The Collected Essays of Mary Butts
Edited and introduced by Joel Hawkes, with Bruce McPherson
399 pages, 5.5 x 8.5” trade paperback, index
ISBN 978-1-62054-032-9 Published 12/1/2021
The Collected Essays is the latest addition to an ongoing project of bringing almost all of Mary Butts's writings into print, and follows our well-received release of The Complete Stories in 2014,
The eleven essays and 117 literary reviews gathered in this new book were mostly written by Butts between 1932 and 1937, the most productive period of her foreshortened literary career. The range, variety, and depth of subjects is little short of remarkable, ranging from classical history and literature to popular fiction (historical, mystery, ghost stories), from modern history (French and English) to Eastern religion, and from the American Depression to gardening. She wrote first for The Bookman, essentially a trade journal, but soon was engaged to write reviews and essays for prominent journals and newspapers — The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, The Manchester Guardian, The London Mercury, Time and Tide, Week-End Review, John O’London Weekly, The Adelphi, Everyman, and even Crime. Moreover, “reviews” is a misnomer for most of Butts’s shorter pieces, since her approach is conversational and opinionated, and sprinkled with interesting asides. Following her death a eulogistic note in Time and Tide read: “[though] her natural abundance sometimes made her a misleading guide to other people’s intentions, the depth of her knowledge and the essential truth of her vision gave a special value to her judgments even when she appeared to be going off at an unlikely tangent. She touched nothing that she did not in some way enrich.”
"Mary Butts . . . wrote numerous insightful book reviews and articles, and these have been gathered together in 'Mary Butts: The Collected Essays,' edited by Joel Hawkes with Bruce R. McPherson. . . .In the more strictly literary sections one finds Butts’s astute insights into the ever-fascinating Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo; long considerations of Aldous Huxley and the Bloomsbury writers; and even roundup reviews of contemporary detective fiction. But particularly outstanding, and October-appropriate, are her extremely well-informed pieces about supernatural literature. “The Art of Montague James,” published in 1934, is apparently the first critical article written about the author of “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.” Butts firmly contends that “if Doctor James had chosen to write stories about any other subject under the sun, he would be considered the greatest classic short story writer of our time.” In analyzing his tales of demons and revenants, she shrewdly observes that it’s wrong to regard his work as dealing with 'the Unseen' because 'the essence of his art is a sudden, appalling shock of visibility.' " [Michael Dirda, The Washington Post, 10/19/23 — for the full review, scroll to bottom]
"The collection sings when Butts's life peeks through, as when she recounts an experience that led her, as a child, to learn "what a short story could be." Literature lovers will find much to consider in this varied collection."--Publishers Weekly
A distinctive and original voice within the Modernism movement, the English novelist Mary Butts was a prodigy of style, learning, and energy who wrote with powerful insight about the Lost Generation. She was born in 1890 in Dorset, England, a great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas Butts, William Blake's patron. By the time of her premature death in 1937, her work had gained a formidable reputation. Hailed for their brave originality and stylistic panache, her many stories, novels, and poems were mentioned in comparison with Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot. Her career was championed variously by Ezra Pound, Robert McAlmon, Ford Madox Ford, Charles Williams, Evelyn Waugh and May Sinclair. Her flamboyant lifestyle in London and France in the 1920s unfortunately overshadowed the importance of her work. Over the last several decades, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mary Butts the writer, and, after being "lost" for more than 50 years, her work has joined her contemporaries H.D., Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy, in the pantheon of literary Modernism.
Joel Hawkes is an English scholar of Modernism and teaches in Canada at the University of Victoria, BC. His research is particularly concerned with the physical, cultural and imaginative spaces we create and inhabit, and their ritual nature. He is also the editor of a volume of essays titled Mary Butts: Conflicts, Contradictions, and Feminist Reconstructions, which is forthcoming in 2024 from Bloomsbury Press.
Washington Post review
Modernism’s Forgotten MysticIn her short, tumultuous life, Mary Butts produced work admired by Bryher, Marianne Moore, and John Ashbery. Why isn’t she better known?
By Merve Emre
Once hailed as “the English Chekhov,” Butts is now almost totally unknown.
Many people in England think of Dorset as Thomas Hardy country. They have been to Dorchester or Weymouth, have driven through the woodland villages and seen the mist shrouding the hills, and tend to believe that this is a pleasantly rustic corner of the island. But if they venture inland, to the henges and hill forts of prehistoric Britain, they find that all is not sunlit and grass-colored. Hard winds scream across the ruins. The clouds cast strange forms over the valleys. There are no creatures in sight, only holes burrowed in the ground. This is a realm of brute, timeless magic.
That magic looms over the Iron Age hill fort of Badbury Rings—or the Rings, as the bewitched modernist writer Mary Butts called these three huge walls of turf, one cupped inside another, that rise like waves on the downs. As a child, she had walked the chalk paths that ran along their crests and had imagined the grass trampled through the ages by Druid priests and their doomed animals. She had stood on the soundless barrows and wondered whose bones were rotting under her feet. Celts? Romans? “It is said of this place that in the time of Arthur, the legendary king of Britain, Morgan le Fay, an enchantress of the period, had dealings of an inconceivable nature there,” Butts wrote at the beginning of “Ashe of Rings,” her first novel. “Today the country people will not approach it at night, not even the hardiest shepherd.”
For Butts, born in 1890 to a retired Army officer and his girlish second wife, the Rings “furnished the chief experience of my life,” she wrote in her journal. Its magic rippled southward, through the woods and the white-grass marshes, and toward her family estate, Salterns, bringing the great stone house and its treasures to life. It sailed down to Poole Harbor; fluttered over the ruined towers of Corfe Castle, “sitting like a black crown on a bright hill”; and traced the “lion-gold curve of the coast,” before plunging into the sea.
Between the Rings and the sea lies Mary Butts country, though people would look at you with bewilderment if you called it that today. Her work was immediately forgotten after she died, in 1937, at the age of forty-six, following years of hard living. Yet she left behind a vast trove of writing, some of it, as Marianne Moore claimed, “quite startling in impact and untrammelled diction.” In the early nineteen-twenties, Butts was hailed as “the English Chekhov” for her elliptical short stories. Her legacy includes five novels, three story collections, several cautionary pamphlets (“Warning to Hikers,” “Traps for Unbelievers”), a novella, a memoir, and more than a hundred reviews and occasional pieces, now gathered, for the first time, in “The Collected Essays of Mary Butts” (McPherson). None of this was enough to secure her the acclaim that her champions passionately insisted she was owed. “She was from the start one of the few who matter, a builder of English,” the poet Bryher wrote. “I have never doubted since I read her first story that she belonged to the immortals.”
There have been promises of a Mary Butts revival for the past thirty years. Every aspect of her writing seems primed to catch the light of the present. The recent fascination with placing genre fiction under the spell of a high-modernist sensibility gives a new lustre to her sinister romances, freakish fables, and ghost stories. So, too, do the spontaneous sexual fluidity of her characters, her earnest belief in enchantment, and her love of the land. (Her biographer, Nathalie Blondel, pronounces her an “early ecologist and conservationist.”) “The very features of her writing that taxed earlier readers,” John Ashbery wrote in his preface to “The Complete Stories of Mary Butts” (2014), “make her seem our contemporary.” Why, then, has the revival failed to take?
Mary Butts believed that she had been born with a rare capacity to “grasp the souls of old things.” Although she felt that she belonged to the “war-ruined generation”—“those years lie like a fog on my spirit,” she lamented—her restless vision seems constantly on the verge of slipping out of time altogether. Her work is a strong tincture of periods and movements: ancient, medieval, Romantic, Victorian, and modernist. Linear time was her enemy. “It is this splitting up of events into an irregular, inconvenient, positively demented time sequence that bitches things up,” she complained in her journal. “Why can’t the relative things happen together, simultaneously or in close sequence?”
To see Butts as she would want us to, with her “ambidextrous time sense,” is to see her dissolve into her great-grandfather Thomas Butts, a civil servant who was William Blake’s greatest patron. In 1808, after he stumbled in on Blake and his wife at home, nude and reciting lines from “Paradise Lost,” he commissioned twelve vividly colorful paintings to accompany Milton’s poem. For nearly a century, the paintings occupied the Blake Room at Salterns, where Mary’s father gave her lessons in observation. Her vision was trained by Blake’s angels and demons, in paintings suffused with the mute power of flesh and fire, wind and light. “The ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses,” Blake had written. Mary Butts grew up to claim this animism for herself. “Grown-up people say that children like to pretend the things they love are alive,” she wrote. “That is nonsense—they are alive.”
Salterns was a possessed and possessing place, the ideal childhood home for Butts, who found that the beauty and terror of material existence affected her “both unconsciously and profoundly.” In her posthumously published memoir, “The Crystal Cabinet”—it takes its title from a poem of Blake’s—she described the moors and beaches and marble-veined quarries of her estate, its “silver and musical instruments and little old pictures of battles on copper, and brass polished the colour of pale gold, and miniatures and seals and snuffboxes, and thirteen grandfather clocks and swords.” Everywhere she turned, she found “the potency that lives in the kind of earth-stuff that is hard and coloured and cold, yet is alive and full of secrets, with a sap and a pulse and a being all to itself.” Her memoir approaches these secrets by layering smell, color, texture, and substance onto objects, lending to their names the weight of the earth itself.
The birth of her brother, Tony, marked the end of her childhood Eden. Her father died not long after, in 1905, and it was “as if a strong, small, gold sun had set.” Her mother sold the Blakes to pay the death duties on the estate and got remarried, to a man whom Mary named Tiger-Tiger. Mary was cast out of Salterns, sent to a boarding school in the hinterlands of Scotland and then to Westfield College, in London, from which she was expelled for sneaking out to go to the Epsom Derby to see the horses. “A mad idiot,” the headmistress called her. When she arrived back home, her mother accused her of harboring incestuous desires, first for her stepfather, then for her brother. A small annuity from her father gave her barely enough to live on and just enough to be taken advantage of.
The outbreak of the First World War found her in London, volunteering for the Children’s Care Committee and living “a sapphic life” with a woman named Eleanor Rogers. The sorrows of her life would prove impossible for her to separate from those of the war, which seemed a repetition “on a world-scale of certain qualities I had already met of prejudice, injustice, cruelty, the dishonour of the mind.” Battles and bombings would emerge as the objective correlative of her disillusionment. She was “half-dead from want of being cared for,” she claimed.
Her journal, which she started in 1916, documents her growing freedom as an artist, although it also chronicles her impulsive quest for someone to care for her. On each of the lovers who pass through its pages, she bestowed a mythological counterpart. Rogers, in the final months of their relationship, seemed “a kind of new Medusa whose naked inhumanity turned people to stone.” She was saved from the Medusa’s gaze by a man she wrote of as Cupid to her Psyche: the poet John Rodker, a conscientious objector who was in hiding from the authorities. Through him, she came to know artists and writers of the day, and, in 1918, the couple married. Two years later, while pregnant with their daughter, Camilla, Butts started seeing Cecil Maitland, a red-faced, monocle-wearing ex-infantryman. After she gave birth, they began an affair fuelled by opium and the occult, slashing crosses into each other’s wrists and drinking the blood, making a pilgrimage to Aleister Crowley’s Abbey of Thelema, where they fell “in love with the 4th dimension.” Rodker finally found out about the affair by reading her journal. He took the most tedious and mortifying form of revenge: he annotated the entries concerning him. “You had a unicorn in your menagerie, but you have sent it away,” he wrote. Their marriage limped on—“discomfort,” she scrawled in the journal, knowing that he would see it—for a couple more years.
In the years after the Armistice, as Butts’s writing took shape, the “months spent in hard living” sharpened her Blakean powers. The short stories collected in her first book, “Speed the Plow” (1923)—about shell-shocked veterans, ghosts of old families, and daughters driven out of their Edenic homes—try to compensate for the savagery of modern civilization through her intense aestheticism. Her landscapes and houses are violently, crushingly alive. She builds her characters from inhuman things. Open the door to a house, in her story “In Bayswater,” and you will meet its caretaker, “a woman made of dirt-stiffened rags.” Loiter with a wounded soldier on the streets of London, in the title story, and you will witness this apparition:
A woman came out of the inn. She wore white furs swathed over deep blue. Her feet flashed in their glossy boots. She wore a god in green jade and rose. Her gloves were rich and thick, like molded ivory.What begins as a distant sighting is transformed, sentence by sentence, into a sensual uproar. White and blue and green and rose; fur and jade and molded ivory; soft and hard and bright and dark—until we are as paralyzed as the man who watches her. Who is she? It hardly matters. Her shape casts “the shadow of some unseen power,” as Shelley wrote—one of the poets whose verses Butts copied into her journals and later scattered throughout her novels.
“Only in Homer have I found impersonal consolation—a life where I am unsexed or bisexed, or completely myself,” Butts wrote in one of her earliest journal entries. Among modernists of the twenties, she was hardly alone in her preoccupation with antiquity; Eliot was laying claim to the Holy Grail, and Joyce was making the Odyssey new, by bringing it down to earth. Butts was, however, unique in how slavishly she hewed to ancient ideals. She vowed to sing of arms and men in the trenches of France, of the quests of the Lost Generation, of women cloaked in the heroic temperament sôphrosyne, which she had read about in Gilbert Murray’s “The Rise of the Greek Epic” and adopted as a “yard-stick for all conduct.” Murray defined sôphrosyne as “Temperance, Gentleness, Mercy,” to which Butts added “good form, fine breeding, humour, a sense of shapeliness.” The sophron was the shape she longed to assume, a figure who strove to master her vehement passions by practicing “the tempering of dominant emotion by gentler thought.” Only then could she attain “freedom, perfect freedom.” “I sometimes wonder if I shall have to die young because of these preoccupations of mine,” she wrote.
Imagining herself a war-shattered wanderer, like her beloved Odysseus, Butts spent the decade reeling from London to Paris—wherever there was an experience to be had or a person to love. If not beautiful, she was striking, the kind of woman who moved others to indulgent, painterly descriptions of her face and figure. On smoke-veiled evenings at the Bœuf sur le Toit, she was “easily recognized by the tangled mass of flaming gold-orange hair that refused to remain tidy,” the artist Robert Medley recalled. When the writer Glenway Wescott met her, at a party in London, she was draped in “a great Velasquez dress, silver and apple-green, beautiful and abundant, candid but remote, her hair the color of Villa, her exquisite Tudor face.” Her arms were loudly bangled; her laugh was a catching giggle. Her faithful companion was her opium pipe, which she smoked with an addict’s ferocity and an artist’s excuses. “The use of our dopes is more ancient than I had supposed,” she wrote in her journal, marvelling at the “psychic auras” that decorated the churches and shops of Paris, after her seventh pipe.
Her assessments of the company she kept were less rapturous, and tinged with envy. They betrayed her desire to stand at the center of modernism’s Continental party, when she was doomed to wander its periphery, high as a kite. In her journals, she gossiped brightly and cruelly about everyone who was anyone. “T. S. Eliot, with his ear on some stops of English speech which have not been used before, the only writer of my quality, dislikes me & my work,” she complained. He kept trespassing on her ideas and nicking her titles; she had intended to call one of her novels “The Sacred Wood,” she claimed. Ezra Pound made a passable first impression as “a competent, sometimes witty critic” but quickly exposed himself as “dull, all dull, he & his set, dull because they have nothing to say.” Gertrude Stein was a bore, possibly a force of evil, with a style easy to ape: “ ‘Sex is swell.’ ‘Nature is grand.’ ‘Opium is appetizing.’ ‘Life is lovely.’ ‘Food is fine’—etc. etc.” Her highest praise was reserved for Wyndham Lewis: “The first man I have met whose vitality equals, probably surpasses mine. A pleasure to be raped by him. Yes, that’s true.”
The presence of evil corrupts absolutely, degrading matter and spirit and speech. Melitta is a “vigorous, flesh-eating Saxon woman” with a “pale maggot of an intellect.” Peter is a “shell-shocked lump of carrion.” Serge, a Russian émigré torn between loving Vanna or Judy, is “made of wax,” “the fat of dead men, melted and poured.” These rotting cadavers speak to one another of love and war in strange, syncopated rhythms, like a thought skipping a beat or two. Their vague and pattering speech—the voices merge—encircles the novel’s heaving descriptions of the land, a place “where the word is made flesh”:
In the summer the house swooned, in winter slept like a bear. Through the afternoons it could be heard, sucking in its sleep, milky draughts, bubbles of quiet, drunk against the future when it should become a wrath. On spring nights there became imminent the fantasy of Rings; when, on the screaming wind, the Rings went sailing, and hovered over the house and swooped and fanned, and skimmed away in the dark, a cap between the roofs and the blazing stars.In the novel’s fairy-tale ending, Vanna vanquishes Peter and Judy by lying naked on the Rings—a perfect communion between woman and nature, past and present. She is the last in a line of mythmakers, an oracle who hints at the secrets of the land. The animism of the land is the subject of properly heroic art—the art of the sophron.
Literary revivals require charismatic characters, artists who appeared quixotic in their time but come to seem prescient in ours. If the revival of Mary Butts has faltered, it may be because she has an unappealing side. At a distance, she glitters. Up close, she has all the charm of someone else’s grubby, careless child. “She does so give me the creeps,” Ford Maddox Ford confessed, after she’d asked him to press “Ashe of Rings” onto his editor. (He declined.) “Malignant Mary,” Virginia Woolf called her, and she rejected “Ashe of Rings” for Hogarth Press, judging it “an indecent book, about the Greeks and the downs.” Several years later, Woolf recorded in her diary Tony Butts’s comments about his sister: “She is a bad woman—pretentious—I can see no merit in her work—pretentious.”
Mary Butts likely would have agreed with them to a point. She was dissatisfied enough with her life in the nineteen-twenties to deem herself “an unsuccessful writer, lover, dubious mother.” She was nomadic and usually penniless, and whatever money she did have she spent on drugs and dresses. “There were mutterings because Miss Butts displayed an expensive wardrobe obtained from the best couturiers in Paris and before other ladies who had loaned her money for that poor lamb of a child,” the publisher Robert McAlmon reported. Lest the poor lamb tread on her mother’s Lanvin or Chanel, Camilla was deposited in one pension after another, until eventually she was entrusted to her grandmother, back in Dorset. “Motherhood was not Mary Butts’s forte,” Camilla concluded some years after her mother’s death. The impassivity of her tone is more jarring than overt anger would be. Anger suggests an expectation that has been disappointed. But it was impossible to have any expectations of Mary Butts, who, as Peggy Guggenheim complained, “was always up in the clouds.” This was after a weekend at Guggenheim’s villa in Pramousquier, when Butts ran out of opium, swallowed a bottle of aspirin, and fell unconscious, leaving the other guests to entertain her daughter.
There’s little point in moralizing about such behavior today. Yet the casual inhumanity of Butts’s life parallels inhuman aspects of her fiction. Although her writing can be assuredly gorgeous, it can also be mannered, high-flying, chilly, and cryptic. The heart does not warm to her characters or to the sensibility that motivates them, suspecting that behind the work’s stylishness looms a terrible abyss—an amazing egotism doing battle with an equally amazing drive toward self-annihilation. Yet it is mesmerizing to watch the battle play out on the page with such agonized intensity. In Butts’s struggle to communicate her mythic vision, we feel that something grave is at stake.
The same year that “Ashe of Rings” was published, Butts left Cecil Maitland and arrived on the Mediterranean scene. She made landfall in the ancient fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer. “Greeks and Phoenicians have unloaded on its stones; Moors and Genoese cut each other’s throats on them,” she fantasized in an essay. On the harbor’s edge stood the “sea-washed, fly-blown” Hotel Welcome, with its gleaming iron balustrades and pale-orange walls overlooking Cap Ferrat. She was greeted by the hotel’s most famous resident, Jean Cocteau, who became her confidant. Artists of all nationalities and kinds—Paul Robeson, Isadora Duncan, Cedric Morris, Glenway Wescott—poured merrily into the lobby. She was entranced by the idea that each came bearing his own “race legend”: “English: She wanted so / very much to be married that / & she married the wrong man. French: Isn’t it hell to be found out? (Adultery and escroquerie.) Russian: Why can’t we all go mad?” She admired the questing spirit of the expatriate American, of whom she wrote, “The seeker shall not rest till he finds that which he seeks but when he has found it, he shall wonder, & when he has wondered, he shall be master.”
The Hotel Welcome was full of art and cosmopolitan chatter. It was also full of lovers—mostly men—smoking, quarrelling, running off to Montparnasse to betray one another, then slinking down to the coast in regret and shame to do it all over again. It was all “ ‘rather queer’ or ‘rather beastly,’ ” Butts observed. “The pæderast world my choice for milieu.” Her short stories from that time, many of which feature men carelessly swapping lovers, reflect Cocteau’s insistence to her that the decadent modernist experiment would culminate in “a literature of hate.” Looking at her life, he had good reason to make this claim: her tempestuous love affair with the closeted American composer Virgil Thomson; the gay Russian gigolo Sergey Maslenikof, who promised to make love to her, took what money she could offer him, and ran. “How tired I am of this fruitless homosexuality,” she complained, in 1928. Yet she resisted Cocteau’s cynicism. “Most of the things we do are not wrong, it is our way of doing them,” she insisted. “They are very good things—pæderasty & jazz & opium & research.” Her task was to weave a new myth that held out hope of redeeming these very good things.
It was at the Hotel Welcome that she came up with the idea for her second novel, “Armed with Madness,” published in 1928. “I know all it is to be about; no plot,” she sketched in her journal. “I think it shall begin with the ‘boys and girls’ finding the Grail Cup.” The “boys and girls,” in their twenties or thirties, are the five characters around whom the action turns. Dudley Carston, an American, journeys from Paris to the South of England to visit the Taverner siblings, Scylla and her brother, Felix, at their country estate. Between the siblings is a strange and unspoken attraction. (“Jean said, of recent incest cases: ‘C’est la néoclassicisme sexuel,’ ” Butts noted in her journal.) Carston is attracted to Scylla, but so is her neighbor Picus, who betrays his lover, Clarence, with her. Each love triangle is made to touch the borders of the others. All the boys and girls are smothered in despair and mystery, and the narrative, which spasms from third person to first person, from sumptuous details to lunatic theories of time and space, is unwilling to clarify what, precisely, ails them. “There was something wrong with all of them, or with their world,” Scylla thinks. “A moment missed, a moment to come. Or not coming. Or either or both.”
Into this force field of desires, Picus thrusts the Holy Grail, a jade cup that he claims to have fished out of the Taverners’ well. Is it really the Grail? No one can say. But the characters yearn for it to impart meaning to the “dis-ease” of their lives. Their longing for magic makes it magic, and in the second half of the novel they each set out to redeem the fallen world—some through delirious sex with strangers, others through violence, some through the accumulation of property, others through art. As one character puts it:
The cup may have been an ash tray in a Cairo club. But it seems to me that you are having something like a ritual. A find, illumination, doubt, and division, collective and then dispersed. A land enchanted and disenchanted with the rapidity of cinema. . . . Our virtues we keep to serve these emergencies. Our virtue to induce them.“The grail knights are gathering,” the Taverners announce at the end, when all five come together again. But they bear no treasure, have no sovereign whose command anchors them to the Round Table. Nothing is resolved. “The whole Grail story, the saga story par excellence had never come off, or found its form or poet,” Scylla thinks. In toying with the Grail myth, “Armed with Madness” casts modernism’s relentlessly fragmented, disenchanting, and morally ambiguous narratives as a quest without end.
For her life’s final act, Mary Butts returned to the British coast. In 1932, she settled in Sennen Cove, in Cornwall, with the painter Gabriel Atkin: “a slender, archaic Apollo,” according to her; a bitter drunk and “the toast of British sodom,” according to Quentin Bell. They married and moved into a bungalow, which they named Tebel Vos—Cornish for “house of magic.” For a time, things were peaceful. “The weather & the flowers & this land. The books,” she wrote in her journal. “Health & work & our marriage.” But Atkin sulked and raged and slept with men. The marriage turned into a dirty streak of “bad days. Bad days that are over,” she lamented. “If only next time, I could remember.”
The most wrenching aspect of her last years is the command that began to repeat in her journals after Atkin finally left, in 1935: “Remember.” “Remember: Why does one forget?” she asked. Her mind and her memory were paying the price for her years of ruinous living. She must have sensed that a final reckoning was near. What she wanted to remember now was the Celtic Sea, whose harsh and dazzling glare greeted her when she stepped outside Tebel Vos. Her best work in these years was neither her essays nor her plodding historical novels, “The Macedonian” and “Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra.” It was in the impressions that she committed to her journal of the sea and the sky and their many changeable moods:
Remember: the evening light—something I have never seen before, not to such an extent. The whole world, sea & moor & hill, dipped in turquoise, like a day, ‘laking’ in levels, of a brilliant exquisiteness beyond belief—a physical rapture.
Remember: What frightened me, looking down as I hurried into the bay, was the dreadful whiteness of the surf. . . . Broken over acres in arcs & fragments of arcs, torn & ravelled & of that dreadful whiteness. White against ink-purple & ink-indigo & ink slate. A dreadfulness.
remember—Waxing moon, dead calm, open sky with horizon cloud ranks. . . . What one cannot say, & in part what one had better not say.What one hears in these entries is not the self-forgetfulness of the visionary, or the reserve of the sophron, or the valor of the knight. It is a desperate plea for beauty to keep oblivion at bay. If only she could catch the spirit of the sea with words, then perhaps time would spare her. There is pathos in the fact that she failed—that she was, in the end, merely mortal. No amount of bargaining in the language of moon and cloud made a difference. She died in pain, alone, unprotected, and destitute. Years later, Camilla added an epitaph from Blake’s “The Crystal Cabinet” to her mother’s sunken tombstone in the Sennen Church cemetery: “I strove to seize the inmost form.”
To walk the coast of Cornwall or Dorset today is to yearn to see the sea through Mary Butts’s eyes. “Thirteen ways of looking at a piece of jade,” she wrote. One searches for her alloyed colors in the break of the waves, the line of the horizon. But the air is hazed by cars and tour buses waiting for a ferry that will take them across the harbor, and the water lapping the sand smells of oil and waste. People—ordinary, unromantic people—are littered everywhere, sagging into plastic beach chairs, trampling the heather trails with their sluggish dogs and slovenly children. More generous novelists would covet these characters. Mary Butts would have had no use for them. But she is gone, the party is over, the Grail is lost, and the gods are dead. ♦