September 17, 2006

The Life of the Dead

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.

Detail from 'The Dry Heart,' an engraving by R.J. Beedham after a design by John Aldridge and Laura Riding Jackson.

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.
Detail from 'Within the City: Night-time,' an engraving by R.J. Beedham after a design by John Aldridge and Laura Riding Jackson.

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”.

Detail from 'Dead Birth,' an engraving by R.J. Beedham after a design by John Aldridge and Laura Riding Jackson.

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)
Detail from 'The Playful Goddess,' an engraving by R.J. Beedham after a design by John Aldridge and Laura Riding Jackson.

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.
Detail from 'Mortjoy's Theatre,' an engraving by R.J. Beedham after a design by John Aldridge and Laura Riding Jackson.

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.

'Within the City: Day-time,' an engraving by R.J. Beedham after a design by John Aldridge and Laura Riding Jackson.

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.
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.
Posted by michelangelo at September 17, 2006 10:20 AM

Mille grazie to frequent Giornale commenter, (and now guest-author) michelangelo, for suggesting this topic, and for following through so admirably well when I proposed making an entry out of it.

I’ve been sorely distracted by off-line matters for the past couple of weeks, but hope to have something more of my own to contribute in a few days’ time.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 17, 2006 10:33 AM

This is absolutely fantastic, thanks for posting this.

Can I ask how this book is set up? Is it a print on the left with the French and the English on the right, or do the French and English get their own pages?

Posted by: dan visel on September 17, 2006 05:56 PM

Dan—I haven’t seen the book myself, but in the examples that michelangelo sent me, the illustrations faced the French text, with the English presumably following overleaf.

Posted by: misteraitch on September 17, 2006 06:31 PM

Thanks to Michelangelo! Laura Riding is such an interesting figure. Despite her wildness (or maybe because of it), there's such an innocence about a pre-WWII figure who tries to get the world's intellectuals to help change the world by putting a stop to the 'outside life' and turning toward the inner realities. I had a friend who hunted her down and visited her many times in Florida, when she was elderly and essentially forgotten, but now I have only a vague memory of clever anecdotes that showed she still had a spark of her old self.

Posted by: marlyat2 on September 17, 2006 08:58 PM

Mr. H—thank you for the hospitality and for the kind words. Dan—I have only seen this work reprinted in The Poems of Laura Riding, a standard paperback. The original edition is larger: too large for Seizin Press, which was really just a press in Riding’s and Graves’ house at Deyá. This is why it was published in London, I think. All the plates are full page; not always on the left, depending on the length of the text. Illustration, French and English follow each other without breaks. Marly—it’s interesting to hear about your friend’s experience. By some accounts, Riding could be rather prickly. For a taste, just see her response to Harry Mathews’ ecstatic review of Progress of Stories (which I highly recommend, by the way).

Posted by: Michelangelo on September 18, 2006 01:08 AM

I wonder if Harry Matthews is related to TS (Tom?) Matthews who lived in the Graves/Riding circle for some time, then had a spectacular falling out - Riding took violently against him, as I recall. It's all in his "Under the Influence" published in the 1970's - very interesting & often extremely funny.

Posted by: johnb on September 18, 2006 06:53 PM


Yes, she seems to have been quite fluent and burr-ish even late in life! Thanks for the link...

Posted by: marlyat2 on September 19, 2006 02:41 AM

This is by far my favorite web site. I found it when doing an image search for a multimedia project that involves all kinds of midieval allegorical drawings. (You had some good ones back in June of 04).


Posted by: Johannes Goransson on September 23, 2006 10:45 PM

lovely, lovely illustrations. I particularly like the 'polarised' quality of some of the surfaces in the second and final imarges.

Posted by: paulm on September 29, 2006 08:39 PM

Hi Stuart!

Always a pleasure to visit you. Have to do it more often. Have you read any Finnish poems lately? ;o)

I haven't.

But I still feel like writing them. Kind of. Occationally.

Take care of yourself.

[Back in Finland. Thank God. Unfortunately. Confusing? YES!]

Posted by: Lea on October 30, 2006 05:13 AM
Comments are now closed