Introduction

May 31st, 2013 | By | Category: Nature Mystics

When I was fifteen, I fell in love with Kester Woodseaves, who was a weaver. He was everything a young girl just emerging into womanhood could want. He was kind, saw beyond physical imperfections, and recognised the soul beneath. He was infinitely wise: to Kester, caterpillars were “butterflies as is to be”, he abhorred cruelty in any shape (particularly towards animals) and he recognised the Divine influence in nature. There was only one drawback: Kester was in love with Prue Sarn, and they were both perfectly suited to each other, as they were both fictional characters. Mary Webb’s novel, Precious Bane tells the story of Prue Sarn: doomed to a facial disfigurement when her mother was cursed by a hare, Prue was taught to read by the local cunning man, since she was believed to be too ugly to marry, before being accused of witchcraft by the local villagers. 

While I might never meet them in the flesh, Prue and Kester’s story was one I would return to again and again over the years, as it was quite haunting and very beautiful. Not satisfied with Precious Bane alone, I then turned to every other Mary Webb novel I could find, and discovered that she had written novels, poems and essays, all following the common theme of the healing and inspirational properties of nature, all served up with a large portion of folklore. 

Time has inevitably flowed on, and some twenty five years later, I am in the fortunate position of carrying out Post Graduate research on Mary Webb.  One of the most common things said of her is that she was a ‘nature mystic’, which helps me to make sense of why I was so drawn to her all those years ago. A ‘nature mystic’, simply put, is someone who connects to the divine through Nature. The sense of what that divine looks like may change from nature mystic to nature mystic, but their sense of the sacred value of the natural world is less likely to. This undoubtedly has much in common with the myriad of pagan paths (although nature mystics can come from any religious background, and are not bound by any one particular belief system). 

Researching Mary Webb made me curious: which other writers were also nature mystics? (Or at least, if not strictly nature mystics, then deeply inspired by nature?) Who else wrote about nature in the very moving way that Webb did? Rather unsurprisingly, there are many with a deep tie to the natural world. Webb wrote in the early twentieth century, and bucked the trend of her Modernist contemporaries (like Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald) by sticking to her rural roots in Shropshire, although she lived in London for a time. Her predecessors and influences could be seen to be Romantic writers, like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, or Thomas Hardy, so that was where my trail started. But along the way I discovered a few surprises, and a few writers (like Webb) who had largely been forgotten over the years. 

For the purpose of this series, I have identified eight writers to explore, although there are countless others. For the sake of balance, I have selected four male writers, and four female writers. They are: Mary Webb, John Keats, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Thomas Hardy, Mary Butts, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, and William Butler Yeats. Some may be more familiar than others, but it is hoped that this journey will enable the reader to see some of the more well-known writers through a fresh lens. English literature classes in school may have left an impression that Thomas Hardy always wrote tragic endings, or that D.H. Lawrence had questionable views about women; but they also wrote some of the most stirring descriptions of Nature, and connected to Nature in ways that may be recognisable to those on a Pagan path. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, always liked to write whilst sitting beneath a tree; Elizabeth von Arnim, who lived a life that sounded more like fiction, connected to Nature through her garden. As most people know, Keats and the other Romantic poets are often connected to the idea of Pantheism, the belief system that states that God or the divine (the ‘theism’ part) is found everywhere (the ‘pan’ part).

It is not difficult to notice that the male writers in this series are all well known, whilst the women are a little more obscure. This was not intentional, although I am interested in why women writers tend to be more easily forgotten than male writers. This is not a theme to be explored here since it would be a diversion that would lead down a very winding path, suffice to say it is worthy of acknowledgement, even if there is not the space here to fully explore it.   

Some of the writers were more overtly esoteric than others. For instance, W.B. Yeats was an active member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, while Mary Butts had a relationship with Aleister Crowley (albeit one that ended rather acrimoniously).

It is possible that to some degree all of the writers in this series could be seen to have Pantheistic leanings, or mystical tendencies, but labels are often difficult to affix, so I use the terms loosely. In these articles, I will explore a little of their lives, their beliefs, their connections to Nature, and of course their writing, and how it might be relevant to someone on a pagan path in the twenty-first century.

rebeccaRebecca Beattie is the author of ‘The Lychway’ and ‘Somewhere She is There’. She has contributed to Abraxas Journal, and is currently doing Post-Graduate reasearch into Mary Webb. She also blogs at www.rebeccabeattie.co.uk

2 Comments to “Introduction”

  1. Looking at mystical strands in poets who could not have been pagan at that time but certainly show (what we might read as) pagan tendencies is an interest of mine. I’m interested to see how this progresses.

    • Rebecca Beattie says:

      Hi Lorna,

      Me too! The difficulty really is in choosing a small number to write about. It is a bit like Alice going down the rabbit hole – once you find one, you realise there is a trail that could go on for a very long time!

      Rebecca

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