Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

Life with the Real White Goddess

© Photography (House of Robert Graves in Mallorca)

By Louis Simpson
(The New York Times)

"What a set! What a world!" Matthew Arnold exclaimed after reading an account of Shelley's private life. What would he have said of the private life of Robert Graves and Laura Riding as described by Graves's nephew Richard? Robert, his wife, Nancy, and Laura lived in a menage a trois, then in a "four-life" with the poet Geoffrey Phibbs. They were "united in adopting a new scale of values, according to which certain actions which were then normally considered to be grossly unprincipled became highly commendable," as described by Graves's nephew in "Robert Graves: The Years With Laura, 1926-1940," the second volume of his biography of the poet.

The actions and private conversations are here reported in detail, sometimes from day to day, as though the biographer were standing outside the door taking notes. He may have known people who knew Robert Graves and Laura Riding, but the main source appears to have been "the vast collection of family papers built up by Robert Graves's brother John Graves (1903-80) and now owned by John's son Richard, the present author." Other collections of letters and papers have been consulted. The biography is authoritative, yet as lively as a novel in its recording of the flux of emotions and the behavior of Laura Riding's inner circle. It was she, the obscure poet, who set the "new scale of values." Graves, who would be far better known as a poet, the author of a controversial autobiography, "Good-bye to All That," and a best-selling novel, "I, Claudius," stood in awe of her.

The private life of Robert Graves and Laura Riding is not only interesting in itself; it is important to the history of literature, for the life fed directly into the writing. A case in point: no work on poetry has been more influential than "The White Goddess," Graves's study of mythology in its connections with poetry; dozens of poets and professors have gained a reputation for originality by stealing from it. If we look into this biography we see that the goddess is very similar to Laura Riding and demands the same kind of service from her followers that she demanded of Robert. The goddess "worships the male infant, not the grown man: it is evidence of her deity, of man's dependence on her for life." From the biography we learn how dependent Robert was on Laura -- he had come out of the Great War with shattered nerves and marriage to a woman he did not love. When Laura Riding appeared he handed over the direction of his life and work to her -- a dependence he would later come to regret.

In "The White Goddess" we read that the male gods Osiris and Set compete for the favor of the female, Isis. "She tries to satisfy both, but can only do so by alternate murder, and man tries to regard this as evidence of her fundamental falsity, not of his own irreconcilable demands on her." (The irreconcilable demands are that she should be a goddess and at the same time behave as an ordinary woman.) In the biography we read: "Despite Graves's obvious devotion to Riding, she now began to show an interest in other men which, though it did not lead to sexual intercourse . . . was undoubtedly based upon strong sexual attraction. Graves at once became subject to a new set of intensely emotional pressures, and began to depict himself in an unnaturally humble manner, condemning (for example) what he saw as his 'greed and credulity'; and imagining himself, when retelling the legend of Isis, not as Set, her new young lover, but as 'Osiris yearly drowned.' "

Graves was the supplicant, Laura Riding the embodiment of the goddess and dispenser of favors. When she decided that sexual intercourse was dirty and unnecessary, he agreed to give up sex. Even after he had been replaced in her bed by Schuyler Jackson, whom she would marry later, Graves "still regarded Laura as a kind of deity. . . . He still wanted to work, knowing that everything he wrote could be submitted to the critical scrutiny of her brilliant mind." Certainly these were not ordinary people, these private lives not those of the social comedies Noel Coward wrote.

This is Robert Graves's biography but Laura Riding's book -- she commands it as she did her inner circle. The deference her admirers paid was a tribute to pure mind. Her origins could hardly have been more humble: her parents were poor Jews named Reichenthal who emigrated from Germany to New York. Her father was a tailor; the family did not prosper; they changed addresses frequently and Laura attended a dozen schools. At Girls' High School in Brooklyn she distinguished herself, winning scholarships that took her to Cornell University. There she married a fellow student, Louis Gottschalk. The marriage was not proving happy; she threw herself into writing fiction and poetry and adopted the name Riding as more suitable for a poet than Gottschalk.

She published poems in The Fugitive, a magazine in Nashville to which John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson also contributed. They found her formidable, a woman of definite and strong opinions. She had an affair with Tate, then divorced Gottschalk and moved to New York, where she became one of a literary crowd, being seen at parties with Hart Crane. At the end of 1925 she traveled to Europe to collaborate with Graves on a book about modern poetry. Collaborating with him was followed by cohabiting and taking charge of his life and work. They lived together in Majorca, where they supported themselves by writing, and they dabbled in real estate, until during the Spanish Civil war they were compelled to leave for England.

What was the nature of the power Laura Riding exerted? Graves spoke in a poem of her ability to make "strange things" happen by the "strong pulling of her bladed mind." The biographer remarks that "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." Some who disliked her said she was deranged; others called her a witch. Robert's half brother Richard, a senior member of the Egyptian civil service, had a simpler explanation: she was a "racial disease," meaning she was a Jew. Richard was very angry: Robert had given up a professorship at Cairo University, breaking his contract, and this would not do Richard's career any good. The couple's "new scale of values" frequently gave Robert's middle-class family cause for alarm; they had much to put up with and, with one or two exceptions, they tried to understand and forgive. One comes away from Richard Graves's book with a sense of strong family affection, not the least that displayed by the biographer. It could not have been easy to write about Laura Riding with a calm mind. The best description I know of the kind of power she possessed is by Salvador Dali, who claimed to have the same effect on people, an ability to bend them to his will and make them act out his ideas. He called it "paranoaic delirium . . . an active element determined to orient reality . . . an assertive, conquering force."

This is not a critical biography; it offers hardly any literary criticism, no examination in detail of works or the style in which they are written. For this kind of understanding we must go to the works themselves and the essays Robert Graves and Laura Riding wrote. As his books are in every library and hers are hard to find, I shall confine my remarks to the latter. Laura Riding could be a biting critic -- see her essay "The Case of Monsieur Poe." It is hard to believe anyone could ever again take Poe seriously after this exposure of his bad taste and cheap effects. But in the same book, "Contemporaries and Snobs," she pays considerable attention, almost respect, to Edith Sitwell, who was made out of the same papier-mache as Poe. Laura Riding's reactions to literature were entirely personal, like her reactions to people. This accounts for the intuitive brilliance of her criticism and also for her lapses.

What of her poetry? It had an influence at the time, not to be measured by copies sold but by its effect on other poets. She and Graves believed that poets wrote for other poets. "True poets," Graves said, "will agree that poetry is spiritual illumination delivered by a poet to his equals, not an ingenious technique of swaying a popular audience or of enlivening a sottish dinner party." Her poems had an effect on the young Auden -- he paid her the compliment of copying her style: economy of syntax, sparseness of sensuous detail, powerful rhythms. Here are three lines by Laura Riding: The standing-stillness The from foot-to-foot Is no real illness. and three by W. H. Auden: This gracious greeting "Good day. Good luck." Is no real meeting.

Today Laura Riding is almost forgotten. "The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry," that weather vane of poetic fashion, does not include her. The poetry, indeed, is not attractive. It is written in the language of her inmost thought, created out of her life and the lives of those moving in her orbit, out of research in mythology and some knowledge of psychology. The poems seem to have been written with difficulty, against a wish to be silent and self-contained. They, like her life, suggest more than they say; they are very different from any other kind of poetry we have in the United States. Come, words, away to miracle More natural than written art. You are surely somewhat devils, But I know a way to soothe The whirl of you when speech blasphemes Against the silent half of language And, labouring the blab of mouths, You tempt prolixity to ruin.

The message is definitely not for the poetry-writing workshop, which is nothing if not prolix and doesn't depend on miracles.


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