Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter
Once a moderately well-known poet and public intellectual in Britain in the middle of the twentieth century, Ruth Pitter has been almost forgotten save as a footnote in biographies of C. S. Lewis. Yet her work won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry and the William E. Heinneman Award. She was the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. She appeared frequently as a guest on BBC radio and television programs. Though she was more accomplished as a poet than Lewis, mainly she is remembered today only because Lewis was a friend and fan of her work.
Don W. King, also author of C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Impulse of his Poetic Legacy, thinks this neglect has gone on long enough, so he has provided a well written and beautifully bound volume to reintroduce us to the poet Lewis admired most of all his contemporaries. While he gives due space to the relationship between Pitter and Lewis, King treats her as a poet worthy of attention in her own right. We follow her long life from its beginning in 1897 to its end in 1992. There is a generous sampling of her work, the poems emerging from the periods in her life when they were written, and we pause for mostly judicious critical commentary to establish their value and her place in the literary landscape of the century. The study is fully documented: the 342 pages include 58 of notes and bibliography, and there is a full index. If King’s purpose is to convince us that “both [Pitter ’s] life and her art” should be given “the exposure and recognition they so richly deserve” (274), he has given himself every chance to succeed. And he does succeed, at least for this reviewer.
In support of the contention that Pitter was the real thing as a poet, I offer just one line, from “A Solemn Meditation” in Pitter’s collection A Trophy of Arms. The poem begins ominously: “These discords and these warring tongues are gales / Of the great autumn: how shall the winter be?” King plausibly glosses these signs as a reference to the dark clouds of war hovering over Europe in the 1930’s, but the poet universalizes them as more a comment on the human condition than on the times. The speaker plunges into darkness and death, only there to experience a sudden turn caused by a vision of God. “Then Alleluia all my gashes cry” (77).
“Then Alleluia all my gashes cry.” Nothing less than Tolkien’s term eucatastrophe as expounded in the essay “On Fairie Stories” could capture the effect of that line in context. The assonance of Alleluia and gashes and the consonance of Alleluia and all adorn with lyrical beauty the paradox that hits like a thrust knife in the fact that it is the very wounds of life, the gashes, that are the source of this cry of exaltation. Nay, more than adorn, for the assonance binds together the ostensibly contrasting concepts Alleluia and gash to point out and heighten the irony and render the joy anything but cheap. Neither King’s explication in the book normine here does justice to the line. Let us just say it passes the “A. E. Housman Test”:
I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but … we both recognized the object by the symptoms it provokes. … Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep a watch over my thoughts, because if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists of a constriction in the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’ last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, “Everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.”1
I came to this conclusion on page 77 of King’s biography, and determined then and there that this line would find a place in my review. So I was pleased to find my instincts confirmed on page 144, where C. S. Lewis chose the same line to support his own judgment about Pitter’s verse. He wrote to her after reading A Trophy of Arms:
You do it time after time—create a silence and vacancy and awe all around the poem. If the Lady in Comus had written poetry, one imagines it wd. have been rather like this….“Alleluia all my gashes cry” just takes one up into regions poetry hasn’t visited for nearly a hundred years….Why wasn’t I told you were as good as this?
Pitter does not live on these heights. Nobody could. But the fact that she reaches them, evenonce, should tell us something. I have spoken of only one line; King makes the case for a Pitter revival from a generous sampling gleaned from the full body of her work. His case is fully convincing and the treatment of Pitter ’s friendship with Lewis, more detailed than the accounts in the standard Lewis biographies, gives an added interest. Lewis’s broadcast talks, from which came Mere Christianity, were influential in Pitter ’s conversion. King documents along and rich friendship between the two that throws new light on both.
It is in that part of the story, though, that I have a couple of qualms. One may be a matter of judgment, or even taste. I think King unnecessarily disparages Lewis as a poet incomparison to Pitter. It is true that Pitter gained more recognition for her poetry than Lewis did, and that she wondered whether Lewis’s “staggering skill in verse” inhibited the “poetry” in his verse (149), whereas Lewis had nothing but praise for hers. King agrees with Pitter that Lewis’s best poetry is in his prose, for example the Great Dance at the end of Perelandra. This is certainly a reasonable and defensible opinion. But it seems to me a bit over the top to say that Lewis’s praise of Pitter ’s book The Ermine “reveals a would-be poet being swept off his feet by a genuine poet” (190). “Would-be”? Lewis was not a great poet, but he was certainly a very good one. He may be a lesser poet than Pitter. But I at least find as many items in his one slim volume of short poems that pass the Housman Test as I do in Pitter’s work. “The Turn of the Tide,” for example, is not only a prosodic but also a metaphorical tour de force, and its ending brings us down from the cosmic journey it narrates, coming to rest with a profundity that rivals “A Solemn Meditation”:
So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d Nothing greater could be heard Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of One new-born, And cattle in stall as they stirred.2
The reader does not have to agree with my evaluation of “The Turn of the Tide” to see that we do not need to pull Lewis down in order to lift Pitter up.
My second qualm is more than a matter of taste; it is one of honor. There are speculations in this book that are unworthy of either its subject or its author. King opines, “Only someone who had experienced a physically intense if ultimately short-lived sexual relationship could write a poem as passionate as ‘The Swan Bathing’” (131). Now, apart from being discourteous, a speculation like this one is preposterous nonsense. It would follow from this reasoning that Lewis, having never traveled to Mars, could not have written the Space Trilogy. As if people, much less talented poets, are not gifted with imaginations! But I am more concerned with the discourtesy than with the lapse of logic. It gets worse, when we are told later that Pitter “was probably sexually involved with several” men (198). Now, if there is evidence for such a charge, and if it is relevant, then by all means let it be discussed. But no evidence for this speculation is presented whatsoever, except the apparent hidden assumption that chastity is inconceivable. Every word in the book about Pitter’s views on the subject and her (known) actions at every period of her life points in the opposite direction; nor does it really add anything to King’s legitimate inquiries about how romantic Pitter ’s feelings for Lewis might have been. Really, sir: This is no statement for a gentleman to make about a lady without better grounds than you have given. (Am I revealed as old-fashioned and out of step with the times by making this objection? So be it.)
Having got that off my chest, let me proceed to recommend Hunting the Unicorn highly. It tries to do a needed and worthy thing, and, save for two sentences, does it well. May a new generation of readers be given the chance to find the same value in Pitter’s verse that Lewis did.