less important, even though the influence is 'mutual'(!), serves (oddly) as 'stimulus' to the 'better' poet.

Scrutiny of the two notions 'less important' and 'stimulus' helps to expose the manoeuvre. The first is intended to dispose of any inclination to attribute to Laura Riding at least equal rights with Robert Graves in respect of poetic merit, implanting the idea of her inferiority in the reader's mind in preparation for 'Laura Riding's work has never been well known' - a key assumption upon which the whole of Mr. Thwaite's text depends. The word 'stimulus' is selected for its covert implication of largeness of stature of the thing stimulated. Though misleading, it helps Mr. Thwaite to counter the suggestion of 'mutual influence'. Next, on this circumventive journey, he arrives at the remarkably obliterative observation that 'if some of her poems were read out to a competent audience, nine out of ten would say that they were by Graves'. And we have his 'guarantee' - no less! - for this. Mr. Thwaite, in choosing to make of Graves the standard, implies in effect that she was the one influenced (what happened to 'mutual'?), for it is she who is put to the test and found wanting, not Graves, in the suppositions finding that some of her poems are no different from his. Mr. Thwaite by 'competent' does not mean competentat all: he means Graves-orientated, as he himself is Graves-orientated. A competent audience would know the work of both authors. What Mr. Thwaite is suggesting is that Laura Riding's poems are subsumable in Robert Graves's poems; such an allegation, he appears to think, need not be supported by critical evidence.

Mr. Thwaite's bias shows further in his concluding contrast of Laura Riding's 'abstract and delicate' poetry with Robert Graves's wry, ironical, reserved, and yet immensely strong' poetry. Superior to most members of his 'competent' audience, Mr. Thwaite can tell the difference between the work of the two poets. But a word he uses in his description betrays, by its very accuracy, the state of affairs he does not wish to admit: 'Yet what is abstract and delicate in Laura Riding becomes concrete and tough in Robert Graves'. Surrounded by Mr. Thwaite's euphemistic belittlement, the real pertinence of the word 'becomes' may easily be lost upon the reader. But, as we shall show, what is of one nature in Laura Riding - though 'abstract and delicate' is a questionable description of it - does indeed become something else in Robert Graves, he being not 'stimulated', in fact, but taking whole substance of her thought and attempting to make it his own.

Given equal weight of attention, Laura Riding's poems are quite distinguishable from Mr. Graves's, presenting no problem for the reader in identification of authorship: this is so even where Mr. Graves imitates or makes variation on Riding themes or linguistic procedures. For, whereas his poetic career is erratic, turning first to this and then to that theme - from war to country sentiment to psychology to mythology (both classical and home-made) - she is constant, her poems a movement of vision centred within the human aspiration towards truth, which, for her, poetry enshrined. This basic divergence can be seen even where particular poems of each are selected for 'comparability'. Take first a very early poem of hers, 'How Blind And Bright', in which the ways of seeing are shown to have controlled the ways of thinking, the sun belonging to the 'visibility of men' where

Eyes looking out for eyes
Meet only seeing, in common faith,
Visibility and brightness.

The visibility which the sun gives, here, is thought of as directing the vision of man outwards to what is visible to the eyes, so that what is seen is only other eyes, seeing similarly and meeting 'in common faith'. Darkness, on the other hand, forces the eyes to

Look inward and meet sight.

In a later poem, 'The Signs Of Knowledge', the sun and moon are still used in this sense:

The first sign of the two signs
Shall be unlove of the sun.
The second sign of the two signs
Shall be unlife of the earth.
And the first with the second sign locked
Shall be undeath of the moon.

The sun, the earth and the moon are used quite literally here. When man can bring himself to turn his eyes away from the sun and the visible world it illuminates, the world of the moon will assume its rightful place of importance as inner thought. As Mrs. Jackson said recently, in a paper accompanying a reading of her poems [5]:

'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. My moon may look like the old tired poetical symbol, and I like an old tired poetic romanticist, but I truly meant that the moon's being what it is where it is intervenes in our outer circumstances as a negator of the sun's fostering excessiveness in our regard, both lush and destructive, as a tempering counter-agency, relatively little but near.'

Mr. Graves's liking for sun and moon symbols is attested to widely in his work, and many of his poems display some contrast between sun and moon, or between light and dark, or between sun-god and moon-goddess. And this is where the essential difference lies. Laura Riding's sun and moon are literally that, and no more or less; Graves's use of sun and moon, however, always contains the personal, emotional gesture, placing sun and moon outside himself as symbols. A glance into any of the later volumes now included in Mr. Graves' Collected Poems 1975 will soon encounter a display of these gestures. In 'Blessed Sun', for example:

Honest morning blesses the Sun's beauty;
Noon, his endurance; dusk, his majesty;
Sweetheart, our own twin worlds bask in the glory
And searching wisdom of that single eye -
Why must the Queen of Night on her moon throne
Tear up their contract and still reign alone?

Here, the 'twin worlds' of the speaker and the lover are seen as governed by the capitalised 'Sun' and 'Queen of Night' moon, ciphers outside the poem influencing events inside. Or look at the rather contrived poem, 'The Crane':

The Crane lounes loudly in his need,
And so for love I loune:
Son to the sovereign Sun indeed,
Courier of the Moon.

In this both sun and moon are capitalised, their powers, while the speaker is an agent of both, identified with the crane who 'lounes' for help. The dramatic element of the poem, its emotional gesture, is the appeal made to a potency beyond the human distress. The majority of the poems in Graves's Poems 1965-1968, the volume in which these two first appeared, consist of such appeals. In Laura Riding's poems, sun and moon are the 'actualities of physical circumstance in which our inner crucialities are set'. Male thought is identified with the sun because it is beneath its light that he has evolved, the sun providing the visibility not only of seeing but of thinking. Man's ordered world, as historically present, is a visibly ordered world, identified as existing outside him. He repeatedly fails to understand or comprehend the significance of the world of 'darkness' where eyes, in the words of her poem, 'Look inward and meet sight'. Before this world the male feels insecure, as before woman he feels insecure: to him both represent the unknown quantity, the 'something else', as Laura Riding characterised it in Epilogue I. Whereas for her the sun and moon possess a particular potency which is manifested in thought, for Graves the sun and moon are removed from thought, as being outside it.

Graves, then, is an emotional poet. The substance of his poems is provided by transferring the material of others' thought and ideas to a personal plane, and fleshing it out with rhetorical gesture. As Michael Kirkham puts it, in his "Robert Graves's Debt To Laura Riding", Graves 'went to her to enlarge his poetry, to stiffen it with intellectual authority' (p. 42). To employ Professor Kirkham's terms further: where Graves's poems are 'subjective', Laura Riding's are 'suprapersonal'; what is an idea expanded to universality in her becomes, in him, 'an expression of violent emotion'.

That Mr. Graves is given to converting not only 'ideas' but all sorts of material within reach into stuff bearing his authorial stamp, is often quite evident in the large - we are thinking, for instance, of the sources for his historical novels, of his adept rewriting of David Copperfield (1933), of the ubiquitous appearance of "Sufic" motifs in his verse since the early 1960's. We believe there to be much more than is commonly recognised of such 'conversion' in the verbal detail of his work also. A minor but characteristic instance, to the best of our knowledge previously unremarked, is what looks like the reappearance of a striking phrase from R. G. Collingwood's Autobiography (1939, p. 75), 'the dogmas . . . of that putrefying corpse of historical thought . . .', in the "strong" concluding line of Graves's "The Worms Of History", from his Poems 1938-1945: 'The ages of a putrefying corpse'. (As it happens, Professor Kirkham has demonstrated, for this very poem, several derivations of its verbal material and 'historical thought' from that of Laura Riding.)

We now cite two particular instances, and one more general, selected from many relevant examples, in which Graves has plainly used work of Laura Riding's as his source. Here is a passage from his novel Seven Days In New Crete (1949):

'It seems to me that a Late Christian poet was committed in the name of integrity to resist, doubt, scoff, destroy and play the fool . . .' (p. 199)

In 1928, in Contemporaries And Snobs, Laura Riding had suggested that one way for the poet to avoid losing self-reliance was to leave the contemporary world to its own devices:

'To help pass away the time, while this is happening, the poet with the poetic faculty strapped on his back may play the buffoon, call criticism "nuncle" and cajole it into a historical accuracy in the dating of poetry . . . ,' (pp. 120-121)

Our second example shows the process at work in poetry; it is one to which Mrs. Jackson herself has recently drawn attention, in an essay in Denver Quarterly (1974). She there reprints a poem of hers, one of the sequence 'Fragments', which is to be found in her now rare book Poems: A Joking Word (1930, p. 159):

Here is escape then, Hercules, from empire:
Where Zero the Companionable
Consoles unthinkable lusts.

Compare this with Robert Graves's poem 'To Ogmian Hercules', published in his Poems 1965-1968, which Mrs. Jackson also quotes; it begins:

Your Labours are performed, your Bye-works too;
Your ashes gently drift from Oeta's peak.
Here is escape then, Hercules, from empire.

The following passage by Laura Riding is to be found in Epilogue I (1935), in her essay 'The Idea Of God' - which consists of answers to questions put to her by T. S. Matthews, one of the collaborators in Epilogue:

'. . . There is available to man at every moment all the finally available material of experience. It is not a question of 'new' or 'more' material, but how he uses the material available to him, and whether he uses it all. You have asked me what must have seemed to you a fantastic question - about 'seeing' God. And I allowed it its full extent of fantastic-ness by changing it into a question about 'seeing,' the something else. My answer to this question is that man can only 'see,' the something else in "seeing" woman. And whether it is less fantastic to envisage, in a sudden apparition, a completely unfamiliar material of human experience, than to envisage, in the accustomed apparition "woman", all the humanly available material of experience, is a point that the spiritually perplexed commonly evade in lives divided between irregular mystical fantasy and conventional sexuality.' (p. 18)

Even such a short quotation may, incidentally, convey something of the violence done to thought of this quality by the kind of transfer and adaptation of it that Mr. Graves has made: to contexts of "Goddess" and of solemnly-discussed "Muse". In The White Goddess these vulgarizations of Laura Riding's thought are much padded out by Graves with a great show of learning; in his later poems they are made more "exciting" with admixtures of the emotions of 'conventional sexuality'; or they are watered-down into such musings of his as that upon 'Real Women' in the Ladies Home Journal for January 1964. Still, it is strange that the connection continues to be missed by commentators who with one part of their minds know very well that Graves was in virtually daily contact for not less than thirteen years (1926-1939) with the source of this thought and writing. Sydney Musgrove, for example, in his otherwise extensively researched pamphlet The Ancestry Of The White Goddess(University of Auckland, 1962), completely overlooks Epilogue, with its abundance of material of the kind we have cited.

Epilogue also contains a number of instances of Mr. Graves's presentation of himself at that time as an eager learner from her, notably in the long article 'From A Private Correspondence On Reality' (Epilogue III, 1937, pp. 107-130). The 'Correspondence' was conducted between Riding and Graves; at one point he says:

'It was as a poet in search of an integration of reality that you first knew me. The problem for me was at that time. . . what to do when the world of thought had grown unmanageable?'

On the following page he goes on to remark that:

'To you the problem of poetic scope presents no difficulties. You are able, by orderly definition, to reduce to the status of idiosyncrasies large fields of specialist activity . . .'

And he proceeds to such questions as:

'Could you give me a simple clue to your method of gradation?'


'By what principle can one learn to live and think poetically. . .?'

A lengthy essay is really required to unravel all the implications of what the word 'influence' means when applied to the effect Laura (Riding) Jackson has had on Robert Graves. At the present time, when question arises of how things stand between the work of the two writers, there is to be found, in nearly every case, a tangle of contradictions at the centre of which is Mr. Graves, actively untying threads. He has assiduously unpicked the name of Laura Riding from his literary record: we have already given examples of this, in citing the revisions of Goodbye To All That and of the Collected Poems prefaces, and there are more. Mr. Graves has misrepresented what pertains to Laura Riding's part in material used in his Introduction to The Collected Poems Of Norman Cameron (1957), where quotations from Cameron's letters are reprinted as though addressed to Graves. In actuality the letters were addressed to Laura Riding; Mr. Graves appears to have drawn his texts of them, without acknowledgement, from her book Everybody's Letters (1933, pp. 48-62). There, the letters are addressed to 'Lilith' and signed 'Cyril' - pseudonyms of Riding and for Cameron respectively. Further, Graves has belittled the role she played in the collaborative 'word by word collaboration' A Survey Of Modernist Poetry and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, by referring to the former as though essentially his, and, with both books, relegating her to the addendum status of '(with Laura Riding)'. Further again, he has claimed writing wholly hers as his own - see his presentation of her essay on Nietzsche in The Common Asphodel and, later, in the Penguin and American editions of The Crowning Privilege. That essay apart, about two hundred of the 329 text-pages of The Common Asphodel - its subtitle is 'Collected Essays On Poetry, 1922-1949, by Robert Graves' - are occupied by work written in collaboration with Laura Riding or under her close editorship, but that significant fact is overlaid by the tissue of misrepresentations which there surrounds Mr. Graves's use of her name. In presenting his rewritten and abridged versions of the two collaborative books, Mr. Graves claims, in his Introduction, that 'she has since given me permission to reprint any of our various collaborations and include them with work of my own, at my discretion, on the ground that they no longer interest her': a statement every point of which has been denied by Mrs. Jackson, in the years since she came to know of it. Some independent indication that Mr. Graves's claimed authority failed to pass scrutiny elsewhere is provided by the fact that The Common Asphodel - unlike virtually every other substantial book by Mr. Graves - has never found a publisher in the United States. Nor has it been reprinted in Britain. For some reason, the book's original publication, in 1949, was not undertaken by Mr. Graves's usual publishers; it appeared from Messrs Hamish Hamilton, who publish no other work by him.

Another of Mr. Graves's descriptions from the Introduction to The Common Asphodel is that of Epilogue as 'an annual which we edited between 1934 and 1936 and which commanded increasing inattention in literary circles'. Had Mr. Graves actually been the editor of Epilogue, or a joint-editor, the apparent wit and modesty of this might have been in place. As it is, he is being 'modest' at another's expense, for the editor of Epilogue was Laura Riding - and it is patent that almost every detail of that remarkable periodical is hers in conception, and marked by her presiding care. (We must note here that the contributor-name 'Madeleine Vara' - abbreviated as 'M. V.', as in the case of the essay on Nietzsche - which frequently appears in Epilogue, is a pseudonym of Laura Riding. The identification was authorised by Mrs. Jackson in Michael Kirkham's "Robert Graves's Debt To Laura Riding".) Correctly, Mr. Graves is described as 'Assistant Editor' on the title-page of Epilogue I, and as 'Associate Editor' on those of Epilogue II and Epilogue III.

These misdescriptive habits of Mr. Graves's are epitomised by the statement he provided about himself to the editors of Arena (Ireland), a small magazine which had decided to cease publication after its fourth number (Spring, 1965), in which issue the following 'information' about Mr. Graves was given: 'Tells the editors he once ran a magazine for three numbers, and that each copy is now worth £10'. And by his reiterated and standard description of Mrs. Jackson's husband, Schuyler B. Jackson, as 'an American farmer'. Mr. Jackson was a farmer, certainly: he was also well known to Mr. Graves as the Poetry Editor of Time magazine for a number of years, including the period in which the marriage took place. Yet Mr. Graves never uses the latter description.

This common asphodelling, as we may label it, has persuaded unwary later authors also to refer to the collaborative Riding-Graves books as by Graves '(with Laura Riding)': two of the many examples are to be found, one in the entry under 'Graves' in The Oxford Companion To English Literature (4th ea., 1967), another in The Story Of English Literature, by Anne Tibble (1970). Mrs. Tibble also states, in speaking of A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, that 'He [Graves] was probably the first to recognise the greatness of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins' (p. 231).

Awareness of the key role played by The Common Asphodel in deceiving a generation of readers makes it difficult to enjoy the comic aspects of the professed puzzlement of 'Gravesians' about the master's failure, since 1949, to produce more criticism of Common Asphodel quality. Yet the comedy is there, grim and pathetic both. Mr. Martin Seymour-Smith took up a representative Gravesians-in-waiting stance in his British Council pamphlet in 1956: 'The critical strength of The Common Asphodel as compared with the lack of care often displayed in The Crowning Privilege [1955] . . . leads one to hope Graves will some day devote his energies to a comprehensive survey of English poetry'. In 1970 Mr. Seymour-Smith modified this passage by substituting for 'leads one to hope' the disclamatory phrase 'led many to hope'.

To restate our main theme in brief: the problem of critical evaluation in the Graves-Riding relation is not resolvable in terms of 'influence' nor even of 'plagiary'; nor is the answer that the Riding to be found in Graves is just a 'phase' or transitory 'period' (two terms used by Professor Day) that Graves went through - unless it be admitted to be an ever-convenient self-repeating phase or period. From nowhere in the Graves sphere, within the climate of which Mr. Thwaite and many others write, could we expect acknowledgement that Graves has been engaged in putting Laura Riding's work and its teachings to use in his own work, all this long time. Nevertheless, the actuality is appropriation, as Mrs. Jackson has felt compelled to characterise it these later years.

For knowledge of some of what we have cited of Mr. Graves's appropriations, we are indebted to Mrs. Jackson's article 'Some Autobiographical Corrections Of Literary History' (Denver Quarterly, Winter 1974); as we are also indebted to her late catching-up, in a letter published in The Modern Language Quarterly of December 1971, with a concerted 'manhandling', as she describes it, of her in an article published in that magazine in September 1966 by James Jensen on William Empson's Seven Types Of Ambiguity (1930). We have noted above that this article, examining the origins of Empson's book, was accompanied by commentaries solicited from Professor Empson, Dr. I. A. Richards, and Mr. Graves, these having been offered an opportunity to say their say, but not Mrs. Jackson - who, 'mishandled' by Messrs Jensen, Empson and Graves (Dr. Richards made no reference to her), was herself left in ignorance of the article's procedure. Mr. Graves, in his contribution in the form of a letter, puts on a pious show of reproaching Jensen and Empson, not for their specific derogatory treatment of 'Laura Riding' but for their 'unchivalrousness' in quoting 'our joint works as if simply mine' - he who has treated them as really such! - and, for good measure, he cites Douglas Day as another culprit. (Professor Day wrote Swifter Than Reason with plentiful help from Mr. Graves on the subject of Laura Riding, the extent of Day's use of it redounding later to Graves's embarrassment.) Having established his own credentials of 'chivalrousness', Mr. Graves proceeds to outstrip the others in misrepresentation:

'I was, I believe, responsible for most of the detailed examination of poems in A Survey Of Modernist Poetry - for example showing the complex implications of Sonnet 129 before its eighteenth-century repunctuations; Laura Riding certainly for the general principles quoted on page 5...'

Mrs. Jackson, in her letter of protest at this composite assault, wrote:

'According to this magnanimous certitude, my contribution is essentially a matter of fifteen lines; but "general principles" might among equally fair-minded people win me credit for perhaps double (!) the worth of an ordinary (detailed examination) line. It seems to me appropriate to record that, without public statement of mine, recognition of my intellectually and verbally sensitive hand within the glove of the Survey method has been mounting, with perception of its connection, via Mr. Empson's hobby-horse use of it, with the "New Criticism", which tried to make real horse-flesh of it.'

Any scholar of integrity will, if he pursues the issue of the Riding­Graves collaborations, agree that Mrs. Jackson's is a just account. The critical follow-through of A Survey . . . is not to be found in Graves's work but in Laura Riding's - in such books as Contemporaries And Snobs (1928), Anarchism. Is Not Enough (1928), and Experts Are Puzzled (1930) - while the 'general principles' are given literal application in her poems, not in his. Those who investigate Mrs. Jackson's work in its full range will find it not difficult to see through Mr. Graves's attempt airily to reduce the extent and quality of her contribution to A Survey. . . ; they will know how formidably far-reaching those 'general principles' are. Mr. Graves, there, is not performing an isolated act, a simple yielding to the blandishments of Mr. Jensen and Mr. Empson: his statements lead to the heart of the Graves strategy of combining utmost possible use of Laura Riding's work with utmost appearance of gallantry by patronization, along with utmost possible effort to cast the subject of her into his shade.

In its present restlessness the critical world appears largely to have exhausted the possibilities of D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot all of whom have a polyglot appeal - and to be ever busy at finding new material for study. In the absence of new figures of such recherche popularity, Robert Graves has become something to be going on with. There is always more coming from his pen, and this keeps the machinery of scholarly literary interest in action. Yet the commentary is mostly conventional and monotonous: it exhibits, not so much reluctance to scrutinise the launching-stages of the Graves rocket (so to speak) - to question the recently-manufactured appearances - as an apparent unawareness that there is something of the kind calling to be done. In particular, critics engaged in writing on Mr. Graves's work seem to become hypnotised by the spell of his magic in making 'Laura Riding' disappear. They do so without struggle: if the created illusion is given authority, it is so easy to follow the Graves line. The effects spread far and wide, rippling into the corners of even the most ephemeral commentary of the day, until the formulations are hardened into a rigid common acceptance of falsity. So every year, up to the present, brings its many instances of the attributing to Robert Graves what properly belongs, at the very least in terms of the order of names, to Laura Riding. On June 6th, 1975, in the Times Literary Supplement, we find Professor William H. Pritchard agreeing with a review (May 2nd) of a book on Yeats criticism edited by him that 'a place should have been found for Robert Graves, and if I had known about it would have included the hilarious Graves-Riding treatment of "Innisfree" (sic) in A Pamphlet Against Anthologies.' And, in the New Statesman of July 25th, 1975, Mr. Frederick Grubb, in a 'tribute' entitled 'Odd Man Not Out: Graves At Eighty', quotes 'Graves and Riding' as saying that art should not 'react into a satiric or actual primitivism', so that once again Graves is accorded pride of authorial place, Riding appearing as something of an afterthought (the quotation is from A Survey. . .). Worse, Mr. Grubb then refers to Mr. Graves as the addressee of the Norman Cameron letters, as found in the Graves introduction to The Collected Poems Of Norman Cameron: '. . . from Norman Cameron . . . he [Graves] gets an answer - "I'm in disfavour with the Director . . . for wearing that red jersey you gave me"'.[6] Thus, whether intentionally or by defaulting on the obligation to accuracy, do such writers abet Mr. Graves in his not-relaxed strategy.

We have been calling attention to an unjust state of affairs - readers may think we would be justified in describing it as, rather, infamous. Whatever the adjective, the extent to which the situation has been maintained by private, as well as public, statements of Mr. Graves's own, is suggested by a slight passage quoted in a recent Sotheby's literary-auction catalogue (16 July 1974, lot 403). This has Mr. Graves telling a correspondent in 1943, evidently apropos of Laura Riding's poem 'Though In One Time' (published in her Lore As Love, Death As Death, 1928), '. . . I think [her use of] "bewilderment" picks up the thought of my poem of "Pure Death", written a few months before­hand . . .'. So far as we have been able to establish, the Graves poem was indeed published earlier than the Riding. In the absence of precise datings of composition the matter might have had to rest there, sense of the intrinsic unlikeliness of the indicated 'pick up' notwithstanding. However - at risk of taking Mr. Graves's private claim of one-word-influence more seriously than it deserves - it can as it happens be demonstrated that, if we are to regard the word 'bewilderment' as poetic trove, it was one of the earliest pieces of such to roll downstream (to anticipate a figure we use below) from Laura Riding to Robert Graves. It will be remembered that, by Mr. Graves's own account, his attention was first drawn to the work of Laura Riding (Laura Riding Gottschalk, as she was then known) by her poem 'The Quids', printed in The Fugitive for February 1924. That issue also contains her poem 'To An Unborn Child', in which occurs the line 'For there is sorrow here for your bewilderment': that poem appears on page 9, and 'The Quids' on pages 10-11!

We return, in closing, to the case of Mr. Thwaite's account offered to - we might say, imposed upon - his Japanese students and other readers. That accuracy need demand no more space or energy than inaccuracy, but that identifying and correcting even 'straightforward' inaccuracies may take much of both - and can rarely undo harm done - are commonplaces worth repeating. Yet inaccuracy in itself is a minor offence: Mr. Thwaite makes it something grimmer by using it in the service of a treatment of Laura (Riding) Jackson that vies with Mr. Graves's own in purposefulness. There is not so much a warping of the truth, in Mr. Thwaite's account of the relations between the two, as, in reality, no truth at all. There was no 'mutual influence': the influence went all one way, from Laura Riding downstream to where Graves was drawing off - as he has never stopped drawing off - as much as his reservoir could hold. She was not a 'stimulus' for Robert Graves: she was a source. Her poems are quite distinguishable from his, except where he imitates or makes variations on her themes or uses of language: he has tried and tried to write 'like' her, but he cannot pull it off, try as he may. If critics do their work thoroughly there can be no danger of confusion.


1. Pointed out by Professor Michael Kirkham in 'Robert Graves's Debt To Laura Riding', a paper put before a Modern Language Association (U. S. A.) seminar in 1972 and published in December 1973 in no. 3 of Focus On Robert Graves, a bibliographical newsletter edited by Dr. Ellsworth Mason. An extensively re-worked essay, in part based on this, entitled 'Laura (Riding) Jackson', was later published in Chelsea, no. 33, September 1974. Professor Kirkham is the author of a book, The Poetry Of Robert Graves (Athlone Press of the University of London, 1969), and an article, 'Laura Riding's Poems' (Cambridge Quarterly, Spring 1971).

We wish at once, and with gladness, to record our feeling of obligation to Professor Kirkham, who, on hearing that we were at work on the present essay, kindly gave us leave to use his writings on the Riding/Graves work-relationship as freely as we might need. Although in the event we have not drawn especially heavily on his work, the sense of our discussions - for instance, as to the differing significances of sun-and-moon in the work of the two writers - will be found often to be consonant with list. We commend Professor Kirkham's pioneering writings: they are of much value to all interested in pursuing the subject which we are here attempting to investigate in outline.

2. Whether the lines he quotes lack 'verbal discipline and rhythmic control of any kind ' is highly questionable:

The rugged black of anger
Has an uncertain smile-border.
The transition from one kind to another
May be love between neighbour and neighbour;
Or natural death; or discontinuance
Because, so small is space,
The extent of kind must be expressed otherwise;
Or loss of kind when proof of no uniqueness
Confutes the broadening edge and discourages.

Perhaps Professor Day cannot hear the feminine rhymes and half-rhymes, the consonance and assonance, and the way in which each line comes to a natural "breathing pause."

(It is interesting to note that a longer opening portion of this poem, in an earlier version, is printed, and discussed as an example of modernist poetry, in A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, by Laura Riding and Robert Graves, 1927, pp. 138-149.)

3. The fourth volume of Epilogue was constituted by Laura Riding's The World And Ourselves (1938), a symposium conceived and shaped by her, described on its dust-wrapper as 'by Laura Riding and 65 others.'

4. A further peculiarity of chronological treatment is concealed in the words we quoted earlier from Goodbye To All That (p. 444). It is of Mr. Graves's own making, and necessitates the query in our chronology, above, against the date of R. G. and N. N's. first writing to L R. Either that occasion was months after the two 'happened upon' 'The Quids', or Mr. Graves is using the word 'forthwith' ('you forthwith came') very loosely. For in his Contemporary Techniques Of Poetry, published in July 1925 and therefore prepared in earlier months, Mr. Graves reprinted 'The Quids' in full, calling it 'a first favourite with me'; yet Laura Riding did not sail for England until December 1925. Students of Mr. Graves's accounts of happenings will be familiar with such time-and-circumstance difficulties: he has, for instance, as Sydney Musgrove has pointed out (The Ancestry Of The White Goddess, 1962) published three conflicting versions of the tale of when and how he came to begin writing The White Goddess.  

5. From a reading recorded for Lamont Library, Harvard University, in 1972; quoted with author's permission applicable to the present article only.

6. Examination of the letter as originally printed in Everybody's Letters (pp. 50-51) reveals that it ends with the question 'How is Hubert?' [i.e., Robert]: so its addressee, and thus presumably the donor of the jersey, was undoubtedly Laura Riding. Had Mr. Grubb known this, he would surely not have chosen to focus on those particular words.


This article was written in response to a passage in Contemporary English Poetry: An Introduction, by Anthony Thwaite, first published in Japan in 1957. In Mr. Thwaite's book, he assesses briefly the career of Robert Graves and the part played in it by Laura Riding [now Laura (Riding) Jackson]. In the passage to which we refer, facts about Mrs. Jackson's literary work-relationship with Mr. Graves are plainly wrong, and statements misleading. We supply corrective critical and chronological information, and attempt to show by close verbal analysis the workings of Mr. Thwaite's bias of attitude in favour of Mr. Graves. As a preface to the discussion, the article considers another critic, Douglas Day - whose work on Robert Graves, Swifter Than Reason, devotes chapters to what he calls 'the Laura Riding years', and exhibits a bias similar to that of Mr. Thwaite's. We show how statements in these chapters are self-contradictory and against the literary record. Noting how widespread such mix-statements are in current books, periodicals and newspapers, we seek to account for the bias by turning to Mr. Graves's own statements about the work-relationship. We demonstrate how Mr. Graves has attempted to revise the name 'Laura Riding' out of the successive editions of works of his, published work of hers under his own name, taken collaborative works - such as A Survey Of Modernist Poetry, A Pamphlet Against Anthologies and the magazine Epilogue (in which he was associate editor, only) - and accorded Mrs. Jackson the status of second author whereas she is by right the first. We give instances of how reliance on authority stemming from Mr. Graves has helped to mislead critical, biographical and bibliographical writers on such matters. By citations and comparisons of poems and prose, we attempt to make clear the essential differences between the work of Robert Graves and that of Laura (Riding) Jackson while at the same time indicating how much Mr. Graves depends for substance on Mrs. Jackson's work, in ways ranging from straightforward plagiary to adaptations of her thought for large-scale literary purpose.