Laura Riding

by Laura Reichenthal

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Laura Riding is known primarily as a modernist poet, with her reputation being established in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Her work with Robert Graves on modernism, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), was a significant statement on the theory of modernist poetry, influenced such critics as William Empson, and raised important questions for postmodernism. Other important theoretical statements were Anarchism Is Not Enough and Contemporaries and Snobs, both published in 1928.

In the 1930’s, Riding turned increasingly to fiction writing, producing A Trojan Ending (1937, 1984). After she renounced poetry in 1939, she wrote little, but worked on a mammoth project with Schuyler Jackson on the nature of meaning and language. This was published posthumously in 1997 as Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, and Supplementary Essays (edited by William Harmon) and was followed by The Failure of Poetry, the Promise of Language in 2007 (edited by John Nolan).


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In her own lifetime, Laura Riding established herself as a modernist poet within literary circles, although she entered into an uneasy alliance with modernism and, increasingly, an uneasy alliance with poetry itself. She was as well known for her association with Robert Graves and for her eccentric lifestyle. After 1939, she disappeared from public view. In the 1970’s, critics and scholars began to reexamine her writing, both prose and poetry, and she began to be regarded more highly as a writer. Her only public awards were a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1979, both for her to continue her theoretical studies on the meaning of words, and the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1991.


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Adams, Barbara. The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research, 1990. Includes a foreword by Hugh Kenner. Critiques and interprets Riding’s poetry. Addresses her use of “self” in literature and the psychological aspects of her poetry. Bibliography and index.

Baker, Deborah. In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding. New York: Grove, 1993. The well-researched definitive biography of Riding. Baker does a good job of revealing the character of an obtuse author who was difficult to understand, kept reinventing herself, and was estranged from her colleagues. Bibliography and index.

Friedmann, Elizabeth. A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson. New York: Persea Books, 2005. Friedmann worked closely with Riding and had access to all of Riding’s papers while crafting this authorized biography.

Graves, Richard. Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940. New York: Viking, 1990. This is the second volume of the young life of Robert Graves as told by his nephew, who had access to family documents. Covers in detail Graves’s years with Riding.

Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. Seymour was chosen by Graves’s widow and son to write this biography and was given unprecedented access to materials about his private life. Seymour includes a lengthy discourse on Riding’s life with Graves.

Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1981. A 173-page reference book on Riding.

Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979. A critical analysis of Riding’s place in American letters.

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Critical Essays