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bitterness toward Graves, whose work she regarded as derived from her own, appears in its full strength in the hitherto unpublished essay printed in The Word ‘Woman’ under the title “Robert Graves’s The White Goddess“: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 …
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Laura (Riding) Jackson February 3, 1994