The Telling by Alan Clark

The One Story: Laura (Riding) Jackson, ‘The Telling’, and Before
by Alan Clark
(Stand, Vol 15, No 1, 1973)

'We have language, all, as a gift from one another for going apace with one another in advancing into our Subject: diction (or ‘style’) must be concerned, fundamentally, with our need of speaking to one another the ultimate confidences, in the exchange of which, only, do we know, and can we be, all we as human are.’

‘The Telling’ itself was first published in 1967, in the New York little-magazine Chelsea, issue 20/21. Its sixty-two numbered and three postscript passages now reappear, unaltered in substance, as the core-part of the present book,[i] Mrs. Jackson’s first new full-length work since 1939. The story of her renunciation of poetry in 1940, after being ‘for long a devout advocate’—and a distinguished practitioner—of it, is succinctly told in her preface to her Selected Poems… (1970).[ii] Another important preface, contributed in 1969 to a reproduction of her The World and Ourselves (1938),[iii] relates her thought of the present to that of her earlier writing career, which began with the 1920’s. Of her earlier work little else besides this book is currently available, though a few books have been issued in facsimile reprints without arrangement with her, including A Survey of Modernist Poetry, by Laura Riding and Robert Graves (1927), a work that made a new start in modem poetic criticism. And, from the Fugitive Anthology (1928) onwards, there has been some anthology-presentation of her poems; those in the Faber Book of Modern Verse (1936; 1951; 1965)[iv] in particular bridging the years in which she kept her poems generally withdrawn.

Laura (Riding) Jackson contributed two critical essays on poetry to Chelsea 12 (1962) and one on the theme ‘Poetry and the Good’ to Chelsea 14 (1964).[v] The first of the 1962 pieces was ‘Introduction For A Broadcast’ (B.B.C. Third Programme); in the course of the other she said ‘Because there is no social provision for immediacies of open-souled speaking, and truth thus becomes formalized into a religious or moral or other categorical specialty, some go to poetry to try to work salvations of the truth-instinct under its gilded sign: they go to it because there is nowhere else to go for this—and are trapped in a nowhere. The place for this must be created new—anywhere, everywhere’. The Telling can be seen as an attempt simultaneously to ‘create new’ such a place and to do some ‘open-souled speaking’ from it. The speaker knows herself to be possessed of a ‘truth-instinct’ which she takes to be a natural—indeed a generic—human endowment; her speaking is addressed to all who recognize, or who may come to recognize, such an instinct in themselves and in others. The result is a grave yet intimate address concerning the nature of human being, a nature seen as having quietly arrived at a potentially transforming degree of full knowableness: (T)[vi] ‘My subject is all ourselves, the human reality. And my subject is All, and One, the reality of All, of which we are the exponents.’ The work seeks also to ‘offer a method of treating of the Subject in its simple nakedness as ours’ (‘The essence of the method . ... is the idea that the task of treating of the Subject is the task of each of us’).

The scope of The Telling is, thus, large—the reader finds that ‘tremendous questions of existence and destiny’ are, almost incidentally, given new syntax within it—but the author is equipped to achieve a rare consonance between aim and realisation. She is uniquely serious; she refuses to inflate (‘it is, indeed, a homely Subject’) or to mystify—though the inevitable presence of ‘mystery-haze’ is acknowledged; she has both a prophetic sense of special potential in ‘our Now’ and a clear-eyed awareness of the time’s vast spiritual disabilities: (T) ‘does truth make free? I think free makes truth. But not that free of modern-mindedness, which disembarrasses thought of the idea of the soul—so that we define our troubles narrowly enough to put cures within reach, and treat the Rest as a vortex of unreality from which to keep a safe distance; and a sickliness of word settles into our serious speech, and Whimsy sobered with common-sense, or Common-Sense aflare with Whimsy (the difference is immaterial) is the spiritual style of the up-to-date hour’. And, always evidently non-derivative in her writing and thought—never synthesising the work of others, yet striving towards a non-individualistic whole position that could be generally valid—Laura (Riding) Jackson now also has, at mind, the results of thirty years’ basic linguistic study. In her contribution to a recent biographical-dictionary entry,[vii] Mrs Jackson reports ‘In my pursuits abroad [before 1939]… I became increasingly aware of the prime dependence of worth, in everything formed of words, on observance of the linguistic integrities. I conceived of a work that would help to dissipate the confusion existing in the knowledge of word-meanings—where, I believed, all probity of word must start. This project did not take deep root until after I returned to America. My husband [Schuyler B. Jackson] joined me in it, bringing to it poetic experience and linguistic learning and a moral sense of language of his own, and strong-heartedness for facing difficulties…. The resultant book was far advanced when he died, in 1968. I am trying to complete it’. Fruits of that project are everywhere apparent in The Telling, contributing to the essence of its achievement: the free justness of diction of ‘The Telling’ itself, the core-piece. It coins no neologisms—its most unusual word is probably ‘kindship', which the author pauses to explain her use of; it employs no jargon, instead calling on the reader’s sensitivity to the differences profusely pointed by capitalised and uncapitalised forms—as for instance in her description of the essential human as ‘a being of the Whole, one of One’. Again and again, familiar words are as if reminted: ‘reason’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul', outstandingly, ‘human'.

Mrs Jackson calls the core-piece 'a personal evangel’, a descriptive phrase which usefully suggests also some novelty of linguistic form: personal address, not literary disquisition: ‘I view myself as having spoken to the page… not engaged in a kind of writing. I have aimed at a normal diction, a kind that could be described as developed, or expanded, normal’. The outcome exemplifies what she has elsewhere called ‘the style of truth, a rule of trueness of voice and mind sustained in every morsel of one's speech’.[viii] That very aim, and rule—characteristic in their formidable simplicity—may help to explain what she notes as ‘an effect… of stylistic variableness’: her ear is attuned to supra-stylistic consistencies. Thus the engaging straightforwardness of passage 1—it deserves to become one of the beloved familiar openings—no more sets the tone of the whole than does the knottiness of passage 34, whose difficulty the author acknowledges, or the aspiring assurance of the closing passages. Similarly, the style of the piece is neither discursive nor rhetorical, but comprehends those elements, with others, in a natural formality of linguistic sobriety. This often rises to the kind of quiet felicities which were ever notable in Laura Riding’s work—to characterize them as gnomic or aphoristic is to miss or distort the significance of their integration with the whole of her thought. With that reservation, some examples from ‘The Telling’ may be quoted (T): ‘The weakness of history is that it begins late and ends early’; ‘Truth rings no bells’; ‘The notion of God divides before from after’; ‘Women… know little happiness in fashioning semblances of truth, with nothing surer than fame to gain’. It must be such passages that the author has in mind when she observes that ‘some… could be taken for new commonplaces’. Earlier she remarks that ‘in speaking that is under poetry’s protection, failure is scared away until all’s said’, whereas, in ‘The Telling’, ‘I speak... at the common risks of language, where failure stalks in every word’. In the core-piece itself there may well be found nothing to enforce the reality of that consideration—unless once or twice the fall of a phrase evokes for the reader irrelevant echoes, personal-individual rather than general. And elsewhere in the book those ‘risks’ will be found represented, if at all, only—among many passages necessarily complex—by a small residue which, after repeated readings, appear somewhat simplifiable.

‘Elsewhere’ means the two-thirds of the text-space which is entirely new: the whole book, that is, apart from ‘The Telling’ itself and the ‘Nonce Preface’—originally written for Chelsea—which gives a brief account of Mrs. Jackson’s reasons for viewing science, in its generalizing, critical functions, as ‘not... of frontal human importance’. The new material extends from the ‘Preface For A Second Reading’, dated October 1968, through ‘Some After-Speaking: Private Words’—in three substantial sections, the last dated September 1971—to an Addendum on the current ‘vogue of myth’, dated February 1972. Thus the author fulfils her desire ‘to give assurance to those wishing not to stop that I too am moved by sense of the need and room for more’: in this form The Telling is simultaneously an achieved work and work-in-progress. It emerges as long having had something of that joint character, for an important section of ‘Private Words’ consists of ‘Extracts from Communications’, edited from correspondence mainly with people who wrote to the author about ‘The Telling’ after its first appearance. The new matter as a whole ‘invites the reader’—as the English publisher’s admirable blurb puts it—‘to a less formal reflection on the themes of “The Telling” proper, relating them more directly to some of the intellectual preoccupations and dilemmas of the age’. Among these figure Communism and the not-yet-formulated doctrine that might deal adequately with it; ‘modernism, philosophic, artistic, literary’; the difference between the wicked and the evil; happiness; and ‘the passions of dissidence of the present that seem of revolutionary heat’: this last illuminatingly touching on loss of morale in modem education. Literature—seen by Mrs. Jackson as properly subservient to ‘the human reality’ but ever in peril, to its practitioners and its readers, of elevating a literary ‘equivalent of the reality’ to superior position—is in effect a subject of critique throughout. The foci of her criticism are various; a recurrent one is of the status of poetry, providing much incidental clarification of the reasons for Laura Riding’s renunciation of the art. Before turning, here, to that area of interest, another approach to ‘The Telling’ is required, even though many aspects of ‘the little work’, valid ways into its one centre, perforce remain unnoticed. (However, the author’s ‘story’ itself—her story of Being—is best left for readers to come to without any encumbrance of advance information on it.)

The ‘truth-instinct’ is not likely to be regarded as a significant attribute of humankind if the word ‘human’ is (T) ‘spoken with that presumptuous familiarity of indulgent contempt of ourselves with which we god-like look down on us from the heavens of common-sense’. Many, however, are uncomfortable in such confines. Some readers of The Telling may find themselves made conscious of their human need of truth of their own speaking, by its evoking a general potentiality of this. But the success will not be individual: ‘there’ll be no success in the field until it is widely and intensively participated in’. The form of the success is repeatedly described as a story—‘a one story that tells all there is to tell, in unity’. Or it is seen, simply, as the fulfilment by human beings of ‘a linguistically ordained ideal’ that represents their joint human responsibility. The author takes note of how the speaking faculty is made by many to serve capricious will, these ‘becoming talking curiosities of live individuality in the universe, able to boast newnesses in modes of self-being’. She remarks on (T) ‘the peculiar sin of our time, which is discontinuance of the journey to the meeting-point where beings have a debt to pay to Being in true words spoken of themselves to one another’. Nevertheless, as she states the case, this is a time for final performance: (T) ‘We have come into full possession of the human inheritance…. We have a time-that-does-not-count of grace in which to cease our self-belying’.

It should be dear by this point that Laura (Riding) Jackson’s work, though simple in its basic propositions, is far from easy in what it specifically says or in what follows from that. The Telling is a call, from a fellow-human of evident wisdom and skill in identifying it, to a human potentiality in its readers that should be just-recognizable by them also. Such calls may always have been rare: certainly this one feels unusual in our time. To those who find their minds and sympathies answering it, The Telling will become important, a work to be lived with and then lived by, a new companion for their valuing themselves as human.


The legitimate question posed by Laura Riding’s renunciation of poetry, and left long unanswered, had two aspects: firstly, what were the grounds of her dissatisfaction with poetry?; secondly, what was the nature of the honourable way of speaking for which she looked in its stead? When they came, her public statements sought to deal with both aspects, but whereas the first permitted of a descriptive answer the second, its completion, really had to await a substantive one. Thus for some readers—if not admittedly for most critics—the Selected Poems… of 1970 did, as it designed, ‘excite some sense of wherein the failure of poetry lies’,[ix] but could not of itself constitute the vantage-ground from which the whole of the author’s work—and the role of poetry in it, and what that poetry was ‘about’—might be seen in her own later perspective. The Telling at last provides such a vantage, confirms that—long lost to sight after striking out from the poetic border—Laura (Riding) Jackson has identifiably set foot on ‘the further ground’. She has, that is, won through to an area of speech that should be found to allow of a fuller experience for speaker and listener than does either poetry or our various ordinary ways of speaking and writing. What the responses to her opening of a new ‘language-path’ will be, among the literary and their public, is not a first consideration; for the effects are bound to be personal before they are professional and critical. Mrs. Jackson, however, herself examines, in the case of Coleridge, the impulse towards ‘flight from… the special ground of literature’: she sees him as one who of himself reached out of poetry but achieved only fragmentary contact with a real beyond.

To return to the first aspect of the question: Mrs. Jackson’s reasons for coming to see poetry as a ‘harmful ingredient of our linguistic life’.[x] Condensation is bound to misrepresent somewhat, yet the essence is clear enough: the poet’s presumed dedication to using words with fullness of meaning and whole presence in them cannot, finally, be reconciled with ‘the whorl of poetic artifice, with its overpowering necessities of patterned rhythm and harmonic soundplay, which work distortions upon the natural proprieties of tone and word’.[xi] Laura Riding’s struggle to ‘make one sense of the two senses of poetry’ took her on to work of increasingly beautiful poetic report of ‘the approach of human life in the whole to a term’ and of its yet still coming short of arrival at its promised ‘something after’ of fully real being.[xii] ‘Nothing So Far’, the poem with which she chooses to close her 1970 selection (it was penultimate in the sequence of her Collected Poems) conveys that vision of ‘phenomena… arrested between disintegration and integration’ which she mentions in a contemporary piece of writing.[xiii] To compare the sense of the poem with that of passages in The Telling similarly concerned with summarizing the immediate general human state, is to begin to grasp the difference between a story told in part and the parts of a continuous story. The poem is—poems are, by Mrs. Jackson’s linguistically sensitive experience—partial, incomplete, by nature.

Nothing so far but moonlight
Where the mind is;
Nothing in that
place, this hold,
To hold;
Only their faceless shadows to announce
Perhaps they come
Nor even do they know
Whereto they cast them.

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

What were we, then,
Before the being of ourselves began?
Nothing so far but strangeness
Where the moments of the mind return.
Nearly, the place was lost
In that we went to stranger places.

Nothing so far but nearly
The long familiar pang
Of never having gone;
And words below a whisper which
If tended as the graves of live men should be
May bring their names and faces home.

It makes a loving promise to itself,
Womanly, that there
More presences are promised
Than by the difficult light appear.
Nothing appears but moonlight’s morning—
By which to count were as to strew
The look of day with last night’s rid of moths.

To look back from The Telling towards Laura Riding’s poems can, then, permit their general themes to be seen with simplifying clarity. It is similarly informative to look back from The Telling and the recent essays to her prose of the 1920’s and 1930's. Her criticism ever tended both to operate from and to range over a ground of general, rather than narrowly literary, values. Her early stories—investigating difficult extremities of imaginative thought with teasing precision and sudden inescapable clarity—now look like patient survey work, aligning the track that ‘the one story’ would make a road of: Experts Are Puzzled (1930) and Progress of Stories (1935) are the books particularly meant, here. There are also in these stories, veins of narrative and conversational simplicity linking them with the natural address to a child of Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (1930).[xiv] (In The Telling Mrs. Jackson has written that ‘the sense of Before is one of the gifts of [every] Cradle…’; the Unposted Letters provide a companion sense of what might be called Advanced Time, as puzzle to solve for child and adult.)

The three issues of Epilogue: A Critical Summary appeared from 1935 to 1937. Laura Riding was its editor, and contributed massively to it—more extensively than many readers might have realized at the time. (If its 754 pages are ever reprinted, whole trains of revaluation will surely be set in motion.) This sketch of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s work concludes with some words in which the editor appears to have been looking, as it were across the poetic divide, towards The Telling. (But the sense of the ‘somethingness’ of which she speaks is there clearer and fuller, and more specifically defined.) The passage is extracted from her ‘Private Correspondence on Reality’, conducted with Robert Graves, Epilogue's associate editor.xv]

Fundamental somethingness... is the implicit source from which our individual existence derives; and indeed we disappear, and to petty nothingness, if we do not belabour ourselves, without mercy to our individualistic obduracies, until we are the passionately flexible instruments by which fundamental somethingness is transformed from an implicit into an explicit reality.’ 


[i] The Telling (Athlone Press, University of London, 1972; New York, Harper & Row, 1973).
[ii] Selected Poems: In Five Sets, by Laura Riding (Faber, 1970. 45p; New York, W. W. Norton, 1973).
[iii] The World and Ourselves, by Laura Riding (Chatto & Windus, 1938; reproduction with new preface, University Microfilms, 1969 [preface, ‘For Later Readers’ reproduced in The Person I Am Volume Two, Nottingham: Trent Editions 2011].
[iv] Faber Book of Modern Verse (3rd ed. 1965). Michael Roberts’ original selection of nine poems by Laura Riding has been reduced to eight and, now, six poems by his successors as editor of the Faber Book.
[v] She has also made two trenchant contributions—Chelsea 16 (1965) and 30/31 (1972)—on men-women relationship in present-day life, a theme which happens to be fashionable but which has always been a leading one in her thought.
[vi] Quotations marked (T) are from ‘The Telling’ itself, the ‘core-part’; those not so identified are from the supplementary pages of the book.
[vii] Contemporary Poets of the English Language (St. James Press, 1970). She has given such self-accounts from time to time since 1933: they form a valuable (though sometimes selectively over-quoted) sequence of references-back. As well as those in the annual Who's Who and International Whos Who, entries of some substance are to be found in Authors Today and Yesterday (1933) and Twentieth Century Authors (1942; Supplement . . . , 1955) (N.Y.: H. W. Wilson Co.).
[viii] Chelsea 12 (1962), p. 5.
[ix] Selected Poems: In Five Sets, preface p. 17.
[x] Chelsea 12 (1962), p. 3.
[xi] Chelsea 12 (1962), p. 4.
[xii] Selected Poems: In Five Sets, preface p. 13.
[xiii] Epilogue III (1937), p. 108.
[xiv]  A revised version of Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (originally Paris: Hours Press, 1930) was broadcast in two successive readings on the B.B.C. Third Programme in 1963 [the book was republished by Persea Press, New York, 1993].
[xv] Epilogue III (1937), p. 127 [reprinted in Essays From ‘Epilogue’ 1935—1937 (Manchester: Carcanet 2001)].

Alan Clark: Born St. Albans (Herts.) 1932. Librarian since 1957, currently with Royal Society Library. Associated with Braziers Park Adult College, Ipsden, Oxon; has convened occasional week-end courses there, including two on the subject of this article. Quotations marked (T) are from ‘The Telling’ itself, the ‘core-part’; those not so identified are from the supplementary pages of the book.)