Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

The White Goddess and Robert Cochrane

Some years ago I was working on Robert Graves’s papers in Mallorca. Among letters he’d received, a couple of oddly vivid ones from a person called R.L. Bowers of Slough stuck in my memory.

It was only quite recently that I discovered that R.L.Bowers was better known as ‘Robert Cochrane’, the ‘angry young man’ of British witchcraft in the 1960s. I’ve put the letters I found into an article that appears in the latest issue of The Cauldron (www.the-cauldron.org.uk).

Even for a witch, Robert Cochrane was a mysterious character. Born in 1931, he was a working class Londoner who claimed to have worked as a bargee and a foundryman before suddenly appearing on the pagan witchcraft scene in 1963.

He established a very dynamic coven and then died from belladonna poisoning at midsummer 1966. He grew foxgloves in his garden, and people still argue over whether he committed suicide or simply made a mistake during a magical experiment.

But in his short life he managed to establish two traditions that are still very much alive, though secretive: the 1734 tradition in the USA, and The Clan of Tubal Cain in the UK.

I’ve called Cochrane the ‘angry young man’ of witchcraft. In the early 1960s, when he started his coven, working-class authors like Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne were expressing angry contempt for the old guard of playwrights and novelists whom they saw as cosy and conservative. In the same way, Cochrane, the pushy working-class lad, expressed his contempt for the ‘Wicca’ version of witchcraft propagated by Gerald Gardner, a Conservative ex-colonial civil servant.

Brash and independent, Cochrane was highly creative, and although he often seemed to make things up as he went along, he had a poetic streak and a genius for ritual, according to those who knew him. His rituals and the personal mythology he created – set out mainly in a book called Roebuck in the Thicket, which is itself a quotation from Graves’s The White Goddess – draw heavily on Graves’s book. Indeed, he almopst hero-worshipped Graves. And so little of Cochrane’s own writing survives that to find two unknown letters from him – and they are pretty long ones – was an exciting discovery. I wanted to make their texts available without delay.

To see what Cochrane had to say to his hero, you will have to read the full article, which is in the latest (Nov 2009) issue of The Cauldron. But

But just to whet your appetite, here’s one sentence, which shows how well Cochrane can write:

“I sometimes feel when I am wandering around in the marshes of the old knowledge, that the dam upstream is going to burst and the whole of humanity is going to be submerged by fifty thousand years of pre-history, swamping the neat subtopian conventions of the last thousand years.’

Anyone who could write like that must have had more than a touch of magic about him.

9 comments to “The White Goddess and Robert Cochrane”

  • Stuart Inman

    08.12.09

    Dear Grevel
    I nenjoyed the Cauldron article immensely and there’s all sorts of things to pick over for sad cochranites like me!
    I’d like to point out though that your statements about Cochrane’s death are rather inaccurate. He did not die at midsummer, but several days later, he did take the deadly cocktail at midsummer though. Also, there is no doubt that Cochrane committed suicide as his suicide note was found.
    You can find all the details in Gavin Semple’s essay “A Poisoned Chalice” which can be found on the Clan of Tubal Cain website.
    Best wishes
    Stuart

  • Grevel

    09.12.09

    Many thanks for this, Stuart. And apologies for my ignorance: I’m not a Cochrane expert, just the person who happened to find the letters; and there’s a certain amount of misinformation around on the subject of Cochrane’s life. I’ll check out the essay you mention.

  • Martin Duffy

    21.12.09

    Dear Grevel,
    The new letters in the recent issue of the Cauldron were particularly interesting. Regarding your comments on Cochrane’s use of “Guiden Corn”, I note you mention the possibility of it as resulting from a misunderstanding of a Celtic glossary (Guiden meaning ‘tree’ with ‘Corn’ next to it as a shorthand for “of Cornish origin”).

    I personally think Cochrane meant somethine else entirely as “Guiden” appears elsewhere in his output, notbaly without the mention of “corn”, these being in a letter to Wilson, “whatever Madame la Guiden has in store – the law is that you will overcome – and in the overcoming find spiritual strength”, and the other being the appearance of “Madame la Guiden” in the blessing of the bread & wine.

    Although guiden does appear to be Cornish for ‘tree’, it is also the Middle English ancestor of our word “guide”, related to the Old French “guider”, meaning ‘to guide, lead, conduct’, which some etymologies link to ‘witan’, ‘wit’, ‘weisen’.

    Considering the French “Madam la Guiden”, it is of interest that ‘guiden’ means ‘to guide or lead’, especially in context of Cochrane’s phrase of “whatever Madame la Guiden has in store”, indicating an element of Fate. Interestingly, in Norway & Sweden “la guiden” still seems to mean “to guide”, and the word ‘guiden’ appears in some Scottish folk songs as meaning to guide/manage/look after (“see how they’re guiden mei” – see how they’re looking after me). It’s also in the ‘Prioress Tale’, “To guiden us unto thy son so dear”.

    I’ve seen it elsewhere suggested that “Guiden…[is] an attempt to invent a feminine form of the English word “God” so that it looks old”. I’ve not had time to look into this too much, but I have found some claiming that the surname “Guiden” is an ancient surname deriving from the older Germanic name “Godino”, a patronymic formed of “god” & (K)”in”, i.e. ‘son’, to create ‘son of god’. Variations in the English register are given as “Godin, Goddin, Godden, Gooden, Gaudin and Guiden (both probably French huguenot) Goodoune, Godain, Guedon etc”.

    Don’t know whether this is of any interest to you whatsoever, and it still leaves the question as to what then the “Guiden Corn” might mean, but thought it would be worth throwing another light upon the matter!

  • Grevel

    07.01.10

    Many thanks for this very kind comment! I’d be delighted if you put a link to my blog. And of course I apologise for taking so long to answer your comment. As you know, I had internet problems until a couple of days ago!

  • Grevel

    07.01.10

    Many thanks, and I hope you continue to enjoy it. Sorry about the serious break caused by my internet problems from mid-December to early January. I hope things will go smoothly from now on!

  • Grevel

    07.01.10

    Yes, it’s hard to find the time… And then as soon as you post, you notice something that should have been done better! I just hope practice will make perfect. And I hope the long gap in my blog owing to internet breakdown won’t stop you from reading again. Meanwhile, why not resume (or start) your own blog, with a New Year resolution to write more regularly? I’m sure you’d enjoy it.

  • Grevel

    07.01.10

    Yes, I think you’re right. In fact I’ve been contacted by scholar Steve Posch, who has an article on the word ‘Guiden’ coming up in The Cauldron, and he has convinced me that it is intended to mean ‘Goddess’, as your next-to-last point would indicate. As you say, the phrase ‘Guiden Corn’ remains a puzzle. Apologies for the delay in replying to your vcery interesting comment. You’ll have understood why, from reading the blog!

  • Michael Lussier

    19.09.10

    I very much enjoyed your Cauldron article, and I look forward to reading the Charles Williams biography.

    I would also like to point out that ‘guiden’ appears in several Middle English texts. Mr Bowers might have encountered it in Canterbury Tales (specifically, the Prioress’ Story), where Chaucer writes:

    “Lady! thy bounty, thy magnificence,
    Thy virtue, and thy great humility,
    There may no tongue express in no science:
    For sometimes, Lady! ere men pray to thee,
    Thou go’st before, of thy benignity,
    And gettest us the light, through thy prayere,
    To guiden us unto thy son so dear.”

    No doubt, this passage suggested quite a bit to the passionate Cochrane, who was eagerly seeking the Goddess and Her cycle of consorts.

  • Grevel

    11.03.11

    This is true; but ‘guiden’ here is clearly being used in a sense that won’t fit: it is just the infinitive of the verb ‘to guide’. Someone has now shown me quite definitely that Cochrane in several other places uses ‘Guiden’ to mean ‘Goddess’ so I think we have the answer.

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