The Poem

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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...

(This entire section contains 1523 words.)

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evokes by describing the ocean with the rhythms of old English alliterative verse: “Who sang, sea takes,/ brawn brine, bone grit./ Keener the kittiwake./ Fells forget him./ Fathoms dull the dale,/ gulfweed voices.” Among other ports of call, the poet visits the Italian peninsula, and, in a series of crisp quatrains, Bunting calls forth the qualities of the landscape with a characteristic appeal to the senses: “It tastes good,” “It sounds right,” “It feels soft,” and “It looks well” before adding “but never/ well enough.” The seafarer has not been able to escape from himself, so the “wind, sun, sea upbraid/ justly an unconvinced deserter.” The defect of character that the poet takes with him is explored in a kind of reverie on the violent death of the ninth century Norwegian king Eric Bloodaxe, who ruled Northumbria for a time and died (according to legend) at the battle of Stainmore. The king is offered as an allegorical parallel for the poet, his voyages to the British Isles depicted in terse, skaldic verses (“Scurvy gnaws, steading smell, hearth’s crackle”), his downfall, at least partially, a result of his moral failure. Judgment is withheld, however, as the section closes with the poet making further inquiries: “But who will entune a bogged orchard,/ its blossom gone,/ fruit unformed, where hunger and/ damp hush the hive?” His queries are framed in terms of the natural world, recalling the springtime in Northumbria and suggesting that the summer of the second section is held in suspension while additional data is accumulated. This is preparation for the “hell-canto” of section 3, the center of the poem, a “different thing” that Bunting labeled “a nightmare or dream or whatever you fancy.” Among other things, it is a version of the archetypal “Dark Night of the Soul” in which the innermost truth of being is (or can be) revealed.

In accordance with his plan to find semiautobiographical analogues for the poet’s journey, Bunting uses the story of Alexander the Great’s quest for wisdom, which he took from the Persian poet Firdusi’s Shahnamah (c. 1010), as his model. In ninety-five lines dense with images of a vile and repugnant realm, the explorer climbs toward a mountain vision. Then, in a transformative dream, the nightmare world is replaced by a scene in which, as Bunting biographer Victoria Forde puts it, the poet is “delighted by the beauty and variety of nature which cleanses and renews.” The surge of a beneficent life force suggests the possibility of living in harmony with the natural world: “Sycamore seed twirling,/ O, writhe to its measure!/ Dust swirling trims pleasure./ Thorns prance in a gale./ In air snow flickers,/ twigs tap,/ elms drip.”

The fourth section, which was listed as “Autumn” in Bunting’s original diagram, contains the ripening of this realization. To objectify it, Bunting uses the ancient Welsh poets Aneurin and Taliesin (“Clear Cymric voices,” cymru being the Welsh-language name for Wales) as points of departure for a series of tales that encourage an acceptance of the landscape the poet left and to which he now returns. In the center of the section, the poet recalls, with poignant regret, the woman whose love he betrayed. His apostrophe to her (“My love is young but wise. Oak, applewood,/ her fire is banked with ashes till day./ The fells reek of her hearth’s scent”) is built on earthly images, and its tone of appreciation signals his readiness to reconcile his wanderlust with a fuller understanding of the value in his native ground. Impediments remain, however, as the poet still must overcome some psychic hurdle before he can rest content with his choices.

The fifth section is clearly set in a wintry vista: “Solstice past,/ years end crescendo,” it declares, “Winter wrings pigment/ from petal and slough.” There is a strong contrast with the verdant spring of the first part, but the winter landscape is alive with beauty since the poet/artist is able to see beyond the somewhat deceptive appeal of sheer sexual youth into a season of more subtle satisfactions. Pioneering British cultural commentator Eric Mottram calls this “a magnificently sustained pleasure in the particularities of music, sea-shore, the fells, and fishing boats on the water at night.” The lyrical surge of these lines is Bunting’s method for creating an ethos of awe that permits the joining of “Then is Now,” his formulation for the fusion of the fading past and the ongoing present. When he states, near the poem’s close, “She has been with me fifty years” in a line separated from the preceding and following lines, he is acknowledging his losses, but he is also accepting the inevitability of his wandering (“A strong song tows/ us”) as the burden of his poetic insight. As he states in the beginning of section 2, “Poet appointed dare not decline.” Now he is prepared to return to his community, the Quaker meeting place Briggflatts, and offer the poem as a summation of his life experiences. As Bunting told American poet and publisher Jonathan Williams, “My autobiography is Briggflatts,” and the poem is a way of settling his debt to those he may have unwittingly hurt, including himself. The coda that follows the fifth section is appropriately open-ended, affirming the power of poetry to provide consolation for the trials of existence while continuing to question the meaning of all things: “Who,/ swinging his axe/ to fell kings, guesses/ where we go?”

Forms and Devices

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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 twelve thirteen-line stanzas in part 1; the accumulated pressure of the repetitive quatrains (“It tastes,” “It sounds,” “It feels,” “It looks”) in part 2; the ninety-five lines of dense, compressed descriptive detail of Alexander’s ascent in part 3; the turn to the immediate and personal narrative (“I hear Aneurin,” “I see Aneurin’s pectoral muscle,” “Where rats go go I”) in part 4; and, as an epitome, the melding of word-sound and word-meaning in the evocation of the winter landscape in part 5. When he refers to “Rawthey’s madrigal” at the start, he is establishing a musical style that interweaves numerous voices so that Briggflatts can contain examples of lyrical love poetry, elegiac recapitulation of heroic figures from antiquity, laments for various losses, caustic satiric dismissals of the ills of the modern world, numerous vividly descriptive passages that bring the locales of the poem to life, and extended narratives in the Bardic tradition that bring compelling tales of historical relevance to the poem’s purpose. His success in unifying what are generally regarded as distinct subgenres depends on the extremely elaborate interlinkages of sound (“rich rhyming and chiming” in poet and literary theorist Charles Tomlinson’s application of a phrase from nineteenth century English art critic and writer John Ruskin) that assume not only a skilled reader but also a very committed, attentive listener. The elemental coherence of the poem, however, depends not only on Bunting’s extremely painstaking arrangement of sound patterns but also on the emerging narrative consciousness of the poet who is speaking. This is the mechanism that joins the poem’s form to its essential themes, the evolving melodic strain around which Bunting’s variations and inventions are played and into which they eventually coalesce.