Versecraft

Folie a Deux: Laura Riding and Robert Graves

April 30, 2024 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 6 Episode 8
Folie a Deux: Laura Riding and Robert Graves
Versecraft
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Versecraft
Folie a Deux: Laura Riding and Robert Graves
Apr 30, 2024 Season 6 Episode 8
Elijah Perseus Blumov

Soundtrack to today's episode

Topics discussed in this episode include:

-"On Portents" by Robert Graves

-"The White Goddess" by Robert Graves

-"Life With The Real White Goddess" by Louis Simpson

-Poetry Messiah Witch Cult

-The Fugitives

-Misadventures in polyamory

-"A Survey of Modernist Poetry" by Riding & Graves

-"The Cool Web" by Robert Graves

-The squishiness of children

-The double-edged sword of language

-"Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words" by Laura Riding

-"Death As Death" by Laura Riding: 

 

To conceive death as death

is difficulty come by easily,

a blankness fallen among

images of understanding,

death like a quick cold hand

on the hot slow head of suicide.

So is it come by easily

for one instant.  Then again furnaces

roar in the ears, then again hell revolves, 

and the elastic eye holds paradise

at visible length from blindness,

and dazedly the body echoes

‘like this, like this, like nothing else.’

 

Like nothing—a similarity 

without resemblance.  The prophetic eye, 

closing upon difficulty,

opens upon comparison,

halving the actuality

as a gift too plain, for which 

gratitude has no language,

foresight no vision.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Show Notes Transcript

Soundtrack to today's episode

Topics discussed in this episode include:

-"On Portents" by Robert Graves

-"The White Goddess" by Robert Graves

-"Life With The Real White Goddess" by Louis Simpson

-Poetry Messiah Witch Cult

-The Fugitives

-Misadventures in polyamory

-"A Survey of Modernist Poetry" by Riding & Graves

-"The Cool Web" by Robert Graves

-The squishiness of children

-The double-edged sword of language

-"Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words" by Laura Riding

-"Death As Death" by Laura Riding: 

 

To conceive death as death

is difficulty come by easily,

a blankness fallen among

images of understanding,

death like a quick cold hand

on the hot slow head of suicide.

So is it come by easily

for one instant.  Then again furnaces

roar in the ears, then again hell revolves, 

and the elastic eye holds paradise

at visible length from blindness,

and dazedly the body echoes

‘like this, like this, like nothing else.’

 

Like nothing—a similarity 

without resemblance.  The prophetic eye, 

closing upon difficulty,

opens upon comparison,

halving the actuality

as a gift too plain, for which 

gratitude has no language,

foresight no vision.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 6-8: Folie a Deux: Laura Riding and Robert Graves

 

“If strange things happen where she is,
 So that men say that graves open
 And the dead walk, or that futurity
 Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
 Such portents are not to be wondered at,
 Being tourbillions in Time made
 By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
 Through that ever-reluctant element.”

 

These cryptic lines penned by Robert Graves appear in his seminal work of mythological pseudo-scholarship, The White Goddess. Ostensibly, they refer to the Divine Feminine in her role as the poetic muse. In fact, these words were originally written about Graves’s mistress and spiritual dominatrix, Laura Riding. They serve not only as evidence of how strongly Riding’s personality figured in Graves’s extremely influential mythological theory of a cruel yet nurturing mother goddess, not only as a testament to what cult-like power Riding held over Graves, but a token of what an alluring and dominating person she was in general. Robert’s nephew Richard concurred with his uncle, writing: "when Laura Riding was exerting the full force of her personality, it had often seemed to those around her that she was possessed of paranormal powers." 

This aura of sorcery resulted from Riding’s potent combination of grandiose megalomania— she viewed herself and her work as the culmination and finality of all human history— with a truly powerful and original intelligence that suggested that her messianic claims may not have been so far-fetched. As Louis Simpson wrote: “the deference her admirers paid was a tribute to pure mind.” 

            Such a legendary personality would be fascinating in itself, but the intrigue added by Riding’s poetic output, which writer David Auerbach claimed “leaves the most intellectual poets of the 20th century in the dust,” her extremely influential critical work, her abandonment of poetry in favor of linguistic philosophy, and her tumultuous, downright bizarre relationship with Robert Graves makes for a story stranger than fiction. The story of Riding’s life and thought, and even the story of her life and thought with Graves, is not one I can possibly hope to do justice to here. My hope is merely to provide a sketch which whets the appetite and examine a couple poems which are indicative of the minds of these two larger-than-life figures.

            Laura Riding, who lived from 1901 to 1991, grew up the daughter of working-class Jewish immigrants in New York City. At nineteen, while a student at Cornell, she married graduate assistant Louis Gottschalk, but not for long. In her early twenties she began writing poetry, partying with Hart Crane, and corresponding with the Fugitives, particularly Allen Tate, with whom she briefly had an affair. The Fugitives were floored by Riding’s work—dense, cerebral meditations in unadorned free verse—and considered her the “discovery of the year,” and by publishing her and lauding her helped to establish her reputation. 

            Around the time of her divorce, Riding began to correspond with the young British writer Robert Graves, who was gaining attention for his war poetry. They were attracted to one another by their mutual belief that, as Riding later put it: “A poem is an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth.” This quasi-religious conviction in the philosophical centrality of poetry to human life, combined with growing romantic infatuation, was a heady brew indeed. In 1925, Riding packed up her bags and headed off to London to live with Graves, who, despite being married with several children, welcomed her into his home. Graves, who had been suffering from severe PTSD due to his experience in the Great War, found in Riding a source of solace, a rock of intellect against which he could throw himself in devotion. Naturally, things quickly took a turn for the weird. As Simpson writes, “Graves was the supplicant, Laura Riding the embodiment of the goddess and dispenser of favors.” Riding quickly instituted what she called a “new scale of values,” setting up the menage a trois of herself, Graves, and Graves’s wife Nancy as a “trinity” with herself at the head, deserving of unquestioned obedience. When, several years later, Riding fell in love with the poet Geoffrey Phibbs, she insisted on incorporating him into her mini-cult household, which was rechristened from a trinity to a “four-life.” Then, as such things go, Geoffrey fell in love with Robert’s wife Nancy, resulting in an enormous row. At the argument’s climax, Laura announced “Goodbye, chaps!” and flung herself off the four-story window, breaking her spine and nearly killing herself. With an admirable combination of hysteria and prudence, Robert promptly ran down one flight of stairs and then threw himself out of the much safer three-story window. 

            After this incident, Riding declared that “bodies have had their day,” and insisted on perpetual celibacy, much to Graves’s chagrin. The foursome situation had grown intolerable, and so of course Graves abandoned his wife and four children and moved with Riding to Mallorca on Gertrude Stein’s recommendation. There they lived for many years together until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. After bopping around Europe for a time, they settled in Pennsylvania.

            Pennsylvania is of course where torrid, poetic, cultist love affairs go to die, and Graves and Riding ended their unique partnership in 1939. In 1941, Riding married one Schuyler Jackson, and, like all Jews at a certain time of life, moved to Florida, where she spent the rest of her life in peaceful isolation. C’est la vie. 

            Despite the topsy turvy sturm and drang of their relationship, Laura and Robert were wonderfully productive during their time together and made a good creative team. In 1927, a mere two years after they met, they published the monumentally influential work, A Survey of Modernist Poetry, which, in its focus on internal close reading and what would later be dubbed the heresy of paraphrase, effectively kickstarted what came to be called New Criticism, the prevailing method of poetry criticism in the first half of the 20th century, and the method favored by high schools English departments to this day. In 1929, Graves released what came to be the most famous and influential memoir of WWI, entitled, Goodbye To All That. Five years later, he released one of the most famous and celebrated historical fiction novels of all time, I, Claudius. Finally, though he wrote and published it years after his time with Riding, Graves’s mythological fantasia, The White Goddess, one of the most formative books of the 20th century, was produced largely due to the influence and inspiration of Riding. Riding later wrote bitterly: 

 

“As to the ‘White Goddess’ identity: the White Goddess theme was a spiritually, literarily and scholastically fraudulent improvisation by Robert Graves into the ornate pretentious framework of which he stuffed stolen substance of my writings, and my thought generally, on poetry, woman, cosmic actualities and the history of religious conceptions."

 

Whether this is entirely true or not, it points to an important point: despite the fact that Graves practically groveled before Riding’s intellectual superiority, it was he that produced the lion’s share of the substantial writings that came out of their relationship, and to this day, he is the far better known of the two. 

True, Graves was a man, and was much more prolific—indeed, he is one of the most prolific and wide-ranging authors in English literature— but he also had far more mass appeal than Riding, who never condescended to write anything for the popular market, poetry or otherwise. Always concerned with the expression of ideas at the expense of all else, Riding’s lyrics and criticism often possess forbidding intellectual and linguistic density without the aesthetic charm of a Stevens or an Eliot to lure in the casual reader. In her utter disregard for the opinions of others, in her monomaniacal fealty to her ideal, she was perhaps, if not the most radical, the most truly avant-garde of the 20th century modernists. 

Graves famously said, “the poet’s chief loyalty is to the Goddess Calliope, not to the publishers or booksellers.” Yet it was Riding more than anyone who embodied this loyalty. As a result, she is seldom read, and only then by academics and literati. She herself would probably have been satisfied with this cloistered regard, but it is still a shame, because her work points the modern lyric in a fascinating philosophical and linguistic direction which remains almost entirely unexplored. Before we get to a piece of hers, however, let us look at a poem by Graves, which will, by contrast, make Riding’s work appear all the more striking. 

No doubt inspired by impassioned conversations with Riding, one of Graves’s best poems, written two years after he had met her, explores the existential significance of being a linguistic animal. It is entitled “The Cool Web,” and it goes like this:

 

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
 How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
 How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
 How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

 

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
 And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
 We spell away the overhanging night,
 We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

 

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
 Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
 We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
 In brininess and volubility.

 

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
 Throwing off language and its watery clasp
 Before our death, instead of when death comes,
 Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
 Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
 We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

 

            It is perhaps telling that while urbane theorists like Pound and Eliot were insisting that the horrors of the early 20th century required a new poetics, the poets who had actually experienced these horrors firsthand, like Graves, were usually content to filter their unprecedented experiences through meter and rhyme. In this poem, we have several instances of first foot trochaic substitution, particularly in the emphatic last stanza, much rhythmic modulation throughout, and numerous pairs of unrhymed lines. These variations prevent the poem from developing a songlike or monotonous quality, but the poem is nevertheless resolutely iambic pentameter, and not only do the first three stanzas end with perfectly rhymed couplets, but the last stanza enriches the number of rhymes to an ABAB scheme to provide a decisive sonic conclusion. Despite the poem’s ominous, vertiginous subject matter, the language itself is a vote cast on the side of order and intelligibility. 

            When Graves says, “children are dumb to say how hot the day is,” he is not making some snide comment about juvenile intelligence. Rather, he is offering the interesting insight that young children do not have the words to express how they feel—they are literally dumb— and that this inability to express themselves leads to an intensification of feeling, both because they have no explicit outlet for their emotion and because the unstructured mysteriousness of what they are feeling leads to a sense of sublime limitlessness. In contemporary parlance, we might also speak of neuroplasticity: a child is going to be more deeply disturbed by a horror movie than an adult because their sense of what is real and what is normal has not yet been fixed. The impressionability of children is of course the main reason why some things are considered “age appropriate” and others are not—a child does not automatically know what to do with all the information it receives, and this makes the intake of information all the more intense and impactful. Everything seems equally important. A mediating sense of proportion is absent. 

            To a child, then, something as mundane as the heat of the day, the scent of a rose, the presence of storm clouds, or the march of soldiers make take on mythical proportions, luxurious or terrifying according to its character. Graves here implicitly suggests a commentary on his predecessor, Wordsworth, the Romantic champion of childhood mysticism. “Yes, childhood is wondrous” Graves seems to say, “but it is wondrous not due to some sort of precious childhood wisdom, but due to the fact that, as a child, one is helpless, ignorant, inarticulate, and this condition raises the stakes of everyday reality. 

            By contrast, adults have speech to cool the day, dull the senses, and wave away the primeval terrors of darkness and violence. Like Adam in the garden, the ability to give things names makes us masters of them. Words have definitions, and definitions provide boundaries to concepts. A feeling named is a feeling that has a box to go in, and is no longer limitless, sublime, delirious, mysterious. It is something known, understood, and therefore subject to reason and mental control. With words like “dull” and “spell away,” Graves offers an implicit critique of adults too, and reveals his own Romantic side: it may be that language, especially as adults use it, comes at too high a price: it lessens the experience of living, and allows us to dismiss potentially wondrous experiences and feelings out of hand. 

            This critique becomes more explicit in the third stanza. Language is a “cool web” which, in organizing reality, is also an escape from reality, a way for us to “retreat from too much joy or too much fear.” Like mollusks, we may shield ourselves, letting the tides of life wash over us, coldly dying as we comfortably miss out on the inexplicable majesty of the sea. We grow complacent in brininess and volubility, so fluent that the flow of water around us, the blaze of the sun above us, goes unnoticed. 

            And yet, in the last stanza, the screw of dialectic turns once more, and we see that Graves’s mission is not to offer a tidy solution or verdict, but to complexify and demonstrate the pathos of the situation. Should we attempt to revert to a pre-verbal childhood, he says, relinquishing self-possession from our tongues, facing the wide glare of the children’s day, we shall go mad and die. As Eliot wrote: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” As Shirley Jackson wrote, going further: “No live organism can continue to exist for long under conditions of absolute reality.” By pointing out the inadequacies in either direction, Graves highlights the tragedy of our lot, a sophisticated twist on the Romantic theme of the finite creature striving after the infinite. We live in a world of endless wonder and terror, but it is too much for us. We must cheapen the experience, we must dull our senses if we are escape from the tumultuous mental hazards and limitations of childhood, animality, or madness. It is a necessary evil. It is this sort of recognition that leads from Romantic idealism to Realist melancholy, which, like the feelings of the non-verbal child, is the more intense for being repressed. 

With the inclusion of martial imagery, soldiers and drums, Graves further suggests that the horror of war in particular is not something that language can ever capture, but only diminish—and that if we are to live without going mad, we can never look war in the face, but must always approach it as if it were a gorgon, through the reflection of language. 

Once more, this is “The Cool Web” by Robert Graves:

 

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
 How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
 How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
 How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

 

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
 And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
 We spell away the overhanging night,
 We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

 

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
 Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
 We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
 In brininess and volubility.

 

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
 Throwing off language and its watery clasp
 Before our death, instead of when death comes,
 Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
 Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
 We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

 

Graves had misgivings about language, even though he felt it was an existential necessity. Riding, the furious idealist, believed instead that with the proper application of linguistic precision, language was capable of revealing truth as it was. It was this belief that led her, in 1941, to abandon poetry entirely. Speaking of this decision, she wrote: 

 

“I can make here only a meagre identification of the challenge poetry holds: what compatibility can there be between the creed offering hope of a way of speaking beyond the ordinary, touching perfection, a complex perfection associable with nothing less complex than truth, and the craft tying the hope to verbal rituals that court sensuosity as if it were the judge of truth? Straining of effort to achieve compatibility between these will lend moral coherence to the effort, and for long employ a native will in a poet to consistency. If poets strain hard enough they must reach the crisis-point at which division between creed and craft reveals itself to be absolute.” 

 

In other words, Riding came to the conclusion that one could not pursue the objective of perfecting language and linguistically touching the complexity of truth if one was caught up in the aesthetic considerations endemic to poetry. Attempting to touch truth through poetry lends the practice of poetry “moral coherence,” but eventually one will reach a crisis point where devotion to creed and devotion to craft become irreconcilable. True to her convictions, Riding never wrote poetry again, and spent the rest of her life working on her own system of linguistic philosophy, culminating in the treatise entitled Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words.

Before she gave up poetry as a philosophically lost cause, however, Riding spent decades thrillingly demonstrating the lyric’s ability to directly probe philosophical questions, and reach for the truth which lies beyond meaning. One of her greatest pieces, the one which turned me on to her work, is entitled “Death As Death.” It goes like this: 

 

Death As Death

 

To conceive death as death

is difficulty come by easily,

a blankness fallen among

images of understanding,

death like a quick cold hand

on the hot slow head of suicide.

So is it come by easily

for one instant.  Then again furnaces

roar in the ears, then again hell revolves, 

and the elastic eye holds paradise

at visible length from blindness,

and dazedly the body echoes

‘like this, like this, like nothing else.’

 

Like nothing—a similarity 

without resemblance.  The prophetic eye, 

closing upon difficulty,

opens upon comparison,

halving the actuality

as a gift too plain, for which 

gratitude has no language,

foresight no vision.

 

This is free verse, or what I would call prose lyric. Nevertheless, it employs strategies of biblical poetry—anaphora, repetition, and syntactical parallelism— to achieve a poetic air simultaneously removed from yet suffused by plainspoken speech. Faint echoes of the King James Version collide with a cerebral and idiosyncratic meditation on death, with the result that Riding’s lyric sound a bit like a cross between Whitman and Dickinson, though without the musicality of either. Not especially beautiful and not especially clear, we can see why Riding’s lyrics have not remained popular. And yet, for a certain kind of person, they can be gripping in the turns and intensity of their thought. 

Here, we see Riding struggling to conceive of what death actually is—not as a word, not as a concept, but as death. To attempt to do so is “difficulty come by easily,” because it is easy to know what we ought to imagine—nothingness—but to imagine nothingness is devilishly difficult. It is a blankness which we can surround with understanding, but which itself eludes understanding. If we can imagine it as anything, it can only be as a cessation of something—a quick cold hand on the hot slow head of suicide, a snuffing out of the pain of dying. No sooner do we strain along this via negativa however than we are hurled back into sensory experience, into life which roars in our ears, which hellishly, inescapably, revolves around us. Automatically, we hold death at arm’s length— “the elastic eye holds paradise at visible length from blindness.” In other words, we cannot help but conceive our greatest good, religious truth, our ultimate end, as a world filled with things, rather than a void in which we are blind, or which we are blind to. Our heartbeats fill us with affirmation of the physical, lived-in world: “like this, like this, like nothing else.” 

In the next stanza, Riding plays on the previous phrase, and asserts that indeed, death is like nothing—a similarity without resemblance, because we are comparing two things which are pure negatives. The prophetic eye, the human imagination, takes refuge from the difficulty of conceiving of death as death by opening upon comparison, attempting to find analogues for death in the physical, lived-in world, which is of course impossible. The actuality of death is “a gift too plain,” an austere singularity for which we have no words, and no vision. 

Riding thus gives us a Socratic twist on the memento mori— “remember not only that you will die, but that you cannot possibly know what death is, and therefore you cannot prepare for it. Nevertheless, acknowledging that you know nothing about death is better than thinking that you do know something about it.” She allows us to intellectually entertain the sublimity of death and feel awe at the idea of it, while simultaneously teaching us that we entertain an illusion.

 It is one of the great ironies of Riding’s life that she should understand epistemological humility so well—could, like Graves, use language to demonstrate language’s inadequacy in a way which anticipates and yet rhetorically surpasses the Language Poets— and yet, end up devoting her life to trying to attain absolute truth through the flawed medium of human language. A woman with the mind of Derrida, the heart of Percy Shelley, and the soul of Wittgenstein, it is little wonder that Riding was destined to be a fascinating but ultimately doomed figure. 

Once more, this is “Death as Death,” by Laura Riding: 

 

To conceive death as death

is difficulty come by easily,

a blankness fallen among

images of understanding,

death like a quick cold hand

on the hot slow head of suicide.

So is it come by easily

for one instant.  Then again furnaces

roar in the ears, then again hell revolves, 

and the elastic eye holds paradise

at visible length from blindness,

and dazedly the body echoes

‘like this, like this, like nothing else.’

 

Like nothing—a similarity 

without resemblance.  The prophetic eye, 

closing upon difficulty,

opens upon comparison,

halving the actuality

as a gift too plain, for which 

gratitude has no language,

foresight no vision.