Monthly Archives: November 2018

Questioning and poetry – the inner world of Margaret Little (part 2)

In this post I am continuing to look at Margaret Little’s poetry composed during her analysis with Donald Winnicott in the 1950s. So a poem in 1953 conveys some of the desperation of her breakdown, entitled Life-in-Death, or Death-in-Life [interestingly it includes religious imagery of the passion of Christ]:

I live among shadows

Unseeing, unhearing,

Unknowing, unthinking,
Unfeeling, uncaring.

All is unreal,

Chaos, deceit

I have no focus

No mainspring, no God.


Had I a framework,

A structure, a holding,

A scaffold, or cross,

There might thorns pierce me,

Thrust inward, infiltrate,

There might the chaos

Cling, focus, and form.

About this time Little went on holiday walking alone in the North of Scotland – prior to going she had ‘exploded’ at her mother which was an act of self-assertion but this was ignored by her mother ‘and made useless, her possession of me reasserted’. In her fury Little broke her ankle and after being hospitalised lost her mobility. ‘I suppose there was unconscious guilt about my verbal attack on my mother, my refusal of her demand, and the physical attack I had surely wanted to make but had turned against myself.’ Winnicott’s interpretation was to do with the break in the transference. Returning to analysis she writes: ‘I find I have no recollection of the content of the next year’s work … so I think I must have projected the confusion, etc. and D.W. must have taken it over … As I understand it now something had to be broken – to free me from my mother’s hold and to destroy finally the pattern of repetition.’

Over the next summer break Winnicott demands that she is hospitalized ‘to make sure I did not commit suicide’. ‘I went for him, wildly; I think I hit him, though I am not certain. He caught my wrists and held me, and was not hurt.’ In the hospital things went badly with Little smashing up a room and so she was moved to an open room in a locked ward and writes poetry. ‘I had clung to two things which later proved to be ‘transitional objects’, a handkerchief which D.W. had given me and a soft blue woolly scarf which I had liked and bought … here was the full ‘regression to dependence’ … the hospital care was total and interference minimal … the place went on being, and holding and looking after me…’

Mental Hospital

 This place is

So, full of faces;

They come too near –

I long to flee…


And the last verse:


This place is

Full of faces

And I can’t flee

For they’re all me!

  • [it’s worth remembering how different provision in a mental hospital was in the 1950s where in such an instance it could be seen as an asylum – a place of refuge and safety.]

Questioning and poetry – Margaret Little (part 1)

In the previous posts I was looking at the connection between contemplation and poetry where silence and the stripping down of words required in poetry seem to come from the same source. There is also a connection between emotional pain and the distillation of such inner distress; sometimes poetry can be the best means of trying to find the words to express what is happening.

Margaret Little was a British psychoanalyst and advocate of the object relations school. She wrote especially about the counter transference, and her published works include one fascinating paper about her analysis with D. W. Winnicott in the early 1950s. This was her third analysis and it took place 13 years after first seeking psychiatric help. She also published later some of her poems which were written during this time.

One is called Questioning and the second verse is quoted here:

How can I loose my grip

Lest I lose all?

Let slip

That which I have

Lest it should fall

Shattered, to the ground. 

During her analysis with Winnicott, Margaret Little regressed deeply to a state of dependence although, remarkably more or less continuing her own work as an analyst. On the surface all appeared normal: ‘I had attended school, passed exams, even won scholarships; I had qualified in medicine, run a successful general practice and trained and qualified as a psychoanalyst.’ Yet in the first year of her analysis she wrote this poem: The Cold Lover

 Loneliness was my bed-fellow,

His child I bear.

His chilly arms enfolded me;

His icy hand played with my breast.

His clay-cold lips sought mine;

His frozen breath stirred my hair

Played on my cheek, and pierced my heart.

So the soul’s death is born, that solitary child,

By Loneliness, out of Despair.

Her self- diagnosis was that she was in a ‘borderline’ state between neurosis and psychosis and during this analysis with Winnicott suffered three periods of serious depression. Early in the analysis alongside her breakdown she became physically ill with gastroenteritis and so could not get to her sessions. She describes Winnicott’s devotion, (something you would be extremely unlikely to find today):

 ‘D.W. came to me at home – five, six and sometimes seven days a week for ninety minutes each day for about three months. During most of these sessions I simply lay there crying, held by him. [Winnicott held her hands under a blanket]. He put no pressure on me, listened to my complaints and showed that he recognized my distress and could bear with it…, Psyche and soma for him were not separable, they were ‘body and spirit which deep down are interdependent aspects of the same reality’ (Van der Post)’.

At times she often had to ring him every night, ‘ringing repeatedly until he answered’ before she could go to sleep. It was, as she later describes through writing poetry that she could begin to contain and understand for herself the depth of her distress.


Poetry and contemplation

The spiritual poet and the contemplative experience God in the inner world, for if God is a ‘beyond’ of the world then it is in the psyche that we can become closer. There is still our human relationship to the ‘beyond’, our connection to the transcendent through ‘uncertain certainty’.

In her poem ‘I know that he exists’ Emily Dickinson writes:

I know that He exists.

Somewhere – in silence-

He has hid his rare life

From our gross eyes.


Her God is real but hidden and silent as she rejects the comfortable revealed God of traditional Christian teachings and doctrine instead she seems to be stressing the existential upheaval of divine presence which is a mystery that on-going questioning begins to illuminate. Any revelation emerges as doubt-filled and a fragile experience in the immediacy of consciousness. Her poems use words that have been personalised and revitalised through her spiritual experiences.

It is Raissa Maritain who tries to explain the link between God and poetry when she writes:

God. Poetry. An absolutely straight and pure inner activity goes to the one and to the other – goes, sometimes, from the one to the other. The divine silence of the soul breaks out into psalms – and the quiet of the poet sometimes discovers God … Nothing beautiful is brought into existence without love being at work.

For Raissa Maritain’s poems do not come from the imagination but from what she describes as ‘the heart of the most stripped-down silence, when it reaches a sufficient degree of depth and purity.’

It is thanks to Thomas Merton that we have a number of her poems that he translated from the French and these are included in his Collected Poems. Some are short, revealing this stripped down quality:

‘Glass Orchard’

Glass orchard

Snow blossoms

In the firmament

Of tears

The clean star

Guards us

From veils of sleep


Another longer poem called ‘Autumn’

Branch on bird

Singing and losing leaves

Autumn held the bow

Of the whimpering violin

In wind out of the west

Murmuring sad things

The bird wept by itself

Flowering the dark elm

With tears in blossoms

Of glass and new gold

Both branch and sparrow

In mist grey and pure

Marry their homesickness

With the night’s mystery

This poem written in 1947 is set in the natural world but immediately offers another level of meaning which is the mystical. As readers we move from the image of nature with the branch on bird through a musical movement accompanying the wind towards the transformation of a scene in the natural world into a metaphor for the soul’s longing for home and release.

The bird is the soul, the tree is the cross and the flowering out of season is God’s grace manifested in creation. Merton commenting on her poetry wrote about the ‘transcendent and immanent presence’ of ‘the Three Divine Persons’ in her poems and indeed in her life. ‘This is the real root of her poetic experience, even when her poetry seems to say nothing explicit about God.’ So in Autumn God’s presence is in the simplest of natural scenes, so crossing as Judith Suther (Raissa’s biographer) writes ‘ the invisible line between the natural and the supernatural, the material and the immaterial, the profane and the sacred.’

Questioning and poetry

It’s really hard to feel nourished by a church service, at least mostly the ones I attend – it’s often thin gruel for spiritual feeding but there is perhaps an occasional glimpse, a hint. Sometimes it might be a moment of light coming through the window, or the particular lilt of a hymn or the spaciousness of the high ceiling. However I can’t think of a recent sermon where I heard something that as the Quaker George Fox used to say ‘speaks to my condition’. So the searching continues for me and often I can find something in the writing or the experiences of another that can inspire and encourage ‘my condition’. I’ve just come across some ideas by the philosopher and poet Glenn Hughes and in particular his work looking at the poetry of Emily Dickinson and her spirituality.

First of all I very much liked Hughes’ exploration of the ‘beyond’ or as some write it the ‘Beyond’; this is the ‘beyond’ of divine transcendence which isn’t about something spatially out there or something or someplace far, far, away but rather this is the reality understood to be beyond spatial and temporal conditions, which place it, as the mystics say, both ‘everywhere and nowhere’. This is unpacked by appreciating that this is both mysteriously and divinely constitutive (meaning forming a part) of finite consciousness and the world, and also in some mysterious way entirely other – entirely different from all that we humans can conceive of finite consciousness and world.

The poet by their use of words as symbols evokes our mythic consciousness and so reawakens in us the search for the experiences that constitute meaning. This is our need to recover the truth of our existence, the ‘more than’ materialism and the limitations of science, the truth that lies in the in-between of time and eternity, immanence and transcendence.

Take this poem by Emily Dickinson which Glenn Hughes sees as conveying both the immediacy of divine presence and her use of words such as ‘infinite’ as symbols for a divine beyond. This is the dimension of timeless meaning transcending anything we can experience or know in consciousness. The wonderful phrase ‘the uncertain certainty’ confirms that we can never truly claim to possess or know it from our situation in the ‘in-between’.

 Of Paradise’ existence

All we know

Is the uncertain certainty –

But it’s vicinity, infer,

By its Bisecting Messenger –

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be –

But how can that stupendous come

which never went away?

Thus we know of eternal being, of ‘Paradise’, only because divine presence condescends to ‘bisect’ our worldly consciousness, inducing our longing for the divine mystery…


How brave we are continuing the struggle to question and search in this world of everyday living which has increasingly become a purely secular realm, and one characterised by the burden of our personal and collective history and the destructive manner of our existence.

It’s generally seen that religion has become ‘toxic’ – a word even used by the Dean of Wells Cathedral in Bath Abbey one Sunday in October – but he didn’t say anything that offered an alternative other than better business practices for those in charge of Abbeys and Cathedrals. He spoke of research focussed on people coming into Cathedrals – the majority ‘are not religious’ and ‘don’t believe in God’, instead they’ve ‘come for the history’, but on leaving different questions elicited a subtly changed response such as they ‘lit a candle’ ‘left a prayer for someone’, ‘sat and reflected and thought about life’. If we can find what it is that affects these people, the Dean said, we can make sure we offer more of it!

The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote in the early 19th century about the dismissal of the transcendent by ‘the cultural despisers of religion’ which now two centuries later is often just seen as unbelievable and scorned by many. We know that influential popularisers have touted the procedures of modern science as the only route to the truth, and that our contemporary instant gratification culture has no appetite for the challenges of understanding confusing, complex and differing levels of consciousness. As Glenn Hughes, a philosopher and theologian writes, these levels of consciousness are also and ‘crucially – too poorly explained by religious authorities to be successfully met and negotiated by those who were once, as children, enchanted by genuine intimations of transcendence.’ Along with this is the ‘flattening of psychological experience, pseudo religions, and religious fundamentalism’ – think here of the formulaic CBT wheeled out currently by the cash strapped NHS, mindfulness for business leaders, and the business and political interests of most evangelical Christians, certainly those in the US.

Where can we find these intimations of transcendence … some of it is found in poetry where people’s experiences of what really matters is sifted and honed down. Raissa Maritain, the wife of the theologian Jacques Maritain, said that poetry and contemplation had great similarities.

‘Poetry thus appears to me as the fruit of a contact of the spirit with reality in itself ineffable, and with its source which is in truth God… Poetry is born when it is authentic, in the mysterious sources of being.’

Take this haiku from Basho:

Even in Kyoto –

hearing the cuckoo’s cry –

I long for Kyoto

Just like Basho’s cuckoo’s cry authentic poetry and indeed all creative art renews our awareness of love and love for the divine mystery that is at once a ‘beyond’ of things and the very presence of things – as Hughes urges ‘ let us taste again the flavour of the infinite while it re-enchants the world.’