When Writers Fight...Laura Riding vs. Robert Graves

There's nothing like starting off a New Year on a highly aggressive note, so when I saw this article in the New Yorker, on the best literary feuds of 2012: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/12/literary-feuds-of-2012.html, I thought it might be worth flagging up the one I'm researching right now.

It concerns Robert Graves (he of Gooodbye To All That, I, Claudius and The White Goddess fame) and Laura Riding. You may already be familiar with this one, but oh my, I had no idea just how bad it became. Laura Riding, a young poet much admired by the Fugitives' Allen Tate, had travelled from the US to England in the mid-1920s to become a kind of secretary/nanny to Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson's four children. It was a very bohemian kind of environment - soon after she got there, they quickly shipped off to Egypt where he had a teaching post.

Once there, they established a kind of menage-a-trois they called "The Trinity", with Graves particularly enamoured of Riding's writing. He helped her get her first collection of poetry published, the Close Chaplet, and threw an almighty strop when John Gould Fletcher called it 'derivative' in T. S. Eliot's the Monthly Criterion. Eliot asked him to revise his original letter if he wanted it published, do Graves did. It's still a furious piece, but Eliot stood by his agreement and published it. Fletcher was subsequently allowed to publish a reply.

According to one of her biographers, Deborah Baker (In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, Hamish Hamilton), Riding fed into Graves's mystical beliefs, even though she didn't use classical or religious imagery in her own poetry. Nevertheless, "as his 'muse', Riding provided not only the answers, but like the Sphinx itself, entirely new and different riddles." They embarked on joint projects, like A Survey of Modernist Poetry, and Graves would try to get his publishers to take on her work, when he became popular. Most of the time this strategy didn't quite work - Riding was never going to be a popular poet, and the work he completed that she assisted in tended to fail. When he stuck to his own instincts and focused especially on autobiography, he tended to succeed.

They came back to England where things got odder, culminating in Riding throwing herself out of a fourth-story window in an apparent suicide attempt (she severely damaged her spine and spent several weeks in hospital). Soon afterwards, Graves and Nicholson split and he headed off to Mallorca with Riding. But people didn't like what they saw as her influence over him, or how she treated him. She tried to advance followers of her own, suggesting new work by a young friend to Yeats when he was compiling The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Yeats rejected the work, replying, "Too reasonable, too truthful. We poets should be good liars, remembering always that the Muses are women and prefer the embrace of gay warty lads."

Perhaps this is why Riding resisted the notion that she was ever a Muse to anyone, but after she split with Graves, she never wrote poetry again and she rejected any idea that she had influenced anybody: "I know of no one in the field of writer-activity whom I have affected with my thought, generally, and my writing, specifically...." (The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson). What's interesting is the bile she reserves for Graves. She "knew" herself, she writes in this memoir, "as one who possessed endowments and equipments that he regarded as , in their totality, an extremely valuable possession, and knew him as one longing intensely to have the like. I was not jealous of the possession..." Take that, Mr White Goddess!

She continues to assert that "my part in the association" (she never calls it a relationship), "I understood, therefore, as that of helping him to discover such a possession in himself..." Not quite a muse, then. Something more equal, more active. She understands about power. And when  biographers and critics weigh in to write about their "association", accusing her of holding Graves back, being financially dependent on his success and harming his own (based on information Graves was giving them), she wields some of that power, telling them to butt out. Graves is one who "lied readily", who "did not scruple to avoid using an opportunity to have an advantage over another". The White Goddess is full of "sham religiosity" in which "appropriations of my thought are concealed under tons of gimcrackery..."

And so on and so on. I find myself unable to blame Riding for such a strong reaction, resisting the general acceptance that she was Graves's White Goddess muse - it was Graves after all, who wrote that "a woman is either a muse or she is nothing". The muse is a passive, silent role, and by making her one, it's almost as though Graves was trying to divest her of power, whilst simultaneously appearing to grant her it. And he did steal her ideas, as this academic proved: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/war-poet-robert-graves-stole-work-from-his-mistress-859980.html.

As a literary spat though, of course, it's one of the best, mainly because it's carried out out so publicly. In the days before Twitter and Facebook, writers had plenty of means at their disposal to get back at one another, and in the public eye seems to have been the best method. I can't help but wonder what their Twitter exchanges might have looked like though....


  1. Interesting post though I must admit The White Goddess has been the chief influence of my own poetic theory though not the only one.

  2. I'm a doctoral researcher currently reading on Graves and Riding. I find so much of the literature and passing comments on Riding specifically, to be abhorrent. I believe she helped to save his life after the war. Yes, there was too much drama, especially the jumping-out-of-window kind of drama, but having just read his diaries from the Laura years, there was much companionable love in Spain. He writes often of bringing her sprigs of rosemary in bloom, or other flowers he picks on his walks, to her bedside. The quotidien of their life often speaks much louder than all the observations after their deaths.
    Finally, I'm afraid if the genders were reversed, Riding would be looked upon as quite a different character - a comple visionary instead of a manipulative, crazed woman!


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