Twelve Early Poems by Laura Riding
There was never a work published by Laura Riding entitled ‘Ten Early Poems’. I selected these poems from First Awakenings: The Early Poems, a book edited by Elizabeth Friedmann, Alan J. Clark and Robert Nye (1992, Manchester: Carcanet).
Measure me for a burial
That my low stone may neatly say
In a precise, Euclidean way
How I am three-dimensional.
Yet can life be so thin and small?
Measure me in time. But time is strange
And still and knows no rule or change
But death and death is nothing at all.
Measure me by beauty.
But beauty is death’s earliest name
For life, and life’s first dying, a flame
That glimmers, an amaranth that will fade
And fade again in death’s dim shade.
Measure me not by beauty, that fears strife.
For beauty makes peace with death, buying
Dishonor and eternal dying
That she may keep outliving life.
Measure me then by love – yet, no,
For I remember times when she
Sought her own measurements in me,
But fled, afraid I might foreshow
How broad I was myself and tall
And deep and many-measured, moving
My scale upon her and thus proving
That both of us were nothing at all.
Measure me by myself
And not by time or love or space
Or beauty. Give me this last grace:
That I may be on my low stone
A gage unto myself alone.
I would not have these old faiths fall
To prove that I was nothing at all.
It is not for itself
That I love wickedness
But wickedness has such sweet ways!
Thieves walk at night
And make the night more silent.
Murderers love madness
And a moment’s high courage for killing.
It is not that I love killing,
But good men soften in their sanity
And smile too frequently.
Cruelty has a thousand charms.
Pain is a beauty lashed upon my back.
Oh, why is mercy kind?
Oh, why is justice blind,
Too blind for punishment?
Evil has as many enchantments as the night.
Lies are as mysterious as the stars.
The moon is a new truth each night
And shadows gamble for the moon dishonestly,
While goodness stays at home behind drawn blinds,
Hiding her beauty in a prayer,
Correctly wived to a monk’s hood.
And will not lie or love or dream.
If goodness loosed her hair
And danced at night with danger,
If goodness were as lovely half as sin,
I’d husband goodness then for her own sake
And find a thousand charms in virtue.
But wickedness has such sweet ways!
A City Seems
A city seems between us. It is only love,
Love like a sorrow still
After a labor, after light.
The crowds are one.
Sleep is a single heart
Filling the old avenues we used to know
With miracles of dark and dread
We dare not go to meet
Save as our own dead stalking
Or as two dreams walking
One tread and terrible,
One cloak of longing in the cold,
Though we stand separate and wakeful
Measuring death in miles between us
Where a city seems and memories
Sleep like a populace.
If a Woman Should Be Messiah
If a woman should be Messiah
It might not be an impressive drama,
It would be but a slight event and unsignaled,
It could not but be beautiful.
Such a woman would surely say very little
Of morals and religion.
Such a woman would surely never travel
Or inspire a gospel.
She would live at peace shyly
With a local lake and on certain days
Intrude some nearly divine distress
Upon it, with a most feminine caress
As of weeping spotlessly over it
In tears no more wonderful
Than any other woman’s.
She’d have no unnatural hungers,
No fewer lovers,
Do no evangelical tricks
With stones and sticks,
Even employ the innate art
To win the ordinary heart
Of an ordinary man,
As any wilful woman can.
And, as with any other woman,
Her self-confession would be kept
Close to her kerchief, under the pillow where she slept.
She might be adored of her household.
She could never deny them her faults.
She would pamper her private follies,
Talk too much of her dreams,
Pray to a personal God,
Deal unhistorically with facts,
Be sweet in marriage and motherhood.
Who’d be aware of her quiet work?
Who’d call her a saviour or even a saint?
Who’d trouble her with a cross or a church?
No one would.
We keep looking for Truth.
Truth is afraid of being caught.
Books are bird-cages.
Truth is no canary
To nibble patiently at words
And die when they’re all eaten up.
Truth would not like
To live in people’s heads or hearts or throats.
Don’t try to find her there.
Truth is no dryad to be punished in a tree.
Truth is no naiad.
Truth would be surely drowned in a spring.
Don’t worry the earth.
Truth leaves no footprints.
Before silence has set with the moon.
Truth makes no noise.
Don’t follow the light
That follows the sun
That follows the night.
Truth dances beyond the light
And the sun
And the night.
Truth can’t be seen.
Let curiosity stay at home.
It may get lost.
(Truth has strange haunts.)
If stealth wears shoes
It grows up to imprudence.
Leave truth alone.
Truth can’t be caught.
I think Truth doesn’t live at all because
She’d have to be afraid of dying, then.
An Ancient Revisits
They told me, when I lived, because my art
To them seemed wide and spacious as the air,
That time would be pervaded everywhere
With it, until no work would have a part
That had not once awakened in my heart,
That everything would crooked be or fair
As it inherited its proper share
From me and could that share again impart.
But this strange present world is not of me.
If I could find somewhere a secret sign,
That one might say: In this an Ancient sings,
I should acknowledge then my legacy
And love to call this modern fabric mine.
Perhaps, once, in my sleep, I dreamed such things?
The Sweet Ascetic
Find me the thing to make me less
Delivered to my earthliness,
Some rarer love to live upon,
A berry grown in Avalon,
Something that will, in this emprise,
Suffice me to etherealize
The coarser strain and purify
The flesh that had preferred to die.
Find me this thing and plant it near
My garden gate so that some day,
When I am going out of it,
I’ll stoop and pick the ripest bit
And, humming as I walk away,
Smile just a little and
Her faith was a pope
Who went riding in a golden coach.
And she was bold enough
To ride beside him
As if she were his young and bonny bride.
Trot, trot, trot.
She sped the horses,
It was a staid old pope who rode beside her.
He held his sides and gasped:
Remember, dear, my age and dignity.
Trot, trot, trot.
Ho, you there trudging at the hill! she cried.
Come in and ride,
There’s room inside upon his lap.
He said they’d wreck the coach
And crush his pride
But she was elfin-spirited
And piled them in hilariously until
The horses slipped and all
Went rolling blithely down the hill.
She found him sitting in the grass
Where he had been dismounted all agape
With convulsive austerity
Sweating from his brow.
Well, well, she said,
And patted him maternally.
You’re getting old, I’m afraid
I’ll have to leave you home hereafter
When I go riding out.
Trot, trot, trot.
She gallops now more jauntily than ever
In a dilapidated coach
That brims with giddy, supercilious company.
Why do you keep that seat beside you
Always empty? they demand.
Oh that, she says, is to
The outraged memory of
A fallen pope.
Thinking is the poorest way of traveling –
Paths in the head,
Dreams in bed.
Living in a body is the drearest kind of life,
Locked up all alone
In flesh and bone.
Turn me out of head,
Turn me out of body,
Wake me out of bed.
Rather than respectable,
Vagabond and dead.
Whom I have understood even less than any,
Who did not love me but was only loyal
But loyal so little it seemed only love.
He made too much of me, denied himself
Too utterly, offered the comfort of
A lovable excess of adoration,
Forgot he came to me upon a sorrow
Like the repentance of a storm in sun,
But no new day. Was it without a thought
He stopped the act of worship and stood up,
Choked off the heaven he had seen in me
Because it fell too close about his earth?
Or did he, frightened with so much success,
Flee from my gratitude and the disgrace
Of having without love consoled a woman?
You were born
(I planted a tulip tree in my garden.)
(The cups of my flowers
Were too frail for them
With a tawny wine.
They were too frail for the dew.)
(The wind stooped over my garden
And gathered the broken petals
Of my flowers.)
(I have cut down my tree
And made of it
A staff of white poplar
For my memory to lean upon.)
To-morrow I shall begin another story.
(To-morrow I shall plant another tree.)
How I Called the Ant Darling
The moment must have been the same for both.
For, as my foot went down to kill it,
Darling, Darling, screamed it,
And Darling, Darling, I answered it,
Lifting on the crackling pieces,
And once more Darling as once more down.
Then it did not cry or turn.
My mouth stopped tasting Ant.
Death-making lost disgust,
Or death went from both, and it was
Darling, Darling, with no thought of pardon,
As if the dead and death-maker clasped hands,
Watching the thing.
So it was Darling, Darling,
Yet no peace, for I ached,
As much as like Ant I could feel,
Not much: I could not crawl
Or break up so small.
My leg thought pain, but was too high
To see, except the humane toes
Drew in to hug the deed.
So Darling, in my mouth
Wore the sharp slaughter off.
The next breath, too, said Darling, but looking up
From murder with no purer word,
I breathed it no less tender
Not for an Ant and not for murder.