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’


 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.








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?



Three Poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley

Charles Hamilton Sorley   1895 – 1915 (13th Oct)

He was on walking tour in Germany before taking up a scholarship to Oxford University. War declared whilst there; briefly arrested before able to return to England.  The morning after arriving home he applied for a commission. In France (Suffolk Regiment) in May 1915, made up to Captain by September, killed 13th Oct.   A brief life cut short by a sniper at the Battle of Loos.

link to war poets website:  war poets


I believe Edmund Blunden considered Sorley to be already a consummate poet and a great loss in potential at the hands of  The Great War.  I have not found many but these three ( four if you take the Two-Sonnets as two, I dont).  The ‘Letter‘ seems a very fine poem to my mind

A Letter From The Trenches To A School Friend

I have not brought my Odyssey
With me here across the sea;
But you’ll remember, when I say
How, when they went down Sparta way,
To sandy Sparta, long ere dawn
Horses were harnessed, rations drawn,
Equipment polished sparkling bright,
And breakfasts swallowed (as the white
Of eastern heavens turned to gold) –
The dogs barked, swift farewells were told.
The sun springs up, the horses neigh,
Crackles the whip thrice-then away!
From sun-go-up to sun-go-down
All day across the sandy down
The gallant horses galloped, till
The wind across the downs more chill
Blew, the sun sank and all the road
Was darkened, that it only showed
Right at the end the town’s red light
And twilight glimmering into night.

The horses never slackened till
They reached the doorway and stood still.
Then came the knock, the unlading; then
The honey-sweet converse of men,
The splendid bath, the change of dress,
Then – oh the grandeur of their Mess,
The henchmen, the prim stewardess!
And oh the breaking of old ground,
The tales, after the port went round!
(The wondrous wiles of old Odysseus,
Old Agamemnon and his misuse
Of his command, and that young chit
Paris – who didn’t care a bit
For Helen – only to annoy her
He did it really, K.T.A.)
But soon they led amidst the din
The honey-sweet – in,
Whose eyes were blind, whose soul had sight,
Who knew the fame of men in fight –
Bard of white hair and trembling foot,
Who sang whatever God might put
Into his heart.
And there he sung,
Those war-worn veterans among,
Tales of great war and strong hearts wrung,
Of clash of arms, of council’s brawl,
Of beauty that must early fall,
Of battle hate and battle joy
By the old windy walls of Troy.
They felt that they were unreal then,
Visions and shadow-forms, not men.
But those the Bard did sing and say
(Some were their comrades, some were they)
Took shape and loomed and strengthened more
Greatly than they had guessed of yore.
And now the fight begins again,
The old war-joy, the old war-pain.
Sons of one school across the sea
We have no fear to fight –

And soon, oh soon, I do not doubt it,
With the body or without it,
We shall all come tumbling down
To our old wrinkled red-capped town.
Perhaps the road up llsley way,
The old ridge-track, will be my way.
High up among the sheep and sky,
Look down on Wantage, passing by,
And see the smoke from Swindon town;
And then full left at Liddington,
Where the four winds of heaven meet
The earth-blest traveller to greet.
And then my face is toward the south,
There is a singing on my mouth
Away to rightward I descry
My Barbury ensconced in sky,
Far underneath the Ogbourne twins,
And at my feet the thyme and whins,
The grasses with their little crowns
Of gold, the lovely Aldbourne downs,
And that old signpost (well I knew
That crazy signpost, arms askew,
Old mother of the four grass ways).
And then my mouth is dumb with praise,
For, past the wood and chalkpit tiny,
A glimpse of Marlborough -!
So I descend beneath the rail
To warmth and welcome and wassail.

This from the battered trenches – rough,
Jingling and tedious enough.
And so I sign myself to you:
One, who some crooked pathways knew
Round Bedwyn: who could scarcely leave
The Downs on a December eve:
Was at his happiest in shorts,
And got – not many good reports!
Small skill of rhyming in his hand –
But you’ll forgive – you’ll understand.



There where the rusty iron lies,
The rooks are cawing all the day.
Perhaps no man, until he dies,
Will understand them, what they say.

The evening makes the sky like clay.
The slow wind waits for night to rise.
The world is half content. But they

Still trouble all the trees with cries,
That know, and cannot put away,
The yearning to the soul that flies
From day to night, from night to day.

            Two Sonnets


Saints have adored the lofty soul of you.
Poets have whitened at your high renown.
We stand among the many millions who
Do hourly wait to pass your pathway down.
You, so familiar, once were strange: we tried
To live as of your presence unaware.
But now in every road on every side
We see your straight and steadfast signpost there.

I think it like that signpost in my land
Hoary and tall, which pointed me to go
Upward, into the hills, on the right hand,
Where the mists swim and the winds shriek and blow,
A homeless land and friendless, but a land
I did not know and that I wished to know.


Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.

And this we know: Death is not Life, effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvellous things know well the end not yet.

Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
“Come, what was your record when you drew breath?”
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.


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


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.

The Poems of Wilfred Owen, A Graph Review

Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden.

A Graph Review, 70 with highpoints to 80

First published 1931 by Chatto & Windus.

There’s a romance about this book that clicked into my mind and stoked imagination. Yes, the contents, the memoir of 40 pages filling the book with the life of Wilfred Owen and yes too to the poems as they fill, fade and haunt the reader.  The romance is found from the carefully torn edge of the first, leading page of the book.  It seems to have been creased and cut with a paper-knife so the name of the owner, or the giver and receiver were carefully removed for the sake of secrecy.      Next, is the firmly pencilled word ‘Assonance’ next to a sample poem of Owens developmental style (use of para-rhyme) and on the following page an underlining of a title; Strange Meeting.

Following the annotations, clues, we are moved on to read the poem: From My Diary, July 1914, next we are bidden to read, Exposure, pressed on to Dulce Et Decorum Est. and finally to Spring Offensive. Why not to Strange Meeting, as was highlighted earlier?

Why mention these notes?  Purely as part of the fascination of coming across old books and finding such markings.  Names of the past, hands that have turned those same pages. Minds that have pondered or maybe scorned.  Notes that the earlier reader made for reference or satisfaction.  These were no students notes in a textbook, would that they were, there must have been a reason.  No matter, just another layer for thought.

Perhaps a key element of the annotation is in the ‘Preface‘ written by Owen as notes for a volume of poetry he was preparing.  Some of his words:
‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
………… All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.’
He believed from early teens that he would be a poet and all his life was aimed at learning the art of his own poetry and a commitment to observation and truth.  It seems that for the last year of his life he finally had confidence in his ability as a poet which carried him through that last rash of fighting and his death, sadly, so close the end of the War.

Read as comparative style, Julian Grenfell’s, Into Battle: it was written in 1915 and caught the public imagination at the time.  JG was from a sporting family, entered the military as a regular (dragoon) several years before the start of WW1; was deployed in India and South Africa before being sent to Flanders soon after the WW1 unfolded and was killed in 1915:

Followed by Owen’s: Spring Offensive (probably written mid 1918).
Grenfell was born a very few years before Owen.  Owen had already claimed his vocation was as a poet but believed he needed time and experience to develop his own style  (confidence in its quality).  Owen started in Artists Regiment and was gazetted to Manchester Regiment and Western Front in 1917. After a spell in hospital (shell-shock) and recuperation in Edinburgh he went back to France and was killed 4 November 1918, right at the end of the war.  Before returning to France he had written of his new belief in himself as a poet and his calmness of nerve and resolve for the return to the Front.

This collection will have been read by millions, mulled over by critics and teachers and studied by students of all ages.  Lines and words will have been analysed and maybe ripped apart.  Owen worked at being a poet, or rather strained at producing what he knew he could.  He succeeded.  Maybe his observations in a world of less turmoil would have seen a different butterfly emerging from the chrysalis of Keats’ , Shelley’, Tennyson’ and his other favoured poets’ works.  But we have what we have, an observant, compassionate and true account of people in war.  Poetry whose words are often subjugated by the images they throw into the readers mind.  Owen mentions in his writing when younger that he had thought of being a musician, had thought of being an artist but that he had to be a poet.  So perhaps no wonder each poem is like a painting and reads like music.  The best of his poetry in this collection is an integration of all three arts.

I wrote at the start that there was a romance of annotation, a trail of another’s making to follow in my copy of this book.  I mentioned above Julian Grenfell.  Previously I have written on collections of other War Poets likeIvor Gurney and Vernon Scannell and recommend the website. War Poets Association.. .  I have sampled poems for ‘ Of war and men’ and will no doubt do assorted others.  So where is the ‘romance’ in war poetry?  It is in the discovery, the sliding between subjects, between the poetry and poets.  Between objective and subjective and the slicing in the readers eye of what strikes home.

For Owen, in his own words in his ‘Preface‘ he wished to show ‘the pity of war’. And in truth, he does.

The first poem on this collection is ‘From My Diary, July 1914‘. A gentle yet shimmering poem on early summer. The happy days of play, of youth and promise. A lightness of touch for the gleaming prospect ahead. …..
Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.’

To be tipped, headlong into the next poem, ‘The Unreturning‘……..

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled

From here-on the war is all-embracing. His eye catches scenes and his pen fails nothing.
Once again I urge you to read this collection, including the memoir and notes by Edmund Blunden.  The poems would appear to be in order as written, as far as ascertainable

The poems move on through the collection of verse and sonnets and you cannot help but remember the likes of ‘Shadwell Stair‘, ‘Arms and the Boy‘, ‘Asleep‘, ‘Disabled‘, ‘The Kind Ghosts‘.

The final poem, ‘Strange Meeting‘, with it’s last, short line…. “Let us sleep now……….”

Below is a poem, not really typical of those poems which strike deepest but a sonnet format features throughout the collection, maybe giving elements of internal structure away from his maddened surroundings.
On seeing a piece of our artillery brought into action

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
Spend our resentment, cannon, yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.

Yet, for men’s sakes whom thy vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, A Graph Review

Edward Thomas: selected poems                  A Graph Review, 55 with high points 65

Edited by Matthew Hollis

From: Poets of the Great War, a series of six titles, each on a poet of the First World War
edthomas coverThis title first published in 2011 and in this series edition in 2014

Publisher Faber & Faber,

978 0571 31363 1           hardback           rrp  £10.00

Edward Thomas; 1878-1917

Matthew Hollis has also published a study of Edward Thomaslatest now all:    Now all Roads Lead to France

In this ‘Selected Poems‘ Matthew shows his expertise on the subject with a synthesis of Edward Thomas’ life, work, how he came to write poetry, nudged along by Robert Frost, and his own creative style.

There is a large selection of poetry from a relatively small output but Matthew Hollis has included additional material of small excerpts from early writings and diaries, including parts of his war diary.  All of which add understanding to the process of the poems.  There is a table of key dates, separate notes for the introduction and a large section at the end relating to the place and time of writing individual poems. Excerpts from his war diary, Jan 30 to April 8 1917 show him still the observant writer whether of nature or his military situation.  Of course there is a contents list and index of first lines .

Edward Thomas was writing straight after leaving Oxford and was a mature writer and reviewer by the start of the war but took up poetry in the early part of 1914, eventually joining up in 1915 though as a father of three and aged 37 it was his own decision.  Why, is not an answer Thomas seems to have given, maybe his continuing health problems              (depression) gave him reasons he could or would not give or escape.  A military year was spent in Essex then he transferred regiments and shipped out to France.  He was there only a few weeks before dying in the early days of the battle of Arras, securing his place as a War Poet despite not writing specifically from the trenches.  His poetry was filtered and created from his years as a walker, note-taker and writer on the seasons and  countryside around him.  He suffered from depression much of his life and his need for walking and studying the rhythms of the countryside was likely an aid to balance himself.

He only began writing poetry in 1914, encouraged by his close friend Robert Frost, using his collations of walking-notes.  He was writing poetry, using old nature notes as well as new writing for slightly over two years.  His years of experience as a writer and critic           (appreciated by his literary peers and friends) enabled him to have the confidence and ability in using a style that was all his own.  Using natural speech rhythm, and often rhyme but always in a style that ran as a force of nature.  Running in distinct, smooth, rarely broken cadence (Words, breaks this norm somewhat).  Words chosen for their meaning, verse written for its sense; scenes and observations, conversations and happenings.  Through many poems there is a sense of the past and its existence but not regret of its passing, rather acceptance that now is not what was.  Numerous poems have a feeling of doubt about them, of a loneliness which he is part of, yet still, as an outsider observing the world.  A feeling of intimate as well as scenic Nature which ultimately is like the ebb and flow of mist, all around him with glimpses of a world he knew he loved but found difficult to keep hold of.

He produced a couple of hundred poems in the two years plus before his death.  Only saw the proofs of his first poetry collection shortly before he died, not the finished copy.  On publication his reputation as a poet began there and then and has maintained

I like to choose a few favourite poems from each poet so here we go:
I have to mention ‘Adlestrop‘ as I have written on it previously and it is perhaps his most known piece.
Many others could be picked but at time of reading five are standing out for me are:
The Brook,       Aspens,            No one as much as You

And two which may be better known: Lob      and         Tall Nettles

Lob         I do especially like as it is a theme that I find affiliation with.

Edward Thomas is remembered as a poet of standing who would probably have produced much more.  His credentials as one of the War Poets may be slightly over stated except that he died at the Front in WW1 (but who am I to really gainsay the world!).  However his high-standing as a poet of his day, and the fact that his style is as modern now as it was unique when written ensures his place high up in the honours-listing of poets.  For me, his poems have something of Ravilious about them and will stand the test of time.   A book to place firmly on the shelf, next to Matthew Hollis’ other Edward Thomas title:

Tall Nettles                                      (1916)
Tall Nettles cover up, as they have done                                                                                    These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough                                                                   Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:                                                                             Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.

This corner of the farmyard I like most:                                                                                          As well as any bloom upon a flower                                                                                                    I like the dust on the nettles, never lost                                                                                    Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

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.