Basil Bunting Bunting, Basil - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bunting, Basil 1900–

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

Peter Dale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Anthony Suter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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G. S. Fraser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.