Laura Riding

by Laura Reichenthal

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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 refused to provide paraphrases, stating that the words meant literally what they said, and one needed merely to read them slowly or repetitively. In this, she echoed her contemporary Gertrude Stein, who claimed “a rose is a rose is a rose.”

Although Riding has often been compared to Stein, the better comparison is to an earlier American poetess, Emily Dickinson, especially in her thematic preoccupation with death, particularly suicide, and in her stylistic terseness and economy. However, Riding writes as a sexually liberated woman, although not as a feminist in the usual sense. In fact, she resisted most of the claims of contemporary feminism. She is very much a poetess rather than a woman poet, seeking to find the truth of gender distinctiveness. In life, most of her male friends and her lovers saw her as near-infallible. Such feelings of infallibility in her pronouncements and tone tend to distance modern readers from her.

The Close Chaplet

The Close Chaplet was Riding’s first major collection when she was working with Graves. “As Well as Any Other” is addressed to him (“Erato”) and suggests the essence of her originality. She cannot bring herself to write on traditional or well-worn subjects (“the old, adoréd rose”). Her task is to “construe” words that “rarely may be found.” In this early poem, already her use of the word “construe” suggests her desire to fix...

(This entire section contains 927 words.)

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on exact meaning.

Another poem in the volume, “Lucrece and Nara” was probably the only poem for which she did provide a commentary. It concerns the transcendence of love and poetry’s failure to get quite to that sense of transcendence, a problem John Keats was particularly aware of in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” Love’s transcendence is to achieve unity and to banish the flow of time: This is its spirituality and its heaven. Much like Dickinson, Riding finds a certain bleakness rather than a joy in making poetry of this.

Love as Love, Death as Death

The poems in Love as Love, Death as Death dwell much more on suicide and death, somewhat anticipating the real suicide attempt Riding made the year after this volume’s publication. “The Wind Suffers,” written almost as a riddle, is a good example of this theme; however, “The Rugged Black of Anger” is probably the best known of the poems in this collection. The concept of “smile-borders” is central in the drama of sexual conflict and the precise tracing of its symbolic geography. Sexual conflict or difference is implicit or explicit in many of the poems, such as “Rhythms of Love,” which in its way can be likened to Donne’s famous “The Extasie.” Donne’s passion matches Riding’s sense of loss and distance. Paradoxes, contraries, negatives, and abstracts are given concrete force in both poems.

“The Tiger” is another poem that echoes a famous older poem, this time William Blake’s, but Riding’s tiger “is not burning bright.” Her poem is a very womanish poem, as opposed to Blake’s masculine one. The poet is definitely poetess. “Beware, that I am tame,” she writes. She refuses to become the token female among male poets but nevertheless finds enclosure and constraint, even though “the tiger roars.” A later poem, “Rejoice Liars,” contains the same frustration and sense of defeat.


(Riding), Laura Jackson