Obituary: Jean MacVean

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When she heard of the death of the poet, playwright and novelist Jean MacVean, Kathleen Raine said of her: "She was a wise and deeply perceptive woman of letters - something that hardly exists any more." MacVean's sharp and incisive humour was bred of her native Yorkshire, but she was also a person of rare generosity of spirit. Her friends will remember her countless acts of selfless goodness; she did much to promote other writers, among them Tambimuttu and Thomas Blackburn, whose posthumous poems, The Adjacent Kingdom (Peter Owen, 1988) she edited and introduced.

To turn briefly to the non-literary aspects of her life, she was one of the few female officers working for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War. She worked subsequently for M16, being one of the first women to be a department head.

Her one novel, The Intermediaries (Gollancz, 1965) was an updated, 20th-century version of the legend of Tristan and Isolde. When it appeared, it was likened to the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Elizabeth Bowen. It has recently been issued as a Talking Book.

She also wrote plays. Radio 4 broadcast her Flight of the Swan. This deals movingly with human love and how it is so often impossible for one person to really know another - as Turgenev said, "the heart of another is a dark forest".

But, above all, it is Jean MacVean's poetry that will survive. It appeared in periodicals, such as Encounter, The Tablet, Agenda and the Yale Literary Magazine. She also published three sequences: Eros Reflected (Agenda, 1988), The Dolorous Death of King Arthur (Hearing Eye, 1992), and The True and Holy History of the Sangrail (Agenda, 1966) - a poem from the last book was chosen as the Independent's "Daily Poem".

MacVean wrote, "True poetry arises when the temporal and the eternal coincide", and this defines her finest work. She never wrote about trivialities, but from a unique perception of what Shakespeare called "the mystery of things".

In her Arthurian sequences, which were recreated out of her deep love of the work of Sir Thomas Malory, she expressed the truth of myths, their "nowness" to use a word of another of her favourite writers, the poet and painter David Jones. For her, as for him, the myths of this island were alive. In this connection, I again quote Kathleen Raine: "I believe it is the Arthurians who best serve this country by keeping alive the national mythology. This is still somehow living and at the very root of our culture, such as it is."

Jean MacVean's finest poems have a hard-earned simplicity - the kind of poetry that is often the most difficult to make. Illumination, a poem she wrote near the end of her life - it may be her last - is short enough to quote entire:

True and terrible





a white flame

in which I see you

my dead friends

you do not

die in me

but walk my mind


as the living

your meaning


or clearer

love that meets


in the light

of the flame

see how

the blossom


and the true

outline of the tree

is revealed

William Cookson

Jean MacVean, poet: born Bradford, West Yorks 25 November 1916; married Victor Hodgson (marriage dissolved), James Wright (one son, one daughter, marriage dissolved); died London 3 May 1996.