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.



But Wickedness…


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.

Don’t listen

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 disappear.


In Reverence


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,

Forgetting quite

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

Beneath them.

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.

To Another


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.)


You bloomed.

            (The cups of my flowers

            Were too frail for them

            With a tawny wine.

            Each morning

            They were too frail for the dew.)


You faded.

            (The wind stooped over my garden

            And gathered the broken petals

            Of my flowers.)


You died

            (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.