Myers Literary Guide
Centre for Northern Studies
 

BASIL BUNTING (1900 - 1985)

Bunting, regarded as the first and principle British modernist poet was born at 27 Denton Road in what was then Scotswood-on-Tyne. The son of a cultivated doctor, he claimed descent from the Charltons, the famous Border family, and as a child delighted in stories of the Border raids. He would often go walking and climbing with his father in Northumberland.

Bunting attended the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle and Quaker schools in Berkshire and Yorkshire, where he first stayed with a friend at Brigflatts (now in Cumbria). This place later became central to his vision as a poet of Northumbria. Arrested as a conscientious objector in 1918, he was kept in the notorious Newcastle Guardroom and later in Wormwood Scrubs. By 1923 he was in Paris and had met Ezra pound, who dedicated his Guide to Kulchur to Bunting and Louis Zukofsky. He also worked for Ford Madox Ford (q.v.) on the Transatlantic Review. He followed Pound to Rapallo, later meeting W.B. Yeats, who termed him 'one of Pound's more savage disciples'. Poverty, however, was a constant pressure on Bunting, driving him to a multitude of shifts in order to live - barman, road-digger, artist's model, boat skipper, Times correspondent, and a spell as a music critic. Other feats included riding a motorbike to the top of Mount Etna and, while living in the Canary Islands, beating General Franco at chess. During World War II, Bunting had a vastly varied experience, serving in Iran, where he formed part of a crowd chanting for his own death, and North Africa, rising to the rank of Squadron Leader .

By 1951 some of his poetry had been published, but as a modernist he was out of favour in Britain. He struggled to make ends meet, living at various times in Throckley, and 'Shadingfield' cottage in Wylam, where Judge Drabble's talented family were neighbours for a time. John Drabble came from Sheffield to be a County Court judge in Northumberland between 1958 and 1965. His novel Scawsby (1977) is set some forty miles north of 'Norcaster' (Newcastle) with 'Earwick' (Alnwick?) close by. Drabble writes with an awe and respect unusual in conventional writers, of a landscape of cranes, 'dirt' and working machinery.

After the break-up of Bunting's marriage, he moved into a Northern Arts rented flat in Washington New Town. He spent many years there up to the late 1970s, but by 1981 he had moved to Greystead, near Bellingham. His final place of residence was Fox Cottage, Whitley Chapel, Slaley. For much of this time he was working for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, sub-editing the financial page, forgotten as a writer. It was the local poet, Tom Pickard, who persuaded him to write again, and the result was his quasi-autobiographical masterpiece Briggflatts (so spelled). first read in the Morden Tower on the mediaeval walls of Newcastle. Critics, including Cyril Connolly and Hugh MacDiarmid ranked it with Eliot's Waste Land and Four Quartets, while poets like Allen Ginsberg (q.v.) - who met him in the Morden Tower - and Thom Gunn have added their praise.

Bunting's verse ranges widely over Japanese, Persian and Latin sources, but there are also bitter poems lamenting the conversion of 'sweet grass' into Northumberland grouse-moors. He stated: 'A poet is just a poet, but I am a Northumbrian man. It has always been my home, even when I've been living elsewhere... The Northumbrian tongue travel has not taken from me sometimes sounds strange to men used to the koine or Americans who may not know how much Northumberland differs from the Saxon south of England. Southrons would maul the music of many lines in Briggflatts.' We encounter dialect words and allusions to moor and beck, Coquet and Cheviot; 'scone' rhymes with 'on' - not for heaven's sake, 'own', he said. He laments that Northumbrians should know of Eric Bloodaxe but seldom do, because 'all the school histories are written by or for southrons'.

Bunting began with aesthetic values similar to those defended by Pound and Eliot but went on to write his own distinctive modernist poetry. It is above all in Briggflatts, where themes of Northumbrian history, language and landscape mingle with personal memories beneath the wheeling stars, that we find the austere and intricate music which makes reading Bunting an unforgettable experience:

Great strings next the post of the harp
clang, the horn has majesty,
flutes flicker in the draft and flare.
Orion strides over Farne.

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