Briggflatts is a poem of departure and return, both in the musical sense and in terms of the poem’s architecture. It includes more than five decades in the life of the poet and is structured as a journey from home ground into the world and then back to the poet’s origins. The wide range of events and locales that it covers is ordered by the development of the distinctive sensibility of the poet. This central “character” is eager for experience, fascinated by phenomena, determined to confront moral conundrums, in love with learning, and deeply affected by his feeling for the countryside of his birth. He takes, as his task, the reconstruction of the crucial incidents of his formation as an artist and, in accordance with this goal, accepts the challenge of assessing the moral dimensions of the choices he made during that process.
To accomplish this, Bunting likens a person’s life course to the progression of the seasons—a familiar and resonant comparison—calling spring a time of “Love and betrayal,” summer a period in which there is “no rest from ambition,” autumn a season for “reflexion,” and winter (or “Old age”) the time when one “can see at last the loveliness of things overlooked.” Throughout, there is an awareness of mortality, and the semiserenity of the poem’s close is more a matter of a willingness to accept the ongoing mysteries of existence as a source of wonder and contemplative delight than any kind of answer to cosmic questions. The wild exuberance of the “sweet tenor bull” in the poem’s first passages is eventually and gradually modified into the placidity of the “slowworm,” Bunting’s symbol for both the return of all living things to the soil and the renewal of the life force in the earth. In part 5, the Northumbrian landscape is celebrated as if from within: Close to the earth, as if from the slowworm’s furrow,
The ewes are heavy with lamb.Snow lies bright on Hedgehopeand tacky mud about Tillwhere the fells have stepped asideand the river praises itself,Light lifts from the water.Frost has put rowan down,a russet blotch of brackentousled about the trunk.
The distance from the bull in part 1, dancing on tiptoe, “ridiculous and lovely,” chasing “hurdling shadows” but so consumed with its own energy that it cannot see the depth or totality of the land’s richness, is a measure of the growth of the poet’s mind. The transformation of language from words chiseled in stone that describe the cold sea to the song of harp and flute and the illuminations of starlight at the end of part 5 signifies the emotional fulfillment of the poet’s heart. He has earned the right to live in Briggflatts—the special place where the Quaker community can speak to the spirit of God, the Creator of all things.