My favourite place in England is the hamlet of Brigflatts, a few miles from Sedbergh. The river Rawthey flows nearby, and the few houses cluster around the Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest Quaker meeting houses in the country (1675).
In the graveyard lies the body of Basil Bunting. In Quaker fashion, all the headstone says is ‘Basil Bunting | 1900-1985’. Bunting, a Northerner, has never been integrated into the southern-dominated poetry canon of England, and maybe that’s no bad thing: he’s too international and too local a figure to fit comfortably into that tradition. But to those who know, his long poem Briggflatts, published in 1965 towards the end of a long life, is one of the greatest, and last, monuments of modernism. In it Bunting returns to a scene of his childhood, a place that’s dominated by a lost love, still regretted over 50 years later (‘Fifty years a letter unanswered; / a visit postponed for fifty years’). It’s a complex poem, with many voices and many characters, including the Northumbrian leader Eric Bloodaxe and the composer Domenico Scarlatti, and it finally brought Bunting to prominence.
This week in Swansea’s Oxfam bookshop I found a copy of Bunting’s Collected poems (new ed., Oxford UP, 1978), and was reminded about another, much shorter poem about Brigflatts that Bunting wrote ten years later, in 1975, to mark the building’s tercentenary:
At Briggflatts meetinghouse
Boasts time mocks cumber Rome. Wren
set up his own monument.
Others watch fells dwindle, think
the sun’s fires sink.
Stones indeed sift to sand, oak
blends with saints’ bones.
Yet for a little longer here
stone and oak shelter
silence while we ask nothing
but silence. Look how clouds dance
under the wind’s wing, and leaves
delight in transience.
Bunting’s metrics are complex. He was a meticulous craftsman and said of this poem ‘it took me four months to get it right’. It’s been suggested that he was making use of Old Welsh strict metre techniques in his use of assonance and repeated sound patterns. He was certainly aware of the Old North – ‘Aneurin’ appears in section of Briggflatts – and he’d been introduced to the forms of early Welsh poetry:
Aneurin and Taliesin, cruel owls,
for whom it is never altogether dark, crying
before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game.
The opening syntax doesn’t readily yield a flow of sense. Which are the nouns, which the verbs, in the opening line? Soon, though, the difficulties dissolve, as a hidden caesura appears. To paraphrase: the boasts that Time mocks cumber [throw obstructions in the way of] Rome. Rome is a symbol of the vaunted but empty permanence of empire. Christopher Wren, building a new Rome, famously said, ‘if you seek my monument, look around you’. But all Romes perish. Even the Meeting House, made of stone and oak, will perish. All that we can do is use what shelters we can find to observe the alterations we see, accept them and take what enjoyment we can from them while we can.
It’s not perhaps quite the complete message the Friends were expecting as a celebration of their ancient building. Bunting was (partly) educated by Quakers. He was sympathetic to their ways of thinking: ‘I believe their outlook and my outlook are fundamentally the same’, he says in Peter Dale’s 1982 film about him. He understood their habits (‘silence … nothing but silence’). But he didn’t share their fundamental theology. He was always his own man, and without illusion.
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave’s slot
He lies. We rot.