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Ruth Pitter Project

The Ruth Pitter Project
This web page is intended to bring attention to British poet, Ruth Pitter (1897-1992).  I have published three books on Pitter: Hunting the Unicorn:  A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (2008), Silent Music: The Letters of Ruth Pitter (2014), and Sudden Heaven: The Collected Poems of Ruth Pitter, A Critical Edition (2018).

George, unknown, Louise
Ruth, Olive, and Geoffrey Pitter (circa 1903)

Ruth (circa 1920)
Although Pitter is not well known in America, her credentials as a poet are extensive, (1) and in England from the mid 1930’s to the mid 1970’s she maintained a modest yet loyal readership.  In total she produced seventeen volumes of verse (2).  Her A Trophy of Arms (1936) won the Hawthornden Prize for Poetry in 1937, and in 1954 she was awarded the William E. Heinemann Award for The Ermine (1953).

Most notably, perhaps, she became the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1955; this unprecedented event merited a personal audience with the queen.  Furthermore, from 1946 to 1972 she was often a guest on BBC radio programs, and from 1956 to 1960 she appeared regularly on the BBC’s The Brains Trust, one of the first television “talk” programs; her thoughtful comments on the wide range of issues discussed by the panelists were a favorite among viewers.  In 1974 The Royal Society of Literature elected her to its highest honor, a Companion of Literature, and in 1979 she received her last national award when she was appointed a Commander of the British Empire. (3)

Silent Music: The Letters of Ruth Pitter and Hunting the Unicorn:  A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter bring attention to a much neglected twentieth century woman poet.  Pitter, in contrast to T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, was very much a traditionalist; she rarely experimented with meter or verse form.  Because she was never associated with a literary group or movement, she never attracted widespread critical notice, in spite of the many poets and writers who admired her work.  Yet her poetic impulse, the desire “to express something of the secret meanings which haunt life and language,” places her in the mainstream of the humanities.  While Pitter labored at her craft “in comparative but wholly unjustified obscurity,” neglecting to bring a critical perspective to her life and work would be an intellectual waste on a grand order.  The intensity, passion, and penetrating insight about the human condition reflected in her poetry merits sustained scholarly attention and broad exposure. Sudden Heaven: The Collected Poems of Ruth Pitter, A Critical Edition is a comprehensive collection of Pitter's poetry, including many never before published poems. 

Other poets (see 1) have consistently rated her poetry among the best of the past century.  For example, Philip Larkin, who edited the Oxford Book of Modern Verse and no minor poet himself, included four of her poems in the OBMV, noting that her poetry was “rather good.”  High praise coming from one, who, like Pitter, wrote poetry in the line of other traditional English poets such as Thomas Hardy and A. E. Housman.  I believe these two books on Pitter will be appealing both to scholars and general readers: to the former because they will be better able to place Pitter into the overall context of twentieth century British poetry, and to the latter because they will be able to read about a rather modest, hard-working woman who also “witnessed” the world through the lens of a gifted poet.

Furthermore, these three books are part of a series of books, all focusing on C. S. Lewis and the two women writers who most influenced his life and poetry:  Ruth Pitter and Joy Davidman.  

C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Legacy of His Poetic Impulse (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001) was the first book in this overall project.

The second book was Hunting the Unicorn:  A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2008).

The third book, Out of My Bone: The Letters of Joy Davidman, was published by Eerdmans in spring 2009.

The fourth book, Plain to the Inward Eye: Selected Essays on C. S. Lewis, was published in January 2013 by Abilene Christian University Press.

Silent Music: The Letters of Ruth Pitter, the fifth book, was published by the University of Delaware Press in April 2014.

The sixth book in this series, The Collected Poems of C. S. Lewis: A Critical Edition, was published by Kent State University Press in January 2015.

The seventh book in this series, A Naked Tree: Joy Davidman's Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and Other Poemswas published by Eerdmans in 2015.

The eighth book in this series, Yet One More Spring: A Critical Study of Joy Davidman--on the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of Joy Davidman--was published by Eerdmans in 2015.

Finally, the ninth book in this series was Sudden Heaven: The Collected Poems of Ruth Pitter, A Critical Edition 


I have also published seven related essays:

  • “The Poetry of Prose:  C. S. Lewis, Ruth Pitter, and Perelandra.” Christianity and Literature 49 (Spring 2000): 331-356. Reprinted in Plain to the Inward Eye.
  • “Quorum Porum: The Literary Cats of T. S. Eliot, Ruth Pitter, and Dorothy L. Sayers.” SEVEN:  An Anglo-American Literary Review 18 (2001): 25-45.  Reprinted in Plain to the Inward Eye.
  • “The Anatomy of a Friendship:  The Correspondence of Ruth Pitter and C. S. Lewis, 1946-1962.” Mythlore (Summer 2003): 2-24.
  • “Silent Music of Ruth Pitter.” CSL: Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 35 (Spring 2004): 1-15.
  • “The Religious Poetry of Ruth Pitter,” Christianity and Literature 54 (Summer 2005): 521-62.
  • “Fire and Ice: C. S. Lewis and the Love Poetry of Joy Davidman and Ruth Pitter.” SEVEN:  An Anglo-American Literary Review 22 (2005): 60-88. Reprinted in Plain to the Inward Eye.
  • “Hunting the Unicorn: The Nature Poetry of Ruth Pitter.” CSL: Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 38 (July-August 2007): 1-10, 12-17. Reprinted in Plain to the Inward Eye.

Please contact me if you would like to know more about this project or if you have suggestions/contacts that might help my research.

Don W. King
Montreat College
Montreat  NC  28757

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1. Consider the following critical evaluations of her poetry.  In the preface to Pitter's First and Second Poems (1927), Hilaire Belloc praises her poetry as “an exceptional reappearance of the classical spirit amongst us” (7).  He likens her verse to a strong stone building and argues really good verse “contrasted with the general run of that in the midst of which it appears, seems to me to have a certain quality of hardness [Belloc’s emphasis]; so that, in the long run, it will be discovered, as a gem is discovered in mud” (9).  In her poetry he finds “beauty and right order” (10).  Belloc also writes in the preface to her A Mad Lady’s Garland (1934) that Pitter has two peculiar poetic gifts:  “A perfect ear and exact epithet.  How those two ever get combined is incomprehensible--one would think it was never possible--but when the combination does appear then you have verse of that classic sort which is founded and secure of its own future” (vii).  C. S. Lewis, who carried on an extensive correspondence with Pitter about poetry, writes: “Trophy of Arms is enough for one letter for it has most deeply delighted me.  I was prepared for the more definitely mystical poems, but not for this cool, classical quality.  You do it time after time—create a silence and vacancy and awe all round the poem.  If the Lady in Comus had written poetry one imagines it wd. have been rather like this” (July 19, 1946).  In his Four Living Poets (1944), Rudolph Gilbert calls Pitter “the poet of purity” and notes “what the poetry reader values most in Pitter’s poems is her eloquence . . . In Pitter one almost looks through the language, as through air, discerning the exact form of the objects which stand there, and every part and shade of meaning is brought out by the sunny light resting upon them” (48-49).  Later he adds:  “She has a first-rate intuitive gift of observation, a control of poetic language and magical perception that is always to found in great poetry” (52).  In addition, in the festschrift edited by Arthur Russell, Ruth Pitter:  Homage to a Poet (1969), David Cecil says “she is the most moving of living English poets, and one of the most original” (13).  John Arlott refers to her as “a poet’s poet” (43), while Thom Gunn notes she “is the most modest of poets, slipping us her riches as if they were everyday currency” (64).  Kathleen Raine is more lavish in her praise:  “I now see her as one of the poets whose best work will survive as long as the English language, with whose expressiveness in image and idea she has kept faith, remains” (106).   In the introduction to Pitter’s Collected Poems (1996), Elizabeth Jennings appreciates her “acute sensibility and deep integrity”; her poems “are informed with a sweetness which is also bracing, and a generosity which is blind to nothing, neither the sufferings in this world nor the quirky behavior of human beings” (15). 

2. First Poems.  London:  Cecil Palmer, 1920; First and Second Poems.  London:  Sheed & Ward, 1927; Persephone in Hades.  Privately printed, 1931; A Mad Lady’s Garland.  London:  Cresset Press, 1934; A Trophy of Arms:  Poems 1926-1935.  London:  Cresset Press, 1936.  (winner of the Hawthornden Prize in 1937) ; The Spirit Watches.  London:  Cresset Press, 1939; The Rude Potato.  London:  Cresset Press, 1941; The Bridge:  Poems 1939-1944.  London:  Cresset Press, 1945; Pitter on Cats.  London:  Cresset Press, 1946; Urania (Selections from A Trophy of Arms, The Spirit Watches, and The Bridge.   London:  Cresset Press, 1950; The Ermine:  Poems 1942-1952.  London:  Cresset Press, 1953.  (winner of the Wm. Heinemann Award:  Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, 1955; Still by Choice.  London:  Cresset Press, 1966; Poems 1926-1966.  London:  Barrie & Rockcliff/Cresset Press, 1968; End of the Drought.  London:  Barrie & Jenkins, 1975; A Heaven to Find.  London:  Enitharmon, 1987; Collected Poems: 1990.  Petersfield: Enitharmon, 1990; Collected Poems:  London:  Enitharmon, 1996.

3. That she continues to be enjoyed by readers is evidenced by The Faber Book of 20th Century Women’s Poetry, Ed. Flew Adcock (London: Faber & Faber, 1987) where her “The Sparrow’s Skull” and “Morning Glory” (pp. 77-78) appear; More Poetry Please!  100 Popular Poems from the BBC Radio 4 Programme (London: Everyman, 1988) where her “The Rude Potato” (pp. 101-02) appears; The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, 2nd edition.  Eds. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York: Norton, 1996 [1985]) where her “The Military Harpist,” “The Irish Patriarch,” “Old Nelly’s Birthday,” and “Yorkshire Wife’s Saga” (pp. 1573-77) appear; and The New Penguin Book of English Verse, Ed. Paul Keegan (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2000) where her “But for Lust (p. 962) appears.