Born in 1908, British poet and scholar Kathleen Raine was educated at Girton College, Cambridge. A visionary poet whose work probed the intersection of science and mysticism, Raine bridged elements of Jungian psychology and neo-Platonism in her work.
Her poetry collections include Stone and Flower (1943), W.H. Smith Literary Award–winner The Lost Country (1972), The Oracle in the Heart (1979), and The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine (2001). Her works of scholarship include The Inner Journey of the Poet (1982) as well as books on W. B. Yeats and definitive studies of William Blake. She wrote four memoirs which were collectively published as Autobiographies (1991).
In 1981 she co-founded the literary journal Temenos and the Temenos Press. With the support of Prince Charles, she also founded the Temenos Academy which still promotes lectures and studies which endorse her firm belief what he Prince of Wales called ‘the arts of the imagination’.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Raine received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Literature, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, the Oscar Blumenthal Prize, the Chapelbrook Award, the Cholmondeley Award, and the Smith Literary Award and a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. She was also granted honorary doctorates by Durham University, Leicester University, and Caen University. She died in London at the age of ninety-five.
Kathleen Raine was a joy to interview. A woman of tremendous bonhomie, one could not fail to be seduced by her poetic aura. Needless to say, I was enchanted.
In Farewell Happy Fields, you wrote: ‘I understand now that it is to my mother that I owe the happiness of my infancy as I remember or have since imagined it.’ That sounds as if it took most of your life to make that discovery…
Yes, I was horrible to my mother when I was a little girl. I was very spoilt, rebellious and difficult, and now more and more I see I owe her everything.
You say that your mother belonged to the ‘golden race’. What do you mean by that?
I’m thinking of Yeats’s words, ‘The golden race looks dim…’ My mother lived entirely by spiritual values, in a world of beauty and poetry and imagination. She would notice the birds, or a leaf falling from a tree; she wouldn’t notice anything about the money market – she would have been bored by that sort of thing. She had wonderful gifts and if she had been a poet she would have been a better poet than I; I am alloyed with the world, she was totally unalloyed.
Your father was a lay Methodist preacher…
Yes, every Sunday and most Wednesdays he was off preaching for the Wesleyan Methodists. He was also a very enthusiastic member of the League of Nations, and a great pacifist; he adopted wholeheartedly every kind of available idealism. One good thing to come out of this was that because Gilbert Murray was a tremendous pacifist, my father somehow accepted his translations of Greek drama, which I’m sure he wouldn’t otherwise have done. He took my mother and me to all the productions of Gilbert Murray’s plays at the Lyric, Hammersmith, which was a joy to us both – Mother and I didn’t care much about pacifism or any other good cause, but we loved the drama and the poetry.
You wrote that your father was not free of the ‘sin of righteousness’ but that your mother, who never thought herself good or made any effort to be so, was indeed free. You could hardly I suppose have had two more different role models…
That’s true. It’s been difficult, but I think in the course of my life I’ve satisfied their different desires for me. My mother would have wished nothing more than that I should be a poet, and now I seem to be deep in education which my father would have wished. He would have believed very much in what we’re doing with the Temenos Academy, which is seeking to sow the seed of a different kind of education. I won’t say a new kind, because it is perhaps a very old kind: education based in truth, beauty and goodness, not in profit and the latest trendy ‘ism’ from some American university. The basis of the Temenos Academy is to be as universities have been in the age-old past, schools of wisdom, because wisdom is more important than information. I’m sure the sciences are well taught in universities, but when it comes to the humanities, the value and meaning of life, it is miseducation rather than education. The first time I met Prince Charles I made him laugh because he asked how I had come to the ideas I held, and I told him what Ananda Coomaraswamy had said: ‘It takes four years to get a first-class university education but it takes forty to get over it.’ And the Prince replied, ‘I’ve been working on it for twenty.’ What the universities are teaching now would make Socrates or any great teacher of the past turn in his grave. It is not wisdom, it has nothing to do with the basic values of humanity, or what man is and what the universe is; that is the final validation of truth and wisdom because it’s written in us, it’s our nature. We’re a long way from that.
Even your mother, free spirit though she may have been, was not without a certain censoriousness, the Calvinism of John Knox’s Scotland. Children tend to absorb their parents’ attitudes and prejudices – was that something you found difficult to shake off?
I don’t think so. John Knox really didn’t go deep in my mother. Once when we were talking about The Pilgrim’s Progress which my father loved, I remember her saying, ‘I think that is a book that has outlived its usefulness…’ To her the truth of the imagination was the most important thing. The Scots have a very schizophrenic imagination; on the one hand they accept all this gloomy stuff of John Knox, and on the other the fairy world somehow slips through all that, and in the balance the judgement of the imagination counts for more in Scotland. The ballads of Scotland don’t take the side of the righteous so much as the side of the beautiful; and imagination is kinder than morality.
From your beloved Cumbria you moved with your parents to Ilford which seemed to encapsulate for you everything which was drab and despicable about the modern world. Do you think that perhaps without Ilford you would not have been able to escape so completely into the world of dreams and poetry?
Finally, at the end of my life, having selfishly tried to escape all these things, I seem to have been led full circle round to try the people who are imprisoned in Hades. That is what education is for; it’s not to follow one’s dreams, but finally to give what one can to other who are trapped, which I now feel to be my task. I found Ilford particularly false, but there are thousands of Ilfords, neither rich nor poor, absolute victims of all their falseness. The very poor are up against it since they have to confront just the sheer problem of survival, the tragedies of birth and death, and of all those things. On the whole the working class help one another as they do in villages, but in what I mean by Ilford, they keep themselves to themselves; there is no nourishment of mind or heart coming through those garden gates. Ilford is the world of people who watch television and never exchange friendship or love with their neighbours, and who absorb all the false values of the media. They are prisoners, spiritual prisoners.
You describe most movingly the pain associated with your experience of young love. Is that a feeling you can still recall, is it something you still carry around with you?
It’s strange you should say that, because I recently went to a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican with the architect Jane Drew, who is, like me, a great-grandmother. I was sure that it would be no good and that we were both too old, but we were both absolutely overwhelmed by the words of Romeo and of Juliet. It wasn’t a marvellous production, but both Jane and I were absolutely bouleversées by the beauty of that young love. Yes, one carries it in one’s heart, I think, forever.
How do you remember it?
Through Romeo and Juliet’s words essentially. It’s not the person one was in love with or the person I was; it is just that some things have the quality of eternal beauty and truth in them, in the love as such. We all experience it, we forget the person, but we remember the love, because that is real. Though my first love died many years ago, one remembers him still. I’ve met his son and that was quite moving but it’s not a personal thing. Love is something more than personal; it’s a vision, a way of understanding the world. That purity if young love is absolute – you can’t imagine that you may ever feel this for anyone else.
You describe the time when you won your scholarship to Girton College as ‘the last moment after childhood when I was not at odds with the world’. Did you feel this as something you were powerless to control, or was there an element of wilful rebellion?
As soon as I got to Girton I began discarding all my father’s values straightaway. I was very glad to escape from the trap and the cage of a rather puritan form of Christianity which contained elements that to this day I can’t accept, like the doctrine of the atonement. Feeling that my father had ruined my life, I became very rebellious at Cambridge. That idea was too extreme really, but at the time that’s what I felt. And Cambridge was there with all its trendy, atheistic, nihilistic types, and not to mention Huxley and the Bloomsbury world, and everyone was so clever, and I fell absolutely for all of it. I’m deeply ashamed now. I see now much better who my father was than I did then, and I think I would have been just as severe on my children if they’d behaved like me.
But in retrospect you came to regard Cambridge as being just as alien to your poetic vision as Ilford had been. Why was Cambridge such a disappointment?
The values people at Cambridge stood for were purely cerebral. Their apparent cleverness embraced agnosticism, atheism, nihilism, but they denied the sacred springs of life, which are the imagination and the heart. The poetry was also hard and clever, and all the poets I’d loved up until then, like Keats and Shelley, and Shakespeare and Milton, they were absolutely out. At the Temenos Academy we are now trying to re-establish the idea that the arts must grow out of the vision of the sacred. The sacred is not the same as the religious, though all the great religions have been grounded in a vision of the sacred, and most of them have lost it since to a great extent. The sacred is the nature of things, it is the reality of the cosmos, it is the depths of the human soul. When Moses saw the burning bush and heard the words, ‘Put off thy shoes from they feet for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground’, this was an experience of the holy, but in our culture it has become more or less impossible for any well-educated person to encounter this burning thing. Certainly first love is an experience of the sacred, so is any love; this is something that is our birthright as human beings. I often think of a phrase by D. H. Lawrence, that knowledge is an experience and not a formula; yet at Cambridge, and I’m sure at Oxford too, and at every other university in the United States and indeed, heaven help us, in India even, this idea is killed. Education nowadays is all right for computers, but it doesn’t open the human being, it doesn’t expand the consciousness, it doesn’t nourish the soul or the spirit. There isn’t even the Communist Party to pin our faith on as there was when I was at Cambridge. That was where the better world was going to come from, a universe of peace, freedom and equality. Now the Communist empire has fallen, and something else is desperately needed to transform the world, and I’m afraid the politicians are not going to do it for us. A friend wrote to me the other day saying she loved the way I embrace all the lost causes. But I don’t think the cause of truth and reality ever can be lost; somehow it springs up again.
You married Hugh Sykes Davis on what you describe as ‘despicable grounds’ since there was a complete absence of love or even sexual attraction. Was it an act of defiance against your father, or did you feel that you were incapable of loving again as you had loved, or were you in some way not in control of your actions at the time? Or all three?
All three. He was also unconventional, and it was a way of joining the world of rebels and despairers. I certainly thought I would never love again. In a sense I never did. Years later, I did know a different kind of love. But sexual love had been completely killed off at the time by the axe descending on my first love. And yet, one sees Romeo and Juliet and one thinks, how marvellous. Shakespeare understood all that. But in Christianity there has always been a curse on sex, and it’s very wrong. When finally in my later years I reached India, where the erotic is scared, and there is the beauty and adornment of women, the sari and the jewels, and the linga for the Lord Shiva at every street corner, one begins to realize that this Christian ban on the erotic is terribly misguided. In the New Age, whatever that means, I think they’re not going to accept that any more, although one has to admit that our young get into trouble when they have premature sexual experience without love. Sex has somehow been separated from love, and people are rebelling against puritanical culture in this country but have no alternative to put in its place; so we seem to be living in the worst of all worlds at the moment. There is no culture as there is in Eastern religions, and somehow this country is in a state of negative rebellion against the good without having discovered an alternative which will humanize and consecrate something that has so long been under a ban.
You wrote in The Land Unknown: ‘If the sexual instinct was at that time my undoing, it was not through its strength, but through its weakness.’ What exactly did you mean by that?
Blake said that those who suppress desire do so because their desires are weak enough to be suppressed. Shelley saw that this was nonsense, and wrote most wonderfully proclaiming what Keats called ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections’. The erotic proem Epipsychidion was written to Amelia Vivian when she went into a convent, which Shelley saw as the most terrible denial and desecration of something very holy; she was sensual and sacred to Shelley’s vision of sex. The erotic is only one aspect of love but it’s a very important one for us human beings; without it women don’t love their children any more; they hate their men, hence the catastrophic state we’re in. I gave a lecture at the Nehru Centre the other week on Shelley and India, and I saw why he had placed Prometheus Unbound on the Indian borders of the Caucasus, even though there are no Indian borders on the Caucasus. His beloved is the feminine principle of India, the goddess. She is called Asia, and she is the excluded principle of beauty and the feminine and erotic. I’m not a feminist, quite the contrary, because it seems to me it’s not feminism we need, it’s the feminine, it’s the woman. All this business of women trying to get high positions as executives is all so irrelevant; it’s not that we need, it’s the restoration of love in its full sense.
You left Hugh Sykes Davis and eloped with Charles Madge who was in love with you and wrote you poems. Did you love him?
Not really, not truly … it was more an escape into poetry. We should simply have been friends; of course we are friends and to this day I think he loves me, but I’m very thankful that I didn’t stay with him. It was a great wrong I did him.
You suffered from feelings of guilt and shame because of your elopement. Was that because of the spirit of the age or did the feelings go deeper than that?
Oh, much deeper. I felt I was betraying everyone, including my father of course, and my mother, because these roots die hard. Looking back on my relationship with Charles, I should not have allowed him to rescue me, and I don’t know why I jumped into one marriage after another. It was partly cowardice – I hadn’t the courage to stand on my own feet. You are very searching in your questions … anyway, that is what happened, and I’m deeply sorry. It’s what we have done to harm others that embitters old age, it’s the pain we’ve caused which catches up with us.
Motherhood did not seem to alter your priorities in the usual way, it did not seem to deflect from your poetic destiny. Has that been a source of conflict or regret in your life?
Indeed it has, bitter, bitter regret. I was not a good mother and my children and grandchildren suffer from it to this day. I don’t think it is in the nature of women to follow a compulsion, a vocation – I won’t say a career because that’s something quite different. Women should love first of all; we are the mothers of the human race, and we should love our children and bring them up. If women had had it in their nature nothing would have stopped them from writing the works of Plato or Dante or Shakespeare or Beethoven; women have been in the world as long as men, but this is not what women are. These things are sex-linked, they are characteristics like beards, and they belong to men. Who has ever seen any work by a feminist except another work about feminism? I know myself I’m as good as any woman poet who’s written in the English language, but I know my place. I’m not Yeats, I’m not Eliot, I’m not Shakespeare; it’s a very minor gift I have, and women and men are different. In doing what I have done as a writer, I suffer from a sense of guilt and betrayal of a much more profound nature than that of merely betraying my parents and my children; it’s a betrayal of women. I have not fulfilled the true tasks of woman, either as a daughter, a spouse or a mother, and that is the price of being Kathleen Raine. I didn’t see it like that, and I was not writing from ambition to get my poems on the BBC or anything like that; it was a deep compulsion, and partly it was implanted in me by my parents. Anyway, that’s how it’s worked out. I think the feminists know quite well that I don’t like them, and they don’t like me either.
When you left Charles Madge it was for an ‘unrequited, unrequitable’ passion. Yet you experienced with your lover, as you say all lovers do, ‘that almost unendurable intensity of passion’. Why was it then unrequited, unrequitable?
For one thing he was in the war and taken prisoner. Thank God, thank God. It was all to do with my imagination. He came from Scotland and somehow touched a spring of memory in me of my mother’s country, and of all the poetry and the beauty of that lost world. This had nothing to do with the practicalities of human relationships, and when he came back I realized that the whole thing was just a dream, but anyway, I’d taken the precaution of becoming a Catholic which did save me from it.
Your experience of marriage led you to believe that it was irreconcilable with poetic vision. Was this a sad discovery for you?
Yes, indeed. One wants to have one’s cake and eat it. Perfect, requited love is only possible in poetry; it’s irreconcilable with marriage. Everything is at the price of something else. But poetry was the driving force of my life, and now I don’t really even care whether I was right or wrong; when you consider the vastness of the cosmos and the mystery, it’s just another part of something much bigger than ourselves, and we don’t know what the whole is. People who can say, ‘God thinks this and thinks that’ are very naïve. One does not know. The modern world looks always for a fix, or an explanation. Science hasn’t proved it yet, they think, but next year it will. But we live in a profound insoluble mystery, and the things that emerge from it are unsurpassable. It’s amazing what is and has been and will be; it is an inexhaustible marvel of being.
Apropos poetic vision, you write: ‘All poets seek to remember and recreate what we all know at heart to be not a mere fleeting illusion but the norm we never cease to seek and create (however often it may be destroyed), because in that state alone lies felicity…’ Do you feel now that you have arrived in this felicitous state, as it were, or does the search go on?
Of course it goes on. Sometimes one has a glimpse, and in writing a poem it’s a kind of prayer or meditation; one raises one’s consciousness as high as one can, hoping that some beam of light will come. While we are in this world we cannot experience a vision of paradise, for paradise is by definition what we have lost, but it is also by definition what we are, because our nature is such that we seek something. My William Blake used the word sleep, which in fact he got from Plotinus. Neither of them talked of sin and repentance, but of sleep and awakening. It’s a matter of opening of consciousness and, poor human beings that we are, we have a sense that there’s more to it than we’ve understood and we cannot but seek that which we feel to be our own. That is, I suppose, the religious impulse in its deepest sense, but easy answers and doctrines and creeds have nothing to do with it. It seems to me more and more that the older I grow the less I know.
You go on to say, ‘To be exiled from the Garden of Eden is our greatest sorrow, and some forget, or try to forget, because to remember is too painful, to recreate, too difficult.’ Have you sometimes found it too painful to remember?
Yes, there were many years when I didn’t write any poems, because it was too painful. But then I gathered myself together again, because it’s the only thing that matters.
But why did you find it too painful? What happened?
One’s life had become a mess and one felt so alienated from it, and to be recalled by that music reminds one of the mess one has got into. Judging by the number of painkillers and sleeping pills that are distributed, many people can’t face it and instead deaden themselves. We can just about go through the day with the help of some routine, but it can be just too painful to remember, especially when we feel we’ve lost it through our own fault: that’s perhaps the one thing of all, that it hasn’t so much been done to us as done by us.
Do you think poetic love is irreconcilable with physical love?
I’m afraid this is so, at least in my experience, and who has ever heard of a poet for whom this was not so? Edwin and Willa Muir loved one another, and he was a wonderful poet, but I don’t think poets on the whole have a record of happy marriages. One doesn’t know with certainty, but I don’t think they do. Poetry is the land of the soul, it is the soul’s native country, but in this world you have to live according to the conditions of this world, and there are moments surely when two people who have loved one another deeply have briefly felt that this is forever; they have touched the boarders of paradise … but then life moves on. Sometimes it remains as a tranquil happy relationship, but think of Yeats, think of Eliot, think of Milton, of Shelley, of Keats … it doesn’t usually work.
But would you say that poetry and realism are alien to one another?
To me poetry is the reality, the soul’s world is the reality, and if we lost the vision of that world we would very soon degenerate into apes; poetry is what makes us human, it is the human kingdom. We’ve seen what it’s like when people lose the paradisal vision in some form or another; they revert to the sort of awful behaviour we see on television and in the press every day. If man loses the vision of perfection which is written in our very nature, that is what makes us mad. The Darwinians always talk about man as if he were another species, but we are another kingdom – the human kingdom. We’re the working out of the spiritual destiny, and without the musicians, the painters and poets, the architects, the sculptors, without their vision we couldn’t progress; it is what brings us to our humanity. Those of us who are caught in this vision know it to be the most real, the most important thing, but we’re only poor imperfect human beings and we slip back. Most of us who are captured by this vision do not have easy lives, but we don’t question where our duty lies; it is our dedication, we have to do it. I sometimes wonder, ought I to have given myself more completely to poetry, been less of a coward about it? – and at other times I think the whole thing was a mistake anyway.
As I understand it, your poetry has been inspired by visions of a land you have glimpsed but never really known. Have you lived in the hope of knowing it?
In a sense, yes. In moments of vision one is there, in the hope of really knowing it. I’m not much concerned with the salvation of my soul or with what happens to me now. I used to feel deep repentance and mourning for all those things, but now that my personal life is really behind me, it doesn’t matter at any more. If one has caught one gleam of that country and transmitted it, perhaps it is all worthwhile.
Would you say that the measure of a poem’s success is its ability to enable others to glimpse what you have seen yourself?
Yes, others see it because it’s in them. It’s like the old image used in the seventeenth century; stroke the string of one lute and on another lute that string resonates. It resonates in people because it is in them; it isn’t because it’s in me.
You say that it’s only in moments when we transcend ourselves that we can know anything of value. Is this ability to transcend ourselves given to all of us, or is it the prerogative of poets?
It’s given to all of us and it’s not the prerogative of anybody. That’s why we’re human, that is our human destiny and task. People do it in different ways, and the most important way of all is in human relations. That is the final test, and the great sages – I don’t care for saints who are horrible people on the whole – but the really holy people, though they don’t write poetry, have it in their lives; their very presence in the world communicates this feeling.
When you received the W. H. Smith Award for The Lost Country, you said that the standard of English poetry was so abysmal that you doubted whether an award should be made to any poet at all. Have you revised your opinion since then?
I’ve redoubled it. It was bad enough then, but there were still a few poets alive. Heavens, if you saw my postbag for Temenos, you would see the rubbish that people write while calling it poetry. And the rubbish that gets published and put on the radio! None of this has anything to do with poetry. There are not half a dozen poets in this country, nor in any other country, so far as I can see. One or two in France perhaps, but not many. Given the values of this country, the total nihilistic, empty values of Western civilization, how can it produce poetry? Even the New Age people have rebelled so much against knowledge that they haven’t produced any poetry either. There’s perhaps more poetry in their lives but on the whole the go and grow vegetables and live a greener and better life. Besides, the English language has been so vandalized that words have lost their meaning; people are no longer taught the language, they don’t know what words mean, and it’s quite appalling. The situation is ten times worse now than when I expressed that view. When the Poet Laureate wrote to me and asked if I would accept the Queen’s medal for Poetry, I wrote back saying that it was a poor show if I was the best poet to be found. I accepted it anyway, for I would not wish to at this moment to dishonour the queen’s award in any way because, poor lady, she’s having a bad time too.
You obviously think that the arts are not in a healthy state at the moment. What is the reason for that, do you think?
I have at least tried to keep faith with the world that poetry comes from, but the soul of the age is very sick. That’s why we get Francis Bacon. The arts themselves are projecting the sickness of the soul of the age; they’re not healing it. Perhaps in a sense projecting it is healing it, I don’t know, but generally they are reflecting a terrible spiritual ill or else they are dried up. I feel France is particularly arid at the moment. There’s very little greatness in the world, it seems to have gone. Even biographies seem to denigrate and dishonour rather than to see what is noble and honourable in a man or woman. I reviewed one about my old friend Herbert Read not long ago. I didn’t find in it the man I knew who did so much for us and for so many people. He was so generous, and he was a seeker after truth, but this book was simply in the kindest possible way minimizing him. It appears you have to minimize or you won’t sell the book. If you can prove that someone was a homosexual, then you’re fine, you get a public; you have to find something that demeans or dishonours, such as incest or promiscuity … well, promiscuity is respectable now … but all the noble virtues, the truly human virtues, are discredited.
You were bitter that you did not get the Oxford chair of poetry in 1986.Was this because you regarded yourself as the best candidate, or was it because you lost out to Roy Fuller?
Roy Fuller? He’s no poet. Of course I was the best candidate, but I’m glad I didn’t get it; it would have taken a lot of time, and I had better things to do in my life. When did the Oxford chair of poetry go to a real poet? I suppose Seamus Heaney is – he’s written a few good poems – but I don’t really give him much thought, nor Ted Hughes who, although very gifted, portrayed man in books like Crow and Woodwo in a way that I felt was not a true and valid image of man. But of course there is never an Eliot or a Yeats to give it to.
You said in 1972 that you thought that your scholasticism was being was being ‘censored out of existence’. What did you mean by that?
They didn’t like my unearthing all these buried roots. My scholarship was on Blake. I didn’t understand a word of his longer poems so I decided to find out, and I began a process of reading the books he’d read, a study which opened out a whole body of what I’ve called excluded knowledge. In the humanist revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, the tradition of neo-Platonism was just not in, and all this new scientific stuff led to an entirely different point of view about the universe. My work on Blake uncovered the sources of his awareness of the whole excluded tradition of this knowledge. Christianity was totally without anything to contribute by that time in this country. The Hebrew tradition, the Islamic tradition, the Platonic tradition, the Vedic tradition – these are the great mainstreams of human wisdom and it can’t be otherwise. To try to make a complete description of the cosmos in material terms may produce extremely interesting discoveries, and indeed has, but modern physics itself has come to the frontiers of the explicable in those terms. We have to return to the mainstreams of wisdom, and Blake has been a sort of sacred book for the New Age people. I don’t think they understand very much of him, but they get something. They feel that this man understood something, and indeed he did. I did a great deal of work on him and made very sure that I let no knots remain tied because I knew it would be attacked. There were two lines of attack; one was to ignore me, and the other was to say, ‘Oh well, she’s a poet,’ in other words ‘She’s a fool.’ But I’m not ashamed of it and I wouldn’t go back on it, although I think I would write some of it a little more clearly now.
You have always rather shunned literary circles. Do you think you would be bored by them?
Very bored, although I’ve known some wonderful poets and writers. I knew Edwin Muir very well, and David Gascoigne was a lifelong friend, but on the whole they’re a boring lot. Literary circles are more concerned with getting their works published than with literature and that is why I refused this ridiculous honour because when I looked at the list of people who had received it, they were really writers of entertainment for readers of the Sunday papers; it’s not anything to do with what poets will die for, as Keats did, as Shelley did, with what I have suffered for, as David Gascoigne suffered. Poets are not in the service of literary reputations, of getting their books published, and that sort of Booker Prize mentality, no, no, that’s not what it’s about at all.
Have you refused literary honours?
I never refused any honours until I refused the Companion of Literature. Until then I was never offered an honour to refuse. But I have the love and friendship of Prince Charles, what St Jean Perce called, l’amitié du Prince, and that he writes to me ‘with love’ means far more to me than any honour in the world; and he probably won’t even be king, poor man.
You have never had any time for materialism, preferring spiritual riches to the material kind. Is it not some kind of torture for you to live in London surrounded by signs of material wealth?
Yes. It’s dreadful. I look in at the windows of Portland Square and can see nothing in that house that makes one feel, ah, I’d love to be in that room, what a wonderful room! David Jones’ room had all sorts of things: a photograph of the little dog the Russians sent up in the first sputnik, a spoon that had belonged to his mother, a general muddle of pencils and boxes, and a lovely chalice that he put flowers in. it was a room that scintillated with life. Edwin and Willa’s room was an untidy muddle, and the cats walked in and out, but theirs was the sort of creative room I like. When my house was burgled the only things they took were my cameo broach, a very small chain of pearls and my carriage clock – they didn’t see anything else they wanted. They didn’t know the value of my pictures. I’ve kept Temenos going by selling paintings which various friends either sold or gave to me when they weren’t famous. I’m sure they would understand and appreciate that it was right to sell them and let them go in order to bring up Temenos. The one thing I’ve got left is David Jones’ inscription.
You describe yourself as an anti-socialist in the sense that you believe in the rule of the wise, not the mob. Are wisdom and socialism mutually exclusive? Is there no such thing as the wisdom of the mob?
Not of the mob. The mob is unfortunately led; it doesn’t think for itself Rupert Murdoch and the gutter press control the mob. Ghandi-ji had a vision of socialism that came from below upwards, where the wisdom would be vested in the village communities, where socialism would not be imposed from above, as was the case in Russia, or indeed as it was imposed by Nehru. If it were possible, and I think it would have been possible but no longer is it in India, this would have been a wonderful kind of socialism, because there is wisdom in people, but not in mobs. And if the mob is swayed by the media, there is a betrayal of the deep innate wisdom there is in ordinary people. How’s that going to be overcome, I do not know. Someone recently said to me that what Prince Charles should do is speak to the common man, as the king always did; the king used to take the side of the people against the barons – we see that in Shakespeare. But how can you reach beyond the Daily Mirror and all the other tabloids which serve out poison every morning? My father was the son of a coalminer, and he went to Durham University, took an M.Litt. and became a very scholarly and well-educated man, but when he was educated there was no such thing as a bad education; you either had it or you didn’t. There were cheap books in the Everyman and World’s Classic series, all sorts of literature of certain excellence published in cheap editions so that the poor could buy it as well as the rich. The idea of bad education and miseducation has been the horrible invention of people who thought there was money in it, and now we have not an uneducated public – would to God we had – but we have a miseducated public, and that is a very terrible thing. I don’t see how we are going to recover from it, except of course that there are reactions and who knows … For the moment we have every kind of exploitation, not the innocence there used to be in country places like the Western Highlands. One knows people exist in remote parts of the world who still have a kind of dignity and innocence, but that’s all being obliterated. In the cottages when I first went to the Hebrides, people used to tell stories and sing songs; now you have the same kitchen and the same dog under the table, but now you have the television set. Even if you go to the remotest village in India what do you get? … Dallas and all that rubbish pouring in. I don’t see how the tide can be turned.
You were converted to Roman Catholicism in 1941. Was that a sort of road-to-Damascus conversion, or was it a long and winding path to discovery?
Neither of these. It was just I thought I must do something about my life which was in such a mess. Half my friends were Catholics and I think instinctively I wanted to make it impossible to marry the man I was so much in love with. When he came back from the war, I wanted to say, ‘I can’t marry you because I’m Catholic.’ And it was also a sort of argument with myself, an assertion that religion was a good thing, the idea that I was born into Christendom, therefore I ought to be able to use the Christian religion, and not go hunting after Buddhism or Sufism or some other religion to which I was not born. I argued myself into it, but it didn’t take at all, because it didn’t engage my heart.
You now dismiss your conversion as an aberration. Did this feeling come about because of uneasy relations with the Church?
Yes. I just wasn’t like them at all, I felt I’d got into the wrong party. Oh, some were lovely people … Father Pius, for example, an Irish Carmelite, was a wonderful man … and my dear friends later in life, Hubert Howard and Leila, they were deeply involved in the Church. But they were born into the culture. For me it was when I breathed the air of India that I felt at home.
Would you say you were Wordsworthian in you religious outlook? Have you felt ‘the presence which disturbs with elevated thoughts’?
Absolutely, absolutely. My father wrote his M.Litt. on Wordsworth, I was brought up on Wordsworth, I feel all of that very deeply. Or rather I did, for that was nature; since then I think I have progressed towards the human kingdom and understood that it is in mind and not in nature. Blake said the divine presence is in us. Christians are so set on original sin that it clouds the deeper vision which is that there is a spark of the divine in every human being, every creature. In India this is stoically taken for granted.
Do you believe, along with Jung, that at least part of our Psyche is not subject to the laws of space and time, and that this part might survive after we die?
I don’t believe anything. I simply don’t know. I was talking to an Indian friend not long ago about the Sanskrit poem Bhagavad-Gita in which the Lord Krishna says: ‘Don’t mind about killing these people, they’ll all live again.’ I asked my friend if this was to be taken in the sense that individually they’ll live again, or simply that the spirit always renews itself. And he told me that of course they would live again, for it was the only thing which made sense of life. And I can see that. When you think of young lives ended, and soldiers killed in a war when they’ve hardly lived, those lives are so inconclusive … it would be nice to think that one could have another go with the knowledge one’s perhaps gathered, that one could try again to do a little better. But it may not mean that; it may mean simply that the universal spirit continually renews itself. I have no idea. And I don’t think it matters.
You have always insisted that the arts have a higher purpose than entertainment. How would you elucidate this higher purpose?
To kindle light in the darkness, as Jung described the sole purpose of human existence. The arts must serve as mediation, the channel by which a vision of – call it what one will – is given substance. Shakespeare said: ‘The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,/Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;/And, as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen/Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name.’ The arts give form and sometimes form so wonderful, especially when one thinks of Beethoven or Schubert or the other great composers. Music always seems to me the greatest miracle of all because it contains meaning without the intervention of words; it is almost pure meaning, it creates the thing it is about. It lifts one, takes one to paradise, it is an enchantment.
If you postulate a higher purpose, isn’t there a danger that the arts will be put beyond the reach of ordinary people whose lives might otherwise be enriched by them?
Of course not. Beauty is very simple. Difficult art usually has something badly wrong with it. Anyone can understand beauty, though not perhaps at once. In Scotland, for example, poetry is for everybody, it’s not for a cultured élite. I think you still have in Ireland the traces of unity of culture, although when Yeats write his introduction to Rabindranath Tagore, he said, ‘I envy him because he has what I have always longed for, a culture in which rich and poor participate equally.’
Iris Murdoch is regarded by many as a supremely good and serious writer, combining the bite of the philosopher with the vision of the mystic, and so it comes as rather a shock when you dismiss her as ‘a mere journalist’. Doesn’t this suggest a kind of intellectual elitism?
No. She is the elitist, she follows all the trendy things. For God’s sake, how much does she read the real philosophers? How much does she read the Bible, the Gita, the Sufis? What she calls philosophy is a sort of rock-pool phenomenon in Oxford, people like Isaiah Berlin and I don’t know who; one has never heard of them outside Oxford. She absolutely embodies all the sort of phoney values of our culture. I’m sorry, but I cannot accept that Iris Murdoch is an important thinker. She has no sense of wisdom.
When you were sixty-four you thought you only had a year or two to live because you heard a voice telling you so, and you believed it to be true. Have you grown to mistrust the voice which speaks to you?
It hasn’t said anything recently. I take each day as it comes and wake up with some surprise, thinking here I still am, so I’d better get up and on with it and not waste time. And when one is old time is one thing that becomes very precious.
About ten years ago you embarked on a crusade to restore the arts to what you consider to be their proper place in society. How did come about that this place was lost, do you think?
The secular values which have gradually overtaken the West have virtually destroyed the civilizations which once seemed so highly successful. In the industrial revolution, we produced such wonderful things and we had an empire, and we thought we were absolutely top of the world, and now we see that it’s come full circle and is self-destructive in the end. It’s destroying the very humanity which it should nourish. Man’s intellectual vainglory has resulted in a loss of the divine vision. I don’t want to dismiss science and there are plenty of brilliant scientists now, particularly in physics, but they are only describing certain phenomena within the realm of nature. Although the exploration, the mapping of the natural world by the scientists is not a thing to be scorned at all, I do think that the attempt to explain world in materialist terms results in the loss of the knowledge of the mental world, which has been the source of human wisdom in all other human civilizations. It has been the world of the human mind and the cosmos that the tinkers have explored; it’s been the mystery of human consciousness that has exercised the minds of the wise. Nature has to be explored too, but as a part within the whole, and the world that has built itself up in a supposition that the material universe is the whole of reality is fatally flawed.
I understand Prince Charles regards you as something of a soul mate. Some people may feel a certain ambivalence about that designation. Do you?
When I saw him, I thought, that poor young man, anything I can do for him I will do because he is very lonely. He himself has a vision; he uses words like sacred and hope and vision and he believes in these things, and I think he’s determined to stick it out in the awful situation to which he’s been born – most unenviable, you must admit. He’s trying to do something, and if I can help I will. I really came to know him through Laurens van der Post who has always supported the prince. A soul mate? Well, I’m an old woman and he’s a young man, and I just feel … what shall I say … protective.
You described the time after the war as ‘sad shelterless years’. What did you mean by that, and from what were you seeking shelter?
I had no man in my life, I was alone, trying to struggle to make ends meet and quite incapable of bringing myself to so an ordinary job. What madness to think one can live by writing poetry and doing scholarship! I wasn’t even at university doing scholarship, because I was in rebellion against that too, so I was on my own trying to bring up two children. It was all very difficult.
When you met Gavin Maxwell in the 1950s, did you feel that at last you had found someone to share your vision of life?
What we shared was a vision of nature, where we were born, the country we loved. It wasn’t the vision I’m speaking of now, it wasn’t the human vision we shared.
Despite his homosexuality, you fell in love with him. Did you really believe that you could transcend the physical and have a truly Platonic love?
Yes, I truly did, and how wrong I was. But I truly did believe that.
Did you in your heart disapprove of his homosexuality?
Oh yes. In my heart of hearts?
You describe how you spent a night together only once, and that although there was no sexual encounter, you felt bound to him as if in marriage. You write: ‘Every night of my life since then I have spent alone.’ Was this something you resolved upon or was it the way things turned out?
Oh, it was the way things turned out. Curiously enough, one day someone sent me a letter I’d written to Gavin, in which I had said, ‘I don’t think a sexual relationship was at all what it was about … I felt that you were more than a brother, something closer than that.’ He didn’t particularly attract me sexually, it was somehow deeper than that. I don’t know why one loves certain people. Maybe the fact that he was homosexual made it possible for me to love him, because it left one free; in a normal relationship with a man, the man wants to be close and possess one, but with this distance it was … oh … what a mystery it all is! But it didn’t work out, because to a woman a homosexual man is an angelic figure with no sex; but in fact the homosexual man has his own dark sexual world, which I refused to see, or in so far as I did see it I disapproved of it in my heart.
Eventually in your despair you uttered your curse over the rowan tree: ‘Let Gavin suffer as I am suffering’. It was a curse that was to take terrible effect. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you were responsible for the tragedies in Gavin’s life?
Perhaps I was … I don’t know … but then, one human being cannot take responsibility for another’s destiny. I was the stronger character, I felt that he was a little brother, not a big brother, and that was a terrible thing to do to one’s brother. But I didn’t mean it as a curse. I wanted him to suffer but I didn’t mean it to harm him. I meant … of, for heaven’s sake, can’t you see?
You couldn’t accept forgiveness for what you had done?
No. It seems to me forgiveness can’t undo what one has done. Remorse, yes, but how can one forgive? What is done is done.
You still carry that burden to this day?
Probably. But that’s not the worst thing I’ve done. I carry worse burdens than that … my parents and my children. Yes, I have gathered some terrible burdens of guilt, but I have to do what I have to do in spite of them, and never mind the guilt.
I have the impression from your book that the discovery that Gavin had after all not loved you was the hardest thing of all to bear. Am I right?
Yes. It just didn’t seem credible. Yes, that was absolutely shattering. But I wonder if it was true; deep down I still don’t believe it, because not loving is a negation and at heart all human beings love. Love is the deepest thing in any relationship really; it is the holy spirit that runs through our whole race, and therefore there is only finally love.
Gavin was later accused of destroying all those who had been close to you, your parents, your children, your husbands and himself, all the people you had loved. It was a judgement which you did not question. How was it possible to bear such a burden and come to terms with it?
It wasn’t. It wasn’t possible.
When Gavin died, you laid on his grave a bunch of rowan berries from the tree. Was that an act of atonement? Or of love? Or grief?
I suppose it was grief.
Edwin Muir said that no one knows the whole fable, only parts of it. Do you feel you know more than most?
Given my own part in the epic. I feel I’ve played it out, and I wouldn’t say I understood it, for its been a very strange one, but it has been increasingly significant. Curiously enough, it’s only since what one might call the end of my story that life has begun to make sense. I’m completely fearless, because when one has nothing to gain or lose, one can be truthful and one can be fearless. Also it can be very enjoyable to sit back and watch the lovely comedy. It really is a marvellous soap opera. A lot of people love me … I can’t think why … not my children, but that’s understandable. I have played some part in the epic, it may not be a major part, but it’s quite a significant one, and I don’t just mean Prince Charles. The High Commissioner for India, for example, said recently that I am also loved in his country because I have done more than most people in making a bridge between Indian and English culture.
Jung wrote near the end of his life: ‘A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon.’ Has that been your own experience?
Yes. I’m afraid so. But now I feel free both from daimons and from my own life and everything else. In a curious way I know what to do. I don’t think it’s to do with old age, because some people never grow up. It’s more to do with having lived out one’s life, and having been shattered in a thousand splinters. Suffering teaches us a great deal about life, but I am bound to say, and this is the bitterest wisdom of all, so do one’s own shortcomings. You wouldn’t learn much by doing everything right, and keeping all the rules and never putting a foot wrong. I was so driven by my own daimon that I failed to give my love to those to whom it should have been given … parents, children, husbands … everybody … I simply ruthlessly swept through life looking neither to right nor left; I just did what I felt had to be done, and it was usually disastrous.
Do you ever reflect on death?
I find it very hard to concentrate on death. In theory of course I’m perfectly aware that the length of my days cannot be very great now, but one is so used to being here and waking up in the morning that it’s very difficult to fix one’s mind on death. And I don’t want to fool myself with all kinds of theories about death because belief is neither here nor there, it’s only what we know that counts, and I do not know.
How would you like people to remember you?
I’d much rather they didn’t, much rather. But if they do, I should like Blake’s words to be said of me, that in time of trouble I kept the divine vision.