Four reasons why Kathleen Raine's 'The World of Living Green' is springtime inspiration
In December 2021, I posted three reasons why I think Kathleen Raine’s The Story of Three Water Drops is a Christmas classic, and this week I will be lucky enough to get the chance to share my thoughts virtually as part of the international Homage to Kathleen Raine conference in Paris (Hello and Bonjour to my fellow Rainedrops!). Now a new season is upon us, it seems like the perfect time for another post – let’s learn why Kathleen’s second children’s book, The World of Living Green, should be your springtime inspiration!
1. There’s poetry in the prose
Kathleen Raine ‘is a poet,’ states the botanically-illustrated dust jacket of The World of Living Green. ‘She sees plants with the eye of a poet, and writes of them with the pen of a poet’. By 1947, Kathleen had already published two of the fourteen poetry collections that she would write during her lifetime – Stone and Flower, 1943, and Living in Time, 1946 – and her luminous, lyrical style sets Living Green (published under her married surname Madge) apart from any other nature book I’ve read for youngsters or even adults. Dedicated ‘to all children who understand flowers’, the opening chapter humbly confesses that ‘This is a book about flowers. But do not expect it to be a text-book, written by somebody very learned who knows all the names, and all the scientific facts about the plant kingdom.’
While Kathleen had studied Natural Sciences as an undergraduate at Girton College, Cambridge, and was therefore far better versed in Botany than these modest first lines suggest, the fact that Living Green is not a dry technical textbook is one of its greatest strengths. The prose itself is as lively, eye-catching and exquisite as its floral subject matter, grounded not in isolated study of plant life but thoughtful reflections on our relationships with them. The book's vital, verdant spirit is illustrated in an early passage that emphasises our connections with the natural world, empowering child readers to recognise that, whatever their age and wherever they live, flowers can be their companions:
‘When I was a child, flowers were my first friends; I knew their faces almost as soon as I knew my mother’s face and my father’s, and I certainly felt that they were more specially my friends than the neighbours who came to call. They were still kind when I was naughty, and I distinctly remember that when I was scolded I always went straight out to the garden to find my friends the flowers, who never failed to open their grave, kind, sweet faces to me. I remember the way the sun shone like dazzling fire on the petals of the summer hollyhocks, tall above me; and I remember the bunches of snowdrops and violets, sold in London streets, that my father would hide in his hat for me to find when he came home on winter evenings.’
‘This book is about flowers as our love knows them,’ Kathleen observes, ‘not as those who pass examinations know them'. 75 years later, I believe we would all do better – and make our ‘world of living green’ a better place – if we encouraged the power of love to take root in our work too.
2. Education for all ages
Those already familiar with Kathleen Raine’s poetry – and if you’ve yet to read it, you’re in for a treat! – will know that a rare and refined sense of equilibrium ripples through it, articulating the echoes that exist between eternity and what she terms our ‘here and now’. This balance is also a beautiful feature of Living Green with the first half of the book dedicated to ‘Plants in the Real World’, featuring chapters including ‘Flowers and Butterflies’, ‘The Flower-World and the Birds’ and ‘Plants in Motion’, while the second half explores ‘Plants in the Imagined World’, with chapters such as ‘Flowers, Trees, and the Ancient Gods’, ‘Flowers and Saints’ and the especially delightful ‘Flowers and Fairies’!
Both halves are illustrated in sweetly classical style by scraperboard artist Stanley Herbert, and I cannot recall a single book from my own childhood in which the educational and the playful were so effortlessly united. While young and young-at-heart readers do discover many in-depth facts, the book is not just about the bare essentials of botany but the beauty of our eternally evolving links with nature. As Kathleen’s great inspiration William Blake once wrote, the human eye is little more than a window. 'I look through it, not with it,' he clarified, and Living Green likewise goes beyond telling children to passively look at plant and flower life: inviting them instead to actively explore the world in ways that cultivate not only knowledge but wisdom. The musicality of Kathleen’s writing makes the journey all the more memorable:
A flower’s ‘truest message’, she tells her readers, is ‘the one that they send when they beckon and make a secret sign to us alone.’ And speaking of signals…
3. Myths, magic and imagination
In subsequent years, Kathleen’s pioneering research would reveal William Blake’s unexplored links to antiquity, authoring several paradigm-shifting academic publications and becoming the first woman in history to deliver the prestigious A.W. Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Washington D.C. Written when she was not yet forty and still had many, many decades of academic success ahead of her, Living Green also has the classical world as a key feature. After the first part of the book establishes a firm foundation in the basics of biology, Kathleen’s readers are transported via a thoughtful transition chapter ‘Plants in Time’ into the quite literally enchanting second half.
Here, we learn about everything from the history of the maypole and the ancient symbolic origins of anemones, hyacinths and narcissi to which flower is the true key to fairyland (spoiler alert: the primrose!). N.B. the chapter on ‘Flowers of Magic and Witchcraft’ records that, in Scottish folklore, if a ‘witch’ even touches a rowan tree twig she will be quickly ‘carried off by the Devil to hell,’ – well-worth remembering for readers of my upcoming novel The Rowan Tree (Valley Press, 2023), which centres on a great historical injustice committed against Kathleen in real life.
Whatever the natural world means to you and whichever creative form you choose to express it through, there’s something to satisfy every reader in Living Green. ‘Our eyes are, if we are poets (and most of us are sometimes), forever gathering flowers from the real fields and trees and riversides of the earth, and weaving them into a world of thoughts,’ Kathleen observes, and ‘if the art you love is painting, you will [also] find flowers there’!
‘Above all,’ she concludes, ‘we must look with our own eyes, see what flowers are to us. They will show something to us that no poet, painter, or scientist, has ever seen before. For each one of us they have a different meaning, according to our capacity to understand and love them.’ By the end of Living Green, like the natural world we’ve grown better acquainted with, readers may well find that they have also blossomed.
4. It’s spent too long in the shade
Like much of Kathleen Raine’s writing, The World of Living Green remains something of a secret garden and certainly a hidden gem. Too few people today have read or even heard of this work, which seems especially regrettable when so many renowned nature writers are male – including Gavin Maxwell, whose world-famous Ring of Bright Water book and film took its title (with questionable acknowledgement) from one of Kathleen’s poems – and so many children’s books even now skew to the grotesque, the gritty and the coarse. By contrast, in her World of Living Green, we have a substantial, inspirational and spiritually-rooted creation that has been left far too long in shadow. Let’s garland it in sunlight this springtime!