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Bunting, Basil 1900–

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An English poet and journalist, Bunting is considered an important literary descendant of Ezra Pound. His work, which is imagistic in style, also shows the influences of Eliot and Zukofsky. It incorporates many musical qualities, not only in the cadence of individual lines, but also in its formal structure. He has entitled one group of poems "Sonatas," another "Descant on Rawley's Madrigal." Bunting often mingles historical and personal elements, creating complex poetry that is both lyrical and dense. Briggflatts is generally considered his most important work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Anthony Suter

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Bunting's poetry [deals] in the structure of meanings and, moreover, the meanings are organised according to a musical architecture—that of sonata form….

For some years Bunting sought the kind of musical structure he required for his poetry, but he must have fixed his choice very early on the sonata, rather than on the more impressionistic prelude, for example. His first published long poem, Villon (1925), is based on simple sonata form, although he had embarked on more complicated variants at first…. (p. 47)

Villon (1925) is a very good example of how the poet's elementary sonata technique works. In fact, it has a pure, simple sonata structure that Bunting never bettered, if one considers that the later "sonatas" are much more complicated in form and often go far beyond the ordinary sonata because of the complexity of the themes involved…. Not only does each individual part have a beautifully structured development, but also the total structure of the poem moves through two parallel statements of themes to the final resolution of Part III. (p. 48)

A significant indirect influence on the development of the sonata was a poem that does not belong to this category at all, Chomei at Toyama (1932). This long poem shows Bunting making natural ideogrammic juxtapositions within a skeleton framework of narrative, so that the life of the work comes from within.

As the sonata becomes more complex, it does so from the inside, from Bunting's own development of sonata form. He took a fixed model to begin with, but when he found that model too limiting he did not seek a more complicated one that was ready-made for him (such as a Beethoven sonata): he sought to expand and experiment the basic form he had chosen in the beginning. Therefore, there is a development from a fixed form artificially imposed from the outside (—that is why Villon and Aus dem zweiten Reich seem so neat, almost too neat) to an organic growth of that form. Attis and The Well of Lycopolis represents a sort of testing ground, because instead of the simple, parallel structures of Villon and Aus dem zweiten Reich, the movements of these works have a complex interweaving of themes and a growth from movement to movement that foreshadow The Spoils (1951) and Briggflatts (1965).

The earlier of these two poems is obviously intended to make thematic material of the range of Attis and The Well of Lycopolis fit a structure nearly as simple as that of Villon. (p. 50)

The sonata element A B A is present in the two outer movements [of The Spoils] and in the total design of the poem. Also, all the various themes are in reality theme clusters, different manifestations of the central notion of "the spoils" (the spiritual treasures Man can gain on his journey through life), so that there is a development from movement to movement, more and more significance being added to the theme stated at the beginning of the whole work.

This is partly a preparation for the method of Briggflatts, except that the latter treats its thematic material in reverse. Whereas The Spoils states its theme at the beginning like a classical symphony, Briggflatts hides the real nature of its central thematic ideas until the end…. Fragments of theme—death, love, time, nature and the cosmos, artistic expression and experience—are presented throughout its five parts…. (p. 51)

Different fragments of the same theme gradually gain in significance as they are repeated and as the reader relates them together. The basic sonata elements of statement, recapitulation and development, are certainly present, but they do not come in strict parallels as in some of the very first sonatas. Rather, they are organising elements within the poem which is, paradoxically, both very tightly knit and loosely structured. It is tightly knit because every element has its particular place within the total design; without this the thematic centres would not progress as they do….

The design of Briggflatts is further enhanced by symbolism of a musical nature. The most far-reaching example is the slowworm, a figure which appears in unexplained fashion at various climactic points in the poem and takes on a different significance according to context, being phallic symbol, and also associated with death, and with an attitude of quiet resignation. This is symbolist writing of the purest kind. The slowworm not only has a different "value" each time it appears, it is the kind of "object" that, I think, can have no "a priori" significance for the reader. This enhances its effect as an essentially "neutral" symbol: "neutral" emotionally for the reader, it can absorb into itself the feelings created by the circumstances of the poem. At the same time its inherent mystery introduces a kind of climactic hush, making the reader sense a moment of great importance, even if he cannot define the nature of the moment. Thus a pure symbolist manner achieves the condition of music. (p. 52)

Anthony Suter, "Musical Structure in the Poetry of Basil Bunting," in Agenda, Spring, 1978, pp. 46-54.

Peter Dale

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One has in the past done one's darndest to persuade oneself that Bunting does not really mean what he says when he argues, if it can be called argument, that poetry is pure sound. (p. 56)

The analogy of poetry with music is a dangerous one for two basic reasons: first, poetry has severe limits in pitch, key, tone, and range; nor can it orchestrate; second, it does not have notes devoid of referrents as music largely does. Words mean—if the poet discards their meaning the hearing mind puts them back, just as it picks up echoes of its own tongue in an unknown foreign speech…. Another thing that makes it a dangerous analogy is that users slip between two aspects of music: one as a set of scale-systems of sounds, the other as a set of structural principles like sonata-form. This use of musical form is ultimately a mere metaphorical usage. There's a touch of both aspects in Briggflatts. In general, the musical approach is nearly always a form of anti-rationalism. (p. 58)

My feeling is with Briggflatts … that both in its use of sound and its gesture towards musical structure it is rather obvious and not a little contrived. For in insisting on musicality it invites comparison with some of the finest poets who naturally excelled in that field: Chaucer; Shakespeare; Milton; Tennyson; Pound and Eliot, the closest comparison actually being The Four Quartets which clearly by contrast illustrates a coarsening in Briggflatts of the musical tradition.

The most obvious way in which Briggflatts is no step forward in the tradition is the poverty of its use of syntax. The poem is tediously dominated by the simple sentence, extended by appositional developments to subject and object. In addition to this the custom of English in excising a repeated subject pronoun makes this appositional effect sound worse. Along with these appositions goes a considerable reliance upon present participles.

This may be defended by the musical argument that the present tense must be used to make the narrative time of the poem appear to match the duration of the piece as music. That may be so but the danger of syntactical boredom should have been averted. (p. 62)

What is ultimately the objection to the musical approach is that it is used as an excuse or cover for a growing distance from speech and the continued use of rather bardic poetic devices like apostrophising an untenable tenor bull. It is also an uneconomic way of writing. Briggflatts seems longer than its matter requires.

Briggflatts errs away from Eliot's suggestion that the music of poetry must arise out of speech. (p. 64)

[Bunting's] peak diagram, his Scarlatti, and his insistence upon music have been ways to enable him to extrude the matter of Briggflatts, some of which, he suggests in interview, lies too deep in the subconscious for his rational explication. Such crutches have their uses. Bunting's error is his persistence in trying to give poetry the same crutches. Briggflatts is a failure as a musical poem of any stature and a poor foundation on which new poets might build. (pp. 64-5)

In opposing Bunting's theory of the music of poetry, pure and simple, I am not opposing the idea of musical verse. Of course poetry must be musical but it must be more than just music—as that alone it is left standing by music proper. (p. 65)

Peter Dale, "Basil Bunting and the Quonk and Groggle School of Poetry," in Agenda, Spring, 1978, pp. 55-65.

Anthony Suter

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While not having the significance and originality of musical sound and structure in his poetry, Bunting's use of image and symbol is an important aspect of his work and worth considering in its own right. In his mature work he employs a post-"Symboliste" technique to striking effect. Also, one never loses sight of the idea of music, for Bunting's most highly developed symbolism has an analogy with this form of art. (p. 82)

Particularly noteworthy in Bunting's pictorial imagery is his insistence, nearly to the point of obsession, on the physically disgusting. (p. 83)

Various other images that recur through Bunting's work are often connected with his main preoccupations. As is natural in a poet who is not only a lover of music but also the exponent of a particularly musical form of poetry, references to this art abound. "Seeing" in terms of sound and music imagery comes as naturally to him as it did to Spenser. The poetic utterance is described as sound reaching an ear: "My tongue is a curve in the ear." (p. 84)

More important are the musical parallels Bunting makes in Briggflatts, where he frequently sees a musical pattern in nature, whether it be the polyphonic design formed by bull's song and the river Rawthey, lark and the mason's mallet … or the attribution of musical forms to fish, birds and animals…. (p. 85)

This is Basil Bunting's imagination informing his very strict observation of nature, and while it cannot be classed as a pattern of symbolism,… it is significantly indicative of a poet's vision. (pp. 85-6)

Bunting's description of nature make his preference for country over town quite obvious, especially where nature is in relation with art as in Briggflatts, and with the life of a civilisation as in The Spoils. Urban life, as accurately described in Attis and Aus dem zweiten Reich, Bunting views with intense dislike. Thus, there is the traditional symbolic opposition between town and country, that is … one of the guide lines of Chomei at Toyama.

Further images with a definite function are the frequent references to sculpting or chiselling and writing, which support the theme (so important in Bunting) of the difficulties of artistic expression and creation….

Such images abound in Briggflatts, where the mason working at his marble tombstone (partly symbolising the artist) is one of the important figures of the poem. (p. 87)

This imagery is developed through further associations ("a name cut in ice" and "name in soft slate"), to include not only the act of writing—which is furthermore evoked at other points in Briggflatts, for example: "Wind writes in foam on the sea:"…—but also the page:

               It looks well on the page …

and the book:

          The sheets are gathered and bound,
          the volume indexed and shelved,
          dust on its marbled leaves….

So the book is connected up again with the marble tombstone, one of Bunting's ways of building images into patterns.

Thus, in a poem such as Briggflatts, recurring and associated images provide links to bind the whole together. The same purpose is served by the imagery drawn from urban and country settings in Chomei at Toyama. This is raised to the level of a symbolic opposition, basic to our understanding of the poem. (pp. 87-8)

Recurring images, especially as employed in Briggflatts, go a long way to creating symbolic patterns similar to those Bunting fashions out of references to sex and to the sea. Sexual images stand half-way between those which just happen to recur and are employed in a fairly conventional manner, and the rare example of sea imagery that builds, across the poems, into a pattern of very personal symbolism.

Sex also has a personal meaning for Bunting in that it is often used to signify artistic activity. It is also mainly employed in a negative way to refer to artistic sterility…. In attacking what he considers to be T. S. Eliot's poetic failure after his adoption of orthodox religion and right-wing politics, Bunting represents him as the eunuch, Attis, and employs such deliberately ambiguous terms as "ithyphallic" to describe the poet's technique…. Poetry, love and nature are seen engaged in the same acts:

        Infamous poetry, abject love,
        Aeolus' hand under her frock
        this morning. This afternoon
        Ocean licking her privities.
        Every thrust of the autumn sun
        cuckolding
        in the green grain of late-flowering trees….

The sex imagery is particularly significant and more far-reaching in this poem, because it unites Bunting's two main subjects, love and poetry.

The symbolic functions of sexual imagery here can all be interpreted in a quite straightforward manner. Examples from different poems can be viewed together for convenience, but do not gain in subtlety for that. When fulfilling a symbolic rôle, they form a consistent pattern, rather than the very complex design made by all the references to the sea in Bunting's poetry. Seen as a whole, they become a strikingly original way of showing the poet's struggle, "stubborn against the trades" …, against a philistine society.

The sea in Bunting's poetry shows how the boundary between image and symbol is sometimes ill-defined. Also, it indicates that his symbolism is not referential in a facile way: it is definitely post-"Symboliste". It avoids, however, obscurity, because the context of the long poem informs symbol (and vice versa). Sometimes the whole of a poem becomes a symbol. (pp. 88-9)

Even the long poem, Briggflatts, could be considered in its totality as a pure symbol in that it is the autobiography of any artist, just as the whole of a Shakespeare play, such as King Lear or A Winter's Tale, can be seen as a symbol of the total human condition. Basil Bunting has said that one could compare Briggflatts, the poem, to the Quaker hamlet in Yorkshire after which it is named. Like the Quaker meeting house where the believer waits to be "moved", the reader enters the poetic structure in which he lets experiences, emotions, ideas, happen to him.

Basil Bunting's use of imagery and symbolism becomes more and more personal as his work develops, so that the most striking examples of all are to be found in the very late work and especially in Briggflatts. One very idiosyncratic use of imagery is for "shock" effect. Bunting delights in shocking the reader by creating a bisociation between his habitual reaction and the function of the image in the poem. (p. 92)

Intellectually, this procedure can be viewed as similar to René Char's shock associations of words. In Bunting, it probably developed from his insistence on images of foulness and decay in the earlier poems.

A similar, but subtler "shock" image is that of the rat in Briggflatts. [Like the vulture in The Spoils], this animal usually disgusts the onlooker. Not so Bunting, who compares the situation of a trapped rat to that of the poet in a hostile, uncomprehending world…. The image is subtle because Basil Bunting is playing on our usual reaction, so that we feel what the "normal" representative of society feels, as well as being conscious that Bunting admires the rat. (p. 93)

[The mason in Briggflatts] is not a fixed symbol of one particular thing, but has different associations according to his appearances in the poem. At first he is a rather sinister, dehumanised character, associated with death…. He is also an artist, creating a monument to the dead; and through him are proclaimed the processes of nature…. As artist he assumes the guilt of one who is unable to express the burden of his experience in his work…. (p. 95)

Even though the mason does not appear directly in the rest of the poem, the reader feels his presence by association, when Bunting talks of "White marble stained like a urinal" … and of "marbled leaves."… Thus, through its previous use—death, art etc.—the mason figure fulfills the same kind of rôle as a Wagnerian "leitmotif" at its most sophisticated, that is to say, it is not a motto for a particular emotion or idea, but is modified with each appearance, while at the same time remaining recognisable.

A more extreme example of this kind of technique is the slowworm figure in Briggflatts, which has even fewer fixed associations than the mason…. Like the blind beggar in Madame Bovary or the sinister station porter in Anna Karenina, the slowworm is a mysterious, deliberately unexplained presence at certain points of the action. It appears as part of the polyphonic pattern Bunting weaves out of the bull's song and dance, the "lark's twitter", the mason's mallet and the grave…. In the furrow (a deliberate parallel with the grave) it is associated with death. It then reappears as a phallic symbol in the love scene between the two children…. (p. 96)

It comes again in Part III. After a description of the failure of Alexander's journey because of the essentially corrupt nature of humanity, the reader is presented with a man at his weakest, near death, poisoned by an adder. The slowworm makes its sudden, mysterious appearance on this scene:

       Heart slow, nerves numb and memory, he lay
       on glistening moss by a spring;
       as a woodman dazed by an adder's sting
       barely within recall
       tests the rebate tossed to him, so he
       ascertained moss and bracken,
       a cold squirm snaking his flank
       and breath leaked to his ear:
       I am neither snake nor lizard,
       I am the slowworm….

We are led away from the association with death. The passage develops into the slowworm's song and a new entry into the world of nature…. Finally, the tone becomes hushed and religious, under the effect of the slowworm's presence…. A brief, final "rappel" of the slowworm in Part V makes it an element in the new pattern, of stars, light, love, literature and time, that Bunting creates towards the end of his poem:

               ......... light from the zenith
          spun when the slowworm lay in her lap
          fifty years ago….

The phallic symbol of Part I again, therefore, but transmuted, by its new context.

Transformation, according to poetic context and the active reaction of the reader's mind, raises the slowworm—with the rat, [and] the mason …—to a level where language transcends its immediate function and becomes a kind of music. (pp. 97-8)

Anthony Suter, "Imagery and Symbolism in Basil Bunting's Poetry," in Agenda, Spring, 1978, pp. 82-98.

G. S. Fraser

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There is verse which is directly melodic, which seems to sing rather than speak. Basil Bunting is a master of this….

Bunting perhaps excels all living poets in expressing emotional complexity through apparently simple—not so very simple—melodic artifice.

But there is [another] sense in which poetry can be musical, in imitating not the sound but the structure of music…. Bunting's most famous song poem, Briggflatts, is … constructed this way in five sections. The first two, spring and summer, mount to a false climax; there is a high and narrow real climax in the non-seasonal third; in the fourth and fifth, autumn and winter, the climaxes gently decline. The conception was not merely abstractly musical, but had in mind the expressiveness of music….

What is clear is that, however much he feels that sound comes first, Bunting is incapable of writing a syntactically incorrect sentence or a meaningless one. He is not evading sense or even wit, his images are startlingly vivid, and he is ready to comment on them….

The poet who puts musical expressiveness rather than total sense structure first may leave us, in the end, with a sense of even the musical pattern unresolved. Where should it stop, where should it start? What is it that answers expectation and what, by deliberate dissonance, seeks surprise? If the pattern we start from is not clear enough we cannot trace the deviations from the pattern….

In an interview … Bunting expresses his admiration for Wordsworth, a fellow northerner, and one who had, at his best, a wonderful ear (as in the best of the Lucy poems, which have like Bunting's a power of implying more meaning than can be laid out flat). Yet saying something very important to him, at great length, is central to Wordsworth. Perhaps the admiration is that of the fox for the hedgehog. Perhaps Bunting knows "one big thing" but I do not know what it is.

G. S. Fraser, "Sound Before Sense," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 5, 1978, p. 496.

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