One of the most renowned British female poets of the twentieth-century, and an accomplished scholar of Blake, Yeats and Hopkins, Kathleen Raine’s contribution to British poetry is without question.
As a young poet, she longed to be published by TS Eliot at Faber, but in vain. Decades later, the daughter of her beloved Yeats told her that "Tom" had first told "WBY" (as Anne Yeats called her father) to read Kathleen Raine's poems. When she no longer bothered about such things, "I received Eliot's posthumous acceptance, with Yeats's also." It was the Sri Lankan, Tambimutto, who published her first book of poems, Stone And Flower, in 1943, with illustrations by Barbara Hepworth; he never ceased to see greatness in her work.
Kathleen's life had its pleasures, but much pain. She was beautiful and intelligent, and knew the passions of the heart and body as well as the immortal longings of the soul. At Cambridge, a group of young men hung around simply to catch sight of her. There were love affairs, marriages, partings.
The love of her life was the homosexual Gavin Maxwell, naturalist and author of Ring Of Bright Water - their relationship proved disastrous, she renounced personal emotions, and judged her own part in these dramas with ruthless severity. Threads of sorrow, regret and loneliness run through her four volumes of autobiography, as well as through her poetry.
They had met first as teenagers on the Galloway coast and again in the rarefied literary cliques of Oxford and Cambridge. Their relationship had never been calm; as intellectual equals they shared much, especially their love of literature and a passion for nature and the West Highlands of Scotland. She had been a regular visitor at Sandaig; he had also unwisely taken a flat in the basement of her London house. Their rows were frequent and verbally violent. Maxwell deeply resented her possessive jealousy, particularly when his attention strayed to other women, notably Clementine Glock, an artist of rare beauty. He also had a brief dalliance with Princess Margaret.
After one such row, Maxwell banished Raine from the house. She ran to the rowan tree at the burn, grasped it in both hands and, weeping uncontrollably, cried out, ‘Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering now!’ In Celtic mythology rowan trees possess magical properties, traditionally planted to ward off evil spirits. Maxwell took it to be a curse and called her a witch. He was later to blame her and the curse for the bizarre sequence of misfortunes that then befell him, but Raine always insisted that it was not so much a curse as ‘a desperate heart’s cry for truth’. In reality, of course, it was the anguished outpouring of a spurned love.
|Maxwell writing at Sandaig at home in the West Highlands|
The agony that Kathleen Raine underwent thereafter, expressed in her poetry and prose, seems never wholly to have expiated her guilt for a curse that so rebounded on herself. As a woman, she reviled herself as loveless and destructive of other lives; as a poet, she castigated herself for not writing more, or better - for neglecting her daimon, as she called her gift and source. "Sin of omission: as women/ Withhold love, so I poetry," as one poem begins.
Yet she kept faith with her vocation, producing more than a dozen books of poetry in six decades. She visited India for the first time in her 70s, and felt she had come home. She grew closer to her children, whose lives she thought she had ruined, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. All but one grandchild survive her.
In 1980, her life took a new turning. With a group of like-minded artists and writers, she launched Temenos - "a review devoted to the arts of the imagination" - with its first issue offering contributions from fellow poets David Gascoyne, Peter Redgrove and Vernon Watkins, and the visionary artist Cecil Collins, as well as herself. The editors of Temenos (the word means the sacred area around a temple) declared that "the intimate link between the arts and the sacred" had fired imaginative creation in almost all human societies, except our own. Temenos aimed to challenge this "deviation" in the arts of its time.
It did so at an unpropitious moment, the start of the 1980s, a decade that epitomised all that Temenos opposed - secularism, materialism, a popularised culture and press, and Margaret Thatcher's denial of the very existence of "society". Yet in the 1990s a tide turned. At the Temenos Academy, Kathleen presided over discussions and lectures by scientists, ecologists and economists, as well as scholars, writers and artists from both east and west.
When asked how she wished people to remember her, Kathleen Raine said she would rather they didn't. Or that Blake's words be said of her: "That in time of trouble, I kept the divine vision". Better to be a sprat in that "true ocean", she believed, than a big fish in a literary rock pool.
Read more at The Guardian, The Telegraph