Pitter, Ruth (1897–1992)
Pitter, Ruth (1897–1992)
Major 20th-century British poet who was the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. Born on November 7, 1897, in Ilford, Essex, England; died on February 29, 1992, in Aylesbury, England; daughter of George Pitter (a teacher) and Louisa (Murrell) Pitter (a teacher); educated at the Coburn School, Bow, London; never married; lived with Kathleen O'Hara; no children.
Won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for A Trophy of Arms (1937); won the William E. Heinemann Award for The Ermine (1954); became the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (1955); named a Companion of Literature (1974); named a Commander of the British Empire (1979).
First Poems (1920); First and Second Poems, 1912–1925 (1927); Persephone in Hades (1931); A Mad Lady's Garland (1934); A Trophy of Arms: Poems, 1926–1935 (1936); The Spirit Watches (1939); The Rude Potato (1941); The Bridge: Poems, 1939–1944 (1945); On Cats (1947); The Ermine: Poems, 1942–1952 (1953); Still by Choice (1966); Poems, 1926–1966 (1969, published in U.S. as Collected Poems ); The End of Drought (1975); A Heaven to Find (1987); Collected Poems (1990).
One of the most respected English poets of the 20th century, Ruth Pitter was born in 1897 to elementary school teachers George and Louisa Murrell Pitter , whom she later described as members "of the superior artisan class, intelligent, idealistic, country-lovers, poetic, altruistic." Money was tight, but her parents, in addition to instilling in Pitter and her younger brother and sister a respect for the value of hard work and frugality, taught them to delight in poetry and the natural world. Through scrimping, the family was able to rent a rundown cottage without running water in the forest in Essex, which they visited whenever they could. Pitter often trekked through the woods there for hours with her father, and the cottage and countryside would appear frequently in her later poetry. She wrote her first poem at the age of five, and attended a local elementary school before moving on to the Coburn School, a Christian charity school in the Bow area of London. At 14, she published a poem for the first time, in the periodical New Age. Its editor Alfred R. Orage encouraged her lavishly, and continued to publish her poems for ten years. Nonetheless, Pitter was resolute in her determination not to make a career out of her talent, later writing, "From the very first I realized that there was no money in poetry, and determined not to write for money."
World War I began while she was still attending the Coburn School and undecided about her future plans. The war effectively ended Pitter's formal education (at war's end she would have no money to attend college), and for the next two years she worked as a temporary junior clerk in the War Office, earning 25 shillings a week. Pitter was able to tolerate the mindless clerkship, but by the end of it she was "badly run down," she recalled. "Wishing now to be some sort of artist, however humble," she found a position with an East Coast arts and crafts firm. Pitter worked in eastern Suffolk for a couple named Jennings, who produced furniture and decorated wares marketed by a large pottery company. The job restored her to good health and also provided her with the opportunity to learn the basics of woodwork and painting. She became fairly well known for her products, including inexpensive hand-painted tea trays, signed R.P., which were shipped around the world.
As her skills as an artisan matured and brought her closer toward financial self-sufficiency, in 1920 Pitter published her first collection of poetry. First Poems, she later remarked, reflected "almost every possible fault of adolescence." Her assessment was shared by critics; a review in the Times Literary Supplement faulted the work for its concentration on technical complexity, suggesting that "in Miss Pitter's poems constructive ability reconciles us to the avoidance of an intellectual effort. She can remodel the secondary elements of life with such skill that we mistake many an affectation for reality." The general consensus of later critics is that within this technically accomplished but unalive collection can be found a glimmer of the art to come.
Building on the strengths in her early work, and studiously endeavoring to avoid some of the weaknesses that had been so apparent in her first book of poems, Pitter began to develop a distinctive poetic voice. Her efforts did not go unnoticed; Hilaire Belloc, the French-born English poet and author, was so impressed by this new work that he urged Pitter to collect her poetry for publication in a volume for which he would write the preface. The resulting collection, First and Second Poems, 1912–1925 (1927), included selected poems from her first book along with 89 new poems. Hewing rigorously to formal structure and fixed stanzaic patterns such as the sonnet, the poems bore little resemblance to what the vast majority of "modern" poets, such as the Imagists, were writing. In his preface, Belloc hailed Pitter as "an exceptional reappearance of the classical spirit," and said of her work, "Here is beauty and right order, singularly apparent in the midst of such a moral welter."
Despite such praise, reaction to the volume in England was lukewarm, dismaying Belloc. The American literary market was somewhat more receptive when First and Second Poems was published in the United States in 1930. Clearly, however, poetry would not generate sufficient funds to pay her living costs. Pitter had moved to London along with the Jennings family after the end of World War I, and there she continued to work on handicrafts in their operation. By 1926, she had set up a household of her own above their workshop. Four years later, however, she was still not making enough to cover her expenses, and so she joined with another employee at the workshop, Kathleen O'Hara , to invest £600 to buy out a business similar to the one they worked in. After six months of struggling to learn the basics of business and working long hours decorating furniture and pottery, Pitter and O'Hara were able to turn a profit. They soon moved together into living quarters above their workshop, and became lifelong companions.
August 1931 saw the private circulation of a lengthy, seven-part poem of Pitter's, Persephone in Hades, a retelling of the myth which focused not on Demeter but on her daughter. Belloc is believed by many to have financed the publication and distribution of 100 copies of the poem, a work that he said "excels in vision." In a letter to Pitter, Belloc singled out the poem's passage about Persephone's descent into Hell as "not only the finest in the poem but the finest I know." Three years later, Pitter finally captured the interest of British critics with A Mad Lady's Garland (1934), a collection of poems which she had contributed, under the heading "Pastiche," over a period of years to her old friend Alfred Orage's New English Weekly. With poems detailing, among other things, the unrequited love of an earwig, the piety of a trout, and the laments of a flea, the collection more clearly displayed Pitter's humorous side than had her earlier works. The absurdity of the characters in the poems is accentuated by the formality of style and language ("Armed Earwig I, that erst in prideful plight / Swanked in my mail and only swore by Mars"). In his preface, Belloc praised Pitter's "perfect ear and exact epithet," and A Mad Lady's Garland prompted England's poet laureate, John Masefield, to write that "her judgments are merciful and her methods merry." Two years later, even loftier praise greeted the publication of A Trophy of Arms: Poems 1926–1935 (1936), with its "reticent strength," "sensuous alertness," and unblinking observance of detail. James Stephens, in his preface to the book, said that Pitter was a poet second only to William Butler Yeats. The year after its publication, A Trophy of Arms won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize, awarded to the best imaginative work by a British author published in the preceding 12 months. As well, throughout the 1930s Pitter was frequently represented in the annual British anthology of best poems of the year.
Over the next several years, she published The Spirit Watches (1939) and The Rude Potato (1941), which celebrated such earthy subjects as potatoes and weeds, and her work was often published in literary journals in Britain and the United States. The advent of World War II, however, changed Pitter's life as it did so many others. She and O'Hara were forced to close their workshop-cum-giftshop after their employees were drafted and stocks of imported items could not be replenished, and they both took war jobs with the Morgan Crucible Company in Battersea. Pitter remained at the company until 1945, and somewhere around this time experienced a spiritual crisis and after much thinking and soul-searching converted to Anglicanism. Her wartime poems were released in 1945 in The Bridge, Poems 1939–1944. Its title poem relates the tale of Pitter's move from Chelsea, where she made and decorated pottery, to industrial Battersea, where she helped to make containers that were as "simple as doom."
In 1952, Pitter moved with O'Hara to a town near Oxford, where she was able to cultivate the flower and vegetable garden of which she had long dreamed. The following year saw the publication of The Ermine, Poems 1942–1952, which won the William A. Heinemann Award in 1954. On October 19, 1955, Pitter became the first woman to receive the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry. She had been nominated by Masefield and unanimously approved by a full committee whose members included such notables as Walter de la Mare, Charles Morgan, and Vita Sackville-West . In an unusual move, Queen Elizabeth II herself presented Pitter with the award.
While continuing to write poetry, in the late 1950s Pitter also wrote weekly on country life for the magazine Woman, and appeared regularly on the live television show "Brain Trusts," in which viewers tried to stump eminent personalities with questions they had submitted. Her last collections were Poems 1926–1966 (1968), The End of Drought (1975), and A Heaven to Find (1987); her Collected Poems was published in 1990. Pitter was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1979, and died, after having been blind for several years, at the age of 94 on February 29, 1992.
Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1992.
Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
Landreneau, Francine Muffoletto. "Ruth Pitter" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 20: British Poets, 1914–1945. Edited by Donald E. Stanford. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983.
Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania