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When the Skies Part

Let patience have a new mettle of love
When the legions of unlivable hours marshal
And the long-rumored war between good and evil
Seems loosed—no, between time and evil. 

To look not too keenly, hear their battles not loudly.
The war is an ancient one which hurls
Time against time on to-morrow’s fields—
Which consumes expectation, leaves to-day waiting. 

Standing in the shadow of their shadow-world,
Let the cries and the thunders fall voiceless to earth,
And the flames reach to heaven, that top of hell,
Unexalted by our eyes, our amen. 

Nor be haggard for an outcome, breath forborne.
When ghosts put on flesh and make bodies ghostly,
It is but how the dead light themselves home
As the living inherit nature. 

If the glare blots our sight, if the sparks sting,
If nations gibber and ether tears
And a smell of scorching blows round the world,
As if at last doom were astir (perhaps?): 

Shake off the dream, close in fulfillment,
Draw a finer circle and raise boundaries
More home-like unswelling, to stay the heart—
Lusting after better things than are. 

Keep a yet more unanxious watch.
Think not to know wonders, learn truth from wild hours.
Let patience glow with its own inwrought luster,
Not the startled reflection of time’s faster burning.

Laura Riding (1901-1991) rose to prominence as a poet during the 1920s. She moved to Europe in 1926, where she began a long creative and personal association with the English poet Robert Graves, primarily in Deya, Majorca. Forced to flee the island in 1936, the couple was in France when Riding wrote "When the Skies Part." The poem was written in October 1938, only days after Neville Chamberlain's return from Munich proclaiming "peace in our time," while effectively ceding the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Riding makes a direct response to what she saw as disastrously misplaced faith in diplomacy. "What is happening is not that war has been or is being averted, but the question forming itself more directly and immediately: not merely the method with evil, but who has clear enough hands to deal with it directly.

In a world where poets could still dream of doing good or being heard, she wrote that in France she and Graves "were busy sending out deep-breaking waves of assurance—and I hope something more positive than that, although one can't expect it to be visible among the goings and comings of Downing Street." In the 1940s, long separated from Graves, and as Laura (Riding) Jackson, she renounced the writing of poetry altogether.

This poem was discovered by Elizabeth Friedmann, her authorized biographer, in a collection of correspondence acquired by Cornell University in 1992. It will appear in A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson, to be published this winter by Persea Books.

—Glyn Maxwell.

This poem originally ran in the February 14, 2005, issue of the magazine.