The Vagabond of God
By Didier Rance
Darton, Longman & Todd, 504 pages, $20.77
John Bradburne’s fan club—an impressively diverse and determined body—are pushing for their hero to be recognized both as a saint and as a significant poet. One of these outcomes, I think, is more likely than the other; but even if neither comes to pass, they should be applauded for drawing attention to this delightful man.
Reading Didier Rance’s biography, John Bradburne: Vagabond of God, newly translated into English, left me groping for the right comparison to make sense of Bradburne’s life. His first eighteen years were like Wordsworth’s, an immersion in landscapes—mostly those of Cumbria—which he went on describing in verse for the rest of his life. From this idyll he was sent into the horrors of the Pacific War, amid which he converted to Christianity after a mystical illumination during a life-threatening bout of malaria.
After the war and his reception into the Catholic Church, Bradburne’s life half-consciously resembled that of St. Benedict Joseph Labre: the ascetic tramp who never quite fits into any religious order he tries, and instead lives a nomadic life of prayer. Eventually, in his last decade, Bradburne found peace (though many tribulations, too) caring for lepers in what was then Rhodesia; here his happy self-abegnation was like that of Mother Teresa or Damien of Molokai. As Rhodesia collapsed into violence in 1979, some local thugs murdered him out of greed and unfocused anti-colonial hatred. Bradburne left five thousand poems at his death, making him the most prolific poet in the English language.
Bradburne did not seek to be eccentric, but the word is unavoidable. Asked to make a difficult decision, he would say something like, “Wait while I ask the Blessed Virgin,” and toss a coin. In one characteristic episode in Rhodesia, a friend was cornered by a hooded cobra and shouted for help. He was furious when Bradburne strolled in carrying a recorder: Couldn’t he see this was an emergency? “That’s why I’ve brought my recorder,” Bradburne explained, before raising the instrument to his lips and charming the serpent out of the room.
For all his saintliness, attested to by many friends and acquaintances, Bradburne’s idiosyncrasies could be exasperating. In the late 1950s, his wanderings took him to Hertfordshire, where he worked as a caretaker and occasional gardener at the Archbishop of Westminster’s official residence. Bradburne lived a quiet life—praying, existing on a diet of baked beans, making friends in the village—until a dispute erupted over the renovation of the house. Bradburne dreamed of restoring the old chapel; the architect wanted to modernize the site, which would incidentally involve disturbing the nest of Bradburne’s pet pigeon Francesco. The caretaker began a campaign of angry letter-writing.
The man overseeing the renovations was the archbishop’s secretary, Monsignor Derek Worlock, already well on his way to becoming Archbishop of Liverpool and England’s foremost liberal Catholic. In later years, Worlock would recall that “amidst the letters of abuse, there would sometimes be included sublime verses and on occasion pictures and illustrations of his own painting or creation, mostly of apocalyptic character, almost reminiscent of Blake.” All the more striking, given their tense relationship, is Worlock’s verdict: “I think we all knew that we had met a Holy Man.”
His final years in Mtemwa, Rhodesia, have rightly come to define Bradburne’s life. On first visiting the leper colony, Bradburne saw men and women covered in filth, mud, and running sores, forced by the authorities to mask their faces. After tossing a coin, Bradburne decided to go and care for the eighty or so lepers. For nearly ten years he washed them, dressed their wounds, rebuked their sins, fed by hand those who were incapable, arranged the provision of the sacraments, and urged the unbaptized to become Catholic.
Bradburne looked at the lepers with the eye of faith: He said to one grotesquely disfigured woman, who had never visibly smiled, “O, Mai Veronica, when you get to heaven, you will look so beautiful, really beautiful”—and said this, Rance tells us, “in such a matter-of-fact tone that she smiled for the first time, and everyone began to see her as she would then be.” Since the lepers were able to offer their suffering to God, they had, Bradburne told them, the “number-one vocation”: the imitation of Christ. He poured out individual poems about all of them. Of one blind, deaf, noseless, fingerless, but spiritually serene leper, Bradburne wrote:
His peaceful look has booked celestial field
Yet have his features paid horrific bills.
Bradburne’s poetry expresses many lovely and true ideas, with a technical skill that was very rare in the last century. Even so, I think there is something missing: The poems lack that compressed force which makes poetry stay in the mind. They do, nevertheless, represent an imagination that swoops from high to low with no fear of bathos:
I grappled with the Trinity
Till St. Augustine said:
‘You’d better stop, God’s mystery
Is bigger than man’s head!’:
Hugging the Doctor’s good advice
With a mug of tea was very nice.
In his curiosity and his zeal for order, Bradburne the poet was like an ambassador from the Middle Ages. His writings are reminiscent of C. S. Lewis’s remark that the twentieth-century invention medieval man would most have admired is the card-index. He could see everything as connected: the Trinity and mugs of tea, jokes and melancholy, flowers and leprosy, papal encyclicals and pet animals.
Bradburne sometimes hoped posterity would discover his greatness. But a more plausible ambition is the one he confided to a friend at the end of a letter: “P.S. Pray on for my sanctification because it would encourage so many souls if such a wreckage might come to canonisation, and I do so want to by-pass Purgatory!”