On An Ancient Isle: Kathleen Raine, Gavin Maxwell And Mijbil

One of the most renowned British female poets of the twentieth-century, and an accomplished scholar of Blake, Yeats and Hopkins, Kathleen Raine’s contribution to British poetry is without question. But Raine’s personal life was complex and, at times difficult, blighted by her intense love for the Scottish naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, who, because of his homosexuality, could never return her passion with the intensity she longed for.

Born in Ilford in 1908, to a Scottish mother and English father, Raine spent part of the First World War living with her Aunt Peggy in Northumberland. The experience of living in the Northumbrian countryside gave her a  strong and lifelong  appreciation for nature. Raine went on to read Natural Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, where contributed to the student magazine, The Experiment; her involvement with the publication would lead not only to her friendship with Julian Bell, but her eventual marriage to its editor, the poet Hugh Sykes Davies, in 1930.

Several years later, Raine left Sykes Davies for another poet, Charles Madge (who later founded Mass-Observation) and Julian Bell attempted to find her a job with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, the Hogarth Press. Bell’s efforts were unsuccessful and Virginia Woolf  wrote to his brother Quentin,  ‘Julian came to tea, and made such a wonderful picture of a Miss Raine who was once the wife of Sykes Davies but is now penniless, living with a communist, and he said, six foot two, and noble as Boadicea, so that we must give her a job at the Press. And then she comes, and she’s the size of a robin and had the mind of a lovely snowball. How can she run the press?’

In 1938, Raine and Madge were married, but the marriage broke down several years later. The 1940s were to prove a particularly significant decade for Raine. In 1943, she published Stone and Flower, her first collection of poetry and, in 1948, she met Gavin Maxwell. Recalling their first meeting in The Lion’s Mouth, the third volume of her autobiography, Raine wrote, ‘A part of me had remained, remote and unassailable, in my own country; and by virtue of that inviolate interior world I had been a poet. All my poems that are of any value had come from that solitude. I had believed not only that no other person did share, but that no other person could share, that thrice-encircled place. I had neither the wish nor the expectation of meeting any other living soul who could enter my sanctuary. Now another had crossed the magic threshold; had, it seemed, been there from the beginning. I had met by miracle another person who came from my first world; and because he came from the places where Eden had been, it was as if he came from Eden itself.’ She further remembered, ‘It seemed as if I had, unawares, discovered some lost secret and passed form the unreal into the real. Because Gavin had come from that world I thought that it must be for the purposes of that world that we had met. I never doubted that our meeting was for his good and mine. I had not been looking for a lover – indeed my life at that time was calm and industrious enough – nor indeed was Gavin ever to be my lover. What was between us was something else altogether, though I loved him as much as, being what I am, I am able to use so great a word. The experience had rather, as it seemed, to do with poetry than with any personal fulfillment. ’ However, Raine believed that that her intense attraction to Maxwell was spiritual rather than physical, writing, ‘Had Gavin wished to be my lover I would have been happy; but what drew me to him was nothing bodily, but rather the radiance his presence had for me always.’

Born in 1914, Gavin Maxwell had read Estate Management at Oxford and had then been an instructor with the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War. In 1956, Maxwell was to have a meeting that would have as profound an effect on his own life as their first encounter had on Raine’s. Accompanied by the explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, he travelled to the reed marshes of Iraq. On his return, he moved to Sandaig, a small group of islands off the coast of Glenelg, Western Scotland. But he was not alone. Maxwell brought back with him, an otter, whom he had named Mijbil after a Sheikh he met in Iraq. Maxwell wrote of his journey to Scotland and his early days with Mijbil, ‘I wangled him into my sleeper and he wangled himself into my bed, so passed a pleasant journey. Here he has surpassed my wildest expectations. He comes for long cross-country walks without a lead and is utterly biddable… He is lamentably unable to catch fish or eels – he tries to play with them so of course they escape.’ Mijbil thrived on Sandaig, and the bond between Maxwell and the otter strengthened, as he recalled, ‘I became, during a year of his constant and violently affectionate companionship, fonder of him than of almost any human being.’

Whilst his affection for Mijbil grew, Maxwell’s friendship with Raine was strained at times, and she later confessed that one evening in 1956, after a frustrating altercation with Maxwell, she had stood in the grounds of his home on Sandaig and whispered to a rowan tree, ‘Let Gavin suffer in this place, as I am suffering now.’ Raine came to believe that these words had cursed Maxwell, and consequently, they would haunt her for  the rest of her life.

From then on, Maxwell experienced a string of misfortunes. Only a year later, tragedy struck. Under Raine’s care, Mijbil escaped and was killed by a road mender. Wracked with guilt, Raine blamed herself; she had grown to love Mijbil and Maxwell described the otter’s delight at being around her, claiming that her ‘proximity would send him into ecstasies.’ Maxwell never forgot his companion, and although he went on to look after otters, who were  ‘no whit less friendly and fascinating,’ for him, there would ‘never be another Mijbil.’

In 1968, Maxwell’s house burned to the ground, and he told Raine, ‘Whether or not your curse has been responsible for this terrible disaster I don’t know or should never know,’ but he went on, ‘If it was, I can only say God forgive you… Your Silver Stag (as Raine often referred to him) has indeed fallen – as you willed – and possibly beyond recall. If you really believe in your own powers of destruction you must consider yourself to have been successful at least twice.’ 

After the fire, Maxwell moved to the island, Eilean Bàn he invited his fellow naturalist, John Lister-Kaye to join him, with the intention of them setting up a zoo and working on a book about mammals of the British Isles. Soon after, Maxwell was diagnosed with lung cancer. Raine was the the first person he told of his diagnosis, confiding in her, ‘well it was borrowed time and not much of it, I have cancer. It is not operable and the time left is short.’

Maxwell died in 1969. Many of Raine’s subsequent poems were touched by her sadness, and, until her own death in 2003, she never stopped yearning for the man she described as, ‘the man of light.’ However, Maxwell left behind a lasting tribute to Mijbil, his life on Sandaig (which he called Camusfeàrna in his writings) and his other otters, in the form of several  books.

Loosely based on his most well-known book, Ring of Bright Water (1960), a film of the same name was released in 1969, just months before Maxwell’s death. The film starred Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, who were not only married in real-life, but, like Maxwell, were themselves devoted to helping wild animals, and eventually set up the Born Free Foundation in 1984.

Soon after the fire that destroyed his home, Maxwell had written to Raine, ‘The fire and Edal’s (one of his otters) death had a deeper effect upon me than perhaps even you can understand and I have suffered from shock for a long time. You must understand that my world was so private and guarded and that even they (Raine’s poems) represented some intrusion upon it. It was a childhood world and demanded a child to share it. Anything else was a breach in the walls and I am a territorial animal.’ Like the otters he loved, Gavin Maxwell certainly was a territorial animal; but his use of a line from her poem, The Marriage of Psyche, as the title of his most famous book, suggests that Kathleen Raine, her unwavering devotion, and her fondness for his beloved Mijbil, had meant more to him than he ever acknowledged.

Selected Sources:

Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell (1960)

Farewell Happy Fields – Kathleen Raine (1974)

The Land Unknown – Kathleen Raine (1975)

The Lion’s Mouth – Kathleen Raine (1977)