Irish-born poet Lola Ridge (1873–1941) was a passionate advocate for the immigrant working class in early 20th-century New York City. She chose to live in poverty among the people whose lives she described in her poetry, even after becoming a published author and influential editor. A selfless and devoted “poet of the people,” her best-known works illuminated the harshness of urban life and were rediscovered and newly appreciated in the 21st century.
Rose Emily Ridge was born in Dublin, Ireland, on December 12, 1873. Although married, her mother, Emma Reilly Ridge, was then living with her own father, customs collector John Reilly, because Emma's husband, a medical student named Joseph Henry Ridge, had deserted the family. Mother and daughter lived comfortably and Ridge grew up hearing about the the Reillys of Loughrea, County Galway, who were descended from kings. Both of her grandfathers had left Galway, probably to avoid the famine that plagued much of Ireland during the mid-19th century. Royal blood or no, by 1877, when John Reilly died, he left his daughter and granddaughter enough money to book passage on a ship leaving Ireland.
Given the great distances they covered and the limited communication with the home country, cross-ocean migration often afforded people the chance to escape unwanted social strictures and reinvent themselves in a new land. In the 19th century, a woman abandoned by her husband had few options because divorce would not be permitted in Ireland until 1996. The strong-willed Emma Reilly Ridge took this opportunity to start over, setting an example for her daughter. In 1877, Emma booked passage for herself and four-year-old Rose Emily, heading to faraway Australia, where several of her relatives were already living.
After mother and daughter arrived in Sydney, they had few resources, and Emma had difficulty finding both lodging and livelihood due to her lack of marketable skills. Her compulsion to share what she had with others would strongly influence her daughter, but the immediate consequence was that they often went hungry. During their first Christmas in Australia, they were offered a seat at dinner by their landlady. Emma refused, instead purchasing sweets and tea to give away to the street people begging for food. As an adult, Lola Ridge would exhibit a similar generosity, although her needs would often be met due to the generosity of wealthier friends.
After several years in Sydney, Emma Ridge and her daughter immigrated to New Zealand, where they had no relatives and Emma's prospects for remarriage were better. Arriving in the gold fields of Hokitika in 1880, Emma introduced herself as a widow, and soon married a kind but hard-drinking Scottish prospector who lived in a threeroom shack. While sitting by the fire with her stepfather, Lola wrote her first poem in a wave of inspiration. She later marked this moment as one in which she knew herself, in a profound sense, to be a poet.
In 1895, at age 21, Ridge married Peter Webster, a New Zealand prospector whose father owned a saloon. The couple moved to his remote gold claim near a tiny town called Kaneiri (for the yellow canaries that had once populated the local bush). As Rose Webster, she sampled the rough life of a prospector's wife while participating in community events, acting in a stage play in 1898. Her first child, a son, died of bronchitis within weeks of birth. Their second son, Keith, was born in 1900 and survived, cared for in part by Emma, who had joined the Webster household when her husband was institutionalized with a mental illness.
When not keeping house and caring for her family, Ridge wrote poetry as well as short stories, some which were accepted for publication in magazines of the day. Artistic validation came in 1903 when she received first prize in a national poetry competition sponsored by New Zealand Illustrated. Ridge would not be content with her role as an occasional voice from the wilderness, however. With her marriage failing, she returned to Sydney and enrolled at Australia's Trinity College. While Emma cared for young Keith, she studied painting and funneled her emotions into poems ranging from romantic longings to down-to-earth “bush ballads,” songs of the Australian frontier. After her mother died, Ridge and her son departed for a new life in America.
Now aged 33, Ridge arrived in San Francisco in 1907, reinventing herself as a 23-year-old poet and painter from Australia. Using her pen name, Lola Ridge, she was a good fit with the city's bohemian population. Capitalizing on her accent and frail good looks, she took well-paying jobs as an artist's model and found U.S. publishers for her short stories and bush ballads. Characteristically restless, she wanted to firmly establish herself in her newly adopted country and decided to settle in New York City, which boasted a bigger and more vibrant cultural community.
As a first step, Ridge took her son Keith on a trip to Los Angeles, where she deposited the eight-year-old at an orphanage. Until the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s, parents struggling to get by would often leave their children in institutions where they could be fed and acquire a basic education, anticipating the time when the family could be reunited. Ridge would not be reunited with her son until he was 14.
Ridge threw herself into coordinating the chaos at the center with an almost religious fervor. According to Terese Svoboda in her Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, future historian Will Durant recalled his first meeting with her at the Center. “She was so frail that her energy made me uncomfortable,” he noted; “At any moment it seemed that her physical resources would be exhausted, and she would fall to the floor consumed in the fire of her own spirit…. Her large dark eyes looked out on the world with a mixture of passionate resoluteness and brooding love; she would remake this sorry scheme of things whether it consented or rebelled. I found out later that she was a poetess, whose lines trembled with the ardor of the soul that made them.”
As a writer whose work “trembled with the ardor of the soul,” Ridge published over 60 poems between 1908 and 1937. She first attracted critical acclaim for her long poem “The Ghetto,” which appeared in New Republic magazine in 1918. This poem portrayed daily life in the crowded Jewish immigrant neighborhood in New York City where she lived for several years in a tiny, rented room. While exploring themes of class, gender and generational conflict in her verse, Ridge conveyed her subject's individuality without resorting to ethnic clichés or stereotypes. Her first published collection, 1918's The Ghetto and Other Poems, followed soon after, marking her arrival as a major poet.
Ridge had written most of the poems in The Ghetto and Other Poems over a period of several years, most of which had found her outside New York City. Perhaps weary of the demands of managing the Center and its domineering leaders, or perhaps restless and in need of change, she and David Lawson—a Scots-born engineer and anarchist whom she would marry in 1919—took an extended road trip around the United States. Departing in 1912, the couple drove from town to town, settling for a time in New Orleans. While visiting Louisiana, in 1914, she sent for son Keith, who was now 14 years old. Although he joined the couple on their wanderings for several years, he parted ways once they reached Detroit, Michigan, enrolling in vocational school and settling into a boarding house. They would continue to correspond but would never meet again.
Returned with Lawson to New York City by 1917, Ridge now entered her creative prime as a poet and literary force. With the release of The Ghetto and Other Poems the following year, critics cited the power and passion of her writing, the clarity of her imagery, and the modernity of her vision. Leading avant-garde publications featured her work, and she was invited to join the editorial staff of a new modernist magazine, Others, which published works by leading poets and writers such as Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. She and Lawson hosted a salon, or conversational gathering, filling their apartment with famous and not-so-famous writers and artists who would ponder the future of art in America. A charismatic hostess, Ridge presided over what would be remembered by many guests as an exciting and influential soirée.
Ridge worked at a particularly feverish pace through the 1920s, often at great cost to her health. In addition to serving as editor and reviewer at several respected magazines (including the internationally popular Broom, of which she was American editor), she continued hosting her salon and collaborated with writers such as William Carlos Williams on new publications. She won a distinguished award from Poetry magazine, an honor also presented to noted poets William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Contemporary critics appreciated Ridge's focus on social themes, her political radicalism and her view of justice as seen through the lens of the urban working poor. The main poem in her second collection, 1920's Sun-up and Other Poems, would stand in contrast to this: according to critics, it was based on her childhood and brilliantly evoked the voice of a child without veering into sentimentality.
In 1930, after spending time at an artist retreat in upstate New York, Ridge produced Firehead, a book-length verse retelling of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ from the perspective of nine witnesses. Her writing style here was more lush, with lengthy lines filling the pages, and it contrasted greatly with the spare, modernist free verse of her earlier works. During the 1930s, Ridge and Lawson moved several times, and in 1935 she used the money from a Guggenheim fellowship to travel to Mexico and write her final book. Titled Dance of Fire, it was criticized as being obscure and imprecise.
By now Ridge's health, never great, was increasingly precarious, and she experienced frequent migraines as well as serious dental issues and complications of rheumatoid arthritis. When money was tight, she would subsist on one meal a day; while writing to Lawson from Mexico, she hinted at her situation but never directly asking for help. After her return to New York City, they rented a series of apartments, eventually settling in Brooklyn, where he supported them.
In her final years, Ridge joined many Americans in being troubled by the rise in political tensions across Europe as nations dealt with an increasingly hostile Nazi Germany. Her journals, now bearing her birth name Rose Emily Ridge, included premonitions of dire events, such as the German invasion of Greece. She described feeling discordant vibrations from Europe due to the frightening violence there. Increasingly bedridden, Ridge wrote her last poem, a sonnet to beauty that clearly addressed a divine power: “In thy high company— / whereof all things are free.” She died of a heart attack, probably related to her rheumatoid arthritis, on May 19, 1941, at her home in Brooklyn, New York. She was 68.
Svoboda, Terese, Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, Schaffner Press, 2016.
Modern American Poetry, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/ridge/bio.htm (December 4, 2017), Donna Allego, “Lola Ridge.”
New York Times, May 21, 1941, “Lola Ridge, Poet, Dies in Brooklyn,” p. 23.
Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lola-ridge (December11, 2017), “Lola Ridge, 1873–1941.” □