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A Short Analysis of Lola Ridge’s ‘Mother’

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 . . . Read the rest of this entry


The Fire Sermon and the Sphinx: The Poetry of William Empson

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the peculiar modernism of an obscure poet

William Empson wrote one of the most influential works of literary criticism of the entire twentieth century. His 1930 book Seven Types of Ambiguity, which put forward seven different ways in which a variety of poets from Geoffrey Chaucer to T. S. Eliot utilise ambiguity in their work and analysed specific examples from the poems, is a masterclass in close reading. What’s all the more remarkable is that Empson completed the book when he was just 23 years old, shortly after he’d been sent down from Cambridge after contraceptives were found in his university rooms. At the time, he was a graduate student working under I. A. Richards. With his expulsion from Cambridge, a promising academic career very nearly came to an end. As it was, it would take Empson over two decades to gain an academic post at a British university.

But as well as writing one of the pioneering works of literary criticism, in which he analysed other poets’ work, William Empson was also a fine poet himself, his work falling somewhere between the obscure high modernism of someone like T. S. Eliot (whose influence on his work Empson readily acknowledged) and the more Read the rest of this entry

May Sinclair’s Modernist Masterpiece: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle bangs the drum for an undervalued modernist novel

1922 was the annus mirabilis and high point of modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were all published. On 18 May 1922, Joyce and Marcel Proust, two titans of the modernist novel in their respective languages, met at a disastrous dinner in Paris; the two writers spent the meal discussing their ailments, before eventually admitting that they hadn’t read each other’s work. Also present at this historic dinner party were Picasso and Stravinsky. 1922 was the point where a number of modernisms appeared to converge and collectively reach their zenith.

Yet this handful of modernist classics fails to tell the full story. 1922 also saw the publication of another modernist novel by a writer who is far less celebrated than Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, or Mansfield. Yet she was an important figure in the movement and even now she is overlooked in our rush to get to Ulysses and to Virginia Woolf’s mature novels. May Sinclair (1863-1946) was, in fact, the one who first applied the psychological term ‘stream of consciousness’ to the work of one of her modernist contemporaries – another novelist often absent from discussions of modernist fiction, Dorothy Richardson. Sinclair championed the work of the Imagist poets led by Ezra Pound, and even wrote a novel in verse using the Imagist method, The Dark Night. Like much of her work, it is seldom mentioned in surveys of modernist literature. Read the rest of this entry