Kathleen Raine Critical Essays

Raine, Kathleen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Raine, Kathleen 1908–

Kathleen Raine is a British poet, an authority on Blake, a translator and critic, as well as a natural scientist. She was one of the Cambridge poets of the 1930s, with William Empson.

Kathleen Raine is a woman whose pity tends to lapse into self-pity. But she holds with Muir that "the ever-recurring forms of nature mirror an eternal reality." Central to the poetry of both is a sense of that "eternal reality" as the goal of the human pilgrimage and the source of pure joy. Kathleen Raine's poems gain in depth and subtlety because they keep returning to the actualities that embody the mystery of the physical universe and of conscious selfhood. Not alone the stars, the mountain pool, the rock, the fish, the bird, but the chromosome and the nucleus of the atom are integral to her vision of the world, which she regards as the Word made flesh. Close as she seems to Blake, she appears to have escaped his confusions, and she is not at all eager to dethrone Nobodaddy. She is separated from the old visionary by a feeling of the gulf between the self and the Other. And yet she seeks to embrace it, though she is forced to ask how a house so small can contain a company so great…. Miss Raine acknowledges the death and dismemberment that is intrinsic to our experience, the moments when she finds "ambiguous nothingness" seemingly everywhere and everywhen. Yet her supreme certainty is that, though the bird, like all flesh, is dust, "the deathless winged delight" survives. (pp. 259-60)

Kathleen Raine names the various natural forms and the aspects of nature so as to assign them places in a larger design, but not in a way that presents the special quality of a certain scene, a certain creature, a certain unrepeatable hour. (p. 261)

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.; copyright © 1963 by Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963.

[In her essays, Defending Ancient Springs,] Miss Raine proceeds by a repetitive, rather cocksure confrontation of terms, given little or no gloss, which are either Praiseworthy or Disparaging, Divine or the Devil's. Praiseworthy terms are prophetic, profound, primitive, the race, archetypal image, age-old traditions, mystery, and cosmic.

Disparaging terms, of insufferable weakness, if not wickedness, are modern, realist, conscious, individual, Auden (a forgotten term surviving from the Thirties), positivism, Empson (things have changed), and scientific.

Dogmatism can be smelt here; also a considerable, if less unpleasing, naïvety. (p. 174)

The reader needs to be patient with archaic approaches, no doubt, and hopeful, too. But is there a reward for such talk—still falls the drizzle—of 'the poet's task', 'the Celtic genius', 'the haunts of the heron', and this or that which is 'fraught with meanings and messages of the soul'?

Yes, when Miss Raine is informative, for instance about Yeats or St John Perse. No, when she praises Shelley for his short-cutting (or faked temporality). No, when she asks us to admire 'Little lawny islet, with anemones and violet like mosaic paven'. No, when she reads out to us a rather ludicrous (temporally ludicrous) passage from David Gascoyne, beginning 'At night I've often walked on the Embankment of the Thames / And seen the Power Station's brick cliffs dominate the scene'. No, when she tells us that this passage is 'at once grander and more intimate than Eliot's depiction of The Waste Land', and that the poem it comes from asks to be compared with Blake or Dante. No, when she mistakes intention or inclination for performance. No, when she attempts to sandbag or mesmerize the reader, in a prose stubborn with self-righteousness and immodesty; uncertain in grammar, and rife in cliché. (pp. 175-76)

Geoffrey Grigson, "Four Ways of Making Fudge" (1967), in his The Contrary View: Glimpses of Fudge and Gold (© Geoffrey Grigson 1974; reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basingstoke), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 166-76.

Miss Raine, who has been writing and publishing her poems since the 1930's, has certain spiritual affinities with Blake, regards him as one of her mentors, and has spent a number of years in the study of his symbolism…. She places Blake in a tradition of symbolic and mythological poets which includes, among others, Milton, Coleridge, Shelley, Yeats, and Edwin Muir.

For Miss Raine it seems that the whole question of her art and its practice has been bound up from the beginning with what is clearly a profound kind of visionary knowledge and religious experience. This experience is of the sort which renders the search for a language commensurate with it difficult. She is, first of all, gifted with an intuitive sense of the relationship existing between human beings and the surrounding world of nature, a relationship so foreign to our habitual modern ways of thinking about ourselves and the urbanized, technological environment in which most of us live that its very simplicity jars us. (p. 5)

Thus the poem "Lyric" [for example] means exactly what it says: nature is not used as a metaphorical device to express inner moods of unrest or alienation, psychic maladies, as it is, say, in poems of Auden's; nor is it used to connote a free and wholly natural type of existence as it does in some of Spender's verse. Feelings of alienation or exile are, of course, evoked here, but the dialogue form, as well as what is said and the tone selected for saying it, implies a deep and true spiritual affinity of the speaker with nature. This affinity and the mysterious, unnamed but highly suggestive dislocation which has occurred within it convince the reader that they have an existence beyond the poetic event describing them; and they ask to be accepted as objectively real (though discernible only by the powers of imagination) in order for us fully to understand the poem and the poignant sensation of loss conveyed there. Looking further in Miss Raine's work, that loss is rather obviously connected with the primordial Fall of man and with the divisions which have taken place in creation as a result of it. Such a theme is archetypal, perennial, and authentically poetic in her view. (p. 6)

Kathleen Raine's idea and use of symbolism … we shall call here Platonic because she frequently invokes the names of Plato and Plotinus. That is, the symbols she employs refer to and partake of a metaphysical reality; and so she not only believes in them as valid linguistic and imagistic counters for her poetry, but also sees them as the means for disclosing a transcendent wisdom and knowledge which is both pre- and post-poetic. A true poem is an imaginative organization of these symbols and thus is a revelation in "a language of analogy, of images taken from the sensible world" of this higher nature, "which cannot be described, or evoked otherwise than by analogy." (pp. 6-7)

The source of such images and symbols is within, part of a buried knowledge or awareness of transcendent reality which can be recognized through them. (p. 7)

It is quite obvious from even a casual perusal of her poetry that Kathleen Raine has allied herself through the most fundamental spiritual and artistic inclination with the [Romantic] tradition. (p. 8)

In Living in Time (1946), the effort to employ Catholic canonical symbolism collapses, by her own admission, because the symbols cannot bear the weight of meaning she wishes, though recently she has suggested that this fault is a personal artistic one and is not inherent in this body of symbolism, the amplitude of which she now acknowledges. Of course, a poetry dependent on visionary revelation or intuition faces many individual defeats, but by the same token its successes are the more valuable in extending the range of human consciousness or in awakening it to what seemingly has been forgotten. Miss Raine has accomplished in her best poems the recovery of a vein of symbolism and imagery which discloses a vision essentially religious and metaphysical; and so, as in "Love Poem," the plane of experience toward which we are directed lies beyond its imagistic reflections. (pp. 14-15)

The hauntingly beautiful poem, "The Speech of Birds," is one of the finest statements of the human separation from the order of nature…. The dreams and events which are manifestations of the Divine in the world become in the course of time, like other comparable images, symbols, or forms, inward and archetypal, ascending to the surface of the mind in meditation and trance or exhibiting themselves vividly in sleep. In the psychological thought of Jung they belong to the collective unconscious and are as old as human memory. It is precisely the force and currency of such symbolism that Miss Raine seeks in her art, whether in some traditional image like the Tree of Life or the fountain, or the spiritual resonance she frees in the contemplation of things in nature. Yet she realizes this poetic aim neither by craft alone nor by any act of the will, but through the timeless processes of imagination working within the self, though mysteriously independent of it. (pp. 15-16)

Like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, she is concerned with deciphering the secret hints of the larger scheme of being embodied in the visible surface of the natural world. And with most of the Romantics she favors a life lived close to the rugged simplicities of earth, sky, and water. Contemplation of the patterns shaped by the elements can lead to revelation. Physical appearances are clearly not the end of perceiving but the beginning; they stir in the beholder's imagination [the] inner world of correspondences. (p. 16)

The poetic mind … contemplates the objects and recurrent cycles of nature as analogies of or paths to the eternal, or as incarnate symbols of Divine love. (p. 24)

[In] Miss Raine's poems nature and the energies supporting it are plainly subordinate to a superior reality, as are likewise the commonplace categories of time and space. Like the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Edwin Muir, Edith Sitwell, Vernon Watkins, and David Gascoyne, to name some prominent kindred figures, hers indicates a meaning outside the temporal flow for human existence in time, though its whole meaning remains of necessity mysterious. (p. 25)

Ralph J. Mills, Jr., in his Kathleen Raine: A Critical Essay (copyright © 1967 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; used by permission), Eerdmans, 1967.

Kathleen Raine has spent twenty years studying the furniture of Blake's mind (to use an old-fashioned phrase which is apposite here)…. The theme of Kathleen Raine's remarkable and passionate book [Blake and Tradition] is that Blake's thought, including much of his symbolic imagery, belongs to the classical tradition of anti-materialist philosophy since Plotinus. She has shown that Blake was well read and informed in topics of materialist and idealist philosophy. But her theme is not a mere register of sources…. (p. 700)

[The] criticism I have of Blake and Tradition … is concerned with the lengths to which the book carries its analysis. It seems to me to be excessive in its detail, and to look for correspondences so minute that the reader may end by distrusting even the large ones. Not everything in Blake is an echo or an analogue of old beliefs and symbols; and when Kathleen Raine seems to labor to find it so, she must make many wonder whether she really is sensitive to Blake's endlessly springing originality….

The way to widen our understanding of Blake is to show that he had a wider mind than used to be thought, not a narrower one. I am sure that Kathleen Raine thinks so too, but the conception has got lost in the fervor of her book. (p. 701)

J. Bronowski, "The Fruits of Two Seasons," in The Nation (copyright 1969 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 22, 1969, pp. 700-01.

Kathleen Raine's poems are unfashionable on purpose, unworldly, traditional, meditative, belonging to memory and dream, to solitude and silence; moreover, they were born into a time at which Poetry, abandoning even the positivist self-deception which Miss Raine speaks of having found in her youth at Cambridge, quite simply and with savage pleasure embraced the world of telegrams and anger, and the hungry sheep, if they bothered to look up, were told to eat menus, though only from the most expensive restaurants.

The lost country of the [The Lost Country] is Paradise, or Eden, and our intimations of it, in childhood, in memory, in dream. Paraphrasing Proust's famous aphorism about how the only true paradise is always the one we have lost, Miss Raine also penetrates the cynicism of its surface to a deeper sense, in which Paradise can be found only because it has been lost, because it has passed "out of time and into mind". And she completes the thought by appealing to Plato, "that we come from thence, / Out of mind and into time". In plain speaking, Paradise is real, the mental world is real as Plato said it was, Socrates was quite clear about the difference between reality and Indo-European sentence-structure, it's a whole old ball game, and poetry is just as serious as it has for so many centuries said it was. Readers unable to admit this premise in any of its various forms are unlikely to be pleased with Miss Raine's poetry. (pp. 468-69)

[If some of her lines] remind the reader of Yeats, and [others] of Blake …, that is neither accident nor a sign of flagging inspiration, but simply the acknowledgment of fellowship in a tradition for which symbolism is neither arbitrary nor indefinite, for which originality would be, as Dr. Johnson remarked, like going off to milk the bull because the cow was dry. It is the tradition of the mysteries, perennial in English poetry though often underground or—what is in effect the same—not understood; the tradition in which Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, as Colin Still so elegantly demonstrated in his interpretative masterpiece The Timeless Theme. Of this tradition, given intellectual form by Plato and mediated to us chiefly, as Miss Raine has shown, by Blake and his Platonist contemporary Thomas Taylor, Kathleen Raine is one of the great poetic inheritors. She belongs right up there with Yeats and Muir; so startling and just a claim that it may stand as my last word on the subject: with Yeats, who learned from Blake, with Muir who taught her to write from dreams. (p. 470)

Howard Nemerov, "The Gift for the Whole," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1972 by The University of the South), Summer, 1972, pp. 468-70.

[Kathleen Raine's] observations [in On a Deserted Shore] about the survival of feeling for a dead lover are in a curious way at once over-eloquent and over-fragmentary. The ground is covered in discrete efforts to capture and examine something which by its very nature eludes the grasp, and yet there is very little verbal sense of struggle. The brief passages are delicate, poised and wistful, but lean heavily on the language of trite memorials, where the dead are blessed, flames are fleeting, love's fruit is bitter and mysteries are deep. I was reminded of something Randall Jarrell once wrote about Marianne Moore: 'She has shown us that the world is more poetic than we thought.' Both H. D. and Miss Raine show us that we often forget how unworldly poetry can be—and to its cost. (p. 230)

John Fuller, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 15, 1974.

Kathleen Raine wrote in the first volume of her autobiography (Farewell Happy Fields, 1973) about an early childhood Proustian in its evocation of paradise lost, of the sundry miseries of a socially provincial and emotionally stormy adolescence, and of a disastrous youthful love affair, from the pain of which she seems never fully to have recovered. The Land Unknown begins with the author's student days at Cambridge (she was one of the first women to be admitted there), described in tones reminiscent of Pound's and Eliot's lamentations for a vanishing civilization. Although Miss Raine's renderings of the Cambridge years are truly fine, rich in anecdote and observation, the book's subsequent chapters lose to a large extent a narrative line. What at the outset promises to be a chronicle of the literary and social milieu of the Twenties and Thirties turns out, instead, to be mostly an exploration of the author's own sensibility, the exquisiteness of which she is everywhere at pains to impress upon her reader, and the obsession with which largely obscures the outlines of the real world through which she has journeyed.

Still, despite all the self-absorption, there are marvelous moments here: a sketch of William Empson, a poet's description of English landscape, clear-headed speculation on matters literary and philosophical—signs of the resilient intelligence and imagination that produced her best poetry and the acclaimed critical studies on Blake. These passages make it all the more regrettable that Miss Raine has chosen to represent her life so largely in the mystical and solipsistic terms that govern this book. (pp. 36-7)

Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 1, 1975.