The religious poetry of Ruth Pitter (1).
The intensity, passion, yet controlled insight about the human condition and her mystical reflections on the natural world merit sustained scholarly attention and broad exposure. However, of particular importance is her religious poetry because one can chart through it a pilgrimage of faith--a journey beginning with a conciliatory acquiescence to a veiled transcendence moving through acceptance of a distant, impersonal deity and ending with commitment to orthodox Christianity. This journey of faith is reflected in the mature poetry of Pitter, most of it written from 1935 to 1953, a period dominated by the growing threat of fascism and the very real worry that Western civilization was on the verge of destruction. The intent here is to offer a broad overview of Pitter's spiritual maturation through her religious poetry as well as an indication of her gifts as a poet.
A Trophy of Arms
Her first mature volume of poetry, A Trophy of Arms: Poems 1926-1935 (1936) is a collection of poems that explores the melancholic reality of the human condition; yet, at the same time, it is neither depressing nor despairing. Instead, it is a clarion call to embrace sorrow, loss, and loneliness through either the lens of nature or a veiled, transcendent power. Often, her poems focusing upon spiritual themes are vaguely hopeful. For instance, "Sudden Heaven" is a powerful affirmation of hope. Pitter combines a clipped, terse style with an incisive eye to create a poem of startling power about unexpected, unsolicited joy:
All was as it had ever been-- The worn familiar book, The oak beyond the hawthorn seen, The misty woodland's look: The starling perched upon the tree With his long tress of straw-When suddenly heaven blazed on me, And suddenly I saw: Saw all as it would ever be, In bliss too great to tell; For ever safe, for ever free, All bright with miracle: Saw as in heaven the thorn arrayed, The tree beside the door; And I must die--but O my shade Shall dwell there evermore. (51)
"Sudden Heaven" is filled with rich natural images, including "misty woodland's look" "starling perched upon the tree" and "long tress of straw" Yet its real power comes through Pitter's subtle infusion of biblical images, motifs, and allusions such as "suddenly heaven blazed on me," "bliss too great to tell," "bright with miracle" and "the thorn arrayed." Most impressive is her deft use of the tree as an image both of nature, where the starling perches, and the divine, where we envision Christ and his crown of thorns. Hope also characterizes "A Solemn Meditation," although it begins by noting the ominous signs of the time: "These discords and these warring tongues are gales / Of the great autumn: how shall the winter be?" (75). The discords and warring tongues may refer to more than the harsh autumn weather; indeed, Pitter may be referring to the sinister events brewing in Europe and the growing threat of fascism. Yet the tone of the poem shifts to one of hope: "Think not that I complain, that I must go / Under ground, unblossomed, unfulfilled; / Though our stem freeze, in the earth's bosom I / And you sleep: under snow / We shall be saved" Her affirmation is more than a reference to the natural cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth; instead, she urges the full embracing of death: "The swift fall wings the ascent: close eyes / And hurl head down and sheer / Into the black of life unfathomable." In her descent into death, she catches a vision of God, praises him that she was born, rejects her earthly aspirations, and emerges renewed:
Then Alleluia all my gashes cry; My woe springs up and flourishes from the tome In her lord's likeness terrible and fair; Knowing her root, her blossom in the sky She rears: now flocking to her branches come The paradisal birds of upper air, Which Alleluias cry, and cry again, And death from out the grave replies Amen.
In finding sustenance from her descent into death, in finding nourishment in pain, and, indeed, in finding praise in her wounds, Pitter makes a theological affirmation that testifies to the important place religious belief played throughout her life. Although not a committed or even a practicing Anglican at this time, clearly she is imbued with the central ideas of Christian orthodoxy, and these ideas underlie all her theological ruminations and musings. "A Solemn Meditation," therefore, is her most theologically informed poem until her later conversion to Christian belief.
A similar poem is "Thanksgiving for a Fair Summer" Here Pitter considers how mistaken beliefs about the end of summer may be compared to mistaken beliefs about the meaning of human existence. She says "we had thought the summer dead/ ... But now hot camomile in headlands grows"; moreover, bees are busily working the woodbine and "scarlet bean" (28). (7) This late season fecundity--its ample grain, sweet berries, and heavy apples--becomes a "token of grace" leading to a larger realization:
That life is yet benign, That this our race Still doth possess a pleasant place: For many a doubt Assails us, and might overthrow, Were not the bow Of blessing high in heaven hung out; Our time is dark, And save such miracle as this Where is the mark To steer by, in our bitter mysteries?
Pitter's deft use of biblical terms and motifs (grace, doubt, rainbow, miracle) melds with but does not deny the fact that human life is dark and bitter. She finds in the joys of late summer a reminder that existence is not simply a matter of hard times and eternal questionings. Actually, Pitter, while certainly not one to look at life through rose-colored glass, consistently finds ways to see past the darkness of life and to affirm a greater, larger, and as she says in this poem, more benign reality.
Perhaps her most explicitly religious poem in A Trophy of Arms is "Help, Good Shepherd" Pitter invokes Christ, the good shepherd, and asks him not to spend his time considering the beauty of the constellations, the forests, water, the sunrise, the pipe and tabor, or even "thy crown-destined thorn" (27). Rather, Pitter urges the good shepherd to
Sound with thy crook the darkling flood, Still range the sides of shelvy hill, And call about in underwood: For on the hill are many strayed, Some held in thickets plunge and cry, And the deep waters make us afraid. Come then and help us, or we die.
The frightening tone of this poem, particularly its picture of humankind trapped and entangled in the underbrush like helpless sheep who are also fearful of the deep waters, recalls by way of antithesis Psalm 23. The good shepherd of Psalm 23 makes for green pastures and still water, and even though the valley of the shadow of death must be walked, there is no fear of evil, "for Thou art with me." Similarly, Pitter appeals to the good shepherd to help her (to use his shepherd's crook) and others who are ensnared by their own fears, be they philosophical, intellectual, moral, or political.
Three poems continue this interest in the spiritual life by focusing specifically upon death. "A Trophy of Arms" is given from the perspective of a stone statue in a graveyard: "The primrose awakens, but / I lean here alone / Where the proud helmet is cut / In the hard stone" (1). The statue guards a "nameless tomb," even though he does not know why; yet he is faithful to his task and hears the voice of honor call out "The mighty are not fallen, / Nor the weapons of war perished." The statute's detached, impersonal avowal that death is somehow not final, that it has a larger purpose, is furthered in "The Paradox" where Pitter explores the well-known argument between the body and the soul regarding the permanence of death. On the one hand, the body insists that "our death [is] implicit in our birth, / We cease, or cannot be; / And know when we are laid in earth / We perish utterly" (53). (8) Yet, on the other hand, the soul argues otherwise because it "knows / The indomitable sense / Of immortality, which goes / Against all evidence." What can bridge this impasse? "See faith alone, whose hand unlocks / All mystery at a touch, / Embrace the awful Paradox / Nor wonder overmuch." While Pitter is not clear about the object of such faith, her affirmation that faith mediates this age-old argument marks this as another conciliatory poem regarding spiritual matters.
"Call Not to Me" is Pitter's sharpest confrontation with death. In effect, she advises death not to expect to take her in the summer time: "Call not to me when summer shines, / Death, for in summer I will not go" (21). (9) In some of her most charmingly lyrical alliterative lines, she says:
While under the willow the waters flow While willow waxes and waters wane, When wind is slumberous and water slow, And woodbine waves in the wandering lane, Call me not, for you call in vain. Vain in the time when flowers blow.
Instead, she is willing to go with death in winter "when all is bare" After the beauty of summer and the rich harvest of autumn, then, she acquiesces to go with death: "When hail is the seed the heavens sow, / When all is deadly and naught is dear--/ Call and welcome, for I shall hear, / I shall be ready to rise and go." While false bravado, nonetheless, her desire to control the uninvited guest who comes to all is appealing and resonates with many readers. (10)
Reviews of A Trophy of Arms were overwhelmingly positive. (11) Accordingly, it was not entirely surprising that A Trophy of Arms won the Hawthornden Prize in 1937. (12) Even T. S. Eliot recognized her achievement. The two used to attend Chelsea, Old Church in London, often taking communion at the same time. Pitter gave Eliot the news about her winning the Hawthornden while they were standing together in a bus queue; he graciously replied, "And you much deserve it" (Dickinson). Unfortunately for Pitter and the rest of Europe, World War II effectively began with the Nazi blitzkrieg of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Pitter, like the vast majority of her countrymen, supported the war and was willing to sacrifice in order to insure that might did not triumph over right. Of course, no one could have known how severely such resolve would be tested, including, in her case, the eventual failure of her thriving business as an artisan. (13)
The Spirit Watches
Her next volume of poetry, The Spirit Watches (1939), written under the growing shadow of war in Europe, offers assurance that human events are part of a larger story; moreover, many poems in this volume intimate Pitter is slowly moving away from belief in a vague transcendence and toward a more orthodox faith. For instance, "The Stockdove" is a poignant lament connecting the death of a bird with human death. Catching sight of the stockdove, Pitter is at first arrested by its immobility. She wonders if it is caught by a snare, but seeing that the bird is not frightened or panicked, Pitter senses the truth that "death shakes her like a winter storm" (21). (14) It is only later in the poem that we learn the bird has been poisoned by tainted grain, set there to put down foraging birds like the stockdove. With a certain dignified resignation, the bird "half lifts the wing, half turns the bill, / Then leans more lowly on the clay, / Sighs, and at last is quiet and still, / Sits there, and yet is fled away" Pitter finds in the gentle, quiet, peaceful passing of the bird an event worthy of great sorrow--"the epoch will not suffer me / To weep above such humble dead, / Or I could mourn a century / For all such woe unmerited"--yet rather than give in to bitter denunciations, Pitter is counseled toward a different direction:
My questioned spirit's sidelong look From her old fortress answers me, From where she reads her secret book On the tall rock Infinity: From where the innocent dead to that High place is fled away from grief, And whence as from an Ararat She brings the silver olive-leaf.
Pitter's use of this biblical allusion is unusual because she is still theologically uncommitted at this point in her life. Indeed, that Pitter connects the death of the stockdove at all to the dove in Genesis 9 is surprising. There the dove calls to mind the sign of God's peace toward humanity when it returned to the ark resting on Mt. Ararat and brought Noah the olive leaf. Perhaps the point is this: while Pitter may have lacked a particular theological commitment at this point in her life, she clearly is aware of an internal "spirit" that offers her counsel although the question of whether this spirit is transcendent or merely personal is not clear. What we can take out of this poem, however, is Pitter's acceptance of death as inevitable and not something to rail against. In death she finds nature's mysterious cycle not something to fear and dread, but something to embrace and welcome.
"The Spring" also has theological undertones and can be linked to "Sudden Heaven" in A Trophy of Arms. Where the latter poem finds unexpected epiphany in ordinary events, the former begins by noting a lack of joy and life's bleakness: "Where is the spring of my delight / Now every spring is dry? / There is no blossom in my sight, / No sun in the sky" (45). The puns on "spring" are effective, Pitter wondering on the one hand where to find the sources of delight and on the other hand noting that both the sources and the season itself are arid. This melancholy continues as Pitter says "the birds are still and love is past,/... And life itself now looks aghast / And birth becomes an ill." Yet in the midst of this sterility, perhaps because of nature's rhythms and cycle, she is surprised by delight: "The spring of my delight / Leaps up beyond belief, / As if it sprang in very spite--/ In very spite of grief" Pitter suggests that happiness is often counterintuitive; when we least expect happiness, it "leaps up beyond belief" and gives the lie to grief. The poems conclusion hints at a theological source for the spring of all happiness: "And yet the secret stream of grace / Flows on, and swells the same, / As if from out another place / Where sorrow has no name." While Pitter does not refer directly to heaven, the idea of grace or unmerited favor finds its source there: the "spring" of all happiness.
The title poem of the volume, "The Spirit Watches," is a confession of sorts, at least in the sense that Pitter hints that she believes in some kind of transcendent power in control of the world; however, she is never explicit about who or what this god is, thus underlining her lack of a theological commitment. The spirit addressed in the poem is largely cut off from human activity although it seems completely cognizant of what is going on:
She hangs the garland in her hair, Smiling above unending pain: She knows the worst, and does not care: Her beauty says, to foul and fair, Tears are wrong, and all repining vain. What fearful thing is she, that sees Joy failing, and the gaping grave, That knows our bitter mysteries, Our death, our life of little ease, The coward's hell, the anguish of the brave? (1) (15)
In answer to this question, Pitter says this spirit is "love's apotheosis." Although the specific identity of this spirit is still veiled at this point, Pitter turns the focus upon humanity's blindness to the activity of this spirit: "We are not worthy of the soul! / Through light and dark, through love and pain, / We see our sphere of being roll, / And will not face the living whole / That sent us forth, and calls us home again" Our short-sighted preoccupation with this world and our activities, Pitter notes, keep us from understanding the reality at the center of the universe: "Into the center from the verge / Turning again because we must, / She draws us, until we remerge / Into the One; her fearful urge / Is his inviolate law, and he is just."
If the "he" of these lines refers to a transcendent God, then this still unknown spirit is the agent God uses to pull humanity back into his cosmic, universal pool of "one-ness:' In fact, the poems ending resolves, at least in part, this mysterious spiritual agent: "She is our part in God, to shine / Where all abiding glories are; / Even through my tears, I see her twine / Among her deathless locks divine / The star of evening, and the morning star." Venus, apparently, is God's active agent in universal redemption. It is odd that Pitter uses Venus in this way; a more likely divine agent might have been Urania (the queen of the Muses) or even Mercury (the messenger of the gods). Nevertheless, we take away from "The Spirit Watches" the sense that humanity is not alone in the universe; in spite of humanity's blindness to spiritual reality, to the obsession with human activity, including war, pain, and grief, Pitter posits a benign, if impersonal, God who will make all things well. While this poem verges on being naive spiritual pabulum, given that Pitter, along with the rest of Europe, was facing an war, it is not surprising she affirms the ultimate meaning and purpose of all things as directed by a benevolent though distant God.
Another poem in The Spirit Watches centering on this distant God is "O Come Out of the Lily." Here Pitter finds in natural beauty signs of that mysterious "something" at the back of the universe, and she longs to get closer to it: "O come out of the lily to me, / Come out of the morning-glory's bell, / Out of the rose and the peony, / You that made them, made so well" (42). (16) The other natural beauties where she finds the hint of God are the ermine's eyes and the butterfly's wings, leading her to call forth to God: "Sleep no longer, nor lurk behind / Hate and anger and woeful pain: / As once in the garden, walk again, / Centre and spirit of human kind." Employing again an allusion to Genesis, Pitter longs for the pre-fallen days of Adam and Eve and their easy and immediate access to God. Pitter's mystical longing for God also appears in "The Bird in the Tree," although here the concern is with how difficult it is to see that "something" at the back of the universe. Written almost as another confession, Pitter expresses her frustration at finding archetypes in their earthly types:
That tree, and its haunting bird, Are the loves of my heart; But where is the word, the word, O where is the art, To say, or even to see, For a moment of time, What the Tree and the Bird must be In the true sublime? (57)
The Platonic contrast between the earthly and the "real" form of the tree and the bird is brought further into relief when Pitter writes: "They shine, they sing to the soul, / And the soul replies; / But the inner love is not whole / And the moment dies." Yet her deep longing to experience the "real" bird and tree lead her to pray "O give me before I die / The grace to see / With eternal, ultimate eye, / The Bird and the Tree." Pitter's desire to experience firsthand these eternal objects is akin to her mystical affection for God; in both cases the physical world is not enough, and so she wants more. This longing for union with the "something" behind the universe is still several years away from satisfaction, yet its appearance in these poems marks an important milestone in Pitter's spiritual journey.
Although The Spirit Watches is in many ways a natural extension of A Trophy of Arms, the one notable difference between the two is the preponderance of references to heavenly bodies--stars, moon, sun, planets--in The Spirit Watches. For example, "The Downward-Pointing Muse" celebrates Venus; "An Old Woman Speaks of the Moon" finds comfort in the beautiful night orb; and "The Primordial Cell" invites readers to remember the life-sustaining power of Earth. Urania, the muse of astrology, appears in several poems, and the sun is often invoked as well. Collectively, these heavenly references in The Spirit Watches convey a sense of humankind's place under the stars, humanity's story as not greater than the universal one, but intimately connected to and perhaps even guided by the cosmic confluence of stars, moon, sun, and planets. Whether or not a benign but distant God is above these heavenly bodies directing them and humanity is never explicitly stated in The Spirit Watches, but Pitter hints that this is SO. (17)
While Pitter was pleased with the critical success of The Spirit Watches, 1940 brought hard work and pessimistic news about the war. Moreover, the dangerous conditions in London were deteriorating due to the increased German bombing, and her business as an artisan in Chelsea was under constant pressure; her letters to her friend David Cecil are very explicit about the bombings. (18) On Jan. 13, 1941, she tells him:
We have been dividing our time between Chelsea and Essex.... At both places we have had bombs very near. I was alone here one night when a big one fell on the warehouse next door. It wrecked the glass roof of the workshop here, but we were very lucky that it was no worse. The warehouse has been condemned as unsafe, and we have no neighbours on either side. In the country, every house in the village has been damaged, one wrecked, yet not a soul was hurt. On Sunday we went for a drive to see some of the city damage. It is heartrending--the frightful mess alone gives one a horrible feeling. To see St. Clement Danes a shell, All Hallows (by the Tower) a heap of rubble, and whole acres of ruin where familiar buildings stood, makes one conscious that for better or worse this is the end of an epoch. And yet there is the sense of opportunity with it. There is nothing lost which cannot be bettered in the future. Of the loss of life I do not speak: the only response, I think, is not to fear or grudge the loss of one's own life should it be required. Nothing can be withheld when there is tyranny to be resisted.
Reflecting the general tenor of the British public, Pitter doggedly refused to be done in by the constant bombings and unsettling conditions. But by the beginning of 1943, Pitter was nearing despondency. In mid-January she went to work in the Morgen Crucible Factory, a wartime munitions factory across the Thames in Battersea. Physically removed from Chelsea every day and brought to work in a situation antithetical to her artistic temperament, Pitter suffered new emotional depths. She writes Cecil:
You time your letters with a blest if unconscious precision. They always arrive to rescue me when I am at the lowest ebb. We have had a rather bad time since January; indeed we have both been working in a factory since the middle of that month. The people are very good to us, and as jobs go the work (in the office) is not too bad, yet one's own life is quite gone, and then having to leave one's home to go to rack & ruin is terribly depressing to females. (March 17, 1943) (19)
Yet as she neared complete despair, unsolicited hope came from an unlikely source: she heard the BBC radio broadcasts of C. S. Lewis, later published as Mere Christianity. (20) Depressed after a hard day's work in the factory, she recalls:
There were air raids at night. The factory was dark and dirty. And I remember thinking--well--I must find somebody or something because like this I cannot go on. I stopped in the middle of Battersea Bridge one dreadful March [1943?] (21) night when it was cold, and the wind was howling over the bridge, and it was as dark as the pit, and I stood and leaned against the parapet and thought--like this I cannot go on. And it didn't come to me at once but some time afterwards I heard the broadcast talks of C.S. Lewis, and I at once grappled them to my soul, as Shakespeare says. And I used to assemble the family to hear because I thought that they were so good that even from the point of view of enjoyment people shouldn't miss them, and I got every word of his that I could, and I could see by hard argument there was only the one way for it. I had to be intellectually satisfied as well as emotionally because at that time of life one doesn't just fall into it in adolescent emotion, and I was satisfied at every point that it was the one way and the hard way to do things. (Interview with Stephen Black) (22)
The site of this spiritual crisis later becomes the focus of the title poem of her next volume of poetry, and while Pitter's conversion to Christianity was several years away, hearing Lewis on the radio was a critical step down the path to Christian faith. Although Lewis's broadcasts helped to cheer her "dark night" of the soul, it is hard to calculate the extent of emotional damage Pitter experienced by working in the factory. On April 3, 1945, she writes Cecil: "I'm still working in the Dark Satanic Mill, and getting very tired now, like everybody else; it's an awful thing to hate figures & yet be fairly good at them--and the manpower situation gets steadily worse, which means that the pressure steadily increases: but we're all in the same boat." Yet the best possible news came on May 8, 1945, when VE Day (Victory in Europe) was declared and six years of war came to an end. For Pitter this meant she could look forward to ceasing her factory work which she did on September 15, 1945.
Ironically and notwithstanding her depressed emotional state and the difficulty she encountered as she tried to write throughout the war, Pitter published The Bridge: Poems 1939-1944 early in 1945, an introspective volume of poetry clearly influenced by her wartime experiences. (23) The Bridge is characterized by recurring images and symbols, particularly water, birds, and flowers. More importantly, Pitter does not lose sight of the benign, distant God she writes about in The Spirit Watches. Although his presence in The Bridge is not as pervasive as in The Spirit Watches, her conception of God is clearly moving in the direction of orthodox Christianity. In fact, in the few poems she writes about God, it is clear she is on the verge of conversion. (24)
The title poem, "The Bridge," functions at multiple levels. On the literal level, it is poem about her forced move from working in Chelsea to Battersea across the Thames; on another level it is about her forced move from the life of an artist to that of a factory worker; and on still another level it is about the conflict between the ideal and the real. The bridge in this case is Battersea Bridge, the span she had to cover every day, a three- or four-block walk from her flat at 55A Old Church St, and the site of her spiritual crisis noted above. The opening lines of the poem illustrate Pitter's conflicting emotions between giving into and yet resisting the pull toward despair: "Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow? / I am sure myself that sorrow is not the truth. / These lovely shapes of sorrow are empty vessels / Waiting for wine: they wait to be informed" (7). Next Pitter contrasts the very different kinds of things made on either side of the river: "Men make vessels on either side of the river; / On this the hither side the artists make them, / And there over the water the workmen make them." That is, while artists make beautiful, delicate vessels, workmen make shell canisters: "These frail, with a peacock glaze, and the others heavy, / Simple as doom, made to endure the furnace. / War shatters the peacock-jars."
Yet in spite of this ominous reality, Pitter does not look to run away; instead she says "let us go over. / Indeed, we have no choice but to go over." Although Pitter's letters cited above testify to her loathing for the factory, the poem takes on metaphorical dimensions in her declaration that "we have no choice but to go over." Life demands that she go over, that she endure, that she face her worst fears; there is no shirking, no shrinking back from the inevitable: "There is always a way for those who must go over; / Always a bridge from the known to the unknown. / When from the known the mind revolts and despairs / There lies the way, and there we must go over." It matters not that she does not want to leave the artist's life--the known, the comfortable, the given. She "must go over" to bridge her fears to the unknown, the discomforting, the unpredictable. Still, this is not easy, for there are no guarantees: "0 truth, is it death there over the river, / Or is it life, new life in a land of summer?" She cannot know as she moves across the bridge whether or not she will live and thrive physically, emotionally, spiritually, or poetically. Make no mistake, she affirms: going across the river is risky business.
The poem's conclusion relies on the image of the vessel, moving away from those made by artists and workmen and focusing instead upon the vessel of the mind: "The mind is an empty vessel, a shape of sorrow, / Fill it with life or death, for it is hollow, / Dark wine or bright, fill it, let us go over. / Let me go find my truth, over the river." The only way to answer the poems opening question--"Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow"--is by completely embracing the unknowable. The only way to find truth is by confronting life head on; hanging back, avoiding reality, hiding out cannot "inform [her] sorrow." Would she rather stay on her side of the bridge in Chelsea with the other artists? Probably so. Would she rather not go to the factory and participate in producing its vessels, "simple as doom?" Probably so. Would she rather live in the ideal rather than the real world? Probably so. But Pitter knows retreat is no answer. The mind must be filled with something, "life or death ... dark wine or bright" or it will despair. Finding truth, for Pitter, involved action, and so she crosses over the river, into the world of the factory, and into the gritty reality of war.
Not surprisingly, poems about the war comprise the largest thematic grouping in The Bridge. "The Cygnet" may be Pitter's most comprehensive statement about the war, and it reflects upon the human need for belief in transcendent meaning. Here a young, solitary swan "rocking on turbid water" yet to have outgrown his gray feathers, serves as an emblem of the human spirit; just as the polluted Thames--"Water that has been fouled by wicked creatures: / Water whose loveliness dies of pollution" (11)--defiles the body of the cygnet, so the war pollutes the human spirit. Always deeply drawn to swans, Pitter lavishes great detail in her description of the cygnet: "For male pride, in the spring, he lifts his feathers, / Grey though they be; and thus with overarching / Pinions he goes, and lays his long neck backward, / Down-pointing the fierce narrow head and livid / Bill, that now is leaden, but shall be scarlet." As he sails alone past already mated pairs of swans, he is looking for his own mate "among the secret marshes / And from their joy regenerate his passion: / Himself a mode of these, he passes hissing, / Dark in the face of love, mourning division" The angry, immature, yet passionate and unconnected gray bird becomes a mirror of the human spirit in wartorn London.
Although the city has "gap-toothed black scribbled skylines such as madness / Might scrawl in dungeons," the cygnet reminds her that within the city there are "dark places" where "beauty is imprisoned" and where people dream "at times of happy love and childhood." As the poem telescopes down, Pitter takes us into one of these places, a bomb shelter, and we read one of her few sustained passages of what it must have felt like to live in London during the Blitz:
The fiery tears are falling; red and silver, They change and drift and wane, stars of disaster; Gold clusters, like the sparks in burning paper, Silently glimmer, then from haunted darkness Leaps their long shuddering voice of formal horror: White sheets of light flicker and flap and vanish; The steel-blue fingers, stark, intent and rigid, Deliberately seek their prey in heaven.
In the midst of such death and destruction, Pitter ironically finds great beauty as she highlights the brilliant red, silver, and gold colors of the bombings in the night sky. Yet, "the fiery rain is falling, and the vision / Of love is lost in the funereal blackness":
I heard a music once, but it is silent, The bellowing night derides it and devours it With loud destruction, varying but unceasing; Where are the harp and the pipe now, my darling, The loved voice murmuring in the leafy shadow? All fallen silent, and all buried with thee. The fiery doom is falling; fear and horror Engulf me as the wave of steel roars over: Shuddering with terror and the cold of winter, Empty of life and yet impaled by duty, I tremble as the dry stalks in a meadow Tremble in barren wind, in stark December, Sere, sere and barren as those bones of summer; Where is my hope, O where lies any promise?
Pitter's simile describing her emotional state in terms of dry stalks of corn in December, "sere and barren as those bones of summer" is powerful and leads to the inevitable existential query that is similar to the opening line of "The Bridge": "Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow?"
In fact, however, the question here is only rhetorical:
And loud within life undefeated answers. Even while the icy wind of terror rattles In the dry brain, the thought comes quick upon me Of seed blown from the skull-shaped pod and scattered, Preparing a new beauty, an awakening.
The key for Pitter, much in the manner she explores in "The Bridge" is the certainty that she must not give in to despair, that she must keep going, that there is a "germ of hope undying" and it will "flower in that immortal, promised summer, / When the sky weeps no fire, but only water." This fierce determination to continue is symbolized by the redemptive power of water, assuming an almost sacramental dimension: "Water shall bless them, water out of heaven / Washing from earth the stains of wicked creatures" By invoking the cleansing power of water, Pitter pictures a baptism:
Water in rain, water in dew at evening Falling through clear air, stealing through clean grasses, Dwelling in darkness in our mother's body, In secret springs welling and murmuring through her, Gathering in brooks and lapsing into rivers, Rolling magnificent down glorious tideways Deep for the mighty hulls, clean for the salmon, Pouring predestined to unfathomed ocean.
In addition to the language of baptism, Pitter's use of the theologically loaded "predestined" underscores her belief that life's meaning is anchored on more than just a personal commitment to going on. In fact, "The Cygnet" affirms Pitter's faith in a benevolent if distant God, but unlike in The Spirit Watches, the God she writes about now is sounding more and more like the God of Christianity: "Restore our innocence, return with water / Bliss for the blood-guilt of the wicked creatures, / Whose life ... sickens / At the denial of its inmost nature, / Loathing its vileness, longing for pardon."
Baptism is a metaphorical and theological picture of death and resurrection; those who go under the water "die" to self and are reborn as new creatures. Thus, when the inhabitants of the bomb shelters emerge, they, too, experience a kind of rebirth, even if only short-lived:
The blear smoke crawls, the dawn glimmers, the children, With their wan mothers, creep from dens that hide them A little from their terror; they turn homeward To the poor dole of food allotted strictly, To each his portion, just and insufficient; To the grey day; labouring on till evening, Then turning blindly to the earth for harbour As beasts do, bolting into holes for terror.
Pitter's frank portrayal of war's crushing daily weight--the fear of incessant bombing, the nightly scurrying into the shelters, the limited access to inadequate and unsatisfying food, and the sense that it will never end--reflects the everyday experience of London's weary inhabitants. Yet the baptismal theme--the notion that resurrection follows death--is highlighted in the poems conclusion and its return to the cygnet who is now a year older:
It is broad daylight; on the polluted river, Thick with impurity yet crowned with honour, There sails a creature raised above pollution, Proud and immaculate as winter ermine, He who was last year's Cygnet; now from greyness Wholly redeemed.
With physical maturity, there is also spiritual maturity: "Anger is past with him; the hissing madness / Of unrequited passion is forgotten." For he is no longer alone, and together he and his mate find "in love the only cure of sorrow, / Abandoning themselves each to the other, / Losing the separate self, the seed of anguish" In Pitter's farewell to the mated pair, she blesses them and urges them to be "fulfilled for ever" The transformation of the grey, dingy, cygnet--lonely and angry--into the white, royal swan--mated and noble--becomes a symbolic promise for Pitter and her fellows: "While we, still bound in anger and pollution, / Battle through dreary days and nights of terror / Until our spirit flowers, and we follow" "The Cygnet" tells us that Pitter's wartime experiences were frightening, debilitating, and depressing; yet, the transformation of the bird holds out a hope that the human spirit will be similarly transformed if it will maintain itself against despair, keep an implicit if not overt faith in a benevolent deity, and affirm the redemptive power of love.
Another war poem, "The Sparrow's Skull" offers a similar conclusion. Subtitled Memento mori, Written at the Fall of France, it is a sober reflection on the "moment of death" of a sparrow that had become so familiar it was almost tame; moreover, the death of the sparrow is likened to the fall of France. Since France surrendered on June 22, 1940, we can reasonably date the poem to the early days of the war, sometime shortly after this catastrophe. (25) Given the darkness of the days surrounding France's fall, the poem's opening lines are poignant and sober: "The kingdoms fall in sequence, like the waves on the shore. / All save divine and desperate hopes go down, they are no more. / Solitary is our place, the castle in the sea, / And I muse on those I have loved, and on those who have loved me" (19). In confronting an awful reality--both her own and England's isolation--Pitter's instinctive pull is toward finding love: "I gather up my loves, and keep them all warm, / While above our heads blows the bitter storm: / The blessed natural loves, of life-supporting flame, / And those whose name is Wonder, which have no other name" One of her loves had been a fragile little sparrow, and quietly invoking the graveyard scene from Hamlet, Pitter holds up her Yoric: "The skull is in my hand, the minute cup of bone, / And I remember her, the tame, the loving one, / Who came in at the window, and seemed to have a mind / More towards sorrowful man than to those of her own kind."
Pitter's sense that this bird was more at home with humans than other birds may be more imagined than real, yet it offers her solace because it suggests that fear can be overcome: "And I will keep the skull, for in the hollow here / Lodged the minute brain that had outgrown fear: / Transcended an old terror, and found a new love, / And entered a strange life, a world it was not of." If her supposals about the sparrow are accurate, Pitter finds a catalyst for dealing with her own fears about the wearying effects of the war and the rushing tide of Nazism: "Even so, dread God! Even so, my Lord! / The fire is at my feet, and at my breast the sword, / And I must gather up my soul, and clap my wings, and flee / Into the heart of terror, to find myself in thee." Like the sparrow who flew toward the "terror" of the humans who befriended her, so Pitter resolves to fly into the "terror" of the Lord. While it would be wrong to call this a "fox-hole religion" poem, it must be admitted that Pitter's use of "my Lord" shows she is moving still closer to Christianity. Urania may be a comforting notion in the face of personal doubts and inarticulate longings; Yahweh, the God of the Bible, however, is what she wants when human understanding and scheming are exposed as incomplete, ineffective, and impotent. In the midst of terror, Pitter does not want a distant albeit benevolent God; instead, she wants a real, powerful, personal Deity.
While birds and water function as important images in "The Cygnet" and "The Sparrow's Skull," the last two war poems for discussion here employ flower imagery. "Flowers in the Factory" reflects upon the incongruous appearance of beautiful, fragile, delicate flowers inside a dirty, wartime factory. Perhaps with the Morgen Crucible Factory as a background, these flowers are silhouetted against the light of the smelting furnaces: "The fire-dew, the glow-worm light / Phosphor-radiance, molten heart, / Make a clearness in the night; / Lend these poor a little part / Of the beauty of the sun!" (57). Although some might disparage the appearance of these flowers in a place like this, Pitter knows they are a balm to those who love beauty:
None can tell who does not know How such stars in beauty run With cold sweetness like the snow Through the silent, suffering mind, Through the grime and through the gloom, Like the fair, the fleeing hind Through the forest to her doom, Followed till she vanishes By beauty-tranced, by yearning eyes.
The intuitive power of beauty to comfort those open to her influence is sufficient argument to keep flowers in the factory. What is more, the flowers can even change human attitudes: "Give them blossoms, what you can. / What is nature in your hand / Changes in the mood of man" Although Pitter's artistic instincts are thwarted by factory work, flowers such as these nurture her aesthetic longing.
"Funeral Wreaths" goes outside the factory to consider the many flower wreaths brought there as memorials to those killed in the nightly bombings: "In the black bitter drizzle, in rain and dirt, / The wreaths are stacked in the factory entrance-yard. / People gather about them. Nobody's hurt / At the rank allusion to death" (58). Visitants read the cards sent with the wreaths and find "delight, and a sense of ease" Pitter wonders at this:
Is it only that flowers smell sweet, and are pretty and bright, Or because of the senseless waste of so many pounds Or because in that dreadful place the unwonted sight Of a heap of blossom is balm to unconscious wounds-- The mortal wounds that benumb, not the sharp raw pains Of the daily misery, but the fatal bleeding inside?
Whereas the flowers in "Flowers in the Factory" bring solace, here they almost mock the seriousness of war time death, trivializing the terrible loss of life: "Here is the supernatural to be bought with the gains / Of the spectral torment. The soul can go for a ride / On the high-heaped car that has nothing to do with bread, / Nothing, nothing at all to do with the war; / The soul can go for a ride with the rich young dead" Then Pitter lists the tawdry wreaths that "make you feel like a wedding"; one is formed as the gates to heaven ajar, another is a broken column, another is a pillow that says "rest in peace" and yet another is a "sham Harp with its tinsel string allusively [burst]" The mawkish artificiality of all this peaks when one of the most important symbols of Christianity is contrived into a "three-quid Cross made of flaring anemones." There are also "gibbeted carnations," "skewered roses" tulips "turned inside-out for a bolder show" and "arum lilies stuck upright in tortured poses / Like little lavatory basins" Ironically, though these wreaths are intended to honor the dead, Pitter sees them as empty, futile, and vacuous: "Mindless and pagan offering, wicked waste, / This is the efflorescence of godless toil, / Something that has no meaning, that has no taste" If the flowers in "Flowers in the Factory" serve as poignant reminders of beauty and pointers to a reality beyond the temporal, those in "Funeral Wreaths" are forced attempts at mourning wartime deaths; the flowers in the former poem evoke genuine emotion while those in the latter manufacture artificial sentiment.
Two final poems take Pitter to the verge of Christianity. "Better than Love" is a prayer calling upon God to intervene in human affairs:
Are you there? Can you hear? Listen, try to understand. O be still, become an ear, For there is darkness on this land. Stand and hearken, still as stone, For I call to you alone. (34) (26)
Noting God's power to create beauty, to sustain life, and to affect justice, she says: "Hear me, you solitary one, / Better than beauty or than love, / Seen in the weed, the shell, the grass, / But never in my kind, alas!" The failure of humanity to appreciate truth, to honor life, or to practice justice, leads Pitter to read God's message in natural objects, so that "the ragged weed is truth to me, / The poor grass honour, and the shell / Eternal justice" She is content with these spiritual emblems for now, but her prayer is for when "I see / The spirit rive the roof of hell / With light enough to let me read / More than the grass, the shell, the weed" If "Better than Love" hints at the sacramental, the sonnet "Lilies and Wine" is sacramental: "The white and gold flowers and the wine, / Symbols of all that is not mine, / Stand sacramental, and so bless / The wounded mind with loveliness" (49). While the lilies, symbolic of Christ's death and resurrection, and the wine, symbolic of Christ's sacrificial death, together speak powerfully about the possibility of new life, of spiritual rebirth, at least in this poem they are just "symbols of all that is not mine" That is, even though Pitter is drawn to the literal and symbolic beauty of the lilies and wine, she is still on the outside looking in. Yet in the immediacy of the poem, she hints that something is about to change: "I knew and loved them long ago; / But now the white, the gold, the blood / Dawn doomlike, not to be withstood" In fact, as the poem concludes, she is on the verge of conversion: "At the white, gold, and crimson gate / I and my heart stand still and wait" Although Pitter's conversion is still several years away, she is standing--hesitant and uncertain--at the metaphorical altar of faith as "Lilies and Wine" concludes.
The context of these poems--written during the terrible early days of the war when the very survival of Britain was in the balance through the wearying years of nightly bombings, mounting civilian deaths, strict rationing, the systemized destruction of London's infrastructure, personal isolation, short tempers, and the pervasive fear that things might never get better--lend to The Bridge a power not seen elsewhere in Pitter's verse. Indeed, it is the war context of these poems that lend them their profundity. "The Bridge" is really an existential crisis as Pitter considers for a sustained period the issues of meaning and purpose. "Who am I? Where am I going? What is there after death"--these are all implicit questions posed by the poem. And "Lilies and Wine" poignantly leaves us with the sense Pitter is standing at a church door, desperately desiring to go in and receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, but not quite ready to enter. While Pitter's poetic technique in The Bridge is essentially the same as in A Trophy of Arms, that is, not avant-garde nor experimental, this does not matter to readers who want poetry to take them to the deep, secret places of the human experience--readers who want someone to write about our shared fears and hopes, our yearnings for genuine human love, our sense of a longing for a transcendence beyond the merely temporal, and our growing belief in the mystery of life. With Pitter, we want to "find our truth, over the river." (27)
The Ermine, which appeared eight years later in the spring of 1953, marks a deliberate turn in Pitter's poetic and spiritual life. It is a volume filled with poems inspired by stories or memories from her childhood or with poems exploring death and the spiritual life. By the end of the book, Pitter's movement from faith in a benign but distant God is replaced by a powerful affirmation of her faith in the God of the Bible and in Jesus Christ in particular. Yet this movement is not presented as an evangelical tract; instead, Pitter uses all her skills as a poet to communicate her religious commitment through suggestion, indirection, and intimation. When she does finally reveal her faith at the end of The Ermine, she has done a masterful job preparing the reader for her theological "coming home." That The Ermine is the culmination of Pitter's spiritual pilgrimage as well as her way of organizing the text also makes this a unique book: it is the only one of her books that, at least in some ways, tells a story.
One of the most poignant poems, "Herding Lambs" (To O.) is dedicated to Pitter's sister, Olive, and recalls an instance from their childhood when they were drawn by "the high bleat [of the lambs], / And the low voice of the ewes" to the gentle passing of a sheep herd one beautiful spring morning. On this "daffodil day" they heard "the rainlike / Rustle of feet" and ran out to see "three / Old grey men, and five children" herd a small group of sheep "to the flesh lea." She remembers "when a silly lamb / Turned back in fright / A withered or an infant hand / Guided him right" (16). The sense that a wandering lamb will be guided aright, recalls "Help, Good Shepherd" from A Trophy of Arms. In that poem Pitter prayed to God, and by implication to Christ, the good shepherd, to "sound with thy crook the darkling flood, / Still range the sides of shelvy hill / And call about in underwood" in order to save humanity from himself: "For on the hill are many strayed, / Some held in thickets plunge and cry, / And the deep waters make us afraid. / Come then and help us, or we die" (27). However, the desperation in "Help, Good Shepherd" is replaced with the calm assurance that all will be well in "Herding Lambs": "The early mist muffled their sound / Muted that double chime / Trembling along the grassy ground / From the morning of time" While "Herding Lambs" is ostensibly about the memory of this event, it serves the larger purpose of illustrating Pitter's sense that humanity is protected by a loving, personal God.
"Old Clockwork Time" and "The Lammastide Flower" are very much companion poems focusing upon death. "Old Clockwork Time" uses an almost stereotypical scene from a country church yard: a large-faced clock perched at the top of a church tower that gazes down upon a graveyard. Pitter contrasts the pitiless movement of time and its certain consumption of all physical things with the simplicity of natural beauty: "Old clockwork Time beats in his tower, / I hear his wintry, wheezing breath; / His faded face looks down; a flower / Answers Eternity beneath" (33). While "the seconds creak, the quarters chime, / The light dust fall, the heavy doom" the clock inexorably, "beats his anvil, and his blood / Moves to its measured pulses still" Yet in the face of this, a "humble angel carved in wood / Looks up to its immortal hill." It seems untouched by the passage of time: "With moveless, dedicated eyes, / It gazes on, while all the waste / Seconds and minutes, hours and days / Plunge to that echoing gulf, the past" It is the contrast between the inevitable ticking away of time and the wonder of eternity represented by the flower and the carved angel that leads to the poem's deft conclusion: "What does each Adoration care / For sorrow measured off by sound?" Death may be certain, but it is not the last word. Perspective is everything. Immortality looms large behind the tiny clock face sounds of human time ticking away.
In "The Lammastide Flower" Pitter also explores immortality. The poem considers the death of a man who was well known to Pitter as well as the accidental drowning of a child. Both deaths had been untimely and had followed each other closely. In the poem, two late autumn flowers, the toadflax with its orange and lemon colors and the sky blue harebell, function as symbols for the two dead persons. Placed on the graves of the dead man and child, they seem to be peering happily up at the sky "while like a weary prodigal / Man counts the harvest of his pain" (34). Both flowers cause
Pitter to ponder what they are saying to her:
You yellow spires of Lammastide That look not at me by beyond; You silent bells that mirror sky Yet hang so meekly to the ground; What, either far or deep descried, Holds you so rapt, in such a bond, One looking low, one looking high: What is that silence you have found?
Each flower offers an answer. The toadflax tells her to be still: '"I see the Powers, they see me, / I see those Two, and both are gold: / Two golds in one, and both are true?" The harebell adds: '"In the blue?" And together '"Two golds; they said, and 'In the blue?" The essence of what they tell her is that the two dead persons live on the gold of the sun and in the blue of the sky. They are only dead to the earth; that which is eternal, immortal, and everlasting about them--call it their souls, their spirits, their metaphysical essences--lives on and transcends physical death.
The last group of poems chronicle Pitter's final steps toward Christian orthodoxy; by the end Pitter comes as close as she ever does in her poetry to making a definitive statement about her newly realized faith. The title poem, "The Ermine" takes as its starting point three traditional ideas associated with the ermine: it will die if its beautiful white coat is soiled ("he dies of soil"), it is an emblem of chastity ("he is the snow"), and its pelts have been combined to make extravagant, lavishly expensive robes for royalty (1). However, Pitter's concern goes far beyond these two notions; her real concern is to suggest that the ermine, a creature that is immaculate except for the characteristic black spot on its pelt, is a type of the saint on earth who has her own "dark" spot of sin: "Royal he is. What makes him so? / Why, that too is a thing I know: / It is his blame, his black, his blot; / The badge of kings, the sable spot:' This vivid black on white contrast gives the pelt its rich value and reminds the saint that even the holiest among us is tainted by sin: "O subtle, royal Ermine, tell / Me how to wear my black as well." As Pitter sensed herself moving toward orthodox Christianity, she realized that settled faith can lead spiritual pride and self-righteousness. The ermines spot reminds her that even the whitest, even the purest, even the most set apart, is still marred by the black spot of sin, thus her desire for the ermine to show her "how to wear my black as well." What makes the ermines coat royal is the black-on-white contrast, an ironic reminder of sin in the midst of holiness.
"The Neophyte" is less about her awareness of sin and more about Pitter's incipient, struggling, imperfect movement toward faith: "Something I see and feel, / But I must not speak. / It lives, O it is real, / But cold and weak / As a far light in a cave" (2). The religiously loaded title prepares us for what she explores in the poem because a neophyte is, in fact, a new convert, a novice, a beginner in the faith. Appropriately, therefore, she then uses a series of additional metaphors to describe her fragile hold on faith: "as the faint glow that green glow-worms have" "as stars of snow," and "as tenuous jellies" seen "on a wall where the tide has been" The image of the withdrawing tide is particularly effective, especially because of the promise of its return: "Where the tide has been; / Whence the great swinging deep, / With its bell-mouthed roar, / ... Has gone, falling away / Far to the main: / But with the day, with the new day, / Shall come again." Although she admits her imperfect hold on faith in this poem, nonetheless she insists on its daily rebirth.
Similarly, "Penitence" is essentially a religious poem referring to the fertilizing effects of repentance upon the soul. Using the metaphor of rain falling upon young corn ("sent down by divine law / To save the blade and the seed") that has been badly parched because of a fierce drought, Pitter makes the leap to the necessity of repentance in the human heart: "Love leaps to send and draw / Sweet water got by fire / Out of a cloudy grief" (27). lust as the blessed rain saves the corn, so tears of repentance save the soul: "Sweet dew of strong desire / To save the flower and the leaf." "The World Is Hollow" is another religious poem about childlike hope, adult despair, and God's jealous insistence on holding humanity's attention. Although a child has been told the world is hollow, empty of transcendent or supernatural truth, the child instinctively rejects such a claim: "Father, they told me that the world is hollow, / A thing no child believes, / ... Hope is its kingdom, and the mortal future / Holds love, the captain-jewel of the creature" (19). Yet the child's hope is countered by the adult's despair: "But man's despair is like the Arabian sun, / When the last morning cloud / Melts in the fire; then the lost wretch alone, / ... Falls in the sand, and cries his need aloud, / Full-grown at last to love, when he can find / No cloud, no rock, no shelter in the mind" In fact, the world is hollow if humans hope to find meaning and purpose from the world. The truth is that the world can never "be filled / Save by the One supreme." In the end, despair is used to drive people away from earthly contentment, and, by implication, toward God: "Despair, that burning angel, by the child / Unperceived even in dream, / Stands sentinel by Eden, and the beam / Unmitigated, doom pronounced by light, / Glares from his arms, and blinds the earthly sight"
However, the culmination of Pitter's spiritual pilgrimage occurs in the sequence of poems that concludes The Ermine, "Five Dreams and a Vision." (28) These poems, all genuine dreams and a vision according to Pitter, unfold the fascinating drama of a soul's movement toward faith in Christ. They are Pitter's most sustained attempt at writing religious verse, and the fact that she recounts her conversion experience via dreams and visions suggests it was less a decision of the will and more an unconscious, intuitive, and mystical process. In the preamble of the sequence, Pitter admits to the mystery of life: "All life is strange: / Waking no less than sleeping; all / Mantled in mystery of perpetual change, / Like the ephemeral / Blushing and whitenings of a wasting fire" (52). Yet humanity, she says, works feverishly to avoid facing the mystery, futilely committed instead to finding meaning and purpose in the activities of temporal experience: "[We] build us palaces without a name, / We write our timeless, spaceless histories there, / And read ourselves, before we are quite spent, / In that more swiftly wasting element" However, in contrast to human activity, Pitter says that fine details of nature and the inarticulate breathings of simple creatures speak volumes if only we will open ourselves to them:
[The] shifting sands and brooks that wander And the way twigs lie; They may say things silently: And the toothless babe may speak To resolve the mother's doubt; The cat and dog and ass call out, The strong by guided by the weak; The powers can use a little leaf As a simple to heal grief; Simple or symbol; and a dream Be more than what such things may seem.
That dreams may speak to us about deeper truth, about the mystery of life, is the essential premise Pitter makes in this preamble.
The first dream, "A Stranger and a Sojourner" has numerous biblical echoes, most notably to Abraham: "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11: 8-10). After the Israelites escape from Egypt, they wander in the desert as stranger and sojourners, looking to find the promise land. Indeed, Abraham and the Israelites become types of Christian pilgrims, never satisfied with this world because they are always looking for a permanent home not of this world. Pitter almost certainly has in mind this biblical passage:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city. (Heb. 11:13-16)
"A Stranger and a Sojourner" opens with a profound sense of displacement:
Always the unknown place, The place where I have not been. Always an unknown face In a strange scene; Always the people whom I do not know, In a mysterious land. (53)
In the surreal landscape of this unknown place, Pitter is not afraid, noting "there is no shelter here. I will go on." As the houses crumble and the roads fail about her in the dream, Pitter senses "there is life where never yet / air blew or water ran, / Where time is not a tragic theme, / Where the misery of man / Has not cast his bitter dream" In this life "unfallen spirits rest / Like the swan upon her nest, / Moated round with innocence" With the swan, Pitter returns to her favorite bird, this time as an image of the pilgrim who has found her real home.
The second dream, "Forms with Infinite Meaning" explores the significance of a landscape hinting at something wonderful. At dawn "in a grey land that was not sorrowful" in the hollow of "low smooth hills" there were shells:
Whether small shells, and near, Or mighty shells reared up before the hills, I do not know; but dear, Dear with a worth beyond all earthly price, And clothed with such significance That their melodious stillness was a dance. (54)
Pitter may be making a connection here to the biblical idea of the pearl of great price, the notion that all should be given up in order to find God. (29) The stillness of this scene is broken: "And then there came a voice, / And up the clean sky rushed a whiter sun, / And there was done / Some great solemnity, which yet was play" What this all means is just beyond her understanding, yet she is not frustrated nor upset: "In that strange dream my heart kept holiday; / Forms more than forms are shadowed in my mind, / My loves for ever, though of alien kind." Is this a land untouched by sin, a land filled with the voice of God, yet a land just beyond her comprehension? Pitter does not know, but it is a land she loves.
The third dream, "The Tree" is about another surreal scene. Pitter describes how once in a dream she looked down into a hollow where she saw a tree with curious flowers: "What were those flowers of flame, / Hanging so still, unblown, / Pendent upon a great and great-leaved tree / In the deep-shadowed glade before the door / Of that veiled cavern?" (55). Descending into the hollow, as she nears the tree she sees "pendent from stalks, those flowers that were men, / Asleep, and beautiful" As she watches them gently breathe, she "wept with gladness" because she "had feared to find that they were dead" The poem ends by suggesting this dream was about the preexistence of the soul: "This was a blessed people not yet come to be." The next poem, "A Vision of Extreme Delight," is almost a companion piece to "The Tree" since it is also about "another people" who are living in a world "under a sky / Dark as our midnight but intensely blue" (56). This world is dominated by "palmlike forests of the very hue / That shines unearthly in our glaciers / ... Melting into the green the glow-worm bears" At the same time, this world is "pulsing with a life untold" populated with people who "showed like monoliths of living ice, / Streaming with rays of visible delight. / O there is no device / Of language for them." However, her vision of the world and it people has made an indelible mark upon her mind: "If I were blind, / I should still see palms waving without wind, / And living jewels, cataracts of bliss, / Against the dark of other skies than this" This, too, is a world without sin filled with the blessed--and such a vision is the kind of world Pitter longs to experience.
The fourth dream, "The Transparent Earth" marks a distinct break with the earlier poems in this sequence; initially in this dream of the earth, gone are the images of pleasure, delight, peace, and blessedness. Instead, there is heaviness and burden: "Earth is bowed with a weight / Hard and heavy to bear; / Bowed and curved round the great / Core of despair" (57). Images of the grave and the earth as man's inevitable resting place follow: "Earth is weary and old, / So men have always said; / Earth is heavy and cold, / On the cold breasts of the dead" However, the poem shifts radically because of Pitter's dream; there she sees the earth "clear / As a drop of dew":
Like a crystal was her sphere, And the sun shone through: Standing at midnight in the street I saw the sun between my feet, Shining up into my face Through earth colourless as space; Through an earth as clear as wine, Colourless and crystalline.
The power of this dream to transform her dreary impression of the earth into a brilliant, transparent world hints at the spiritual transformation going on unconsciously inside Pitter. Because of her growing faith, she can see the world as not just a place of hardship and misery but instead as a place redeemed and renewed by the hand of God.
The fifth dream, "But My Neighbour is My Treasure," recalls the second most important law of the New Testament--love your neighbor as yourself--and serves as a fitting preface to the last poem in the sequence. (30) In essence "But My Neighbour is My Treasure" says that while "solemn and lovely visions and holy dreams, / Mysterious portents" are very important, they pale in comparison to the significance of people: "For I am listening for that mortal tune, / The broken anthem of my fallen kind, / And seeking for the vision of those I see / Daily and here, in this poor house with me" (59). It is her friends, her acquaintances, her customers, her neighbors in Chelsea, and so on that should hold Pitter's attention: "Their name is Wonderful, a holy name; / These in the light of heaven I shall behold, / If I can come there, standing in the flame / Of glory, with the blessed in their gold." Moreover, the call to love people is of utmost importance: "There is no dream more wonderful, for they / Are worth the whole creation, each alone. / Grant me to see their beauty on that Day! / There is no vision to prefer, but One." Several startling things stand out in these lines. First, at this point in her life Pitter values people even more than the natural world; while much of her early poetry celebrates the natural world, perhaps because of her disappointment with people, here she affirms people over creation. Second, this poem is actually a prayer that God will permit her to see all those people on the day they are glorified in heaven. Third, this vision of the eternal importance of people is most to be desired save "One." This most-to-be-preferred vision is the subject of the final poem in this sequence.
Ironically, "The Great and Terrible Dream" hardly seems to be the most preferred vision since it begins as an apocalyptic nightmare:
Dark valley, or dark street: arches or trees Or rocks? Shadow of evening, or of cloud? Fear in the air, and a profound unease; The panic-driven feet, and from a shroud Of dust or darkness, ravings as of men Running in horror from some sight so dire That the flesh cannot stay, or turn again, But mindless flees, as hand is snatched from fire. Fixed in pure terror, horribly afraid, I listened to that frenzied multitude. (60)
Yet in the midst of this nightmare, Pitter hears a "calm, solemn voice" say: "They fear the blood." To Pitter these words mean "love was alone / And in extremity" so she hurls herself against the stream of the frightened crowd: "And wounded, naked, trampled, torn, and bruised / I fought against them for a weary time / Willing to die before my heart should break; / I thought them murderers fleeing from their crime, / And what they feared so madly, I must seek."
But then, just as suddenly as the tumult had begun, it was over, and Pitter again hears the calm, solemn voice say: "He is there. Look on Him. That is He." Initially this causes "the fear of death" to come upon her as she remembers from childhood an incident when a coffin being carried had opened when the men carrying it had slipped. However, she cannot resist the imperative: "Torn with love and awe, / I saw the Face, the plaited thorns, the stain / Of blood descending to the beard I saw; / And felt the power of life conquering death, / More dread than death, for death is vincible." Now clearly a vision of Christ's crucifixion, Pitter's desperate struggle against the crowd in order to assist "love in extremity" and her taking upon herself the wounds of Christ illustrate the profound degree to which she identifies with him. The culmination of Pitter's spiritual pilgrimage is revealed in the final four lines of this poem and of The Ermine as a whole: "[Christ's face] struck me down. It stopped the very breath / Itself had given. But the dream was well: / O well is me, and happy shall I be! / Look! He is there. Look on Him. That is He." Pitter's search for a spiritual home is over when she looks into the loving face of the sacrificed Christ. His sacrifice becomes hers, and the benign, distant God of her earlier poems is revealed to be the One she had always known but studiously avoided. In addition, she now points others to this face: "Look! He is there. Look on Him. That is He." While not exactly an evangelistic pronouncement, it is a clear statement that for Pitter spiritual fulfillment can best be known through the sacrificial love of Christ on the cross. The Ermine not only chronicles the culmination of Pitter's spiritual search but also contains her most mature poems--well-crafted, thought-provoking, emotionally powerful, and aesthetically pleasing. The volume illustrates how Pitter grew as a poet over the years--often working in snatches of time, worn weary by the demands of trade, but ever true to her muse, ever seeking ways to share through poetry the longings of her heart, the fears of her mind, and the convictions of her soul. (31)
Pitter could little have known that after The Ermine she would live almost forty years. During these years she was very active, winning the William E. Heinemann Award for The Ermine and the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955, writing dozens of essays, appearing regularly on BBC radio and television, and publishing three more volumes of poetry--Still by Choice (1966), End of Drought (1975), and A Heaven to Find (1987). (32) When Pitter died on February 29, 1992, her passing was widely hailed as a great literary loss. One writer called her "one of the truest and most dedicated poets of her time; and it is a standing rebuke to English letters that her voice--clear, precise and unflustered amidst unfathomable depths--should have only lately sounded in the wilderness ... Pitter's beautifully contrived utterance calls her readers to attention; her seamless simplicity holds them transfixed. In her ordered scheme neither obscurity nor banality had any place" (The Daily Telegraph). He also added perceptively: "Her poetry combines grit and tenderness, hardness and fragility, sensual experience and intellectual vision. Yet somewhere behind these multiple antitheses, she would hint, there lies the single unattainable truth." Another writer said "she came to enjoy perhaps the highest reputation of any living English woman poet of her century" (The [London] Times). He also noted her isolation from the mainstream poetry of her day: "Few who took the trouble to read her came away unimpressed by her Traherne-like dedication to Christianity or by her refusal to write except in her own voice. Her poetry behaves as if all the literary movements of the past century, from Georgianism to Concrete Poetry, had simply never happened ... In this, as in her wholly genuine modesty and disregard for fame, she was unique among her contemporaries. She was concerned only with verse." Ann Margaret Ridler affirmed that Pitter's "whole life was devoted to her craft, her writing grounded in the natural world, in common things and people portrayed with love and a painterly clarity" ("Capturing the Dance in Stillness"). Ridler went on to say that Pitter "celebrated a triumphant faith in an all-pervading divinity. Though at times she conveys a profound desolation, again and again she affirms the miracle of rebirth ... Her finest work reveals a strong certitude of visionary splendours within, through and beyond the natural world, and in this respect she was a true modern metaphysical. (33)
In the "Introduction" to Pitter's Collected Poems (1990), Elizabeth Jennings praises Pitter's "acute sensibility and deep integrity"; Jennings claims that her poems "are informed with a sweetness which is also bracing, and a generosity which is blind to nothing, neither the sufferings in this world nor the quirky behavior of human beings" (15). Philip Larkin, who edited the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, included four of Pitter's poems, writing to a friend that her poetry was "rather good" (Letter to Judy Egerton," March 16, 1969), high praise coming from one of the most respected twentieth-century English poets. (34) As I have tried to illustrate in this study of her religious verse, Ruth Pitter deserves a wider reading and a more judicious critical appraisal. If she "enjoyed the highest reputation of any living English woman poet of her century" it is time that both her life and her art be given the exposure and recognition they so richly deserve.
Adcock, Flew, ed. The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.
Belloc, Hilaire. "Two Poets" Rev. of A Trophy of Arms and More Poems by A. E. Housman. G. K.'s Weekly, 26 Oct. 1936: 146.
Bogan, Louise. Rev. of The Spirit Watches. New Yorker 20 Apr. 1940: 92.
Forbes-Boyd, Eric. "Two English Poets" Rev. of The Spirit Watches. Christian Science Monitor 24 Feb. 1940: 11.
Brantley, Fredrick. "Sparrow's Skull." Rev. of The Bridge. New York Times 5 May 1946: 8.
Cecil, David. Letters to Ruth Pitter. Ruth Pitter uncatalogued papers. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Deutsch, Babette. "Delight and Dismay." Rev. of The Bridge. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse May 1946: 103.
Di Cesare, Mario A., ed. George Herbert and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Poets. New York: Norton, 1978.
Dickinson, Peter. "Ruth Pitter." The Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal 79 (Summer 1992): 1-3.
"From Death to Life." Rev. of The Bridge. Times Literary Supplement 7 Apr. 1945: 164.
Gawsworth, John. Rev. of A Trophy of Arms. New English Weekly 24 Sept. 1936.
Gibson, Wilfrid. Rev. of The Bridge. The Manchester Guardian 23 May 1945: 3.
Gilbert, Rudolph. Four Living Poets. Santa Barbara, CA: Unicorn Press, 1944.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar, eds. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1996.
Hawkins, Desmond. "Recent Verse." Rev. of The Spirit Watches. Spectator 15 Dec. 1939: 876.
Jarrell, Randall. Rev. of The Bridge. Nation 25 May 1946: 633.
Keegan, Paul, ed. The New Penguin Book of English Verse. London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2000.
Kenmare, Dallas. "The Triumph of 'Pure Poetry."' Poetry Review 1937: 373-80.
King, Don. W. "The Anatomy of a Friendship: The Correspondence of Ruth Pitter and C. S. Lewis, 1946-1962." Mythlore 24 (Summer 2003): 2-24.
--. "Fire and Ice: C. S. Lewis and the Love Poetry of Joy Davidman and Ruth Pitter." SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review; forthcoming.
--. "The Poetry of Prose: C. S. Lewis, Ruth Pitter, and Perelandra." Christianity and Literature 49 (Spring 2000): 331-356.
--. Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter. (Manuscript under review).
Landreneau, Francine. "Ruth Pitter." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 20: British Poets, 1914-1945. Ed. Donald E. Stanford. Shreveport: Gale Group, 1983. 270-279.
Larkin, Philip. Selected Letters of Philip Larkin. Ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.
--, ed. The Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
Maynard, Theodore. Rev. of The Bridge. Catholic World, July 1946: 373.
More Poetry Please! 100 Popular Poems from the BBC Radio 4 Programme. London: Everyman, 1988.
Morley, Christopher. "Testament against Terror." Rev. of The Bridge. Saturday Review of Literature 23 Mar. 1946: 12.
"The Mortal Lot." Rev. of The Ermine. Times Literary Supplement 21 Aug. 1953.
Pitter, Ruth. "Better Than Love." Poetry Review March-April 1941: 75-76.
--. The Bridge: Poems 1939-1944. London: Cresset, 1945.
--. "Call Not to Me." New English Weekly 7 July 1932: 279.
--. Collected Poems: 1990. Petersfield: Enitharmon, 1990 (rev. 1996).
--. End of the Drought. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1975.
--. The Ermine: Poems 1942-1952. London: Cresset, 1953.
--. First Poems. London: Cecil Palmer, 1920.
--. First and Second Poems. London: Sheed & Ward, 1927.
--. A Heaven to Find. London: Enitharmon, 1987.
--. Interview with Stephen Black. Rec. 24 June 1955. BBC Written Archives, Caversham, England.
--. Letters to David Cecil. David Cecil family letters in care of Laura Cecil.
--. A Mad Lady's Garland. London: Cresset, 1934.
--. "The Paradox." New English Weekly 31 Oct. 1935: 51.
--. Persephone in Hades. Privately printed, 1931.
--. Pitter on Cats. London: Cresset, 1946.
--. Poem. Southampton: Shirley, 1943.
--. Poems 1926-1966. London: Barrie & Rockcliff/Cresset, 1968.
--. The Rude Potato. London: Cresset, 1941.
--. The Spirit Watches. London: Cresset, 1939.
--. "The Spirit Watches" and "O Come Out of the Lily." Virginia Quarterly Review 15 (1939): 247-8.
--. Still by Choice. London: Cresset, 1966.
--. "Stockdove." London Mercury Nov. 1937: 8.
--. A Trophy of Arms: Poems 1926-1935. London: Cresset, 1936.
--. "Thanksgiving for a Fair Summer." New English Weekly 2 June 1932: 169.
--. Uncatalogued papers. Bodleian Library, Oxford.
--. Urania. London: Cresset, 1950.
Powell, Dilys. "Ruth Pitter's New Poems." London Mercury, October 1936.
Rev. of The Bridge. Kirkus 15 Dec. 1945: 552.
Rev. of The Bridge. New Yorker 23 Feb. 1946: 91.
Ridler, Ann Margaret. "Capturing the Dance in Stillness." The Guardian 3 Mar. 1992.
Roberts, Michael. "The Eternal Fog." Spectator, 16 Oct. 1936: 652.
Russell, Arthur, ed. Festschrift, Ruth Pitter: Homage to a Poet. London: Rapp and Whiting, 1969.
"Ruth Pitter Obituary." Daily Telegraph 2 Mar. 1992.
"Ruth Pitter Obituary." [London] Times 3 Mar. 1992.
Sarton, May. "Two Poets: W. B. Yeats and Ruth Pitter:' The University Review [Kansas City]. Oct. 1940: 63-65.
Sassoon, Siegfried. The New Statesman & Nation 19 Dec. 1936: 1034.
Schlueter, Paul. "Ruth Pitter." An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. Eds. June Schlueter and Paul Schlueter. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1999.
Schultz, Jeffrey, and John West, eds. The C. S. Lewis Readers' Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Spender, Stephen. Rev. of The Spirit Watches. New Statesman & Nation 9 Dec. 1939: 834.
Stonier, G. W. Rev of The Bridge. New Statesman & Nation 28 Apr. 1945: 276.
"Two Contemporary British Poets Who Build Bridges." Rev. of The Bridge. Christian Science Monitor Weekly Magazine Section 7 July 1945:15.
Untermeyer, Louis. Rev. of The Spirit Watches. Christian Century 24 April 1940: 547.
Walton, Eda. "Miss Ruth Pitter's Poems." Rev. of A Trophy of Arms. Times Literary Supplement 3 Oct. 1936: 784.
"The Watching Spirit." Rev. of The Spirit Watches. Times Literary Supplement, 23 Dec. 1939.
(1) Research for this essay was made possible by grants from the Appalachian College Association and Montreat College.
(2) I explore aspects of the relationship between Pitter and Lewis in "The Poetry of Prose," "The Anatomy of a Friendship," and "Fire and Ice." In addition, roughly one quarter of my Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (currently undergoing editorial review at Kent State UP) explores in detail their relationship.
(3) Volumes not specifically listed elsewhere in this article include First Poems, First and Second Poems, Persephone in Hades, A Mad Lady's Garland, The Rude Potato, Poem, Pitter on Cats, and Poems 1926-1966.
(4) Ironically, however, little critical work has been done on Pitter. For instance, there is no biography, no book-length evaluation of her work, and no critical edition of her poetry. Other than my essays mentioned above, the only substantial piece of criticism is Landreneau's work in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 20.
(5) See the Festschrift edited by Russell.
(6 Yet she continues to be enjoyed by many readers as evidenced by the appearance of her work in several anthologies. These include The Faber Book of 20th Century Women's Poetry, where "The Sparrow's Skull" and "Morning Glory" (77-8) appear; More Poetry Please! 100 Popular Poems from the BBC Radio 4 Programme, with "The Rude Potato" (101-02); Gilbert and Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, where "The Military Harpist," "The Irish Patriarch," "Old Nelly's Birthday," and "Yorkshire Wife's Saga" (1573-77) appear; and The New Penguin Book of English Verse, where "But for Lust" (962) appears.
(7) First published in The New English Weekly, July 7, 1932, 279.
(8) First published in The New English Weekly Oct. 31, 1935, 51.
(9) First published in The New English Weekly, June 2, 1932, 169.
(10) Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, Pitter died on Feb. 29, 1992.
(11) See James Stephens, "Preface" to A Trophy of Arms; Gawsworth; Belloc, 146; Walton, 784; Powell; Roberts, 652; Sassoon, 1034; and Kenmare, 373-380. In letters to Pitter, Sassoon is highly complimentary. In one dated Oct. 22, 1936, he writes: "Please allow me to congratulate you on your beautiful book of poems. Until I bought "A Trophy of Arms" I was entirely unaware of the existence of your exquisite work; but when I read "Sudden Heaven" I felt so grateful to you that I harken to thank you ... Hoping that this letter will give you a little pleasure" Two months later after his review of A Trophy of Arms, he writes: "It was a great privilege to be able to praise your poems in print--a proud & pleasant privilege, in fact, to continue the alliteration! Your poems have qualities which I admire so deeply & gratefully. What I wrote about them was like a well meaning elephant in a garden.... I only hope that my review has helped to make you more widely appreciated ... I very much hope to meet you one of these days" (Dec. 22, 1936). In addition, Pitter received many letters offering thanks and praise for her work. Perhaps the greatest praise came from Lord David Cecil, winner of the Hawthornden Prize in 1929 for The Stricken Deer, and later a great friend and supporter:
Dear Miss Pitter, I hope you will forgive a total stranger writing to you. But I feel I must tell you how very beautiful I think your poems [A Trophy of Arms]. I read them last week in a fit of drab depression brought on by the condition of the world: and I cannot tell you what a ray of light spread out on my horizon to discover that some one cared still to write such firm spontaneous glowing poetry--could feel the essential normal beauties of soul & body, so freshly, so strongly, so unsentimentally. I read your mad Lady's Garland too & had liked that very much especially the Fowls Terrestrial & Celestial: but in your new book you have soared still higher. Thank you very, very much. (Sept.? 1936)
(12) The Hawthornden Prize, oldest of the major British literary prizes, was established in 1919 by Alice Warrender to recognize annually the best work of imaginative literature by a writer under 41 years old. Edward Shanks won the initial award in 1919 for The Queen of China. Later winners included Edmund Blunden for The Shepherd (1922), Sean O'Casey for Juno and the Paycock (1925), Virginia Sackville-West for The Land (1926), Siegfried Sassoon for Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Lord David Cecil for The Stricken Deer (1929), James Hilton for Lost Horizon (1934), Evelyn Waugh for Edmund Campion (1936), David Jones for In Parenthesis (1938), Graham Greene for The Power and the Glory (1941), and Ted Hughes for Lupercal (1961). When Pitter won the prize, the monetary value was about $500; as of 2002 the award was worth 10,000 British pounds.
(13) Throughout her adult life, Pitter earned a living doing ornamental painting on furniture, tea trays, and the like. Along with her partner, Kathleen O'Hara, Pitter operated a business, Deane and Forrester, from the late 1920s through the mid-1960s. The business reached its highest point of success just as World War II began, and although it survived the war, it was never as robust afterward.
(14) First published as "Stockdove" in The London Mercury, 8.
(15) First published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 247.
(16) First published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, 248.
(17) The critical reception of The Spirit Watches was mixed. See Spender, 834; Hawkins, 876; "The Watching Spirit"; Forbes-Boyd, 11; Bogan, 92; Untermeyer, 547; and Sarton, 63-65.
(18) Edward Christian David (Gascoyne) Cecil was a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, 1924-1930, and a fellow of New College from 1939-1969 and emeritus fellow from 1970-1986. He was also Goldsmith Professor of English Literature from 1948-1969.
(19) Working in the munitions factory meant long, hard days. She writes Cecil: "Life is one continual effort--an effort that is never sufficient, but I know well enough that I've no real cause for complaint" (Aug. 23, 1943). She is also candid about her sagging spirits: "We work in the offices--very dirty place and long hours & work not exactly inspiring: people very decent, as they mostly are ... Our income is under one-fourth what we are used to, and the feeling of compulsion is (to me) sickening and enraging. Also I am becoming rheumatic, and the pain makes me savage."
(20) Lewis's broadcasts began on Aug. 6, 1941, and continued until April 4, 1944. Generally given in a fifteen-minute format, there were actually four series of talks: "Broadcast Talks" (August 1941), "The Case for Christianity" (Jam-Feb. 1942), "Christian Behavior" (Sept.-Nov. 1942), and "Beyond Personality" (Feb.-Apr. 1944). For more information on the talks, see The C. S. Lewis Readers' Encyclopedia, (Schultz and West, 270-73).
(21) While it is not possible to date this reference precisely, I suggest March 1943 given the following excerpt from Pitter's letter to Cecil of March 17, 1943: "You time your letters with a blest if unconscious precision. They always arrive to rescue me when I am at the lowest ebb. We have had a rather bad time since January; indeed we have both been working in a factory since the middle of that month."
(22) For more on how Lewis nurtured Pitter's faith, see my "Anatomy of a Friendship," 2-24.
(23) A review of her manuscript notebook of this period confirms that all the poems were written from 1939 to 1944 during the darkest days of the war.
(24) Also of note is that the overall melancholic tone of the poems marks it as a volume profoundly influenced by Pitter's wartime experiences; yet, characteristically, she never gives in to despair.
(25) Pitter's MS notebook of this time gives the date of the poem as 1940.
(26) First published in The Poetry Review, 75-76.
(27) Initial reaction to The Bridge was favorable. Of course, David Cecil was delighted with the poems:
This is only to say how beautiful I find your new volume. I had of course seen several before--notably The Swan Bathing ... but I read this again with enhanced pleasure; & what beautiful reviews there are! The Estuary seems to me a perfect piece of writing & there are several others as good--The Coloured Glass & Hoverfly on Poppy. And the Cygnet is very fine ... You know how deeply I admire your art: & how it speaks to my heart as well as my taste. (April 2, 1945).
Pitter, ever grateful for Cecil's attention, replies:
Your very kind letter does me good. I don't care if nobody reviews the thing now. And indeed it looks as though nobody means to: but having had the Hawthornden, and your approbation, has satisfied me--I mean this quite seriously: I can't express what your praise has meant to me. These last pieces have not been so closely meditated as the former ones, but that is due to circumstances. (April 3, 1945)
The good favor of Cecil was reinforced by brisk sales and favorable reviews (see "From Death to Life" 164). In his Four Living Poets, Rudolph Gilbert had called Pitter "the poet of purity" and noted
what the poetry reader values most in Pitter's poems is her eloquence.... In Pitter one almost looks through the language, as through air, discerning the exact form of the objects which stand there, and every part and shade of meaning is brought out by the sunny light resting upon them. (48-49)
Later he added: "She has a first-rate intuitive gift of observation, a control of poetic language and magical perception that is always to be found in great poetry" (52). See also Gibson; "Two Contemporary British Poets"; "Review of the Bridge" in Kirkus and New Yorker; Stonier; Jarrell; Morley; Brantley; Deutsch; and Maynard.
(28) Although entitled "Five Dreams and a Vision," including a kind of preamble, there are actually eight poems in this sequence. As far as I have been able to determine, Pitter never explained this inconsistency.
(29) "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it" (Matt. 13:46-47).
(30) Although there is no way to document this, Pitter may have read by this time C. S. Lewis's sermon, "The Weight of Glory" preached in the university church of Oxford, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, on June 8, 1941, and reprinted in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, where he argues the same point of this poem:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. (14-15)
(31) Certainly critics found The Ermine to be her most mature work of poetry. See "The Mortal Lot." C. S. Lewis was completely overwhelmed by The Ermine; see King, "The Anatomy of a Friendship."
(32) Religious poems sprinkle these final volumes, including "In the Open," "Moths and Mercury-Vapour Lamp," "The Heart's Desire is Full of Sleep," and "Angels" from Still by Choice; "Holiday in Heaven," "A Happy Christmas--Love to All," "Lame Arm," "Line Engaged" and "The Penny Chick, or The Triumph of Faith" from End of Drought; and "The Half-Remembered Tune," "Rogation Hymn," and "Good Enthroned," which perhaps best expresses her mature faith:
Absolute good sits throned in the middle of the mind. There must be--I know there is--a heaven to find: Our final bliss, perfectly passionate, perfectly kind: It is our first love, long since left behind. We need no more than one look to know our own. Turn a page. In place of the print, an image is shown: Then broken and healed, created and overthrown, We fall at the feet of the New we have always known.
In effect, Pitter insists that all intuitively know that "absolute good sits throned" in the mind of our minds, a Platonic affirmation. Although this knowledge sometimes fades--either through familiarity or disinterest--old age and the certainty of coming death shocks us back into a profound final realization: "We fall at the feet of the New we have always known." Earlier in her faith journey Pitter would never have made such an overt confession of faith in verse; now, however, as she faces the coming moment of her own death, she no longer feels the need to be oblique or to use indirection regarding matters of faith. God is a certainty, so it is natural and fitting that she give poetic utterance to her faith--it is, indeed, "a heaven to find"
(33) When we consider specific metaphysical influences two poets stand out: George Herbert and Thomas Traherne. For example, in Herbert's "The Windows" he muses upon how the stained glass window of a church may be compared to a preacher: "Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word? / He is a brittle, crazy glass: / Yet in thy temple thou doest him afford / This glorious and transcendent place, / To be a window through thy grace" He then suggests that just as heat is used to burn color into the stained glass, so the suffering of a preacher (and by implication the suffering of Christ) is used to "color" or to bring meaning to Scripture: "Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one / When they combine and mingle, bring / A strong regard and awe" (Di Cesare, 30). Herbert's intense spiritual reflection finds evidence in Pitter's "Spectrum" a poem that came to her after she saw a glass of water in the vestry of her parish church in Long Crendon: "A little window, eastward, low, obscure, / A flask of water on the vestry press, / A ray of sunshine through a fretted door, / And myself kneeling in live quietness: / Heaven's brightness was then gathered in the glass" (End of Drought, 25). The simple, terse diction of these lines invoke a sacred moment as Pitter enjoys how the sun "made his dear daughter Light sing her own praise,/ ... Counting her seven great jewels" As she wonders at beauty of the seven refracted colors--violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red--she also wonders at how, from a different visual angle, "those rays / Remerged in the whole diamond, total sight" In this moment of seeing how "water and glass obeyed / The laws appointed" Pitter humbly worships: "With them, yet how far / From their perfection, I still knelt and prayed." This divine encounter, this sacramental vision of seeing how the natural world obeys its God given laws, forges in Pitter a desire to do the same. It would be too much to say that "The Windows" directly influenced "Spectrum"; however, it would be accurate to say that Herbert's sacramental vision of the world was one shared by Pitter.
Throughout the poetry of Traherne there is a pre-occupation with the innocence of childhood; often direct encounter with the natural world transforms this innocence into mystical experiences of joy. In "Innocence" Traherne explores his earliest childhood memories, affirming
No darkness then did overshade But all within was pure and bright, No guilt did crush, nor fear invade But all my soul was full of light. A joyful sense and purity Is all I can remember, The very night to me was bright, 'Twas summer in December.
The poem climaxes with an epiphany claiming that his sense of sin had been removed, replaced instead by the light of God's love:
Whether it be that nature is so pure, And custom only vicious; or that sure God did by miracle the guilt remove, And make my soul to feel his love, So early: or that 'twas one day, Where in this happiness I found; Whose strength and brightness so do ray, That still it seemeth to surround. What e'er it is, it is a light So endless unto me That I a world of true delight Did then and to this day do see. (Di Cesare, 185)
Traherne's mystical affirmation of God is similarly found throughout Pitter's work, most notably in the previously discussed "Sudden Heaven" from A Trophy of Arms. Traherne and Pitter are among the best of mystical poets; they help us draw near the inexpressible through their powerfully realized poems.
(34) The poems he includes are: "The Eternal Image," "Time's Fool" "But for Lust" and "Hen Under Bay-Tree."
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
|Previous Article:||The religious epigram in early Stuart England.|
|Next Article:||A life in psychiatry and literature: an interview with Robert Coles.|