How literary ‘nature mystics’ shaped and changed paganism in the 20th century

Tracing some of the literary origins of modern paganism is the theme of Nature Mystics: The Literary Gateway to Modern Paganism (Moon Books, 2015, £4.99 / $9.95), by Rebecca Beattie, a recent addition to the ‘Pagan Portals’ series.

Rebecca Beattie selects the lives and works of ten writers who, in her view, contributed to the cultural environment that allowed modern paganism to develop and flourish in the twentieth century: John Keats, Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence, W B Yeats, J R R Tolkien, Mary Webb, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth von Arnim, Mary Butts and E Nesbit.

It allows some fresh insight into the works of the five literary ‘giants’ and rewarding discovery of the five less familiar (and possibly hitherto somewhat neglected) female writers.

Beattie uses the term ‘mystic’ in a general sense of denoting someone who, in her words, ‘connects to the divine through nature’, and draws inspiration from that, rather than perhaps the deeper meaning of ‘mystical’ which can be seen to involve self-surrender in order to attain unity with the absolute.

She also uses the term ‘modern paganism’ loosely so as not to exclude the many different paths, all commonly connecting with nature, that might be found under it. Neither does she exclude anyone who eschews the pagan path, but still relates to the divine in nature, thus giving her book comprehensive appeal.

Beattie acknowledges that her collection of writers is narrow. While English literature of the turn of the 19th century intrigues her, she says, modern paganism has continued to be shaped and changed and influenced by writers before and after this period.

Certainly, as she admits, ‘countless others’ could have been included in her line-up — indeed, almost anyone in the Romantic/metaphysical tradition (the American Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century come to mind, for example) — but the purpose of titles in the ‘Pagan Portals series’, she points out, is to provide only an introduction to, or a short exploration of, a subject.

So, taking the cue from Nature Mystics, the reader might choose to explore his or her own favourite writers from a different perspective, ‘one that acknowledges the formative power of the written word to shape and create our future, as well as to record our past’ — doubtless a worthwhile endeavour.

Rebecca Beattie lives in London and is a PhD candidate at the University of Middlesex, where she is researching Mary Webb and the ‘occult landscape’. Beattie is the writer of two novels and a collection of short stories.

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