Raine, Kathleen (1908—)

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Raine, Kathleen (1908—)

English romantic poet who has also produced major works of criticism on William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and W.B. Yeats. Born in Ilford, a suburb of London, on June 14, 1908; daughter of George Raine (a schoolteacher and Methodist preacher) and Jessie (Wilkie) Raine; educated at Girton College, Cambridge University, 1926–29; married Hugh Sykes Davies (divorced); married Charles Madge (divorced); children: (second marriage) one daughter; one son.

Received scholarship to study science at Cambridge (1926); published first poems (1929); settled in Penrith, Northumberland (1939); returned to wartime London, published first volume of poems (1943); converted to Catholicism (c. 1944); began relationship with Gavin Maxwell (1952); held post as Research Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge University (1955–61); was Andrew Mellon Lecturer, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1962); death of Gavin Maxwell (1969); won W.H. Smith Award (1972); received honorary degree from University of Leicester (1974); founded literary journal Temenos (1980); received Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry (1993).

Selected works—prose:

Blake and Tradition (1968); Farewell Happy Fields: Memories of Childhood (1973); The Land Unknown (1975); The Lion's Mouth: Concluding Chapters of Autobiography (1977); Blake and the New Age (1979); India Seen from Afar (1991).

Selected works—poetry:

Stone and Flower (1943); The Pythoness, and Other Poems (1949); The Hollow Hill and Other Poems (1965); Six Dreams and Other Poems (1968); Living with Mystery, Poems 1987–1991 (1992).

Kathleen Raine, who celebrated her 92nd birthday in June 2000, is the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, as well as numerous critical studies of such literary figures as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and W.B. Yeats. In addition, she has achieved a reputation as a translator of Honoré de Balzac. Raine has recorded her life's experiences in a multivolume biography, and served as well as editor of the magazine Temenos. She stands, in her own words, as a proudly traditionalist poet in her concern for "enduring values" and "the culture of the spiritual view of man." In her devotion to traditional Christianity she has stated that she feels more at home in France, where "it still lingers on," than in her native England. "I think the most dangerous of all illusions is to suppose that the material world completely accounts for all reality and all human experience," she said. Her interests have also come to include India's religious traditions.

Kathleen Raine was born on June 14, 1908, in Ilford, an East London suburb, the daughter and only child of George Raine and Jessie Wilkie Raine , both schoolteachers in London. Her father was also a Methodist preacher. The youngster's early childhood in this lower middle-class family was marked by World War I and her evacuation from London. She later claimed to remember the day on which Britain entered the war as a sunny time at the beach, while on holiday with her family. As a small child, she saw the German Zeppelins flying overhead on their way to drop bombs. She took refuge from the war for several years by staying with an aunt in Northumberland near the border with Scotland. In later years, she looked to that area in northern England as her real home, especially in light of her dislike for the cramped and dingy portion of London where her family lived. She later described Ilford as a place where "full consciousness would perhaps make life unendurable."

Raine has repeatedly stated her affinity for Scotland, where her maternal grandmother had been born. She admired that country from which "my mother's people" had come and the Scottish tradition passed down in "song, speech, and heroic story." It was her mother from whom Raine "inherited my love of wandering the moors," and she felt "the poet in me is my mother's daughter." A very different legacy came from her father, a teacher of Latin and English literature, who had risen from a family of poor coal miners in Durham. George Raine "stood for progress, education, and the future," and mingled his Methodist religion with an enthusiasm for socialism and pacifism. In later years, his daughter remembered the sermons he delivered as a "local preacher" praising the League of Nations. It was, however, "a family to which poetry mattered very much," as Raine later told an interviewer, noting that her mother "wrote down my first poems before I could hold a pencil." Living in "an environment of poetry," she found her literary interests deepened by her formal education at Ilford County High School and the tutoring she received from

her father in Latin. A platonic love affair with one of her father's former students centered on their mutual interest in poetry.

George Raine hoped his daughter would follow him in becoming an English teacher and a devotee of his religious beliefs and his socialism, but Kathleen rebelled against such a future. Distressed by the drabness of life in a London suburb, she was inspired by a botany teacher, whom she admired, to study science. She later wrote that, in her youth, she found science "an escape into beauty." After attending a local secondary school, she won a scholarship to Girton College, a women's institution that was part of Cambridge University. There, starting in 1926, she studied natural sciences and received her M.A. degree in 1929. For the young girl from a cramped lower middle-class background, "living as a student at Girton was one of the few perfectly happy times of my life." Part of her joy at college came from her new awareness of her own physical beauty; years later, she learned "that a little Society was formed to watch for me to pass."

Raine enjoyed her formal studies in science, noting how she "contemplated in awe and delight the Book of Nature." But she also began to write poetry at Cambridge, publishing her early works in an undergraduate magazine, Experiment. She later recalled her distaste for the "agnosticism, atheism, nihilism" she found in the intellectual environment at the great university and the contempt she encountered toward poets like Shakespeare and Milton whom she revered. She spent one year officially studying psychology but in fact was on "a general course of English and French literature, ancient and modern, undertaken by myself with advice from my friends."

At the close of her college years, Raine found herself with no clear plans for the future. A self-described "neurotic bohemian," she soon entered a loveless marriage with a companion from her literary circle, Hugh Sykes Davies. Raine described the marriage as merely "an alliance against society made by two young people whose only bond was a rejection of all those old values … from which we were both in revolt." Davies, who went on to become a professor at Cambridge, offered her the excuse to stay in the university locale. As she expected, however, the marriage soon broke down. She then married Charles Madge, from Cambridge. In the politically heated atmosphere of the time all three—Madge, Davies, and Raine herself—were attracted to Communism. Raine later wrote that she, like the Marxists to whom Madge introduced her, felt that "the current of history which flows in one direction only, flowed the way that they were going."

The function of the arts is surely to awaken in people self-knowledge, knowledge of the scope and scale of their own humanity which they may not have been aware of.

—Kathleen Raine

Madge, an aspiring poet like his wife, went on to become a prominent sociologist. He was a pioneer in the study of public opinion and helped found Mass-Observation, an organization intended to keep a running picture of the views of the British population for the purposes of market research. Raine's marriage to Madge collapsed when she fell in love with still another individual from her circle at Cambridge, whom she has referred to only as "Alistair." Their tie was brought to an end by the outbreak of World War II and Alistair's immediate departure for military service.

Before her marriage to Madge ended, the couple had two children. In her autobiography, Raine made only elliptical references to the details of her two marriages. She was, however, far more kindly disposed toward Madge than toward Davies, stating that having "hurt a man so fine by marrying him for inadequate, indeed for deeply neurotic, reasons, lies heavily on my conscience." The latter years of the 1930s also saw Raine publishing numerous individual poems in British literary magazines.

Upon the outbreak of the war, at the invitation of friends from her second marriage, Raine and her two children settled near Penrith in Northumberland. Thus, Raine returned to a world of northern England she had cherished since childhood. She later recalled her sense of reconnection to her roots as she had become liberated "from Cambridge, from marriage, from Mass-Observation and Marxism, from Ilford." There, in what she described as a "pleasant sanctuary," she survived on a small allowance from Charles Madge, by taking in boarders, and on the money she could earn reviewing books. In an action about which she wrote remorseful passages in her autobiography, she left her two children with a friend in Northumberland and returned to London, convinced of her need to pursue life as a poet. In the British capital, she found work in a wartime government agency, and published her first book of poetry, Stone and Flower, in 1943. It was illustrated by her friend Barbara Hepworth . After a period of tormented indecision, Raine converted briefly to Roman Catholicism, probably in 1944.

In the postwar years, Raine remained in London eking out a living by reviewing books, teaching part-time, and doing translations. She soon published a second volume of poems, Living in Time. Much of Raine's poetry drew upon her scientific background and featured a precise description of the physical world. Nonetheless, her poetic style reflected her interest in classical philosophy and drew heavily upon the traditions of English Romanticism. Some critics see her emphasis on lyricism as a link to earlier English writers, including William Blake and Edmund Spenser, and Raine has shown little interest in most of the work produced by contemporary poets. Throughout much of her writing, Raine expressed her discomfort with "the bankrupt situation of materialist society." "Poetry at its greatest," she insisted in an interview in 1977, "is the language of the human soul, though which the spirit speaks." One critic described Raine's own achievement by noting that "the most immediately appealing feature of her work, evident in even the earliest of her poems, is its sheer lyric loveliness." By the close of the 1940s, Raine's poetry increasingly reflected her interest in Jungian psychology.

In the years following World War II, Raine also developed into a critic of note. Concentrating on the works of William Blake, she published an initial study of his writing in 1951 and returned to Cambridge as a research fellow at Girton College to pursue this interest between 1955 and 1961. She was invited to give the Mellon Lectures in 1962 on Blake, and her study of his work, Blake and Tradition, which appeared in 1968, is her most important volume of criticism and an extensive examination of his symbolic language and its roots in Platonic philosophy. Students of her work have remarked upon her obvious affection for Blake's ideas on the need for humans to preserve their powers of connecting with their deepest emotions. She also found that Blake's writing employed "a traditional language … and was not to be understood in terms of a personal system, as many had previously thought, invented by himself." One of her main tasks in studying the poet was "to discover where Blake had made his links with tradition."

Raine has often expressed her deep concern about the breakdown of traditional culture. She sees this as a tragedy that could end the ability to employ common literary allusions. "[T]he poet is working upon a shared background of language and literature and religion and history, which one has to play on like an instrument," writes Raine. Thus, if such "connotations, resonances are lost to a society as a whole, then poetry of real quality becomes impossible."

A central force in Raine's life was her unhappy relationship with the travel writer and naturalist Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell would later become famous as the author of A Ring of Bright Water, an account of the landscape and wild life of the sea coast. Raine first met him in the early 1950s, when her publisher and friend arranged for this impoverished artist and poet to paint her portrait. Born into a wealthy family, Maxwell had recently lost his inheritance in a shark fishery scheme. She soon discovered that he too had roots in Northumberland and Scotland. "Gavin was native of my paradise," she wrote about his links with northern England, where his grandfather was the duke of Northumberland. "Gavin belonged to my own people in the country lost before I was born," she noted about his Scottish ancestry. His homosexuality precluded a romantic relationship, but she encouraged him to abandon painting and to return to his career as a writer. He in turn offered her the use of his home near the western coast of Scotland.

Raine dedicated her Collected Poems, published in 1956, to Maxwell. But her emotional demands on him, perhaps compounded by the differences in their social backgrounds, led to a widening rift. She suffered a severe psychological blow in 1962 when she learned that Maxwell had decided to marry Lavinia Jean , a woman from his own elevated social circle whom he had known for years.

Maxwell's death from cancer in 1969 caused a deep crisis in Raine's life. She now completed her autobiography, noting that "nothing more can, in this life, ever be added" to her thoughts about her experiences. Between 1972 and 1977, Raine presented her readers with this story of her life in three separate volumes: Farewell Happy Fields, The Lands Unknown, and The Lion's Mouth. All three were subsequently collected and published under the single title of Autobiographies in 1992.

Raine seemed to take pains to avoid a clear presentation of the facts of her life. Instead, she wrote a rambling, often opaque treatment of her recollections starting with her childhood in Ilford and Northumberland, and continuing down to the early 1970s. Ironically, as a poet who had avoided introspection and personal confessions, Raine now seemed most concerned to present a detailed, even tortured account of her thoughts and feelings. In a deeply hostile review of the three collected works in 1992, Ray Monk in the Times Literary Supplement chastised Raine for filling her account of her life with "transcendental twaddle."

In 1980, Raine turned her literary efforts in a new direction in founding the literary periodical Temenos. The journal's title, meaning "the shrine" in Greek, reflected its purpose, since Raine sought to found a journal that would celebrate the traditional literary values she saw in danger of distinction. The credo declared: "it is the purpose of Temenos to reaffirm the traditional function of the arts as vehicles of the human spirit, awakening and illuminating regions of consciousness of which our materialist culture is increasingly unaware." Her work on Temenos and her stature as defender of traditional cultural values brought her the friendship of a like-minded figure of national prominence, Great Britain's Prince Charles. He provided her with a suite of rooms in which to work at his Institute of Architecture.

In 1984, Raine was considered to be a prominent candidate for the post of poet laureate of Great Britain. Although she was not chosen, many critics continued to honor her as the traditionalist grande dame of English verse and used her work as a benchmark by which to measure both the style and the achievement of a younger generation of English poets. In the early 1990s, she occupied an ongoing and important role in the English literary scene. In 1991, she published an account of her travels in India over the previous decade, and in 1992 she presented the public with a new volume of poetry, Living with Mystery, Poems 1987–1991. Likewise in 1992, Raine appeared on English radio to lecture on the bicentennial celebration of Percy Bysshe Shelley's birth. Her talk on Shelley's connection to Indian mysticism reflected Raine's interest in spiritual writings from the Asian subcontinent.

In February 1993, Raine obtained a new token of her country's esteem. At the age of 84, she was received at Buckingham Palace by Queen Elizabeth II and awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry for 1993. But this happy event was soon followed by an outburst of controversy. In March, in a long newspaper interview in The Guardian, she held forth on a variety of topics, such as her continuing dislike for her childhood home in Ilford and her guilt for not being present in her children's early lives. Calling Ilford "a world of people who watch television and never exchange feelings or love with their neighbors … prisoners, spiritual prisoners" brought an angry response in letters to the editor.

Despite the passage of years, Kathleen Raine has continued to publish. In 1997, for example, she showed her continuing interest in India's religious heritage by contributing an article to the London Times on The Ten Principal Upanishads. Here she reiterated her despair at growing up in "a spiritually illiterate civilization" and rejoiced in having discovered this work from India, which speaks "to the deeps of the mind."


Bloom, Harold, ed. Twentieth-Century British Literature. Vol. 4. NY: Chelsea House, 1987.

Duncan, Erika. Unless Soul Claps Its Hands: Portraits and Passages. NY: Shocken Books, 1984.

Hamilton, Ian, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentiethcentury Poetry in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schlueter, Paul, and June Schlueter, eds. An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. Rev. and expanded. NY: Garland, 1988.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Stanford, Donald E., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 20, British Poets, 1914–1945. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983.

suggested reading:

Grubb, Frederick. A Vision of Reality: A Study of Liberalism in Twentieth-Century Verse. London: Chatto and Windus, 1965.

Mills, Ralph J., Jr. Kathleen Raine: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1967.

Rani, Meena. The Poetry of Kathleen Raine: A Pursuit of Patterns. New Delhi: Wisdom Publications, 1989.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California