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Her ‘Great Battle’

Five reasons why Kathleen Raine’s Second World War essays can help us find peace through poetry

‘A losing battle? All battles are lost by those who do not fight on.’

Kathleen Raine, India Seen Afar (Green Books, 1990), p41.

One of three Kathleen Raine Poetry Stones on the Ullswater Way.

1. Her ‘Great Battle’ Meets the World’s

To say that the imagery of battle adds an extra charge to Kathleen Raine’s poetry and prose would be to risk abstracting the real, lifelong crusade she waged in service to truth, wisdom and imagination. From her first poetry collection Stone and Flower in 1943 to her founding of The Temenos Academy almost fifty years later, Raine came to understand her purpose in this life – what she termed our ‘here and now’[1] – as fighting for spiritual values in an increasingly materialistic and mechanical world from which it seemed they had been exiled. Across her diverse literary oeuvre, encompassing continents and centuries, she stood up for ‘tradition’ in its richest and most open-minded sense: inspiring readers of every discipline to rediscover – perhaps re-remembering or ‘unforgetting’ – our unbreakable bond with the natural world, generating a sense of visionary, timeless meaning that both deepens and transcends what modernity teaches us to think of as ‘real’ (she preferred the term ‘untransmuted’). Raine’s own life, too, was in many ways a battle to get back to the ‘happy fields’ she had known as a First World War evacuee in Great Bavington near the Scottish Border:

‘That sense of here-and-now eludes us, and we pursue it, never happy until we overtake it, if we ever do… but here I had it, and sat like a bird on her nest, secure, unseen, part of the distance, with the world, day and night, wind and light, revolving round me in the sky. The distant and the near had no longer any difference between them, and I was in the whole…’[2]

This epic journey of place and space took Raine from Cambridge to Paris and even to India; from Washington D.C. to the remotest reaches of the West Highlands (the period explored in my upcoming novel The Rowan Tree). Indeed, ‘The Ring’, part two of Raine’s poem ‘The Marriage of Psyche’, which provided the title for Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water – with whom she shared an intense if often volatile battleground of a relationship – includes remarkable echoes of the above Bavington passage:

‘He has… ringed me round with the world-circling wind,

Bound me to the whirlwind’s centre.

He has married me with the orbit of the moon

And with the boundless circle of the stars,

With the orbits that measure years, months, days and nights,

Set the tides flowing,

Command the winds to travel or be at rest’. [3]

Raine’s extraordinary experiences of shared consciousness and conflict with Maxwell, before his untimely death at the age of just fifty-five, came to embody her eventual realisation that ‘the soul is where we love, not where we live’.[4] Intent upon evoking this oft-forgotten spiritual understanding in her work and illuminating the way for others, the title of her seminal Defending Ancient Springs – a line by Vernon Watkins ‘which exactly describes my theme’[5] – was far from a rhetorical flourish. Defence of wisdom’s flickering flame, ink-splashed fingers cupped to protect the fragile light of an inherited candle from fading away into darkness, was a fundamental purpose of her poetry.[6]

2. A Young Woman ‘Living in Time’

I have recently had the privilege of visiting Ullswater where Raine lived with her two children during the Second World War, the global ‘Great Battle’ that raged for most of her 30s and risked not exclusively spiritual but also physical death for her and her loved ones. Even in the raw, radical honesty of her autobiographical work – notoriously unsparing and unforgiving in its self-assessment – it is rare to find Raine engaging with wider worldly concerns, except insofar as they speak to the urgency of humanity’s need to go beyond the material plane. After some of her literary peers criticised her for visiting Ezra Pound in St Elizabeth’s Mental Home in 1951, for instance, W.H. Auden ‘absolved me on the grounds that no-one could suppose that my motives could be political (I felt that his meaning was something like “everybody knows that you know nothing about politics”, which incidentally is quite true).’[7]

And yet in Faces of Day and Night, a little-known and belatedly published collection of essays, we do indeed glimpse another face of Raine and the battles, in every sense, that shaped her. Her ebullient and eccentric first publisher Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu – another key character in The Rowan Tree – had intended to produce the collection back in 1946, but after financial difficulties and his characteristic chaos intervened, it would not be until 1972 that the printer’s moulds were rediscovered and the essays could finally be shared. Embracing this quirky, quintessentially Tambi publishing history, Raine decided not to alter a word, also leaving her original dedication intact. ‘To Helen Sutherland,’ she had written for the cherished patron of Cockley Moor, Ullswater, who cared for Raine’s children after her post-war return to London to seek her fortune against the odds as a woman poet. ‘My friend in the North.’

The childhood scenes of Faces will feel familiar to readers of Raine’s first full volume of autobiography, Farewell Happy Fields, and yet we also enjoy several enriching encounters with new memories: from seven-year-old Kathie being tasked with the responsibility of choosing the church flowers[8] – something of a delight for a lifelong anthophile – to the shock and life-threatening chill she suffers after falling through ice into a water trough![9] Despite her tender years at the time, a deep empathy ripples through chapters like ‘The Tarn, Or Bereavement’, in which the not-quite adolescent Kathleen is powerless to help a poor drowned moorhen. From her remarkable connection with Maxwell’s beloved yet ill-fated otter Mij (also integral to The Rowan Tree) to her deep love for her last cat Daisybelle – immortalized beside Raine in a Marcus Cornish sculpture that can now be seen at her alma mater Girton College, overseeing meetings of today’s Poetry Society – Raine’s unfailing compassion for her fellow inhabitants of the natural world served as true testament to her ‘Master’ William Blake’s message ‘everything that lives is holy’. Blake’s words also echo as we read Raine’s reflections in Faces on visiting London during the Blitz: from ‘barrage balloons like silver fish hung in the sky’[10] over the Thames to a night of ‘fire and explosions and hurtling pieces of iron’.[11] The elder great poet had written of witnessing in the sun ‘an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”’, far removed from the ‘round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea’ seen by his less visionary contemporaries. But as battle raged over Blake’s (and Raine’s) city during the 1940s, the fiery inferno of London’s skyline must have seemed more Hellish than Heavenly.

3. The Timelessness of Loss and Love

In this perilous context, threads of different types of loss form the tapestry of Faces: from Raine witnessing a little girl’s despair when a boy throws her ‘best; probably her only’ coat irretrievably into the Thames to standing before ‘the fire-gutted ruin of St Clement Dane’s… a mere sketch in space’.

Seen through her empathetic eyes, the former event generates visceral, vicarious distress that in turn provokes Raine to reflect on hidden levels of collective consciousness:

‘Now it is one of us, now another, who feels grief, or terror, or love, or wonder, or the beauty of a rose… if we search our own natures deeply enough, we find the world there, not ourselves at all. And after that, a self becomes an instance only, not a world in its own right.’[12]

Indeed, in her introductory essay, Raine had stated her intention to ‘trace some landmarks in the life that has, by accident or design, been mine,’ whilst simultaneously noting that ‘these contours are tenuous and imperfectly defined.’[13]

The latter loss of the bomb-ravaged church inspires her to explore new vertical as well as horizontal dimensions of thought in the form of time itself. This building, ‘so recently old’, is ironically made new by the violent impact of conflict or at least re-located, however tragically, from past to present. ‘Those twisted bars of iron, that charred interior, the fire-gnawed branches of the young plane-trees that grow round the hulk of the building, belong to the present years, and to no others.’

As Raine studies what has been lost, and what remains, we can hear whispers of future work including ‘Shells’ and ‘Amo Ergo Sum’, two exquisite poems inspired by her time at Maxwell’s Sandaig.

‘Only the lovely white spire stands up against the sky, calm, harmonious, as it was made in a past century… like a diatom or a coral, the shell survives the delicate living creature that built its fine organic symmetry.’[14]

‘Because I love

The iridescent shells upon the sand

Take forms as fine and intricate as thought.’[15]

‘Building their beauty in the three dimensions

Over which the world recedes away from us,

And in the fourth, that takes away ourselves…

The helix revolves like a timeless thought…

Harmonious shells that whisper for ever in our ears,

‘The world that you inhabit has not yet been created’.’[16]

Reflections on one battle bring forth her ideas about another:

‘War is no accident. Modern warfare is something that we modern Europeans have created, perfected, and set at large. Our bombed churches were already condemned when we ceased to believe in God. The rest was only a matter of time and opportunity. And what the German incendiaries did quickly and thoroughly from above, was already taking place more slowly and less thoroughly from below… a visible and tangible denial of values… never could both worlds be true.’

As a ‘beautiful, fragile manifestation of the eternal, battered but not yet destroyed entirely by the assault of the temporal,’ the desecrated (in every sense) church is transmuted in Raine’s eyes into not just a symbol but a manifestation of poetry itself:

‘Such things as poems and churches are acts of will, of creation, of love, carried out in spite of, or against, or outside the material stream of cause and effect. When they have been made, they stand out against the sky, or sing, or shine before our minds, and we cannot conceive a world without them. And yet, when they are gone, will we be able to remember the world that they raised into being?’[17]

4. Place and Space

For me, part of the ever-rewarding beauty of Raine’s poetry is how she never compromises on precision and crystalline water-drop clarity, yet still skilfully manages to articulate an all-encompassing sense of meaning that diverse readers across locations and generations can relate to. Standing in the Ullswater spot that inspired ‘At The Waterfall’, for example:

‘the stream flows out of the clouds.

And on a rock, high on Place Fell…’

I was struck by an unexpectedly grounded sense of place, the waterfall literally appearing to pour from the skyline of Place Fell, that I had not fully appreciated until I experienced it myself. And yet this sharp, sensitive acuity does nothing to diminish the poem’s power for anyone, in any time or any part of the world, who has likewise been silenced:

‘So much nearer than stillness they speak to me!

I have heard too much silence,

Listened too long to the mute sky.’

In her Faces essay ‘The Door That Opens on Two Sides,’ it makes sense that, despite or rather because of the immanence of bombs falling over London, Raine finds the courage and creative vision to understand (and literally face) this immediate threat in eternal terms:

‘As I write, the guns are firing over London, and the night is torn. The world’s material texture is so flimsy – strange that our bodies still instinctively believe that it is so solid… it is so fragile; and all this night, fire and explosions and hurtling pieces of iron are tearing holes in it. A storm shaking the solid data of our conviction… that the earth is solid underfoot’.[18]

Imagination, by Raine’s definition, is vision, not invention. As she notes at the conclusion of Faces, ‘the only living space that a poet requires is within himself’,[19] and the wisdom within that space is not to be found in either ‘living apart in a private world’ or ‘poetic frenzy… as one has under the influence of alcohol or drugs’. Instead, it is more likely to be glimpsed in microcosmic attention paid to an elegiac leaf fall,[20] an ordinary well-used inkwell,[21] a growing street sapling[22] or a waterdrop transfiguring into a snowflake atop a Christmas rose. Just as Blake was thus able ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And Heaven in a Wild Flower’, Raine teaches us where and how to discover moments of mental peace even in the eye of war’s ‘storm’.

5. A Flickering Flame of Feminism?

As an intellectual and spiritual pioneer who railed against convention, it may seem surprising that Raine felt herself to be ‘no feminist’. For her, perhaps no political creed could be compatible with the rejection of materialism that lay at the foundations of her work, and she also observed perceptively in India Seen Afar that the goal of women simply achieving parity as ‘honorary men’ risks devaluing the feminine, the intuitive and by implication Imagination itself. Writing then in her eighties, she contemplated women’s ‘liberation’ (kept in quotation marks) in a way that for me evokes the words of ‘The Fall’ from Stone and Flower published some five decades earlier: ‘feeling most freedom when it least is free’. I suspect that this idea and its reverse, feeling least freedom when we are ostensibly at our most ‘free’, is relatable for women around the world in the 21st century.

And yet in Faces, literally facing life as a young single mother, Raine feels more physically present than in much of her more overtly transcendent writing to come. Subtly woven into this text is an awareness of the intersecting struggles – social and financial, as well as personal and spiritual – that women across the country were enduring during wartime, including the little girl with the lost coat:

‘Perhaps… the little girl was punished for having taken off her coat, for not having been mistress of the situation… Perhaps the mother was kind, but she must have been poor enough to be distressed herself. Poor enough and distressed enough to tell the father, if he was there…’[23]

A key experience is explored in ‘Freedom from the Act’, which Raine begins by articulating what was for her the genuinely liberating power of nature:

‘One can ascend into hidden and untouched places, and here, invisible, anonymous, lay one’s face close to the antiquity of moss and stone, and shed all that is human, like the bleaching sheep’s bones laid bare by the wind and the beetles and the rain.’[24]

‘But one cannot live there’, she concedes, continuing with the ‘timeless implications of living – making the fires; cooking; feeding, clothing and teaching the children; washing the clothes and making the beds and ordering the groceries… The life I lived there’ in Martindale, Raine observes, ‘though a battlefield in its way, had little to do with the war.’

‘I knew what a woman feels, her love and beauty and youth bowed over a sink, scrubbing saucepans with filthy wads of steel wool; or kneeling on a wooden floor, polishing under the beds, and cleaning the bath with damp rags and scouring powder. Making beds and clearing tables, when inside our hearts we feel all the love and mystery and beauty of the world.’

Offering a rare concession to practicalities, Raine recounts her weekly housework schedule: ‘Besides the meals, and teaching the children, and fetching the milk, that had to be done every day; there was, on Monday, the washing, on Tuesday the bedrooms, on Wednesday the stairs and bathroom, on Thursday one sitting-room, on Friday the other, and on Saturday the kitchen and the larder.’

‘This is such a large part of the life of almost any woman that I venture to record it for those who do not know, not for those who do,’ she observes sharply. ‘It gets into print, however, remarkably seldom.’

With the pinprick (or raindrop) precision we encountered earlier, she recollects scrubbing the stone floor of the Vicarage larder one Saturday: ‘I had no more choice in the matter than has a stone dropped over a cliff… I was tired and almost in tears with weariness and resentment… if there had been anyone there to pity me, I would certainly have cried. As it was, I could hope for no pity but my own.’

Raine would go on to explore the psychological ‘shift’ she was about to experience in The Land Unknown, her second volume of autobiography, which documents the period from her undergraduate studies at Girton College to her departure from Ullswater after the war ended.[25] Yet here in Faces, we find her first and perhaps fiercest moment of introspection on the subject as she captures the volte-face that occurs when she ‘looked up to the white light coming through the stone window, straight from the sky above the fell’ and realises that ‘we are human beings, human souls… man cannot be defined in terms of his occupation.’ Nor can woman.

‘It seemed foolish that I should think myself a poet after nine in the evening, when I sat under the lamp reading and writing, and think myself a drudge when the children’s clothes lay by the sink in a huge pile to be washed, dried, ironed and mended.’[26]

We glimpse here the unique nature, literally and spiritually, of Raine’s distinctive transcendence. Not simply higher but deeper, not just above but rather below or even beyond the mundane, we are not absorbed into the clouds (although her icy water trough near-death experience took her terrifyingly close) but transmuted or transfigured within whatever our here and now might be. ‘A poet must undertake more, not less of life, than uncreative souls. I would not exempt a poet from anything in the world.’[27] By identifying the innate, unassailable dignity within herself – within all of us – that no challenge can undermine nor any act of oppression extinguish, this radical thinking, glass ceiling shattering, self-proclaimed non-feminist captures a moment’s truce between the poet within her and the woman. And yet, as The Rowan Tree will illustrate, that great battle too was far from over.

Conclusions – The Power of Poetry

Following the pattern of Faces, it seems perfectly fitting that the collection ends with an essay on ‘The Writing of Poems’.

‘Poems are not made up,’ Raine establishes immediately. ‘A fabric of words can be made up, but if does not tell the truth, the result is not a poem.’[28] Nor is ‘the poet a mere reporter and scribe’, she clarifies. The poem is the experience. ‘It is the love, it is the history, it is the rose; it is the battlefield.’

To say what Raine’s poems are ‘about’ (although in my eagerness to share her work, I fear I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone) is to therefore misconceive their meaning – and I mean ‘meaning’ not simply in terms of subject, but poetry’s meaning within her life and within our own as readers and listeners. ‘The poet stands in the world for spiritual values, and for spiritual values only.’

In 2022, having so recently lived through a terrifying threat to our own existence, with war waged by a deeply disturbed aggressor once again setting Europe’s skies aflame, the little-known collection that is Faces of Day and Night deserves to be re-read, cherished and celebrated.

‘This war is not the first or the unique expression of an attempt on the part of our generation to possess by violence what we lack, and to make a barbarous assault on what we want…’ Raine notes perceptively in her introduction. ‘Perhaps we must go back to childhood to recollect a time when we knew how to possess the things we loved, to possess by not possessing, but only by loving.’[29]

Kathleen Raine did not just have knowledge of wartime. She knew was she was fighting for.

Citations and Further Reading

[1] For example: ‘Present, ever-present presence, / Never have you not been / Here and now in every now and here…’ ‘The Presence’ in The Presence, (Golgonooza Press, 1987). [2] ‘At the Centre of the World,’ in Faces of Day and Night (Enitharmon Press, 1972), p14. [3] ‘The Marriage of Psyche’ in The Year One (Hamish Hamilton, 1952). [4] On a Deserted Shore: A Sequence of Poems (Dolmen Press, Hamish Hamilton, 1973). [5] Letter from Kathleen Raine to Vernon Watkins, 22nd September 1966. [6] Until her death at the age of 95 in July 2003, every Temenos Academy meeting would begin with Kathleen Raine lighting a candle. See Lighting a Candle: Kathleen Raine and Temenos (The Temenos Academy, 2008). [7] Kathleen Raine, Visiting Ezra Pound (limited to 90 copies; Enitharmon Press, 1999). [8] ‘A Northern Sabbath I Ritual,’ in Faces. [9] ‘Death – As Known by the Soul,’ in Faces, p35. [10] ‘A Loss’ in Faces, p42. [11] ‘The Door That Opens on Two Sides,’ in Faces, p63. [12] ‘A Loss’, pp44-5. [13] ‘Illusions,’ in Faces, p1. [14] ‘St Clement Dane’s, or the Created Form,’ in Faces. [15] ‘Amo Ergo Sum’ in The Year One. [16] ‘Shells’ in The Year One. [17] ‘St Clement Dane’s,’ p69. [18] ‘The Door That Opens,’ p63. [19] ‘The Writing of Poems,’ in Faces, p79. [20] ‘Autumn’ and ‘The Leaf’ in The Oval Portrait (Enitharmon Press, Hamish Hamilton, 1977). [21] ‘The Inkwell, or the Sensory Minimum,’ in Faces. [22] ‘The Trees in Tubs’ in Living in Time (Editions Poetry London/Nicholson and Watson, 1946). [23] ‘A Loss,’ in Faces, p44. [24] ‘Freedom from the Act’, in Faces, p53. [25] p194. [26] ‘Freedom from the Act’, p55. [27] ‘The Writing of Poems,’ in Faces, p79. [28] ‘The Writing of Poems,’ p70. [29] ‘Illusions,’ p6.


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