|Kathleen Raine: A
Challenge to Catholics
Stratford and Léonie Caldecott
The poet Dr Kathleen Raine, who died on 6 July at the age of 95, should not be forgotten, not her influence underestimated. She converted to Catholicism and then somewhat withdrew from it, but her reasons for doing so are interesting, and her life story and writings tell us much about the failure of Christianity in our time.
This is not intended as an obituary, and so will not contain a detailed summary of her life, but a biographer would probably make much of an idyllic and inspirational Northumberland childhood. This awakened her to the possibility of experiencing heaven whilst still on earth; but it remained necessarily only a glimpse. Her first experience of love was blighted by her father’s obstruction of it (he "cut something from my soul," she wrote). From that time onwards she would have to struggle to find and keep love and happiness, through a series of tempestuous affairs, culminating in an intense but "Platonic" relationship with the homosexual writer Gavin Maxwell (Ring of Bright Water). That relationship ended with her formally cursing him under a rowan tree, and she seemed to believe the curse afflicted them both, for after his death from cancer in 1969 her poetry often reflects the agony and guilt it engendered.
The obituaries of this truly great British poet and important Blake scholar state that a new phase of her life began in the early 1980s, with her foundation of the journal Temenos. It was at this time that we made her acquaintance, as new and somewhat naïve Catholics; in fact, we met when she was planning her journal and we were hoping to start one of our own, to be called Second Spring. We agreed to exchange subscriptions if we ever achieved our goal: a commitment she honoured even though we were not able to reciprocate for another two decades. (When we did she responded graciously and sweetly with an endorsement we still quote in our publicity material.)
The Temenos experiment was hardly mainstream, and it was funded at first by the sale of paintings and occasional donations, for Dr Raine was not wealthy. But she was surrounded by friends, and the sufferings and religious searching of her earlier life seemed now to bear fruit in a cultural movement centred around her house in Chelsea, where her superb hospitality is remembered by everyone who knew her. David Gascoyne, Vernon Watkins, Jeremy Reed, Thetis Blacker, George Mackay Brown, John Michell, Peter Redgrove, John Tavener and Keith Critchlow were among those who published regularly in her journal, and after ten years the movement found its patron in the Prince of Wales, who offered continuing hospitality for the Temenos Academy after 1999.
Temenos (a word that means "sacred precinct") was an affirmation of the reality and importance of the Sacred expressed through "Imagination" - which is to say through the arts understood as disciplined, visionary experience. It was the latest flowering of a long symbolist tradition, entangled with Christianity yet tending often to heterodoxy, from Yeats and the contemporary highbrow "occult" establishment through the Romantic poets back to Blake (of course) and the Platonist Thomas Taylor. I suppose that back even further in the distance lay the heresies of Gnosticism, and she was in fact much taken with twentieth-century Gnostics like Carl Jung and Henri Corbin. The latter opened up for her the world of Islamic theosophy, and partly as a result of such influences Temenos was profoundly inter-religious, probably drawing more from Vedic, Kabbalistic and Sufic sources than from orthodox Christianity. The frozen abstractions of Christian theology (as she saw them) were not what appealed to her: she knew that the world needed truth, goodness and beauty, but she could find these only in the "Arts of the Imagination", in mythology and the poetic arts, freed from the prosaic limitations of dogma. She saw our modern Western culture as desperately shallow and degraded, and in need of a reawakening to other levels of reality. Poetry, capable of evoking the experience of those other levels, possessed the healing force needed by our increasingly decadent civilization.
With Kathleen’s rebellion against the rationalism and materialism of the European Enlightenment we had much sympathy, although our own search had led us to find a home for art and imagination within orthodox Christianity itself. Like Corbin, Kathleen perhaps never understood the radical paradox of the Incarnation. At the end of her life she regarded herself as Catholic, but she also believed equally strongly that all religions are one. She could see that people were looking for the richness of symbolic consciousness, and for a wisdom that transcends time. But she saw the Church in recent times as having dangerously neglected that contemplative dimension which is vital to our humanity.
Despite all her reservations, she found her way back in the end. Kathleen received the last rites from a Catholic priest, and her funeral mass was celebrated in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Cathedral. Nevertheless, her journey serves to remind us of a host of intelligent, imaginative people who have wandered even further afield, and been drawn into even stranger paths, often with much less hope of return, simply because Catholic authorities have forgotten the importance of symbolism and gutted the liturgy. Too often these days love is been reduced to sentiment, and the Gospel to a set of moral strictures. If we are ever to succeed in calling such people back home, it will not be by preaching at them, but by showing them the living wisdom of Christ dwelling in the heart of the Church – remembering that it is not the Light but the shadows they have sought to escape.