Where is the truth that will inform my sorrow? I am sure myself that sorrow is not the truth. These lovely shapes of sorrow are empty vessels Waiting for wine: they wait to be informed. Men make the vessels on either side of the river; On this the hither side the artists make them, And there over the river the workmen make them: These frail with a peacock gaze, the others heavy, Simple as doom, made to endure the furnace. War shatters the peacock-jars: let us go over. Indeed we have no choice but to go over. There is always away for those that must go over: Always a bridge from the known to the unknown. When from the known the mind revolts and despairs There lies the way and there we must go over. O truth, is it death over the river, Or is it life, new life in a land of summer? The mind is an empty vessel, a shape of sorrow, Fill it with life or death, for it is hollow, Dark wine, or bright, fill it, let us go over. Let me find my truth, over the river.
Ruth Pitter (1897 – 1992)
This is a poem all about courage. Ruth Pitter was living in London during the World War Two Blitz and had to cross the Battersea Bridge every day from the safer side of Chelsea to work in a factory creating shell cases for bombs. There is great contrast between the artistic creations on one side of the Thames and the shell cases on the other side.
She had no choice but to go over the Bridge. She had to face what she had to do and go into the unknown. This is a metaphoric statement on the demands of life – there lies the way and there we must go over.
At the same time as she was working on the shells C. S. Lewis was broadcasting his discussions on Christianity on the radio. These broadcasts, later to be incorporated into his book ‘Mere Christianity’, profoundly influenced her as she struggled for the truth and meaning to life.
O truth, is it death over the river,
Or is it life, new life in a land of summer?
She became a Christian. And in a metaphoric way accepted the new life in a land of summer presented by the Christian thought of eternal life. The final lines consider the mind as a vessel. Dark wine, or bright, fill it, let us go over. It is up to the reader to fill the mind with dark or bright wine.
Each day, when walking over the Bridge and working in the factory, could have been her last day. She actually lived into her nineties.
Ruth Pitter was a Commander of the British Empire, media commentator, and first woman to win the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
She is cited as being neglected in recognition as in the following from the Internet …
In the “Introduction” to Pitter’s Collected Poems (1990), Elizabeth Jennings praises Pitter’s “acute sensibility and deep integrity”; Jennings claims that her poems “are informed with a sweetness which is also bracing, and a generosity which is blind to nothing, neither the sufferings in this world nor the quirky behavior of human beings” . Philip Larkin, who edited the Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse, included four of Pitter’s poems, writing to a friend that her poetry was “rather good” (Letter to Judy Egerton,” March 16, 1969), high praise coming from one of the most respected twentieth-century English poets. As I have tried to illustrate in this study of her religious verse, Ruth Pitter deserves a wider reading and a more judicious critical appraisal. If she “enjoyed the highest reputation of any living English woman poet of her century” it is time that both her life and her art be given the exposure and recognition they so richly deserve