Basil Bunting Essay - Critical Essays


Until the publication of Briggflatts, Basil Bunting’s poetry was largely ignored, both because it had been published obscurely and because it was viewed as highly derivative—mere Poundian pastiche. In retrospect, the poems of the 1920’s and 1930’s show to what extent this estimation is unjustified. It is impossible to deny that—on the road to developing his own voice—Bunting wrote poems that were strongly influenced by Eliot’s manner and, more particularly, Pound’s. Even in his earliest work, however, Bunting can be identified by the sound of his lines, especially by the cadence of stresses that alliteration reinforces and to which assonance and internal rhyme frequently add counterpoint. This attention to sound is very characteristic of his work. In his own estimation, while music is not all there is to a poem, it is the one essential ingredient. In the Collected Poems, he classified his short lyrics as “Odes” and his longer poems as “Sonatas.” (More than one critic has denied any but a metaphorical connection between music and poetry.) By “music,” Bunting seems to be making a claim for a special interplay between the sound and meaning of words in a poem; his use of the word “ode” seems to be an appeal to poetry’s source in the chants and dances of the Greek chorus. While Bunting did not appropriate the strophe and antistrophe format in the manner of Pindar, his heavily stressed meter resembles those complex rhythms best expressed in dance. In fact, Bunting claimed that, aside from its use in poetry, meter is perhaps best expressed through physical movement. Bunting’s heavily stressed lines can be best appreciated in a comparison with the oral chants that accompany primitive dance.


Perhaps the best way to approach Bunting is by way of the loose verse translations he calls “overdrafts.” Here Bunting follows Pound’s lead, attempting to revive in the idiom of modern English the spirit of a foreign poem. As David Gordon has shown (Paideuma, Spring, 1980), Bunting was able, in a 1931 translation from Horace, to create an English accentual syllabic version of ionic a minore meter. In this and other similar performances, the poet extends the range of English metrics and prepares himself for the heavily stressed line that distinguishes his poetry. Not only is the meter of the original poem revitalized, but also the words of the poem are rendered in a modern idiom that sometimes defies the sense and historical/cultural setting of the original. Thus, the lady in the Horatian passage is deprived of “gin.” She has mislaid her “workbox.” Her lover is a “middle-weight pug” who wears “track-shorts.” In the notes to the Collected Poems, the poet indicates that such “mistranslation” is intentional.

The “overdrafts” record something of the poet’s interests over the years. In 1927, he translated a passage of Lucretius, and in 1931, two by Horace. In 1932, he rendered a few lines of Louis Zukofsky into Latin. He translated Catullus into English in 1933, the Persian poet Firdusi in 1935, Rdak of Samarkand in 1948, Manuchehri in 1949, and Saՙd in 1949. Perhaps the most striking translation is a passage from Machiavelli titled “How Duke Valentine Contrived” (1933). This short narrative of Italian intrigue is presented in delightfully colloquial English. Duke Valentine, the reader is told admiringly, was a “first rate humbug” who fools his enemies with “rotten promises.” When the duke decides to “put an end” to his enemies, one of them is seen “blubbering” over his fate. Such unobtrusive use of colloquialism revitalizes the story for modern readers.

From the earliest odes, Bunting’s style is characterized by its concentration. Although these short poems owe much to Pound, they sometimes lack the clarity of visual impression native to Imagist poetry. Nevertheless, they frequently capture an emotion with sleight of hand, as when they speak of the “pangs of old rapture,” the “angriness of love,” and the “savour of our sadness,” and they frequently exhibit tactile and auditory images not easily achieved in poetry. For Bunting, waves of the sea consist not only in...

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