Anne Ridler and the Poetry of Life

By Short, Edward | The Human Life Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Anne Ridler and the Poetry of Life


Short, Edward, The Human Life Review


Poetry might not seem the most persuasive means of changing minds in the debate over abortion. What was it Yeats said?

The rhetorician would deceive his neighbors,

The sentimentalist himself; while art is but a vision of reality.

Yet reality is at the heart of the abortion debate and even if poetry can offer only "a vision of reality," it can still identify the abstractions that often falsify the debate.

One poet whose work is ideal for this purpose is Anne Ridler. Born in Warwickshire in 1912, the only daughter of Henry Christopher Bradby, a housemaster at Rugby, and his wife Violet Milford, Ridler went to Downe House (where Elizabeth Bowen was schooled), spent six months in Florence and Rome, and then took a diploma in journalism at King's College, London in 1932.2 Between 1935 and 1940, she worked at Faber and Faber as T. S. Eliot's secretary. In her memoir, she recalled: "After reading through a pile of manuscripts he once confided, 'Sometimes I feel I loathe poetry.'" In 1938, she married Vivian Ridler, Printer to the University of Oxford, with whom she had two sons and two daughters. Throughout her married life in Oxford, she and her family attended St. Mary's Church, where Newman gave his great Anglican sermons. Ridler published 11 volumes of poetry over nearly 50 years; she also wrote verse dramas and, in her later years, librettos. For 30 years, she sang in the Oxford Bach Choir. She was also a peripheral member of the Inklings, the group surrounding C. S. Lewis that included J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. The chief contemporary influences on her work were Eliot, Auden, and Louis MacNeice. Like them, she was also influenced by Donne, Marvell, and the devotional poets of the 17th century, Herbert, Traherne, and Vaughan. The themes of her poetry are varied, rooted as they are in the family, and range from love and separation to the power of place, faith in God, marriage, the birth of children, and something that does not figure as much as it once did in poetry: the eternal. She died in 2001.

In her poem "For a Child Expected," Ridler tills ground largely passed over in English poetry.3

Lovers, whose lifted hands are candles in winter,

Whose gentle ways like streams in the easy summer,

Lying together

For secret setting of a child, love what they do,

Thinking they make that candle immortal, streams forever flow,

And yet do better than they know.

So the first flutter of a baby felt in the womb, Its little signal and promise of riches to come ...

The poem captures the hopes that crowd the threshold of birth:

... whatever we liked we took:

For its hair, the gold curls of the November oak

We saw on our walk;

Snowberries that make a Milky Way in the wood

For its tender hands; calm screen of the frozen flood

For our care of its childhood.

But the birth of a child is an uncontrollable glory;

Cat's cradle of hopes will hold no living baby,

Long though it lay quietly.

And when our baby stirs and struggles to be born

It compels humility; what we began

Is now its own.

How different this celebration of the joys and obligations of pregnancy is to what one encounters at Planned Parenthood, which counsels pregnant women "to compare the benefits, risks, and side effects of each of your options. For example, both medication abortion and early vacuum aspiration are extremely safe. But current data suggest that medication abortion may carry a higher risk of death than early vacuum aspiration abortion. Even so, both procedures are much safer than abortion later in pregnancy or carrying a pregnancy to term." Medication abortion, vacuum aspiration . . . One has to wonder whether those who routinely use such language recognize that we have a moral obligation to eschew false witness. Eliot, with Dante in mind, said that one charge of poetry is "to purify the dialect of the tribe / And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight. …

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