The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Briggflatts is a five-part poem of nearly seven hundred lines combining a celebration of the Northumbrian landscape of England with the poet’s meditations on history, aesthetic reality, language, and his own participation in the events and incidents that give the poem its substance and emotional qualities. The title recalls the Quaker meeting house where Basil Bunting, as a young man, first experienced the illuminative insights that he came to believe were at the core of poetic possibility. The five-part structure of the poem is based on the sonata form of exposition/development and recapitulation that Bunting employs in each section and as an overarching frame for the entire work. Using sequences of action drawn imaginatively from personal experience and various mythologies, Bunting has composed a kind of “autobiography of feeling” that attempts to reconcile the poet’s instinctive desire for adventurous mobility with his reflective recognition that some kind of home base is necessary to ground and organize the multiple images of a life’s course.

The poem begins as an echo of the traditional epic invocation to the gods or Muses, commanding (in this case) the spirit of the West Yorkshire fields, a “sweet tenor bull,” to “Brag”—that is, to boast, or announce—the exuberant arrival of the spring season with its promise of passion and fertility. “Descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,” the poet continues, directing the song of the bull as a counterpoint to the melody of the river Rawthey and as a discourse upon the features of the land itself. This is the place where the poem begins and where the life of the poet who speaks—the narrative consciousness revealing itself as the poem progresses—begins to come into focus. As Herbert Read, a trenchant advocate for unconventional poetry, has pointed out, the poem operates as a series of impressions “recovered and evaluated,” and the first section introduces the poet as a young man with a maid, a reprise of figures from classical ballads reaching into Anglo-Saxon antiquity who resonate with the sensual music of the earth coming into bloom.

One of the ordering devices for the entire poem is an ongoing interchange between “then” and “now” as the poet’s reflective intelligence shifts from a re-creation or recollection of action to a meditation on its ramifications through time. This pattern of transition is established initially in terms of a rock mason—the maid’s father—who carves memorial words into stone, thus embedding ephemeral language into a more permanent medium. The mason is an emblem of the poet as craftsman, and his grave task sets up a counterpoint to the timeless present of the youth’s intense moment. His work casts an ominous shadow of temporality and degeneration over the sexual union of the young people, and, as the first section concludes, the “sweet tenor” voice of the bull has been transformed into mere flesh (“the bull is beef”), love has been “murdered,” and, accurately or not, the poet accepts blame for the loss. He recognizes that there is “No hope of going back” to an initial state of innocence and that a path for the rest of his life’s journey has been opened, a journey launched with no destination in sight.

The guilt and even grief that the poet carries infects the wider world he enters as the second section begins. Surrounded by a debased society of “toadies, confidence men, kept boys,” where he wanders aimlessly, “jailed, cleaned out by whores,” the poet turns to the sea in a time-tested tactic for finding new horizons. There, he is transported not only away from the sordid urban wasteland but also further into a timeless realm that Bunting evokes by...

(The entire section is 1523 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bunting, who wrote music criticism for Outlook and the Musical Times during the 1920’s, regarded sound as the crucial core of all poetic expression. In a characteristic statement, he proclaimed, “Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound.Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life.” His preparation for Briggflatts included not only a structural pattern based on the sonata but also a specific linking with sonatas by Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti. In a record he made of the poem, he placed selected Scarlatti sonatas before and after each part to emphasize the musical mood. Beyond this, Bunting suggested that an ideal reading would be in the voice of an inhabitant of the Northumbrian region of the British Isles so that the precise sound he had in mind would be accurately rendered. The epigraph he used for the entire poem, “The spuggies are fledged” (itself a translation from a thirteenth century life of Alexander the Great), must be spoken with a hard g in “spuggies,” typical of what poet Donald Davie calls the “exceptionally tender care for its acoustic values” that Bunting brought to every syllable of the poem.

The sonic subtlety of Bunting’s writing is a function of language and form. Bunting has fashioned, with intricate detail and exceptional invention, a demonstration of how musical principles can be applied to poetic form. Examples include the balance of the...

(The entire section is 524 words.)