Laura Riding
Laura Riding; drawing by David Levine

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bitterness toward Graves, whose work she regarded as derived from her own, appears in its full strength in the hitherto unpublished essay printed in The Word ‘Woman’ under the title “Robert Graves’s The White Goddess“: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”:

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[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.

2.

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

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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.

Though Riding’s judgments are not always to be trusted, the details of this account ring with a ghastly accuracy.

A year after graduating from Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, Laura Reichenthal went off to Cornell on a scholarship. There she met and married, at nineteen, Louis Gottschalk, a graduate student in history, who subsequently taught, during their marriage, at the University of Illinois and the University of Louisville, where Riding met some of the Fugitive poets, notably Allen Tate. By 1923, Laura, who had changed her birth name from Reichenthal to Riding, was seeing her poems accepted by editors under the name Laura Riding Gottschalk. In 1925, she and Gottschalk were divorced, and she subsequently published under the name Laura Riding until she married Schuyler Jackson and began to sign herself Laura (Riding) Jackson.

Discarding “Reichenthal” in favor of “Riding” might, in someone else, seem motivated by internalized anti-Semitism or a desire for social anonymity; but I think it sprang, in Riding’s case, from a passion to reject the historically specific in favor of an abstract universal. No one ever believed more passionately in the universal than Laura Riding. She had no apparent stake in being American, or Jewish, or “modern” in the planes-and-pylons fashion. She was convinced that all mankind was destined to a single quest, the progressive search for “truth”—and her father’s socialism was transmogrified by his daughter into a different ideology, a metaphysical and finally theological one, defining the goal toward which the human race was tending, and toward which language had to be compelled as well.

Riding’s savage desire for “truth” may have arisen from a hatred of bourgeois cover-ups inherited from her father; (as we will see she identified the “true” with maleness, the “fair”—the aesthetic—with femaleness). People, she wrote in an early poem called “Evasions,”

go
To hide in houses, fearing edges and
Sharp turnings that might bring them face to face
With unexpected honesties….

because they go so nervously
And do not stop for scrutiny, shall we
Call caution furtiveness or rather say
That shunning candor, they find sanity.

She resolved, for herself, not to shun candor; yet when she found herself feeling unconnected with her first husband, she was unable to tell him so. Her shameful secret with respect to others was, she wrote, that she did not love them back. She was “Beloved of many, yet loving none herself”:

nor yet could she discover what
The coin might be that. would negotiate
The importuning claims of those who loved
Her.

The youthful Riding was perplexed, it is clear, by her own erotic impulses. In all her relations with men, she was the dominating presence, keeping Robert Graves in virtual servitude to her personality for fourteen years; yet this domination was achieved by force of will rather than by sexual seduction. She ceased to have intercourse with Graves after the first two or three years, announcing that she had gone “beyond the body.” Her late poems to Schuyler Jackson suggest that she and he too, after an initial marital period which included intercourse, had forsworn the flesh:

We are happy.
These engagements of the mind,
Unproductive of the impulse to kiss,
Ring to the heart like love essen- tial,
Safe from theatric curiosity
Which once directed our desires
To an end of gaudy shame and flourish.

Riding’s intense need to dominate was accompanied in her youth by a desire for sado-masochistic pain. She feared, in “Waste,” missing the ultimate in torture, achieving “pain but partial” instead of “the destined rack…the full infliction.” Somehow she had intuited this desire from “the self-ecstatic flesh”:

Cruel then too exquisite to be cruel,
The bright wheel of the body’s breaking
Whirls and attunes
The self-ecstatic flesh
To other torture.

These are startling confessions from a girl in her twenties. And the mingled fascination and shame she felt at her own desires are the first sign of a puritanism in her that at first attached itself to sex and reproduction but then extended itself into all material experience—most notably any pleasure in the experience of language, which she would eventually condemn as the locus of the “craft” of poetry.

Riding seems, understandably enough in view of her mother’s inadequacy, never to have wanted children. Richard Perceval Graves reports the rumor that she had an abortion during an early affair with Allen Tate, and the poem “To an Unborn Child” (1924) may be linked to this event:

Once you were only the fragrance of a thought,
Now you will be a word forgotten in Babel….

The child is urged to refuse to wake into life:

For life is drear fulfillment
Of an immortality of dreams.
Childhood is a humility.
Manhood is a regret,
And death is a repentance for hav- ing ever lived.

Riding’s fear of sexuality and reproduction seems to have worked itself into dissatisfaction with her sexual partners. A cruel fantasy called “Last Women” shows a group of women who have apparently murdered their men (or, it could be argued, discover their men murdered); they then proclaim, in a delirium of denial, the end of childbearing. These female “warriors against tomorrow” celebrate the end of procreation;

Silent, whatever babes lie longing in the seed.
Choked in the stopped throat,
The will of ages
Doomed in our contradictory denial

Of all the dear, terrible, womanly things in us
To ages of death.

The poem rises to a Dionysiac rant:

Now, delight the end with indif- ference!
Sister us with the childless skies
And show our breasts
That will never spill for a child
Merrily from the broad hills with mother-pride
And wickedly at night to the star- nippled skies,
Daft with a new joy to be fair and futile
In the dusk of living that lasted long enough.

Now, gather as many flowers as women may
Who leave no children to gather the rest of them,
And heap them wastefully on our murdered men.

Riding’s apparent decision for childlessness (visible in the early poem “Mater Invita”—“Unwilling Mother”—which begins “Take him away,/This child I bore to-day”) was coupled with a baffled criticism of the inability of men to be sufficiently indomitable (or, perhaps, sadistic). In the poem “Fallacies” (1924), Riding sketches four lovers in succession: the first made the mistake of falling in love with her in earnest and consequently lost his only attraction for her, his “sophisticated little” smile. She “waved him then a frivolous farewell,” announcing “I’m going riding, Sir!” The pun cannot be an innocent one; to “go Riding” is to take the self as Lover. The second man “she likened to a dragon fly, / He came to poise on her so nervously”; “she laughed / At him unfeelingly and cried: ‘Poor thing…/ How can you woo me when you have no sting?” The third lover is a circus bear who makes the mistake of tamely dancing to her tune; he soon sees that “She loved an untaught tiger better than / His tutored skill.” The fourth lover is literary, and brings her citations from the poets: as soon as he falls silent, however, she dismisses him angrily, “saying / She would not let herself be denuded / By anybody’s taciturnity.”

These fables of male insufficiency—all written before Riding met Graves—show how quickly, at least in fantasy, she dismissed men once she had earned their love or drawn their sting or tamed them. Small wonder that she began to think, in an early poem called “Can Lips be Laid Aside?” of putting the body off, “unfleshing the face”:

Put the whole body by.
Uncaress it stonily.
It renounces the impossible love,
The hardy dedication,
For a shape of no embracing.

By laying aside the body we may come, says the young Riding, to “the splendor unperceivable, / The entire unappearing.” Her theological language here recalls Milton’s “unexpressive nuptial song” and other comparable theological phrasings of the ineffable. And now it is only a step, for the young Riding, to perceive herself, able to do without the body, as the real Messiah:

If a woman should be Messiah
It might not be an impressive drama,

It would be but a slight event and unsignaled,
It could not but be beautiful.

According to Richard Perceval Graves, Riding revealed to her admirers that “she was more than human”:

They could think of her, if they liked, as a goddess: she was certainly a figure of destiny, or (as she herself preferred to say) she embodied “Finality.”

In saying that she embodied “Finality,” Riding was translating the myth of the destined Messiah into secular, but no less eschatological, terms. (Another of her names for herself was “Druida.”) Her conviction that she and other “inside people” had a duty to lead the world in new directions generated her pre-war “Letter on International Affairs,” published in The World and Ourselves (1938). Riding’s “inside people” were women and artists:

Let us first consider who “we” are—we, the “inside” people. First of all we are the women. Women are those of us who are most characteristically, most natively, “inside” people…with us, on the inside of things, we have had the poets and the painters and all those men who have been able to treat the outer mechanism of life as subsidiary to its inner realities—who have discovered the inside importances.

These utopian injunctions, present even in the earliest poems, lasted during Riding’s later active life with Graves; but with her marriage to Schuyler Jackson, they modulated into a philosophical tenor rather than a political one. She was more than a little monomaniacal in her later life, and while continuing (in The Telling) her theological Utopian planning, she also spent a great deal of time writing tenacious and extensive letters to anyone who, in her view, had misrepresented some aspect, no matter how minute, of her life or writing. It is not surprising, finally, that the conflicts—of desire, art, and belief—pervading the early poems led to Riding’s final position, in which, having renounced sexuality, reproduction, and rhythmic language, she declared she would never write poetry again.

Still, other poets have felt comparable conflicts of flesh and mind, and have found ways to resolve their spiritual aspirations and their sense of poetry and its possibilities. Marina Tsvetaeva, to take a signal instance, repeatedly enunciates a conflict between the spiritual aim of poetry and its expression in words—but she solves it by a rapprochement of the spiritual and the earthly:

In relation to the spiritual world: art is a kind of physical world of the spiritual.

In relation to the physical world: art is a kind of spiritual world of the physical.

Starting from the earth, it is the first millimetre of air over it (of sky, that is, for the sky begins right from the earth)….

Starting from the top of the sky, it is that same first millimetre above the earth, but the last when seen from the top; that is, it is almost earth from there….

Where you look from.

In the same way, the soul, which the common man supposes to be the peak of spirituality, is for the spiritual man—almost flesh…. The whole event of poetry…takes place entirely within the soul, that first, lowest sky of the spirit.2

It was not, I think, “spirituality” alone—or even sexual puritanism alone—that made poetry impossible for Laura Riding. Perhaps it was her distrust of (to use the old term) graven images. In her peculiar idea of “truth” there was no place for images or metaphors. And this is where we arrive at the central difference between the poetry collected in First Awakenings from between 1920 and 1925 and the sort of poetry that dominates Riding’s later Collected Poems of 1938. The mature poetry Riding wrote in her late twenties through her mid-thirties is bound to an inflexibly impoverished lexicon, and an even more impoverished imagination. Though she hoped in the early poem “The Contraband” that she could, though “preoccupied with paradox,” “Smuggle a little forbidden beauty into the pale of being,” she soon found that sort of smuggling an unworthy game, as her horror of flesh soon precluded any inherent beauty.

Here is, in its entirety, a statement from the Poems on her henceforth ascetic position: it is called “Grace”:

This posture and this manner suit
Not that I have an ease in them
But that I have a horror
And so stand well upright—
Lest, should I sit, and flesh- conversing, eat,
I choke upon a piece of my own tongue-meat.3

There are unpleasant sadistic and autoerotic overtones in this epigram, as in another epigram of personal identity, called simply “Mortal,” in which Riding shows herself fatally divided between the “male” ethics of sowing truth and the “female” aesthetics of reaping “fair” poems:

There is a man of me that sows.
There is a woman of me that reaps.
One for good,
And one for fair,
And they cannot find me any- where.

Father and Mother, shadowy an- cestry,
Can you make no more than this of me?

Both of these epigrams are, in their way, striking and truthful, and they represent the sort of poems Riding felt able to write as a mature poet. However, they both fatally lack a sense of rhythm; they go off the rails rhythmically, the first in its closing line, the second in its closing couplet. The second shies away from any illustrative originality, while the first can invent only a blasphemous, incoherent, and repellent image. Laura Riding so mistrusted imagery that she could employ it only in cliché (where it was unobtrusive) or in disparagement (where it manifested itself as a grotesque intrusion, condemning itself by its own presence).

Riding’s spare style works best in ritual, where her fundamentally uncertain sense of rhythm is governed (as in the Graves-period poem “Benedictory”) by liturgical stages of meaning:

I have done all, you have done all,
That I, that you, that you, that we,
As I was, you were, we were,
Could have done as doing was….

We have all sinned, been wrapped apart.
I went your way of doing, saying,
You went your way of doing, say- ing,
We have all sinned, pretended….

We have been in hell,
A blessing on us—we have been in hell.
We have made hell.
A blessing on us—we have proved hell.

There are fifty-four stanzas of this; and though each stanza is carefully composed, one feels, by the end, that the pared-down style is not worth the sacrifice necessary to arrive at it.

To the extent that poetry is a decorative art, Riding abhorred it. She apparently thought at first that she could achieve something like a Shaker asceticism in verse. But she made, eventually, a fatal cleavage between poesis, and the made poem. Poesis, she claimed, was a sacred search for the next cultural state of mankind—a true enough definition, after all, if one omits the sacredness—but for her (and here her pretentions are hard to take), poesis is debased by its descent into materia poetica, which demands concision, analogy, and music. The truth will not stoop to such curtailings, embellishments, and sensuousness—or so Riding believed. Nor in Riding’s view, can the poet “stoop to truth, and moralize his song” (to adapt words of Pope which place truth lower than art).

In some respects, Riding’s perplexities resemble those of earlier religious poets, notably that very George Herbert whom she mocked. “Is there in truth no beautie?” Herbert sternly asked in “Jordan (I),” disparaging, like Plato, material being as lower than ideal form:

May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

Herbert pursued this Platonic question in many poems, distinguishing finally between embellishments prompted by the poet’s vanity in his craft and those prompted by the blameless desire for accuracy in description. In “Jordan (II)” he criticized his youthful self for “Decking the sense, as if it were to sell,” recalling how “As flames do work and winde when they ascend,/So did I weave myselfe into the sense.” That, he thought, was wrong. But there was nothing sinful, for Herbert, in language itself—“Lovely enchanting language, sugar cane, honey of roses” (“The Forerunners”). The “sparkling notions” in his head were irreproachable so long as they were bent to God’s service rather than vain display.

A solution like this, or like Tsvetaeva’s, seems not to have occurred to Riding. Her horror of ornament, imagery, and music, whether it came from a Jewish district of graven images, a sexual puritanism, or a truth-fixated messiahdom, was ineradicable. As she went on composing in a tighter and tighter verbal straitjacket, the mendacity of verse seemed to her greater and greater. In the prose-poem “Poet: a Lying Word,” she wrote:

Does it seem I ring, I sing, I rhyme,
I poet-wit? Shame on me then!…

It is your lie of flesh and my flesh-
seeming stand of words….This
poet verses “Poet: a lying word!”

One can of course give a feminist twist to all this, and see the lying word as the word still “patriarchal,” with a better word, a woman-word, yet to come. In her Messiah-fantasies, Riding herself inclined to this rationalization. One of the last poems she wrote is called “In the Beginning”: it envisages (in a rather murky fable) a new, better genesis replacing the seven days of God’s creation. The seven days of patriarchy having passed, the eighth day belongs to “the daughter”:

The daughter does not need to shout to be heard.

She opens the heads of her broth- ers
And lets out the aeroplanes.
“Now,” she says, “you will be able to think better.”

But their hearts still pump wild- ness into them.

Eventually, on the ninth day, the priestly role of bard falls to the daughter, who retells the events of the previous eight days. After the ninth day, there will be no tenth day, but rather a new first day, the day of female creation:

And so the ninth day sets,
Not seriate with an elder tenth
But usher to a younger first
Unpentateuchal genesis.

This crabbed diction hardly recommends itself as the enacting form of a radiant new beginning. Riding wanted to be the visionary of a new Pentateuch, but she never found, for this prophetic Hebraic ambition, a language musically, rhythmically, or lexically adequate to rival the old. Bored with being an intellectual, frightened of the flesh, longing to be a prophet, Riding spurned—or perhaps never knew—the explorations of the five senses as they find Tsvetaeva’s meeting-place of earth and sky. Nor could she find the personal modesty and self-effacement of Herbert, with his eye detached from his poetic vanity and fixed accurately on its object.

Discoveries of that sort, or others like them, might have made Riding’s verse breathe, enlarging it beyond the sterilities of logical paradox into an ampler perception and a less egotistic, more self-questioning passion. But the blind verbal alley and the total humorlessness into which she was driven by her delusions of grandeur and her narrow conception of philosophical truth made poetry forsake her. That she needed to describe this event as a voluntary renunciation of poetry on her part is perhaps an index of her sorrow at its occurrence.

Riding’s prose became increasingly the work of her life. And its preciosity—evident even in her “unposted letters” to Robert Graves’s eight-year-old daughter Catherine—consisted in rephrasing familiar philosophical matters in her own “cleansed” language, which she had learned from Gertrude Stein (to whom Unposted Letters is dedicated). Here, for instance, is a passage to Catherine on “book-learning,” as it might be called to distinguish it from other forms of learning:

Always remember that learning is a bridge between doing and thinking, that it is nothing in itself and that it has no meaning, that is, no value, either as doing or thinking.

Learning is a doing that does nothing, or a thinking that thinks nothing, whichever way you like to put it. It is not being alive and it is not being yourself. It is between the two. And so it is good because it makes it clear that there are the two different things doing and thinking. And so it can also be bad because it can be wrongly understood as a mixture of doing and thinking and wrongly considered better than either doing or thinking by itself, and so wrongly urged upon people as the best possible thing that they can occupy themselves with—when the truth is that learning is nothing at all.

A little of this goes a long way, especially since it has none of Stein’s humor. What an eight-year-old could make of it is baffling. Riding’s chilling postscript, written some thirty years after the letters, says, “The child to whom I addressed them has dissolved into A Person Unknown.” How real was the child to her in the first place, one wonders. The sense of Riding that Baker’s informative biography finally conveys is not a pleasant one; it suggests that Riding’s lifelong obsession with her own putative greatness finally corrupted her relations with others in deeply disturbing ways.

Historians of feminism will be interested by Riding’s peculiar version of feminism in The Word ‘Woman.’ It is sponsored by a hatred of women’s admiration of male writers (a back-formation, no doubt, from her own first such admirations):

There is a sick, trance-like intensity on the face of the woman standing in wrapt [sic] self-belittlement before the great male author (who has become great by recording with fervent conviction that man is great—woman being generously included in man) that no male admirer could quite match: the male admirer would not feel how great the great male author was, but how great “we” were.

Virginia Woolf comes under this criticism: she is “too loyal a man” to tell men the whole truth about society. Even those who may share Riding’s view of the future—that women, always superior to men, are to lead men into a grand unity in which women’s difference from men will be respected and men will learn to revere women’s authority—will not find her feminism one that offers believable models for human action. Riding’s ideals are conveyed through a potted history of women’s “historical work” (of wife-hood and motherhood) and of its reflection through literary history, contrasted with the Utopia to come. Her reflections are larded with dubious anthropological propositions, of which the ones on the Jews are of interest as displaced autobiography:

The Jews have always disciplined themselves against the emotional excesses of romantic love…. Chiefly, the Jews were aware that women represented a difference—an unchangeable difference, not to be attacked…. They accepted what women did, but did not prescribe what they should do…. Woman had a peculiar differentness and nobility and remained a being apart among them, preserving all her differentness and nobility. And in spite of the intense preoccupation of the Jews with sons, daughters have a peculiar preciousness which sons do not have: sons have a ritualistic importance, but it is the daughters who are sentimentally esteemed.

Riding’s psychology is not much more acceptable than her anthropology:

The first article in homosexual aesthetics is the ugliness of the extravagant female body as compared with the spare male body…. Homosexuality, indeed, springs from a fear of female preponderance.

Never afraid of blunt assertion in the service of her own gospel, Riding declares that women are

cosmically orientated beings reduced by the state of men-women relations to a negative spiritual importance. The dualistic, masculine version of human nature to which society is fitted in its functioning and objectives cripples and stultifies them, as a standard of personality that does not refer to them personally.

Although she adds that “it is from dualism…that human nature needs saving,” she never explains what system of thought could erase the old Platonic and Aristotelian dualities of matter and spirit which form the basis of Western thought, or, if there were such a system, how and why anyone might come to adopt it. Riding’s philosophic ambitions were never formulated with any clarity; they depend on a vague messianism that seems, in her lifetime, to have created the cult that made various other people, for a while, virtually her disciples. Her feminism now seems of a mystical order, springing from a consummate narcissism. Though a few anthology pieces will survive, the status of her poetry is dubious. But none of this will stem the flood of Riding materials that will undoubtedly be exhumed and printed during the next decade.

This Issue

November 18, 1993

  1. 1

    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.” 

  2. 2

    Marina Tsvetaeva, Art in the Light of Conscience, translated by Angela Livingstone (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 167. 

  3. 3

    Riding is here deliberately “blaspheming against” Herbert’s “Love (III).”