Visions of Ilford and India

The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine
November 17, 2000

This beautifully presented edition of the collected poems of Kathleen Raine is a pleasure to read with its fine printing and generous layout. Those who know her work may perhaps miss some poems, for she has omitted anything that now seems to her to have been written in a voice of insincere religiosity, as well as love poems of a personal nature and poems that seem contrived, including some occasional poems of the last war. On a Deserted Shore , however, remains intact at the heart of the book. There is also a final section of "uncollected and new poems", some of which were first published in a 1994 issue of Agenda in tribute to her on her 86th birthday.

In the foreword she expresses the wish that her poetry should be read in the context of the whole scope of her "life-work in the learning of the Imagination". With this in mind, for those who do not know Raine's work, I will try to describe some of the background of a poet, scholar and editor whose distinguished services to literature have won her various prizes including the Queen's Medal for Poetry and the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres .

She was born in 1908 and brought up in Ilford, Essex. Her father was a teacher who had taken his degree from Durham University and came from a family of Durham miners. He was a practising Wesleyan Methodist and old-style socialist. Her mother was Scottish and it is with her and her family, with whom she had spent some early years in Northumberland, that she identified.

In suburban Ilford she looked back on this time and landscape as a lost paradise. Her mother's love of poetry and encouragement inspired Kathleen to become a poet. She won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she studied natural science, later marrying Charles Madge, the poet of "mass observation", by whom she had two children. Kathleen and Charles were both published by Janet Adam Smith in The Listener in the 1930s.

But while Charles became a Faber poet, Kathleen's poetry was rejected, to her chagrin, for she wanted T. S. Eliot's approval. Instead her first volume, Stone and Flower , appeared in 1943 under Tambimuttu's Poetry Londono imprint with illustrations by Barbara Hepworth, somewhat unsuitably, although this was in line with Tambimuttu's idea of combining poetry and pictures.

Her dislike of contemporary thinking began in reaction to her time at Cambridge in the late 1920s where she found more imaginative stimulus in the scientific study of biology than in the literary theories of her peers and the scientific rationalising and intellectualisation of thought that had demoted Romanticism and the poetry she had loved as a child. She also felt out of sympathy with the political slant of the poetry of the 1930s and unenthusiastic about urban and industrial landscapes.

What she wanted to write was of a different nature - a recalling or anamnesis, to use David Jones's word, of an inner vision of beauty. To do this she turned to earlier models of poetry. She has remained true to her own poetic aims, however unfashionable, and in this resembles her "master", Blake.

She has written ten separate collections of poetry, the last published in 1992, and an elegy On a Deserted Shore , in 1973. This piece, which modulates grief through 130 separate and distinct verses, should find its place with other great elegies such as Tennyson's In Memoriam . From lines recalling Orpheus and Eurydice, which echo Miltonic syntax, you can progress to: "If I could turn/Upon my finger the bright ring of time/The now of then/I would bring back again."

She has also written four volumes of autobiography, Farewell Happy Fields (1973), The Land Unknown (1975), The Lion's Mouth (1977) and India Seen Afar (1990), which are a remarkable, clear map of her life in its relationship to the development of her imagination. The Lion's Mouth describes the sad ending of her friendship with Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water , the title of which was taken from one of Kathleen's poems, "The Marriage of Psyche".

Farewell Happy Fields - its title taken from Paradise Lost - reveals the extent of her sense of a divided heritage. Her father, with his educated English learnt like foreign speech, represents progress, education and the future, in contrast to her mother's "braid Scots" representing tradition and imagination. Here also you find the origin of her idea of exile from an imagined homeland "over the border" in Scotland and her memory of her mother's ability to recite long passages of Paradise Lost by heart. Loss and exile are the most powerful themes in her work, reflected in the archetypes from myth and fairy story she chooses: Orpheus and Eurydice, Demeter and Persephone, and Cupid and Psyche.

During the 1950s and 1960s she held a research fellowship at Girton College and wrote detailed works on Blake, Thomas Taylor the Platonist and Yeats. These studies led her to India where she felt that the sacred was still part of everyday life, in contrast to the West. In 1980 she co-founded the review Temenos and in 1990 established the Temenos Academy whose patron is Prince Charles.

The purpose of both is to affirm the sacred dimensions in the arts and to learn from rather than about the basic texts of human wisdom from all traditions - the Upanishads , Plato, Plotinus and modern writers such as Coomeraswamy. This is seen as the "perennial wisdom" that modern western thought has either sidelined in favour of a rational humanism nervous of mystery or forgotten in its preoccupation with materialism. Her interest in India and appreciation of Tagore have made her many Indian friends and a favourite guest at the Nehru Centre in London.

These achievements have a clear unity of intention and the Christianity of her childhood has not been rejected but absorbed into other traditions. In an interesting interview with Joy Hendry, editor of Chapman , in the 1994 issue of Agenda , she says: "I write for the inner self of other people which I presume to resemble my own inner self because we are all as it were individual egos manifesting the one humanity. Mankind is one. We only appear to ourselves to be separate." Her criticism of much contemporary poetry is based on what she believes to be an impoverishment of language and a concern with the ego: "my" imagination rather than "the" imagination.

Raine identifies herself as the type of poet who "draws on a certain kind of vision that remains constant" and who attempts "to write the same poem many times, some versions being better than others". She is aware of the problems of sustaining poetry that engages with the metaphysical and looks for a heightened sense of communion with the universe. There are times when the words lose power and act like a narcotic rather than offering a clear vision, but at best her choice of simple language expresses neoplatonic and esoteric ideas with deceptive ease.

Her verse has a curious musical plasticity that can surprise in its changes of rhythm from prose to song, while the voice can be more or less hieratic. There is variety of form: spells for sleep, love, bringing lost creatures home, invocations to death, a hymn to Lord Shiva, poems of place, poems titled "Rock" and "Water". In the poems for or about people the tone changes: you find "The Hyacinth" for her son James, "In the Beck" for her daughter Anna, "The Oval Portrait" about her mother, a birthday poem for her father or "Petite Messe Solennelle" for her granddaughter, describing singers in a church in Brockley or Ilford.

This poetry is structured around repeating themes that work like musical modes. Even the earliest poems use themes that will be replayed, such as the idea of flesh dissolving into element. This image from "The End of Love" ( The Pythoness , 1949) - "Now he is dead/How should I know/My true love's arms/From wind and snow" - transforms in On a Deserted Shore to:

"Since smoke rose from your pyre/All clouds are dear; but how/Among those vague bright forms/Yours shall I know?" Her mother appears in different forms throughout the poetry. In "Kore in Hades" ( The Hollow Hill , 1963): "I came, yes, dear, dear/Mother for you I came, so I remember,/To lie in your warm/Bed, to watch the wonder flame:/Burning, golden gentle and bright the light of living." Or, from "The River Eden" ( The Lost Country , 1971): "All is one, I or another/She was I, she was my mother,/The same child for ever/Building the same green bower/By the same river."

Two figures, Eudaimon and The Eternal Child, enter and exit at intervals and readers must interpret this for themselves. These lines are from "Three Poems of Incarnation" ( The Year One , 1952): "Who stands at my door in the storm and the rain/On the threshold of being?/One who waits till you call him in/From the empty night."

Her vision can shift from a deep nostalgia or "sighing after the infinite" to a dialogue with the unknown and a mystic unity or loss of self in "spirit". In this union, pronouns have no clear identity. Brian Keeble has noted the "modalities of 'I'" in some of Raine's poetry. The poem "Self" from The Pythoness opens with the question "Who am I, who/Speaks from the dust,/Who looks from the clay?" Shifting identity is found in other mystic writing, both early and modern, for example in the work of Swedish poet Par Lagerkvist, whose Aftonland , with its simple language, has been beautifully translated by Auden, and Lief Sjoberg. Lagerkvist towards the end of his life looked for stylistic models, as Raine has done, in an earlier stratum of literature - the Bible, the Rig Veda , the Avesta , the Koran, Icelandic sagas, folk songs and the Kalevala .

Perennial wisdom that combines an eastern and western mindset remains an imaginative resource in a modern world where people have lost their sense of belonging and feel torn between cultures. Poetry, once closely allied to religion, cannot make you love your neighbour but, like a runic key, can open an old memory of being one with the universe.

Anita Money was an editor at Agenda from 1994 to 2000.

The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine

Author - Kathleen Raine
ISBN - 0 903880 74 1
Publisher - Golgonooza Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 368

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