Laura Riding's Essentialism and the Absent Muse
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SUSAN M. SCHULTZ Laura Riding's Essentialism and the Absent Muse There is a man of me that sows. There is a woman of me that reaps. "Mortal" Poetry is not contemporary poetry. It is not philosophy. It is not even literature. As between literature and life, it is closer to life. But life invents time rather than poetry, a sanctimonious comment on itself, a ¦ selflessness. Poetry invents itself. It is nearly a repudiation of life, a selfness . Unless it is this, it is a comment on a comment, sterile scholasticism. "Poetry and the Literary Universe," in Contemporaries and Snobs ( 14) Laura riding was torn between essentialist and cultural explanations for the division between what she perceived to be the "masculine " and "feminine" sides of her character—between the sower and the reaper of my headnote from "Mortal." This internal and, to some extent, unconscious conflict presaged the current debate between essentialist and cultural feminist critics, although the "feminine" is no longer assumed to be silent, not the "masculine" loquacious. Riding's belief in sexual essentialism—which assigned her the role of reaper rather than sower—proved fatal to her career as a poet, and she renounced poetry in 1939,' but that essentialism was itself determined by her position as a woman poet in her culture. The essentialism of Riding 's time, as well as that of ours, is not itself an ungrounded phenomenon , but has a cultural basis: Victorian ideas of the exclusive capabiliArizona Quarterly Volume 48 Number 1, Spring 1992 Copyright © 1992 by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004-1610 Susan M. Schultz ties of men and women have given way to contemporary notions that a woman's essential qualities distinguish her work, such as writing, from that of men. Both of these atguments are troubling, and some recent ctitics have commented on the parallels between them. In her 1985 survey of feminist theoty, Toril Moi argues that, "to define 'woman' is necessarily to essentialize her" (139); she attacks Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubat for subscribing to the very patriarchal assumptions that they argue against. Moi's odd bedfellow, Frank Lentricchia, makes a similar point about Gilbert and Gubar in Ariel and the Police, and argues for historical rather than essentialist readings of literature.2 Both of them argue that men and women (or at least the masculine and the feminine) are not so much bom as made by their social and cultural contexts. I mean to show that the recent argument over the essentialist construction of gender sheds light on modernist, as well as current, critical praxis. Modernism was defined by way of essentialist categories, as Gilbert and Gubar have shown. James Joyce's response to The Waste Land, that it "ends [the] idea of poetry for ladies," is merely symptomatic, according to them, of a larger modernist tendency to define good poetry as "masculine ," bad poetry as "feminine."' This essay argues not only that Riding's intetnal atgument over her role as woman and poet was ultimately self-defeating, but also that there is a necessary relationship between her belief in sexual essentialism and her renunciation of poetry. Riding's rigid belief in ahistorical formalism prevented her from recognizing the historical forces that contributed to het self-silencing. The prime historical force was Victorian essentialism, perpetuated early in this century by critics such as John Ctowe Ransom and even by Riding's longtime companion, Robert Gtaves. It was Graves who declared that "woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing" (446). Riding became, in effect, both nothing and a muse because, as the purest of the fotmalists, she rejected the muse as something outside of poetry and irrelevant to it. 4 Riding, who published her collected poems in 1938, took both sides of the atgument that I've described above, at times asserting that "woman" was a construct, and at other times that she herself possessed Essentialism and the Absent Muse a "masculine" and a "feminine" aspect. Considered within the context of het time, we can see the way in which these two arguments are related: Riding's essentialism merely replicates a culturally enforced distinction between masculine and feminine modes...


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