Stranger to Europe, the poem, by Guy Butler; a closer look

Stranger to Europe.        Guy Butler.

poem from: Stranger to Europe 1939 -1945, poetry collection

numbers on right relate to notes below.


Stranger to Europe, waiting release,                        1,2

My heart a torn-up, drying root                                 3

I breathed the rain of an Irish peace                         4

That afternoon when a bird or a tree,

Long known as an exiled name, could cease            5

As such, take wing and trembling shoot                   6

Green light and shade through the heart of me.


Near a knotty hedge we had stopped.

‘This is an aspen.’ ‘Tell me more.’                               7

Customary veils and masks had dropped.

Each looked at the hidden other in each.                  8

Sure, we who could never kiss had leapt                   9

To living conclusions long before

Golden chestnut or copper beech.                               10


So, as the wind drove sapless leaves                            11

Into the bonfire of the sun,

As thunderclouds made giant graves

Of the black, bare hills of Kerry,                                  12

In a swirl of shadow, words, one by one

Fell on the stubble and the sheaves;

‘Wild dog rose this; this, hawthorn berry.’


But there was something more you meant,                 13

As if the tree’s and clouds had grown

Into a timeless flame that burnt

All worlds of words and left them dust

Through stubble and sedge by the late wind blown:

A love not born and not to be learnt

But given and taken, an ultimate trust.


Now, between my restless eyes                                        14

And the scribbled wisdom of the ages

Kerry Hills photo by Angela Jones

Kerry Hills
photo by Angela Jones

Black hills meet moving skies

And through rough hedges a late wind blows;

And in my palm through all the rages

Of lust and love now, always, lie

Brown hawthorn berry, red dog rose.


Rhyme scheme:

Five verses each hold seven lines.   The first two verses have a rhyme scheme of ABACABC and the last three use ABACBAC.   In the second, third and fourth verse the second ‘A’ ending is not a complete rhyme for that verse’s other ‘A’ so might be considered a half-rhyme.     With the difference in scheme in verses three and four it might be also offered that they have moved away from pure scenic description into more symbolic mode.  The last verse returns to the earlier norm of rhyme scheme and a subject of emotion refreshed and recognition of a form of love through the vicissitudes of war.

Analysis focus is on first two verses and lessens through verses three, four and five.   More attention/analysis could easily be given to all, especially later verses but space is limited.  Something for the reader to continue, maybe finding differing interpretations.  Such is poetry.  Comments welcome.

Brief overview:

The author arrives into a peaceful Ireland (Kerry) after a long war (WW2), with others (of his ‘unit’). Conversation (with locals or others familiar with names of trees, bushes etc),  on ‘ordinary’ scenery and weather creates an emotional relaxation not known for some time.  However, this discovery of emotion in peacetime slips into a symbolism of his previous years and the realisation of trust and companionship between soldiers, in war in particular.

This triggers an emotional acknowledgment that a bond, a form of love and unity, has been established in him (and all) for such close army companions, that will always be there.

  1. ‘Stranger to Europe’:    Title poem of collection, placed last quarter of book. The author is from South Africa, several generations ago originating from Stoke and area, England.
  2. ‘waiting release’:       From life in the army, most likely……..
  3. Line harking to effects of war or of being so long away from South African homeland.
  4. Ireland; well known for its rainfall, especially S.West, Kerry.  Peace as countryside and or just not being at war…
  5. ‘Long known as an exiled name’ :  Exiled as in distance from the author? as the author and forebears being ‘exiled’ from their origins or perhaps also exiled from the author’s state of mind because of circumstances? Also a form of recognition that the author is also exiled from his own home in South Africa.
  6. From ‘could cease/As such to…… heart of me’.   Sudden remembrance of such things as ‘nature’ and a sudden mental and physical awakening in the author.

Second verse:

  1. ‘an aspen’. A tree;  they do not grow in South Africa despite being widespread throughout Europe, northern Asia and north Africa.  The interest shows a mental arousal, relaxation, growing re-awakening of awareness of  ‘new countryside’ around them.
  2. The men see each other’s reactions to this sudden relaxation into their surroundings. Shadows of war are falling away.

9/10.  ‘We who could never kiss’.  ……  To………’or copper beech.”    Each man realised how close they were to each other, deeply attached but not physically.   Perhaps the line of ‘Golden chestnut or copper beech’ echoes the colours of women’s hair that they missed.  Or that they recognised their feelings quickly, before many other trees were pointed out to them. Both, is likely.  Their sudden realsation that warfare is over and they are back in a peaceful world has released emotions they had steadfastly withdrawn from.

Third verse:

  1. First two lines can be as literal description or symbolising ‘leaves’ as men and dying into the sun. With the third line weighing it down with thunderclouds and the illusion of hills as giant graves, it seems the memory of warfare and death mingles with ‘dog rose and hawthorn berry’.

The tone of the poem is ‘deadened’ in this verse and use of ‘leaves‘ touches on a WW1 style of remembered poems and war poets.   The darkness of the clouds seems to have brought memories  creeping back where the men have begun to relax their control on their emotions.  Again, real and symbolic.   We are given the place of the poem; Kerry, the S.W. corner of Ireland.  As there is stubble in the fields it is likely to be after harvest, autumn sometime but before ploughing.   Stubble could also reflect the losses of war.

Fourth verse:

  1. A change of step again. From the memory of the clouds, the rain and wind and gloom comes the firm realisation, conviction, that some good had been born in those bad times.

The poet states ‘a love not born and not to be learnt/ But given and taken, an ultimate trust.‘  was created between them all during their soldiering.  A special bond that held them together through life and death.  The element of gloom in the previous verse, even the quickening of emotion in first two verses has moved forward to a sense of wider understanding of himself.   The ‘you‘ may hark back to the describer of trees in first verse but may well be the author talking of some other entity, god or Nature or his own consciousness.

Fifth verse:

  1. Here is the final understanding and acknowledgment by the author that he will carry with him a memory, a fixed image which ties him to that unique love among comrades: ‘Brown hawthorn berry, red dog rose.’  We may add to the strength of this image as the brown symbolises uniform and red, blood (of soldiers). The brown and red are simple additions to a repeated line from the end of verse three.   A war poem?  A love poem?




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