Archive for April 30th, 2011

Kathleen Raine

Dear friends and readers,

Last week we had Rosamond Marriot Watson (fin-de-siecle and Hardyesque poet, 1860-1911). My choice for this week’s foremother poet is Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), whose poems I found among the modern Scots and Anglo-Scots poets in Catherine Kerrigan’s An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets and in Ann Stanford‘s The Women Poets in English. I first came across her as an autobiographer in Beatrice Didier’s L’ecriture-femme, where Didier presents her as a quintessential autobiographer who enacted a myth of a return to a past that is still with her, that has never ceased to be, and for women, this is found in childhood as metaphor and reality before the development of an adult female sexual body with all the imprisonment, repression, and destruction of the self that society inflicts. Scotland became for her a maternal landscape where a woman could find a non-distruptive filiation through its continuity of language, myth and untransformed land.


She gave me childhood’s flowers,
Heather and wild thyme,
Eyebright and tormentil,
Lichen’s mealy cup
Dry on wind-scored stone,
The corbies on the rock,
The rowan by the burn.

Sea-marvels a child beheld
Out in the fisherman’s boat,
Fringed pulsing violet
Medusa, sea gooseberries,
Starfish on the sea-floor,
Cowries and rainbow-shells
From pools on a rocky shore,

Gave me her memories,
But kept her last treasure:
‘When I was a lass: she said,
‘Sitting among the heather,
‘Suddenly I saw
‘That all the moor was alive!
‘I have told no one before.’

That was my mother’s tale.
Seventy years had gone
Since she saw the living skein
Of which the world is woven,
And having seen, knew all;
Through long indifferent years
Treasuring the priceless pearl.

This one reminds me of the vision of Siddhartha at the end of Hesse’s novel of the same name

Highland Graveyard

Today a fine old face has gone under the soil;
For generations past women hereabouts have borne
Her same name and stamp of feature .
Her brief identity was not her own
But theirs who formed and sent her out
To wear the proud bones of her clan, and live its story,
Who now receive back into the ground
Worn features of ancestral mould.

A dry-stone wall bounds off the dislimned clay
Of many old face forgotten and young face gone
From boundless nature, sea and sky.
A wind-withered escalonia like a song
Of ancient tenderness lives on
Some woman’s living fingers set as shelter for the dead, to tell
In evergreen unwritten leaves,
In scent of leaves in western rain
That one remembered who is herself forgotten.

Many songs they knew who now are silent.
Into their memories the dead are gone
Who haunt the living in an ancient tongue
Sung by old voices to the young,
Telling of sea and isles, of boat and byre and glen;
And from their music the living are reborn
Into a remembered land,
To call ancestral memories home
And all that ancient grief and love our own.

Her well-known literal belief in a poetic vision of divinity manifest in nature (like those of Blake and Yeats whose work she studied in her Defending Ancient Springs) and the wisdom of the religions of peoples can thus be linked to her life-writing and feminism (e.g., in Farewell Happy Fields)

Message from Home

Do you remember, when you were first a child, Nothing in the world seemed strange to you?
You perceived, for the first time, shapes already familiar, And seeing, you knew that you have always known
The lichen on the rock, fern-leaves, the flowers of thyme,
As if the elements newly met in your body,
Caught up into the momentary vortex of your living Still kept the knowledge of a former state,
In you retained recollection of cloud and ocean, The branching tree, the dancing flame.

Now when nature’s darkness seems strange to you, And you walk, an alien, in the streets of cities,
Remember earth breathed you into her with the air, with the sun’s rays,
Laid you in her waters asleep, to dream
With the brown trout among the milfoil roots,
From substance of star and ocean fashioned you,
At the same source conceived you
As sun and foliage, fish and stream

Of all created things the source is one,
Simple, single as love; remember
The cell and seed of life, the sphere
That is, of child, white bird, and small blue dragon-fly
Green fern, and the gold four-petalled tormentilla The ultimate memory.
Each latent cell puts out a future,
Unfolds its differing complexity.
As a tree puts forth leaves, and spins a fate Fern-traced, bird-feathered, or fish-scaled.
Moss spreads its green film on the moist peat,
The germ of dragon-fly pulses into animation and takes wing
As the water-lily from the mud ascends on its ropy stem
To open a sweet white calyx to the sky.
Man, with farther to travel from his simplicity,
From the archaic moss, fish, and lily parts,
And into exile travels his long way.

As you leave Eden behind you, remember your home, For as you remember back into your own being
You will not be alone; the first to greet you
Will be those children playing by the burn,
The otters will swim up to you in the bay,
The wild deer on the moor will run beside you. Recollect more deeply, and the birds will come, Fish rise to meet you in their silver shoals,
And darker, stranger, more mysterious lives Will throng about you at the source
Where the tree’s deepest roots drink from the abyss.
Nothing in that abyss is alien to you.
Sleep at the tree’s root, where the night is spun
Into the stuff of worlds, listen to the winds,
The tides, and the night’s harmonies, and know
All that you knew before you began to forget, Before you became estranged from your own being,
Before you had too long parted from those other More simple children, who have stayed at home
In meadow and island and forest, in sea and river. Earth sends a mother’s love after her exiled son, Entrusting her message to the light and the air,
The wind and waves that carry your ship, the rain that falls,
The birds that call to you, and all the shoals
That swim in the natal waters of her ocean.


I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten, The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there, Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air, Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

and her poetry of imaginative memory and recreations of gaelic utterances in English (e.g,. “The Ancient Speech”,

Scottish highlands, Loch Torridon

poems to “Isis Wanderer and


Sailing by night on the dark Adriatic in the moon’s eye
I slept upon the watery flood where only spirits walk
In the womb of archaic night between deeps and skies;
And in my sleep sublunary saw the moon disclose
Her other face that only dreamers and the dead may see,
That seemed or was more real than moon over mast or funnel
Of the throbbing ship that traced my wake towards Piraeus …

A sympathetic obituary by Janet Watts published in the Guardian (Tuesday, 8 July 2003) provides a concise narrative of her life and achievement. Watts includes the story of her love for Gavin Maxwell (the title of whose book Ring of Bright Water is taken from a line in one of her poems, “The Marriage of Psyche”), which seems unfortunately to overshadow accounts of her life and work on the Net.

She was fortunate to live in an era where intellectual merit could win scholarships. Her background: her mother sang to her border ballads and wrote down her poems for her before she was able to; while her father was a miner’s son, he went to Durham university and became an English teacher and lay preacher. A scholarship took her to Girton College, Cambridge (where she later found a job); she studied science and psychology, Empson published some of her poetry. She did not at all follow trends of her secular world, and made it (monetarily) because her beliefs pleased Prince Charles (Windsor) who became a patron. (One needs to explain how people live.) She married twice (Hugh Sykes Davies and Charles Madge) and had two children, one of whom married a descendent of Thomas Taylor, a 17th century English neoplatonist important to Raine. She became close to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren late in life (see wikipedia). She visited India in 1970 and loved its culture and the place.

Her autobiography was published in three volumes: Farewell Happy Fields (1973), The Land Unknown (1975) and The Lion’s Mouth (1977). She wrote many critical works (many on Blake and Yeats) and published books of poems (the earliest, Stone and Flower, 1943, Living in Time 1946, Pythoness 1949; more recently Living with Mystery, 1987-91; The Collected Poems, ed. Brian Keeble, 2000). She was translator as well, of Balzac’s Cousine Bette (Cousin Bette, 1948) and Les Illusions Perdues (Lost Illusions, 1951). She contributed frequently to journals (Studies in Comparative Religion), co-founded a journal, Temendos, was a research fellow at Girton College (1955-61), a Mellon Lecturer at the National Gallery of Art in DC (1962), taught for a year at Harvard (“Myth and Literature”) and was a professor at Cambridge.

I am drawn to her as an autobiographer, for her unconventional stance in life (anti-materialism, anti-ambition) and how the very marrow of her work seems to derive from her perception of women’s sexuality and creates a collective of female myth for women poets. Didier links Raine’s work to that of George Sand’s liberation through sentiment and Virginia Woolf’s mothers and daughters. Raine too has been “exiled” and re-finds herself in

“le langage des grands mythes antiques, parce que sa vie individuelle, si intensement qu’elle soit vecue, rejoint toujours — et precisement a cause de sa intensite — une certaine realite collective: l’histoire de l’humanite et de la longue servitude des femmes” (Didier, 269)

Ana Mendieta (1948-85), Silueta Works


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