Monday, August 4, 2008

POEMS & PIECES, #4, July/August,2008 : In Memorium, Kathleen Raine



This year marks the centenary of the birth of Kathleen Raine, the English visionary poet and scholar. In 1991 Britain’s Royal Society of Literature named Raine one of the 10 greatest living writers and the following year she received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. Raine’s reputation extended beyond her native country, with her poetry, autobiographies and studies of William Blake and W B Yeats read from Sweden to Spain to India and the USA. In 2000 she was awarded the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and was honoured as a Commander of the British Empire. Raine died in London in July 2003, having seen a new Collected Poems published in 2000 and her 1968 classic study of William Blake, Blake and Tradition, reprinted in 2002. She was a remarkable woman who devoted her life to poetry.
Kathleen Raine was born 14 June 1908 in Ilford, Essex, to a Scottish mother who sang border ballads to her and a Durham father who was an English teacher and a Methodist lay preacher. From an early age Raine was convinced she would be a poet and this led to her to Cambridge, where she trained in the Natural Sciences and Psychology. This conviction also led her to a lifelong exploration of the Romantic poets and the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions, as well as Gnosticsm, Hermeticism, Alchemy and the Kabbala. Nurtured in memory and imagination by her childhood Northumbrian countryside, Raine constantly followed what she called her Daimon, her creative and intuitive principle, to the point she decided she would never engage in paid work unless the activity was one she would gladly do for free. Raine’s life became a vigorous exploration of poetry as ‘the language of the human soul, through which the spirit speaks’.
In a letter to the Indian poet and Aurobindo devotee K D Sethna, Raine stated that the task of the visionary poet is to reveal the ‘daily miracle and mystery’ of Being. She worked at this task, producing, what Philip Larkin noted in his review of her 1956 Collected Poems, poetry of the ‘vatic and the universal’. Here are some sample lines:
From ‘The Hyacinth’:

Time opens in a flower of bells
The mysteries of its hidden bed,
The altar of the ageless cells
Whose generations never have been dead.
And from ‘The Poet Answers the Accuser’:
A note struck from the stars I am,
A memory-trace of sun and moon and moving waters,
A voice of the unnumbered dead, fleeting as they—
What matter who I am?

In her autobiographies she gave an account of who she was and had become, and of her growth towards the perennial tradition that would inform her writing and her activities for many decades. As a scholar she wrote a large number of books tracing the ‘golden string’ of that tradition and exploring its manifestations in the works of Yeats and her acknowledged master, William Blake. And as a champion for this tradition during its conflict, its Great Battle, with a secular materialist age, she helped establish the Temenos Academy of Integral Studies and edited the journals Temenos and Temenos Academy Review, the goals of these institutions being the preservation and presentation of what she came to call ‘the learning of the Imagination’. The following lines can be seen as a summation of her life and the theme of her writings:
From ‘Soliloquies’

To make the imperfect perfect
It is enough to love it.

Contrary to Raine, I came to the vocation of poetry quite late. Before this, I had studied higher order mathematics at university, played guitar in a band, and practised martial arts. I was looking for my authentic creative outlet, and I eventually discovered a direction when I started writing speculative fiction, which I had been reading since a child. I had also dabbled in teenage love poetry and song lyrics, but had never thought of poetry as a way of life until I met a practising poet. I fell in love with poetry and went back to university to study English Literature. One day I was walking down an aisle of the Borchardt Library at La Trobe University, idly running my fingers along the spines of books, when the gold lettering on burgundy background of a title caught me: Defending Ancient Springs. The book, published by Raine in 1967, was a collection of essays about symbols, the Beautiful, the mythological, about the influence of Blake on Yeats, and about the life and works of poets such as Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins. I took it home and read it non-stop. Here was what I was looking for, the poetics I needed for my true work.
When Raine mentions in her essay ‘On the Symbol’ that ‘poetry in the full sense is symbolic discourse’ and that the symbol has ‘as its primary purpose the evocation of one plane in terms of another’, that one plane being of a reality and consciousness ‘other than that of the sensible world’, then, even though I had once been a scientist of sorts, with interests in the laws of the physical universe and in the power of reason, I took notice. I too felt that poetry was more than, as she said, the ‘description of sense impressions or personal emotions, or the evocation of group emotions’. I could understand the assessment given in her essay ‘The Use of the Beautiful’:

Imaginative poetry alone has a real function to perform; for the pseudo-arts of realism perform no function beyond that of endlessly reporting on the physical world...true poetry has the power of transforming consciousness itself by holding before us icons, images of forms only partially and superficially realized in ‘ordinary life’.

Raine’s book was a revelation. It was as if I had suddenly found the overlapping terrain of all my experiences in mathematics, music and the martial arts, of my reading of Eastern philosophies and the practice of meditation, and of my shift in interests from the rational to the emotional to the spiritual. I had found a tradition in which I could feel comfortable, enthused and inspired, that of the Perennial Philosophy, which holds ‘that not matter but mind—consciousness—is the ground of reality as we experience it’. Here was a tradition that had an enabling power for my poetry writing and for my quest for wisdom:

Imaginative knowledge is immediate knowledge, like a tree, or a rose or a waterfall or sun or stars…Imagination as understood by the Romantic poets is nothing less than the fundamental ground of knowledge.

I read everything of Raine’s I could find, and was led to many poets, philosophers and practitioners for whom ‘True imaginative learning is a search for truth and reality, not for information as such or in the service of some theory or ideology’. My poetry became even more metaphysical and mythological. I was able to complete a book project I had been contemplating for almost 20 years, a metaphysical verse novel of over 8,000 lines, which formed the major part of my PhD. I joined the Temenos Academy and appeared in the journal.
After I published my first book of poetry, I sent a copy to Kathleen Raine, along with my thanks for her influence and inspiration. Her reply I will always cherish. In it she said:
It seems to me that Australia is experiencing a renaissance—or perhaps a naissance—of the arts of the Imagination. You have already produced Patrick White and Sydney Nolan, and the fine poetry of Judith Wright...I also think of your musician Nigel Butterley...Not to mention the wonderful art of your Aboriginal people...It is a spirit that moves through many...
This spirit she invoked and expressed in numerous poems, for example, ‘Storm-Stayed’:

Holy, holy, holy is the light of day
The grey cloud, the storm wind, the cold sea,
Holy, holy the snow in the mountain,
Holy the stone, the dry heather, the stunted tree,
Holy the heron and the hoodie, holy
The leaf and the rain,
The cold wind and the cold wave, cold light of day
And the turning of earth from night into morning,
Holy this place where I am,
The last house, it may be,
Before the wind, the shelterless sky, the unbounded sea.

And this spirit that moved through her moved others. Because of her I found a tradition and a community. Because of her I found a framework for my own intuitions and experiences of the sacred. Because of her I came to understand a little of that dynamic she calls, following AE (George Russell, that mystic friend of Yeats), the politics of Time and the politics of Eternity. Because of her I began to understand the power of such images and symbols as the ‘world-tree and its fruits, the birds of the soul, sun, moon, river, loom, dragon, gate, and dark tower’. Because of her I became more acquainted with Imagination, with Divine Vision, that power, that one thing, as Blake says, that makes a poet. Through her I found my place in the thread that unites the entire European tradition of imaginative poetry:

Yeats and Shelley, Blake and Milton, Dante, Virgil, Ovid, Spenser, and Coleridge all speak with the same symbolic language and discourse of the immemorial world of the imagination.

And, like her, I am content to play my part in keeping, as she once said, quoting Blake, ‘the Divine Vision in time of trouble’.
In the Forward to her Collected Poems, Kathleen Raine stated she wished her work to be judged in the light of the perennial wisdom she had discovered through the works of Blake and Yeats: ‘Better to be a little fish in the great ocean than to be a big fish in some literary rock pool’. She may have thought of herself as a little fish, but the significance of her works and endeavours are considerable. Even in Australia there is much interest in her activities, as shown by the establishment in 1997 of The Barbara Blackman Temenos Foundation, which annually brings Temenos speakers on a lecture tour of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. And of course there are those poets and scholars who continue to explore and express ‘the learning of the Imagination’, that ‘great ocean’ of the soul.
Below is a poem I wrote after her death. It is called, naturally enough,

Defending Ancient Springs
i.m. Kathleen Raine

If she had never crossed
From Eternity through water

With ache to reveal our Eden
Always everywhere, in storm,

Colour of wild hills, skeins
Of bird song, each flower’s

Benediction to sun, the genius
Of spirals in rock pools.

If she had never explored
The learning of the Imagination

Through vision, through rendition
Of other pioneers of presence

And return, cave, loom, tiger,
Rose and gyre, fourfold holy cities,

Open secret to all who listen
Past the mechanics of bird’s flight.

And if I like others had never
Stopped in a library aisle, fingers

Tracing her defence of symbol
And light upon the spine—

No deep recall of kinship,
No wisdom fountaining of grace.

[An earlier version of this paper formed the basis of a talk given to celebrate the life and works of Kathleen Raine, at Evensong, Christ Church Anglican Church, Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia, 2 March 2008.]

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