Walking with Mary Butts
Butts and the Natural World
What if we were to take a walk with Mary Butts around her home in Sennen Cove? What would she point out and what would those things mean to her? The natural world she built on the page reflected the one that she saw in the real world: a world that would be intersected by her love of the classics, occult, pastoral, and travel. Mary Butts had a mystical eye with a perspective of the world that filled every scene with life and walking with her can provide us that perspective.
How did Mary Butts see the world?
Sitting with Mary Butts in her garden outside a house she had renamed “The House of Magic,” she recounts her childhood and travels. Recounting Salterns, her childhood home in Dorset, the paintings of William Blake pass through the conversation (Wikipedia). Her admiration for the works of Blake alongside the recounting of her relationship with her father informed her perceptions of magic and myth; performing dramatic renditions of Greek myths for her entertainment, her father instilled the love of Greek classics in her (Blondel 6). Talking about her childhood brings Mary into meditations on the beauty of the English south. These meditations would evolve into exclamations on the desire to keep the “sacred south” (Butts, Corfe) pure and free from those who will come to ruin it; Mary Butts makes clear her belief that “she can see no way forward but back, through the privileged sensibility of the few who still care for… a self-control, temperance, chastity that springs from contact with the earth and the powers of nature” (Patterson 133). Despite this aside, Mary Butts seems to have been inspired by her father’s classics and the works of William Blake to form her magical perception of the world around her. Her description of the English south shows both her love for it and desire to keep it pure from change.
Jumping to her later years, she recalls her meeting with Aleister Crowley, the occultist, who she wrote with to understand the world (Wikipedia). When you ask why she separated from his sphere, she dismisses him saying that he had no respect for the material world (Blondel, 8). Her faith in the occult was not shaken by Aleister Crowley however, as she made clear her love of ghost stories (Blondel 8-9), recalling Look Homeward, Angel and the character of Fergus. This concern for the material world, and her desire to respect and understand it would permeate her work and her travels.
Reminiscing about the years she spent travelling, Mary Butts recalls the “crystally red fruit” she ate so much of until she was ill (Butts 19 December) and the marvels she encountered in the world: “I went down to the Tammel falls below Benskeid [where] [t]he river was low… [and] was like some fierce living thing” (Butts 21 July 1911). Reminiscing, she describes her move to Sennen Cove, saying “I was afraid that I would not be able to grasp the Daimons of this land” (Butts, The Journal of Mary Butts, 14 March 1932). Through her travels and her memory of Sennen Cove it grows clearer and clearer that she did not just travel to experience the party and dance, but also to understand the natural world and its Daimons.
Asking her why she writes with such a desire to understand the natural world and bring it to life in her writing she says simply, “[I have] a Daimon – a spiritual force guiding [me] which [I obey], just as Lawrence, Yeats and long before them Socrates obeyed theirs” (Blondel 8).
The Immortal Garden: Blooming Flowers and Apple Land
Feeling like you have grasped the extent of her inspirations on the natural world Mary gets up and offers a walk around the gardens and countryside. Curiosity compels the question of “What does gardening mean for you, and why do you do it?”
Mary Butts gestures around her, exclaiming “[gardening] has throughout something of the feeling and intention of some kindly old religion, so sure of itself … [and] it would seem that in gardens there is all that we have of a nature religion left to us” (Butts, “The English Garden” 382).
Passing by the poppies in her garden and into the apple trees of the countryside, she recalls the Garden of Eden. Mary Butts, looking around her, explains her love of the countryside in England and how her short story Look Homeward, Angel imitated the garden of Eden; reciting the line “rising past the mill, to their house enclosed in its trees and its garden where the flowers bloomed the whole year long” (Butts, Look Homeward, Angel 225).
Plucking an apple from the tree ahead, she turns to you and offers the apple recalling another meditation on the Garden of Eden: another short story of Butts, The House Party, reads “Vincent told them the memories of… the Apple Land” (Butts, The House Party 216). Biting into the apple you overhear her say that the passage reminded her of the apples from home and the beauty of England just like the forever-blooming garden of Look Homeward, Angel.
The Ocean: The Dancing Purifier
Turning back to the house, you absorb the view of the Atlantic on your right and Mary Butts stops beside you. Contemplating how the vast expanse of the ocean should influence the writer beside you; in this contemplation there is a realization of The House Party: “The sea racing below on Vincent’s right was the sign of purification” (Butts, The House Party 205). A purifier that she would describe in her journal as “a blue tiger lying on its side, stretching out a paw” (Butts, The Journal of Mary Butts, 25 January 1932). Mary Butts then turns to you and exclaims that the ocean represents a dichotomy, seen in Look Homeward, Angel and The House Party: the former shows the chaos whilst the latter shows the purification.
millions of drops of water a reason why large iron ships should pile up on rocks, and be ground to pieces on equally hard stones. All by more water, lots of water, pulled about by the moon. It's a queer universe.
Vincent looked out to sea, over jade dancing, called it a drawing room ocean after the Atlantic, and kicked himself mildly for ingratitude. If only Paul could be dipped in it and brought out clean. He knew that what he needed was purification.
The Wood: The Natural World at War
Returning to the walk back to the house, the view of the land to your left elicits more contemplation. Mary Butts, as you walk, recalls her childhood again and the wilderness around it. Painting a picture of the landscape Mary references Armed with Madness, recalling that the woods around the house seemed to enjoy the music the Taverners played for it and sufficiently appeasing it.
A large gramophone stood with its mouth open on the verandah flags. They had been playing to the wood after lunch to appease it and to keep their dancing in hand.... They belonged to the house and the wood and the turf and the sea.
Curiously you wonder why the wood needed to be appeased, and Mary Butts responds by quoting her poem Corfe: “Turn back our folk from it, we hate the lot / Turn the Americans and turn the Scot; / Take unpropitious [sic] the turf, the dust / If the sea doesn’t get ‘em then the cattle must” (Butts, Corfe). Mary Butts paints a world which is sacred and would be tainted by outside intervention of people who do not understand the land from her childhood.
"Arm the rabbits with tigers' teeth
Day and Night: Life and Death
Reaching the doorstep your goodbye is interrupted by the view the sky shifting from day to night. You recall the idea of the ocean and the sun setting over it in the west. Mary Butts answers your thought, quoting from Look Homeward, Angel: “the ultimate west, where, day by day, men watch the sun stepping into the Baths of the Ocean” (Butts, Look Homeward, Angel 227). In the final moments of the setting sun, the story surfaces again: “with the Sun for hero and the Moon for heroine… enacting life and death” (Butts, Look Homeward, Angel 227). Looking at the stars Mary Butts says goodbye, and turning around, exclaims “[n]ight rising. We are hanging inside a pearl” (Butts, The Journal of Mary Butts,16 February 1932).
Walking away from the house you remember this statement, as you look up and understand what she meant; the shimmering of the stars looks like the reflections of a pearl dispersed as though “shaken out in handfuls” (Butts, The House Party 202) by an unknown god. Ending the day was not a feeling of finality, but of continuation with the world which Mary Butts seemed to live by. Everyday bleeds into every night, and in her life and works it seemed like the night was a birth of different adventures:
We sleep & go for long walks at night. Last night we climbed up a dried water... & came out as the top in a gap between the little mountains. There were miles of valleys & hills we had never seen & a little moon hanging over them.
Mary Butts to Douglas Goldring November/December 1923
"Paris was a dream – we didn’t go to bed for a week, & spent all our money on such binges! The last thing I remember was dancing solely supporting myself by the lobes of Cedric Morris’ ears."
The party, adventure, and wonder of the night was what Mary Butts would be drawn to in her life. Recalling how quick the goodbye was at the door, you wonder if Mary was having a party right then.
Butts, Mary. Armed with Madness. The Taverner Novels, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 11–142.
Butts, Mary. “Corfe.” Ritual, Myth, and Mysticism in the Work of Mary Butts: Between Feminism and Modernism, Edited by Roslyn Resoy Foy, University of Arkansas Press, 2000.
Butts, Mary. “The English Garden.” The Collected Essays, Edited by Joel Hawkes, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2021, p 382.
Butts, Mary. “The House Party.” The Complete Stories, Edited by Bruce McPherson, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2014, pp. 202–222.
Butts, Mary. The Journal of Mary Butts. Edited by Nathalie Blondel, Yale University Press, 2002.
Butts, Mary. "Letter to Douglas Goldring." November/December 1923. Douglas Goldring fonds. University of Victoria Special Collections.
Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 21 July 1911. University of Victoria Special Collections.
Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 23 June 1920. University of Victoria Special Collections.
Butts, Mary. “Letter to Aunty Ada”. 19 December. University of Victoria Special Collections.
Butts, Mary. “Look Homeward, Angel.” The Complete Stories, Edited by Bruce McPherson, McPherson & Company, New York, NY, 2014, pp. 223-230.
Patterson, Ian. "'The Plan Behind the Plan': Russians, Jews and Mythologies of Change: The Case of Mary Butts." Modernity, Culture and 'the Jew,' Edited by Bryan Cheyette and Laura Marcus, Cambridge Polity Press, 1998, pp. 126-140.
Wikipedia contributors. "Mary Butts." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 October 2022. Accessed 12 December 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Butts