Ruth Pitter was the first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. The English poet (and personal friend of C.S. Lewis) 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.
Don W. King recently 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. The book will be released in May or June.
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. Our parent site, LiturgicalCredo, recently interviewed King about Pitter and the story behind Hunting the Unicorn.
The following is an excerpt from the interview; click here to see the full interview.
What kind of relationship did [Pitter] 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’ 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…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.
(Read the full interview, and find links to some of the books mentioned above, here.)