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Hunting the Unicorn

A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter

Don W. King

Publication Year: 2008

An important addition to the literature on modern English poets and poetry

A significant poet in her own right, Ruth Pitter has long deserved this biography, which thoughtfully assesses her place in the British poetic landscape. Popular in the United Kingdom from the early 1930s until her death in 1992, Pitter won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1937 for A Trophy of Arms and was the first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 1955. A working artisan from Chelsea, she lived through World War I and World War II and appeared often on BBC radio and television. Pitter had close relationships with C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Lord David Cecil, and other Inklings. Author Don W. King’s exploration of these notable friendships brings a critical perspective to Pitter’s remarkable life and work.

Once she found her poetic voice, Pitter created work that is profound, amusing, and beautiful. The lyricism and accessibility of her poems reflect her personality—humorous, independent, brave, kind, stern, proud, and humble. King draws on Pitter’s personal journals and letters to present this overview of her life and also offers a close, critical reading of Pitter’s poetry, tracing her development as a poet.

Hunting the Unicorn is the first treatment to discuss the entire body of Pitter’s verse. It will appeal to scholars and general readers as it places Pitter into the overall context of twentieth-century British poetry and portrays a rather modest, hardworking woman who also “witnessed” the world through the lens of a gifted poet.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

This book began with a conversation and a mystery. When I was doing research for what eventually became C. S. Lewis, Poet: The Impulse of His Poetic Legacy (Kent State University Press, 2001), I spent many hours in Oxford at the . . .


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pp. xii-xiii

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pp. xiv-xviii

Although Ruth Pitter (1897–1992) is not well-known, her credentials as a poet are extensive, and in England from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s she maintained a modest yet loyal readership. In total she produced seventeen . . .

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1. The Growth of a Poet, 1897–1920

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pp. 1-23

Ruth Pitter was born November 7, 1897. The doctor who delivered her looked at his watch immediately afterward and said, “12, noon, exactly. Too late for church, but in excellent time for dinner.” The terraced East End house at . . .

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2. Artisan Poet, 1921–1931

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pp. 24-51

A critical turning point in Pitter’s personal life occurred when Mildred and Marie-Rose Jennings decided in 1919 to move the center of operations of the Walberswick Peasant Pottery Company to London. The Jenningses set up a . . .

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3. Critical Acclaim,1932–1937

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pp. 52-83

In spite of Belloc’s best intentions, Persephone in Hades languished outside the purview of critical attention; yet Pitter took no offense. She largely accepted the criticism of her friends about the poem, although she had earnestly tried . . .

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4. War Watches,1938–1941

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pp. 84-111

Although now a successful poet, Pitter had little time to bask in her fame, as the demands of Deane and Forester were unrelenting. In addition, the political rumblings across Europe left both Pitter and O’Hara worried about the future . . .

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5. Crossing Over,1942–1946

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pp. 112-140

The new year brought with it more hard work, little leisure, continued rationing, nightly bombings, and general malaise. Pitter and O’Hara found their business reduced to what the two of them could produce and market, and given the . . .

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6. Friendship with C. S. Lewis,1947–1949

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pp. 141-161

Before we explore the details of how Pitter and Lewis became friends, it is important to note here that Lewis’s earlier influence on Pitter through the wartime BBC radio broadcasts contributed to her eventual conversion. Given that her . . .

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7. Lurking in the Undergrowth,1950–1953

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pp. 162-194

As the 1950s opened, Pitter was comfortably settled in Chelsea, earning a good living, yet ever ready to head out to Oak Cottage whenever circumstances allowed. Indeed, she increasingly desired to leave London permanently, so she . . .

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8. Unexpected Turns,1954–1955

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pp. 195-221

One can hardly blame Pitter and O’Hara for considering the Hawthorns an idyllic retirement spot as they quickly settled into life there. Looking around the grounds of the Hawthorns, both women had what they most wanted. The two . . .

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9. Public Figure,1956–1966

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pp. 222-249

Pitter soon became a familiar voice on BBC radio, appearing more than forty times between 1956 and 1966, most often on Woman’s Hour. While sometimes she read and discussed her poems, more often than not she delivered a scripted . . .

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10. Flickering Fires,1967–1992

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pp. 250-274

When Still by Choice was published, Pitter could never have imagined she had more than a quarter of her life yet to live. While her final years marked the end of her career as an artisan, she enjoyed continuing fame as a poet. Moreover, . . .


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pp. 275-318


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pp. 319-333


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pp. 334-342

E-ISBN-13: 9781612776118
E-ISBN-10: 1612776116
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873389471

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: (To view these images, please refer to print version)
Publication Year: 2008

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Subject Headings

  • Poets, English -- 20th century -- Biography.
  • Pitter, Ruth, 1897-1992.
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