Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter

Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter. Don W. King. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 2008. Hardcover. xviii + 342 pp. $55.00. ISBN 978-0-87338-947-1.

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Reviewed by Joe R. Christopher

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103/104) (2008): 167–71.]

Ruth Pitter, besides being an excellent poet, was a friend of C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Lord David Cecil. She was at least acquainted with W.H. Lewis. She met Joy Davidman one time, but they did not become friends — or even friendly. Don W. King’s book covers these matters, tied to interests of the Mythopoeic Society, but they are just part of the biography. Since King’s book is the first full treatment of Pitter’s life and works, it becomes automatically the basic authority on Pitter — and, indeed, the book is substantially done, as one might expect from the author of C.S. Lewis, Poet.

What King has done is go through Pitter’s life, narrating it, with pauses to summarize and evaluate a substantial number of her poems from each of her books as they appear. He also surveys the reaction to the volumes in reviews and in letters to Pitter from readers (for one book entering objections to the reviews [137-38]). Although he quotes appropriate passages of the poems, these pauses may tire some readers if they do not know or care for the poetry. This reviewer has the second edition of Pitter’s Collected Poems, and it does not have Pitter’s first three books in it since Pitter considered them her juvenilia. Lewis, in a letter to Pitter, praises Persephone in Hades (1931), a narrative poem, her third book — all King quotes is that Lewis says it is a “remarkable work” (147); but that poem was printed in a limited edition originally and certainly is difficult to find. So on the early works most readers will be dependent on Pitter’s judgment, King’s agreement, and his excerpts. No doubt Pitter was right.

The basic biography: Pitter was the oldest of three children of two schoolteachers in London. The great influence on her young life was the family’s long-time rental of a cabin in a forest near London, where they spent vacations and often weekends. She did not receive a college education, due in part of finances during World War I, and in 1928 she and a woman friend set up a business painting designs on furniture, trays, and other materials — more specifically, they put their money together, with some help, and purchased a business whose owner was retiring. They were successful in the 1930s, with a number of people working for them, but their business closed down during the restrictions of World War II. Pitter worked the rest of the war in a munitions factory, mainly doing paper work. After the war, they started up their business again, but in 1953 they bought a retirement home not too far from Oxford. Pitter’s friend had retired from the business, but Pitter kept up her work with its long hours after their move. She also gained some BBC work in the later years. Pitter and her friend basically were women whose possibilities for husbands were killed in World War I; Pitter seems to have had some love affairs while living in London, but no marriage resulted. She has a number of poems on romantic love in her books, continuing into the early volumes of her mature work.

What kinds of poetry does she write? Some of it is descriptions of nature — often of birds. Related to that is a type of nature mysticism, a finding of a spirit in and through nature. Some of the poems are autobiographical, but phrased not as confessions so much as studies of human nature — e.g., “The Bridge.” Pitter’s religious poems become more straightforward as she approaches becoming and becomes a Christian. A number of the poems are reflections on things seen — e.g., “The Military Harpist.” The weakest of her poems seem to be merely versified anecdotes — e.g., “Potting Shed Tutti-Frutti.” This is probably not a complete list of types, but it suggests something of the serious poems. In addition, she has three books of mainly light verse — the satiric A Mad Lady’s Garland, the bawdy The Rude Potato, and the lightly humorous Pitter on Cats. This reviewer does not know how many poems were dropped from the Collected Poems, but the one he has seen — “A Happy Christmas! Love to All! (With Footnotes),” originally in End of Drought — shows that Pitter was an uneven poet even in her mature period, for it deserved dropping. (Some that got into Collected Poems also deserved dropping, unfortunately.) King does not attempt to describe all of her poems in his book, picking generally the better poems. And he does not just summarize the poems: he offers comments about their meaning — for example, three levels of “The Bridge” (121). In making his case for Pitter, he tends to ignore the weak poems of her maturity. But she has many good poems.

The other thing to say about Pitter’s poems is that they are written in traditional verse forms and traditional meters. King sometimes comments about these aspects, sometimes just generalizes about the types she is using in a book. More could be made of her ear for rhythm, for she does not keep to a very regular meter (more or less like Ben Jonson), but is freer in her substitutions.

Before turning to the Inklings, perhaps some general conclusions about King’s book are worth making. In general, it is very good. Sometimes he simply ignores something that one would like to read more about — perhaps because the information is simply lacking. For example, in a letter of Richard Church of 27 May 1934 (52), Pitter says that the “pseudo-modern verses I have written lately are a deliberate joke” — but nothing more is said about these. (They seem to have been published.) More details about the art of her business partner-friend would be appreciated. Other times — such as concerning A.R. Orage, who published many of Pitter’s early poems in New Age — one finds valuable additional information in the notes in the back of the book. Occasionally, King seems to miss a point. For example, Pitter publishes a poem titled “Urania” in 1934 (not discussed by King), titles her 1950 selected poems Urania, and occasionally refers to Urania elsewhere (see 97, 126). King refers to these as being references to the Muse of Astronomy, which is classically correct; but he does not note that Milton, in Paradise Lost (VII.1), invokes Urania as a Christian muse. Pitter could only be using it as a starry spiritual guide in the poem, but the reference is probably Christian on the collection. Nevertheless, King does very well what he sets out to do: provide a biography of Pitter and a basic guide to her poetry.

Now then, about Pitter and the Inklings. It began with Lord David Cecil writing her a fan letter in September 1936, praising her book A Trophy of Arms. “I read [its poems] last week in a fit of drab depression brought on by the condition of the world: and I cannot tell you what a ray of light spread out on my horizon” (82). Cecil recommended the book to the committee for the Hawthorden Prize, and Pitter won it in 1937. Pitter later wrote to Rachel Cecil on the birth of her first son, and the friendship between the Cecils and Pitter lasted until their deaths (86). She spent a number of weekends at their house; she invited them to meals at her home.

Lewis’s broadcast talks during World War II led Pitter toward Christian belief. But the first connection between them, through Cecil, seems to have come to nothing. Cecil writes in a letter of 1 February 1941 that he had shared her poems with Lewis and that Lewis went off to buy her book. Cecil recommends Lewis’s The Allegory of Love, and Pitter replies as if he had offered to send a copy of the book to her (103). Then, in August 1942, she says she has been reading The Screwtape Letters and asks if Cecil knows Lewis (112). Perhaps by that point she has been listening to some of his Mere Christianity radio talks (or perhaps The Screwtape Letters caused her thereafter to listen to Lewis on the radio). Pitter made contact with Lewis through another friend, not Cecil, and Lewis writes about her, “The little I have seen of her work I admired very greatly” (Collected Letters v.2, 15 Dec. 1945) — which sounds as if he never did buy the book that Cecil thought he would (Hunting the Unicorn 142). Certainly after Lewis and Pitter meet, and Pitter then sends some copies of her books to him, he writes as if he had not known Trophy of Arms through Cecil: “Why wasn’t I told you were as good as this?” (Collected Letters v.2, 19 July 1946) — but he is referring specifically to “A Solemn Meditation,” so perhaps Cecil had not shown him that one (144). Lewis invites her to luncheon in his rooms at Oxford with Hugo Dyson and the Cecils on 9 October 1946 (146). (According to W.H. Lewis’s diary, they dined in “the New Room”; W. H. Lewis is cited by King for some details in the endnotes.) C.S. Lewis and Pitter continue to correspond about poetry — mainly his poetry.

On 16 July 1949 Pitter received a letter from Owen Barfield, which seems unrelated to Lewis: “By showing me your very kind appreciation of my poem The Unicorn Marjorie Milne has emboldened me to imagine that, if I asked you to lunch with me, you might consent” (150). Of course, Milne is the person to whom the second edition of Dymer was dedicated by Lewis, so it is a connected group. When Lewis learns that Pitter has met Barfield, he arranges a luncheon for the three of them in Pitter’s flat in Chelsea (151). Pitter gives each of them a painted tray. She is also to Oxford that December for a debate in Lewis’s rooms about women becoming priests (Thursday afternoon and Friday morning) with lunch for Pitter, Lewis, Barfield, and Milne afterwards (153).

Later, when Pitter and her friend moved to Long Crendon, a village not far from Oxford, Lewis wrote, “Welcome to what Tolkien calls the Little Kingdom, at least to the marches of it” (21 December 1953). But when he writes, he has Joy Davidman and her sons visiting him. Pitter and Davidman met one time, at a lunch with Lewis in Oxford, which evidently did not go well (196-97). King has a good discussion of why Lewis married Davidman instead of Pitter (196-207, 240). Lewis and Pitter meet twice after Davidman’s death, but those are the same type of meetings they had before — for friendship — with others present. The first time, Barfield drives Lewis over to Long Crendon; the second time Lewis invites Pitter and her friend over to Oxford for a brief visit.

This matter of the Inklings is important to the Mythopoeic Society, but they are only part of Pitter’s life. She wrote an epigram on Lewis’s professional move to Cambridge (a poor work, with two forced rhymes), and she refers to Perelandra in her poem “Angels” (collected in Still by Choice, three years after Lewis’s death). “What angel haunts your mind[?]” she asks, and gives as one answer:

Or, likelier, now we dream of space,
Lewis’s dread sublime
Pillars of light, no limbs, no face,
Sickening our space and time?

(That last line is supposed to have only three beats, so she is writing a dactyl followed by two iambs.) She also did a version of The Great Dance, at the end of Perelandra, in Spenserian stanzas (never collected in her poems but appearing in Appendix 1 of King’s C.S. Lewis, Poet: “A Passage from Perelandra by C.S. Lewis done into irregular Spenserian stanzas by Ruth Pitter”). In The Ermine, thirteen years earlier than Still by Choice, appears “Hill and Valley,” dedicated to D.C. King says that it is “almost certainly set in the countryside near Oxford” (177). It is a descriptive poem, written when she lived in London (“by a great river”), probably reflecting experiences while visiting the Cecils. The poem is irregular in some ways (e.g., an extra half line appears in the third stanza), but rhetorically it reads well:

I watch in silence, while the lark is shrill,
Drifting grape-coloured shadows on the hill,
Drifting stone-coloured sheep cropping and roving,
The long-abiding and the ever-moving.

Of course, Lewis was one of the earthly influences that led Pitter to the Christian faith, and so may be considered to have a secondary influence on a number of her later religious poems. However, if one considers just the less theological influences, the matters of friendship, in the long run these two poems — “Angels” and “Hill and Valley” — and perhaps including the Great Dance poem, are what matters out of Pitter’s friendship with the Inklings.

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