Briggflatts by Basil Bunting is one of the great poems of the twentieth century, though it has not always occupied a central place in discussions of modern poetry. The reasons for this are complex, and have to do with a range of contentious biographical and historical factors (such as the marginal status of modernism in the UK and Bunting's own variable reputation). Another factor, the poem's supposed difficulty, requires some qualification. Briggflatts is a dense, carefully wrought high-modernist work. As with other poems in this bracket (The Waste Land, The Cantos, The Maximus Poems) it repays diligent close reading and re-reading. But it is arguably more vital (and, dare I say it, accessible) than those works, and can in fact be appreciated pretty well by first-time readers. As a teacher of undergraduate students over the last few years, I have found that Part 1 in particular lends itself very well to group reading and seminar discussion: indeed, the first section of Briggflatts seems to me to serve as a far better introduction to modernist poetry in a pedagogical context than a work like The Waste Land, with its copious and contested layers of allusion. It does help, it is true, to have a skeleton key to unlock the door to Briggflatts. But I think the really essential facts about the poem can be summarised in a relatively tight space. The following brief guide should hopefully provide a good foundation for first-time readers. My intention is to try to shine light on the basic subjects and structures of the poem, without diminishing its music and magic.
Phase of Bunting’s life: Childhood
Location: Northern England
Part 1 is the most immediate and tightly structured in the poem. Twelve stanzas, each of thirteen lines, sketch an idealised panorama of Northumbria (in Bunting’s poetic vocabulary this meant pretty much the whole of Northern England). The verse here is emphatically musical, foregrounding alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, with a stark rhyming couplet at the end of each stanza to draw it to a close. In one sense, this is pure sound evoking a pastoral idyll and it should be enjoyed as such: Bunting himself said that readers (or listeners) shouldn’t try too hard to uncover ‘meaning’ beneath the musical surface of his verse. At its simplest, this whole section is an extension of the song of the bull (‘Brag, sweet tenor bull’) in the first line.
However, that is not quite the whole story; there is also a definite realist narrative here. Bunting is recalling a childhood ‘holiday romance’ with a girl called Peggy, which took place in the early 1910s in Brigflatts (the correct spelling), a tiny village in the North Pennines. Rawthey is a river; Garsdale, Hawes and Stainmore are nearby locations; the stonemason and miners are local characters. Part 1 is therefore the beginning of a process of remembering real things, literally the first chapter in an autobiography. Deeper history also comes to the surface with the first, brief appearance of the Viking warrior and sometime ruler of Northumbria Eric Bloodaxe, killed in battle on Stainmore around 954AD. This enigmatic darker image or ‘tone’ prepares the way for the mournful conclusion to part 1. Spring ends, the natural presences begin to die and rot, and somehow—we never quite find out why or how—the poet’s idyllic love affair with Peggy is ‘lain aside’ and forgotten.
Phase of Bunting’s life: Early adulthood to early middle age
Locations: London; North Sea; Italy; North Pennines; Middle East; Mediterranean
Part 2 is by some distance the longest in the poem. In stark contrast to the chiselled stanzas of part 1, part 2 is an eclectic collage of clashing poetic fragments, perhaps intended to mirror the immature, evolving state of Bunting’s mind throughout his wandering 20s and 30s. We start with an intentionally dramatic change of location, from the idealised North to artificial, money-obsessed London (Bunting is nodding at similar depictions of the capital in Wordsworth’s Prelude). From this point onward there are continual geographical shifts (again, this is a recollection of real events in Bunting’s early life). We are treated to a short tour around 1920s Bloomsbury bohemia (lines 1-23), a jaunt along the Italian coast and mountains (most of the middle of part 2 from ‘About ship! Sweat in the south’) and finally to a more obscure conclusion that includes flashes of the Middle East, where Bunting spent the latter part of World War II (‘Asian vultures riding on a spiral column of dust’) and generalised Mediterranean references—as well as spending the early 1930s in Italy, Bunting returned there during and after the war as a soldier and intelligence agent. In between these biographical fragments, more indirect passages and mythical subjects jostle in typical high-modernist fashion. The Bloodaxe narrative is treated more fully: we see Eric cruelly commanding a longship in the North Sea (‘Under his right oxter …’) and then dying a horrifically violent death back in the Pennines in the first great climax of the poem (the long passage beginning ‘Loaded with mail of linked lies’). Paralleling this episode, Bunting nods in the final lines of the section at the Ancient Greek myth of Pasiphae, who gave birth to the Minotaur after an encounter with a bull sent by the sea-god Poseidon (note the subject rhyme with the bull at the start of the poem).
As well as being a sometimes chaotic—though often beautiful—record of the frustrations of Bunting’s early adulthood, part 2 is also the place where the underlying moral of Briggflatts is first advanced. Put very simply: human beings cannot control the world, they must find a way to co-operate and co-exist with it. As Bunting put it (far more eloquently) in his ‘Note on Briggflatts’: ‘Those fail who try to force their destiny, like Eric; but those who are resolute to submit, like my version of Pasiphae, may bring something new to birth, be it only a monster.’
Phase of Bunting’s life: n/a
Locations: Edge of the world; Northumbrian arcadia
Part 3 is outside the main structure of the poem: it refers neither to a season nor to a specific period in Bunting’s life. Nevertheless, Bunting intended it to be the climax of the narrative. In musical terms this is the ‘loudest’, most forcefully expressed part of the poem, the place where the moral first hinted at in part 2 is affirmed in a dramatic ‘big reveal’. The section is based on an episode from the medieval Persian epic poem Shahnameh, which includes a portrayal of the Greek leader Alexander the Great (356-323BC). In Shahnameh, Alexander journeys with his troops to the mountains of Gog and Magog at the edge of the world. At the summit he leaves his men behind and encounters an angel (Bunting has him played by the Biblical figure ‘Israfel’) who is poised to blow a trumpet to signal the end of the world. There is some ambiguity in Bunting’s retelling of this legend. What exactly happens to Alexander on the mountain? Why does Israfel ‘delay’ in blowing the trumpet? What sort of divine intervention is at play here? Yet the underlying moral is clear. Alexander tries to conquer the world and reach the limits of experience, but in doing so he is ultimately returned back to the ground, to his homeland (for Alexander this was Macedonia, but Bunting describes it here as a kind of Northumbrian arcadia). Lying dazed in the moss and bracken after his fall from the mountain, he encounters the hero of Briggflatts, the slowworm (actually a snake-like lizard) who advises him to lie low, be patient, persistent and mindful of the beauty of his surroundings.
This is the most abstract moment in the poem, but there are also clear parallels here and throughout part 3 with Bunting’s biography. The opening passages of the section caricature greedy, powerful people who obstruct creativity and make life a literal shitty nightmare. As a struggling poet for much of his life, Bunting had built up some resentment towards these establishment ‘turd-bakers’, such as the businessman and newspaper owner Hugh Astor (‘Hastor’). The overall narrative shape of part 3 also mimics the curve of Bunting’s middle years: after spending much of the 1940s in Persia (poring over works like Shahnameh) he returned in the 1950s to Northumberland, the homeland from which he would eventually write Briggflatts.
Phase of Bunting’s life: Late middle age
Locations: North Yorkshire; Lindisfarne; Tynedale
Part 4 is the shortest section in Briggflatts, and is best viewed (or heard) as a penultimate, minor-key movement resembling those in pieces of classical music (Bunting called Briggflatts a ‘sonata’). You don’t need to follow this musical analogy too closely, but it might be worth spending some time looking at the way Bunting weaves together different textures and ‘themes’ in the second half of part 4.
Aside from its musical properties, part 4 is also notable for its elegiac subjects. It begins with allusions to the sixth-century poet Aneirin (the correct spelling), whose most famous work Y Gododdin describes the Battle of Catterick and its aftermath in North Yorkshire around 600AD. The purpose of this allusion is twofold. Firstly, Bunting is nodding at what is in effect the first Northumbrian poem (although Aneirin was a ‘Welsh’ poet, we should remember that the Welsh or Britons lived in Northumbria prior to the Anglo-Saxon arrivals of the fifth and sixth centuries). In terms of the realist dimension, there may also be a glance here at the war and destruction Bunting witnessed in the mid-twentieth century (we are now, chronologically, up to the 1940s-1950s). More personally, the litany of death and decay segues eventually into a recollection of the lost love affair with Peggy. In some of the most moving lines in the poem, Bunting says ‘goodbye’ to his memories of Peggy as he settles down to lonely old age in post-war Northumberland.
But there is some light in the gloom. Aside from the redemptive music of the baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti, we also encounter the Northumbrian Renaissance of the seventh and eighth centuries (a dramatic ‘rebirth’ following the violent period marked by events like the Battle of Catterick). Among other achievements, this cultural upsurge produced the Lindisfarne Gospels (celebrated in the gorgeous passage beginning ‘Columba, Columbanus …’), a beautiful illuminated book created in part to celebrate the life of the Northumbrian saint Cuthbert, who appears here as the (positive) mirror image to the (negative) portrait of Eric Bloodaxe in part 2. Aside from his Northumbrian pedigree, Bunting gives Cuthbert a starring role because he reputedly ‘saw God in everything’. In line with the moral of Briggflatts, Cuthbert was a quiet hero living on the margins of society who loved nature without seeking to control it.
Phase of Bunting’s life: Old age
Locations: North Northumberland, Farne Islands
If part 4 was mostly tragic notes with a brief major-key interlude, part 5 is the opposite. Like the final movement of a symphony, this is a resounding conclusion to the poem (‘years end crescendo’) although it ends with a sad diminuendo.
In musical verse that often recalls the ‘Sirens’ episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, Bunting revisits the idyllic landscape of part 1 (the powerful opening syllable ‘Drip’ recalls part 1’s ‘Brag’). But now that he is an old man the perspective is different. We have moved from the mountains in springtime to the Northumberland coast in winter, where the sea speaks of finality and the end of a journey. Having accepted the need to be patient and respect human limitations in the face of nature, it is now possible to appreciate the precious details of life: rock pools, a spider’s web, the lapping of the ocean, the way birds fly in harmony, the skill of shepherds in handling sheep dogs, the inexplicable wonder of the night sky. There is a kind of spiritual idealism here, and this conclusion is certainly upbeat and effusive in some ways, with the faint suggestion of a happier ending to Bunting’s life than was predicted in part 4. Part 5 is on the whole concerned with images in themselves rather than any more complex symbolism, but the line ‘Young flutes, harps touched by a breeze’ may just carry a hint of the optimism Bunting felt in the mid-1960s, when he was ‘rediscovered’ by younger poets and finally became a celebrated literary figure. However, there is still the nagging sense of tragedy that has persisted throughout Briggflatts. As the stars shine out over the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert once lived and worshipped, Bunting remembers Peggy for the last time, and awaits a final ‘uninterrupted night’.
The Coda is a fragment composed prior to the rest of the poem, which Bunting rediscovered and welded on at the last minute. It is a condensed summary of the key philosophical motifs in the previous sections: the power of music, the impermanence of all creation, the impossibility of knowing everything. Tellingly, the poem ends with a question mark (this is a work of literature that proclaims its own uncertainty and inability to conquer the world with language). For all that, one thing is certain in the end: as Bunting once remarked, Briggflatts is ‘about love, in all senses’.