Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter.
Most people know of Ruth Pitter, if at all, as the woman who might have become Mrs. C.S. Lewis. Some years before being surprised by Joy Gresham, Lewis remarked that, had he not been a confirmed bachelor, Ruth Pitter was the woman he would have liked to marry.
But Pitter deserves much better than to be known as Lewis's near-miss wife. She was a most accomplished poet, a true twentieth-century metaphysical, who produced seventeen volumes of verse during her long life, 1897-1992. Her A Trophy of Arms (1936) took the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry, and in 1955 she won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry; as the first woman to receive this award, she was presented with the medal by the Sovereign in person.
Little critical work has been done on Pitter. Hunting the Unicorn is "the first step in correcting this critical oversight" (xiii); it provides both a biographical survey of Pitter's life and discussions of her important volumes of verse. As such, it is a pioneering study, and not just a first step, but also a huge step--the sort of scholarship that future generations will look back on with gratitude. Don W. King has acquitted himself with distinction and put us all in his debt by admitting us to a world that is fascinating and valuable in numerous different respects. Let me mention just three.
First, and most importantly, Pitter's poetry itself. It consists mostly of short lyrics, which concern themselves with closely observed moments of spiritual intensity, often provoked by a tableau from the unspoiled countryside in Essex where Pitter grew up. In these tableaux, Pitter discerns something that can barely be put into words, something fugitive yet pregnant with significance. For example, in "Rainy Summer" she tries to "remember, though we cannot write it, the delicate dream," a dream in which
The secret bird is there.... betrayed By the leaf that moved when she slipped from her twig by the door, As the mouse unseen is perceived by her gliding shade, As the silent owl is known by the wind of her flight.
It is characteristic that Pitter's wisdom, like the owl of Minerva, takes flight in the silent dusk, secret, unseen. All through her best work is this same sense of a sudden, fleeting, even unsought perception of spiritual unity. It is a Wordsworthian note, but Pitter's intimations of immortality, her immersions in "spots of time" are usually on a much smaller scale than Wordsworth's. This is partly because Hainault Forest in Essex does not have the grandeur of the Lake District, partly because Pitter did not have the horizon-broadening effect of a university education nor the wider political interests that Wordsworth enjoyed, and partly--if this can be said without awakening a storm of abuse--because Pitter had what might be called a characteristically feminine focus on the intimate and personal. She is the poetic version of the novelist, Barbara Pym. Or, to compare her with a much greater artist, a comparison by no means inappropriate, Pitter, like Jane Austen, typically works with a fine brush on a little bit of ivory, two inches square. As it happens, Pitter spent most of her working life as an artisan, painting decorative trays and other household items, and the same delicacy that she brought to her work in colors she brought to her work in words. And yet for all the smallness of her poetic visions, Pitter's world encapsulates something of the essence of the universe and maybe even of what lies behind the universe: the microcosm gives access to the macrocosm.
King believes that the key to understanding her work is found in her essay that aired as a BBC radio address under the title, "Hunting the Unicorn" a piece which describes just such a moment of transfiguration:
I was sitting in front of a cottage door, one day in spring, long ago ... [when] suddenly everything assumed a different aspect--no, its true aspect. For a moment, it seemed to me, the truth appeared in its overwhelming splendour. The secret was out, the explanation was given.... What is this thing? ... Is it--could it be, after all--a hint of something more real than this life--a message from reality--perhaps a particle of reality itself?. If so, no wonder we hunt it so unceasingly, and never stop desiring and pining for it.
King then comments, "If human life is lived behind a veil faintly obscuring reality, Pitter's poems often lift the edge of the veil. In her hunt for the unicorn, many of us join the pursuit, because, like Pitter, we cannot take less" (xvii). It ought to be emphasized that the hunt in question is distinctly passive, not active. Mythologically, the unicorn was brought to bay by a sedate virgin, not a mounted knight. In "If You Came," Pitter makes a virtue of this sort of passivity:
If you came to my secret glade, Weary with heat, I would set you down in the shade, I would wash your feet. If you came in the winter sad, Wanting for bread, I would give you the last that I had, I would give you my bed. But the place is hidden apart Like a nest by a brook, And I will not show you my heart By a word, by a look. The place is hidden apart Like the nest of a bird: And I will not show you my heart By a look, by a word.
Pitter, like so many women of that generation whose menfolk were decimated by the Great War, remained unmarried all her life. King remarks that she was "probably sexually involved with several" men (198), though he does not name these figures nor give reasons for thinking so. Certainly, her erotic poem "The Swan Bathing" suggests that she did at some point gain first-hand knowledge of physical love; but she did not actively hunt men down, any more than she actively hunted down those moments of transcendence symbolised by the unicorn. If they came, they came; that was all.
This carries us over to the second main reason why Pitter's life is so fascinating: its intersection with a number of prominent literary figures, not only Lewis, but also several others, including Belloc, Orwell, and Lord David Cecil. They came across her path unbidden. Her relationship with Lewis was easily the most intriguing of these connections, and King devotes a large chunk of one chapter to a discussion of why Pitter lost out to Joy Gresham when it came to winning Lewis as a husband, contrasting the two women through their poetry. He concludes that Pitter's passivity was no match for Gresham's knock-down, drag-out style. Lewis responded better to fire than to ice. Although Lewis once jokingly remarked that Pitter must have been a child of red-blooded Jupiter--"I always thought the Pitters (dies-piter and all that) descended from Jove" (letter of January 4th 1954)--she herself referred to "my Saturn" (287) and believed that she had, accordingly, a "subnormal temperature" and was "non-impulsive" Her English reticence was evidently not a sufficient attraction for Lewis's Irish forthrightness and his own jovial, sanguine humour.
But this carries us over to the third main reason why Pitter is such an interesting character: she was archetypally English. In his classic travelogue, Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson observes how the English have (or used to have) a humorous habit of saying "mustn't grumble" and it is delightful to catch Pitter in the act of using this very phrase herself (223). She had a no-nonsense approach to the hardness of life ("I should like it to be written on my tomb that I worked an average of at least ten hours a day and paid my debts with rigid punctuality, as I feel that this is my chief claim to honour among mankind" 287). She displayed admirable phlegm during the Second World War ("What sounds like a large bomb has just gone off fairly close, and the news is fierce and implacable. But I have sown my onions ... so I shall sleep in spite of air" 290). She was reserved: King notes how she "shunned self-revelation ... was very deliberate in her attempts to mute her own personality in her verse" (68). And yet she had an eccentric's readiness to flaunt peculiar interests if they caught her in playful mode, including her passion for cats, and she had a wickedly childlike sense of fun, writing a number of comic poems, the most notable of which is "The Rude Potato." Late in life she reflects, contentedly, "What a lucky old baggage I have been!" (262).
Alongside her stoicism and simple hobbit-like happiness, she had also the miniaturist approach (as noted above), a sense of the macabre (e.g. "The Coffin-Worme Which Consider") and a strong, and all the stronger for being so restrained, mystical alertness--all of these qualities being among those which Peter Ackroyd, in his Albion, a great study of the English imagination, regards as definitively English traits.
Pitter's mysticism, which began in childhood as a naive nature mysticism (she believed in fairies until she was eighteen), developed into orthodox Christian sacramentalism in later life. She was confirmed as an Anglican in 1946 and became devoted to the life of her parish church. As for how her faith informed her art, she wrote: "I do not try to write anything explicitly Xtian, rather believing that all work (if good) is to the glory of God.... One very good friend of mine, a truly pious farmer, challenged me on this subject. I could have retorted, "Well, why don't you sow 'God is Love' in radishes across your wheatfields, so that it can be read from the air?" (304). Despite this reluctance to wear her religious heart on her sleeve, her work did become more transparently Christian as her life progressed, moving from her early "A Solemn Meditation" ("Then Alleluia all my gashes cry" 77) to the richly, if subtly, theological later volumes such as The Ermine (1953) and A Heaven to Find (1985). In her poetic manifesto, a lecture given to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, titled "A Return to Poetic Law" (169ff), she wrote: "The first two laws of poetry, as of all human affairs, are love of God and love of one's neighbour" King is good on showing Pitter's indebtedness to Herbert and Traherne in this Christian sensibility that informs her mature work (272-74).
One of the most poignant of all her poems is "Autumn 1944," written as the war dragged painfully towards its closing stages:
Now the earth is assuaged and the lawn lies dewy all day, And work is lightened, as it has need to be; For the sixth winter finds us fewer and feebler, Older and sadder; all of us now old soldiers Familiar with death and privation; strangers to liberty For a large part of our lives; and we are weary. Autumn in England, after an unkind summer; And I with these last few flowers, these small carnations Held in my hand; more real than the vast victories Whose pulse we can hear across the narrow waters As we heard it before, long ago, when we were young. Weary of thought, I hold them for consolation; The colours like flame without heat, like innocent blood. I lament the innocent blood; weary and guilty Lament the innocent blood that is shed for me; Mourn the young dead I knew, and the young living Think of with anguish as though they were my children: Though childless I know this not, the heart of anguish, For thus to the solitary the woe is tempered; Lacking the joy, theirs not the sword in the bowels. But the childless were children, and we can say to the mothers That we know the kindness; because we can remember That first breast faithful, we to their present anguish Bring the sweet barren flower, and lay it by them.
King rightly calls his poem "compellingly tender" (118). Pitter's ability to see beyond her own childlessness to sympathize with the mothers who have lost their sons in battle is evidence of a generosity of heart and a public-spiritedness which one might not necessarily expect in someone who was forced to work so hard to earn a living, unsupported by a husband, and whose opportunities were so tightly circumscribed by two world wars. After her tray-making business temporarily folded in 1943, she even had to work for a while in a munitions factory to make ends meet. Yet in her privacy and English grit there was a warm heart watching and waiting ("I lurk, intensely observant, in the undergrowth" 41), waiting for the unicorn to come to her nest. King is right: "Ruth Pitter deserves a wider reading ... it is time that both her life and her art be given the exposure and recognition they so richly deserve" (274).
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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