Mostly: On first seeing Florence a long poem
Published: New Coin poetry, pamphlet by Rhodes University, Grahamstown. 1968.
As far as I am aware this pamphlet/poem is unavailable.
This pamphlet has a forward as ‘author’s note’ where he explains that it was first written in 1944, shortly before his Armoured Division advanced to the southern banks of the Arno on 4th August 1944.
Not really satisfied with the original version he rewrote and expanded it in 1960 and again in 1964. The floods of the Arno in1966 and his reading of War in the val d’Orcia by iris origo took him back to his poem and finally a satisfaction that it was finished to the best of his ability persuaded him to publish as a pamphlet.
A poem divided into eighteen parts. This long poem is broken into many stanzas within the individual parts. Part one starts with three-line stanzas in ABA rhyme scheme with one line-end of a following stanza repeating with one of the previous stanza; in irregular order. Different parts vary in stanza length but overall maintain approximately regular rhyme schemes within each part.
The subject is initially simple, a first view of Florence, but hugely influencing the feelings of the moment were the author’ situation of a military progress in WW2 toward a city that coalesced his childhood reading of history, legend and literature. Not only his reading but interest in Arts. In the poem Guy Butler describes the wide ranges of thought and emotion that flood the senses and through them the links it discloses to his boyhood in South Africa. A moment when time, place and memory merge.
He shows his personal art and literary tour within the poem. You can feel that these words, thoughts, emotions, bundled through his mind as he first saw the vista of Florence through the trees as light improved and mist dissolved. (the ‘mist’ might also be associated as clearing his mind at a later date first composing then editing/re writing later). The poem begins when he had found himself in a situation in view of a’ real’ place of his childhood ‘discoveries’; was actually seeing part of his memory, his past and current influences in mind and reality. He recalls his boyhood and his world of stories and wonders at his ‘fall’ into adulthood and his wartime circumstances of ever present loneliness and expectation of death.
This amalgamation of emotion into his previous sense of self and seemingly new awareness of his being part of a ‘universal oneness’ is fairly clear. God was there, clearly, but where now? One element of the many running through this poem. For me, I find the artful allusion within the poem is understandable, no doubt appropriate for his intention but looks back into the style of Shelley rather than Wordsworth, albeit not the rhythms. And here I have to profess to a lower enthusiasm for Shelley than perhaps I should. Taking Wordsworth’s idea of ‘composing in tranquility’ may also have softened a little of the edge of Guy Butler’s usual style, for my taste. Not knocking the intention or result.
Guy Butler started this poem amid writing others that appear in his well studied ‘Stranger to Europe’ poem and first collection of the same name. The shorter poems such as ‘Stranger to Europe’ suit me better. As does ‘Giotto’s Campanile’. Another poem, ‘December 1944’ brings in the sights and sounds of war with religious considerations/questions seeping through. Talking of the same period as ‘Florence’ they seem more ‘of the moment’ hence more direct. No surprise just a degree change of preference. His other poetry of this period, unsurprisingly, resonates through ‘On First seeing Florence’ though their content is more literal or should I say, storytelling, almost a diary line.
As with all good poetry, re-reading ‘On First Seeing Florence’ will always offer new views and insights. One tip is copying out any poem, or at least part, is also an interesting way to pick trends and threads of ideas of the author.
First section: ‘On First Seeing Florence’
Earth shakes, spine jerks, eyes flicker to the flash
of heavy guns; tense as a dog’s, ears strain
for the obliterating salvo’s crash
upon our bivouac: but once again
It crumps far left. Dun gleam on tank and truck,
on dark tents taut from midnight’s drenching rain
and dreaming towers deep in the campaign’s muck.
And yet one dresses, dons unusual hopes
and steals abroad to try one’s curious luck.
Far more than lungs are breathing as one gropes
towards the black hill’s crest to catch a first
close view of Dante’s town. Long, wooded slopes
secrete a blessed sense of getting lost
in scented labyrinths, until the Lane
on one side falls away: sheer sky, where tossed
festoons of soft mauve cirrus sway between
the moon’s dim burial and the unborn sun.
Transfixed, one stares. Why should the natural scene
seem to excel itself? Who dares poke fun
from such a stage? Lear’s all-licensed fool
beneath this sky, after the storm is done,
might hold a tattered heart to ridicule.
Let tragedy alone; sit, smoke and take
a journalistic note, guard a small cold lake:
dark pines, spear straight, in massive phalanxes;
loose robed poplars, Parthian free and bright,
each poised to wheel and prance in the slightest breeze –
an old trick this, to take what comes to sight
from public day into one’s private time,
fling words at it, then watch it catch alight
and, sparkling with live history, consume
its three-dimensional sheath of metaphor –
it’s all in old Longinus On the Sublime.
Vanity of vanities – as though this war
should be fate’s winnowing wind that sifts
the grain from all the chaff I’ve lived before.
One waits and smiles at one’s own mental shifts.
Nun’s fingers fell habitual beads to still
the heart for timeless prayer: so eyesight lifts
thing after thing, feels each, then lets it fall
till outer meets with inner mystery,
then pauses, holds it, and is held in thrall:
a pine is no mere non-deciduous tree;
each poplar celebrates its own white core:
once they were gods and oracles to me,
vast presences whose tall bone-houses bore
contrasting robes in whose deep shades I found
cool worlds to wander, dream in, and explore;
but now O how disturbingly they send
their minor chords vibrating through my brain
to where, half over earth’s unending round,
their differing greens rise in a sun-blind plain
to splash damp shadows on the dazzling ground
about our house. Now I am there again.
The threads of religion and mythology run through many of Guy Butlers poems and in the shorter poems are more easily handled than in this long poem. But one of the points of ‘……‘Florence’ is its history of millennial influence as a centre for the arts (of Western and ‘imported’ mostly) on the world. Guy Butler is heavily influenced by such culture but in other, later works, also absorbs and narrates the stories of his surrounding South African indigenous peoples where his voice moves into honest, colourful images that seem to illuminate the harsh beauty/reality of the villages and scenery around him; where elemental Nature is itself! This fall-back to depiction and final involvement of nature, especially tree and bush, their place in landscape as more permanent than man, is a large part of his expected long life as a poet as well as one of the ‘war-poets’.
Last verse excerpt from,
Stranger to Europe: (From Selected Poems, AD Donker ltd. 1975)
Now, between my restless eyes
And the scribbled wisdom of the ages
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 dogrose.
‘Home Thoughts’, is a poem in the ‘Selected Poems’ which is longer than average at some at 140 lines (broken into stanzas of 10 lines, in three parts). Which feels its way through the legendary Apollo, linking with Galileo and their worlds and Butler’s ‘sense of communion with them’ (my words) but also about his new awareness of his and past generations’ deep roots in Africa.:
I have not found myself on Europe’s maps,
A world of things, deep things I know endure
But not the context for my one perhaps.
I must go back with my five simple slaves
To soil still savage, in a sense still pure:
My loveless, shallow land of artless shapes
Where no ghosts glamorise the recent graves
And everything in Space and Time just is:
What similes can flash across those gaps
Undramatized by sharp antithesis?
The above is the third from last verse. Here seems to be Guy’s realisation that Europe is not his personal future, that the climate of South Africa, the soil of the Great Karoo and its own ancient world is where his future lies: In the last two lines:
‘Cleave, crack the clouds! From his brimming drum
Spill crystal waves of words, articulate!’
A personal calling for his own muse to give him the ability to ‘write’. And it can be read as a plea of the day (late 1940’s) for his country to awaken to its combined sense of self, beauty and history. South Africa was calling him home, to stay.