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July 13, 2008

Overshadowed poet gets overdue attention

C.S. Lewis, author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and much else enjoyed the friendship of many accomplished writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of "The Lord of the Rings." But one contemporary whose friendship he shared, whose literary judgments he trusted and whose achievement he greatly admired is little known today: the much-honored English poet Ruth Pitter (1897-1992).

C.S. Lewis, author of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and much else enjoyed the friendship of many accomplished writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of "The Lord of the Rings." But one contemporary whose friendship he shared, whose literary judgments he trusted and whose achievement he greatly admired is little known today: the much-honored English poet Ruth Pitter (1897-1992).

Despite recognition by such distinguished peers as Lord David Cecil and John Masefield, and despite her works having been honored by the Hawthornden Prize and other awards, Pitter has never been the subject of a full-length work until now. In "Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter" (Kent State University Press, $55, 342 pages) Don W. King -- professor of English at Montreat College and perhaps the world's foremost authority on Pitter -- exhibits a sure handling of the biographical and critical facts and implications of Pitter's life and work, writing with the care and joy of a man who has discovered a long-forgotten treasure.

As a poet, Pitter was concerned with such themes as nature's beauty, the peace that comes with performing honest, humble work, and, in King's words, "the human spirit as a reflection of divine care, existential confusion, inexplicable disillusionment, loss and sorrow, and reflections upon death." Publishing her first poems during her teen years, Pitter came to public attention as a poet given to traditional forms during a time of Modernist experimentation. This cast her in the shadows of such towering contemporaries as Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot, though her work enjoyed modest popularity at the time of its appearance in hardcover during the 1920s and '30s in such notable collections as "A Mad Lady's Garland" (1934) and "A Trophy of Arms" (1936).

With the appearance of these two volumes, Pitter came to the attention of significant figures within the world of British letters, among them Eliot, who respected her poetry and treated her courteously on the few occasions they met. Pitter's work shared common ground with Eliot's later work (particularly his "Four Quartets") in that it reflects a mystical and Christian worldview, reflecting glimpses of the transcendent and the mysteries of time and timelessness that occur during moments of epiphany within the natural world. In reaching this point, King effectively describes the development of Pitter's poetry from its beginnings to its maturity, where her poems touch on "the most important of human experiences -- love, longing, loss, beauty, aspiration, religious faith, the desire for a sense of place, nature's appeal, friendship, isolation, and intellectual exploration."

One of the more important friends she met during her early years of recognition was C.S. Lewis. During the early, dark days of World War II she heard one of his now-celebrated broadcast talks on the Christian faith over BBC radio, and Pitter grasped his words and hung on for dear life. This initial encounter in time led to Pitter embracing Christianity and to a warm friendship with Lewis, one that survived his meeting and marrying the terminally ill Joy Gresham during the 1950s. But as King advises, "That said, we should not try to make more of their personal relationship than the evidence merits. ... Perhaps wistful longing is the best way to describe Ruth Pitter's feelings for C.S. Lewis." Wisely, King leaves things at that, rather than engaging in gossipy speculation.

Pitter continued writing and publishing poetry, including such collections as "The Bridge" (1945) and "The Ermine" (1953). After the latter appeared, Queen Elizabeth II broke precedent by personally presenting Pitter with the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry; 26 years later, the queen named Pitter a Commander of the British Empire. Pitter's best poetry led one literary scholar to claim that "her love poems match Edna St. Vincent Millay's; that her nature lyrics compete with Robert Frost's; that her symbolic poems are equal to Stephen Crane's; that her lyrical integrity raises her above such British poets as Rudyard Kipling or Edith Sitwell." But by the time of her death in 1992, Pitter's achievement was largely forgotten outside a large circle of Lewis scholars and enthusiasts.

If King's well-researched, eloquently written volume impels only a few readers to rediscover the poetry of Ruth Pitter, it will have performed a great service. One or two minor flaws among the numerous footnotes do not obscure the high achievement of "Hunting the Unicorn," a fitting signpost pointing toward the life and accomplishments of an interesting and talented craftswoman.

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