l i t e r a r y l i v e s mat t h e w s p e r l i n g
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, cutter …
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,
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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.
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