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.