The Word ‘Woman’ and Other Related Writings
In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding
The reputation of the American poet Laura Riding (1901–1991), hitherto known chiefly as the British writer Robert Graves’s companion and “Muse” in England and on Mallorca, has profited from the feminist search for what are unhappily being called (after Virginia Woolf) “foremothers.” (The archaism of the word, not to speak of the unmaternal character of most of the women themselves, does not recommend it.) One biography of Riding, whose life had been known chiefly through biographies of Graves, has been issued, and another is in preparation. Even minor bits of Riding’s ephemera, like the 1930 Four Unposted Letters to Catherine, are being reissued, together with more substantial collections, such as The Word ‘Woman’ and Other Related Writings, of which the title essay setting forth Riding’s idiosyncratic version of feminism was written between 1933 and 1935. Dominating these peripheral offshoots of what is fast becoming a Riding industry is the reissue of Riding’s poems, both the ones published in her lifetime and the recently discovered early poems.
Riding’s original ménage à trois with Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson ended with Riding winning Graves in 1929 by jumping out of a fourth-floor window and nearly killing herself. The Graves-Riding alliance, which evolved into a sexless but alarmingly intense household on Mallorca, eventually dissolved when, in 1939, Riding fell in love with Schuyler Jackson, a “gentleman farmer” who had a nominal job as reviewer of poetry for Time magazine. They married in 1941, and eventually settled in Florida, where Jackson died in 1968; Riding died at ninety in 1991. Her extreme bitterness toward Graves, whose work she regarded as derived from her own, appears in its full strength in the hitherto unpublished essay printed in The Word ‘Woman’ under the title “Robert Graves’s The White Goddess“:
After I terminated the association that had existed between Robert Graves and myself, he released himself first into a rampant desperation, of one interrupted in a secure status as a literary modern of enviously sophisticated authority, the rôle, in verity, a sinecure, by virtue of its dependence on the grace of what I had given him, and allowed him to take, of my values, knowledges, laborings towards basic definitions of the nature of the human experience, and of human existence itself. After the rampant desperation came a rampant self-expenditure in new freedom felt to make use of my thought, my work, my poetic work and varied general writing, without restraint of fear of challenge by myself or detection of reproach by others….
The White Goddess is but one of the many post-1939 exploits of Robert Graves in conversion of the Riding general opus into Graves raw material.
This relatively sober piece of accusation soon dissolves into the following:
It would not be enough to say of The White Goddess that it is a spectacular show of poet-piety, earnest in its hypocrisy, a profession of poetic faith enacted with pseudonaive mind-immersing in glittering expanses of shallow poetic theorizing, into which is poured a foamy grandiose effusion of nothingish spiritualistics affecting learnedness…. The White Goddess is worse than this. It is a personal infliction, an act of revenge committed with the kind of gruesome emission of sounds of triumph that large hawks, scouting over an area, loose on high, even before they have made their kill.
It will be seen from these excerpts that Riding lacks charm. The very charm with which Graves invested ideas—some of which were probably hers—infuriated her as a corruption of the naked “truth” of those ideas. She became obsessed with her own didactic definitions of words and suspicious of wider connotations. She was distrustful of concepts and yet addicted to them, certain that she was a writer but, after a certain point, incapable of continuing to be a poet.
Because it is hard to resist an autobiographical story told by a commanding personality, readers have on the whole credited Riding’s account of how she “renounced” poetry, though Paul Auster, reviewing Riding’s Selected Poems in these pages in 1975, suggested rather obliquely that she had “reached her own limit in poetry.” This was perhaps a polite way of saying, while Riding was still alive, what I can now, after her death, put more directly—that poetry had renounced her. It seems likely to me that if Riding survives, it will be as a storyteller (Progress of Stories, A Trojan Ending) rather than as the lyric poet she wanted to be.
What went wrong? Her own explanation—many times reiterated, if in varying words—was that it was poetry that was at fault. Poetry was bound to betray (by its “craft,” by which Riding meant a need for imagery, rhythm, and linked sounds) a higher order of “truth” (never clearly defined, but approaching propositional philosophical theology, if of a distinctly unorthodox sort). I give a late statement of her position from the preface to her Selected Poems of 1970, a reprint of her 1938 collection: she was; she says, “for long a devout advocate of poetry, and then devoutly renounced allegiance to it as a profession and faith in it as an institution”:
[I became] aware of a discrepancy, deep-reaching, between what I call the creed and the craft of poetry—which I might otherwise describe as its religious and ritualistic aspects…. What compatibility can there be between the creed offering hope of a way of speaking beyond the ordinary, touching perfection, a complex perfection associable with nothing less complex than truth, and the craft tying the hope to verbal rituals that court sensuosity as if it were the judge of truth?
Riding reached “the crisis-point at which division between creed and craft reveals itself to be absolute….” She claimed in 1970 that “no poet before me has gone to the very breaking-point.” She found it impossible, she continued, to keep “a moral proportion between poetic craft and the sacred poetic motive.”
Riding did not hesitate in 1970 to use the word “religious,” or to speak of “the sacred poetic motive”; she opposed her priestly sense of poetry to what she saw around her in the literary scene, poems “suffused with a light of drab poetic secularity.” This theological vocabulary of 1970 did not, however, appear in the original preface to her Collected Poems in 1938. There, her language was ethical rather than religious; nonetheless, the message sounded the same. Something was fatally wrong with the mode of writing we call “poetry,” and a poet of high motives could no longer stoop to its “corruption”:
The history of poem-writing and poem-reading is in large part a history of such corruption. In poem-writing and poem-reading the stirring up of the poetic faculties has been a greater preoccupation than their proper use; the excitement of feeling oneself in a poetic mood has come to be regarded as adequate fulfillment both for the reader and the poet.
What are the ethical and religious scruples lying behind such a view? How did Laura Riding come to them? What effect did they have on her writing? How seriously can we take her poetry now?
These questions are raised in a new and acute form by the unexpected publication of Riding’s early poems, long thought lost. As the Persea Books news release tells it,
In 1979, a cache of more than two hundred poems was discovered. All were written between 1920 and 1925…. In the months before her death in 1991…. Laura (Riding) Jackson prepared these poems for publication.
The poems are of course juvenilia; Riding was a Cornell undergraduate and a young wife while she was writing them. Nevertheless, juvenilia betray a great deal, and these are worth a look, if only for the light they can shed on the origins of an eccentric American writer.
Though Laura Riding—who believed herself engaged in a quest for universal truth—deplored attempts to connect her poetry with her personal life, critics and biographers have been unable to resist the temptation to look behind her sibylline mask. The authorized biography, being written by Elizabeth Friedmann, will probably uncover more correspondences between Riding’s impersonally phrased poems and their biographical occasions than have yet been revealed, but for the time being readers will have to content themselves with Deborah Baker’s ably written but partial biography. The outlines of Riding’s youth are still very sketchy; her mature life is better known.
Laura Riding was born Laura Reichenthal. Her father, Nathan Reichenthal, was a Jewish immigrant from Galicia, who worked for sixteen years in the sweatshops of Manhattan’s West Side. After he lost his last sweatshop job, he tried various business ventures, always unsuccessfully, and he pursued socialist causes. His first wife, a Hungarian woman named Laura Lorber, died leaving him with a daughter, Isabel (who eventually married an editor at Grosset and Dunlap, where she worked). Four years after his first wife’s death, Nathan married Sadie Edersheim, born in New York City of German Jewish immigrant parents. At the age of twenty-five, Sadie had already been working in sweatshops for fourteen years. According to Baker’s biography,
Sadie spent two hours a day walking from her family’s apartment on the Upper East Side to be at work by 4:00 AM, the start of the day’s shift. By the time she met Nathan she was the sole means of support for her family of seven, and she was going blind from the years of close work. She was twenty-five and he was a widower with a four-year-old child to raise. It was a short courtship.
This marriage produced Laura (born in 1901 and named after Nathan’s first wife) and a brother, Robert, born eight years later, “an infant prodigy until the age of fourteen when he became schizophrenic.”1
Riding’s parents must have been in her mind when she wrote her early sonnet-like poem “Jews”:
Hapless and unmysterious they thrive
Like flowers by themselves torn out of earth,
Martyrs and stubborn miracles alive
Upon the spiteful victory of pain.
Riding was not at all an observant Jew, but she was conscious of her Jewishness, and it has consequences in her poetry. Baker’s last word on Riding’s mother is that she was, in Riding’s view, “a pathological liar on whom every kindness was wasted.” But the best insight into the atmosphere of the tenement in which Riding grew up can be found in her own “Letter of Abdication” from Anarchism Is Not Enough, quoted by Baker:
My mother imagined that she suffered from bad eyesight; and to make it worse she wore a stocking round her eyes whenever possible: at home, a white stocking; abroad, a black stocking; and occasionally, to depress circumstances completely, a grey sock of my father’s, fastened at the back of her head with a safety-pin. From which, our house was full of small oval rugs made by my mother out of the mates of the stockings which she wore round her eyes and which she was always losing. And these rugs made by my mother were not well made, because she imagined that she suffered from bad eyesight. From which my mother, whose character was all dreariness, acquired in my mind a hateful oddness. From which, I resolved to outdo her in oddness, so that I not only imagined that I suffered from good eyesight: I did actually suffer from it.
Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves: The Years with Laura Riding (Viking, 1990), Chapter II. Baker simply says that "Riding told a close friend in the 1930s that her brother had attempted suicide while an adolescent; he was at one time institutionalized." She adds in her final chapter that "Bobby" "still lives as a recluse somewhere in Los Angeles."↩
Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves: The Years with Laura Riding (Viking, 1990), Chapter II. Baker simply says that “Riding told a close friend in the 1930s that her brother had attempted suicide while an adolescent; he was at one time institutionalized.” She adds in her final chapter that “Bobby” “still lives as a recluse somewhere in Los Angeles.”↩