Not many people know of John Bradburne - not as many as should, since he is probably the most prolific English poet. But you will be excused for thinking that title is Shakespeare's. Professor David Crystal, the expert on both poets, estimates that Bradburne produced 170,000 lines of verse as compared to Shakespeare's 87, 668 poetic lines. This makes Bradburne the most prolific English poet so far.
John Bradburne was a highly spiritual individual who spent all his life listening to God's direction. He was born in Cambria in 1921 to a family of an Anglican clergyman. But in 1947 he became a Roman Catholic and a lay member of the Order of Saint Francis. He set out on pilgrimage to various countries but, as he believed, God meant him for Africa. Bradburne spent ten years in challenging conditions taking care of the lepers at Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement in Zimbabwe.
Living in his shabby tin hut, Bradburne penned myriad poems, as if by divine inspiration. Bradburne's keen sense of language, his linguistic creativity and playfulness are exposed in his poems, which are about nature, divinity, and love. His exquisite poetry might have remained undiscovered had David Crystal not come across his manuscript treasury through Celia Brigstocke. Among the published collections he edited are Songs of the Vagabond, Mutemwa, Strange Vagabond of God, Books of Days, Birds Bees and Beasts.
John Bradburne on Love is one of the most beautiful collections. The poet's deep perception of all layers of Love as a solution to everything - "Love is the merry elixir to Life" - and his understanding of Love as an incarnation of God resonate throughout his poetry. He defines the Holy Trinity as Thought, Word and Voice and this linguistic interpretation invites further insight:
Now God The Father may be called The Thought,
The Son expressing Him is called The Word,
The Holy Spirit is The Voice you caught
Upon the wind and in the mind re-heard;
Bradburne believes in the realisation of the Holy Trinity in a family:
Love is two persons gazing on a third
With love that equals theirs for one another
Bowling them over, nor is this absurd
If we consider father, child and mother;
The allusions to Shakespeare, mythology and his puns on Latin speak about a highly cultured and discerning individual. Bradburne often references Pan and Yahmeh. He is also especially affectionate when writing about the Virgin Mary. This harmonious co-existence of religious notions in his poetry speaks about the humanism and universality of Bradburne - his Christ-like love for all and everything:
Heaven is either Devon or the Desert
Depends upon God's presence in mankind
Heaven's completest Kingdom is a Man
And He is God and we are in his plan
Bradburne's sympathy for the lepers and his explorations into the depths of their souls - albeit wrapped in physical misery, is delivered onto paper with heart-cringing precision. As Professor Crystal puts it in his introduction to John Bradburne on Love, with all his spirituality, Bradburne was a realist. His life is an exemplar of human devotion and sincerity.
Sara has got no fingers, and one leg's
But to the knee; she still can see a bit;
Her special friend is Catherine who begs
Occasionally snuff of Sara; wit
Have both a-plenty! being wholly blind
Catherine helps the rather older Sara
And, having legs and feet and hands combined
With fingers, visits often; what is fairer
Than such a sight as I this morning saw?
... Cordial are the long relationships,
Leper for leper love is often strong,
There is a lack of flashing eyes and hips
Alluring, e'en of lips where grips the song;
But who shall stand while brave Mtemwa sings
And flings God's praises far and high at morn?
Bradburne's interpretation of Love is profound, thought-provoking and a sheer linguistic beauty - a combination of romance and proverbial compassion:
Love is a short disease, a long desire
And an eternal healing...
Met physically love ignites, it flows
It blows upon the furnace of the heart,
It heats itself by starving as it goes
Feeding on freedom with angelic art;
The poet's genius is in expressing deep insights succinctly and simply:
In human love's lost close embrace
Two truly intertwine
Whilst each sees not the other's face
But is it not divine?
Bradburne's poetry is soaked in deeply contemplative concepts of divinity and religious theme. But you do not have to be an ardent Catholic to enjoy, understand and identify with the poet's universal spirit:
Love is a malady, love's a disease
Makes even Olympians weak at the knees
But say not that love's an incurable thing
For needs it no cure if it feeds on its King
Bradburne was a poet, a humanist, a mystic. He was known to have three wishes: to serve leprosy patients, to die a martyr, and to be buried in the habit of St Francis. All his three wishes came true. His selfless love and care for the rejected poor made him many enemies and he would eventually be shot to death by guerrillas in 1979. Mysteriously, at his requiem Mass, three drops of blood fell from the coffin. Bradburne had been dead for a week; the coffin was reopened and no sign of blood was found. But people noticed he was wearing a shirt and they replaced it with a Franciscan habit.
John Bradburne Memorial Society in Leominster spreads the word of the yet unsung poet and his inspirational life. It also works to relieve the suffering of sick people in the area of Mutemwa where Bradburne's tin hat is a place of pilgrimage now.
John Bradburne is a candidate for canonisation and there is a growing support to officially acknowledge him as a saint.