Pagan Portals - Nature Mystics

Pagan Portals - Nature Mystics

The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism

Tracing the Literary Origins of Modern Paganism


CATEGORIZED IN

Pagan Portals – Nature Mystics traces the lives and work of ten writers who contributed to the cultural environment that allowed Modern Paganism to develop and flourish throughout the twentieth century. John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W.B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit.

REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS

According to Rebecca Beattie modern paganism in Britain can be dated from the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951 and the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954. What exactly is modern paganism? Rather than look up its Wikipedia definition I would have liked Beattie to have pinned it down, but she doesn’t. Perhaps keeping things vague is better for the argument of this short book. The writers she includes are termed as proto-pagans or at least feel a connectedness to nature that Beattie defines as mystical. She doesn’t say that writers like Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Mary Butts, Sylvia Townsend Warner and others were actively practicing pagans. They were not. It is their literary style and ideas that’s highly suggestive of pantheistic forces in nature. And that these Nature Mystics have contributed to the shaping of views of contemporary paganism. I’ve no problem with that view. My issue is with Rebecca Beattie’s choice of writers and their texts. Take D.H.Lawrence. He certainly has a mystical tendency. Yet to choose Lawrence’s poem ‘The Ship of Death’ in preference to say the often rhapsodic, but often purple prose, descriptions of nature in The Rainbow is odd. ‘The Ship of Death’ is a brilliant poem. Yet its principal concern is grief and death leading to re-birth. And for me its journey is not driven by a physical awareness of nature. Beattie is on much stronger ground with Lawrence’s novella, The Fox. Here she skilfully delineates why this tale, of an obsession with a fox, powerfully links with the strangeness of the animal kingdom, a love of nature and human sexuality. Similarly in her chapter on W.B.Yeats she examines two great and very different poems. ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ as powerful examples of mystically driven states, But Beattie doesn’t convince me. Partly because she needs more space than the chapter allows her to do this, and both poems are (for me) much more generalised expressions of apocalyptic assertion and dream-longing. The gyres of history and re-occurrence of destructive forces in ‘The Second Coming’ has more of the power of the philosophy of Nietzsche behind it than the god Pan. Whilst ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ where “peace comes dropping slow” has always conveyed to me a Buddhist state of calm, bigger than the depicted beauty of its natural setting. Any sought-for peace seems to me about the remembrance of a mythic lost Arcadia not about being in a specific beautiful country to be worshiped. I think she would have really got more critical mileage from looking at the one or two of Yeats’s plays with their Druidic ritual influences, or the ideas of Yeats’s long occult inspired book A Vision. Where Beattie is strongest is on the writers that readers, critics and pagans have forgotten or neglected to read again. Mary Webb (author of Gone to Earth and Precious Bane) obviously deeply engages her attention. Webb appears to have written powerful novels about free spirited women, animals and enchanted places. Folk magic and folk lore suffuse both these books. She admits to loving Webb’s fiction and her enthusiasm comes strongly through in what is the book’s most convincingly written chapter. In fact with her chosen authors Mary Webb, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Mary Beattie makes the strongest case for pantheistic writing. These three West Country and Shropshire inspired women were creatively highly charged by their relationship with the natural world. Less convincing cases are made for J.R.R.Tolkien, Keats and E.Nesbit. And overall I wish she had chosen fewer writers and studied them in greater depth. Too much of the book comes across as a potted guide to mystic writers, with excessive generalities and not enough specific detail and evidence. Yet Rebecca Beattie clearly loves her subject, so let’s hope that one day she’ll be commissioned to write a longer and more comprehensive book on a fascinating byway of literary history. -- Alan Price. Similarly in her chapter on W.B.Yeats she examines two great and very different poems. ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ as powerful examples of mystically driven states, But Beattie doesn’t convince me. Partly because she needs more space than the chapter allows her to do this, and both poems are (for me) much more generalised expressions of apocalyptic assertion and dream-longing. The gyres of history and re-occurrence of destructive forces in ‘The Second Coming’ has more of the power of the philosophy of Nietzsche behind it than the god Pan. Whilst ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ where “peace comes dropping slow” has always conveyed to me a Buddhist state of calm, bigger than the depicted beauty of its natural setting. Any sought-for peace seems to me about the remembrance of a mythic lost Arcadia not about being in a specific beautiful country to be worshiped. I think she would have really got more critical mileage from looking at the one or two of Yeats’s plays with their Druidic ritual influences, or the ideas of Yeats’s long occult inspired book A Vision. ~ Alan Price, Magonia Review

So Rebecca Beattie fell in love with Kester Woodseaves; with me, it was Prue Sarn. The two were lovers in Mary Webb's Precious Bane, And it was this book that set me collecting all of Webb's novels, attracted to them by her obvious animistic outlook. Did they draw me to paganism? I suspect not - I think the inclination was already there. But how much does the history of English literature have to do with the development of modern paganism? I think this may be unanswerable - a 'nature mystic' tendency has long been part of British culture, possibly enhanced by Christianity's focus on the divinity of Creation (Nature). Figures like Thomas Traherne, William Blake, the Romantics and the 19th Century folklorists led in a fascination with that Rob Young has explored in a musical context in 'Electric Eden' - not just with nature, but with something ineffable, even magical, accessible through the experience of nature. Ted Hughes recognised that wild nature evokes deep within us "the ancient instincts and feelings in which most of our body lives [and] can feel at home and on their own ground" - because after all "our ancestors lived in [such surroundings] of 150 millions years... long enough to grow to feel quite at home." Certain writers amplify these evocations and have perhaps laid the groundwork not just for modern paganism, but also for modern witchcraft and the unique focus of the UK earth mysteries scene - John Mitchell, after all, construed from Alfred Watkins' ley insight not an inspired hunch but a nature vision. Beattie here introduces ten pre-1950s writers (Keats, Webb, Hardy, Townsend Warner, Lawrence, von Arnim, Yeats, Butts, Tolkien and Nesbit) that she feels can be read as precursors to modern paganism; some may be uncertain over some of her choices, or wonder why writers like Machen or Kipling don't feature in the list, but it is as it is. Each is given a short biography and an appraisal of the proto-pagan credentials in their writing. Several, of course, will have featured strongly in the curricula or reading fashions of those who built neo-paganism in the 1970s, but still, what was the stimulus, literature or cultural undercurrent? I would have preferred more over-arching discussion of the writers and Beattie's theme, and much more referencing to follow up the ideals she dangles before the reader, but all in all this is an easy-to-read and attractively-priced introduction for those new to the subject. ~ Northern Earth, Issue 143 December 2015

Here are a couple of excellent book reviews by the Chief of The British Druid Order – Philip Shallcrass. The first is ‘Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism’ by Rebecca Beattie from Moon Book’s Pagan Portals series and the second, another from Moon Books, ‘This Ancient Heart: Landscape, Ancestor, Self’. Both fantastic reads for those on the Druid path. Many thanks to Philip for allowing me to share them here. ~ Philip Carr Gomm, http://www.philipcarr-gomm.com/nature-mystics-this-ancient-heart/

This little book is a joy to read, delving into the lives and works of some well-known, and many lesser-known, British and Irish literary figures in search of the origins of contemporary Paganisms. The writers, five men and five women, are selected because the philosophies that underpin their writings place them all in the category of Nature Mystics, defined by the author as “someone who has mystical experiences in nature, or connects to the divine through nature, and uses that connection as fuel for inspiration.” The familiar writers are John KeatsOpens in a new window, Thomas HardyOpens in a new window, D. H. LawrenceOpens in a new window, W. B. YeatsOpens in a new window, J. R. R. TolkienOpens in a new window and E. NesbitOpens in a new window. The less familiar are Mary WebbOpens in a new window, Sylvia Townsend WarnerOpens in a new window, Elizabeth von ArnimOpens in a new window and Mary ButtsOpens in a new window. Rebecca BeattieRebecca Beattie (left) writes with admirable clarity about her chosen authors, her format being first to give a brief overview of them, followed by an account of their lives, their spirituality, and then their writings, quoting passages to show how their spirituality is expressed in their work. Within this format she offers many, often surprising, insights into both the authors and their works. The only writers about whose lives I knew much were Yeats and Tolkien, plus a little about D. H. Lawrence, so it was a pleasure to learn more about the others. About the life of Sylvia Townsend WarnerOpens in a new window (below), whose work I have admired for many years, I knew nothing. It turns out to have been every bit as unusual as her published work. In her youth, she was a member of the 'Bright Young Things,' the 1920s equivalent of the 'Swinging London' scene of the 1960s and just as interested in drugs, sex and parties. At 19, she began a lengthy affair with a much older, married man. At 34, she fell in love with another woman, a transvestite poet called Valentine Ackland, and they set up home in rural Dorset, living together as though married for nearly forty years. TownsendSylviaHer first novel was Lolly Willowes, published in 1926, in which the eponymous heroine moves to a country cottage and joins the village's coven of witches, going out with them once a month to dance with the devil. Lolly, however, finds that she fits in with this rustic coven just as poorly as she fitted in with the well-to-do county set of her youth. Telling the devil she finds the coven boring, our heroine walks off into the night. In Nature Mystics, we learn that Warner's account of the coven was inspired by Margaret Murray's book, The Witch Cult in Western EuropeOpens in a new window, and that Warner sought Murray out, got to know her, and expressed a wish to “join her coven.” Edith_NesbitNumerous other biographical details prove equally illuminating. Who knew, for example, that Edith NesbitOpens in a new window(left), beloved author The Railway ChildrenOpens in a new window, Five Children and ItOpens in a new window, and other childhood classics, was also a member of Britain's most famous magical society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden DawnOpens in a new window? I certainly didn't. Nor did I realise that some of her lesser-known children's books contain plots and passages clearly influenced by her knowledge and practice of ceremonial magic with Golden Dawn colleagues that included W. B. Yeats, another of the featured writers. It is a credit to Rebecca Beattie's own gifts as writer that, as I read her accounts of these literary figures, I often found myself thinking, “Hmm, I must look out for a copy of ...” whichever of their books she happened to be discussing at the time. Two examples are Mary WebbOpens in a new window's Precious Bane (1924) and her husband, Henry's, The Silences of the Moon (1911). Beattie has also inspired me to go back and read Sylvia Townsend Warner again. I first discovered Warner's work through a collection of short stories entitled Kingdoms of Elfin, in which her funny, charming, magical, often anarchic tales rescue the Faery Folk from their twee, butterfly-winged Victorian portrayal and return them to their origins as shape-shifting illusionists, scary pranksters or courtly nobles. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in the literary background to modern Paganisms, or simply interested in learning more about the lives, loves, longings and spiritual insights of a wide range of great English writers. ~ Grey Wolf (Phillip Shalcross) , http://greywolf.druidry.co.uk/2015/09/pagan-portals-nature-mystics-the-literary-gateway-to-modern-paganism/

Looking for ideas for holiday reading that will transport you into nature and into the past? A new book in the Pagan Portals series, Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganismwill give you plenty of inspiration. I know the title makes it sound a bit academic, but it really isn't some dry text book for an English literature class. It is full of short biographies of women and men who found spirituality in nature and brief descriptions of the fiction they wrote that feels pagan and has influenced modern paganism. As publisher Moon Books explains: "Pagan Portals – Nature Mystics traces the lives and work of ten writers who contributed to the cultural environment that allowed Modern Paganism to develop and flourish throughout the twentieth century. John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D.H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W.B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit." Some of those authors will probably already be as familiar to you as they were to me, but I also expect you might find a few things about them that you didn't know. I read the E Nesbit books when I was a child and knew they were full of magical themes, but I didn't know she was an active member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. What I especially loved about Nature Mystics was finding out about wonderful books and writers I hadn't heard of before - in particular, Mary Webb and her novel Precious Bane. Nature Mystics author Rebecca Beattie explained that Precious Banewas also her own inspiration on her path to paganism and in putting together her book about Mary Webb and similar writers: 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. And 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 is cursed by a hare, Prue is taught to read by the local cunning man, since she was believed to be too ugly to marry. But Prue lives in superstitious times, and whispers of ‘witch’ follow her wherever she goes. Local logic dictates that the outside appearance must be a reflection of what lies within. With her gentle ways and her piercing observations of both nature and human nature, Prue is a character who intrigued me. As a young woman on the path to Modern Paganism, she became someone I could relate to, someone I could look to for inspiration. As I mentioned earlier, rather than being a dry, academic text, Nature Mysticsis delightful to read. In fact, if you are off on holiday why not take Nature Mystics itself with you on your travels? I am sure you would enjoy time spent in the beauty of the natural world all the more for learning to see it through the eyes of earlier nature mystics such as Thomas Hardy, W.B Yeats and Mary Webb. ~ Lucya Starza, http://www.badwitch.co.uk/2015/07/review-nature-mystics-literary-gateway.html

Highly recommended. Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism is a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. It introduces readers to some of the literature that many modern Pagans perceive to have influenced the culture of their spiritual family... I’ve been delighted to read a work that offers new information and a new lens. The writers concerned are a diverse and free-spirited group. I’m not entirely convinced that they either could or should be enrolled in a league of “properly proto-Pagan” Nature Mystics. It is my belief that most of them would resist the identification. Beattie herself says that Tolkien was dismayed by some of the responses to his work in his own life-time. At the same time I do see a common tendency, in this group, to find the numinous in natural settings and the spirit of place, “that sense of bliss and divine communion that is gained from time spent absorbed in the natural world” as Beattie puts it. ~ James Nichol, https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/nature-mystics/#like-655

Highly recommended. Nature Mystics: the Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism is a new and refreshing departure in Moon Books’ Pagan Portals series. It introduces readers to some of the literature that many modern Pagans perceive to have influenced the culture of their spiritual family. It will be published at the end of this month (31 July 2015) and author Rebecca Beattie dedicates it “to all those Nature Mystics who have come before and continue to inspire us to a spiritual path with their words”. Selection has clearly been an issue and the author has both used her own judgement and consulted with associates in a ‘Nature Mystic’ blog. Her centre of gravity is England in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and, more particularly, the opening decades of the twentieth. She has chosen five women and five men to represent a place, a time, and a suggested sensibility. There are outliers – John Keats from an earlier time and W. B. Yeats from Ireland – but Beattie shows in her introduction how they fit within the selection. The full list is: John Keats, Mary Webb, Thomas Hardy, Sylvia Townsend Warner, D. H. Lawrence, Elizabeth von Arnim, W. B. Yeats, Mary Butts, J. R. R. Tolkien and E. Nesbit. Each author has a dedicated chapter describing their life, work and cultural setting; exploring specific works in some depth; and discussing both their declared or implied spirituality and ways in which it may inspire modern Pagans. Each is given a remarkably thorough treatment for an introductory book that addresses a larger theme. I grew up with some of these writers and went on to study English literature for my first degree in the final years of the 1960s. It’s been interesting for me to check back on the writers I knew and those I didn’t, at that time, as a way of checking out how the world has moved on. Four of the men – Keats, Hardy, Lawrence and Yeats – were an important part of my life; Tolkien not so much, though I had read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. E. Nesbit I knew as author of The Railway Children and connected with the Fabian Society, the intellectual voice of respectable British Socialism at the time. Thanks to Nature Mystics, I’ve enjoyed being introduced to her The Accidental Magic: or Don’t Tell All You know and The Story of the Amulet, works for children penned by the Nesbit who was involved, as I knew that Yeats was, with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I discovered Mary Webb later, when I went to live in Shropshire where she was remembered. By then I was able to read Precious Bane and Gone to Earth in Virago editions and I later found Sylvia Townsend Warner and Lolly Willows in the same way. I still see these powerful and highly relevant books through a sort of feminist ally lens, as primarily about free-spirited women in outsider positions navigating gender and sexuality in a largely hostile and uncomprehending world, and looking for oases of safety and possible flourishing. Beattie’s book adds to the picture by spelling out Pagan tinged nature mysticism as a spirituality that is congruent with this quest, and also informed by it. I have still not read anything by Elizabeth von Arnim or Mary Butts, and before getting my review copy of this book, knew of them only through their links with other people. Now I’m encouraged to look at their work. I’ve been delighted to read a work that offers new information and a new lens. The writers concerned are a diverse and free-spirited group. I’m not entirely convinced that they either could or should be enrolled in a league of “properly proto-Pagan” Nature Mystics. It is my belief that most of them would resist the identification. Beattie herself says that Tolkien was dismayed by some of the responses to his work in his own life-time. At the same time I do see a common tendency, in this group, to find the numinous in natural settings and the spirit of place, “that sense of bliss and divine communion that is gained from time spent absorbed in the natural world” as Beattie puts it. I’m sure, too, that there will be a ready assent among many readers to the suggestion that “where Woolf said every woman needed a room of her own, von Arnim would have said every woman needed a garden”. I will leave the last word to Thomas Hardy, in a brief passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, quoted in Nature Mystics. It is about Tess herself, and evokes a moment when a sensitive human consciousness is more fully awakened by a moment in the cycle of the day: “She knew how to hit to a hair’s breadth that moment of evening when the light and darkness are so evenly balanced that the constraint of day and the suspense of night neutralise each other, leaving absolute mental liberty”. ~ James Nichol, Contemplative Inquiry, https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/nature-mystics/#like-655

"I expected to skim this book, and ended up by reading every word. It is a wonderfully deft and vivid introduction to a broad range of distinguished British authors whose contribution to the making of modern Paganism is both considerable and little understood." ~ Professor Ronald Hutton

This book is an important first: it brings the rich detail of the pagan sensibility in early twentieth-century novels to the modern reader. Pagans's spiritual ancestry is shown to be richer than we knew. We all know the names Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, but how many of us know to cherish and appreciate Mary Butts, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Mary Webb? We learn too of the paganism in the heart of those greats John Keats, DH Lawrence and William Butler Yeats. By giving us extensive quotes and biographical summaries, Rebecca Beattie gives us an enjoyable introduction to these pagan 'ancestors'. ~ Christina Oakley Harrington, Treadwells Bookshop

This thoughtful book opens a door to exploring how nature is handled in fiction and the impact fiction can have on our understanding of our relationship with the natural world. Pagans will be fascinated, students of English literature and those interested in the literature of landscape may also want to take note. ~ Nimue Brown

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca   Beattie
Rebecca Beattie Rebecca Beattie lives in London and is a PhD candidate at the University of Middlesex, where she is researching and writing a novel about Ma...
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