No one reads the “storm goddess” Mary Butts (1890-1937), a woman who “more often sought out what was curious than what was virtuous.” Admired by her contemporaries Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Marianne Moore, Butts’ writing (where it gathers any light at all) tends to be overshadowed by her notorious escapades, which included practicing black magic with Aleister Crowley, smoking enormous amounts of opium, and abandoning her only child.
Possessing legendary vitality, Butts was not always unread: in the 1920s, she published pieces in The Little Review, which was not then a forgotten periodical, and her novels, especially Armed With Madness and Death of Felicity Taverner (collected and published by McPherson & Co. as The Taverner Novels) were praised and scorned by the more renowned—and remembered—of the modernists. With a more than a hint of panic, Virginia Woolf called the former work, with its relentless questioning of values, “indecent.” This is perhaps not surprising given Butts’ natural predilection for the outlandish.
More generous in his assessment is Paul West, who compares Butts to Clarice Lispector and writes that her
most conspicuous originality consisted in her resolve to depict worst things, or things at their worst, with a view to transforming them, which means assimilating into one’s being a sense of Creation’s massive, impersonal onslaught.
Written as an inverse of Eliot’s desolate Waste Land, Armed With Madness is Butts’ finest work, an ecstatic, allegorical quest for meaning in a world shattered by war and nihilism. Set in a remote corner of Cornwall, Armed With Madness chronicles the discovery, by a close-knit group of young men and women, of what may be the Holy Grail. It is a book ripe with strangeness, madness, love, and violence. It is also the most perfect embodiment of Butts’ odd, bewitching prose:
They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.
Mary Butts’ wild life caught up to her in 1937, when she died of a perforated ulcer.
For more, read a review of Nathalie Blondel’s biography, Mary Butts: Scenes From the Life or browse the writer’s Journals.
(Portrait by Cedric Morris)
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