On a little-known poem by a forgotten modernist
Lola Ridge (1873-1941) is not much-remembered now, much less read. Yet she was one of a number of female modernist poets active in the first half of the twentieth century: poets who helped to move English (or Anglophone: Ridge herself was not English) verse away from roses and iambic pentameters and into fresh new territory. Her short poem, ‘Mother’, gives a snapshot of her distinctive style.
Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors . . .
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.
You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall . . .
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.
Lola Ridge was born Rose Emily Ridge in Ireland but lived much of her adult life in the United States, dying in Brooklyn, New York in 1941. She’s not read much now, but she was a pioneer of what some call ‘Anarchist poetry’, though her style might be co-opted more broadly under the banner of modernism. This short poem’s description of a mother’s love being like moonlight ‘turning harsh things to beauty’ sums up how many people feel about the power of a mother’s love, but manages to avoid lapsing into the sentimentality so often associated with poems on this subject.
The moon, the mirror, the shining stream: Ridge homes in on images of reflection in her first stanza, seeing a mother as someone who gives an ethereal beauty to the children’s image of themselves, not simply returning but magnifying it. The image of the ‘shining stream’ returns in the second stanza as ‘broken water’, suggesting perhaps that Ridge’s memory of her mother from her childhood is impressionistic and unclear. The mother enhances the child’s image of itself, but at the cost of her own sense of self: a mother’s life is a selfless one.
Image: Lola Ridge via Wikimedia Commons.