Laura Riding was still in her thirties when she published her 477-page Collected Poems in 1938. At an age when most poets are just beginning to come into their own she had already reached maturity, and the list of her work up to that time is impressive: nine volumes of poetry, several collections of critical essays and fiction, a long novel, and the founding of a small publishing house, the Seizin Press. As early as 1924, soon after her graduation from Cornell, The Fugitive had called her “the discovery of the year, a new figure in American poetry,” and later, in Europe, during the period of her intimate and stormy relationship with Robert Graves, she became an important force of the international avant-garde.
Auden, who described her as “the only living philosophical poet,” was apparently so influenced by her poems as a young man that Graves felt obliged to write him a letter reprimanding him for his blatant Laura Riding imitations, and the method of close textual criticism she developed in A Survey of Modernist Poetry (written in collaboration with Graves) directly inspired Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Then, after 1938, nothing. No more poems, no more stories, no more essays. As time went on, Laura Riding’s name was almost totally forgotten, and to a new generation of poets and writers it was as if she had never existed.
She was not heard from again until 1962, when she agreed to give a reading of some of her poems for a BBC broadcast and to deliver a few remarks about the philosophical and linguistic reasons for her break with poetry. Since then, there have been several appearances in print, and now, most recently, the publication of two books: a selection of her poems, which is prefaced by a further discussion of her attitude toward poetry, and The Telling, a prose work which she has described as a “personal evangel.” Clearly, Laura Riding is back. Although she has written no poems since 1938, her new work in The Telling is very intimately connected with her earlier writings, and in spite of her long public silence, her career is of a single piece.
Laura Riding and Laura (Riding) Jackson—the married name she now uses—are in many ways mirror images of each other. Each has attempted to realize a kind of universal truth in language—“a linguistically ordained ideal, every degree of fulfilment of which is a degree of express fulfilment of the hope comprehended in being, in its comprehending us within it, as human”—and if this ambition seems to be grandiose and remote, it has nevertheless been constant. The only thing that has changed is the method. Up to 1938, Laura Riding was convinced that poetry was the best way to achieve this goal. Since then, she has revised her opinion, and has not only given up poetry, but now sees it as one of the prime obstacles on this path toward linguistic truth.*
When we turn to her own poetry,…
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