Week 53: The Wilderness, by Kathleen Raine

Here Kathleen Raine captures as well as in any poem I know that sense of the lost numinous that haunts so many twentieth-century poets: I think, for example, of Edwin Muir whose childhood in Orkney infused him with a lifelong sense of a departed Eden. Kathleen Raine herself grew up in Northumberland; I know this area only as an occasional visitor but it has always seemed to me a strange magical county, and though not much given to romantic fancy I find it easy to understand how the beautiful deserted hills and valleys of the Cheviots can work powerfully on the imagination.

The Wilderness

I came too late to the hills: they were swept bare
Winters before I was born of song and story,
Of spell or speech with power of oracle or invocation,

The great ash long dead by a roofless house, its branches rotten,
The voice of the crows an inarticulate cry,
And from the wells and springs the holy water ebbed away.

A child I ran in the wind on a withered moor
Crying out after those great presences who were not there,
Long lost in the forgetfulness of the forgotten.

Only the archaic forms themselves could tell!
In sacred speech of hoodie on gray stone, or hawk in air,
Of Eden where the lonely rowan bends over the dark pool.

Yet I have glimpsed the bright mountain behind the mountain,
Knowledge under the leaves, tasted the bitter berries red,
Drunk water cold and clear from an inexhaustible hidden fountain.

Kathleen Raine


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