Guy Butler: ‘On First Seeing Florence’ thoughts

Mostly:     On first seeing Florence                   a long poem

Guy Butler

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’

I

 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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?

 

 

Guy Butler: Karoo Morning

Karoo Morning.          An autobiography 1918 – 1935

Guy Butler

guy-butlerkaroo-morning-coverMy paperback copy is published by: David Philip, Africasouth Paperback, 1981 edition, third impression 1983.   There has been a slightly more recent publishing but not revised edition, as far as I am aware.

My copy is marked up for many sections to be extracted, sadly I can’t say for what journal, paper or purpose but it adds character to the paperback.

The preface alone is worth reading as reason to look to Guy Butlers writing as a white South African who was born in a small town in the Karoo and remained steadfast in his country until his death          He loved his country, it’s huge expanse and environment, all its variety of people, story and folklore, his family.  All these things were an integral part of his being.

At the start he says (in 1977):

‘Much of the literature  by white South Africans is guilt-laden and self-condemnatory, and there are good reasons why it should be so; but where praise is possible it should be uttered.  The man who has known joy and keeps it to himself is a miser’.

And a clear, comment on his idea of written autobiographies:

‘Two points about the nature of autobiography.

     First, it’s main source is the writers memory, which is soon discovered to be highly temperamental in what portions of the past it selects for conscious attention, and what portions it leaves in the limbo of it idiosyncratic amnesia.

     One can, of course, supplement ones memory by appeals to members of one’s family, friends and contemporaries, and to written records: history books, newspapers, photographs, family papers, particularly old letters – all of which I have done, with great interest and considerable profit.  By such means, faces, incidents, scenes which seemed partially or entirely forgotten, have been swept clean of oblivion’s dust; others, which the memory of reliable witnesses and the written record insist were there, remain stubbornly obscure.

    Second, while making every effort to get the facts right, ones main concern is not with truth to fact and measurement, but to character, feeling, mood and vision.  Autobiography, which would seem to be so close a cousin to history, is less an objective record of a life than an attempt to communicate the writer’s feeling for his life as lived’

It is a large chunk to include from the Preface.  The final paragraph is the most important for me but without the record and action of the first two the relevance may be weaker.  I could have been satisfied with the last sentence.

When you listen to a story-teller, a teacher, parent or friend you hear the words and meanings but take much information from their tone, their speaking rhythm, their body language. So too when reading such as Guy Butler, the rhythm and tone of the writing catches and retains your interest.

He admits from the start that he made use of as many records, letters and memories of his now extended family as he could, to fill the pages of Karoo Morning  because  his forebears were very early English settlers in South Africa, mostly in the Karoo region.   (and those still in England, Stoke on Trent, and America as well as China!); with his personal memories and retelling of stories from his many elders there becomes visible a huge panarama of the region.  Regional history that is political as well as personal.  From his early childhood he seems to have been observant in sight and sound and by delving into this past has been able to recount with a lifetime’s passion and understanding the nature of society.  His belonging to a large family ranging throughout the Karoo meant at times he travelled widely, visiting relatives in differing areas and degrees of their settling. His family was based in Cradock and their nearest bigger town was Grahamstown,  The individual families all had very strong beliefs as Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and Anglican and various experiences as preachers, farmers of crops, livestock and horses, shopkeepers, newspaper journalists and publishers. All have been absorbed by Guy Butler for this book.  His enthusiasm for the country and its people, nature and stories has come to fruition with an invaluable legacy of and to South Africa.   His poetry and regional stories I am well aware of and this fascinating book adds an intricate layer of knowledge (for want of a better word) about his world up to 1935..

(I am soon to read ‘On first seeing Florence‘ his long poem finally rewritten,  completed and published as a pamphlet in 1964)

The early chapters of Karoo Morning  work through the first arrivals of his forebears, great and grandparents and meeting of his parents, his mother moving from a village near Stoke on Trent, Stone. (I have visited Stoke on Trent and it’s various attached pottery towns such as Longton many times over the last twenty years, visiting Stone briefly three times.   The centre of Stone may not have changed too much in the last fifty years but I suspect Stoke on Trent and surrounding towns would be unrecognisable except for an occasional municipal building. The pottery kilns that once turned the air smoke-black are gone except for two museum remnants and many of the great red-brick factories are gone or going. Again with a very few exceptions.)

He writes of the rough and tumble of children in the late 1920s where exploits are real and exciting as they happen in surroundings of which I am jealous.   (Yes, I understand rose coloured glasses may be useful).   The descriptions of the scenery as well as the events is superb.  One episode concerning bees whilst camping had me laughing out loud whilst the following events written of touched the heart:    A seemingly incongruous burial that is described and explained and finally fills you with a surprising emotion.

Throughout the book, his story, his family story of life moves on, not with any huge momentous event it would seem but with what life throws at you as it progresses. And then those nuggets of events which fill gaps in Time’s fractured picture of far away places to create images of similarity despite the huge differences between the hedged softness of southern England and the clarity of the air of lweather-scaped Karoo.  Even Guy Butler’s brief description of Natal, as different to Karoo as may be but different still to my old scenery.

No easy childhood through the depression from 1929 onwards but his eye, in recollection, stays firmly on the reality of life and bright observation of scenery and people around him.  Some adventures almost out of ‘Boy’s Own’ with the addition of strong family ties and values to secured by.  Yes, this story is an element of South Africa that defines a period and way of life.

Moving on into the book and toward the beginnings of the agonies of apartheid and the conflict to it of the still firm beliefs of the Quakers, Methodists and Baptists in the area, which included the now ever-larger families of Butler, Collett and Biggs spread widely over the Karoo.   Guy tells of his direct family and the pressures of the depression, continuing desperate shortage of money with his father’s businesses suffering badly.  As was much of the local, national and of course international economies.

Also we hear how Guy loosens his interest on all things Natural History and begins to take interest in poetry, chemistry, and girls. Mention of his first long poem entitled ‘The Karoo’ shown to his teacher……(1934?) I wonder if this is a forerunner to or starter for his poem Karoo Town 1939.

This could continue as an outline of the book, but I won’t, what I wish to convey is the brightness of the writing about a childhood, overall happy, it seems, in difficult times and a starkly beautiful country.  Adventures, humorous and not, with what seems straightforward honesty of the facts as he could remember and research them.

Enough to say the book finishes with the European political storm clouds growing in intensity and affect in South Africa; and Matriculation and the thoughts of University having a similar affect on Guy.  All this with the weight of the family’s financial position obvious to Guy but not fully understood until the last couple of pages of this autobiography when Guy is seventeen and has to make a big decision.

There are numerous black and white photographs of the earlier family members, houses, streets and places, even an aerial view of the town Cradock of about 1938.

A fascinating glimpse of a country that has intrigued me for a lifetime.  Superb writing about a place, now almost a hundred years ago, from an observant poet and writer with a clear and balanced South African eye.

 

(This review has been carried over from ‘Wordparc’ my other site, see above right…..)

Guy Butler books reach top of reading pile

Hurrah, just started reading  two by Laurie Lee: Selected  Poems  and  A Rose For Winter  (a travel book of his visit to Andalusia via Gibraltar published in 1955.  My how the world has changed it seems).

the better news is that next in line, as it were, I am happily discovering  ‘an auto biography from 1918 to 1935’   by Guy Butler: Karoo Morning  and immediately after that his 1989 publication: Tales From the Old Karoo.     Of these two which do I read first?    I suspect I ought to go with the former alone.  Trying to read both in parrallel is likely to be confusing for me. (If they were literally worlds apart it might be different but the latter is of the place and period of Guy Butler.)  There, decision made!  Date order reigns so Karoo Morning  is first.

And after those?  Well, Small Hands, it would seem.

I am also recommended to read some Keats.  Hmm, I ought; but then there are so many I could add to that ought-to list and frequently  such well-known names.   No doubt I will but there may be diggings in the boxes old poets seem to get consigned into.  Not forgetting new, to me at least,  poets that bounce out of their creative writing courses with ever increasing quality and complexity.

 

Guy Butler, Selected Poems: a brief view

a small starter: 

     Drummer Hodge.          Thomas Hardy, 1840 – 1928
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found;
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the Veldt around,
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the Drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam
And why up rose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge forever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow up a Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

 

This little poem mentions the Karoo, the only other poet except Butler where I have found it.  Hardy’s poem is from a distant viewpoint, another age.  It stirred my interest, no, affection for those far off places in South Africa I have never visited but have romanced in the fiction of Haggard and Wilbur Smith, even Brink after a fashion.  It’s the wide-open, deadly beauty that I imagine or have seen on the screen.  Possibly of a world now lost in or around cities but I like to think still exists in the heart of the country and its inhabitants. Guy Butlers poetry fixes my fascination.

So I opened Selected Poems’ of Guy Butler  (signed copy, but not to me) published in 1975.     The poem Karoo Town 1939  opens this collection, as it does in Stranger to Europe.  There are 45 poems, divided into 4 sections. The total includes 17 that appeared in  S.to E. ( mostly in parts 1 & 2).

See my earlier pages on Stranger to Europe.

I have picked out some of my favourites from the 28 poems that were new to me, refraining from a long list it could have been and sticking to five.

A prayer for all my countrymen

Great-great-grandmother.      The first few lines casting that spell and in quite a long poem the strength of the lady almost competes with the African landscape:

First five lines:

‘Bolt upright, reading her Bible for hours
in a wicker chair on the front stoep in the winter,
in summer under the pepper trees whose lacy shadows
wavered over the lacy shawl,
drawn tight across her little brittle shoulders.’
……….

Isibongo of Matiwane

And finally: Tourist Insight Into Things

I would not presume to understand fully the depth of the poems, but the clarity of the description and the emotion, often love constrained but visible throughout, creates bright and sustained images.
Tourist Insight Into Things is probably the most visceral poem I have read, yet gets to the heart, literally, of the nature of the country and it’s African people, of Guy Butler’s appreciation and knowledge..

There is an interesting little comment in this poem:
………..
‘you’ll find our big black brother has much, so much to teach you –
because, you see, he’s still in touch
with all the old gods in a way
that makes one wonder
why D H Lawrence wasted all that time
in Mexico and Downunder

Africans, like their continent, are not dark
For nothing. Their darkness is alive. ‘
Lawrence is a poet who appears in quite a few anthologies but his poetry is today somewhat neglected.  His original infamy as a novelist overshadows his poetry and most certainly his travel writing.  The Tourist in the title, I believe is how Guy felt in relation to his position, even though born in South Africa to a long-settled family.  Highly committed and respectful of the old country and its peoples and traditions.   The line on Lawrence, for me, shows a respect for Lawrence as having a similar nature with speculation on how strong would have been his poetic output in Africa.  Perhaps Guy Butler did not feel he could reach Lawrence’s heights.
The poem continues:
‘Africans, like their continent, are not dark
For nothing. Their darkness is alive. ‘

reading on is to be held, transfixed, to the last almost throw away, five lined stanza.

Back to Guy Butler.  Read Cradock Mountain and rush through the sights and sounds of a childhood remembered, like a flash-photo, like a flash-flood.  I was never there but despite the thousands of miles and the numbers of years I can see and feel almost as he did.

A collection that is truthful, personal and important.

km coverI still have to read his first auto biography, Karoo Morning and then Tales from the Old Karoo.   Nostalgia maybe, but my sort of reading.

Several Train Journeys

The Train Journey                                               John Middleton Murray

For what cause? To what end?
Into what nameless disaster speeding
Through a twilight cavern of space unheeding,
Through vapours of tears, with a numb heart bleeding,
Torn from what friend?

Cause there is none, nor friend;
Nor was that joy from which I parted,
But only what is no longer, yet departed
It’s voice rings golden to me broken-hearted,
Saying, There is no end.

 

The Send-Off                                             Wilfred Owen

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreaths and spray
As mens’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed up, they went.
They were not ours;
We never heard to which front they were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who have them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back silent, to still vintage wells
Up half- known roads

 

Journey.                               Harold Monro

(I)

How many times I miss the train
By running up the staircase once again
For some dear trifle almost left behind.
At that last moment the unwary mind
Forgets the solemn tick of station-time;
That muddy lane the feet must climb –
The bridge – the ticket – signal down –
Train just emerging beyond the town:
The great blue engine panting as it takes
The final curve, and grinding on its brakes
Up to the platform edge. . . . The little doors
Swing open, while the burly porter roars.
The tight compartment fills : our careful eyes
Go to explore each other’s destinies.
A lull. The station-master waves. The train
Gathers, and grips, and takes the rails again,
Moves to the shining open land, and soon
Begins to tittle-tattle a tame tattoon.

(sections II, III, IV continue and conclude the journey)

 

THE PARTING             Guy Butler, from ‘Stranger to Europe Poems 1939-1949′

Mounting, they crossed the ridge beneath the stars
Whose midnight brilliance seemed to shake and fill
The silence with dim strumming, like guitars
Heard from a distance when the air is still;
When the hidden half of the heart’s responding wire
Emits its own, still barely known, desire.

But when, dose by, two night jars broke
The starry strumming with their forlorn shriek
He felt it was the parting farm that spoke
Against far countries he was soon to seek.
Dismounting to open the creaking boundary gate                                                                          How rough underfoot the track’s familiar grit!

A pulse beyond the peak; then from the pass
Swivelled the headlight’s straight and scything ray.
Metal music over miles of grass
Rose to a roar, then blurred, then died away
To a dimmer, more exciting tripple beat
Like the throb in his throat, the horses’ feet.

Black-gloved bluegums mourning under the moon.
A mongrel yowling in the cinder-yard.
White, concrete platform. “Down train due in soon”,
Said in a dry dead voice by the tired guard;
But telegraph wires and poles were lines and bars
For the tense, dim strumming of far guitars.

The engine beat grew louder, louder till
It struck great bass chords from the iron bridge;
Then effortless, ominous, inevitable
Slid hiss-hissing down the smooth black ridge
Towards a heart bewildered. fluttering fast
From the small, now open cage of an empty past,

Then drew up silent and seemed to fall asleep
While they stood talking of last stock-fair day,
A recent law-suit, anything to keep
Control of these last minutes, not to betray
To each how each before Time’s magistrate
Was stuttering, inarticulate.

Not waiting for the whistle, the old man turned
With half a smile: “You’re good at shooting buck.
Remember there up North what you have learnt.
And don’t take stupid risks”. And then, “Goodluck”.
Embarrassed by his heart’s, his tongue’s distress
He barely managed to mutter a wry God-bless.

A childish lump in his throat, against his will,
Watching those shoulders darken out of sight,
Hearing the hooves grow dim on the slumbering hill …
Then only the engine hissing at the night:
Only the thought: He’s at the boundary gate.
He turns. He hears the birds. He feels the grit.

But when the whistle drove a long spear through
The unexpecting stillness, when, after a minute,
Echoes lapped back hollowly, he knew
His heart adventure-hungry, and hard within it
A doubt that an arid plain of rock and scrub
Could be his being’s centre, his whole life’s hub.

The first jets forced the angry cylinders,
And all down the train the couplings rang.
Ten bluegums struck the heavenly guitars,
o all the danger in him leapt and sang! –
But waiting with cries for other nights and stars,
Caught in his caging heart, slept two nightjars.

 

I would have included Adlestrop  by Edward Thomas but it has appeared here previously if you care to search in tags.

The first three poems are from ‘Selections from Modern Poets’ published 1927 by Martin Secker and Warburg, se;escted by J C Squire.   He started compiling in 1919 and cosidered it a selection of the best Modern Young Poets of the day.  None of them born before 1870, several dying in the First World War.  The book contains a fair number of  well-known now established names, respected writers of fiction as well as poetry.  Plus, for me a good mix of people I have come across only briefly or maybe not at all.

‘Modern’ was of the period but may not fit too well with poetry of today, ‘Georgian’ may fit better as well as  ‘Imagist’ but the sharpets edges may come from the ‘War Poets’ and  these accelerated the greatest boundary changes.

The Guy Butler is from the Second World war fitting the theme of trains and comes from the scenery of South Africa at the outbreak of the war.   I would have liked to include the complete poem by Harold Monro but felt it would stretch these pages a little too far. Maybe another time.

Guy Butler: Stranger To Europe, Poems 1939 to 1949

Published by A.A. Balkema. Capetown       1952                  23 poems

Sth Afr image

Guy Butler 1918 – 2001

Another rummage for old poetry books, this time in a charity shop and I found this title tucked away, also a selection by John Pudney, maybe more of him later……..

This is a collection of early poems by Guy Butler, recalling a moment in 1939 when the recruitment troops went round the townships of South Africa for volunteers to the Second World War.  Ending with a poem entitled,  After Ten Years,  a contemplation of his homeland, South Africa, after his travels round the war-zones of Europe and a period in England.

I took to the Internet to find more information about him and his writing.  I found  few sites and they only gave basic details of birth, death, marriage and children’s names.  Plus brief bibliographic details of his poetry, plays  autobiographic works, and his positions in a South African University.  But, despite the quality of his poetry, nothing seems to be currently available unless tucked into anthologies. There was a collected volume published some years ago (1999), now o.p..  Maybe he was not prolific or did not persevere as a poet.

I did find two poems on the site of ‘Poetry Nation Review 9’  (1979) and that was it.  From the same pages, written by David Wright, is a quote from an unnamed friend of his:  “were I asked to name the first wholly South African poet writing in English, I would point to someone few readers of poetry outside South Africa are likely to have heard of: Guy Butler, born 1918, the first to stick it out at home.”

I have no idea of the solidity of these words, I only recognise Butler’s use of language as a young man of twenty in 1939 and his acute observation of scene and mood as he was shuttled round various European theatres of war, followed by four years in England.  His subjects are different perspectives of his life throughout that period.  By 1949 his voice is still clear narrative, full of his native country though time has given him an older voice made harder, maybe, by the sights seen and time lost from his homeland.  He deserves a place as a war poet for this collection alone and I have read that his later poetry often reflected his war years and the losses and difficulties that echoed from them.  I believe his love of South Africa, its lands and heritage, drew him back to his homeland.

His remaining in South Africa through the years of apartheid may well have restricted if not  stifled his work and recognition around the English speaking world.  However, he may have felt it more important to remain in the landscape he loved.  Certainly the poetry in this book gives us colours, views and perspectives that are South African and obviously different to a strictly UK writers world.

The first poem in the book, written when he was twenty-one establishes his stance at once:
Karoo Town, 1939

In a region of thunderstorm and drought,
Under an agate sky,
Where red sand whirl-winds wander through summer,
Or thunder grows intimate with the plain, and rain
Is a great experience like birth or wonder:
By the half-dry river
The village is strung like a bead of life on the rail,
Along whose thread at intervals each day
Cones of smoke move north and south, are blown
By the prevailing winds below the clouds
That redden the sundown and the dawn.

Here the market price of wool
Comes second only to the acts of God:
Here climate integrates the landsman with his soil
And life moves on to the dictates of the season
Sth Afr image

The recruiters arrive and 31 more lines show their effect on the small town and people, but finally the landscape is superior to all:

But cannot shake the rockstill shadows of the hills
Obeying remote instructions from the sun alone.

Karoo town 1939  sets the scene, the almost timelessness of the African scene of the day.  Even the village along the railway line and the way of life seem to fit within the overall scale and continuity of a natural, unhurried flow.

And then in brief lines, the call to arms, like a sudden bugle call disrupts the scene.  The second half of the poem changes tone, focusing on people, colonial war and control.  The words harder and lines sharper, imitating the shock of war and harsh reality it brings.
But the circle is closed with a movement back into the last two lines that despite the seeming man-made tumult, the land continues, implacably influenced by greater things in the Universe.  Little rhyming, natural rather than designed, a nice alliterative, effective line towards the end but the final word has for me a rhyme, a reverberation with five lines back which effectively closes the poem.  In turn it offers a little wider reflection.

A formative poem, setting the scene for what is a set of poems, a narrative over ten years. But be aware for the last poem, After Ten Years, as the man, the poet, the landscape, has changed.

The poems have a timeline of ten years; they always retain their direct image and story but later ones stretch through the emotional hardships and losses of the war and its effects. When finally back home, in   After Ten Years   he describes this new, city-view and bemoans the dramatic changes in the streets, as the city itself and for those living there.

Mostly, this poem moves to confirm the losses of contact with the soil, magnificence of Nature and God, by the world and especially himself.  Politics of the day is not mentioned but knowing a little of the period you feel that this last poem encompasses that distress in those cities, for all its inhabitants.
Finally he vows to put past encumbrances (effects of war; reasons for loss of faith) and look to the future with an open mind.
Poems picked out: Though the whole book gives a rolling perspective of aspects of life and the poet and should ideally be read at one sitting:
Common Dawn;   Mirage;   Air Raid Before Dawn;   Bitter Little Ballad,   and Farewell in a Formal Garden

Final comment: I am so pleased to have discovered this poet and will look for his collected works, just hope I can find one.  Guy Butler could join the ranks of war poets;  also a poet to be considered for an anthology of Writers in English around the World if he is not already included somewhere.

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Extract of Karoo Town, 1939 from copy of above book, acknowledgement to AA Balkema, Capetown 1952.