Autobiographies  by Kathleen Raine

(Skoob 1991, 372pp., pbk £12.99) ISBN 1-871438-41-1

The following extract, taken from ‘The Tree and its Fruit’ (first published in The Lion’s Mouth in 1977) concerns Raine’s first meeting with painter Gavin Maxwell.


It is hard to recover radical innocence, to be absolved of all we have become, to be as if we had never departed form the abiding ground and centre of the soul of which almost every act is betrayal; but there are times, when, despite all, it is as if lost Paradise might be the end, as it is the beginning, of our journey. For what I did not find at Bavington I found awaiting me on my return to London.

AE wrote of that lost ground of the soul, ‘Just as your will joins your two hands together for one purpose, so the one consciousness which pierces up and down through every plane of being brings you and another together. It is well to know the meaning of the mystic hours as they pass.’ For, as the two hands are joined, I was brought together with another person, caught up, as it seemed, in the same swirl and eddy of immortal life.

Within a few days of my return to Paultons Square, Gavin came to my house for the first time. He was brought by Tambimuttu, who had, most characteristically, called some dozen or more times during my absence for the sole purpose of arranging this meeting. I had no great wish to meet the kind of person likely to be brought by Tambi, but then one never knew. Tambi’s friends could be (not metaphorically but literally) princes or beggars, distinguished poets or drug addicts. Under persuasion I allowed him to bring Gavin Maxwell who wanted, so Tambi said, to paint my portrait. The idea was entirely Tambi’s as it transpired; Gavin, it seems, had lost all his money and was also just recovering from a breakdown; and Tambi was being kind to him, encouraging him to write poems and to take up the career of portrait painting, which at that time seemed his best hope of recovering his fortunes. The thing was, Tambi said, to have an exhibition with pictures of famous people in it, as a kind of bait for custom; and in the warmth of his loyalty Tambi thought of Kathleen, his ‘great poet’: Gavin should paint her. So Gavin, perhaps as uninterested as I was myself in the meeting, was brought to my door. I took very little notice of him, or he of me; perhaps he was wondering, as I had been of him, what could be wrong with me that I should be a friend of that prince of bohemians. Yet my acquaintance with Tambi was, so to say, legitimate, since I was a poet and he my first publisher; but who was Gavin and how came he to know Tambi? His paintings, when I saw them, were extremely conventional. Yet Tambi was right in discerning, in Gavin, a vein of genius. Tambi’s gift was for recognizing people of genius: the work followed.

I can still recall Gavin’s appearance on that day, and my own impressions of him. He was like some blind bird (perhaps the hawk his own name names), its restless energy a torment to itself for want of sight. It was as if those lids that cover the eyes of nestlings covered the eyes of his spirit. Why Tambi had brought him to me I could not imagine; yet he persisted. He made Gavin set up a camera and take my photograph; then he drove us out into my garden where, under the pear-tree I had inherited from Cooie Lane who had loved it before me, he stood Gavin and myself together, like a reluctant Adam and Eve, and photographed us so. Yet I think both Gavin and myself had quite made up our minds that there it should end. I dislike being photographed or painted, not so much because I dislike my own appearance but because the idea that I am visible at all disturbs me. I do not like to be seen. But then, as Gavin was about to leave, I chanced to say that I had just returned from Northumberland. It then emerged that my places of imagination were his also. It was his grand-father, the Duke of Northumberland, who owned those salmon-waters whence my grand-father had drawn those shining fish; the fir-plantation at Kielder whence had come the pheasant who once had looked at me with jewelled eye; the hill, the heather, the wild thyme, the lichen on the stone, all were his. Gavin was native of my paradise.

Those amongst whom I had lived my adult life had all been strangers to my childhood. They took me for someone who had never been that child. I had been able to survive in exile because I had retained an inviolate sanctuary of imaginative solitude beyond the reach of Cambridge and its destructive cleverness. A part of me had remained, remote and unassailable, in my own country; and by virtue of that inviolate interior world I had been a poet. All my poems that are of any value had come from that solitude. I had believed not only that no other person did share, but that no other person could share, that thrice-encircled place. I had neither the wish nor the expectation of meeting any other living soul who could enter my sanctuary. Now another had crossed the magic threshold; had, it seemed, been there from the beginning. I had met by miracle another person who came from my first world; and because he came from the places where Eden had been, it was as if he came from Eden itself.

Dismissing Tambi with aristocratic adroitness he arranged to meet me the same evening. Then and later we mingled memories. He showed me photographs of the child he had been; and I showed one to him of my infant self standing on the little bridge at Kielder from which he too had looked down into the same swirling burn. All the treasured lore which to my mother’s family had made itself legendary, I offered as balm for those wounds and humiliations which had brought him, by ways so devious, to my door. But above all it was in nature, in the wild world above the frontiers of the human, where he and I alike, released from whatever in the human world we were or seemed or were compelled to be, had found our escape and joy. Both of us in childhood had inhabited that unfallen world; and there the Duke’s grandchild and the schoolmaster’s met as one. I found in him what I had found in no other person, a knowledge which had always been mine: not a scientist’s knowledge of nature (though he was a naturalists of some distinction) but a knowledge by participation, the knowledge nature has of itself; for both of us nature had been, and still was, a region of consciousness. ‘We two were born upon the self-same hill’; and there is something in the very light, the taste of the wet wind, clouds, moors sweet with heather or white under snow, that in him and me like had wedded our imaginations to a certain kind of place, and to no other; as curlews will nest only on moors, gull and guillemot on rocky ledges by the sea.

...Was it that very day, or a few days later, that I was standing in my bedroom late at night before going to bed; and I could see, for that time, into two worlds, as if, waking, one were at the same time to explore a dream. But the quality was different from that of all but a few dreams. As I had once held my breath to see the flow of immortal life in a hyacinth, so did I to see the Tree, though it stood in inner space, not in nature. May-tree or Rowan, it bore its clusters of white flowers. In it was a blackbird and at the foot the figure of a sleeping boy of about twelve years old. The tree was on the summit of a hill, and I was aware of the flow of waters into its roots, gathered from the darkness and cold storms I knew to be raging below. The tree itself, the laden branches, the singing of the bird and the flow of life from chaos and cold to form and flower and fruit was all, I knew, taking place in the mind of the sleeper; all was his thought, his dream raising the tree and its flowers continually into being. I saw neither serpent nor wall round the garden; my tree stood wild and free, uncircumscribed and without any symbol of evil.

What do such visions mean? No explanation could ever ‘mean’ as much as the experience itself; for such visions are intellections, a mode of knowledge. It seemed an anamnensis of the soul’s native place, the immortal world, the reality within and beyond appearances; the same that I had seen in the hyacinth. That is what it seemed to be; a reality glimpsed and lost again when normal consciousness closed in upon me. What I saw did not seem strange, but so deeply familiar that the outer world seems strange in comparison; something at once seen and understood, as a complex yet single thought; that, and the supernatural beauty; for nothing in the world is a mere thing, or object, but sacred; being life itself. I had been taken t the very place I had set out to find when with my children I had returned to Bavington, but had not found there.

Because these things had come to me unsought¾ the vision of the Tree, the meeting with Gavin like a messenger from home ¾ I thought them Heaven-sent. It was as if the outer event, the meeting with Gavin, belonged to the same order of reality as the vision itself, outer and inner worlds miraculously colliding. It seemed as if I had, unawares, discovered some lost secret and passed form the unreal into the real. Because Gavin had come from that world I thought that it must be for the purposes of that world that we had met. I never doubted that our meeting was for his good and mine. I had not been looking for a lover ¾ indeed my life at that time was calm and industrious enough ¾ nor indeed was Gavin ever to be my lover. What was between us was something else altogether, though I loved him as much as, being what I am, I am able to use so great a word. The experience had rather, as it seemed, to do with poetry than with any personal fulfilment.

A few days after that first meeting we met at lunch, with Tambi and possibly other people present. I happened to raise my eyes and saw that Gavin was looking at me. The eyes which had formerly seemed closed were now open; and he held mine in a long look, as if testing me; and I saw who he was. In this century it must seem strange to speak of the mystery of the eyes, fro which, in former times, it was said that the soul looks out. Dante speaks of beholding, in the eyes of Beatrice, the reflection of the mystery of the two natures of the Divine Humanity; and is not this still the mystery to be read in human eyes? The living light of the eyes is that of the soul’s country, not the body’s. I tend to avoid looking into people’s eyes, or allowing them to look into mine; for those who look into my eyes, so I feel, can see me; and I seldom wish to be seen; but by Gavin I wished to be seen and known.

He told me, early in our acquaintance, that he could not love me with erotic desire, and why; yet in the very telling it seemed to me there was love. He was, he explained to me, a homosexual. This did not seem to me to matter, for I understood that I was nevertheless necessary to him; ‘Every man needs a woman in his life,’ he said: and I thought I was that woman for him. And I, having found the one being in the world who seemed to be of my own lonely species thought that at last all sorrow was over, that I had come at last to that for which I had been born. I too was unmarriageable, though for different reasons, as I had learned to my cost. The poet in me could never marry. Now it seemed that miracle ¾ the operation of some order other than that of this world ¾ had brought together two people who, neither fitting the conventional, or indeed the natural pattern, were perfectly and providentially fitted to one another.

Both pride and the fear of being hurt once more would have made it impossible for me to seek acquaintance with any man; or indeed with anyone at all ¾ I never, in friendship, made the first advance. But it was he who sought me out, he who seemed to need me; for at that time I was strong; he weak; I was happy, he wretched; my life had at last achieved some sort of stability, his was in ruins. Gavin had come to London with the idea of making a career for himself as a painter of portraits after losing all his patrimony on his shark-fishing venture on the Isle of Soay, the little low isle that lies to the south of Skye under the Cuillin. At the same time he had suffered a personal unhappiness. Soon he had told me all the story. (And that thought was not all generosity; there was in it both pride and timidity.)

Had Gavin wished to be my lover I would have been happy; but what drew me to him was nothing bodily, but rather the radiance his presence had for me always. He was for me what Gay Taylor used to call ‘the man of light’; seeing him, as I did, with the eyes of my spirit rather than with my bodily eyes. He seemed, besides, a part of myself, as if the ‘one consciousness’ lived in us both. If I were to describe him, as I can describe friends less near, it would not be from that place from which I knew him. I could, of course, do so; but that would be his outward personality. An Indian friend once pointed out to me that in the Ramayana, Sita, questioned about her husband, was silent; from which the querent deduced their relationship: he was too near to be described. And for some such reason, even though I could describe Gavin, I may not do so without violation of some sacred reticence.

All seemed a miracle, unsought, undeserved, and I vowed deeply to the world that had drawn aside the veil to keep faith with what I had seen and known. Seeing his need, I who had at that time strength and no sorrow offered myself to that world, to take upon myself Gavin’s suffering as the price of his release from it. I was sincere, though I had no idea of the burden I then took voluntarily upon myself; but had I done so it would have made no difference, for I knew the task of mine. It is, besides, easy to make light of pain we have not yet felt.

Ó Kathleen Raine, 1977, 1991.