BORN: 1900, Scotswood, Northumberland, England
DIED: 1985, Hexham, Northumberland, England
Redimiculum Matellarum (1930)
Poems, 1950 (1950)
An innovative poet of the modernist movement, Basil Bunting is perhaps best remembered for Briggflatts (1966) and other long poems in which he attempted to duplicate musical forms. These highly allusive works, which Bunting termed “sonatas,” reflect modernist and objectivist beliefs that poetry must convey emotion through sound. While his Collected Poems (1968; expanded, 1978) preserves a relatively small body of work, most critics concur with Tom Scott's assessment: “Bunting stands apart, one of very few dedicated poets of incorruptible integrity of purpose and talent, a subtle and original craftsman of consummate technical skill.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Prison and Music Educated in English Quaker schools, Bunting contends that his commitment to the craft of poetry dates back to his early childhood. In 1918, toward the end of World War I, Bunting turned eighteen and was therefore eligible to be drafted into military service. As a pacifist opposed to the use of violence, he applied for status as a conscientious objector to the war; he was one of approximately sixteen thousand British citizens who protested the war in this way. This resulted in Bunting's imprisonment for more than a year. It was after Bunting's release from prison in 1919 that he began to pursue his poetic career. Following his release, he traveled extensively. In 1922, he met Ezra Pound in Paris. Two years later, Pound started Bunting's literary career by introducing him to Ford Madox Ford. Bunting secured a job as subeditor at Ford's Transatlantic Review in Paris and, later, became a music critic for the Outlook. It was during this time as a music editor that Bunting honed his knowledge of that art, a knowledge that would serve him well when he was writing his sonatas.
Collaborating with Ezra Pound Critics note that Bunting's early poems display the influence of T. S. Eliot, Louis Zukofsky, and Pound, all of whom experimented with musical forms in literature. Bunting's first collection, Redimiculum Matellarum (1930), was privately printed in Italy, where both he and Pound resided and collaborated on various projects. Redimiculum Matellarum contains “Villon,” the first of Bunting's sonatas, which, like Eliot's Waste Land, was edited by Pound. In “Villon,” Bunting uses a shifting point of view, with some sections narrated from that of the fifteenth-century poet François Villon and a contemporary narrator whose life at times parallels both Bunting's and Villon's: they all spent time in prison. Subsequent poems by Bunting from this period appear in the Active Anthology, which he edited with Pound, and in Louis Zukofsky's Objectivist Anthology.
Although Bunting was able to support himself in part while in Italy by writing articles for newspapers and magazines, the rising cost of living eventually forced him to leave for the Canary Islands at the end of 1933. Bunting and his family, which included two young daughters, stayed in the Canary Islands until several days before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Bunting's experiences while living in the Canary Islands were transformed into “The Well of Lycopolis.” This gloomy sonata was written in 1935, but it did not appear in print until it was published in Poems, 1950. It is the last of Bunting's sonatas written prior to World War II.
Persian Influence In 1940 Bunting enlisted in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in Persia. After the war, he held several government and military positions, traveling extensively, with a prolonged stay in Iran. Although he published little new poetry during this time, Bunting's experiences provided the subject matter that informs much of his later verse and furnished him with extensive knowledge of Persian languages and culture. Bunting evidences this understanding in the lyrical “Odes” from Poems, 1950 and in The Spoils (1965).
Originally published in 1951 in Poetry magazine, The Spoils is the least musical of Bunting's sonatas and reflects his belief that Western civilization would benefit greatly from an understanding of Eastern culture. Bunting was trying to show that the priorities that Westerners value and assume are universal, including physical comfort, are
not necessarily shared by other cultures. The work shows that other priorities are valued in the East and that perhaps this Eastern set of attitudes toward life may allow humankind to appreciate its existence and its significance in a fuller and richer manner.
Revival and Recognition During the 1960s, Bunting gave up writing and focused on his economic survival. His poetic output was nonexistent until a young Newcastle poet, Tom Pickard, persuaded Bunting to give readings of his poems. The readings inspired Bunting to come out of retirement and begin work on his major sonata, Briggflats (1966). The popularity of the sonata, both in England and America, permanently changed Bunting's status as an unknown and secured his reputation as an important modern poet. It is considered by many critics a landmark of twentieth-century poetry.
In the wake of Bunting's increased reputation, Fulcrum Press published a collected edition of his work in 1968 and a second edition and paperback version two years later. In 1978 Oxford University Press republished the Collected Poems, at which time four short works were added. Thus, the volume contains all of Bunting's work that he has chosen to preserve—six sonatas, forty-eight odes, fourteen short translations, and one long translation.
After teaching for a number of years, first at the University of California–Santa Barbara and then in a joint position at the universities of Durham and Newcastle, Bunting spent the final years of his life in increasing poverty. In 1984 he moved to Whitley Chapel, near Hexham, Northumberland, where he died the following year.
Works in Literary Context
It is exactly Bunting's stance as a distinctly British modernist that may mark his special achievement in modern poetry. The language used in Bunting's verse, particularly the verse written after 1950, is markedly different from that of the American modernists. Not only does it reveal an interest in etymology and the stresses of the Old Briton and Welsh languages, but it captures the flavor of a British perception of existence. There is in his poetry a loving attention to the details of language and place that distinguishes Bunting as a poet who was not merely born in England but whose work illuminates various aspects of the national character.
Sonatas Bunting was always concerned with adapting music to poetry. In fact, he suggested that his only unique contribution to poetry was his adaptation of the sonata form to a poetic structure. Bunting also suggested that readers look to his poetry only for its aural value and advised them to take pleasure in the sheer sound combinations his poems afford. G. S. Fraser notes in the Times Literary Supplement that the poet's work “is verse which is directly melodic, which seems to sing rather than speak,” adding, “Bunting perhaps excels all living poets in expressing emotional complexity through apparently simple—not so very simple—melodic artifice.” And Anthony Suter extends this musical metaphor in Agenda, observing that Bunting's poetry reflects “the structure of meanings, and, moreover, the meanings are organized according to a musical architecture—that of sonata form.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Bunting's famous contemporaries include:
Ezra Pound (1885–1972): This American expatriate poet made a major contribution to the modernist movement of the twentieth century, both in his own poetry and in his crucial editing of the works of T. S. Eliot and others.
Benito Mussolini (1883–1945): Prime minister of Italy in 1922, fortieth president of the Council of Ministers of Italy, and leader of the National Fascist Party, Mussolini was killed while trying to escape to Spain at the end of World War II.
Nina Hamnett (1890–1966): Known to many as the Queen of Bohemia, this Welsh painter, illustrator, and writer remains notorious for her flamboyant and unconventional lifestyle.
Louis Zukofsky (1904–1978): American poet and founder of the objectivist school of modernist poetry who worked closely with Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and others to promote techniques of modernism. A friend and mentor to Bunting, he corresponded frequently with Bunting and provided him with positive reviews.
Pablo Neruda (1904–1973): Chilean poet, essayist, and politician, Neruda was one of the most influential and significant literary figures of the twentieth century. A passionate Communist, Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, despite his political commitments.
Yet, it may well be his imaginative range and control that stand out most clearly when one attempts to assess the value of his work. Bunting's themes are essentially universal: the relationship of life and art, of past and present, of ideal form and physical manifestation, of memory and artifact, of love and human existence. His manipulation of these thematic concerns—the way he interweaves them throughout his poetic canon and ties them to specific locales in his sonatas—shows a man whose mind truly controls the verse he creates out of his experience of reality. Bunting's struggle with memory and regret, among other great themes, cannot help but
elicit a response in his audience, even if what they hear is primarily, as he feared and hoped, only a “pattern of sound that may sometimes … be pleasing.”
Works in Critical Context
Above all, Basil Bunting was a poet of sounds. His achievements lie not only in the way he controls and uses language, but also in the way his poetry captures a particular time and place. Bunting perceives the presence of the past in the present. Throughout his work, there is a continual growth in mastery of the poetic line, in manipulation of varied thematic material, and in the handling of increasingly larger and more cohesive forms.
Briggflatts In Bunting's final sonata, Briggflatts, he brings his musical poetry to fruition. Described by August Kleinzahler as “the finest long poem of the century,” Briggflatts displays a pastoral sensibility within a framework that is characteristically erudite and musical. Although subtitled “An Autobiography,” this work focuses on Bunting's impressions of his experiences and his lifetime of studying literature rather than rendering actual occurrences in his life. The greatest achievement of Briggflatts is perhaps the way in which it returns to and musically updates the Quaker influences of Bunting's childhood, transforming these from the specific tenets of a particular religion to a music of the soul available to all.
Responses to Literature
- Comment on Ezra Pound's role in introducing Bunting to readers. Research Pound's editing and promotion of T. S. Eliot and other authors and consider what role an editor can or should play in the writing and publishing of poetry. What do you make of Pound's heavy editorial hand?
- Bunting was adamant that sound was the most important thing about poetry. In a short essay, take a position on lyrical poetry. Explain your view in contrast to or in support of Bunting's opinion. Structure your response with reference to three to five of Bunting's poems.
- Read “The Spoils” and write a critical review, commenting on its message and lyrical qualities.
- Bunting's renewed interest in writing poetry began after several readings. Prepare an oral reading of Briggflatts. As a class, discuss why this poem received such high acclaim.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
While writing “The Spoils,” Bunting indicated to his friend Louis Zukofsky that his theme contrasts Eastern and Western values. Other works that consider apparent distinctions between Eastern and Western cultures include:
Orientalism (1978), a nonfiction book by Palestinian American Edward Said. This text is a high-water mark for the postcolonial movement in literary studies.
Anti-Goeze (1778), a nonfiction collection by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. These nonfiction articles advocate tolerance for world religions.
Mountains and Rivers without End (1996), a poem by Gary Snyder. This epic poem reflects a vision of being in the world that is directly and overtly influenced by Snyder's travels and Eastern philosophy.
Alldritt, Keith. The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting. London: Aurum, 1998.
Bunting, Basil. A Note on “Briggflatts”. Durham, England: Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, 1989.
___. Basil Bunting on Poetry. Edited by Peter Makin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
___. Briggflatts: An Autobiography. London:
___. The Recordings of Basil Bunting (eight cassette tapes). Edited by Richard Swigg. Keele, U.K.: Keele University, in association with the Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, 1994.
Caddel, Richard, and Anthony Flowers. Basil Bunting: A Northern Life. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K.: Newcastle Libraries and Information Service, 1997.
Forde, Victoria. The Poetry of Basil Bunting. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K.: Bloodaxe Books, 1991.
Makin, Peter. Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.
Quartermain, Peter. Basil Bunting: Poet of the North. Durham, U.K.: Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, Durham University, 1990.
Terrell, Carroll F., ed. Basil Bunting: Man and Poet. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, 1981.
Caddel, Richard, ed. Sharp Study and Long Toil: Basil Bunting. Special Issue. Durham University Journal, 1995.