Last of the Modernists
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting
By Richard Burton (Infinite Ideas 618pp £30)
No other poet in English sounds like Basil Bunting. In his first published poem, 'Villon', written under the guidance of Ezra Pound in 1925, he had already worked out a brusque music of his own, with an ear for rhyme unusual in modernist poets:
Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written over all.
And in his last published poem - headed Perche no spero, 'Because I do not hope', with one eye on Cavalcanti via T S Eliot, and dated 1980, when he was as old as the century - his endlessly supple ear for rhythmic variations and cross-patternings is as sharp as ever:
Now we've no hope of going back,
cutter, to that grey quay
where we moored twice and twice unwillingly
cast off our cables to put out at the slack
when the sea's laugh was choked to a mutter
and the leach lifted hesitantly with a stutter
and sulky clack,
how desolate the swatchways look,
Unusually among his modernist peers, who were variously tied up in doctrines of poetic impersonality and world-historical subject matter, Bunting is able to write from deep emotion, here looking back in old age on two failed marriages.
Richard Burton's biography, A Strong Song Tows Us, is the first attempt to write a full-length life of the poet that takes account of all the available evidence. It was a life that seems almost implausibly replete. Bunting listed his early influences in a letter - 'Jails and the sea, Quaker mysticism and socialist politics, a lasting unlucky passion, the slums of Lambeth and Hoxton' - and all this was before his mid-twenties (as a conscientious objector, owing to his Quaker pacifism, he was jailed during the First World War). He then lived in Paris, where he was bailed from prison by Ezra Pound after drunkenly assaulting a police officer and worked as Ford Madox Ford's secretary. He followed Pound to Rapallo, where he became friendly with Yeats and helped to discover lost works by Vivaldi and Scarlatti. He learned classical Persian, and became one of the great translators of the language's poetry. When his wife left him in 1937, exhausted by their poverty, he lived in miserable conditions and became a sailor, but had his prospects transformed by the Second World War. After bribing an optician to let him memorise the eye tests, he was admitted into the RAF to work on the barrage balloons, but managed to get himself posted to Persia on the basis of his knowledge of the ancient language and literature.
This is the most extraordinary part of Burton's narrative: we find Bunting working as a squadron leader and military intelligence official with a remit covering the entire theatre of the Middle East. He stayed in the region after the war to work for the Foreign Office and then The Times. The penniless poet who had seemed like a hopeless case through the 1920s and 1930s was transformed into a man of what Burton calls 'dynamic self-possession', carrying out dangerous and challenging work in one of the most politically volatile regions in the world. But it ended suddenly when Mossadegh expelled him from the country in 1952, and he found himself back in Britain compiling the financial pages for the local paper, cut off from excitement and the world of poetry until a late flourishing in the mid-1960s, which led to Briggflatts, the long poem on which his reputation rests. After a brief burst of fame and adulation among younger poets on the back of Briggflatts, there was still time for another period of grinding poverty and loneliness. Finally Bunting died in 1985 - a friend of Yeats and Eliot who outlived all his companions and ended lost and appalled in the Thatcher era.
The most perceptive remark on Bunting's character in this book comes from the poet Roy Fisher, who surveys Bunting's prickliness, his toughness, his shifting personae and his high standards, but notes a counter-tendency:
there was also the inaccessible sense of a demon of delinquency and improvidence - the absences, the goings-to-ground, the impulsive initiatives, the periods of yielding to circumstance in a curiously - I'm tempted to say suspiciously - passive manner. A sort of anti-matter countering the will to achieve good things, and in some way ministering to it.
Burton gives relatively little consideration to what we can broadly call Bunting's depression. To offer diagnoses on the mental health of figures from the past is a tricky business, but Bunting himself opened up to a friend in 1925 on 'his shyness & fear of people not liking him' and described with perplexity in 1930 his 'recurrent disease' of feeling 'disgustingly lethargic' and falling into 'worse than doldrums'. His extended periods of not writing, which lasted through much of the 1930s and 1940s and all the years between 1951 and 1964, were matched by his near-constant failure to come up with a sustainable way of making a living for himself and his family - partly through bad luck and the ill will of the world, but partly also through self-defeating doggedness, pre-emptive cynicism and an inability to help himself. The only time when he seems to have been anything like contented was during the Second World War, when he abandoned 'the reflective life for the active one, as seaman and airman and diplomat', as he put it.
Bunting's demon of negativity produces an entertaining thread in this biography - his talent for hatred. He hated southerners ('utterly impossibly & hateful'), Germans ('I've loathed the Germans for so many years'), Spaniards ('a cruel people'), American Midwesterners ('a disgusting lot') and journalists ('turd-bakers'; 'not capable of any thought of any sort at all'). He hated being a journalist ('wretched newspaper job ... tiresome drudgery'), teaching modern American poetry ('somebody called O'Hara ... The prospect appals me') and being given money by the Arts Council ('desk and pen vermin'). He also hated most other poets: Robert Lowell ('not a single poem worth a damn'), Geoffrey Hill ('Just nothing there') and Dylan Thomas and the Auden generation ('They are a useless set of cunts'). In 1953, at the beginning of the darkest period of Bunting's life, he predicted that he would 'end by hating the Western world', and in his old age in the 1970s and 1980s Bunting's jeremiads against the encroaching darkness of social and political life in England reached a moving pitch of despair.
Burton's insights into Bunting's life and work are generally astute and excellent, but he could perhaps have pressed harder on the delicate question of Bunting's attraction to adolescent girls. In his youth, when he was between 13 and 17 and she was 8 to 12, Bunting was in love with a girl called Peggy, with whom relations were abruptly broken off. In Briggflatts (which Bunting called 'an autobiography, but not a record of fact'), this is represented in a scene of innocent sexual exploration. In 1965 Bunting was reunited with Peggy, both of them now in their sixties and married to other people, and the love was rekindled, but Peggy said to a mutual friend that 'he sees me as a small child ... He doesn't see me as I now am.' Around 1974 they ceased contact again. In the intervening years, it seems that Bunting found substitutes for the adolescent love that had been cut off in several relationships with young girls. His estranged first wife alleged that Bunting told her that 'if he had caught me 10 or 15 years earlier' - in her mid-teens - 'he could have brought me up right'; and that when they lived in Tenerife he 'developed a crush on a 12 yr. old "chica"', who found it 'distasteful'; he was 'broken hearted' and 'genuinely dejected' when her family moved away. Aged 41, Bunting was in love with a 14-year-old girl called Helen. Aged 48, based in Tehran, he got married for a second time to a 14-year-old Armenian called Sima - 'very young, beautiful, barbarous' - and thought little of the narrow manners of his Foreign Office colleagues who considered marriage to 'a child by their standards' shocking, and accounted Bunting 'a Nasty Old Man'. Later in life Bunting took a young girl to be his saqhi or cupbearer when he gave poetry readings, and aged 66 we find him with his arm round his cupbearer's waist and his hand stroking her ribs and breast; the person who witnessed this said, 'Jesus! Look at that old man will you!' Burton says he has come across no evidence 'that these girls ever became more than companions', but this surely involves some wilful blindness to a clear pattern in Bunting's life. The post-Jimmy Savile climate of retrospective outrage and accusation needs no stoking, but this expression of arrested development and stunted, nostalgic sexual desire seems important in understanding the life of man who as an adult often seemed violently conflicted.
A Strong Song Tows Us makes a low-key attempt to frame Bunting's relationship with Peggy as 'one of the great love stories of the twentieth century', but this is hardly borne out by the biographical evidence. The real importance of the relationship is that it inspired Briggflatts, published in 1966 - which Thom Gunn called 'one of the few great poems of this century', and which Hugh MacDiarmid and Cyril Connolly both considered the most important English-language poem since Eliot's work. Burton's biography is ingeniously structured around Briggflatts, with its long chapters matching the sections of the poem, and the entire fourth chapter devoted to a sustained close reading of it.
Richard Burton's book is a triumph of patient archival spadework and sympathetic understanding, and represents a major contribution to modern literary studies. He has trawled through Bunting's school, university and air-force records (the last newly released in 2010 under the 30-year rule), and has studied an impressive number of unpublished letters sent and received by a man who tried to destroy all his correspondence. I hope that this biography will contribute to a resurgence in Bunting's reputation. Faber are set to publish a long-delayed complete poems in 2014, edited by Don Share, and an edition of his letters is also in the offing. Perhaps the man Burton calls 'Britain's greatest modernist poet' is finally getting his due.
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Matthew Sperling writes poetry, fiction and criticism, and is the Leverhulme Trust postdoctoral researcher at the University of Reading.