The Life of the Dead (1933) is a collaboration between American poet Laura Riding Jackson and British painter John Aldridge. It is a product of the intense period when Riding and her partner Robert Graves were at the centre of a small community of expatriates in Deyá, Mallorca, busily writing and running their own Seizin Press.
The Life of the Dead, published by Arthur Baker in London in 200 copies, is an atypical work within both collaborators’ careers. The poem is preceded by an explanation which reveals some unusual facts about its creation:
The text of this highly artificial poem was first written in French, in order that the English might benefit from the limitations which French puts upon the poetic seriousness of words […]
I have used [French] here with approximate correctness, but my object was not to produce a finished literary exercise in French: the French text is merely the critical intermediary between the pictures and the English.
Riding describes the poem as the result of a “conscious relaxation of poetic energy”; a departure from the abstract, “truth-seeking” language of her serious poems, which prompted the accusations of obscurity that have always followed her. The Life of the Dead is full of decorative imagery and it is probably also allegorical, although not within any obvious symbolic tradition. For those who like that sort of thing, In Extremis, Deborah Baker’s biography of Riding, contains a long interpretation of the poem as “captur[ing] the mood of wicked play and brooding sexual intrigue that gripped Deyá life for [certain] members of Laura’s circle”.
The genesis of the prints is also atypical:
The illustrations are the germ of the text: I conceived them before the text, as verbal comedies. Their final form, however, was arrived at by a compromise between the illustrator and myself on the pictorial values of the subject […] (from the explanation)
From what little I could find in print and online, it would seem that Aldridge was a rather conservative landscape painter and designer (he was indeed a member of the Royal Academy). Thus, the echoes of roughly contemporary trends such as surrealism in the plates for The Life of the Dead are likely a result of Riding’s “art direction”. The medium of wood engraving seems to enhance the similarities with Max Ernst’s collage novels, which used commercial wood engravings as their raw material. Aldridge was not an engraver, so he sent the designs to one R. J. Beedham in London to have them executed in wood. When she learned that Beedham was “disturbed by the morbidity of the designs”, Riding wrote him,
Perhaps I can make them seem less terrible to you. They are not meant to be a record of a true motion of life […] exactly because they are a record of the life of the dead: meaning by “dead” the necessarily unrelieved repetition of living ways that take place in minds which, when they die, remain so to speak in their graves—go on being depressing little human individuals. As this is the way most human beings understand death, and so are destined to live death, it is rather important that there should be some record of it. I hope this explanation will not be even more depressing to you than the designs themselves.
The following excerpt may give you a flavour of the work, with its cycle of full page illustration, followed by French text, in turn followed by English text. For the full text, please see The Poems of Laura Riding, from Persea Books.
A l’intérieur de la ville: de jour
Les gaillards les plus étourdis sont les bravaches nouveaux-morts.
Ils vont brandissant leurs épées comme des soldats en congé
Qui soupirent vaillamment après la guerre.
Il n’y a rien de plus épatant, de plus exquis,
Dans tout ce répertoire de bizarreries lugubres
Que l’adresse du sabreur en train d’équilibrer
Un sujet difficile à la pointe de son épée.
Le grand feu de joie au beau milieu de la place
N’est pas un spectacle pour faire perdre votre temps;
Là on brûle les sujets les plus insignifiants.
Tout près, sur la colonne, on isole un à un
Les citoyens sans reproche, les êtres ennuyeux.
Souvent, un mois entier s’écoule, avant que le pieux
S’extasie du martyre, pour faire place au prochain.
Mais, à vrai dire, ce sont des niaiseries
Auxquelles ne s’intéressent guère les morts eux-mêmes—
Comme dans les journaux des pays étrangers
On ne trouve pas des traités sur les mœurs indigènes.
Within the City: Day-time
The most roguish galliards are the braves not long deceased.Posted by michelangelo at September 17, 2006 10:20 AM
They jaunt about, their swords unscabbarded, like soldiers home on leave
Valorously sighing for the battle-front.
There’s nothing quite so prodigious, so wanton-quaint
In this whole hypocondriacal repertory
As the intent skill of a swordsman juggling true
some difficult subject on his tidy sword-tip.
The great bonfire signalling the middle of the square
Is not a sight to claim much of your time.
One deals there only with the unimportant cases.
On the pillar not fare off are left marooned
Those tiresome neighbours without foibles—one at a time.
Often a whole month goes by before the righteous one
Transpires in martyrdom, to make room for the next.
But, come, these are indeed palling frivolities
In which the dead themselves take little interest—
As in the newspapers of foreign countries
Treatises on native modes do not abound.