Bare as a flower
She holds in her right hand
The flame of power,
Behind her the curved land:
And as she gazes,
Watching her soul aspire,
Lightly she raises
Her left hand, for the fire
Ruth Pitter, from ‘A Fair Image on a Gold Medal’
It is April 1955, a bright day in London populated by daffodils in those early days of Eden. A man in a dark suit, perhaps a bank clerk, stands at a bus stop. After a few short minutes a woman approaches and stands beside him in the line. Neither seems remarkable. She is perhaps a housewife; elegant, though slightly plump, but ordinary nonetheless, and though she recognises the man beside her, she does not speak. She takes him in through those bright black eyes in her heavyset face. She is excited, as well she might be, but the man next to her is none other than T.S. Eliot, and so she checks herself, is not sure whether to say her piece or not. At the end of the street the bus, red and glorious in the heat of the Spring morning, appears; crawls beetle-like towards them. Looking straight ahead now, not at him, not at anything in particular at all, unable to contain her excitement any longer, the woman speaks:
‘Mr Eliot, I’ve just got the Queen’s Medal for Poetry.’
A woman with a shopping basket further up the line eyes her with contempt. Has she indeed? — Well, that could have been me. The dark suit between them does not alter, picks out its change, then merely, cheerfully replies:
‘And you thoroughly deserve it, Miss Pitter,’
and gets aboard the bus.
That’s more or less what happened, anyway. So what became of this woman, this distinct voice of the twentieth century who not only received the Queen’s Medal from a panel consisting of Nevill Coghill, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Charles Morgan, Gilbert Murray, Vita Sackville-West and Osbert Sitwell; but had also picked up the Hawthornden Prize in 1937, and a CBE in 1979?
She ended up a regular panellist on a television show and wrote a column on gardening for Woman magazine. Oh let’s not belittle her achievements; The Brains Trust was hardly Blankety Blank, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine Philip Larkin appearing on Through the Keyhole, or W.H. Auden on Celebrity Squares.
The problem is it is hard for us to imagine Ruth Pitter at all. Of the list of winners of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, (and with the exception of Arthur Waley, whose reputation one imagines is kept alive by Sinologists) her name seems to be the one that has dropped furthest from our spectrum of reference. She has become a footnote to the life of her friend C.S. Lewis; and this is a shame, a real shame, for Pitter’s work remains vivid, deserves to be read, has something still to tell us:
Poetry, like all passion, seeks for peace.
Wild creature, look into the pool and learn.
There in the level water shines the face,
The summer eyes that can both weep and burn,
Mirrored so calmly in the quiet place;
Fire in sweet water lulled, questions that turn
At long last to the simple need for rest.
from ‘Passion and Peace’
Wishing things were not so. There is a recurrence of that in her work, perhaps because of that idea that poetry ‘seeks for peace’; her writing sets out to tame the wild creature that looks into it, and she’s frank in this point, simplicity and peace are out there to be had but for a baseness in our being. She evokes Caliban in her writing, and this is the important point, she does not condemn us for our baseness, quite the opposite, for it is only through our current wild state that we are able to see that ‘simple need for rest’:
But for lust we could be friends,
On each other’s necks could weep:
In each other’s arms could sleep
In the calm the cradle lends:
Lends awhile, and takes away.
But for hunger, but for fear,
Calm could be our day and year
From the yellow to the grey:
From the gold to the grey hair,
But for passion we could rest,
But for passion we could feast
On compassion everywhere.
Even in this night I know
By the awful living dead,
By this craving tear I shed,
Somewhere, somewhere it is so.
‘But For Lust’
In a way obscurity now suits Ruth Pitter. She was never given to the high literary life, Vita Sackville West may have thought her worthy of the Queen’s medal, but Pitter in return thought her ‘not a very good poet, no’, and deftly she dealt with many of the writers of her day, her wryness one of her most enduring qualities. That only one of those people at the bus stop should be remembered is a pity for us, but Pitter knew that was always the way:
There is always a way for those who must go over:
Always a bridge from the known to the unknown.
from ‘The Bridge’
Enitharmon brought out a Collected Poems in 1996. There are worse things you could do than read it.