In Extremis – Reviews

Charlottesville This Week
Laura Riding made large claims for poets and poetry
Greg Foster / August 19 1993

In 1914 the Russian symbolist Fyodor Sologub published a massive novel called The Created Legend. In it, a poet named Trirodov woos the far-off Queen Ortruda of Mallorca. One dazzling adventure follows another in this cryptic book, a blend of sensual fantasy and harsh realism.

Queen Ortruda kept coming into my mind as I read about Laura Riding in her tiara, jewels, and gowns, holding court on that very island. Queen Ortruda and Trirodov prefigure Laura and Robert Graves, right down to the catastrophe at the end. Graves might have enjoyed being part of another poet’s vision, but Riding would have hated it.

Deborah Baker’s biography brings into focus an interesting American poet who has been unjustly ignored. Riding may also be said to have suppressed herself.

From her earliest days as a poet, Laura Riding insisted on being heard on her own terms. She shed her skin and changed her name often in her long life, and all of these transformations are thoroughly explored by Baker.

Riding made large claims for poets and poetry at a time when many of her colleagues were either withdrawing or enlisting in other causes. She was as rigorous in language and thought as any scientist. She helped to invent a method of close textual criticism which is still in use today (although her followers, like William Empson, seldom give her any credit),

Finally, she exerted a strong poetic influence on others, both those in her personal circle and a wider group who read her work. For too long she has been discussed in terms of her impact on these writers, of whom Robert Graves is by far the most prominent. The stories told about her in numerous biographies and memoirs are all more or less scandalous.

Was she a polymorphous seductress? A priestess? A great mind? The embodiment of Woman? A goddess? A psychopath? Baker puts these stories into perspective. She shifts her attention from Riding’s life to her poems and back again.

In the end, it is the poems that count, and they are dense, opaque, taut structures. Baker opens them up for us, using the poet’s life as a key. I have always found the poems interesting, but not compelling: cold, glittering objects. Baker shows that there is heat, as well as light, in the best of them.

From the beginning, Riding wrote out of isolation, to find others who could understand her. She strove to make her language exact, to clarify her truth and to persuade others it was true. Then she wrote to qualify others to receive the truth, and to badger the world into accepting herself as the voice of truth. If language failed, she would use poetry to purify language. If poems failed, then she would purify the sentence; if the sentence failed, she would purify the word.

All her life, Riding struggled against the odds, and as Baker makes clear, she was seldom intimidated, and never for very long.

Born Laura Reichenthal in New York City in 1901, she was reared in a secular, culturally Jewish, working-class household. Her father was an active socialist, and she was brought up to read books and strive for an education. Baker’s description of this complex and fertile milieu — immigrant New York and pre-1914 working class socialism — is thin and cliche-ridden.

Laura, bright and always ready to seize an opportunity, made her way to college, where she married a young professor (dare one wonder who caught whom?). She was already writing, and marriage did not satisfy her. She was now Mrs. Gottschalk, wife of a promising historian. She sent her poems out, and when a reply came, she pounced on it.

The Fugitive magazine was run by a group of young. Christian, southern gentlemen who published her poems and gave her a prize. She left her husband and went to join the group — a move that profoundly flustered this flock of domesticated intellectuals.

Rebuffed but undaunted, she left the Fugitives and moved to Greenwich Village. Hart Crane proved friendly, but unprepared for serious companionship. Thus, when Robert Graves wrote to her, praising her poems and asking her to visit, she accepted. She left behind gossip and ruffled feathers. She risked a great deal, hoping for a new life and recognition of her gifts.

Her meeting with Graves was crucial. Together the two produced more work of higher quality than either had produced alone. Riding did win acclaim for her poetry and criticism, but gossip and scandal continued to dog her. British literary life was narrow, and tolerance demanded a corresponding discretion.

Riding, Graves, and Graves’ wife, Nancy Nicholson, insisted on conducting their affairs in public. Their emotional and sexual life was complicated. More and more people got involved and the temperature rose. In the spring of 1929 Laura Riding left her flat in London “by the window.” She was followed a moment later, from another window, by Robert Graves. Baker does a fine job of sorting out all the accounts of that awful leap and giving us as clear a picture as we are likely to get.

The chief result was that the event bound Graves firmly to Riding, and confirmed her in megalomania. Riding was now convinced that she was beyond death. She took to calling herself ‘Finality.” One does not, I think, achieve this point by slow degrees, but by big jumps. This kind of ego is fed by both rejection and praise. Praise heats the will, and rejection tempers it.

Riding began reasonably enough, with the idea that poetry is purified speech. It follows that the content of true poetry is truth. How does the poet know what is true, when nobody else does? (Remember, this was the epoch of Russell and Wittgenstein.) The poet makes the truth by uttering it. Since there can only be one Truth, there can only be one Poet. You can see where this leads.

Riding had discovered a powerful force in herself: she was a spellbinder. She could dominate people, a few at a time. Graves, who found a way to make a good living writing prose, provided her with a base on the island of Mallorca, and with unquestioning love. There, until 1936, they lived and worked, attracting a small but steady stream of disciples.

But she was not just a crank. She had thought her way into the heart of an impasse that has baffled some of the finest minds of our time. “The sleep of reason breeds monsters,” When unreason rules, terror is unleashed. Reason destroys irrational faith and proceeds by logic. Logic pursued to the end relentlessly destroys its own premises. Ourobouros consumes itself. Madness returns reasonably, and in deadly earnest.

Catastrophe was made manifest with the Spanish military uprising of 1936. Baker’s sketch of these events is one-dimensional. Spain in the 1920s was not a “sleepy dictatorship” free of nasty “foreign ideas.” Spain has a long and bloody history of “ideas” all its on. Just what is a “foreign idea” anyway? The Catholic novelist Georges Bemanos has written a devastating account of the fascist occupation of Mallorca in his book. The Great Cemeteries of the Moon.

Graves and Riding left Europe for the United States in 1939. Here she shed her skin once again (and Robert Graves) and became Mrs. Schuyler Jackson. She gave up poetry and settled down with her husband to make a dictionary that would establish the meaning of words “once and for all.” When this project failed (as it must have done) she wrapped herself in silence.

After her husband’s death in 1968, she slowly re-emerged, as quarrelsome and tyrannical as ever. She died in 1991. In her last years, Laura Riding fought savagely to establish her own version of the events of her life, and her own estimate of her place in the history of literature and critical philosophy. Baker’s admirable biography will surely lead more readers to Riding’s dense, quixotic poems. Perhaps the real meaning of the poems is not, as the poet thought, to solve the human dilemma but to show us a fine mind confronting death, madness, and silence. Baker persuasively suggests this.

In a way, Laura Riding’s struggle with her demons was heroic. Baker shows us that Riding struggled with suicide for more than 20 years. In the end, for her to choose silence was to choose life, and poetry brought her to the point at which she could affirm that choice.