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Robin Skelton Poet and Witch.

Robin Skelton, poet, critic, and witch, died in Canada on August 27th 1997.

He was born in Yorkshire on 12th October 1925. After undergraduate and graduate degrees, he was appointed Lecturer in English Literature at Manchester University in 1951. During his time in Manchester he helped found the Peterloo Group of Poets and Painters (I still have some of their little volumes of poetry) and was co-founder and secretary of the Manchester Institute of Contemporary Arts, a project in which my father was involved. He moved to Canada, to the University of Victoria, in 1963, and lived there ever since.

In his time in England, he was one of the group of poets known as the Movement. His writing style of that period became freer after his move to Canada. Among his books about poetry are Poetry in the Teach Yourself series, and The Poetic Pattern (1955). In writing the latter, he began to look at the Hebridean spells and charms (from the Carmina Gadelica) in relation to the origin of poetry.

It was during that period that he became aware of the power of spells, and this led him to look at magic more closely. In due course, he became a Wiccan initiate. His two daughters followed him in a pagan path, and have been closely associated with Canada’s excellent pagan magazine Hecate’s Loom to which he, and his wife, contributed.

He wrote, by himself and jointly, several books on the Craft and related topics, including The Practice of Witchcraft Today. Some of his recent poetry was on pagan themes. For instance, his book Samhain (Salmon Poetry, Dublin, 1994) consists of poems in various traditional Irish metres, reflecting his interest in the technical aspects of poetry, and includes a poem called “Rowan”, which finishes:

feel those berries risen
                   from a burning brightness
                   in the heart of silence
                   where I see the goddess
                   standing like a rowan
                   crowned by more than crimson
                   giving man a present
                   of her own heart’s reason.

Another of his recent books of poems is called Words for Witches (Reference West, Victoria, Canada), some of which have appeared in Hecate’s Loom with such titles as “She”, “Magic”, “Initiate”, and “The Witches” (below):

         When we were cursed we versed ourselves in tidals.
         When we were bound we found ropes reached the sky.
         When we were racked we hooked our hands on mountains.
         When we were burned we learned that life is flame.
         And when they said that we were dead, we bled into the rain that feeds us all         
         and called ourselves the future, seeking farther, farther,
         and we were born again, again, again …

He co-edited with Margaret Blackwood Earth, Air, Fire, Water (Arkana, 1990), a collection of poems for the Goddess and God, for the festivals, and with other magical content. This very enjoyable book is subtitled “pre-Christian and pagan elements in British songs, rhymes, and ballads”, and contains valuable notes on magical aspects of the poems (see review).

But his most important book for pagans is Spellcraft (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, reprinted by Phoenix Publishing 1997). In this book his aspects of poet, critic, and witch combine in a unified whole (though I am unsure if he was initiated at the time of writing, he had certainly had considerable experience of magic). He analyses the poetics of spells and spell-making, giving examples of many kinds from many different societies. He divides spells into several categories, including invocations, incantations, healing and protection spells, bidding and binding spells, and love spells. He analyses the features of each kind, showing what language is appropriate and what is not. He argues that, though a spell can be a poem and a poem can be a spell, one should not attempt to write spells as if they were poems. The reason, he says, is that a spell depends on the emotional force behind it, and that this can too easily get lost if one is endeavouring to write a poem. Here I disagree with him to some extent. When writing a poem-spell the emotion needs to be dampened down so as to look at the poetic content, and there is the risk that it may become heightened too soon, just as a rehearsal for a ritual needs care to ensure that it does not start up the ritual itself. But if the spell is intended for group use, then the emotional force that drives it is that of the group, and the writer can refine the poetic content if wanted; even for a spell by one person, I see no reason why one should not prepare a spell in advance of activating it, in which case the initial writing can directed towards the poetry as much as to the spell. Spellcraft is perhaps the most valuable book I know for anyone interested in writing spells or rituals. For instance, Asphodel’s poem Chant for Women Travellers in her book Athene Revisited (see Asphodel’s site for information about this book), was written immediately after reading the book, and under its influence. It is very much worth searching for this classic book about modern magic, which has never been as well-known as it deserves.

Wood and Water 60, Autumn 1997
© Daniel Cohen

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