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On "Elegy in a Spider's Web"

Deborah Baker

...In the first seven lines two voices are apparent, the second interrupting the first to call into impatient question the very dynamics by which meaning is elicited from a text....

In the late twentieth century the dominant modes of critical discourse--New Criticism, structuralism, and deconstructionism--would consider the above lines in terms of the play of literary conventions belonging to preestablished "codes" of language. Here Riding engaged and questioned the "codes" of vernacular inflection, riddle, and typographical conventions to portray dialogue, onomatopoeia, linear narrative, and mythological reference to Arachne as a symbol of female entrapment. To follow such respectable lines of inquiry, however, is to evade the simple biographical connection between this poem and Laura Riding's suicide attempt [1929].

... In the awkward but infinitely careful crawl of Riding's spider lay one of the few paths to her recovery of an intensely personal poetic voice, in the shadow of the failed suicide attempt.

The spider, made all the more visible by the poem's scarcity of imagery, thus makes way for the "I." Other images carefully dealt out in the body of the poem--face, legs and, most remarkably, genii--stand out in similar relief. ... The initial rhythm quickly breaks down, as the disruptive impatience of the second voice kills the modest struggle of the "I" toward syntactical coherence, suggesting that the web of language (like the grip of hyperself-consciousness) can be suffocating as well as intricate. ...By the ending of the poem, the loss of the gift of prophecy seems as final as the loss of beauty in the divided face ("0 pity poor pretty") and certainty ("What to say"). (pp. 189-191)

from Deborah Baker, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (New York: Grove Press, 1993).

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