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Picture of Ruth Pitter, twentieth century English poet


 
February 29, 1992
Ruth Pitter   (1897 - 1992)
 
The Poetry of Ruth Pitter
 
by Steve King

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On this day in 1992 Ruth Pitter died. Although Pitter has fallen into the obscurity we might associate with leap year, she was a durable and prize-winning poet in her day -- Hawthornden Prize in 1937, Heinemann Award in 1954, Queen's Gold Medal in 1955, CBE in 1979, eighteen volumes of new and collected verse. The modern neglect may be attributable to her too-wide range, or her unmodern themes, or what Thom Gunn said of her: "Ruth Pitter is the most modest of poets, slipping us her riches as if they were everyday currency." It is hard to argue with those who think the poetry deserves more attention, or to doubt that the poet wanted nothing more than "a cottage in some peaceful place," where she could garden and "lurk in undergrowth."

"From the very first," Pitter said of the writing life, "I realized there was no money in poetry, and determined not to write for money. By commercial slavery and continual anxiety I have avoided patronage and the meal-ticket marriage, and am (as a writer) independent of politics, publishers, and jobbery." She was the right age but the wrong temperament for the Lost Generation, and her working class parents were so attuned to "the necessity of earning" that, though they made their children memorize poetry, they paid wages -- "from a penny to sixpence a poem according to length." For sixty years Pitter earned her keep working in and then owning a company that painted furniture and tea-trays and shipped them around the world. For much of that time Pitter lived above her gift-shop, using whatever was left after her twelve-hour workdays to write poems that the critics compare to Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost and Edith Sitwell.

Any sampling of Pitter's range is distorting, but here is the opening stanza of "A Solemn Meditation," one of her religious poems, written in pre-WWII despair:
    These discords and these warring tongues are gales
    Of the great autumn: how shall winter be?
    Of love, of summer speak not; rather pray
    That in the warmer vales
    Some may survive: that some winged seeds may flee
    Into the mountains far away,
    That such may see
    Their spring, and spread their green in unimagined day.
At the other end are her cat poems, or "Rhubarb Pie":
    Kids are funny! You never know
    How to take them. I had to go
    Up to London the other day,
    So I asked my neighbour across the way
    To give them all their dinner, see?
    She's always very kind to me.
    So she agreed like, quite content;
    I packed my bag and off I went....
And somewhere in between is "But For Lust":
    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....
But perhaps most representative (and certainly most anthologized) is "Stormcock in Elder." This was written when Pitter was recuperating from an eye injured at work; it looks back in a Wordsworthian way to the tumble-down cottage where she spent many vacations as a girl -- "my dark hermitage, aloof / From the world's sight and the world's sound" -- and hears the thrush's song through a whole in the roof:
    ... Soldier of fortune, northwest Jack,
    Old hard-times' braggart, there you blow!
    But tell me ere your bagpipes crack
    How you can make so brave a show,
    Full-fed in February, and dressed
    Like a rich merchant at a feast.

    One-half the world, or so they say,
    Knows not how half the world may live;
    So sing your song and go your way,
    And still in February contrive
    As bright as Gabriel to smile
    On elder-spray by broken tile.
To match the near-fame, Pitter may have had a near-marriage, in middle age, to C. S. Lewis. Pitter scholar Don King -- he is working on a biography and a collection of her letters, many of which are from or about Lewis -- won't go this far, and perhaps he is right, given that it took the two of them seven years to get on a first-name basis. Certainly their relationship began elsewhere, out of Pitter's feeling that in the Christianity of Lewis, encountered in his BBC radio broadcasts as well as his books, "one's homesickness for Heaven finds at least an inn." But Lewis told a friend that Pitter was just his type, and Pitter, in this 1951 letter to her friend, tells us something of what she thought about men, and modernity:
Old Bertrand Russell is doing a series of radio pep-talks, trying to sell us the hoary fallacy of being radiantly happy on an ethical basis! I wonder who let the darned old fool loose. I am going to Oxford tomorrow to see C. S. Lewis, who puts the blame where it belongs, on our fallen nature.

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