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.