Richard Burton’s 2013 biography of Basil Bunting, A Strong Song Tows Us (reviewed in The New Criterion, April 2014), was a major event for admirers of this distinctive poet, and now Don Share—the editor of Poetry, to which Bunting frequently contributed—has given us the first authoritative edition of the poems, whose previous textual history was complicated by error and muddle as well as by the poet’s changes of mind in successive printings. Unfortunately—but unsurprisingly, given the scale of the project—there is a handful of misprints, the most eye-catching of which is the reading “Where are we” instead of “Where we are” in line 12 of the Coda to Briggflatts. In addition, the first line of the translation from the Emperor Hadrian is given as “Poor soul! Softly, whisperer” instead of “Poor soul! Softy, whisperer.” (I am grateful to Mr. Share for correspondence about these points.) Share’s notes give copious details of publication, glosses, and explanations of allusions. He directs us to unsuspected byways of Bunting’s reading as well as to obvious sources; thorough acquaintance with the classical epics, Lucretius, and Dante is expected, but also a knowledge of the architecture of mosques, the narrative of Eric Bloodaxe in Icelandic saga, and the history, geography, and dialect of Northumbria, among other matters. (“Perhaps it is superfluous,” Bunting himself notes of one poem, “to mention Darwin’s Formation of Vegetable Mould.” Well, quite.) A major bonus is the extensive quotations, helpfully printed in bold type, from Bunting’s wonderfully vivid and engaging letters—a selection of which is apparently in preparation—lectures, interviews, and taped readings. Bunting’s thematic, rather than chronological, arrangement of his work is preserved, so the volume divides into “Sonatas” (including his masterpiece Briggflatts), two books of “Odes,” and “Overdrafts” which was Bunting’s term for his imitations of other poems. There are several uncollected and previously unpublished items, together with juvenilia and incomplete pieces.
Bunting was not part of the metropolitan literary establishment (he damned the Bloomsbury Group as “a dung heap believed to be a bed of lilies”), but it would be a patronizing error to call him “provincial,” if by that is meant marginal; he belonged to the Europe of Bede, Aidan, Dante, and Chaucer. He practiced poetry as a craft, the verbal equivalent of masonry or manuscript illumination. His personal map of English poetry can be found in an invaluable book edited by Peter Makin, Basil Bunting on Poetry (1999), which prints the text of lectures given at Newcastle University in 1969–70 and 1974. Here he traces a tradition of artistic composition, dating back to the Lindisfarne Gospels and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, based on the underlying coherence and unity of what appears at first to be a bafflingly complex, diverse, and intricate pattern of interwoven strands. Poetic rhythm, for Bunting, is about discerning such patterns through sound and the natural cadences of speech, not through the metrical schemes found in textbooks. He quotes with approval Pound’s line “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” The most vital poetry is that which keeps close to what William Empson used to call the singing line, and does not become too remote from music. There is a sense, according to Bunting, in which Wyatt is a more important poet than Chaucer, and in which the legacy of Spenser, with his love of elaborate decoration and linguistic and generic experimentation, can count for more than Shakespeare, who, Bunting remarks in terms which make us rub our eyes, “wrote very effective plays” but “did not add anything new to the methods of writing poetry”! (Elsewhere, Bunting judged Dickens to be “a far greater writer than Shakespeare.” This comparative lack of enthusiasm for Shakespeare is one thing he has in common with Pound. Indeed, Bunting felt able to rewrite some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a piece of cheek which I assumed was unparalleled until I came across Philip Terry, whose rewritings are even called Shakespeare’s Sonnets .)
Bunting was not part of the metropolitan literary establishment.
Bunting was forever planning, but never produced, his ideal anthology of poetry. Its contents can be surmised from the Newcastle lectures mentioned earlier, and from conversations reported by Richard Burton. There would be no Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Keats. Those admitted would include Dante, Wyatt, Malherbe, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth, Whitman, Hardy, and Kipling; a little Yeats; only Part I of The Waste Land to represent Eliot; Pound and Zukofsky; a bit of Charles Darwin’s prose, for his rootedness in the world of concrete things . . . and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.” Bunting could not have cared less what anyone else thought of these preferences. He was not interested in fluctuating reputations but in what endured, as when he rebuked detractors of Pound’s Cantos: “There are the Alps,/ fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!” Share prints a longer variant of this celebrated tribute, which Bunting sent Pound in a letter; characteristically, the published version tightens it up, cutting some lines which weaken the impact by too overt emotional expression.
Eliot mistook Bunting for a lesser Pound; their wary relationship is illuminated in a brilliant review of this edition by Mark Hutchinson in the London Times Literary Supplement of November 4, 2016. But Bunting’s modernism was not that of Eliot or Pound. Both pointed the way to a fusion of the classical and the contemporary, but we have just seen that Bunting’s sense of literary history was quite distinct from Eliot’s, and Persian poetry played the same role for him that Chinese did for Pound. Share has an appendix on the Persian material, a necessary aid since this part of Bunting’s output may intimidate some readers. The versions are full of praise of wine, agreeable sensuality, and acceptance of fleeting Time. They are often beautiful, but I still feel I am too remote from them; Bunting says himself that the intricate verbal texture of the originals, as ornate as Persian carpets, is unreproducible. To get some idea of the difficulty, imagine trying to translate the medieval English poem Pearl into a non-European language. It cannot even be done into modern English (though many have tried).
Bunting was sympathetic, however, to Eliot’s view that analogies could be drawn between poetic and musical form; he credited Eliot with using sonata form in The Waste Land until the publication of the original manuscript showed that it was the accidental result of Pound’s editing. He even specified sonatas by Scarlatti which, ideally, were to be interspersed, by live or recorded performance, among the five sections of Briggflatts. “I have set down words,” he wrote in the preface to Collected Poems (1968), “as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing.” He avoided, however, the fallacy of thinking that words, which have to come successively, could be chords, which can come simultaneously. His debt to sonatas was less musicological than structural, “not rigid,” as he explained, “but a kind of hidden continuity.”
Although an accomplished classicist and translator, in his idiosyncratic fashion, of Horace and Dante as well as Hafiz and Firdosi, Bunting felt particularly close to the Germanic inheritance of English vocabulary, with its qualities of riddling brevity, concreteness, and hard finish. This comes out above all in Briggflatts but also in shorter poems such as Ode I.15, which sees composition as “the sharp tool paring away/ waste,” a struggle to pin down “thought’s intricate polyphonic/ score.” Bunting’s own reciting (reading would be the wrong word) of his poems in his Northumbrian accent is the nearest approach we can make to how Wordsworth might have sounded—“one of those musical poets,” Bunting insisted, “if you will give his vowels full Northern strength.” He declaims, in the tradition of Yeats and Pound, but is less incantatory than the former and less arbitrary than the latter: his voice is both mellow and gritty, making room for the words to breathe. He was suspicious of poetry which was too musical in the wrong way, too smooth or mellifluous. Ode I.19 seems to allude to such uncongenial writing with its description of the conventional Elysium as a place of Latinate periodic sentences and “discourse interminably/ uncontradicted.” “Where shall I hide?” reads the last line, as if in panic.
His first substantial work, Villon (written in 1925), shows him in tune with the medieval, yet employing an unmistakably modern idiom:
Worn hides that scarcely clothe the soul
they are so rotten, old and thin,
or firm and soft and warm and full—
fellmonger Death gets every skin.
All that is piteous, all that’s fair,
all that is fat and scant of breath,
Elisha’s baldness, Helen’s hair,
is Death’s collateral: . . .
Bunting reported that Pound had “scratched out about half the poem,” exercising the same clinical scrutiny he had used on The Waste Land. It is a rare example of a Poundian persona in Bunting’s work, modified by the fact that Bunting had been arrested in Paris, for assaulting a policeman, and was awaiting examination in the same hall of justice in which Villon had sat four and a half centuries earlier when Pound arrived to bail him out. As Peter Makin says, in his essential book Bunting: the Shaping of his Verse (1992), the half-seriousness of “Villon” reminds one of Donne. Yet Bunting is dead serious about the durability of art and the mutability of the artist: “We are less permanent than thought.”
“Chomei at Toyama” (1932) looks like a counterpart to Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” but its emphasis is different. Bunting worked from an Italian translation of the original Japanese, a brief autobiographical memoir by a twelfth-century government official in secluded retirement. The Buddhism of the original is played down in favor of a secular quietism more akin to Bunting’s Quaker roots:
Neither closed in one landscape
nor in one season
the mind moving in illimitable
I came here for a month
five years ago.
There’s moss on the roof.
And I hear Soanso’s dead
back in Kyoto.
I have as much room as I need.
I know myself and mankind.
. . . . . . . .
I dont want to be bothered.
(The ellipsis and the punctuation of “dont” are Bunting’s; he was as scornful of apostrophes as George Bernard Shaw.) The attitude is far from apathetic; the poem voices delight in simple pleasures and the natural world. Yet it also has a philosophic detachment and a calm acceptance of coming death.
The first really brilliant achievement among the shorter poems, I feel, is number 3 of the “First Book of Odes” (“I am agog for foam”), written in 1926 and dedicated to Peggy Mullett, a girlfriend. Yeats was so struck by this poem that he learned it off by heart, and indeed there are lines in it he might have written himself: “an anguished and exact sterility,” “the gay/ exuberance of unexplained desire.” Bunting himself claimed a debt, which I cannot see, to Mallarmé’s “Les Fenêtres”, but the movement is wholly his own. Its twenty-eight lines contain seven sentences, the last of them eleven lines long, enacting the rhythm of the flooding and ebbing tide which is also that of emotional (and sexual) excitement and exhaustion:
But when mad waves spring, braceletted with foam,
towards us in the angriness of love
crying a strange name, tossing as they come
repeated invitations in the gay
exuberance of unexplained desire,
we can forget the sad splendour and play
at wilfulness until the gods require
renewed inevitable hopeless calm
and the foam dies and we again subside
into our catalepsy, dreaming foam,
while the dry shore awaits another tide.
Equally arresting, in a different way, is Ode I.36 (1948), which, as Share notes, also harks back to Yeats, and celebrates verse which is built as solidly as stone and as gorgeously decorated as a frieze, gold mosaic, or lapis lazuli; verse with an architectural form, radiating
A glory neither of stone
nor metal, neither of words
nor verses, but of the light
shining upon no substance;
a glory not made
for which all else was made.
This illustrates Bunting in an almost bardic mood, but the careful distribution of stresses prevents any sense of rhetorical grandiloquence. Beneath it there may lie memories of the silences of the Quaker meetings which he was to evoke nearly thirty years later in “At Briggflatts Meetinghouse” (in fact, the place has only one “t” but Bunting used two):
Yet for a little longer here
stone and oak shelter
silence while we ask nothing
For Eliot too, we remember, in The Waste Land, at “the heart of light” there was “the silence.”
Bunting had no time for religious dogma.
Before coming to Briggflatts itself, I should single out “A Song for Rustam,” about which more information is needed than Share’s note provides. As Burton explains, in 1937 Bunting’s first wife left him to return to her home in Wisconsin, taking their two daughters. She was pregnant with a boy, called Rustam after the character in Persian mythology. At the age of fifteen (Share says sixteen), Rustam died following an attack of polio. He and his father had never met. Noting the debt to Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum,” Share comments that “Arnold himself lost two sons,” but he had only recently married when he wrote “Sohrab and Rustum”; the losses came later, and at least he had seen the children. It was not until twelve years later that Bunting could bring himself to write about his bereavement, but when he did so, the result was overwhelming, as this extract shows:
Tears are for what can be mended,
not for a voyage ended
the day the schooner put out.
Short fear and sudden quiet
too deep for a diving thief.
Tears are for easy grief.
[. . .]
Words slung to the gale
stammer and fail:
‘Unseen is not unknown,
unkissed is not unloved,
unheard is not unsung;’
Words late, lost, dumb.
I cannot understand why “Song for Rustam” is not in every anthology of great elegiac poetry. The combination of flinty stoicism and deep tenderness is almost too much to bear. It cannot be read without weeping—I have just tried, and failed again.
Briggflatts (1965), inevitably, must occupy the bulk of my remaining space. It interrupts two twenty-year periods in each of which Bunting wrote little or no poetry. He always claimed that he had started up again just to show the new generation what could be done, and it is true that he had been encouraged by his meeting with a young poet and admirer, Tom Pickard, but this seems tongue-in-cheek when such a weighty composition is in question. Mark Hutchinson intriguingly speculates that the death of Eliot, in January 1965, freed Bunting from an uneasy awareness of what had always been a discouraging presence, although that might be one factor among many. Drafted, astonishingly, on train journeys to and from Bunting’s work as a sub-editor on a provincial newspaper (the only work he could get despite his poor eyesight), Briggflatts can stand beside The Waste Land and the best parts of The Cantos but draws on quite different sources from either. It is dedicated to the evocatively named Peggy Greenbank, the daughter of a monumental mason in Briggflats, who Bunting first met when he was twelve and she was eight. Romance blossomed, and is celebrated in the first part of Briggflatts, but the upheavals of the First World War separated them. Bunting left a letter from Peggy unanswered in 1919 and did not see her again for fifty years, a neglect of which he was deeply ashamed and for which he chastises himself repeatedly:
It is easier to die than to remember. (Part I)
. . . a reproached
litters his yard
with flawed fragments. (Part II)
Finger tips touched and were still
fifty years ago.
Sirius is too young to remember. [. . .]
Fifty years a letter unanswered;
a visit postponed for fifty years. (Part V)
But, as the keynote line of the poem insists, “Then is Now.” Eliot claimed that “What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of” The Waste Land—that is disputable, whereas Bunting’s consciousness really does hold together the different historical periods and geographical locations of Briggflatts. The poem is closer to the structure of Four Quartets even though worlds away from it in style and outlook; Bunting had no time for religious dogma, Christian or otherwise. It follows the seasons of the year except for the central section, Bunting’s equivalent of Dante’s Commedia but drawn from Persian mythology, in which Alexander the Great traverses a hellish landscape and leaves his reluctant troops, in order to climb a precipitous mountain and encounter the Angel Israfel, “whose sigh is cirrus,” with the trumpet perpetually at his lips to sound the end of the world when God shall command him. Alexander falls to earth in a swoon and learns the lesson of the slow worm, a central presence in the poem, that awareness of mortality can be best met by humility, patience, and delight in small beauties. The murder of Bloodaxe (Part II) shows the vanity of seeking power, in verse as keen-edged as the axe which cut the king down:
What witnesses he had life,
ravelled and worn past splice,
yarns falling to staple? Rime
on the bent, the beck ice,
there will be nothing on Stainmore to hide
void, no sable to disguise
what he wore under the lies [. . .]
(“Bent” is tough grass.) Bunting felt he had “lies” of his own to live with, his betrayal of Peggy, which had to be made good somehow before the mason was called in to carve his own tombstone. Yet at the same time he himself was the mason, taking “a chisel to write,” making a poem that was both monument and reparation.
The beauty of natural and seasonal description in Briggflatts is a marvel. A whole world is condensed into short phrases, and complex thought into gnomic utterance: “stone white as cheese”; “Riding silk, adrift on noon,/ a spider gleams like a berry”; “Grubs adhere even to stubble”; “quoits round the draped moon”; “frost spangles fleece”; “Silver blades of surf/ fall crisp on rustling grit”; “Starlight is almost flesh.” This man has lived the year, he is no armchair naturalist. Like the poet of the Old English Seafarer and Wanderer he has felt the hail on his face and known the loneliness of the open sea. He could justly say, “I take care not to write anything that I don’t bloody well know.” The point of the description is, as in Old English, to yoke together the loveliness of the world in all its moods, and the bittersweet knowledge that we must pass as the seasons but not return. The Coda says it all:
A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.
Night, float us.
Offshore wind, shout,
ask the sea
what’s lost, what’s left,
what horn sunk,
what crown adrift.
Where we are who knows
of kings who sup
while day fails? Who,
swinging his axe
to fell kings, guesses
where we go?
As Sister Victoria Forde notes, in her excellent study The Poetry of Basil Bunting (1991), which was written with Bunting’s co-operation, Bunting does indeed “shout,” on the recording of Briggflatts, at the appropriate place, with startling results. Share quotes Bunting’s reaction to Forde’s comment, in a letter, about what she described as this “expression of [. . .] the underlying pain of inevitable death”: “The pain, yes—not of death, but of wrong unrighted or unrightable.” It is consoling to know that he and Peggy did finally meet again, and go some way to fusing Then and Now.
Bunting’s roots were deep and ancient.
One later piece must be mentioned. Bunting wrote to Forde in 1972 after a voyage through the Panama Canal, recounting his having seen the new moon emerging from the old moon (exactly as in The Ancient Mariner), then the next night Jupiter “like a drop of molten silver sliding down the flank of the new moon,” then immediately, on the deck of the boat, a beautiful young girl like the new moon personified, “and instantly many old themes began to assemble themselves as though this were the keystone enabling them to form an arch, themes of renewal, mainly, closely bound, though I had never perceived it.” A few months later he sent the first thirty lines of a new sonata (“Such syllables flicker out of grass”) inspired by this experience. It survives in more than one version, and the poem was never completed or published in Bunting’s lifetime, but its energy and power strike the reader with gale force:
Light pelts hard now my sun’s low,
it carves my stone as hail mud
till day’s net drapes the haugh,
glaze crackled by flung drops.
What use? Elegant hope, fever of tune,
new now, next, in the fall, to be dust.
Wind shakes a blotch of sun,
flatter and tattle willow and oak alike
sly as a trout’s shadow on gravel.
Light stots from stone, sets ridge and kerf quick
as shot skims rust from steel.
Share explains that a “haugh” is a piece of alluvial land, “stot” means to rebound or bounce off, and gives several possibilities for “kerf,” among which the strongest is a layer of earth cut by a spade. Apart from the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins—which Bunting, strangely, did no more than glance at—there had been nothing like this in English since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in which “kerf” actually occurs). Share prints other drafts of the poem. In the section quoted above, Bunting originally wrote “the sun” rather than “my sun” and the third line read “Its net drapes the haugh, glaze crackled by drops flung.” The first alteration typically distrusts the abstract, while it is rhythmically better to break the second line into two, and the sequence of sounds in “flung drops,” moving from the ringing nasal to the tight short “o,” is better than in “drops flung” (and neatly makes “drops” the last word in the line and the sentence).
Bunting had nearly fifteen years to live when he wrote this sadly unfinished piece, but only two later poems appear in Share’s volume (Odes II.11 and 12), the graceful miniature “At Briggflatts Meetinghouse,” already mentioned (1975), and “Perche no spero” (1978) which makes very different use of the Cavalcanti allusion from Eliot in “Ash-Wednesday” or Pound’s “Ballata XI,” which translates the original poem. Whereas in Pound the poet addresses his own poem, which is to carry the message of his soul’s devotion to his lady, Bunting addresses a cutter (a small single-rigged sailing ship) coming to the end of its voyage, with a chart “stained,/ stiff, old, wrinkled and uncertain” like himself, the tide ebbing, no course to set, and nothing to do but “Wait,/ wait.” Bunting was stubborn although not tranquil; his life-craft, unlike Rustam’s, was long in getting to harbor.
His death was quick and without pain. Born in 1900, he was “The last of the Victorians,” said his friend Jonathan Williams—but only in date. His roots were far deeper and more ancient. He was quite unlike those contemporary poets who vaunt their cosmopolitanism, which actually means they belong nowhere. He became international by staying at home. If Pound is the Alps, Bunting is the Bewcastle Cross.
1 The Poems of Basil Bunting, edited by Don Share;
Faber & Faber, 571 pages, £30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 6, on page 19
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