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.
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.
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.
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.
The House of A Hundred Lights: A Psalm of Experience after Reading a Couplet of Bidpai (poetry) 1900
El Dorado: A Tragedy (drama) 1903
Abelard and Heloise (drama) 1907
Granny Maumee, The Rider of Dreams, Simon the Cyrenian: Plays for A Negro Theater (dramas) 1917
Hesperides (poetry) 1925
The Story of Gio from the Heike Monogatari, Retold by Ridgely Torrence (children's book) 1935
Common Sense: Play in One Act (drama) 1941
Poems (poetry) 1941
The Story of John Hope (biography) 1948
May Sinclair (essay date 1906)
SOURCE: “Three American Poets of Today,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCVIII, September 1906, pp. 333-5.
[In the following excerpt Sinclair traces the progress of Torrence's poetry, predicts “a brilliant future” for him, and cautions lest “preciosity” undermine his art.]
Nobody who comes fresh from El Dorado and “The Lesser Children” (a poem published in The Atlantic Monthly) can say that Mr. Ridgely Torrence has not achieved, and achieved excellently; but he has not yet found himself and his place in literature. He has as yet put forth little. His first published work, The House of the Hundred Lights (his Rubáiyát), a slender volume of quatrains written in frank imitation of Omar Khayyám, has no note of his originality, but displays a certain aptitude in assimilating style. Each verse has the neatness of an epigram:—
Yes, he that wove the skein of Stars and poured out all the seas that are Is Wheel and Spinner and the Flax, and Boat and Steersman and the Star.
What! doubt the Master Workman's hand because my fleshly ills increase? No; for there still remains one chance that I am not His Masterpiece.
Though man or angel judge my life and read it like an open scroll, And weigh my heart, I have a judge more just than any—my own soul.
Mr. Torrence has definitely essayed the poetic drama. His El Dorado has much in it besides the mere facile exuberance of youth; there is color and vision and the sweep of action. The characters are nobly planned, and there is one fine tragic figure, Perth, the prisoner released after thirty years in a dungeon. He desires to recapture his lost youth, as the adventurer Coronado desires to capture the Seven Cities of Gold. Over the whole drama there is the golden light and rosy mist of youth; it is the drama of youth and of youth's disillusionment. There is a fine scene where Coronado and his host come within sight of the enchanted cities:—
Perth. The veil seems slowly to withdraw. Cor. I see it! A Voice. What? Cor. (To Perth) Look—far down! Perth. The mist seems coloured there. Cor. It glows! It is no mist! Can you not see The gem which is the mother of all dawn? Perth. There is some gleam. Car. It waits one moment yet Before it thunders upon our blinded sight! (To Soldiers) Choose what you will, O you whose blood has bought it! Out of all that which waits our famished eyes! Bright, barren sands of gold, which shall be fertile! Jewels that welter like great fallen suns! The living heat that smoulders in deep rubies, The endless April of cool emeralds And chrysoprase within whose heart the sky Kisses the sea! The sullen mystery Of opals holding captive sunsets past! And diamonds fashioned from the frozen souls Of lilies once alive!
The structure of the verse is sonorous and correct; there is the promise of that gift of phrasing which Mr. Torrence has developed so admirably in “The Lesser Children:”—
“And now, in that far edge, as though a seed Were sown, there is a hint of budding grey, A bud not wholly innocent of night And yet a colour.”
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Jessie B. Rittenhouse (essay date 1913)
SOURCE: “Ridgely Torrence,” in The Younger American Poets, Little, Brown, and Company, 1913, pp. 299-314.
[In the following excerpt, Rittenhouse extols Torrence's first book of poetry and his play El Dorado.]
Mr. Ridgely Torrence, whose poetic drama, El Dorado, brought him generous recognition, gave earlier hostages to fame in the shape of a small volume with the caption, The House of a Hundred Lights, and gravely subtitled, “A Psalm of Experience after Reading a Couplet of Bidpai.”
Into this little book were packed some charming whimsicalities, together with some graver thoughts—though not too grave—and some fancies full...
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The New York Times (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: A review of “Plays for a Negro Theater,” in The New York Times, Vol. LXVI, No. 21662, April 6, 1917.
[In the following excerpt, the New York Times critic reviews Torrence's Plays for A Negro Theater.]
The doors of that intermittent playhouse, the Garden Theater were thrown wide once more for the first presentation here last evening of three plays by the poet and occasional dramatist, Ridgely Torrence—three plays in which he seeks to interpret the traditions, sorrows, and aspirations of the negro race, striving to speak for it in the theater as Lady Gregory, Mr. Yeats and their fellows sought to speak for the Irish. The significant factor in their...
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Francis Hackett (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: A review of “Plays for a Negro Theater,” in The New Republic, Vol. X, No. 128, April 14, 1917.
[In the following review, Hackett considers Torrence's Plays for A Negro Theater in the context of the conventional depiction of African-American characters and experiences.]
Not long after Mr. Edward Sheldon began his career he wrote a play called The Nigger, which aggravated and solidified in one production almost everything that an audience of wine agents might require in a melodrama. There was, as I remember it, a rape committed somewhere off stage. There was a lynching in the wings. There was the imminence of a mixed marriage, a drop of Negro blood...
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The New York Times (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: An interview with Ridgely Torrence, The New York Times, Vol. LXVI, No. 21631, April 15, 1917.
[In the following excerpt, a New York Times reporter interviews Torrence about Three Plays for A Negro Theater.]
Down in Waverley Place, to the northwest of Washington Square, there stands an old dwelling house which has been made over into apartments. And on the very top story of this house there is an apartment rich in literary associations. Here the late William Vaughn Moody lived from 1906 till 1909, and some of Moody's canvases (for the author of “The Great Divide” made painting his chief recreation) hang on the walls. At different times Percy MacKaye,...
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Percy MacKaye (essay date 1917)
SOURCE: A letter regarding the production of Plays for a Negro Theater, in The New York Times, Vol. LXVI, No. 21638, April 22, 1917.
[In the following letter to The New York Times, poet and playwright MacKaye praises the Broadway production of Torrence's Plays for a Negro Theater.]
In Ford's Theater, Washington, fifty-two years ago, at the climax of his life, the emancipator of the American negro sat watching a play. Last night at a theater in this city I seemed to see Lincoln again in the playhouse—his great spirit brooding there, with infinite satisfaction, upon an event as potentially significant in the art life of the race he set free as his act of...
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Herbert S. Gorman (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: A review of “Hesperides,” in The New York Times, Vol. LXXIV, No. 24606, June 7, 1925, p. 7.
[In the following review of Hesperides, Gorman praises Torrence's achievement in poetry with regard to both “meaning and meter.”]
Once in the dear dead days beyond recall (1900, to be exact) a small book appeared under the weighty title of The House of a Hundred Lights: A Psalm of Experience After Reading a Couplet of Bidpai. It was the work of one Frederic Ridgely Torrence. It was his first volume of poetry. And now, after the passage of twenty-five years, Mr. Torrence presents the public with his second volume of poetry, Hesperides. Such a...
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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1925)
Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: A review of “Hesperides,” in The Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 1925.
[In the following excerpt, the reviewer finds a disturbing frenzy in Torrence's verse, but acknowledges he is an authentic poet.]
Mr. Torrence is too anxious to escape being
Ground in an endless mill With life run dry in winning the foremost place
really to touch the shores of the “Hesperides.” Into that “better place,” as he describes it,
on a golden shore of the sea, Dim, where the dancers move under apples of gold, Fruits of a happier earth, on a golden...
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Daniel Gregory Mason (essay date 1938)
SOURCE: “Ridgely Torrence,” in Music in My Time, Greenwood Press, 1938, pp. 140-45.
[In the following excerpt, Mason describes the antic side of Torrence's disposition.]
At our evening gatherings in the Judson the chief entertainer was always Ridgely Torrence. Ridgely was tall, thin, and very blonde. Singularly penetrating eyes gave to the long lean face under his high forehead an effect of spirituality, almost asceticism. Anyone prepared for that side of him by the mystical beauty of his poems might well have been puzzled when, in his more social mood, those very eyes that had just awed you with their seeming penetration into your inmost secrets would unexpectedly...
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Louis Untermeyer (essay date 1941)
SOURCE: A review of “Poems,” in Saturday Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 13, July 19, 1941.
[In the following excerpt, Untermeyer reviews Torrence's last book of poems, and puzzles over his slender output.]
The case of Ridgely Torrence is one of the most puzzling in modern poetry. His first volume appeared at the very beginning of the century, and it was immediately evident that Torrence promised more than most of his contemporaries. But twenty-five years passed before his second book, Hesperides, was published. Another sixteen years have brought Poems, which is a reissue of Hesperides with the addition of some new poems. The volume presents a...
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Willard Thorp (essay date 1951)
SOURCE: “The Achievement of Ridgely Torrence,” in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. XII, No. 3, Spring, 1951, pp. 103-09.
[In the following essay, Thorp offers a thumbnail sketch of Torrence's life, career, and contribution to American letters. ]
Friends of Princeton and friends of the late Ridgely Torrence '97 (for there are, happily, many who survive him) will welcome the good news that Mrs. Torrence (Olivia Howard Dunbar) plans to give his literary papers to Princeton University. They will add immeasurably to our records of his literary generation. We shall place them on our shelves beside letters and manuscripts of his friends E. A. Robinson and...
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John M. Clum (essay date 1969)
SOURCE: “Ridgely Torrence's Negro Plays: A Noble Beginning,” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXVIII, Winter, 1969, pp. 96-108.
[In the following essay, Clum discusses the origins and the production of Torrence's Plays for A Negro Theater,and the critical responses to the three plays.]
Among the significant moments in the history of the American theater, one remains relatively unsung. Its success at the box office was not great, its place in the memory of this generation of theatergoers virtually non-existent, but Ridgely Torrence's Three Plays for the Negro Theatre made a place for the Negro in our serious dramatic literature. Although...
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George Monteiro (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: “‘I always Keep Seeing a Light as I Talk to Him,’: Limning the Robert Frost/Ridgely Torrence Relationship,” in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 32-43.
[In the following essay, Monteiro traces the influence of Torrence's poetry on Robert Frost.]
“The time draws near for going to press and I must get as many editors as possible implicated in the book beforehand. Ain't I wiley?” So wrote Robert Frost on 15 October 1935 to Louis Untermeyer, a friend and fellow-poet, who also happened to be a reviewer, an editor, and an influential anthologist.1 Vintage Frost, this statement emanates from his most mischievous,...
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Thorp, Willard, and Julie Hudson. “The Works of Ridgely Torrence.” Princeton University Library Chronicle XII, No. 3 (Spring 1951): 109-17.
Primary bibliography of Torrence's verse and prose. An addendum was published in the Spring 1952 Chronicle,pp. 160-61.
Clum, John A. Ridgely Torrence. New York: Twayne, 1972, 178 pp.
Assesses Torrence's life and work, arguing for a greater appreciation of his contribution to poetry and drama.
Patterson, Austin M. “Recollections of Ridgely Torrence.” Princeton...
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