Archives For Ruth Pitter

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

The Artistry of Nature

September 1, 2016 — 5 Comments

flamingoes
This picture of flamingos is delightful. That they “randomly” arranged themselves into a silhouette of themselves is amazing. Or, perhaps a divine hand painted this glorious portrait?

“What a fanciful thought,” poets muse.

“How absurd!” atheists groan.

“Is he serious?” realists wonder.

“Now that’s something to ponder…” people of faith think.

“Of course God has fashioned nature’s beauties with his hands,” the eremite smiles.

I happen to believe God was speaking literally when he said through the Psalmist:

For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine (Psalm 50).

It was on the fifth day of creation that the Lord spoke into existence for the first time “every winged bird according to its kind.”

And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Genesis 1:22).

And, to reveal God’s concern for the creatures he has made did not end with their genesis, allow me one more biblical citation . . . a familiar one. In reminding us of how precious we are to our Father, Jesus describes that God’s concern extends even to the least of his creation.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father (Matthew 10:29).

C.S. Lewis touches on the preciousness of creation in a 1956 letter to one of his regular correspondents.

I think God wants us to love Him more, not to love creatures (even animals) less. We love everything in one way too much (i.e. at the expense of our love for Him) but in another way we love everything too little. No person, animal, flower, or even pebble, has ever been loved too much—i.e. more than every one of God’s works deserves (Letters to an American Lady).

Now, does God’s concern for his creatures, in this case flamingoes, mean that he takes the time to direct their flight, their nesting, and the shape of their earthly “congregations?” Of course not. But even in saying that, it is wise to note that if he chose to do so, he could. And there are, of course, some scriptural examples of his using animals in specific ways.

It’s possible, and even likely, that this was a mere coincidence. Like the clouds whose shapes sometimes mirror actual things, even in minute detail. While there are rather odd people who believe cloud shapes can foretell the future, I don’t believe there are any Christians who would base their decisions upon the physical arrangements of a flock, colony, gaggle, or flamboyance (with is fancy name for a group of flamingos).

That said, I still believe that the divine Artist is not above occasionally enjoying some playfulness with the tapestry he has fashioned here on earth, and in the heavens.

Lewis & Flamingos

On 12 July 1956, C.S. Lewis attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by Queen Elizabeth II. Below you will find excerpts from two letters mentioning the subject. They were written to Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a well-regarded poet with whom Lewis enjoyed a strong friendship.

Lewis wondered if she might be attending the same event, and suggested they might accompany one another, if so. Less than a week later, following the event, he shares with her his delightful observations of the teeming gathering.

Dear Ruth

Do you play croquet with the Queen on Thursday? (Croquet is not mentioned in the invitation but I am well-read enough to know that a royal garden party will involve hedgehogs, flamingos, soldiers, Heads-man, and the grin of a Cheshire cat). If so are you coming via Oxford? I was thinking of going up by 1.58 and returning by the 6.45 or 7.35 on either of which we could dine. You are an experienced courtier and it would give me great moral support to arrive in your company!

Apparently Pitter was not in attendance at this particular outing, also she had been the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry the previous year. Two decades later the Queen would appoint her a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her contributions to English literature. Two days after the extravaganza, Lewis wrote again.

Dear Ruth

You were well out of it. I learn from the papers that I was one of 8000 guests and also that the Queen was present, a fact of which I had no evidence from my own experience. One could not even get a cup of tea for the crowd round the refreshment tables was reminiscent of Liverpool Street station on an August bank holiday. Most people didn’t know one another. One saw many married couples pathetically keeping up between themselves a dialogue which was obviously wearing very thin. If I hadn’t run across Archbishop Matthew I’d have been in a vast solitude.

There are flamingoes: metal silhouettes of them round the lake—a tasteful device which we perhaps owe to Prince Albert. In a word, it was simply ghastly. Two pints at the little pub on Praed St. were necessary afterwards.

A Postscript on Pitter

Ruth Pitter was a talented poet, but because she was a traditionalist—something quite agreeable to Lewis—she has not been accorded the respect she merits. One scholar who published her letters in 2014 writes:

Pitter, in contrast to T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, is a traditional poet in the line of George Herbert, Thomas Treharne, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, W.B. Yeats, and Philip Larkin. Unlike the modernists, she rarely experiments with meter or verse form, nor does she explore modernist themes or offer critiques of modern English society.

Instead, she works with familiar meters and verse forms, and her reluctance to alter her voice to follow in the modernist line explains in part why critics have overlooked her poetry. She is not trendy, avant-garde, nor, thankfully, impenetrable.

As mentioned above, their friendship was deep. Lewis’ friend George Sayer says Lewis once volunteered that if he had not been a confirmed bachelor, Pitter was just the sort of woman to whom he could be happily married.

They influenced one another professionally, sharing poetic advice and critique. Pitter also attributed her spiritual reawakening, her conversion to Christianity, to Lewis’ influence. In 1948 she wrote to a friend:

Did I tell you I’d taken to Christianity? Yes, I went & got confirmed a year ago or more. I was driven to it by the pull of C. S. Lewis and the push of misery. Straight prayer book Anglican, nothing fancy . . . I realize what a tremendous thing it is to take on, but I can’t imagine turning back. It cancels a great many of one’s miseries at once, of course: but it brings great liabilities, too.

In 1985 she wrote to a correspondent about the same subject.

As to my faith, I owe it to C. S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.

Since we have been introduced to this unique woman now, it’s fitting to close with one of her poems. A poem inspired by another of the avian wonders created by our artistic God.

stormcock

Stormcock in Elder

In my dark hermitage, aloof

From the world’s sight and the world’s sound,

By the small door where the old roof

Hangs but five feet above the ground,

I groped along the shelf for bread

But found celestial food instead:

For suddenly close at my ear,

Loud, loud and wild, with wintry glee,

The old unfailing chorister

Burst out in pride of poetry;

And through the broken roof I spied

Him by his singing glorified.

Scarcely an arm’s-length from the eye,

Myself unseen, I saw him there;

The throbbing throat that made the cry,

The breast dewed from the misty air,

The polished bill that opened wide

And showed the pointed tongue inside;

The large eye, ringed with many a ray

Of minion feathers, finely laid,

The feet that grasped the elder-spray;

How strongly used, how subtly made

The scale, the sinew, and the claw,

Plain through the broken roof I saw;

The flight-feathers in tail and wing,

The shorter coverts, and the white

Merged into russet, marrying

The bright breast to the pinions bright,

Gold sequins, spots of chestnut, shower

Of silver, like a brindled flower.

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.

_____

The Bible verses quotes above are taken from the ESV, the English Standard Version.

The “stormcock” in whose humble honor Pitter dedicates this poem is also called the Mistle Thrush. Its informal nickname arises from its eagerness to sing its songs in every sort of weather.