Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005
“There are those who think that after 1945 the poetry of Bunting is manifestly better than any other poetry in English written in the same period. It is in a class of its own. But this was so far from received opinion that it could not be taken seriously.” Thus Donald Davie, writing at the end of the 1980’s, summed up the critical standing of Basil Bunting’s poetry. The title chosen by Davie for the book from which this assessment is quoted, Under Briggflatts: A History of Poetry in Great Britain, 1960-1988 (1989), alluding to Bunting’s long poem Briggflatts (1965), leaves no doubt about his own high estimation of Bunting’s verse. Similarly, in A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers (1987), Hugh Kenner celebrated Bunting’s achievement, noted the general incomprehension with which it was met, and suggested that in order to come to terms with Bunting “we must relearn our reading skills.” Now, with the publication of Peter Makin’s Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse, the case for Bunting has been made at book-length by a superb advocate.
One of the virtues of the much-publicized debate over the canon is that, potentially at least, it should prompt a wholesale reexamination of why we read what we read, why we deem certain works worthy of study. In practice what we have got has largely been argument at a very low level. On one hand there are the defenders of Western civilization, for whom the list of set books has the authority of the tablets on Mount Sinai. (And yet it was T. S. Eliot who asked, in 1918, “Who, for instance, has a first-hand opinion of Shakespeare? Yet I have no doubt that much could be learned by a serious study of that semi-mythical figure.”) On the other hand there are the spokespeople for various groups (usually defined in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender) said to have been underrepresented in the canon. What the two sides have in common is a readiness to accept uncritically whatever ideal reading list their ideology endorses, a disinclination to form firsthand opinions.
In contrast, consider Bunting’s answer when asked by an interviewer to name the poets he judged to be “world-class”: “Homer, Ferdosi, Manuchehri, Dante, Hafez, Malherbe, Aneirin, Heledd, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth” (Paideuma, Spring, 1980). Whatever else can be said about that pugnaciously unconventional response—a similar roster appears in the preface to Bunting’s Collected Poems (new ed., 1978), with some variations—it is clearly a personal selection. Not a list sanctified by custom or promoted by any consensus of literary commissars, it reflects Bunting’s firsthand opinions based on a lifetime of reading.
In Peter Makin, Bunting has found a reader whose judgments are as independent and as deeply grounded in firsthand knowledge and experience as his own. Anyone can have an opinion—the student, for example, who disliked Dostoevski because “the names of all the characters sound the same”—yet too often, literary study consists of replacing such laughably ignorant responses with a set of approved opinions which the student has not formed for himself or herself. That is one reason Bunting generally held professors of literature in low regard. He preached against excessive bookishness; writing needs to measure itself always against the real. One of his models was Sir Walter Raleigh: “a great poet, a pirate, a statesman, and a million other things. You can’t write about anything unless you’ve experienced it.”
Makin’s book is divided into five sections. The first part, “Development,” consists of a sketch of Bunting’s life to 1965 interwoven with an analysis of his development as a poet. Chapters are devoted to “Villon” (1925), Bunting’s free adaptation drawing from several of François Villon’s poems, somewhat in the spirit of Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (1919); “Chomei at Toyama” (1932), another free adaptation rather than a literal rendering, this time based on an Italian translation of a thirteenth century Japanese poem; “The Well of Lycopolis” (1935), an anti-love poem that uses classical allusions to underline the poet’s disgust with the sordid state of “modern life”; and “The Spoils” (1951), which reflects both his World War II experience and his intensive study of Persian poetry, begun in the early 1930’s.
“The Spoils” was followed by a long hiatus, nearly fifteen years in which Bunting simply was not able to write. During the war he had advanced rapidly to a position of great responsibility. (In World War I, Bunting had been an uncompromising conscientious objector, as a result of which he was jailed and brutally mistreated. World War II, in contrast, he embraced with gusto.) “By 1946,” Makin tells us, “he was in Baghdad as acting chief of Combined Intelligence, covering the further half of the Middle East from the Indian frontier to that of Palestine.” But as the aftermath of the war played out, Bunting—who had married a Persian woman, his second wife—had to find work in the civilian sector. He served with distinction as a correspondent for The Times until he was expelled from Iran after anti-British rioting.
Back in England in 1952, with his wife, their two-year-old daughter, and a newborn son, Bunting, despite his wealth of experience, was not readily employable. Some of Bunting’s partisans, writing of this period, have indicted a “system” that could find no place for a man of his gifts and achievements. Makin is more balanced, sharing that anger but also factoring in Bunting’s character. Stubborn integrity, pride, pig- headedness, a distaste for cant but also for routine work of any kind, a disordered personal life: Bunting had always gone his own way, whatever the consequences. In his early fifties, he had to take a proofreading job that barely supported himself and his family: “reading unbearable English in a deafening print-room,” Makin relates.
Excerpts from Bunting’s letters from this period suggest his self-disgust, despair, and increasing sense of intellectual isolation. While he was able eventually to get a job as a subeditor for The Newcastle Journal, his circumstances were only marginally improved. Then, in 1964, an unemployed young poet, Tom Pickard, came to visit, having been told about Bunting by the American poet, publisher, and impresario, Jonathan Williams. Within a short time Bunting had begun Briggflatts.
Pickard and the circle of young writers and readers who came to know Bunting evidently restored his faith in himself. Still, as Makin observes, “the odd thing is that nothing had changed. It is true that he had fears about his eyesight, and felt that the years remaining to write poems were few. But he was not getting an hour more of freedom from the drudgery.” Yet if outwardly nothing had changed, Makin suggests, something had changed within, allowing Bunting to find a new voice.
Makin’s part 2, “Matter,” is devoted to Briggflatts and to an exposition of the Northumbrian tradition in which Bunting believed that he was working. As soon as it was published, Briggflattswas hailed as a masterpiece by figures as various as Hugh Kenner and Cyril Connolly. This was the work that put Bunting back into circulation. It led to the issuing of his collected poems, first by the Fulcrum Press in 1968 and then, a decade later, with minor changes and four additional poems, by Oxford University Press. It led to a series of invitations to teach as a visiting professor at various North American universities—work that he disliked but accepted out of financial necessity. It gave him the impetus to begin another major poem, unfinished at his death in 1985, the stunning first stanzas of which appear as Ode 11 in his Uncollected Poems (1991), edited by Richard Caddel. It is the work by which he is likely to be remembered.
Briggflatts is an unusual fusion of the personal and the historical. As Makin notes, the poem “takes a considerable part of its substance from the Dark Ages: from the lives of St Cuthbert, theGododdin poems, the Norse sagas, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” Yet it is also Bunting’s most personal work. Subtitled “An Autobiography,” it harks back some fifty years from the time of its composition, to Bunting’s youth.
When he was twelve years old, shortly after he was sent to the Quaker school in Ackworth, Bunting was invited by a classmate to visit the small village of Brigflatts (one g, though Bunting preferred the alternate spelling). George Fox had stayed in Brigflatts in 1652, just prior to what is traditionally taken to be the founding of Quakerism. While there, Bunting met a girl, Peggy Greenback, whose father was the local mason. The poem Briggflatts is dedicated to her; she is the love whose abandonment by the poet sets this oblique “autobiography” in motion. (In Makin’s very terse account, after their initial meeting “Bunting came back often. But when he was released from prison in 1919 he did not come back.…”)
The first two sections take up the bulk of Makin’s book. In part 3, “The Form of Poetry,” Makin relates Bunting’s fascination with an illuminated book, the Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 698), to his distinctive sense of “abstraction” in art; this leads into the following chapter, where Makin considers Bunting’s emphasis on poetic form as being analogous to musical form. Part 4, “Theory,” shows how Bunting’s apparently naïve “literary realism” can withstand the challenge posed by contemporary literary theory. In part 5, “Coda,” Makin briefly traces Bunting’s post-Briggflatts career. The book concludes with several appendices and a bibliography.
Makin’s frequent quotations from fugitive essays will make many readers yearn for a collection of Bunting’s prose. (The extracts from letters are also enticing.) Makin has seemingly read every word Bunting wrote. He does not try to make all of Bunting’s pronouncements consistent; as he remarks, “the critical theory of the mature author is largely a Distant Early Warning system for the protection of the writer’s personality.” Thus, while we will want to understand why the cult of experience was central to Bunting’s art, we are not thereby committed to a universal principle. (Behind Bunting’s insistence that one can write only about what one has experienced, Hugh Kenner sees “an honest, and desperate, rejection of much communality gone facile; Shakespeare could feel safe in being without the experience of watching sheep, of killing, of wearing a crown.”)
Makin is particularly good on sound in poetry. Of all the themes in this rich study, it is the one with most general application, sufficient by itself to engage anyone with an interest in poetry. Makin’s subtitle announces his interest in the shape of poetry. As he explains in his preface, “I assume, as Basil Bunting did, that the reason-for-being of a poem is its shape.” When Makin speaks of “shape” he has in mind several different scales at once. One aspect of a poem’s shape, for example, is the way in which it introduces a theme (such as the abandonment of love inBriggflatts), moves to other themes, then returns to the original theme. Most fundamentally, though, the shape of a poem is formed by the sounds its words make.
When the stir over Briggflatts brought Bunting’s views into currency, he became notorious for his emphasis on the role of sound in poetry. “People sometimes suppose me to be saying that music is the only thing in poetry. Not at all. It is not the only thing. But it is the only indispensable thing.” What is striking about most contemporary poetry, of whatever “school” or “movement,” is the extent to which there is in it no “beauty of sound.” Even the so-called New Formalists seem not to notice that, with all their reverence for “traditional forms,” they rarely approach the densely patterned “sound-working” which Bunting sought in his own verse and in that of others worth emulating, the music of these lines from the “Coda” to Briggflatts:
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.
Sources for Further Study
Durham University Journal. LXXXIV July, 1992, p. 353.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1992, p. 26.
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