Basil Bunting’s long poem “Briggflatts” is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Written in 1965, when the British poet was 65 and working as a lowly subeditor for the Newcastle Daily Journal, it traces Bunting’s life from his days in a Northumbrian Quaker school, early imprisonment, and time in Italy to his service as a spy and officer in World War II and his return home to oblivion.
Like other great modernist works, it is fragmented and abstract, yet richly textured and sonorous. Its topic is unfulfilled love and failed ambition. While the poet starts out in life bragging like a “sweet tenor bull” dancing “tiptoe,” before long he is “mating / beauty with squalor to beget lines still born.” Cyril Connolly called “Briggflatts” the “finest long poem … since T.S. Eliot’s Quartets,” and Thom Gunn remarked that it was “one of the few great poems of this century.” But it and the poet are now mostly forgotten. Bunting knew Eliot, and W.B. Yeats. He was a close friend of Ezra Pound’s, and he corresponded regularly with William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. Yet he published too little in those days of “high modernism” to establish a lasting reputation.
The Beats—whom Bunting thought were very friendly people but very poor poets—helped bring him the attention he deserved in 1960s and ’70s, but interest began to fade in the 1980s. In 1988, just three years after his death, Hugh Kenner complained that most people were unfamiliar with Bunting’s work. His poems went out of print and have remained so until recently.
Richard Burton’s exhaustive if verbose biography of Bunting, A Strong Song Tows Us, goes a long way to restoring Bunting to his rightful place among the greats of Anglo-American literary modernism.
Born to a medical doctor in an upper-middle-class family in Northumbria, Bunting was educated at Quaker schools—the only child in the family to receive such an education. His parents were not religious, but they may have sent Bunting to the Quakers because of his sensitivity, depression, and occasional paranoia. As a child and as a man, Bunting could be implacable, self-absorbed, and insolent, but also of strong principle. During the First World War, Bunting was a conscientious objector. He was one of roughly 16,500 men who refused to fight—but one of only a little over 1,000 who refused even nonmilitary service. He was sent to prison, where he did not do any work that contributed to the war effort and went on a hunger strike when he was not let out following the armistice. Following his eventual release from prison, Bunting studied for a couple of years at the London School of Economics. While he had a mind for numbers and economic theory, his true passion was poetry. In 1923, he left for Paris, with no money and no job, to visit Pound, whom he had met in London. Pound introduced him to Ford Madox Ford, who employed Bunting for a time to work on his newly founded Transatlantic Review. Bunting returned to England after his father died and moved in 1925 to London, where he worked for the next three years for the conservative Outlook as a financial journalist.
Bunting’s politics are a little difficult to pin down. He expressed some sympathy for communism when he was younger, and he was a member of the Fabian Society until 1923. Zukofsky called him “a British-conservative-antifascist-imperialist.” In reality, he was more of a classical liberal, albeit with a hefty skepticism of laissez-faire capitalism—a staunch individualist with a deep dislike and distrust of all forms of authority.
In 1947, Bunting wrote Pound’s wife: “I am for thwarting the government—all governments, especially the more powerful and effective ones; and for not reforming backwards nations; and for pushing economics out of the limelight for a century or so; and limiting free compulsory education to reading, writing and ’rithmatic.” Alluding to Allen Ginsberg in a letter to Jonathan Williams in 1973, Bunting wrote: “I detest Gurus, Tibetan or any other breed.”
During his three years in London, Bunting wrote his first notable poem, “Villon,” which is loosely based on his various imprisonments (in England and later, for lack of proper paperwork, in Norway and Russia). It is named after a medieval French poet much lauded by Pound: François Villon, whose occasionally bawdy Testament, written during his imprisonment in a Paris jail, skewered local clergy and magistrates. Bunting’s “Villon” is more philosophical but equally biting and blunt:
Remember, imbeciles and wits
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with tender little tits,
that DEATH is written over all.
Worn hides that scarcely clothe
They are so rotten, old and thin,
or firm and soft and warm and
fellmonger Death gets every skin.
In 1928 Bunting left London to join Pound in Rapallo. Two years later, he married an American woman, Marian Culver, with whom he would have three children. The couple lived in Italy, Spain, and England before they divorced in 1939. The poet never met his third child and only son, Rustam, who was born after Marian and Bunting separated in 1937 and who died of polio while away at school in 1952. When England entered World War II, Bunting, who had been wandering around the United States looking for work, returned home immediately to enlist. Why this sudden change in principle? “During the First World War,” Bunting remarked afterwards, “it was possible to believe, I did believe, that it was a totally unnecessary war fought for purely selfish ends, to get hold of markets and things like that. You couldn’t believe that in the second one at all. It was perfectly obvious for years beforehand that nothing short of war and violence would ever stop Hitler and his appalling career.” While he at first had difficulty enlisting and obtaining a post, he was eventually accepted by the RAF and sent to Persia as a translator. Bunting had for years been translating the work the tenth-century Persian poet Hakim Abdu’l Qasim Ferdowsi. He initially struggled as a war translator since he had never heard modern Persian spoken until he arrived in Ahwaz, near the Iranian border. One of the first things Bunting was called on to translate was a court martial. “I hope they put the right man in jail,” he later quipped. But Bunting would rise quickly. He moved from translation to espionage to first officer and later Vice-Consul in Isfahan, where he was in charge of all intelligence in the region. He was extremely knowledgeable of the region’s customs and politics and knew many of the local chiefs.
Bunting loved Persia. It was, he wrote, “one of the most civilized countries in the world.” While Europe was ravaged, Bunting lived a relatively comfortable life. “I am sure you would like Isfahan,” he wrote Karl Drerup, “My lawn is studded with bright flowers, just like a Persian brocade … I have a nice Persian house built around a garden, and another garden opening from it, where there are fruit trees, and where I keep my five alarming watch-dogs. Beyond, there is a brook, and then more gardens.”
He liked, he wrote Dorothy Pound, the “more physical, less logical” life in Persia, and it is no surprise that, reflecting on the war in 1971, Bunting told an interviewer, “I can say with complete immorality that I enjoyed the war very much.” Bunting’s self-absorption was one of the reasons for the failure of his first marriage, and it would rear its ugly head from time to time throughout his life. But he was almost always honest—with himself and with others, whatever the price to him or them.
After the war, Bunting returned to Persia to work for the British Foreign Office, but he was forced to resign when he married a local woman, Sima Alladadian. He found a job as a correspondent for The Times, reporting on the increasingly unstable political situation in the region. Eventually, Bunting, who remained longer than any other British reporter, had to evacuate in 1952. He was seen by locals as supporting British interests in the region, and he was under regular threat of assassination and became the object of at least two attempts.
The Times left Bunting out to dry—or at least, Bunting believed so. When he returned to Britain, the paper did not assign another position to him, and he found regular employment elusive, for various reasons, until he settled for the editing position at the small Daily Journal, which he loathed. He more or less disappeared from the public eye until 12 years later, when Tom Pickard appeared at his door and drew Bunting back into circulation and, unbeknownst to Pickard, sparked Bunting’s composition of “Briggflatts.” For all the poem’s formal inventiveness, Bunting’s carefully crafted, tightly packed lines ring with significance. In “Briggflatts,” images of stone and water, voices on the air, sea, and grass, reoccur to capture the fleeting beauty of love, the shortness of life, and the folly of ambition. The lesson of his work, and experience, is that human knowledge is absurdly limited, that love is magical but short-lived, and that life is like listening to music in darkness that ends in silence. As Bunting put it in the final section of “Briggflatts”:
A strong song tows
us, long earsick.
Blind, we follow
rain slant, spray flick
to fields we do not know.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University and edits TAC’s “Prufrock,” a literary newsletter and blog.
It was a warm autumn day in 1996, and I was sitting on a Swiss train with a backpack full of my father-in-law’s potatoes. My wife and I had been married just a few months, and we didn’t have much money. She was finishing her last year of studies in social work, and I was teaching English-language courses in Geneva, making just enough to pay the rent, utilities, and food. I could make a good wage one month, but very little the next, depending on the number of students. This was a particularly difficult month, and we were excited about the 80 pounds of free potatoes my wife’s father had offered us. There’d be no want of potato soup, potato bread, or rösti, and the money we’d save on the staple could go towards a little extra fruit or vegetables, or maybe even some beer or ice cream.
We didn’t have a car, so I walked the six miles to my wife’s parents’ house, picked up the potatoes, and walked the three remaining miles to the station in Etoy. It seems strange to take a train for what turned out to be a little over three miles, but those potatoes were heavy. Shortly after leaving my father-in-law’s, I could feel the weight of them in my knees with each step. As I was walking, my wife’s grandparents pulled up beside me and offered me a ride, but I refused in a vain attempt to maintain a sense of self-sufficiency.
When I arrived at the station, I was exhausted, thirsty, and sore. It was a great relief to step on the régional, which would arrive in Morges after a few local stops. I hadn’t ridden on that particular train much, and I became confused about where I should get off. I grabbed my potatoes and got off at what I thought was the first stop in Morges. It wasn’t. I had gotten off at the stop before, which was at least another mile from town.
As much as I despised that mile, and the inconvenience of that day, it did nothing to cool my love of trains. If there were an occasion to regret not having a car, surely this was it, but I didn’t. I had come to love the sound of popping electrical wires and groaning metal, the stale smell of cigarettes in cabins formerly allotted to smokers, and the rhythm of the wheels on the rail joints. I memorized all the recorded announcements on the line from Morges to Geneva, which I took into work each day. These incomprehensible words (at least to me) were like magic, conjuring the beautiful Swiss countryside that seemed to change with the light.
My love of trains is at least in part a love of novelty. My father worked briefly for the metro in Seattle, but I rarely used public transportation before moving overseas. And while I had visited Switzerland before, my first year of living there was the beginning of a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the country, and my commute was a daily opportunity to observe the habits and mannerisms of these people who were both so different and not so different from myself. But it’s more than that.
To get on a train is like stepping into another world, from which the first can be viewed almost as a work of art—a transformed image of reality. The train window is the frame, and as farm houses, school children waiting for the bus, or businessmen driving to work pass in front of it, you see things as they are and as they are not. The window offers a true image of everyday life, but one cut from its original context, not by the artist but by technology. This lack of context allows you to provide your own. You can imagine the farmer’s day and his preoccupation with milk, the schoolchildren’s vague sense of worry and hope each morning, the breakfast table at the château in the distance, you can even become a part of those images yourself, entertaining possibilities suggested by them as they pass.
I remember experiencing something similar as a child, riding in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon as we drove to Spokane in the summer to visit my grandparents. It’s possible to engage reflectively with the world around you as you drive or sit in the front passenger seat, but it’s more difficult. The concentration required by driving is limiting, as is the view of the road, which is a constant reminder of reality, of your destination, whether it’s the office or a vacation home, complete with those Puritanical mile markers that remind you how far you still have to go.
Trains offer the opportunity to people-watch. There are typically two sorts of people on a train—professionals and vacationers—and both are fruitful sources for the imagination. Vacationers offer the most obvious respite from reality. With their backpacks, Italian hiking shoes, maps, and brochures, they remind you that there are millions of people not going to work. For me, this was always bittersweet, because while I could observe their excitement for the day ahead, it made the harsh reality of the workday awaiting me in Geneva seem that much harsher. I preferred watching professionals. There was something about seeing others go someplace, dressed sharply in pressed shirts and slacks, Le Temps tucked under the shoulder, that made me feel that I too was “going someplace.”
I am not one of those individuals who feels he has to choose between cars and trains, private and public transportation. I love cars. They offer a sense of freedom quite distinct from the sense of freedom trains offer. Driving a car makes you feel in control of your life. If you don’t like your destination, you can change it. If you’re tired or want a coffee, you can stop. This is, perhaps, a distinctly American sort of freedom. It is prosaic, preoccupied as it is with “plot,” whereas the freedom offered by trains is poetic, associative, largely because the destination is predetermined. There is a literary lesson here, too, about the value of formal constraints, but that’s another topic.
Are trains more convenient than cars? I don’t know. Transfers are a pain, as is walking to the station in the rain. And while I don’t deny that trains offer at least the possibility of working and traveling at the same time, I didn’t do it as often as I had anticipated. In all my years of riding trains, it was the exception rather than the rule to see someone banging out a letter on a laptop or reading a report. Trains can be crowded, which makes them uncomfortable, and come with an assortment of smells that can be either intriguing or nauseating. They are a favorite method of suicide, especially among men, something my wife and I learned one summer returning from Bordeaux.
As much as I love trains, I am skeptical about the recent push to invest in rail in America. We’ve come too far with cars, it seems to me, and it’s too late to go back. Who knows what new form of public transportation using America’s existing infrastructure might be invented in the future? But one thing I do know is that there is nothing quite like finding yourself alone on a régional, sunlight pouring into the cabin, with a moment to quietly reflect on life.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor in literature at Houston Baptist University.
Yvor Winters—the now largely forgotten modernist poet and critic—didn’t care much for Robert Frost. In 1948 he expressed what was and remains a common critique of Frost’s work. Though sometimes “praised as a classical poet,” Winters writes, Frost is no such thing. Classical literature glorifies noble characters, Frost’s poetry the “average” human being. “The human average has never been admirable,” Winters continues, “and that is why literature which glorifies the average is sentimental.” Frost is “a poet of the minor theme, the casual approach, and the discreetly eccentric attitude.”
Winters was not the first to characterize Frost as a simple, folksy poet who retreated from the modern world to the New England countryside. In 1936, William Rose Benét called Frost a “wise old woodchuck.” That is, Frost “is a close observer of the earth and the ways of man on the earth.” Yet to call Frost a “woodchuck”—one of the Northeast’s most common mammals—is to present him, wittingly or unwittingly, as a regional poet. Writing a few years earlier, Frederic Carpenter states, rather bluntly, that Frost lacks the “cosmic imagination” and “power” of Whitman. He has limited his poems to the occasional subject, the personal tenor, “renouncing the possibility of becoming something greater.”
Frost has always had his defenders, however, from Ezra Pound to Dana Gioia. The latest is Tim Kendall in The Art of Robert Frost. He sees in Frost a trait common to all great artists: the ability, as Frost himself put it, “to be a poet for all sorts and kinds.” Frost’s best poems, according to Kendall, have at least two meanings—a “particular” and an “ulterior” one. This may be true of all art, but great artists are those whose “particular” meaning is expressed so well that readers, as Frost is reported to have said, “might feel free to settle for that part of the poem as sufficient in itself.”
Yet too many readers have settled for the well-said particular meaning of Frost’s poems. In this uniquely formatted book, in which 64 of Frost’s best poems are reprinted in full and commented on at length by Kendall, the author reads Frost for us, showing us—if not always convincingly—Frost’s artistry.
While the book is ordered chronologically—beginning with Frost’s first book of poems, A Boy’s Will (1913) and ending with a selection of later poems, the last of which are chosen from Steeple Bush (1947)—Kendall returns to the main themes of Frost’s work throughout: the opposition of nature and human society, work, death, marriage, and the value of art.
The word “world” for Frost almost always means civilization—rarely, if ever, nature—and from his earliest poems, Kendall notes, the temptation to reject civilization pulls on the characters that people the poet’s work. In “Into My Own,” one of Frost’s earliest poems, a youth “Fearless of ever finding open land” is persuaded, according to Frost’s authorial note, “that he will be rather more than less himself for having foresworn the world.” “Freedom,” Frost wrote in 1959, “is nothing but departure—setting forth—leaving things behind, brave origination of the courage to be new,” and it’s for freedom that the youth in “Into My Own” determines to “steal away” into the vast “dark trees.” The result, the youth imagines, will be self-realization:
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.
There is no regret or loss here, only a hypothetical increase in surety of all the youth “thought was true” that is simultaneously admirable and sadly obstinate. (Frost once told the poet Edward Thomas, in his own sadly obstinate moment, “I dont [sic] suppose I was ever sorry for anything I ever did except by assumption to see how it would feel.” “Regret,” Kendall writes, “in Frost’s view, is a self-indulgent emotion which does nothing to assist those who have been wronged.”)
Yet as Kendall points out, this rejection of human society, which the youth imagines will bring a personal expansion, is questioned in Frost’s other works. In “The Tuft of Flowers,” which was also first printed in A Boy’s Will, a mower working alone discovers “a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook” that the previous day’s mower had left. The flowers draw the two mowers together: “As a consequence, the ‘one whose thought I had not hoped to reach’ can now be addressed in ‘brotherly speech’ and treated as ‘a spirit kindred to my own’.” The loneliness that the mower had earlier felt is extinguished by the community provided in work.
In North of Boston, Frost’s second collection, the importance of community is announced in the first poem, “The Pasture,” in which the poet invites us to come with him as he goes to “clean the pasture spring” and “fetch the little calf.” Kendall observes that this opening piece not only shows Frost’s classical knowledge—“Just as Greek antiquity associated the Muses with springs, so Frost locates and tends the pastoral source of his poetic inspiration in his own ‘pasture spring’”—it also “prefigures a group of poems concerned with the interplay of open and closed spaces, with windows and doorways, with walls built and breached, and with barriers between people.” Regarding the latter, Kendall has in mind poems where walls built out of ignorance (“Mending Wall”) or tragedy (“Home Burial”) drive people apart.
In all of these poems, Kendall argues, Frost’s ulterior meaning is often missed because readers fail to follow subtle clues. “The Tuft of Flowers,” for example, can be reduced to the final pat lines of the poem, “Men work together… /Whether they work together or apart.” Yet, as Kendall notes, the flowers symbolize art in the absence of utilitarian value and in the community they create. The poem also comments on how artists work. The first mower, Frost writes, had left the flowers “not for us, /Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him. /But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.”
He was, in other words, an artist, creating beautiful objects—ironically depicted here as not cutting the flowers, a minimalist act that beats even Duchamp’s signing of his “Fountain”—neither for others nor for personal fame but for the pleasure found in beauty alone. The second mower, also an artist, continues the first’s work, building on the foundation before him and experiencing the communion of his absent yet present co-laborer.
Elsewhere, Kendall shows how Frost’s allusions to Shakespeare, Horace, and Virgil unlock the ulterior meaning of a poem. “The Oven Bird,” for example, is a response to Keats’s nightingale, Shelley’s skylark, or Hardy’s “darkling thrush.” Frost’s bird is more modest than its European counterparts, asking merely “what to make of a diminished thing.” But, as Kendall points out, the iambic pentameter and sonnet form Frost uses to give the bird life are borrowed from overseas. “For Frost,” Kendall writes, “originality stems not from rejection of the past but from deploying its resources in unforeseen ways.”
While Kendall is quick to note a naïve rhyme here or clichéd image there, he sometimes lets the poet off too easily. Winters found fault with Frost’s “loose” forms, no doubt thinking of his “talking poems” in North of Boston. Kendall defends the dialogue poems by pointing us to their model—Virgil’s Eclogues—and citing Frost’s ambition to create poems that captured the speech rhythms of New England. But many of these poems are simply clunky. We have lines like this from “The Fear”:
“Yes, do.—Joel, go back!”
She stood her ground against the noisy steps
That came on, but her body rocked a little.
“You see,” the voice said.
“Oh.” She looked and looked.
Or this from “In the Home Stretch”:
“Shouldn’t you like to know?”
“I’d like to know
If it is what you wanted, then how much
You wanted it for me.”
“A troubled conscience!
You don’t want me to tell if I don’t know.”
Frost is at his best when he drops the dialogue and allows his speech to be modulated by a diction refined enough to provide pleasure without becoming confectionary. “Mowing,” “Birches,” “The Cow in Apple Time,” “Out, Out—,” “Fire and Ice,” and others—these are the poems that make Frost a great poet. They have all the particularity of living things but possess a diction and meter polished enough to give them the crafted elegance of art.
Frost once said that great poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” The regularity with which Frost’s poems do exactly this, as The Art of Robert Frost shows, is an accomplishment matched by few others.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.