Laura Riding’s poetry is as interesting for her purposes in writing it and the reasons for ceasing to write it as the poetry itself. In many of her prose works and introductions, especially A Survey of Modernist Poetry, she writes of the ideal purpose of poetry, which is nothing less than to convey truth itself, specifically the truth of the human condition, but as philosophically conceived in general. In this endeavor, she was dubbed the most philosophical of the modernist poets, reminiscent in her dialectic of the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, particularly John Donne. It is no coincidence that the Metaphysicals were becoming well known in the 1920’s, after centuries of obscurity.
However, this truth-telling function of poetry also takes on, in Riding’s writing, the tones of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet, critic, and theorist. Arnold claimed that poetry was the new religion and poets the new priesthood. Riding, similarly, talks in sacred and spiritual terms of poetry and its effect. For her, poetry was true spirituality.
It might seem surprising, therefore, to learn why she ceased writing poetry. She did not fully explain her reasons until some thirty years later, in the prefaces to her Selected Poems published in 1970 and the 1980 version of Collected Poems. Until then, she merely refused to have any poem anthologized unless it carried a statement that she had now ceased to write poetry. The renunciation goes back to her aims for poetry, which she ultimately found impossible to fulfill. Many poets quietly settle for second best when their earlier idealism cannot deliver all they want. It is a mark of Riding’s radical honesty and high seriousness that she refused to settle for such a compromise. She found the demands of shaping poetry to read as an art form undermined attempts to make the words say exactly what she wanted them to say. Even though she pared down imagery, it still was not enough.
Many of her readers complained that her poems were difficult to understand. Riding faced these charges on a number of occasions, basically contending that if the readers were reading poetry with the right motives, then the meaning would unveil itself. Apart from one poem, she steadily...
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