Sacred Web vol 12
Sacred Web 12

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Kathleen Raine (1908 – 2003)
by Brian Keeble

With the death of Kathleen Raine (6 July 2003) the field of traditional studies lost one of its undoubted senior champions who was at the same time a major figure in the world of the arts.  Although she was known primarily as a poet, increasingly with maturity her work, especially her prose essays and scholarly studies, embraced the spiritual import and scope of the perennial philosophy.

From the beginning Kathleen Raine’s poetry combined a singular clarity of sight and diction with a voice distinctly her own in which the forms of nature are seen with a directness that is without conventional sentiment yet coupled with an affinity of mood and an intimacy of imaginative vision that penetrates to the numinous core of natural forms. This imaginative perspective, whose nature preserves the vestiges of an Edenic, prelapsarian innocence, set her apart from the modernist agenda, with its readiness to innovate and adopt the materialist values of the contemporary, secular culture. This was for her an occlusion of vision rather than an extension of imaginative response.

During the 1950s the poet began to expand the range of her interests into the world of scholarship with her researches on William Blake. She had already completed an outline study along Jungian lines of the visionary poet, whom she came to acknowledge as her “master”, when Philip Sherrard drew her attention to the work of René Guénon. As a result she abandoned her initial draft and subsequently spent 8 years, mostly in the Reading Room of the British Museum, reading every text that it was known Blake himself had possessed or read. This study of Blake’s sources led her to conclude that Blake, far from being an isolated figure who did no more than elaborate his own idiosyncratic “philosophy”, on the contrary was articulating something of the symbolism and spiritual cosmology of the philosophia perennis. The resulting text, Blake and Tradition (1969), based on her 1962 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at Washington University, was described by C.S. Lewis as making obsolete all previous Blake studies.

In demonstrating how Blake’s thought was a species of the perennial analogical wisdom, Kathleen Raine was taken far beyond the preview of contemporary literary interests.  Increasingly estranged she felt the need to challenge the largely rational and positivist premises on which those interests were founded.  This she did in the collection of her essays entitled Defending Ancient Springs (1967), where, in the essay ‘on the Symbol’ she draws upon, powerful effect, the work of René Guénon. Indeed, this essay, coupled with ‘On the mythological’ and ‘The use of the Beautiful’, might be said to constitute the metaphysical foundation on which all her scholarly work was built, as well as demonstrating how she was naturally at home in the spiritual ambience of the perennial wisdom.

During the 1950s and 1960s Kathleen Raine’s poetry gained a greater human depth by absorbing the experiences of unhappy love, remembrance of past failure and the cost of living in a ‘present’ that is unremittingly measured by the eternal – ‘the lost cause that always prevails’ (her words).

The decade of the 1970s saw the publication of three volumes of autobiography and her monograph, William Blake (1970 and in print ever since), as well as On a Deserted Shore (1973), a book length poem (written in two weeks and thought by her to be her ‘In Memoriam’), in which, reflecting on her unsuccessful relationship with Gavin Maxwell, the theme of love, as an affair of the heart, experienced within the dispiriting yet consoling diversity of the natural world, takes on something of a cosmic dimension.

A further volume of separate studies of Blakean themes Blake and the New Age (1979), demonstrated the poet’s maturing desire and ability to absorb the spiritual lessons of her ‘Master’ in order to address and challenge the materialist assumptions of the ‘new’ age.  This trend was extended and deepened in the collection of essays The Inner Journey of the Poet (1982), where Kathleen Raine not only wrote tellingly on such diverse figures as G.M. Hopkins, Keats, David Jones and Cecil Collins, but in more general terms spoke out authoritatively against the cultural premises of ‘her’ age from the standpoint of the perennial wisdom.  1982 also saw the publication of The Human Face of God, William Blake and the Book of Job, a study of Blake’s late engravings with a plate-by-plate analysis and commentary.

During the 1970s she proved herself to be a brilliant and erudite scholar of W.B. Yeats, studied in the light of what she had come to call the ‘learning of the imagination’.  A series of studies collected in Yeats the Initiate (1986) more than amply exhibited the roots of Yeats’ thought growing out of (among many others) Platonic, Neoplatonic, Vedantic and other Hermetic sources.  During this period, her insistence that all art worthy of the name was a species of the perennial language of the soul, further isolated her from her literary contemporaries, aligning her with that ‘knowledge absolute’ by which she wished to be judged and whose values she fearlessly exposed.

In 1980 Kathleen Raine collaborated with Philip Sherrard, Keith Critchlow and myself to form the editorial board of the journal Temenos, which ran to 13 issues over the next eleven years.  Not only did Temenos (the sacred precinct) and what it stood for – promoting an understanding of the arts of the imagination in the context of the sacred – become the context for a appreciation of Kathleen Raine’s work, it also became the ‘spiritual home’ from which many artists, writers and thinkers, disaffected by the reductionist terms with which culture (actually its anti-cultural surrogate) was currently dealt with, gathered strength and encouragement.

Soon after the demise of Temenos, Kathleen Raine founded the Temenos Academy in London in 1992 at the age of 84. The Academy came to attract the enthusiasm, and soon after the patronage, of HRH the Prince of Wales. To date (Autumn 2003) the Academy has hosted well over 1,000 lectures, seminars, concerts and publications which have, to a lesser or a greater degree, had some aspect of traditionalist thought as its basis. It has hosted significant lectures by Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Philip Sherrard, Kapila Vatsyayan, William Chittick, and many others.

A further, last volume of Blake Studies by Kathleen Raine, Golgonooza, City of Imagination, appeared in 1991 giving evidence of the greater extent to which her Blake Scholarship had come to inform her own speculations on the nature of life and art. The essay ‘Blake and Maya’, which studies the influence of the Bhagavadgita (in Charles Wilkins’ 1785 translation) on Blake’s thought, showed her own deepening interest in the primordial doctrines of Hindu traditions as well as other aspect of Indian culture. In her ninth decade Kathleen Raine undertook four successful visits to India as lecturer and guest of the Indian Government.  Such was her empathy with her Indian hosts and their culture that she came to be regarded as an ‘honorary Indian’.  An account of the earlier of these visits is related in a fourth volume of autobiography, India Seen Afar (1990).

W.B Yeats and the Learning of the Imagination (1999) concluded her Yeats studies, a scholarship informed by an imaginative empathy that made her, in certain respects, the natural heir to many of Yeats’ poetic interests.

If Kathleen Raine’s later poetry lacks the purity of diction and unforgiving intensity of vision that marks her earlier poetry this is, in her later verse, compensated for by a greater range of themes and a mellowing of the sense of self-guilt at the price paid for following her poetic daimon.  Here there are fine occasional poems and many almost haiku-like short poems. In a form she made her own these present a momentary glimpse of the world seen with an instantaneity of vision that precludes the psychology of the perceiving mind while capturing the sense of the eternal and the infinite in the fugitive and the temporal. These short poems are a distillation of the whole of her poetic endeavor.

During the late 1990’s it took me eighteen months to persuade the poet that a definitive volume of her collected poems was needed. Surveying in her mind the human cost in her life of following her poetic vocation – one that began in childhood – she several times claimed, with an unforgiving severity of self-judgment, that ‘it had not been worth it’.  Finally persuaded of the unique position her advanced age gave her, that of surveying six decades of poetic output, the canon of her poems that she wished to be remembered and judged by was published as her Collected Poems in 2000. Here she placed as the final poem (not the last she wrote) ‘Millenial Hymn to the Lord Shiva’, which made final use of another traditional motif that informed much of her work – that of the Kali Yuga – and spoke with a prophetic urgency of how our time, witness to the death of culture and therefore of the immemorial patterns of human life shaped at all levels by a vision of the sacred nature of reality, must take its part in the greater cycle of creation and destruction that is at once ‘the unknowable mystery’ and the ‘holy fire’ that liberates and purifies.

Kathleen Raine won many awards throughout her long life, including, in 1992, the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. In 2000 she was honoured as a Commander of the British Empire and her beloved France appointed her a Commander of the ‘Ordre Des Arts et des Lettres’ – an honour of which she was especially proud.


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