Kathleen Raine – Poetry and the Sacred

As 2010 ended and 2011 begins I have been preoccupied with thoughts of the poet, memoirist and scholar, Kathleen Raine, who died in 2003 aged 95. Ruthlessly honest, she pulled few punches with herself or others. Called by some one of the great poets of the English language she exemplified the poet as mystic, the poet as priest in its largest aspect – mediator between this world and the divine. Like her poetic models, her “masters”, Blake and Yeats, she believed that poetry was the doorway to a “higher world.”

For Raine the spiritual quest was everything. As she says in an editorial in the Temenos Academy Review “A society uninspired by the by the vision of higher worlds is the true metaphysical hell. A hell it remains even when provided with every amenity and luxury, for hell by its definition is the absence of God.”

It was fitting, then, that I first heard the poetry of Kathleen Raine, in a sacred space; in the enhanced context of one of the largest gothic-style cathedrals in the world – St John the Divine in New York City. It was the third Sunday of Advent in the early 1990’s. I watched as a bent-over old man, dwarfed by the size of that cavernous cathedral space, slowly climbed the steps of the pulpit and began to speak without a note. That man was my friend Laurens van der Post who died aged 90, in 1996.

What I remember most from that talk, one of three or four he gave there, was the poem he read out without referencing the poet’s name. He just said she had written it at a most difficult time in her life. Only later, when I asked, did I discover the poem was written by Raine, a poet whom I had not discovered before. The poem I heard that Sunday morning is still one of my Raine favorites. It was Part Four of her Northumbrian Sequence.

Let in the wind
Let in the rain
Let in the moors tonight.

The storm beats on my window-pane,
Night stands at my bed-foot,
Let in the fear,
Let in the pain,
Let in the trees that toss and groan,
Let in the north tonight.

Let in the nameless formless power
That beats upon my door,
Let in the ice, let in the snow,
The banshee howling on the moor,
The bracken-bush on the bleak hillside,
Let in the dead tonight.

What a way to begin a poem! What admonitions! To let in the wild, the unpredictable, the frightening. The north! To live in this kind of frontier place. What courage to invite, to accept, this into a life! The power of the repeated “Let in” reflects and mirrors the sound of the rain pounding on the windows; it draws the reader in.

Van der Post chose this poem carefully for his Advent theme – the time in the Christian calendar that leads up to Christmas. It illustrated perfectly the paradox of Advent; the birth of something so small, so precious, in the darkest most unlikely time of the year. But it pointed to something even more revolutionary – the need to take into oneself those things we should normally shut out. The start of the poem is uncompromising. Before any hope is offered the poet makes her peremptory demands using stark images of despair, loss and extremes of nature.

Here below is how the poem ends:

Gentle must my fingers be
And pitiful my heart
Since I must bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild
That cries about the house
With all the violence of desire
Desire this my peace

Pitiful my heart must hold
The lonely stars at rest
Have pity on the raven’s cry
The torrent and the eagle’s wing,
The icy water of the tarn
And on the biting blast.

Let in the wound,
Let in the pain,
Let in your child tonight.

What an unexpected respite offered by Raine in the last line. She seems to say that only after accepting the disruptions of the fierce storms in our lives, only after we let in the unwanted, the wild, the wounds, only then can we let in the child; the part of us that is our truest north, our future. The poem rivets me to the understanding that new birth, the child, only comes after the torment, the torrent, the storm.

This poem is even more meaningful in light of her own life. Raine faced some crippling disappointments which she reveals with brutal honesty in the third volume of her four volume autobiography. The greatest one was her tortured relationship with the author and homosexual Gavin Maxwell who based his million-seller Ring of Bright Water on a line from one of her poems. After a night where she slept in the same bed with Maxwell without physical contact she states with haunting simplicity that “Every night of my life since then, I have spent alone.”

Ultimately the relationship was doomed to fail but a series of tragic losses to Maxwell in quick succession agonized and tormented Raine for more than 30 years. She took on full responsibility for them. In despair over her unrequited love for him she cursed him beside a Rowan tree on the Scottish island of Sandaig where they spent much time together. After that curse Maxwell’s beloved otter Mij escaped while in Raine’s care and was killed. Mij was featured in Ring of Bright Water. Later Maxwell’s house on Sandaig burnt down and in 1969 he died of cancer.

In spite of all of her personal setbacks Raine always managed to recover and remained a vital and astonishingly productive writer and speaker. In 1981 she co-founded the journal Temenos, to showcase artists – writers, painters, poets and essayists – who exemplified its founding principle: that the imagination is the doorway to the sacred. Writers who appeared again and again in the pages of Temenos included Gary Synder, Wendell Berry, Robin Skelton, Vernon Watkins, Philip Sherrard, Jeremy Reed and Thomas Blackburn. In 1992 Temenos published its last issue. Its successor publication, the Temenos Academy Review, appeared in 1998 and its 13th annual issue was published in 2010. Its official patron and frequent contributor to its pages is H.R.H. The Prince of Wales.

In Temenos 1, it’s co-founder Philip Sherrard outlined its credo which sums up Raine’s as well. “ The Imagination has….a magical creative potency which, through giving birth to the sensible world reveals the ultimate world of Mystery in physical modes, in sounds, forms, colours and scents. It is because of this that all creation is essentially an epiphany, or a theophany, and that everything that exists has a sacred character.”

The idea of a mystery at the heart of poetry. the epiphanic nature of writing, is compelling. I do often wonder where the words come from. Do they pop up from some hidden part of our consciousness or from somewhere somehow out of this world? I wonder.