Basil Bunting

(1900-1985 / England)

Biography of Basil Bunting

Basil Bunting poet

Basil Cheesman Bunting (1 March 1900 – 17 April 1985) was a significant British modernist poet whose reputation was established with the publication of Briggflatts in 1966. He had a lifelong interest in music that led him to emphasise the sonic qualities of poetry, particularly the importance of reading poetry aloud. He was an accomplished reader of his own work.

Born into a Quaker family in Scotswood-on-Tyne, Northumberland (now part of Newcastle upon Tyne). He studied at two Quaker schools: from 1912–1916 at Ackworth School in Yorkshire and from 1916–1918 at Leighton Park School in Berkshire. His Quaker education strongly influenced his pacifist opposition to World War I, and in 1918 he was arrested as a conscientious objector, serving a sentence of more than a year in Wormwood Scrubs and Winchester prisons. Bunting's friend Louis Zukosfky described him as a "conservative/anti-fascist/imperialist", though Bunting himself listed the major influences on his artistic and personal outlook somewhat differently as "Jails and the sea, Quaker mysticism and socialist politics, a lasting unlucky passion, the slums of Lambeth and Hoxton ..."

These events were to have an important role in his first major poem, "Villon" (1925). "Villon" was one of a rather rare set of complex structured poems that Bunting labelled "sonatas," thus underlining the sonic qualities of his verse and recalling his love of music. After his release from prison in 1920, traumatized by the time spent there, Bunting went to London, where he enrolled in the London School of Economics, and had his first contacts with journalists, social activists and Bohemia. Bunting was introduced to the works of Ezra Pound by Nina Hamnett who lent him a copy of Homage to Sextus Propertius. The glamour of the cosmopolitan modernist examples of Nina Hamnett and Mina Loy seems to have influenced Bunting in his later move from London to Paris.

After having travelled in Northern Europe, Bunting left the London School of Economics without a degree and went to France. There, in 1923, he became friendly with Ezra Pound, who years later would dedicate his Guide to Kulchur (1938) to both Bunting and Louis Zukofsky, "strugglers in the desert". Bunting's poetry began to show the influence of this friendship. He visited Pound in Rapallo, Italy, and later settled there with his family from 1931 to 1933. He was published in the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, in the Objectivist Anthology, and in Pound's Active Anthology.

During World War II, Bunting served in British Military Intelligence in Persia. After the war, he continued to serve on the British Embassy staff in Tehran until he was expelled by Muhammad Mussadegh in 1952.
Back in Newcastle, he worked as a journalist on the Evening Chronicle until his rediscovery during the 1960s by young poets, notably Tom Pickard and Jonathan Williams, who were interested in working in the modernist tradition. In 1965, he published his major long poem, Briggflatts, named for the Quaker meeting house in Cumbria where he is now buried. Bunting died in 1985 in Hexham, Northumberland.

Briggflatts

Divided into five parts, Briggflatts is a kind of poetic autobiography, looking back on teenage love and on Bunting's involvement in the high modernist period. In addition, "Briggflatts" can be read as a meditation on the limits of life and a celebration of Northumbrian culture and dialect, as symbolised by events and figures like the doomed Viking King Eric Bloodaxe. The critic Cyril Connolly was among the first to recognise the poem's value, describing it as "the finest long poem to have been published in England since T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets".

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Chorus Of Furies

Guarda mi disse, le feroce Erine


Let us come upon him first as if in a dream,
anonymous triple presence,
memory made substance and tally of heart’s rot:
then in the waking Now be demonstrable, seem
sole aspect of being’s essence,
coffin to the living touch, self’s Iscariot.

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