Pitter winning

I knew a man, I knew a man
As thin as any grudging crow.

“Eros with Chilblains” was not the only poem Ruth Pitter (1897-1992) wrote about George Orwell. “The Crow”, published in The Bridge (1945), was scribed at her lowest ebb during World War II. She crossed the Battersea Bridge each day to work long hours at the Morgan Crucible Munitions Factory while the Luftwaffe terrorised London. In happier days, this was where Orwell had fished from the canal-bank and told her that the trees in Battersea Park looked “very like the Burmese jungle”.  Even back then, she felt that he sometimes looked “well, young and gay, sometimes quite grey and desperate”. 

Since 1930, Pitter had operated a successful wholesale arts and crafts company with her friend and business partner, Kathleen O’Hara. Besides painting designs on vases, trays and other ornaments, she was enjoying critical success as a poet. Pitter had been awarded the prestigious Hawthornden Prize in 1937. The newspaper reports noted she had been an avid writer since five years of age and that this “spare time hobby” had resulted in five volumes of poetry being published since 1920.

The war, although it had recast her life horribly and led to a spiritual crisis of such magnitude that she considered suicide, did not stop her writing!

The Bridge (1945)

Pitter had met Orwell in the year her first book of poetry was published and he was still at Eton College. She was residing at Mall Chambers in Kensington, where Orwell’s family also rented. She famously found him accommodation in London, during late 1927, in the Portobello Road, from where he launched his first forays into the East End as a tramp. When Pitter and O’Hara opened their business in 1930, she recalled how:

Orwell used to turn up now and then.  He liked our large workshop.  I remember his changing into very shabby clothes in its shadowy recesses, prior to some excursion into the seamy side of life. 

The last time Pitter saw Orwell before his death was in the early autumn of 1942. She had been invited to their “damp basement flat” by his wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy:

While we were talking, and working away at cooking supper…Orwell came in.  Like a ghost. No doubt he was showing the effects of his recent illness, and of course he did live another 7 or 8 years, but I thought then that he must be dying. The emaciation, the waxen pallor, the slow, careful movements, all shocked and distressed me.  But he seemed cheerful, fetched some beer, and sent out again to see if his mother would come in—she was living close by.

This poem must have been written in the aftermath of that visit.


A bird, the master of the air,
Is flimsy, like a cheating toy.
It makes you sorry, if you care
For the loud song, the soaring joy,
For that taut hawk that looks so strong.
His bones are hollow, and his breast
Like a thin box of some frail wood.
Bad luck can never dog him long,
Soon comes the cold and the great rest.
Perhaps the creatures find it good.
Perhaps that kestrel, if it could
Speak with hooked beak, would say to me,
“So vulnerable joy must be.”

I never held, living or dead,
The barred hawk in my grasping hand;
But once the children kept and fed
A crow they found in the meadow-land,
Whose foot was hurt, preventing him
From leaping up, and so from flight.
They thought that rest for his poor limb
In a small coop, would set him right.

And so it proved; but day by day,
Though more familiar and less lame,
He only lived to get away
And never, never could be tame:
Approach the shed in which he lay,
Up-wind, as softly as a cat;
Peep through the crack… his eye would say
“You’re there… I wonder what you’re at?”

Taken in hand, he did not pant
And tremble, as the small birds do;
His gimcrack carcase gave no sign;
But his grim eye the postulant
To friendship damned with all he knew;
Each day he lost a little shine.

I knew a man, I knew a man
As thin as any grudging crow.
He also had his bitter damn
For all his jailers here below,
And also for the one above.
His hatred was a kind of faith;
And such a man one needs must love,
But does not mourn for at his death.

I loved him for his monstrous hate,
The blood-feud for the joy unborn,
Slain in the womb by gods and men:
I mourn him not, who know how great
His sin of separateness and scorn;
I wish he could be born again,
To think of hands as well as wings,
To walk the way of earthbound things;
Think less of getting, more of giving;
In short, to learn the art of living.

Pitter’s insights into Orwell’s character, both his capacity for joy and wonder, especially at the natural world, are always counter-balanced with something darker. She felt “his nature was divided” and that “there was something like a high wall right across the middle of it. A high wall with flowers and fruit and running water on one side, and the desert on the other”:

He felt the loveliness of life so keenly that he couldn’t endure the evils which are always denying and frustrating it, and he was sorely bewildered.  He didn’t really know where to place the blame, for the idea of original sin was unacceptable to him and he hadn’t got around yet to considering misfortune as a discipline or charity as a duty.  His attitude was really very like Thomas Hardy’s, I think—only more militant—an honourable nineteenth-century skepticism and pessimism.

There are several clues in the poem that she is alluding to Orwell. Pitter had experienced firsthand Orwell’s love of birds when they spent time exploring Hainault Forest and the opening line, “A bird, the master of the air” is a little reminiscent of her oft-quoted description of his literary talent – “master of English prose”! References to “gimcrack carcase” and “his breast/ Like a thin box of some frail wood” conjure frailty. “Each day he lost a little shine” also fits with Pitter’s other commentary about how Orwell was “considered detrimental by many people when we knew him”.

Her biographer, Don W. King, speculated that “The Crow” was about Pitter’s father, also named George, whose “socialist principles were sickened by the poverty and misery he saw in the lives of the elementary school children he taught”. However, it seems unlikely that Pitter would introduce her father into the poem with the line, “I knew a man, I knew a man”. Considering that Pitter saw Orwell only once, between 1935 and his death in 1950, it seems reasonable for her to say she knew him.

How then do we know that “Eros with Chilblains” and “The Crow” were written with Orwell in mind? Quite simply, Ruth Pitter told Thomas McKean this was the case when he interviewed her during the mid-1980s!

It is arguable, the more closely one examines Orwell’s reviews of Pitter’s poetry which appeared in The Adelphi, that he may have known she had written “Eros with Chilblains”, even though it was not published during her lifetime. The odd reference to “bunions” in his flattering review of The Spirit Watches (from February, 1940) is worthy of note:

Perhaps it is the function of poetry to take us to places where bunions have no existence—or perhaps it isn’t. Miss Pitter obviously believes that it is, and as her belief is genuine and her ear exceptionally good, she continues to produce poems which reverberate quietly in one’s memory instead of making tremendous effect for five minutes and then being forgotten.

The line, “But does not mourn for at his death” may have been one that Pitter remembered when she attended Orwell’s funeral service in 1950:

Today I went to the funeral service for “George Orwell”. I have known him & his family for almost 30 years. He was a very interesting but I think ill-fated man. At the time of his death he had been writing for 21 years. Most of that was struggling against poverty & illness… I really feel quite oppressed with grief about it: I didn’t know I could still feel so much: I thought I’d got corny. For years past I’ve always said “I don’t mind people dying, if it amuses them. It’s the ones who won’t die that get my goat.” But I minded this death.


Birmingham Gazette, 12 June 1937

King, Don W., Hunting the Unicorn: A Critical Biography of Ruth Pitter, The Kent State University Press, 2008

McKean, Thomas, A Conversation with Ruth Pitter, Glenrothes: HappenStance, 2010

Orwell, George, Review: “The Spirit Watches”, The Adelphi, February 1940

Pitter, Ruth, First Poems, London: Cecil Palmer, 1920

Pitter, Ruth, The Bridge: Poems 1939-1944, London: The Cresset Press, 1945

Pitter, Ruth, Ruth Pitter’s Personal Memories of George Orwell, Transcript, London Calling Asia, BBC Radio, 3 September, 1956

Pitter, Ruth, The Letters of Ruth Pitter: Silent Music, King, Don W. (ed.) Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2014

Thomas McKean generously shared his time and recollections of autumns spent visiting and interviewing Ruth Pitter. His insights have deepened my understanding of the poet and her relationships with her family, Orwell and C.S. Lewis. Pitter revealed to Thomas that Orwell was “The Crow”. Thank you, Thomas!

This image of Pitter in her Chelsea workshop at 55 Church Street, now in the public domain, appeared in the Birmingham Gazette and other newspapers covering her success at being awarded the Hawthornden Prize in June 1937.


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