Who is the English language’s most prolific poet?

unnamed (1)                          John Bradburne in his hut in Mutemwa. Picture courtesy of the John Bradburne Society.

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                                    Professor David Crystal

During a talk a little while ago, I put this question to my audience. Most immediately opted for Shakespeare. Some said Wordsworth. A few suggested Chaucer or Milton, and there was a sprinkling of other names. But nobody came up with the name of John Bradburne.

How does one quantify poetry? It is such a flexible and fuzzy genre that for a long time the Guinness Book of Records had no truck with it because of the difficulty of defining what a poem is. However, if we take a simple-minded view, restricting the notion to works written in metrical lines that begin with a capital letter, at least we have a basis of comparison with other writers who respect these conventions. And on that basis we find around 20,000 lines in Milton, 45,000 in Chaucer, 54,000 in Wordsworth, 89,000 in Shakespeare – and just under 170,000 in Bradburne. This statistic alone makes him at the very least a literary curiosity warranting investigation. He is certainly the most prolific poet the English language has ever had, and this was eventually recognized by Guinness in 2014.

Who was he?

Born in the Lake District in England in 1921, the son of an Anglican vicar, he was educated at Gresham School in Norfolk. He joined the army in 1939 and was posted to a Gurkha Regiment, serving in Malaya. On his demobilisation, he returned to England and took a variety of jobs while searching for a vocation. He became a Catholic at Buckfast Abbey, explored several monastic orders, and travelled abroad. He never became a monk, but a visit to Assisi led him to develop a deep relationship with the life of St Francis, and his love for the poorest of the poor, and he became a Tertiary (lay) Franciscan.

Journeys to the Middle East and North Africa reinforced a strong desire for Christian unity, as seen throughout his longest poem, the 10,000-line Ut Unum Sint – ‘that they may be one’. It reflects the diversity of his spiritual background. Raised as an Anglican, after his conversion he frequently signed his letters as ‘Jew’, and in his travels had close encounters with Islam and Buddhism. He concludes:

 

Hindoos and Buddhists, Anglicans,

And many quaint Americans

And legion others, if they seek

Sincerely, are the Saviour’s sheep.

 

‘Tis men of Faith whom God doth choose –

And pray remember that the Jews

Of old were His own faithful race:

We are adopted by His grace.

 

After several years of restless searching, he wrote to a priest friend in Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe). His request was simple: was there a vacant cave in Africa where he could live as a hermit? He arrived in 1968 and worked on the Jesuit missions as a lay helper before becoming warden of the leprosy village of Mutemwa, north-east of Salisbury (modern Harare). His love and unstinting service to all at Mutemwa gave the lepers back their self-respect and self-worth, and changed their lives. He was greatly loved by them and many still remember him today with deep gratitude and affection.

During the civil wars of the late 1970s, he was advised to get out of the country, but he refused to leave his charges. Abducted from his hut by the guerrillas, he was shot on 5th September 1979 and left to die by the side of the road. Mutemwa has since become an African Fatima. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, thousands come to celebrate his life, climb Chigona hill where he walked and prayed, and hear Mass. Within the Catholic tradition, his cause for beatification is progressing slowly – but as far as the pilgrims are concerned, he is already a saint.

The poems

What makes John Bradburn unique is the combination of a caring, selfless character (shared by many saints) with an ability to express his mission and vision in high-quality poetry (which has little precedent). His poems, as the poetry website puts it, ‘display a single-minded enthusiasm and clarity of vision that is compelling in its intensity and endearing in its humanity’. He writes compassionately and vividly about the lepers in his care, but his main themes are universal and hugely significant for Christianity: the nature of the Trinity, the importance of the Eucharist, the centrality of Mary, the place of the Bible, the necessity of Christian unity, and the critical role of prayer. It is a vision which becomes a reality only through a life of service to others. Why is John Bradburne important? The lepers of Mutemwa would tell you: because he provided them with their daily needs in the form of food, medicine, and loving care. It is this continual relating of the realities of this world to those of the next which is the unwavering focus of his writing, and which gives his Mutemwa experience a universal significance. In A Ballade of Non-Despondency he writes:

 

I’ll stay to watch and pray and try

To bring about undoubted ill’s decrease

By standing sentinel in Christ and by

Issuing rations where the rations cease.

 

He sees an intimate connection between the two worlds of daily survival and eternal life. As he puts it in a poem about the leprosy settlement:

 

Mootamewa is God’s darling; those who come

And go or stay may thus work out salvation.

 

And a similar metaphysical significance is seen in his hundreds of nature poems about the fauna and flora of Zimbabwe.

Actually, the total number of his poems is not yet known. The database at johnbradburnepoems.com currently contains 5246 separate items, including some of several thousand lines, as well as some prose pieces. But this is not the final total, for he wrote virtually everything in verse – including letters to his family, friends, and visitors, and thank-you letters to those who sent donations to him at Mtemwa. Many of these are doubtless lying forgotten in desks and drawers around the world, or retained as private treasures by people who do not wish to share them. As editor of the database, I am sometimes sent copies of fresh discoveries. In 2008, for example, I received a batch of 80 poems which contained a dozen I had never seen before. In 2009, a visitor to Zimbabwe returned with a large file of poems found in a mission-house in Harare: most were in the database already, but there were 23 new ones. I was sent another new one just a few weeks ago.

Most of the poems remained unknown until quite recently. Only a handful were ever published during his lifetime, in local southern African magazines, and nobody thought to do anything with the huge pile of manuscripts he left behind, which languished in a suitcase somewhere in a Harare basement. Once they came to light, it took the best part of 15 years to edit them all and make the database available online. And only in the past decade has it been possible to publish some selections through the John Bradburne Memorial Society. As a consequence, he remains the most prolific poet most people have still never heard of.

But that is beginning to change. At least one MA thesis has been written on him, there have been several newspaper articles, books about him are now coming off the press, and last year saw the first international conference on his poetry (in Perugia). If his beatification cause takes off in 2018, this will immediately bring a great deal of publicity.

Is it any good?

When someone writes so much, this is the inevitable question, and it is why I wrote a book on his poetry: My Life in Words. My short answer is: on the whole, yes. And I draw attention to his remarkable gift. He wrote in an extraordinarily fluent way. The manuscript texts show page after page with no corrections or changes of mind at all. And he writes fast. We know this because sometimes he not only dates the poem but tells us the time of day he finished it. For instance, in one year on 10th August he finished ‘To Paddy Bidwell’ at 3.55 a.m. The next poem on the page, ‘Mattins’, also ends with the time: 04.45 on the same night. There are 36 lines in the second poem – and they were written within 50 minutes. A line a minute, more or less.

This might not seem too difficult, until you realise just how complex the writing is. I’m not thinking here of the originality of the thought, or its theological content, which is impressive enough, but of his literary facility. He is a stickler for metre and versification, taking great pains to work out a symmetrical structure for a poem. His rhyme schemes are intricate; his word play even more so. And there is something else. Read this poem, ‘Sonnet on Timu’ (Timu was one of the Mutemwa lepers), written in 1969:

 

            Timu’s no Timon, Athens were to him

            Inseparable word from hens at hand,

            Many a time I greet him daily, Tim

            Ever is bright, dimness to him is banned;

            Intent on converse and on getting round

            Wondrously well on only hands and knees,

            Enters he here and there, all’s fairy ground

            Native to happy Tim who’s born to please;

            The produce of his poultry he will beg

            That I may purchase any time I pass

            Only providing that it is an egg

            But not a chicken cheeping “Fresh is grass

            Even as I am flesh!”: three pence a time

            Duly I pay and Timu’s lay’s sublime.

 

Did you notice anything? Read it again, this time looking at the initial letters of each line. It is a perfect acrostic.

So, think about it: write a poem like that, with an acrostic, making sure that each line has the right metre and that the sonnet rhyme-scheme is followed (abab cdcd efef gg). Don’t forget to add alliteration in most lines, and a sprinkling of puns. The whole thing has to make good sense, of course. Oh, and do it within a quarter of an hour, with no corrections. Something very special was going on here.

Why Wales?

What is the connection with Wales? A chain of coincidences. I left the full-time university world in 1984, and came back to Holyhead – where I was brought up – to carry on a career as a home-based writer and editor. We bought a house near the centre of town from people I knew – parents of a lad, Kevin Clifford Jones, who had been in my year in primary school. Eventually, I met Kevin once again: a professional cabaret musician now, widely known by his professional name of Casey [K.C.] Jones. Kevin would call in to the house, from time to time, to renew his memories of his old family home, and one day in late 1993 he brought out of his pocket an airmail letter, and asked me ‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’ It was a letter from Bradburne to Casey, written entirely in verse.

It transpired that Casey had worked as a teacher in missionary settings in East Africa during the late 1960s, and when he and his friends had some time off they would travel around the southern parts of the continent. On one of these trips, they all had their money and passports stolen, so they hitch-hiked back to their base relying on the help of missionary centres along the way. And at Archbishop’s House in Salisbury, Casey first met John Bradburne. Some time later, he was in the area again, but went down with a bout of malaria, and was looked after by – John Bradburne. They had a shared interest in music, and after Casey left Africa they corresponded a few times.

I had never seen anything like the poem-letter that Casey showed me. And then I asked the question which today seems rather naive: ‘Is there any more around like that?’ Casey put me in touch with Bradburne’s niece, Celia Brigstocke, who was secretary of the Memorial Society, and not long afterwards a large suitcase arrived filled with manuscripts. If they were placed in a pile, they would have reached my waist. The rest is history.

For more on John Bradburne   

The John Bradburne Memorial Society: www,johnbradburne.com

The poems: http://www.johnbradburnepoems.com

The biography: Didier Rance, The Vagabond of God (Darton Longman Todd, 2017)

The analysis: David Crystal, My Life in Words: the poetry and thought of John

Bradburne (2017, available through http://www.davidcrystal.com)

 

Copyright @ 2014 Cambria Nostra

 

 

 

 

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