Kathleen Raine Speaks

Dr. Kathleen Raine is among those who lent an early voice to the “learning of the Imagination.”She spoke to IGNCA Academic Director, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan on her literary life and journey that saw her swimming against the current of western, modern materialistic philosophy. Following is the reproduction of the conservation of the great minds.

Kapila Vatsyayan  Kathleen Raine
Thank you for being with us. Thank you for inviting me . It is an amazing thing, I mean the power that has led me here. Kapila, I never foresaw it on the way, but that my way has led me to India is better than anything I could have looked for in my long and largely wasted life.


I am not too sure about the last sentence. Well, who knows what is wasted and what is not wasted in life and what has been good and what has not been good. It is only at the end that perhaps one can ever know. But life itself is the most wonderful and miraculous thing, that anything existed at all. However badly things go, what does it matter compared with the extraordinary miracle of being here. And also it is wonderful to be here, with you in the IGNCA where you are doing work of such importance to us all, not for India only but for the world.


Kathleen since you speak of being, on one level this brings up the question of who this ‘I’ is, who is it experiencing and also seeing the experience? That is the mystery. I have been reading about the saint of this century, Ramanamahrishi, Who asked the question of himself, ‘Who Am I’ ? Strangely that is the very first line of one of my earliest poems. Years and years ago I asked the same question – ‘Who Am I’? And that still remains the question. I have no idea what led me to India, but in retrospect it seems to be inevitable; and then there is that great question of yours and of your spiritual civilization. Whether it has an answer or not, it does have a trajectory, at least. It has an answer only in the sense that it is not a question that demands an answer.


Not at all. It does not demand an answer and I am not asking for one. And I do think that cultural identities are not relevant over here because it is here where the human being, or being parse is in quest, quest in time past and time present. But still it does take one to that other question in our modern civilization as to how the individual becomes so central to his own concerns. Well, yes, the West concentrates on the individual, while India concentrates on the relation of the individual to the whole. The two are poles apart. And it seems to me, the modern West expects answers to questions what science is expected to give, if not this year or next year, then the year after. The total mind set of the West looks to receiving answers and, I think, Christian traditions also seek to answer the unanswerable. I think on my first visit to India the first thing I did was to discard answers, and that I found extremely liberating because there are questions whose significance is in themselves – universal questions. But we each have our cultural identities and accretions. I don’t think that in the Christian West the question Who am I? Is asked very much. It is not a very Western question.



Yes, when I said this, to me, it either arose out of your own poetry, and not in terms of either the eastern or the western traditions. And since you do speak about the mind or soul of the east and the west in your writing on Blake, perhaps you would like to comment on how you came upon Blake’s insights and visions.


Yes, how I came to work on Blake is not difficult to describe. I had been reading the works of in C.G Jung and it seemed evident that mythological structure, his paradigm of the content of the psyche had a great deal in common with the structure of the mind as described by Jung, whose works were appearing at that time – The four-fold structure, the anima and so on. Blake’s works were not available until Geoffrey Keynes’s edition in 1925 and therefore there was much talk about Blake in Cambridge when I was there as a student from 1927-1929. Some of us were reading and talking about Blake at the time when the works of Jung were coming out. Freud was however in fashion. On this scene, Jung’s works came like a draught of water in a desert. With his opening of the psyche as a region of experience that was not a mere dustbin of repressions, I became very interested at that time. That might have been very relevant to my starting work on Blake. Having long ago known the Song of Innocence and Experience with their wonderful lucidity, I was not prepared for the prophetic books. These are very long, extremely complicated and entangled mythological narratives. I felt this as a challenge. I thought, I can’t be so stupid as to be incapable of understanding, there must be some meaning here, and I started to read Blake in the light of Jung. That was indeed revealing, and I was not the first to point out the resemblances – and was prepared to believe that all this came from Blake’s ‘unconscious’, spontaneously as it were. And of course there is some truth in this insofar as Blake really did have exceptional insight into inner worlds which Jung describes as ‘collective’, not merely personal. But I thought before I do this study I must read the few books that this supposedly ignorant engraver is known to have read. So I read the works of Swedenborg, which is not easy reading either. I found I was trying to interpret the obscure by the still more obscure. Then I came upon a marvellous clue in the works of Thomas Taylor the platonist, whose translations of the complete works of Plato, most of Plotinus, Proclus and the other Neoplatonic writings of the third century A.D were appearing contemporaneously with Blake’s works. I realized that this was it, and from that time I gave up the idea of writing a book on Blake in the light of C.G. Jung’s psychology and found myself pursuing sources within a much larger and more venerable tradition. Blake’s sources and reading proved to be not ‘odds and ends’ as T.S. Eliot had rather rashly described them. On the contrary, Blake’s sources proved to be the mainstream of human wisdom. It was the culture of his age that was provincial, whereas Blake had access to the ‘perennial philosophy’, an excluded knowledge in the modern West in its pursuit of the natural sciences in the light of a materialist philosophy. Blake challenges the premises of modern Western civilization itself. Here was a great treasury of wisdom : Blake’s reading include not only the Platonic writings, but also Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, Sir William Jones’s Asiatic Researches. He had read all the mythologies of the world, past and present, available at that time. As an apprentice engraver he had worked on the illustrations of Jacob Bryant’s New System of Mythology, rich in material from antiquity. Bryant’s interpretations of myth are childish, that since all humanity is descended from the persons saved in Noah’s Ark, all myths relate to this event, but the material is marvellous in itself. Blake had at his disposal a wealth of knowledge relating to the regions of Imagination. I had a desk in the North Library of the British Museum which it was a perfect joy to go to every day and read books seldom taken from their shelves. This not only threw light on Blake, but entirely transformed my own knowledge. There was, I discovered, a wealth of excluded knowledge – excluded, that is, from the materialist culture of Western civilization dominating our universities – not ‘odds and ends’ but the mainstream of human civilization, Plato and Plotinus, the Indian scriptures, all knowledge relating to what Coleridge calls ‘facts of mind’ rather than facts of an external world.

At that time I was awarded a Fellowship by the Bollingen Foundation, for three years. This I owe to Herbert Read, so generous to young painters and writers, who was the English associate of the Foundation established by Paul and Mary Mellon for the publication of the works of Jung, and a series of a hundred books on related themes – mythology and so on. Blake clearly qualified for a place in this great project of what I have called ‘the learning of the Imagination’. I owe a great debt to that wonderful man Herbert Read and to the Bollingen Foundation, who renewed my Fellowship for me to work on a selection of the writings of Thomas Taylor.

Finally my book Blake And Tradition was published; and I thought the academic world would be extremely interested to know of sources of Blake’s thought which had not been explored by scholars who had assumed that his prophetic books were pure products of his imagination and therefore presenting no challenge to academic orthodoxies. Well, KapilaJi, in doing so I found myself on a field of battle with bullets whizzing past me. I was very surprised, even hurt, but then pulled myself together, to realize that this was the Great Battle itself.


To my generation it comes as a bit of a surprise that what you wrote on Blake, and your findings on Blake, invoking the tradition of Plotinus, stimulated such bullets. Whatever happened?


My discovery of Blake’s sources within a long-excluded tradition of spiritual knowledge called in question the current orthodoxies, both in America and in England, and of course Marxist criticism also. The school of ‘new criticism’ was current at that time. My Cambridge friends and my husband Charles Madge were all Marxists and had clear answers to everything whereas I was ignorant of the great body of spiritual knowledge, of what Coomaraswamy has called ‘Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art’ whose premises are far other. I had challenged premises.
I think I.A. Richard was a good friend of yours.


He was indeed and his ‘Practical Criticism’ is a very fine teaching method and he himself was a lover of Plato. He translated Plato in to ‘basic English.’ Richards, Empson, Cleanth Brooks, Bronowsky, were my friends and I had deserted them. Academia finally decided that I wasn’t worth firing at, simply sweeping me and my views under the carpet. Blake was popular with the Marxists on account of his revolutionary political views and they did not want to hear that he, together with Shelley and other Romantic poets were working within the Platonic tradition. By this time I had learned enough of the ‘excluded knowledge’ to understand that this was indeed ‘the Great Battle’. The greatest issue in the world was at stake; and Western ideology at that time – and indeed to this day – has adopted the materialist view that the sum and substance of reality is matter and mind passive before a mechanized ‘nature.’ ‘Behaviourist’ psychology was prevalent, the animate world too was being mechanized. So no one wanted to know about a tradition which holds mind to be the prime agent. Only Yeats followed the perennial wisdom and he was the target of much mockery from Marxists like Orwell, and followers of ‘the modern movement’ because he did not use ‘free verse’ – he wrote wonderfully structured verse – and because he believed in all sorts of ‘hocus-pocus’ – Orwell’s phrase – like magic and psychical research. I came to understand that Yeats was not a great poet ‘in spite of’ his studies in esoteric fields, but because of his great knowledge and learning in these fields of excluded knowledge. I came to realize that Yeats was not merely the author of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ but one of the most important thinkers of his time. In the course of my Blake studies I read works I had not previously so much as heard of. At Cambridge I had been a student of Natural Sciences and once though I would like to become a marine biologist. So the perennial philosophy was a new and marvellous universe opening out for me, each step a new discovery. After completing Blake and Tradition I worked on a second Bollingen book, a selection of the writings of Thomas Taylor the Platonist, in which I invited the collaboration of Prof. Feorge Mills Harper, an American scholar who had likewise discovered Taylor as a source of Blake’s ‘system’. I had by then discovered how firm are the foundations of Tradition and was no longer intimidated by materialist ideologies Marxist or otherwise. At that time Tom Henn of St. Catharine’s College started the Yeats Summer-school in Sligo where I read papers from time to time, and in this way I became involved with Yeats. I came to realize how deeply read Yeats was in all those fields of knowledge excluded by the Universities – in what I like to call ‘the learning of the Imagination’. In India you say that the world is a maya – an appearance, created by the human Imagination. Yeats collected the folk-lore of the West of Ireland, which embodies age-old memories; he pursued psychical research very seriously, nor did he ‘dabble’ as his detractors say in psychical research, he was a very critical and serious student in this field which many of my Indian friends consider not of a very high order since it does not constitute spiritual knowledge, yet it has been important insofar as it has challenged the frontiers of material science. As a member of the Magical Order of the Golden Dawn he studies Cabbala. Magic of course is a training of the Imagination. Cabbala is the Jewish version of the universal wisdom and I was amazed to discover how little the Christian world had appreciated the Jewish contribution throughout history. I met a Cabbalist and learned something from him, and I also joined for a time a magical order that was the successor to the Golden Dawn; I found it very hard work. It is so much easier to read a book than to enlarge the frontiers of the mind itself.


You presumably tried to reactivate the right side of the brain. Something like that; and I was so used to thinking of knowledge as something which is acquired by reading and probably forgotten, but at least you know where to look it up. It is very humbling to discover that we are absolute children in the use of other faculties which of course in India involves techniques of meditation much more organized and profound than such things as memory training and visualization involved in the study of magic. However, I did my homework and passed in the end, by which time I had lost interest, and I’m afraid that was only another stage in my search for knowledge. I wanted to go on to the next thing.


That is where the narration of your own life and your autobiography comes out to me as a reader. I have been absolutely truthful as I wrote to you. I was gripped. Gripped to the bone, so much so that one could not leave the book because what it communicated was the absolute sincerity and authenticity with which you were living your life whichever way it went. I suppose I was on some sort of pilgrimage all through, although I went very much astray. But what else is there in life but to follow our golden string, you know the Blake lines

I give you the end of a golden string,

Only wind it into a ball,

It will bring you in at Heaven’s gate

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.

Blake claimed that the golden string leads us to ‘Heaven.’ It has certainly been a long and wonderful string to wind into a ball, and a very beautiful ball. That golden string seems to have led me by way of Blake into the whole field of knowledge concerned with mental things. And also to yeats, and through Yeats to India. I had not foreseen that the Golden String would lead me here, but there is a long way to go to reach Heaven, even when one has reached India. That is the story, then, and India of course more than any other civilization the world has known has explored the knowledge of mental things, things of the mind, and the spirit; and this great coherent unity of culture has been built on what Coomaraswamy called, ‘Knowledge absolute; and Plotinus said ‘There is nothing higher than the truth.’ The modern West has taken the material exploration of nature to be the whole of reality, a complete cosmology. It is certainly a part that cannot be denied, although my more extreme friends deem the natural sciences to be the work of the devil. But I don’t think so at all. I see it as a partial account which has its place. India also has appreciated the importance of mathematics and geometry, as the structure underlying both mental and physical universes, and there perhaps you meet most closely with the Western mind. My colleague Keith Critchlow has made ‘sacred geometry’ his field of study, mathematics and architecture. That is a meeting point between the most advanced Western studies of science and India. You have of course your own distinguished scientists and mathematicians, world-famous.


Why don’t you tell us something about the Temenos Academy and its journal and the work that you are doing there which is an extension of your own experience. The story of Temenos is that at one moment I was invited to America by a rather New Age organization called the Lindisfarne Association, an association of scholars teaching, doing their own cooking, writing, one of those courageous crazy things one meets in USA. I made very dear friends there. I came back to England thinking that there ought at least to be some journal in my country exploring the ‘learning of the Imagination’. If America can do such things as the Bollingen Foundation, the Lindisfrane Association, indeed the Transcendentalists a century before – we might do so too; and then the idea came like a revelation, Why don’t we just do it? So with Keith Critchlow, who had also worked with the Lindisfarne Association, whom you know, Philip Sherrard, whom you also knew, and Brian Keeble, it was decided to publish a Review of the Arts of the Imagination. We did not use the word ‘sacred’, since had we done so no-one would have taken us seriously. Our purpose was to publish only material of the highest quality, whether academic or original material. We dropped Temenos into the void with no idea who would respond. We printed two thousand copies of each of thirteen issues, and I have quite a number left, but the response came from many parts of the world – people wrote to say they had always thought themselves alone in holding these ideas and were glad to find there were others. And although our sales were small, from the first it was seen as a ‘status symbol’ to be published in Temenos. We had no thought of being an ‘international’ Review, ‘nationality’ had no part in our thinking, rather we represented a universal vision; and in the course of our work have published material from the four quarters of the world, including of course India as you know, being yourself one of our contributors. By raising the standard, we did not find readers flocking to our cause, but we did draw together certain like-minded people. Quite recently the Prince of Wales asked me how we found all our contributers, and I replied that we did not, they just came. The Prince in starting his own Institute of Architecture is courageously challenging current secular values; he even dares to use such words as ‘the sacred’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘the spirit’. I believe the Prince was given copies of Temenos by Col. Sir Laurens van der Post; and three years ago I was invited by His Royal Highness to go and talk about Temenos. He asked me how I had come to hold these ideas, and I told him how Dr. Rama Coomaraswamy had told me that his father used to say, ‘It takes four years to get a first class University education, but it takes forty to get over it.’ To which the Prince replied, ‘I have been working on it for twenty.’ He was obviously very much in sympathy with our work. I explained that the real purpose towards which we worked was in order to turn the tide of materialism in the world. He said, that is what he himself wanted to do with his Institute of Architecture. He invited us to hold our lectures and seminars in his Institute, and to contribute lectures to his ‘foundation course’ for young architects – to which you yourself contributed a lecture which was a Temenos contribution. As a teaching organization we started with a small number of people, gradually gathering strength, for there are after all many people who are not satisfied with what is taught in the schools and universities and the ‘media’. The whole cultural field is becoming so patently bankrupt that many people are looking for something more. Of course many of the ‘new age’ young people are not interested in ideas but are prepared to practise organic agriculture and to support the ‘Green’ movement. For these Satish Kumar with the magazine Resurgence, and Schumacher College, caters. But we are concerned with knowledge. We have courses, lectures and seminars, on Plato and Plotinus, Dante and Shakespeare, and Dr. Ramchandra Gandhi and Prof. Arabinda Basu have given seminars and lectures on Upanishads and other Indian themes – other lecturers from India also, including of course yourself. We try to find modern work grounded in a vision of the ‘sacred’, both painters and writers – Eliot and Yeats, and David Jones whose work is based on the Arthurian cycle, fragments from what was once a national mythology and which still lives in the imagination of the English people – the Holy Grail and the King who will return to his kingdom. We are hoping ultimately to confer degrees. I would say that Prince Charles in toe only figure in English public life who shares these ideas. I am entirely non-political person, but it is not a matter of politics, but of the reversal of the premises of a civilization. And that, KapilaJi, is the story.


Well, Kathleen, I would like to comment on two very important points that you have made. One is that this world has come to the edge of a precipice in terms of fragmentation of perception, and in terms of specialization of knowledge, and especially in terms of inner discipline, whether you come to it from the material sciences or the physical sciences or through rational logic and the entire modern epistemological discourse. Then there are pockets all over the world questioning the acceptance of the materialistic premise in the development of humanity. In this dialogue or debate of a global world order, this voice is not heard through telecommunication.

Yes, that I am sure is the situation in which we are at the moment. The materialist ideology has produced many valuable and useful discoveries and inventions. But as an ideology it has reached its limits which, I think, is well understood by many respected physicists and biologists. The view that matters is a ‘reality’ of which mind is the passive spectator has led inevitably to some very shallow philosopy. I have not read these new people and I am not a philosopher and life is too short; but it is evident that materialism lead to nihilism, for which nothing any longer has meaning or value. And humanity itself becomes an accident in a meaningless universe. That gifted but totally nihilist painter Frances Bacon actually said, ‘Now we know that man is an accident, we know that art is only a game.’ The same negation is widespread in the other arts also. Poets have on the whole preferred to avoid the issue, writing detailed descriptions of animals, fish and so on, avoiding the great human issues of meanings and values. With the exception of David Gascoyne I know of no poet in England of major stature, and Gascoyne has a following of a discerning few, but is disregarded by the literary world as a whole. Eliot and Yeats confronted the human issues – and a few others like Edwin Muir and Dylan Thomas. Eliot foretold that we are entering a new Dark Age; and Yeats also spoke with a prophetic voice when he wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The confrontation is between a lifeless universe and the universe of life and its abundant flow of inexhaustible richness and essential joy. In India one finds this vision in the great poetry of Tagore. It is the field of Kurukshetra on which we find ourselves, Kapilaji. In the West I believe we must say that the Bollingen Foundation first published seminal books centering round the Jungian contribution to the wider field of the excluded ‘learning of the Imagination’. Temenos is one of those small ‘pockets’ to which you have just referred, and I myself am holding on until someone better able to carry the torch forward appears. We are fortunate at least that our future king has engaged himself in openly proclaiming spiritual values. Here at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts you are, as you said at the outset, planting trees, and as I hope banyans with many roots and branches. You are publishing seminal works of sacred knowledge, and also supporting the living arts. Your conferences seem to have taken up from the Eranos conferences at Ascona and from the Bollingen series of books the responsibility for the dissemination of knowledge in this decade. I believe your great work is important not only for India but for the whole world of learning. It is a universal work you are doing. I believe that the time may have come when the learned world will have to study not Greek but Sanskrit as the language of knowledge. In my old age I wish I might spare some time to make a start. I must however say that the world may collapse but that the three Platonic values of the Good, the True and the Beautiful –Shivam Satyam Sundaram always remain and we must always proclaim them.

Kapila Vatsyayan: Kathleen, I don’t think I have words to really thank you for being here. The fact that there are people like you and great things are being done through you, is of immense value and gives one strength. It is of supreme value and I believe the world knows that your work will live. I don’t remember who it was who said that in the dark don’t complain but light a candle. My own candle is very small and flickering, but fortunately, still burning.

Thank you


Newsletter | List of Newsletter ]