Ridgely Torrence Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ridgely Torrence 1874-1950

(Full name Frederic Ridgely Torrence; also wrote under the pseudonyms Walter Cuthbert Helps and John Woodseeder) American poet, dramatist, biographer, and editor.

Torrence was a respected figure in American letters for nearly fifty years. His trio of plays for African-American actors presented characters and situations that transcended stereotypes, and were the first plays with an African-American cast to be produced on Broadway. As poetry editor at the New Republic from 1920 until 1934, he helped shape literary sensibility and poets' reputations by publishing the early work of such new or little-known poets as Wallace Stevens, Louise Bogan, Robert Frost, Allen Tate, and Hart Crane. Torrence was one of the founders of the Academy of American Poets, and, with his biography of the educator John Hope in 1948, he contributed to the development of a literature of African-American history.

Biographical Information

Torrence was born in Xenia, Ohio, the son of a lumber merchant. He attended Miami University of Ohio, where he later was a poet-in-residence, and Princeton University, although he left before graduating. During his college years Torrence published verse in school literary magazines and performed in dramas. In the late 1890s he settled in Greenwich Village, in New York City, working as a librarian and becoming part of a circle of poets that included E. A. Robinson and William Vaughn Moody. His first major publication came in 1900 when his book of verse, The House of A Hundred Lights, was published; and some of his poems were also included in An American Anthology: 1787-1900, edited by his friend Edmund Stedman. From 1905 to 1907 Torrence was the fiction editor at Cosmopolitan magazine and published several verse dramas. The appearance of Ireland's Abbey Theater in New York in 1911 inspired him to seek a folk subject for his plays rather than the medieval-romantic themes that had previously attracted him. He chose to write about African-Americans, in part because his hometown of Xenia had been an integrated city and a stop on the Underground Railroad during the American Civil War, where a colony of freed slaves had settled. The result was Plays for a Negro Theater. In 1920 his long tenure as poetry editor at the New Republic began, and in 1925 his volume of poetry Hesperides appeared. The few poems he wrote after that appeared in 1941 and retained the romantic lyricism of his earlier works, as well as his concern for social justice and pacifism.

Major Works

Torrence's work expresses the lyric pulse of quest and resignation that reflects a moral sensibility seeking a better world and frustrated by the harshness of reality. Poems such as “Hesperides,” “Men and Wheat,” “Evensong,” and “Three O'Clock” show Torrence shaping this theme at the height of his powers. They reveal an aesthetic mastery of poetic song, a modernist disposition for incisive imagery, and a Wordsworthian concern for humanity. As in his earlier epic verse plays, El Dorado and Abelard and Heloise, the dramatic conflicts in the Plays for A Negro Theater derive from the tension between rebellion and acceptance. These plays, written partly in prose, are lyrical representations of personal struggles to define character, combining folk themes, the poetically rendered language of everyday African-American speech, and Torrence's pacifist vision.

Critical Reception

Although some critics faulted Torrence's plays for a lack of dramatic power and plots that relied too heavily on coincidence, there was a consensus that he possessed a gift for poetry to a high degree, and that he had an ear for sonorous language, a well-developed command of metrical composition, and a temperament sensitively disposed to perceiving and presenting human experience. In 1942 he received the Shelley Memorial Award and was named Poet of the Year by the National Poetry Center, and in 1947 he was awarded a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. Louis Untermeyer, who in 1919 had included Torrence's early work in the anthology Modern American Poetry, in 1941 praised in Torrence's slender body of work “the restraint which limits the expression of a life-time to thirty-four poems” and the “condensed and dateless power” of those poems.