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19 May 1941: The death of Lola Ridge anarchist poet
Lola Ridge was a poet and champion of the working classes. As a political activist she could be found participating enthusiastically in many protests, marches and pickets. She was, as Peter Quartermain described her in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “the nearest prototype in her time of the proletarian poet of class conflict, voicing social protest or revolutionary idealism.”
Ridge moved to the USA from Australia in 1907. For a while she supported herself by writing advertising copy and fiction, but fearing for her artistic integrity and anarchist principles she eventually gave up this work. In 1909 she had a poem, “The Martyrs of Hell”, published in Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth.
THE MARTYRS OF HELL
By LOLA RIDGE.
Not your martyrs anointed of heaven
The ages are red where they trod;
But the hunted—the world’s bitter leaven,
Who smote at your imbecile God:
A being to pander and fawn to;
To propitiate, flatter, and dread
As a thing that your souls are in pawn to,
A dealer that barters the dead;
Who gloats with a vengeance unsated,
And sells the lost souls in His snares
Who were trapped in the lusts He created—
For incense and masses and prayers.
They are crushed in the coils of your halters:
‘Twere well, by the creeds ye have nursed,
To send up a cry from your altars,
A mass for the martyrs accursed.
Just a passionate prayer for reprieval.
For the Brotherhood not understood—
For the heroes who died for the evil.
Believing the evil was good.
Here’s a toast that has never been given;
Listen, thralls of the Book and the Bell:
To the souls of the martyrs unshriven,
The bondmen who dared to rebel —
To the Breakers, the Bold, the Despoilers,
Who dreamed of a world overthrown;
They who died for the millions of toilers,
Few — fronting the nations alone;
To the Outlawed of men and the Branded,
Whether hated or hating they fell,
I pledge the devoted, red-handed,
Unfaltering heroes of hell!
In 1918 the New Republic published Ridge’s sequence of poems called “The Ghetto” to critical acclaim, and later that year she published this and other poems in The Ghetto and Other Poems. This work, in 43 free-verse poems, explored the life of Jewish immigrants in New York’s ghettos. Ridge began to have more work published in journals such as the Dial, the New Republic, Poetry and the Literary Digest.
In 1919 she married fellow anarchist David Lawson and the two lived a life of deliberate poverty for which she would receive some criticism, but she was determined to remain close to the working class. In 1920 Ridge published a new book, Sun-up, and Other Poems. Although the main work entitled Sun-Up was about her childhood, in the other poems she revisited themes of political radicalism and working-class lives, distinguishing her from other imagist poets at work at the same time.
Come forth, you workers!
Let the fires go cold—
Let the iron spill out, out of the troughs—
Let the iron run wild
Like a red bramble on the floors—
Leave the mill and the foundry and the mine
And the shrapnel lying on the wharves—
Leave the desk and the shuttle and the loom—
With your ashen lives,
Your lives like dust in your hands.
I call upon you, workers.
It is not yet light
But I beat upon your doors.
You say you await the Dawn
But I say you are the Dawn.
Come, in your irresistible unspent force
And make new light upon the mountains.
(From Sun-up, and Other Poems)
In 1927 she published Red Flag, a collection of poems based around the Russian revolution. Firehead, published in 1929, is a long poetic allegory on the execution of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, in Charleston Prison, Boston 1927. On the night before the execution Ridge had been part of the protest outside the prison, and, when police charged the protestors, according to an eyewitness,
One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horses’ hooves beat over her head, she did not move, but stood up with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognising her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge.”
Ridge also wrote about another labour activist, Tom Mooney, who was facing the death sentence after being falsely accused of bombing a military parade. In the late 1920s, when Mooney had been in San Quentin prison for over ten years, a poem Ridge had written about him titled “Stone Face” was printed on a poster alongside a photo of Mooney in prison clothing. This would sell hundreds of thousands of copies at 15 cents each or ten for a dollar to raise money for Mooney’s defence fund, and would be seen fixed to bridges and pasted to walls across the US.
Lola Ridge died 19 May, 1941, in her home in Brooklyn, at the age of sixty-seven. After her death her name and work drifted into obscurity but her importance is being slowly rediscovered. Peter Quartermain praised her when he wrote “Unlike most American left-wing writers she had first hand knowledge of working-class life.”
Let men be free!
All violence is but the agony
Of caged things fighting blindly for the right
To be and breathe and burn their little hour.
Bare spirits—not debight
In smooth-set garments of philosophy;
But near earth forces, elemental, crude,
Scarce knowing their invicible, rude power;
Within the close of their primeval servitude
Who, ravening for their depleted dower
Of so much sun and air and warmth and food,
And the same right to procreate and love
As the beasts have and the birds,
Strike wild—not having words
To parry with—at the cold force above.
Let men be free!
Hate is the price
Of servitude, paid covertly; and vice
But the unclean recoil of tortured flesh
Whipped through the centuries within a mesh
Spun out of priestly art.
Oh men, arise, be free!—Who breaks one bar
Of tyranny in this so bitter star
Has cleansed its bitterness in part.
(Mother Earth, Vol. VI, no. 4, June 1911)