In 1955, Ruth Pitter became the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
The English poet (and personal friend of C.S. Lewis) also won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry in 1937 for A Trophy of Arms and the William E. Heinneman Award in 1954 for The Ermine. She was admired by W.B. Yeats and members of the Inklings.
Last year, Don W. King completed Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (Kent State University Press), the first work of its kind on Pitter and her poetry.
King is Professor of English at Montreat College in Montreat, N.C., and editor of Christian Scholar’s Review. He is author of C.S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse. LiturgicalCredo interviewed King about Pitter and the story behind Hunting the Unicorn.
(This interview took place in early 2008 and was originally published on our main site.)
What is the story of how, where and when you came across Ruth Pitter, and was it in your research?
When I was working on the Lewis book I came across references to correspondence between Pitter and Lewis, and I didn’t really know Pitter before then. What I discovered was that she was a well-known poet, and since Lewis was a wannabe poet, after he was introduced to her he began to write her and send her his own poetry, asking for her to critique his poetry.
More importantly, after I made that discovery, then I found out that she had become so taken with the end of Lewis’s book Perelandra that she wrote him and asked if he minded if she turned the end of Perelandra into verse, so she would remember it. And he wrote her back and said something like, “I don’t know why you want to waste your poetry on my prose, but if that’s what you want to do, it’s fine with me.”
That was important for my book on Lewis’s poetry because the main argument I make in that book is that Lewis’s best poetry is in his prose. So for Pitter to have asked if she can take his prose, and turn it into poetry, supported the thesis of the book. I made reference to this — that she had turned the end of the book into poetry — so that set me off on a search for about two years trying to find notebooks where she had actually done that.
And I could give you a long version of this, but the short version is that I was at the Bodleian [Library at the University of Oxford] one summer, about to finish up my research, and I had finally gotten access to Pitter’s papers, and in the last notebook — I think it was in the last notebook in the next to the last box of her material I was looking in — I found the transcriptions. That was exciting — only a researcher would get excited about that kind of stuff. So it really helped my book on Lewis’s poetry and about the same time my main contact at the Bodleian had told me that somebody needed to write a book on Pitter, that she was really an important Twentieth Century British poet, and no one had really done any work on it. And so I made a mental note when I finished my book on C.S. Lewis’s poetry that I would go to work on Pitter, so that’s how all that came to be.
What kind of relationship did she have with some of the other Inklings?
Well, Pitter did not have a university education. She came to maturity during World War One and actually had matriculated at London University but when the war came basically she had to drop out, and she took a job in the Foreign Office.
So she didn’t have the background that Lewis and his friends, most of the other Inklings, would have had – she didn’t have a university education.
Her first contact with one of the Inklings was with Lord David Cecil, who came across her poetry and was quite moved by it, and basically wrote her fan letters. He was, by the way, a professor of literature at one of the Oxford colleges, so you can imagine how that must have made her feel – “Here’s an academic writing me and telling me how much he enjoys my poetry.”
Pitter and Cecil began corresponding but it was through another common friend in the mid 1940s that Lewis came across Pitter’s poetry, and basically he did the same thing that David Cecil had done; he communicated to this friend that he thought she was a quite good poet. That emboldened Pitter to ask if she could come visit Lewis in Oxford. She had really been impressed during World War Two listening to Lewis’s radio broadcasts that eventually became Mere Christianity. And in many ways – she says in many letters – that her own movement toward Christianity was a direct result of having heard Lewis on the radio.
So by the time she writes him in the mid 1940s – I think it was 1946, their first letter – she is nearing faith in Christ but she’s not quite there. But she writes to Lewis and says can she come to Magdalen College, and he invites her up to have lunch in his rooms. And that began the relationship. It was initially, primarily, about poetry – I mean, that’s what they had in common, their interest in poetry. And as I said earlier, he was the wannabe poet and she was the established well-known poet. He shared her view of poetry, what poetry should do, the kind of poetry they both liked. In a way it was only natural, once he befriended her, that they would begin this correspondence.You talked about the surprise of running across the Perelandra transcripts.
Once you started digging into Pitter for the sake of doing a book on her, were there new surprises waiting for you?
I think one of the surprises was that she wasn’t university educated. She was an artisan. She worked hard all of her life, basically doing ornamental painting on furniture. She and a friend of hers . . . eventually set up a business – this was after they learned the trade…and eventually they decided to set up their own business. From the 1930s they had quite a successful business doing this, sending their goods all over the British Empire. World War Two put a squash on that as it did on many things. But I think that was the first thing that surprised me, that she wasn’t an academic. She was a hard-working woman who happened to have the gifts of poetry.
The second thing that surprised me was that her first poem was published when she was about nine years old. Her father had been friends with a man whose name was A.R. Orage, who was well-known at the beginning of the 19th Century as the editor of a socialist newspaper, and through that contact, Pitter had a lot of her poetry published. I think her first poem was published about 1911. So from 1911 through the early 1920s she had a lot of poetry published in that periodical, called The New Age. It wasn’t particularly good poetry as she herself later admitted but then again you can imagine the good of the encouragement she must have had, to have some of her poetry published at such a young age. This was in a periodical where poetry by Ezra Pound appeared, and Kathryn Mansfield, so some of these people who were published, who she was published alongside of, were quite significant poets. There were a lot of other bad poets published in the same thing, but, you know, interesting that she made some early contacts like that. She was befriended at a number of times by some rather significant literary luminaries of the time, and they helped to push her poetry forward. Maybe another thing that surprised me is that – and a reason I like her too – she was pretty self-effacing, and didn’t try to do much to try to push her name and her poetry into the forefront. It was just like she wrote poetry because she loved it, and of course she would like people to be interested in it. You know, the whole P.R. thing was just something that was anathema to her. It embarrassed her to see some of her friends who spent all their time trying to get their name out in public. At the same time, she was fortunate to have Orage and Hillaire Belloc – Belloc was a pretty important writer and member of Parliament [and] through the 1920s he took Pitter under his wing, and David Cecil did. She was fortunate to have some people who saw the merit of her poetry and were able to help her get some of that poetry published.
You said that one of the reasons you liked her was that she was not a real big self-promoter. Talk about what you like about her work itself, about her actual poems.
Yeah, I’d be glad to do that. When you start a project like this it’s important to like the person you’re writing about. I think the main thing I appreciate about Pitter’s poetry – and I think it’s what many of her readers do appreciate – is that she wasn’t trendy, she wasn’t avante garde, and most of all her poetry is not impenetrable. In other words, her poetry is pretty accessible. She was writing at a time in which sort of modernist tradition – and that would be represented by poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden – were in many ways writing a new kind of poetry that, at least for the average reader, that poetry seemed impenetrable, seemed needlessly ambiguous, it seemed quite frankly inaccessible….I wouldn’t say that her poetry is easy, it’s not easy, but it’s accessible, in part because her most common theme is reflections on the human condition: What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to access nature, which is a very important theme in her work.
To access nature?
Yes, to appreciate nature, to commune with nature, to draw strength out of nature settings. She was a gardener all her life and…probably, if she could have afforded it, would have earned her living as a gardener as opposed to an artisan. So I think the main thing is that her poetry is accessible to most readers. I think, by the way, that’s why Lewis liked her, because he was dead-set against the poetry represented by Eliot and Auden. Their kindred spirit was their enjoyment of poetry. And the kind of poets that were associated with Pitter – as opposed to those modernist poets I just mentioned – would have been people more like Thomas Hardy, A.E. Houseman, William Butler Yeats, and Philip Larkin. Those are the kinds of poets that Pitter were in the line of. Again, those aren’t easy poets, but they’re accessible poets. You’re not left scratching your head after every single poem, which is what happens a lot of times to non-academic readers, and even academic readers of the poetry of Eliot, Pound, and Auden, at times. Now, I do think that Eliot, Auden, and Pound are great poets, so I don’t necessarily share that view – Pitter had a pretty negative view of those poets, but I understand where she was coming from….She saw her roots back in the poetry of Shakespeare, and Keats, and Shelley, and Tennyson, sort of the greats of the English tradition.
You’ve said a lot there to commend her. You probably already answered my question about explaining her work to people today who read poetry.
You know, I think that her poetry is very appealing. By the way… I have a Web site on Pitter, and I get contacted monthly by people who like Pitter’s poetry, and almost always the reason why they like Pitter’s poetry is because they can understand it, and it’s accessible to them, and she writes about things that they can connect to…. You can just type in your browser The Ruth Pitter Project, and it will take you to that. The Web site is a summary of the research I’ve been doing and so forth. And I just found out today that there is a link to my book that’s coming out with Kent State University Press. I just found it today, I was just kind of fooling around with something else, and came across it.
Are there any of her books still in print?
Yes, her collected poems are still in print, and they are available directly from the publisher. It’s a British publisher, and it is www.enitharmon.co.uk. ….So her collected poems are available, and in print, and I hope…what my book does is cause people to go out and buy her poetry. She published, in total, 17 volumes of new and collected verse….Her first volume of poetry, First Poems, was published in 1920, and her last volume of poetry… was titled Heaven to Find, 1987.
Do you have a solid release day for Hunting the Unicorn?
I keep trying to get the publisher to give me one, but all they are saying now is May . Actually I hope it will be in April, but they’re saying May.
What is the origin of the title?
It comes from a radio broadcast that Pitter gave. She became pretty popular on BBC radio. She gave a number of talks and one of her radio broadcasts was originally entitled “We Cannot Take Less” … but when it aired on BBC, it was under Pitter’s title, “Hunting the Unicorn.” Let me just read you a little excerpt of it; that’s probably the best way to describe to you where the title came from. So in this radio broadcast she says: “I was sitting in front of a cottage door one day in spring long ago, a few bushes and flowers round me, bird gathering nesting material, trees of the forest at a little distance. A poor place, nothing glamorous about it. And suddenly, everything assumed a different aspect, its true aspect. For a moment it seemed to me that truth appeared in its overwhelming splendor. The secret was out, the explanation given, something that had seemed like total freedom, total power, total bliss – good with no bad as its opposite, an absolute that had no opposite. This thing, so unlike our feeble nature, had suddenly cut across one’s life and vanished. What is this thing? Is it, could it be, after all, a hint of something more real than this life? A message from reality, perhaps a particle of reality itself? If so, no wonder we hunt it so unceasingly, and never stop desiring it and pining for it.”
Now, I don’t know how well you know Lewis, but if you know what Lewis has to say about his own search for joy, what I just read to you is very, very similar to what Lewis has to say about his own pursuit of joy. So “hunting the unicorn” becomes a metaphor for hunting for that which we all long for, but we can’t quite realize here as part of our earthly experience. It’s what we yearn for, it’s what we pine for, it’s what we long for, and every once and a while we get a little glimpse of it here on earth. So I think Pitter’s poetry takes us to hidden places, to the secret things of life, to things just beyond the material, maybe to the very meaning of life.