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The Dividing Sword: Basil Buntings The Spoils

L’épée qui divise : The Spoils de Basil Bunting
Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas


La célébrité tardive de Briggflatts a eu pour effet de placer sous rature certaines des hypothèses sous-jacentes qui animent la production poétique de Basil Bunting en positionnant les thèmes et les attentes qui dominent ce poème au centre du discours critique porté sur l’ensemble de son œuvre. C’est pourtant à son rejet extrême de la modernité – manifeste dans l’économie monétaire, l’État administré et la pensée abstraite – que Bunting réagit en adoptant dans ses textes une position anti-humaniste qui en détermine tout autant le contenu que la forme. Après avoir examiné les fondements de cette position dans plusieurs de ses poèmes de jeunesse, nous procéderons à une lecture attentive de The Spoils, un poème qui semble déconcerter la plupart des commentateurs alors même que Bunting y articule ses valeurs et sa vision du monde avec le plus de force. À la lumière de cette analyse, nous reviendrons finalement vers Briggflatts pour montrer en quoi ce poème procède lui aussi d’une négation systématique de la société contemporaine rejetée par Bunting.

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1Given the erratic trajectory of Basil Bunting’s poetic career, it has been difficult to discern a consistency in his body of work other than as a series of steps or missteps on the way to Briggflatts. This late poem’s overnight celebrity, by poetry’s modest standards, has tended to subordinate all his other work to its themes and expectations, particularly since Bunting was unable to follow it up over the final two decades of his life with more than a scattering of short poems. Consequently, the void was filled by numerous interviews, readings and lectures that invariably tended to promote this fixation on Briggflatts and Bunting’s self-constructed identity as a poet of the north. This has had the effect of repressing Briggflatts’ underlying assumptions, which are consistent with Bunting’s perspective throughout his life, but not necessarily agreeable to most of his readers – nor did the poet expect them to be. In brief, Bunting’s working framework is his sharp, even extreme rejection of modernity, in which he saw little to admire and to which he responded with an anti-humanist perspective. This manifests itself in the predominance of satire in the Swiftian mode of his early work, whose extremes of bitterness threaten to sink his poetry in negativity and self-disgust. In climbing out of this cul-de-sac, Bunting never entirely leaves behind his sardonic propensities, which determined that he could only write honestly by asserting the intrinsic failure of his poetry, indeed the relative triviality of human existence and its endeavors in general.

  • 1 The Spoils was composed in late 1950-51, first published in Poetry (79, no. 2, November 1951) and, (...)

2Famously tagged by W. B. Yeats as one of Ezra Pound’s “more savage disciples” (Yeats 1954, 759), Bunting certified this characterization by brilliantly transforming one incident of drunken unruliness into his first major work, a self-portrait as François Villon (Bunting 2021, 5-9). The subsequent sonatas of the 1930s are indeed fiercely satiric, with a barely restrained violence expressing little hope of personal or cultural redemption – although this hardly seems an inappropriate response considering the course of events in the 1930s. The exception is “Chomei at Toyama” (1932), arguably Bunting’s finest work of the period, but a poem that has not been easy to position with the rest of his poetry and has usually been treated as something of a special case. The self-eviscerating satire of “The Well of Lycopolis” (1935) is reason enough to explain Bunting’s virtual poetic silence over the following decade and a half, although he was preoccupied with keeping himself alive and then was on active duty during the war and its aftermath. Late in that poem, a mock recruiting poster entreats: “Join the Royal Air Force / and See the World. The Navy will / Make a Man of You. Tour India with the Flag” (Bunting 2021, 24). In a remarkable stroke of poetic justice this accurately describes what Bunting did during the war period (he even stopped briefly in India), which in many respects did make a man of him. By his own account, the war was a godsend in personal terms, giving him what he valued most, a range of life experiences under pressure and the opportunity to prove his practical leadership capabilities. With The Spoils, composed during an Italian interlude between jobs in Iran, Bunting attempted a work considerably more ambitious than anything he had previously written, no doubt wanting to make use of his experiences in a world historical event; but, equally important, to simply prove – at least to himself – that he was still a poet.1 The ambition of The Spoils is unimaginable without the prior example of Pound’s The Cantos, an effort to offer a comprehensive cultural and historical statement using a broadly collage presentation. Indeed, the poem in part is directly addressed to Pound, who was paying the price in St. Elizabeth’s for his fascist adventures. This is not to suggest that the poem critiques Pound’s politics because Bunting’s aims are far more archetypal than any specific political position: The Spoils is his most trenchant expression of an anti-humanism that is beyond moralizing, despite the fact that the poem indulges in a good deal of the latter.

3From around this time, Bunting expressed his conviction that:

  • 2 Letter to Louis Zukofsky, 10 May 1953 (Bunting 2022, 228). Almost two decades later Bunting would p (...)

Reverting to the West has made me more convinced than before that we’ve got to learn almost everything from the East (which, to the measure of my limited experience is the lands of Islam) before there’s a chance of any peace of mind or dignity for most of us. And that’s a way of saying To hell with material welfare, and, logically, of all the laws and reforms and adages designed to procure it. And still one must eat!2

4None of this is surprising given the often-violent rejection of modernity expressed in the early sonatas and the anarchistic politics he expresses in his correspondence. Bunting, of course, is not talking about Islamization, nor is he attracted to Islam as a doctrine. However, Islamic culture – as he found it in classical Arabic and Persian poetry and his own experiences in Iran – manifests more primordial values, arising out of a way of life existing close on the elemental, that rejected the values aligned with a Protestant work ethic, including the desire for material comforts and a sense of permanence – in short, the bourgeois values in which Bunting had been raised.

Preliminary Considerations: Some Odes

  • 3 Bunting makes some oblique comments on this poem in the context of a critique of abstraction in an (...)
  • 4 Bunting᾿s elliptical note to this poem, “In Samangan Rustam begot Sohrab,” offers an oblique clue t (...)

5Bunting’s odes or short poems represent his laboratory of diverse experiments and include a fair number of odd concoctions. Indeed, one could well imagine multiple poets standing behind these poems, which indicates just how self-consciously rhetorical Bunting often is. However, this miscellaneousness dissipates somewhat if we recognize that they critically respond to modernity. For instance, in Ode I.13 (“Muzzle and jowl and beastly brow”), we have a Malaysian tiger who is not only caged but thoroughly recorded, categorized, aestheticized and reduced to a titillating amusement for spectators, who little realize that the captive on display is an allegory of their own condition – just as most readers appear to miss the irony of Bunting’s non-too-subtle epigraph, “Fearful symmetry” (Bunting 2021, 89). This caged tiger, behind whom surely lurks Rilke’s panther as much as Blake’s burning cat, represents a destruction of experience via transmutation into abstract, quantifiable terms and, in this sense, manifests the problem of representation that haunts all of Bunting’s work.3 Or, Ode I.24 (“Vessels thrown awry by strong gusts”) presents another parody of linguistic capture in the form of court arguments over insurance claims regarding a ship wreck, so that a legalistic quibble reduces all incidents and territory to legal adjudication and therefore translation into definitions of ownership and monetary value (Bunting 2021, 102-103). In Ode I.26, the streets of London are literally measured out in the routinization of work-a-day life: “Two hundred and seven paces / from the tram-stop / to the door, / a hundred and forty-six thousand / four hundred / seconds ago [...]” (Bunting 2021, 105) – even kisses are counted out (292,800). Throughout, these poems express a sense of anomie and ennui, the classic numbing defense against the shocks of urban life. Bunting often enough expressed his hatred of cities, the centers of the money economy and the administered state, which are invariably depicted in his poetry as scenes of degraded existence (Bunting 1922, 200, 226). The sole seeming exception, Ode I.32 (“Let them remember Samangan, the bridge and tower”), is overtly romantic and thus, in the body of Bunting’s work, can only be read ironically. Samangan exists as a memory of loss, not of some actual original but of the utopian impulse itself; a city without history and thus without the very reasons why cities arise: the market and the state.4

6We might usefully look more closely at Ode I.8 (“Loud intolerant bells”), where we find a characteristic description of the disappearance of God; religion has become no more than empty public forms and self-perpetuating institutions: “rabbits sucked by a ferret” (Bunting 2021, 84). Tonally and visually, this clinching image gives a sardonic violence to the speaker’s annoyance at the church bells that have woken him up, while expressing disdain for what they signify. However, this ringing represents the pervasive presence of modernity itself in the sense of the destruction of experience or subjectivity: ubiquitous, inescapable, penetrating the body and numbing the mind. These “intolerant bells” intrusively dissolve the private sphere or, as the poem aptly puts it, they “disembody,” literally separate the individual body from one’s sensual experience and emotional being to be disciplined by the orders of the church, beginning with clock time: the day begins now, you must wake up now, you should head for morning mass (then to work). Nature and the pre-modern stand in opposition to this disciplining order, so that in response to the bells “(the shrinking nightflower closes / tenderly round its stars to baulk their hectoring)” – safely folded within parentheses to protect its “stars,” presumably its stamens. This wittily suggests the poet’s dream-world of a naturally or poetically ordered cosmos retreating before the onslaught of a “hectoring” social order, while the hills are “deaf” to human endeavor and the olive trees are allowed to doze “in easeless age” (Bunting 2021, 84). Standing outside the social order are the shepherds addressed in stanza two: conventional representatives of a pre-urban life, they join the various instances of outsiders and quasi-nomadism in Bunting’s work indicating at least a possible space beyond the tentacles of modernity. The fact that shepherds represent traditional pastoral models for the proper role of the Church adds a further ironic touch. The third stanza introduces the gods as distant, enclosed and alien to humankind, like the nightflowers. But then again these gods are, “we confess,” mere human abstractions – “confess” in the sense of admitting a secret but also referring to the loosely Catholic (“inquisitive”) context in which the private must be outed and brought into line with church requirements. The private is forgiven as long as it is no longer private and has been disembodied from personal experience. Similarly, the gods become public doctrine, abstractions, mere names without relation to the body, to experience. Hence the appropriateness of the ferret as the violent forces behind all this social control, literally sucking out our insides so that all that is left is an empty skin, and therefore the poem’s epigraph from Milton, “Each fettered ghost slips to his several graves,” becomes an image of ourselves under the regime of modernity.

7As is the case with most of Bunting’s work, the self-consciously mannered style of this poem manifests the problem of which it speaks. There is no natural connection between his poetry and that which modernity has eradicated, which at best can only be gestured at through the music and technique of the poems, although the satiric impulse renders even this highly tenuous. The various figures in this poem representing the real or what I designate as experience – the nightflower and stars, the hills, olive trees and shepherds – are out of reach of the bells but also of the speaker. There are a fair number of early poems that express a similar reluctance to wake up. Ode I.4 (“After grimaces of capitulation”; originally given the title “Aubade”) describes a dawn and the requisite demand to wake up in linguistically tortured terms, not merely in the poet’s sense of resistance and desire to “hide / in noctambulistic exile” (Bunting 2021, 80), but also in the extreme artificiality of the language as if to construct an impenetrable shield against the demands of the rising sun.

8Ode I.9 (“Dear be still! Time’s start of us lengthens slowly”), which immediately follows “Loud intolerant bells,” inverts the conventional expectations of the carpe diem motif, pleading to the loved one not to rush matters, that there is in fact time enough. The emphasis is on the lingering pleasures of the body, its odors and feel, of anticipation and aftermath, as opposed to rushing to sexual climax. Again, the poet’s stance is against the regulation of time imposed on the manifold experience of the bodily, and a resistance to society’s codification of sex, which perpetuates a consumer-like attitude toward sexuality. Instead, the poem attempts to gesture at a physical loving that is an exploratory space receptive to the variables of sensual experience and, by implication, a rejection of the imperatives of work, a scheduling of one’s life so that pleasure is only to be snatched in “free” moments. Nonetheless, the rushed temporality of modernity, thinly disguised here as the venerable theme of human mortality, frames the poem and only as such does this alternative temporality that resists it come into view. As with “Loud intolerant bells,” this ode concludes with an abrupt shift into violence: “Only a savage’s / lusts explode slapbang at the first touch like bombs” (Bunting 2021, 85). This perhaps comes off more comical than Bunting intended, but again it registers the strength of the negative, defensive motive behind the poem, despite the positive experience he wishes to hold onto, and, in doing so, reveals the limits of its own rhetoric which ends up here in exasperation.

9Bunting registers contemporary experience as loss, uncompensated for by the thrills of the new. He assumes a model of modernity or contemporary history that is then negated point by point and thus projects a realm of relative freedom outside the restraints of society. This realm of experience is the visceral, of flows and energy antithetically implied by any social structures. This authentic experience can only be gestured at negatively via the social forces that would represent it so as to order and control it, and in this sense experience only appears in its negation. This in large part explains why Bunting’s major poems before World War II are satires, and the later sonatas can be read as attempts to work his way beyond the limitations of satire, although this underlying impulse is never entirely sublimated. The problem of representation – or as he characteristically puts it in an early poem: “Blasting everyday occurrences / With a false flavour of longevity” (Bunting 2021, 174) – bedevils Bunting’s work and explains, for example, the prominence of the page as a tombstone in Briggflatts and its multiple allegories on the failure of art.

Reading The Spoils

  • 5 The main exception is Makin 1992, 108-118.

10The Spoils is a problem poem. While routinely considered one of Bunting’s major works, at least among his admirers, judging from the paucity of commentary the poem has baffled most readers.5 Invariably, we are reminded of the poet’s admission that the poem ended up truncated and unbalanced, not completed as originally planned, as if this somehow lets the exegetist off the hook. In formal terms, the poem is far more varied than the preceding sonatas (even more so than Briggflatts), which is complemented by the diversity of its materials and settings – from the vaguely Biblical, to eleventh-century Persia, to scattered locales during and immediately after World War II (Iran, North Africa, Malta, Scotland). A particular obstacle is the lack of any overt connections between the three parts and their settings. But perhaps most difficult for many readers to digest is that the poem’s anti-humanist argument or ethos is unappetizing, so there is a tendency to misread in order to steer the poem into a more palatable framework. Yet the poem’s ethos is perfectly consistent with the values expressed in Bunting’s work throughout his life, although here given an added edge by his war-time experiences and years living in Iran.

  • 6 The Arabic script is the key phrase from the opening verse of sura (chapter) 8 of the Qor᾿an, which (...)
  • 7 Although it must be taken with caution, W. B. Yeats made a relevant observation about Bunting in “P (...)

11The difficulties begin with the title. Bunting’s notes inform us, if we “lack Arabic,” that the title is taken from the Qor’an, and for good alienating measure, he places the relevant verse in Arabic script at the top of the page (Bunting 2021, 307). The “spoils are for God,” because in the battle of life, so to speak, humankind can expect to reap no rewards or benefit; in other words, the world is not ordered according to humanity’s concerns whose endeavors are insignificant.6 Bunting is adamantly anti-utopian in the sense that any attempt to improve society or harness history involves the imposition of generalized principles, regulations and laws, which he believes only make matters worse. At the precise mid-point of The Spoils we find the line, “but God is the dividing sword” (Bunting 2021, 31), which clearly complements the title and elsewhere Bunting insisted was the central line in the entire poem: “It isn’t there just for the noise. That’s what I’m writing about, and that’s why the spoils are for God in the epigraph from the Qor’an. It is shorthand for quite a lot, or if you like for something I think fundamental” (Letter to Dorothy Pound, 11 December 1953). In this instance, we have one of Christ’s more disturbing assertions: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34; see also Luke 12:51 and Hebrews 4:12). “God” here is the force of division, difference, dissolution, of mortality and transience.7 At the conclusion of The Spoils, the poet looks down on human endeavors in the form of a supply convoy carefully maneuvering between mines; then in the mind’s eye, he follows the ships’ path north out into the endless inhuman sea and darkness beyond the Arctic Circle (mention of Lofoten and Spitzbergen indicate key landmarks for convoys on their way to the Soviet port of Archangel). Here is a clear-eyed view of human futility under the sway of the moon, “as good a grave as any, earth or water,” and with this perspective before us he concludes with the ironic question, “What else do we live for and take part, / we who would share the spoils?” (Bunting 2021, 35). In reading The Spoils we need to see how the ethos expressed in Part I, which is reasonably clear if we are familiar with Bunting’s basic values, frames the historically quite different settings of the following parts.

  • 8 The Poems reproduces in facsimile a typescript of the earlier version of the first three parts, alt (...)

12Bunting himself often pointed out that The Spoils was not completed as originally conceived, which was meant to have four parts, but after receiving Louis Zukofsky’s feedback, he amalgamated what he intended for Part IV into Part III (Letters to Zukofsky, 19 April, 2 May and 11 May 1951). Among Zukofsky’s papers are typescripts of earlier versions of the poem which give us a good basis for speculating on the shape of the four-part version.8 Zukofsky’s markings for the first two parts significantly contributed to tightening the final version, but other than a good deal of local compression or rewording, this draft is substantially the same as the final version. Part III of the typescript is unmarked, but we know Zukofsky gave detailed feedback. This draft of Part III consists of a baggier version of the historical parable that begins the version we now have, as well as most of the stanza beginning “Blind Bashshar bin Burd”; but the rest, more than two-thirds of the draft, is jettisoned wholesale. Therefore, Part IV would almost certainly have featured the World War II passages, which in the final version alternate with the two passages just mentioned to make up Part III. This indicates that in the original conception, Parts I and III were more parabolic and allegorical in manner, presenting an interpretive framework for the other two parts, which are more realist and historical – a means of drawing up subjective experience and the specificity of historical events into a more archetypal framework. For whatever reasons Bunting could not satisfactorily complete his original plan, once he established the distinction and implied interrelation between the parabolic and the historical in Parts I and II respectively, it makes sense to conclude by placing these styles alongside each other in one culminating part as a means of combining imagistic specificity with more abstract self-reflective paradigms. Furthermore, the passages Bunting threw out of the typescript of Part III are almost entirely a resurgence of his earlier satiric mode which veers into outright railing. Their deletion, for which I think we have to be grateful, does alter the overall tone, so that the poem we have maintains a cooler, more disengaged feel that seems appropriate to the poem’s anti-humanist perspective. However, this excised material supports the view that Bunting’s underlying animus against modernity remains the drive behind his work.

  • 9 Bunting referred to these speakers as an adventurer (Asshur), a Baghdadi (Lud), a Bedouin (Arpachsh (...)

13Part I of The Spoils is presented in an overtly formal manner, beginning with a type of stage direction quoted directly from Genesis 10:31, informing us that the following speakers are the sons of Shem – thus evoking a quasi-legendary, archetypal mode. The speakers are in turn framed by two quatrains in proverbial style asserting the essential moral: we should live with rather than against Death, who is personified as a companion on the journey of life. As the primary tester of human mettle, Death offers two major temptations to elude thoughts of mortality, money and wine. In the complementary concluding quatrain, this moral is reiterated with these two temptations now carelessly and appropriately dropped or splashed in the dust, which is itself another reminder of our fate. The four speakers speak in turn three times, but are not put into dialogue; rather, each set has broad thematic similarities. However, Bunting’s point is that these are distinct individual types which nonetheless manifest a common cultural ethos.9 The middle set of speeches, each only a line or two, is best read as spoken by all the characters in chorus, thus formally emphasizing the commonality that binds their individualities. Specifically, this set identifies what they all reject: the merchants and princes of Babylon; above all, the reduction of everything to quantifiable monetary values, and the specious desires such values create, such as “hairdressers, jewellers, perfumers” (Bunting 2021, 28). As voices that refuse these temptations, the speakers necessarily represent a diversity of life possibilities outside of or at least resistant to the administrating forces of money and the city. For this reason, the coherence of the first set of monologues is initially puzzling, since it attempts to lay out a range of positive modes of life – from active to passive – that are defined negatively, gesturing at a sphere of experiential freedom unbound by conventional standards of behavior. Within the first set, there is also a general trajectory from a fully rootless life outside reputable behavior to more settled forms and finally to Aram the Jew’s state of captivity in Babylon, expressed as a lament for what has been forcibly lost. The coherence of the third set is less elusive as the monologues all relate to love and sexuality, from prostitutes to brides to poetry.

14The initial speaker, Asshur, is first among equals – not only is he given the most lines but he also opens with a self-transformation narrative. Asshur describes himself at some length as the worst sort of money man and state administrator, a tax collector, literally assessing each man’s value. This segment is in the repetitive manner that Bunting often adopts when on the topic of money, exchangeable counters empty of content. But then, mid-sentence, a soldier blocks the doorway, looking scornfully on this money counting, and in a flash of existential recognition Asshur literally sees himself from the outside – in this case, mirrored in the soldier’s spiffed bronze greaves. He realizes he has never tasted bread (a nod to Pound’s usura Canto), woken up with ice in his flask, or seen storks flying against the sun – imagistic instances (taste, touch, sight) of authentic experience. The next sentence jump-cuts to this alternative existence: out in the desert on a cold early morning, the speaker has now adopted the medium of his self-awareness and become a soldier (or the soldier is recognized as his other self), pursuing a life of travel, physicality and raw experience with the rising sun – a mode of life overly lived in the teeth of death. Now, “bread is eaten” and no doubt he finds ice in his flask. A striking image of thirty vultures gorging themselves on a dead ass emblematizes the inextricably of life and death, which Bunting renders with brilliant succinctness and palpability, simultaneously grotesque and beautiful: “jostle, stumble, flop aside, drunk with flesh, / too heavy to fly, wings deep with inner gloss” (Bunting 2021, 27). This alienating and inhuman image is, of course, a reflection of our own condition. Life seen clear here instantly becomes an image of the life he has embraced, alternating “lean watches” with “debauch.” Finally, we discover he has been speaking from a brothel, and now “intrusive and dangerous” (previously he describes himself as moving into enemy territory) he is scornful of his earlier bonded self, like the dutiful Jacob laboring to obtain the hands of Leah and Rachel. As a sign of his escape from the scruples of money and common morality, he hopes to skip out without paying. Indeed, if the reader assumes that these speakers are to be judged according to some consistent ethical principle, they will misunderstand Bunting’s anarchistic perspective and the unease the poem aims to provoke.

15The first speech of Lud, the second speaker, follows the pattern of “Chomei at Toyama”: the first half presents images of unmitigated disaster and death from floods, which then seamlessly segues into images of everyone going about the ordinary business of life. The rather obvious emblem of the river of life – the archetypal Tigris – represents the lack of separation between death, disaster and the everyday on the plane of experience in this culture. Bunting cannot quite resist a touch of moralizing at the end, assuring us that in the market there is “no eagerness for gain” – even the whores are “God frugal” and keep tally of their prayers (Bunting 2021, 27), implying they do not overdo them. Perhaps this is meant to reassure us that the prostitute Asshur hopes to avoid paying will not really mind – indeed, later he mentions a prostitute contemptuously tossing her payment aside. The third speaker, Arpachshad, is clearly enmeshed in a money economy but the emphasis is on his resistance in the form, notably, of books, particularly his ecstatic passion for poetry described in sensual terms. As mentioned, Aram the Jew is even more explicitly in economic captivity and his resistance to Babylon is registered as a lament for what has been lost described in georgic terms.

  • 10 Because Bunting refers to the poems recited by Arpachshad as “sacred / enscrolled poems” (Bunting 2 (...)

16The third and final set of speeches focuses on the body and sexuality as a site of resistance. Although Bunting prided himself on his liberated views of sexuality, these particular vignettes are likely to strike us as compromised by male Orientalist fantasizing, particularly since all the females in this poem (and usually elsewhere in his work) are clearly what modernity would consider girls. Whatever Bunting’s personal proclivities on this matter (at age 48 he married an under 16-year-old Kurd girl), he was willing to deliberately push his readers’ cultural and moral assumptions. While we may see this as reflecting broad Western anthropological views during the mid-20th century period (e.g. Margaret Mead), unrepressed sexuality is an integral aspect of Bunting’s space of authentic existence. This extends to the poet-lover Arpachshad, who recounts a sexual episode highly suggestive of masturbatory ejaculation that is clearly a poetic pastiche, an act of reading assisted by wine and the moon.10

17The poem’s ethical framework, which is defined against the manifestations of modernity it resists, should now be clear. Of necessity, modernity generates its pre-modern. The setting, however, is not simply pre-modern but quasi-prehistoric, which we can justly understand as allegorical for the present but implying a trans-historical thesis. Since Bunting’s political pessimism sees no alternative to this state of affairs, he projects an archetypal struggle between the individual and society as such, and there is no hint in his work of a social order that he would happily live with other than some romantically vague gestures toward nomadic tribes precariously treading the line between nature and society, which are really only evoked because they stand in opposition to a settled way of life. The latter necessarily entails social formations designed to control and order individuals, which involves the repression of mortality, of time as inexorable decay and dissolution. Lud’s speech on the banks of the Tigris emblematizes this dynamic: the trajectory of the description is toward the social (in this case a market) and the commodification of labor and bodies (in this case prostitutes); yet in the narrative’s upstream, the flooding river obliterates human efforts at permanence, turning them back over to primordial nature (snakes, toads and jerboas), as well as literally washing down instances of death (camels and Kurds). For Bunting, the dynamic of history is rooted in fear of death – in humans’ manifold efforts to repress or compensate for mortality and to create forms of permanence.

18Part II has two distinct historical settings, the first in eleventh-century Persia under the reign of Malekshah (1072-1092) when the Seljuk empire was at its height, the latter in contemporary (1940s) Iran when Bunting served there as British Vice-Consul. In between, however, are three epigrammatic tercets that obliquely comment on the first half, and by implication draw out the argument of the second. The Seljuk passage ends by evoking comparison with Egypt and Rome and finally with an ironic apostrophe, “O public spirit!” (Bunting 2021, 31). Part I has taught us to beware of any subordination of the individual to some greater social good, and the first tercet goes directly to this point:

Prayers to bend cities and brigade men
lest there be more wills than one:
but God is the dividing sword. (Bunting 2021, 31)

  • 11 See Letter to Pound, 14 November 1955: “‘Civic sense,᾿ as you mean it, stifles me. The more the epi (...)

19Any single will is an anathema to Bunting. “Prayers” in one sense refer to the immediately preceding “O public spirit!”: ideologies and rituals that bind individuals to a social will that benefits, indeed makes possible, empires.11 Bunting evokes Egypt and Rome, paradigmatic examples of empires and cultures obsessed by fear of death, to suggest that by comparison the Seljuks are relatively more appealing, but this should not distract us from the key point that empires are empires, elaborate mechanisms for subduing individuals in the name of stability and permanence. So in the second tercet, Egypt (pyramid) and Rome (law) are driven by the fear of death and, in doing so, “murder” subjective experience. This point is reiterated in the final tercet: “Domination and engineers,” which loom large in both Egypt and Rome, “fudge a motive you can lay your hands on / lest a girl choose or refuse waywardly” (Bunting 2021, 31). Presumably, “a motive you can lay your hands on” is one that is near to hand, subjective and worldly, not abstract, perhaps literally a lover; while to fudge it is to turn it into an abstraction, a law or moral principle. The abrupt shift from abstract empire to a wayward girl is intentionally dramatic and trivializing: social rationalization is posed against the spontaneous desire of those conventionally least allowed to decide for themselves, as if such waywardness risks toppling empires.

  • 12 The cover photo of the 1965 Morden Tower printing of The Spoils shows a vaulted space that appears (...)

20Returning to the opening of Part II, the Seljuk passage begins somewhat deceptively describing certain characteristic features of the great mosque of Masjid-e Jameh at Isfahan as an instance of high cultural achievement. Readers primed with Poundian assumptions will read this description as a barometer of cultural health. No doubt Bunting has in mind The Cantos, where architecture and even mere fragments of edifices measure the state of culture. In fact, the qualities that Bunting highlights – clean lines, lack of ornament, pragmatic simplicity – are the same as those that Pound discerned in his privileged style, the Romanesque. These are, of course, good modernist values which are taken to be trans-historical.12 As the Seljuk passage proceeds, however, Bunting thickens the context so that this aesthetic perception of the mosque is considerably qualified. Simply put, such artifacts are necessarily the manifestations of settled societies, in other words empires, and they are ultimately motivated by a fear of death. The passage moves from highlighting certain features of the mosque to mentioning two domes sponsored by rival vizars under Malekshah, as well as edifices the sultan himself built where he “cut his pride in plaster / which hardens by age” (Bunting 2021, 30) – a trope for a whole range of reified experience. We are then introduced to the human complement of the mosque in the figure of Omar Khayyam, the polymath mathematician, poet and public official under Malekshah. Khayyam is surrounded by the usual intrigues and boobs endemic to any court. As a Persian serving under foreign rulers, he puzzles over what motivates the Seljuks’ compulsion to construct and organize, their will to empire, which he counterpoises by recalling his mentor Avicenna’s “horror of munificent patrons” and the destruction of the great library at Bokhara. History is the story of power, of mankind’s attempts to control and create permanence, motivated by a futile effort to evade mortality and the law of the dividing sword.

21This reading risks overstating the case against the Seljuks in that Bunting certainly admires much about them, and they represent conquering foreigners who nevertheless identified enough with the sensibility of Persian culture to attempt to extend rather than destroy its achievements. Nevertheless, the poem gestures at a critique of the underlying problem:

Their passion’s body was bricks and its soul algebra.
they remembered
too much, too well. (Bunting 2021, 30)

22The monumental and calculating urge here is deathly, a “murder more durable than mortar,” and remembering too much poetry too well is a decadence that kills wayward spontaneity, a poetry that has become a hall of mirrors rather than remain in touch with the unpredictability of the body and experience.

  • 13 Bunting mentions being served vodka during his visits to the Bakhtiari tribesmen and, judging from (...)
  • 14 Another characteristic grouse in an April 1954 letter to Pound: “Anyway, I᾿m against civilization, (...)

23Apparently, Bunting was sufficiently concerned about the limitations of his imagist presentation of the Seljuk passage to feel he needed the moralistic tercets that follow to generalize his point, although he presents it in a rather riddling manner. However, this drawing out of the empire motif is also meant to bring into polemical relief the contrast with the second half. Bunting suggested that he intended the latter half of Part II to be “the relief [or] sensual counterpart (or counterpoint) of that way of life” depicted in the first half, adding that he felt this is what the modern West needs (Letter to Zukofsky, 13 March 1951). If the first half focuses on a great mosque set within a city within an empire, the complementary half is more local with the natural world constantly asserting itself. Like the Seljuk passage, the latter half begins with exemplary instances of artistic achievement, in this case a catalog of local artists: a painter of miniatures, a nose-flute player, two singers, a reciter of Firdowsi’s Shahnameh (or simply “the epic”) and a storyteller. These are notably on a non-monumental scale and (aside from the first) are all performative and thus ephemeral, yet at the same time they imply a sense of craft passed down from one artist to the next. In other words, they represent a vision of unalienated art organically integrated into the routine of everyday life, an example of Bunting’s insistence that culture and language were more fundamental and enduring than social structures and historical events (Bunting 1999, 16). This sense of culture as experiential rather than as UNESCO world heritage sites recurs again further along within a somewhat obliquely indicated setting: a terrace over a pool with girls below singing the verses of the classical Persian poets Onsori and Saʿdi. In this description there is a striking detail, vodka, that hints that the listeners are colonialists, and therefore implicates the British empire as simply the latest of many empires that have come and gone without seriously disrupting the continuity of this more organic level of culture.13 This terrace setting transforms into a natural scene with a nightingale whose song becomes the evening call to prayer – Bunting simply uses the Persian term, azan. This positive, one might say virtually “natural” azan contrasts with the poet’s response to the “intolerant bells” of Ode I.8, as the exotic Oriental context allows the poet to aestheticize the call to prayers and ignore its social imperative.14 Obviously enough, this is the privilege of the sympathetic colonialist. However, as I have argued, Bunting’s poetry here and elsewhere is structured as a reaction to what he rejects in Western society. In fact the actual experience of Iran does not seem in the least to have altered his view of the culture acquired through reading its classical poetry – he found what he expected: Iran was “a country which hasnt got a public, only individuals” (Letter to Zukofsky, 17 October 1947). In other words, this Oriental society, standing in for any pre-modern culture as seen through the eyes of the alienated modern, retains some potential for resistance and authentic experience. The point is made emphatically in the immediately following stanza: the natives despise police work and filing which they leave to their colonialist rulers “to make them unhappy, / unproductive and rich” (Bunting 2021, 32) – a succinct ironic summation of Bunting’s social values.

24“Empire” here is simply shorthand for what I have otherwise designated as modernity, all those features Bunting disliked: social administration, economic bondage, abstract knowledge (including science and philosophy). The latter half of Part II obliquely acknowledges Bunting’s own complicity, that his poem can only gesture at what has been lost from within modernity and empire, which would imply that he is contributing to the very problem he identifies. This in fact is the case, and in Briggflatts, where the question of art is a prominent theme, it is invariably seen as necessarily failing: under the conditions of modernity, where too much poetry is remembered too well, the gap between experience and artistic expression can never be satisfactorily overcome. The ending of “Chomei in Toyama” similarly finds Chomei, after lovingly describing his retreat from the city and the reduction of his needs to a minimum, suddenly reflect that this very description is complicit in the worldly values he supposedly has rejected. This reminds us again that Bunting’s poetry is motivated by critique, by a sense of loss attributed to the conditions of modernity.

25The stanza that concludes with the terrace setting and the call to prayers begins with a hunter laying out his net over a barley field and the “Grain nods in reply” (Bunting 2021, 31). Nets are always a danger sign in Bunting and they reappear in Part III, and while the grain may seem to acknowledge the hunter, literally speaking it is nodding under the weight of the net. The next five lines are structured on the cycle of the day: morning (poppies), afternoon (gazelle) and night (owl and wolf), but this is a temporality and sphere of existence beyond the concerns and nets of humankind. Finally, Part II concludes with a pair of short stanzas focused on a hunting falcon, “accurate, unforeseen / and absolute,” which surely is to be associated with God’s sword. Bunting gives us the moral: “Dread / of what’s to be, is and has been – / were we not better dead?” (Bunting 2021, 32). The final stanza answers this question in the negative as the falcon flies up toward the sun, “where / dazzle rebuts our stare, / wonder our fright.” Momentarily dazzled and blinded by the sun, we experience an existential instance of simple wonder or existence that cancels our fear of mortality along with all the compulsions to question and order the world, something like the mere fact of being. Again, for Bunting authentic experience necessarily involves this crossing of and tension between the human and its negation. These two six-line stanzas both begin with imagistic descriptions of the falcon and then add or suggest the moral, as if the image cannot do the job on its own. While the final line asserts the primacy of genuine experience, the imagistic moment, in doing so it breaks the imagistic spell, and therefore is ineffective in rebutting fright.

26We are now in a better position to assess the formal distinction noted previously: a standard flexible free verse that is generally imagist and realist (presenting rather than saying), and what I have referred to as moralistic passages because they appear to offer paraphrasable statements on the moral of the tale. The latter are typically set off from the former by adopting variations on regular stanzaic forms that suit Bunting’s inclination toward adapting the traditional gnomic forms of proverbs, parables and epigrams. This is broadly the case with Briggflatts as well, where typical free verse passages alternate with sets of shaped stanzas that invariably signal that they are to be read more allegorically and thematically. Particularly in The Spoils this formal opposition is glaring and distinct from The Cantos, which for all its absorbent capabilities in terms of source materials tends to subdue everything to Pound’s flexible free verse. In the first instance, the formal gap or irregularity manifests the difficulty of a poem that, in typical high modernist fashion, sets itself to make a total statement and present a view of history or of our present condition that is beyond representation or a given point of view. The ambition to make such statements is both the motivation for the formal innovations of modernism (a proliferation of points of view and narratives or the incorporation of diverse materials and registers) and a symptom of the very problem in the first place since the effect of this gap is precisely to foreground the problem of representation and reading. The reader will not be surprised that I discern here God’s dividing sword, so that an ahuman vision of the world unconcerned with human affairs is simply one without grounds for meaning, where in fact God has disappeared, where representation can never match the totality, and consequently where there is a feeling that social forces beyond adequate representation are relentlessly encroaching on ever-shrinking spaces and possibilities for individual experience.

27Part III brings the concerns of the poem to bear on contemporary history in the form of the recent war and, as previously mentioned, combines the more overtly allegorical manner of Part I with the more historical-realist manner that predominates in Part II. There are four readily identifiable subsections: a parabolic historical narrative, scenes from World War II (Malta and North Africa), a very miscellaneous and bemusing passage beginning with Blind Bashshar bin Burd and finally a return to scenes of the war (Scotland). The manner of these subsections is even more eclectic than in the earlier parts. On the one hand the opening narrative is several steps more abstract, overtly allegorical and therefore archetypal than Part I, while the scenes from the war are predominately presented with eye-witness realism and immediacy, as indeed they are straight out of Bunting’s own war experiences. Particularly given when the poem was written and published, Bunting presents an unorthodox view of the war, which according to his anti-humanistic assumptions is neither to be condemned nor celebrated. Rather, he sees war as the assertion of the outside and the ahuman, and in this sense we might think of it as a version of the sublime, which dashes all human efforts at order and conceptualization. However, there is a tendency to see this radical destruction of the routine of social stability as opening up possibilities for experience.

  • 15 Bunting pointed out the shift from two elements (Xenophanes) in the first line, to four (Empedocles (...)

28The history parable begins with deliberate casualness: “All things only of earth and water, / to sit in the sun’s warmth / breathing clear air” (Bunting 2021, 32). The four elements are ticked off here and become a figure for mere being, but this state is promptly disrupted by “A fancy took me to dig, / plan, prune […].”15 The seeming off-handedness of this urge veils its consequences as the rest of the stanza quickly runs through stages of social development, from agriculture to dairy to the slaughter of animals, followed by barter – and we know what necessarily comes next, so the second stanza introduces money and monumental buildings. The conclusion of the first stanza with a dance and hymn to peace and harvest is an ironic happy culmination and should remind us of the previous prayer and “public spirit,” which assume a social order in which individuals are disciplined to one will. The Spoils is a poem that explicitly poses itself against the complacencies of peace. The Lydian pebbles (coins) of stanza two and the taxed and sterilized water of stanza three mark the degradation and quantification of the primal elements introduced in the opening line of Part III. These Lydian "pebbles" are “countless, useless, hampering,” yet “spawn” (Bunting 2021, 33), preventing the wheat from sprouting and blunting the harrow and the plowshare, echoing Pound’s usura that “blunteth the needle” and degrades the quality of bread (Canto 45). As coins they recall Asshur assessing taxes and will reappear in the third part of Briggflatts: “pebbles worn by tabulation till / only the shell of figures is left” (Bunting 2021, 51). The third stanza’s artesian well is initially described in ejaculatory imagery (“Shot silk and damask white / spray spread from / artesian gush...”) and implies those continuities with the past that should water the present but here merely produce a bog. The final stanza of the set ends in a madhouse, with the verse itself verging on nonsensical reiteration. The mention of “One cribbed in a madhouse” has usually been taken as referring to Pound in St. Elizabeths, which may well be true; but more importantly, this is the general condition of modernity itself, like that caged Malaysian tiger who has been condemned as dangerous and is no doubt going mad. However, this stanza ends with an abrupt shift into a different register that points forward to images that will reappear in the poem’s conclusion: “flares on a foundering barque, / stars spattering still sea under iceblink.” (Bunting 2021, 33). These distress flares might be taken as referring to poets and their ilk in the sinking madhouse of Western civilization, albeit a bit rigidly allegorical for a good modernist poet. In this sense, the image is a premonition, projecting beyond the end of the poem where the convey ships head out into U-boat infested waters, and finally the sea, stars and iceblink will cover all as a grave.

29This parable or set of allegories reprises the values of the poem, particularly as expressed in Part I, but from a negative perspective: whereas earlier we are given examples of individualized experience, here the private is swallowed up by the social. The parable functions to frame the poem within modernity, so that the various earlier representations of at least the possibility of experience are now seen as all but eradicated. It offers no historical explanation, however, and the fall is so casually presented and unmotivated as to imply that the impulse for order and acquisitiveness is simply given, although, as we have seen, the implication is fear of mortality. The real as such is mere disorder, at least from any human perspective, and the social is the effort to impose fleeting order and meaning on it, which Bunting obviously viewed with deep suspicion – society is “a fallacy,” he once insisted to Zukofsky (20 August 1947; Bunting 1922, 181). The war, then, becomes an assertion of this real, which, if nothing else, tears away the veil of social stability and complacency.

30The first scenes of war stress the possibilities opened up by destruction, beginning with a tinker working atop a pile of debris, followed by a thumbnail heroic portrait of Flight-lieutenant Idema. In part, Idema is surely a stand-in for the poet (Wing Commander Bunting), but in any case both found the disruptions of the war allowed them to realize identities and capabilities merely latent during the conformities of peace-time. Then follows a traveling passage that opens on an impressive scene of war wreckage left in the aftermath of the Battle of El Alamein: “Broken booty but usable / along the littoral [...]” (Bunting 2021, 34). “Booty” recalls the poem’s title and “broken” hints at the dividing sword, but this wastage is “usable” as well as scattered along the “littoral” – that constantly shifting space between elemental earth and water. Waste and debris indicate the breakup necessary for creation and renewal in the perpetual interaction of elemental change. However, as the poet moves along he looks for signs of the “indigenous,” initially seeing nothing, but gradually local presences appear. As scarred and beaten back by the war as local life may be, the point of this movement is, again, away from the epiphenomena of history – in this case one of the key battles of the Second World War – to that which manifests human continuity in the form of culture as everyday life where experience is possible. Finally, this section ends in a cemetery, which in the first instance loops back to the present war but then opens up into the finality of death generally, as the poet knocks on a tomb at Leptis (the site of substantial Roman ruins) but no one answers. There is no resurrection here.

  • 16 Bunting does not identify Bashshar bin Burd (8th century) in his notes to the poem, although in his (...)
  • 17 The text of The Poems mis-corrects this line, deleting the first “with” – a good example of the dea (...)
  • 18 Some readers have found Bunting᾿s reference to “a drowned Chinee” offensive – they seem less distur (...)

31There now intrudes a very puzzling stanza that is not sited in the war and appears to pull out from what precedes and follows. It is perhaps unique in Bunting’s work for its rapid montage construction of very heterogeneous elements. It begins with an exotic name, “Blind Bashshar bin Burd” (Bunting 2021, 34), who was an important early Persian poet who wrote in Arabic. Bunting knows perfectly well this name means little to most of his readers, and one suspects the arresting alliteration was irresistible, all the more so in chiming with his own name.16 Here Bashshar represents an open-minded sceptic, and thus can be taken as a figure for the poet himself or his desired reader. This, I would suggest, is what this baffling stanza is about: that is, the poem’s readers, and therefore is an allegorical self-reflective insert into the war materials that dominate the contingent stanzas. So, if Bashshar is Bunting’s hoped-for-reader, if not Bunting himself – mobile, sceptical, open-minded, individual and a type of Oriental outsider as well – he is immediately counterpointed by “panegyrists” (plural) who are blind in a different sense and, worse, deaf. These are the “exegesists” who would nail the poem down, who wish to capture and subdue the text into neat net-like schemata (such as the present exercise). Then we have another counterpointing in the form of a single italicized line, indicating it is a quotation: “Condole with me with abundance of secret pleasure” (Bunting 2021, 34).17 This is an expression of the pleasure of the text, a shared yet individual or private experience, suggesting the intertwining of the sensual with its transience. As such, it is a statement via exemplar of Bunting’s poetics. But immediately this too is countered: “What we think in private / will be said in public” – the elimination of the private (“secret pleasure”) and the relentless encroachment of the “public” are one way to summarize what is wrong with modernity in Bunting’s eyes. At the same time, this public outing of the private is intrinsic to writing, this poem itself, which vexes Bunting’s poetry throughout but most explicitly in Briggflatts. This is emphasized by an image of all this translation of the private into the public as being poured out until the last “gallon” (a measure of quantity) into “an unintelligible sea” – the latter striking phrase will be repeated at the conclusion to the following stanza which in turn leads into the sea dominated conclusion of the poem. The sceptical, open-minded perspective represented by Bashshar – our ideal reader – recognizes the prevailing condition of darkness in which we necessarily operate. We can find a small, precarious meaning here but that is always against an infinite background of the unintelligible which inexorably renders such meaning transient and insignificant from its non-human perspective. Again, the “public” attempts to hide this condition, to capture and net it as an illusory stay against time. Therefore, we have a final abrupt shift, with only the separation of a dash, to old men laboring to bail out a ship within which they are being knocked about. These could be the blinder “panegyrists” desperately attempting to keep afloat the ship of civilization (“the foundering barque”) that confines and seals them off from the infinite sea that inevitably leaks in. Indeed, they are not even out at sea but pumping out “filthy harbour water” (Bunting 2021, 35), with the odd drowned Finn or Chinese, driven by a concern for their pay.18 All this is quite savagely but coolly satirical, and foreshadows the conclusion to the poem which will move out to an image of the vast, remote and “unintelligible” sea beyond the Arctic Circle.

32While the penultimate stanza immediately returns the poem to the context of the war – this time set in Scotland (the Firth of Forth) – its tonal qualities differ from the previously realistic passages in Malta and North Africa. To begin with, we have singing guns and tide (transience) as Glasgow burns under aerial attack, singing a nonsense ditty such as sailors or soldiers come up with under such conditions of alternating stress and boredom. In an odd way, this expresses a resilience in the face of death that Bunting admired and is a type of proto-poetry arising out of the pressures of the real. But the scene and songs of war are counterpointed with a scene of absolute calmness on a sailboat, a contrast Bunting emphasizes by locating it in the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay on the other side of the Atlantic. This sailboat existence, whether that of the poet or the reader, represents a state of isolated passivity along a safe shore that inevitably will be disrupted by changing winds; or as he puts it in another gnomic rhetorical question: “who’d rather / make fast Fortune with a slippery hitch?” (Bunting 2021, 35). So the stanza ends with the poet-sailor below deck (like the old men in the bilge) listening to the surf beating on the shore, that littoral space of change which calls him out of his complacency to swim “naked” out to the “dear unintelligible ocean” – in this case, it is the siren song of the war. We might detect here an echo of the systole and diastole of Asshur’s experience, “lean watches, then debauch.” If we understand Bunting’s values and the overriding emphasis of the poem on the acceptance of violent separation and change, then all this is clear enough. This then leads directly into his concluding stanza that envisions an elemental grave that is “as good [...] as any,” out in the far North Sea, and the concluding reprise of the poem’s title.


  • 19 The sizable critical work on the Northumbrian theme includes some of the biggest names in Bunting s (...)

33The implications of this examination of The Spoils need to be brought to bear on Briggflatts, however briefly. First, with its unexpected success, Briggflatts became Bunting’s primary capital, which released him from a drudging, poorly paid sub-editing job into a more agreeable but precarious itinerant career of short-term residencies at universities, readings and lecturing. Since despite his best efforts he was unable to follow up the poem, it was in his interest to amplify the intricacies of Briggflatts. Consequently, his numerous public comments and even a good deal of private correspondence responding to the inquisitive are essentially elaborate retrospective annotations on that poem, giving particular weight to the Northumbrian theme and to Bunting himself as a poet of the north. Scholars have happily followed this up and added further density.19 All of this was subsequent to the composition of the poem, and as a good northern raconteur Bunting knew how to feed his audience what it asked for. But it is questionable whether much that is claimed for the specific significance of Bunting’s Northumbria was in the forefront of his mind when composing the poem, and it would never have crossed anyone’s mind to characterize him as a northern poet prior to Briggflatts. One could argue that Bunting always made use of the diverse settings and experiences straight out of his biography. In this case, after being thrown out of Iran in 1952, he ended up much against his will stuck back in the north of England, with little prospect of escape and a young family to support, and therefore was making the best of a difficult personal situation.

34Beyond these biographical factors, modernism itself had shifted decisively and was now historical rather than an open field of activity responding to the interwar period. With the onset of the Cold War, the tradition of modernism was self-conscious as such and increasingly preoccupied with its own autonomous integrity. In a sense, Briggflatts is a less ambitious poem than The Spoils, no longer attempting to address contemporary history. What is most noticeable about the poem compared to Bunting’s earlier work is its relative parochialism. On the one hand, this is due to its consistent framing within Northumbria, so that even when the poem wanders afield there is a return to the primary setting. On the other hand, as the designation “An Autobiography” indicates, there is the suggestion of a singular subjective viewpoint that underwrites the poem as a whole, which traces itself back to a particular moment of personal significance that gives the poem its somewhat enigmatic title. The advantages of this geographical and subjective narrowing are obvious, since Briggflatts achieves a greater coherence and broad consistency of tone that is not reliant on the satiric voice of his early sonatas. The tendency throughout Bunting’s previous work is to gesture at the possibility of authentic experience in its absence or, on the other, to project more filled-out examples distant in both time and space – typically Oriental and often medieval, as is the case in “Vestiges” (Ode I.20), “Chomei at Toyama,” Part I of The Spoils or his translations from Persian. With Briggflatts, Bunting attempts to create such a poetic space in the present out of his own experience, although it is a troubled construction in which experience is always already lost. Consequently, in Briggflatts the aesthetic object (the poem) and its intrinsic failure become a major topic, which is not the case in his earlier sonatas where the failure of art is attributed directly to the deficiencies of society.

35Briggflatts’ Northumbria is not contemporary Northumberland – there is no city (Newcastle upon Tyne) nor industry (coal mining), there is hardly even village life, which is largely gestured at by a sprinkling of hamlet names rather like the light salting of dialect words that Bunting highlights in his notes. What is more important about these notes than the mini-glossary of unfamiliar words they contain is the claim that “Southrons would maul the music of many lines” (Bunting 2021, 327). The Southrons of course stand for almost all the poem’s potential readers, and this rhetorical gesture in effect claims that there is an inner authenticity to the poem’s language that is lost to modernity. Bunting was aware that the pronunciation he claimed to be hearing was rapidly disappearing, and this very ephemerality is intrinsic to its genuineness (Bunting 1981). One might half-facetiously suggest that it is the Southrons who can best hear the poem since those raised in the koine will hear the dialect or archaic elements as estranging, which tends to give the effect of a language closer to the real – like talking Irish. In any case, this remark in the notes is the only explicit manifestation of the regional politics of which so much has been made – within the poem itself, the topic is muted, requiring an excessive amount of outside input to be heard. Given the prevalence of satire against the metropolis and empire, standardization and bureaucracy throughout all the other sonatas as well as “Chomei at Toyama,” one can only be surprised by its relative absence in Briggflatts. There is the obligatory London scene in an obligatory satiric manner (albeit mild by Bunting’s standards), but even here the focus is less on the city than the lost poet – whose wrongheadedness is expressed in terms of trying to measure and calibrate refined aesthetic perceptions. There is not much evidence that when composing the poem, regional politics was on Bunting’s mind, except in the sense that Northumbria is constructed as a site where some kind of authentic experience might be possible or, perhaps more likely, where at least its loss can be felt and mourned.

36The poem’s Northumbria is primarily landscape thickened with historical presences. This history is entirely medieval and notably bloody, although the violence is somewhat balanced out by the brief mention of Irish and Anglo-Saxon saints, with Bunting’s claim that they represent a quasi-pagan, pantheistic sensibility, although this implication is rather obscure in the poem itself. This pantheism, along with Bunting’s Quakerism, is simply a form of experience outside the orders of modernity: what matters most is that it is free of doctrine and institutional discipline. In the first instance, what is significant about this landscape is that it represses the city and modernity, imagistically offering an open space for the expansive individual. The poem presents the Northumbrian countryside as natural and the evidence of the human as epiphenomenal – mere instances of his theme of mortality and human futility. The prominence of landscape and natural detail tends to imply the possibility of a correspondence between the poet, his poem and natural orders, and there is no mistaking the significant presence of William Wordsworth in Briggflatts’ rural sensibility. However, the landscape of Briggflatts is aestheticized, which contrasts with the pair of explicitly Northumberland early poems (Odes I.14 and I.18), where Bunting is very much concerned with the land as the site of labor, property and exploitation.

37The autobiographical kernel of Briggflatts described in Part I is an experience of adolescent love and sexual initiation. The specific nature of this experience is not happenstance: it is an unfallen – that is, unself-conscious – bodily exploration explicitly hidden from the adults and therefore outside the social. The self-conscious recognition of this experience can only happen once it is gone, which sets in place the poem’s pervasive sense of loss – a characteristic of Bunting’s work generally that is commonly referred to as his melancholia. Despite moments of guilt and regret, there is no question of the poet remaining with the beloved, or more precisely within this unfallen experience, which would amount to accepting a state of village idiocy, in which case we would not have a poem to know about it. What the poem requires is this structure of loss presented as autobiographical but which spills out into the larger world and history in the rest of the poem. Underwriting this sense of loss is a state of affairs in which humankind cannot feel at home, the larger cosmos is ahuman, and the landscape’s promise of a harmonization between the human and nature is unfulfilled.

38Unlike The Spoils, Briggflatts suggests that the anti-humanistic universe is less a trans-historical metaphysical state of affairs than an ideological one, due to something like Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility. This reflects a shift of emphasis from a polemical response to modernity to the poem’s need for some degree of embodying experience via the Northumbrian landscape within the artifice of the poem itself. In the aftermath of Briggflatts, Bunting rediscovered his non-conformist Quaker roots and a minimalist spirituality, although there is not the slightest hint in the poem or its notes of the hamlet Brigflatts’ significance in Quaker history – one of those motifs subsequently added after the fact. There is a family resemblance between the conclusion of The Spoils and the culminating moment of Briggflatts: both are nighttime scenes set within a cosmic elemental context. But although the latter stresses the distance of the stars, there is at least a glimmer of a connection in the starlight that takes a single lifetime to travel to earth, unlike the steely cold grave of the North Atlantic. There is a well-known passage in Part II of Briggflatts that offers a historical parable moving from the music of William Byrd and Monteverdi to that of Schoenberg. The galliards and madrigals of the former are juxtaposed with precise images from nature implying not that human art is underwritten by nature but that there is an assumed correspondence and, in that sense, an inter-exchange between the human and natural orders. However, there is a breakdown in this historical progression when between the Renaissance composers and Schoenberg, the third stanza asks, “But who will entune a bogged orchard, / its blossom gone[?]” (Bunting 2021, 49). It is not simply a matter of adequate aesthetic form; nature itself has receded and is now seen as a bog – a reappearance of one of Bunting’s favorite images of the condition of modernity, as we saw in the historical parable in The Spoils. The fourth stanza, before we get to Schoenberg’s maze, begins with the image of roe deer coming up to a fence, “insolent” – there is a strict barrier between the human and nonhuman, with the latter looking in from the outside with disdain. Yet still, there is at least a look, which is more than the seas and deserts of The Spoils offer. Schoenberg’s music, under these circumstances, does not even have a proper generic name, simply a “maze,” and of course his “Verklärte Nacht” is in many respects emblematic of the breakdown of the harmonization between human artifice and natural orders. This historical parable is the last of three four-stanza sets distributed through Part II that are all concerned with art-making and all end in failure. The first set is structured on the four senses (taste, sound, touch, sight), each represented by apposite imagistic experiences set in a sensuous Italian landscape until the fourth stanza where the poem turns on itself­ – the object of sight is a book or writing and thus an abstraction and betrayal of experience, lost in its very telling.

  • 20 The refusal of Alexander᾿s army to follow him is not found in Firdowsi᾿s version of the Alexander r (...)

39The Alexander episode in Part III, as well as the sore thumb of the poem that leads into it (the Pasiphae passage) represent a resurgence of the satiric mode of the early sonatas and obtrusively break the Northumbrian frame, less because they are set elsewhere than because their explicit mythopoetic material sharply distinguishes them from the rest of the poem. Why, then, does Bunting so deliberately tear the dominant texture of his poem in this manner? Despite being split between Parts II and III, these two passages belong together: both of them climax with the intrusion of or an encounter with the outside or ahuman, both are antithetically paired (passive and active) and conventionally gendered, thus gesturing at a gamut of human experience analogous to that presented in Part I of The Spoils. Similarly, these passages function paradigmatically to broaden out the implications of the poem’s predominately subjective focus. The Pasiphae episode is depicted as a willing rape resulting possibly in a monstrous birth or “unlike creation” (Bunting 2021, 50), presumably because the truly creative will seem perverse by the standards of the taken-for-granted in an administered society. The implied violence reminds us of the creative potential of war in The Spoils, and the scandalous detail of penis handling suggests a certain rewriting of or counterpointing to the young lovers scene in Part I. The Alexander passage reintroduces the empire motif we saw in The Spoils, and one advantage of using this medieval romance material is that the historical figure of the great conqueror is already allegorized to include the hubris theme of illimitable seeking after knowledge and experience. However, to moralize this passage as a tract against human pride is to trivialize and misapprehend Bunting’s perspective. The scene begins in yet another marshy, boggy place inhabited by indistinguishable bankers and other unsavory urbanites and whose borders are patrolled, out of which Alexander pulls himself above the crowd to scale the mountain. The representative voice of Alexander’s army that balks at following him desires to return home to “barley pancakes, / incest and familiar games” (Bunting 2021, 52), surely a parodic expression of the bourgeois sentiments Bunting abhorred.20 Alexander’s transcendental climb culminates in a meeting with the angel Israfel who is posed to blow the trumpet announcing the last judgment, but, again, there is no resurrection here and the angel remains in a state of indefinite suspension, so that the eschatological expectations are short-circuited. In other words, there is no final meaning to it all, no grand redemptive resolution, Alexander has simply run up against his limits. If it is Alexander who wakes up in the following passage and heads home with the slowworm’s song ringing from every tree, that song is simply of human mortality – “twigs tap, / elms drip” and time ticks (Bunting 2021, 54) – which presumably is why there is mention of a snake bite early in this passage. The slowworm’s primary meaning is its name: slow, inexorable, never raising its head above ground, death. If we are to assume that the slowworm’s song implies a certain human entunement with nature, this consonance integrates a harsh reminder. The slowworm is a figure of humility in its strength, the knowledge that it will conquer in the end. But even allegorically, human beings are not slowworms, as we are reminded emphatically in the long dark passage that immediately follows and opens Part IV: “I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice, / being adult male of a merciless species” (Bunting 2021, 55). So much for lessons in humility.

40Although, as a good student of Pound, Bunting always emphasized the musical dimension of poetry, he became more insistent about this with Briggflatts and after with his notorious assertion that poetry is (almost) nothing but sound. His accentuation of this point is symptomatic of Briggflatts’ late modernism and a self-conscious emphasis on the autonomy of the aesthetic work, whereas accounting for the earlier sonatas as quintessentially musical would be a challenge. Bunting’s ideas on the sonata form for his longer poems are essentially one of numerous variations on modernist collage, which often evoke musical analogies to open up the limitations of linear narrative conceptions. Nevertheless, it should not be necessary to call up the usual authorities to recognize that “music” implied for Bunting a resistance to modernity’s rationalization and a reminder of experience lost, as well as throwing the emphasis on a more physically affective and experiential conception of the poem. This also implies the importance of performance, which at the time was part of Bunting’s livelihood, and its ephemerality against the exegetical pinning down of the text on paper (Bunting 1994, 34–35). A quick comparison with his friend Zukofsky, however, highlights that Bunting’s foregrounding of the soundscape is fairly conservative and tied to imagist assumptions. He strives for a strongly tactile texture that also shows off its craftsmanship, hence his inclination to talk about his poetry in terms of technique, and the sense of participation in a tradition of poetic craft. Although Briggflatts is noted for its finely observed natural detail, which at times brilliantly captures and combines the visual and aural, one just as routinely encounters, for example, “The hermit crab / is no grotesque in such company” (Bunting 2021, 49). Bunting can never resist drawing out the moral, and this is the modified form of his earlier satiric impulse.

  • 21 Elsewhere, Bunting more plausibly describes “The Well of Lycopolis” as “about as gloomy a poem as a (...)

41Few modern poems so insistently turn every image into memento mori. The dancing bull from the outset is marked by falling may flowers and the slowworm is on the move, so by the end of Part I our bull is in the slaughter-house. The skylark’s traditional greeting of the morning with song becomes the ticking of time marked by the stone mason’s hammer, and its flight is painful, “labouring to rise” (Bunting 2021, 41). The young lovers literally play on a tombstone by which they are bruised, and then make love a figurative stone’s throw away from where Eric Bloodaxe was slaughtered. No wonder, “Every birth a crime, / every sentence life” (Bunting 2021, 44). The seasonal structure of Briggflatts moves, not from spring, as is so often stated, but specifically from late spring (the may flowers are falling) to winter without any hint of a return of spring. Bunting put paid to such cyclical mythopoetics in the earliest poem included in the Collected Poems, Ode I.1 (“Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise”), where the poet greets spring as the monotonously inexorable return of the same, so that any promise of “resurrection” is entirely emptied out (Bunting 2021, 77). Bunting did not allow himself such easy compensatory conventions to cheer up his poetry. There is little wonder some readers attempt to discount Briggflatts’ coda – “ask the sea / what’s lost, what’s left” (Bunting 2021, 61) – although it simply hammers home the same point made by the poet throughout his work. In a late letter to Denis Goacher, Bunting remarks, perhaps a bit mischievously, that “The Well of Lycopolis” and The Spoils end “hopeful,” as compared with Briggflatts; but then he immediately qualifies this optimism in a manner few of his readers would find agreeable: “It’s only humanists who must find the world hopeless. It’s a good enough world for stars or mushrooms, and why assume that it was meant for us?” (Bunting 2022, 288).21

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Bunting, Basil. Basil Bunting on Poetry. Ed. Peter Makin. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Bunting, Basil. Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal: Conversations with Basil Bunting by Jonathan Williams. Lexington, KY: Gnomon Press, 1968.

Bunting, Basil. “Interview with Peter Bell, 3 September 1981.” PennSound, Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Last accessed 23 June 2022,

Bunting, Basil. Letters of Basil Bunting. Ed. Alex Niven. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022.

Bunting, Basil. “Letters to Louis Zukofsky 1930-1974.” Louis Zukofsky Collection, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin. Box 21, folders 4–6.

Bunting, Basil. “Letters to Dorothy and Ezra Pound 1926-59.” Ezra Pound Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, Series I: General Correspondence, Basil Bunting. Box 6, folder 283.

Bunting, Basil. The Poems of Basil Bunting. Ed. Don Share. London: Faber & Faber, 2021.

Bunting, Basil. “The Poet’s Point of View” (1966). Three Essays. Ed. Richard Caddell. Durham, UK: Basil Bunting Poetry Centre, 1994. 34–35.

Burton, Richard. A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting. Oxford: Infinite Ideas Ltd., 2013.

Caddel, Richard and Anthony Flowers. Basil Bunting: A Northern Life. Newcastle upon Tyne: Newcastle Libraries & Information Services, 1997.

Hart, Matthew. Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Lopez, Tony. “Under Saxon the Stone: National Identity in Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts.” Sharp Study and Long Toil. Ed. Richard Caddel. Durham University Journal Special Supplement, 1995. 114–122.

Makin, Peter. Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Pound, Omar. Arabic and Persian Poems. New York: New Directions, 1970.

Quartermain, Peter. “Basil Bunting: Poet of the North.” Stubborn Poetries: Poetic Facticity and the Avant-Garde, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2013.

Yeats, William Butler. Explorations. New York: Collier Books, 1973.

Yeats, William Butler. The Letters of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Allan Wade. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.

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1 The Spoils was composed in late 1950-51, first published in Poetry (79, no. 2, November 1951) and, years later, as a booklet by The Morden Tower Book Room (Newcastle upon Tyne, 1965).

2 Letter to Louis Zukofsky, 10 May 1953 (Bunting 2022, 228). Almost two decades later Bunting would publicly reiterate this view in the forward to Omar Pound᾿s Arabic and Persian Poems: “Sooner or later we must absorb Islam if our own culture is not to die of anemia” (Pound 1970, 11). Bunting᾿s letters to Zukofsky from Iran frequently voice similar views, usually without the emphasis on Islam, preferring the desert to society or civilization. For Bunting᾿s letters to Zukofsky, I cite the originals held at the Harry Ransom Research Center, although where possible I also reference the Letters of Basil Bunting (Bunting 2022).

3 Bunting makes some oblique comments on this poem in the context of a critique of abstraction in an open letter to Zukofsky, 2 Oct. 1932 (Bunting 1922, 54).

4 Bunting᾿s elliptical note to this poem, “In Samangan Rustam begot Sohrab,” offers an oblique clue to what lies behind its surface (Bunting 2021, 399); that is, in Firdowsi᾿s Shahnameh, the hero Rustam has a one-night stand with the city᾿s princess while passing through, resulting in the birth of Sohrab and thus setting in motion the tragic and most famous narrative of the entire epic. The annotations in The Poems are garbled and largely beside the point. Biographically, the poem alludes to Bunting᾿s marriage, which had recently ended disastrously with his wife walking out on him with his two daughters and pregnant with a son he would never see but who would be named Rustam (Burton 2013, 255).

5 The main exception is Makin 1992, 108-118.

6 The Arabic script is the key phrase from the opening verse of sura (chapter) 8 of the Qor᾿an, which Bunting translates in his notes. The full sura addresses the question of distributing the spoils of war, specifically following the decisive Battle of Badr in 624, and begins with this reminder that it is Allah, not human agents, who is responsible for the victory.

7 Although it must be taken with caution, W. B. Yeats made a relevant observation about Bunting in “Pages from a Diary Written in 1930”: “A poet whose free verse I have admired rejects God and every kind of unity, calls the ultimate reality anarchy, means by that word something which for lack of metaphysical knowledge he cannot define” (Yeats 1973, 295).

8 The Poems reproduces in facsimile a typescript of the earlier version of the first three parts, although the editor mistakenly assumes the markings are Bunting᾿s own. Eight letters to Zukofsky mention The Spoils, dated between 7 February and 28 June 1951, which include substantial detailed explanations and annotations, but unfortunately only Bunting᾿s side of the correspondence survives. The editor᾿s notes in The Poems erroneously state that early drafts were sent to Zukofsky in 1948 and that there was at one point a four-part version. The earliest “rough drafts” of the first two parts were sent in February 1951, at which point Bunting stated that he had written nothing of the second half; he sent Part III in March, then in May a complete revision of Part III, having by then abandoned the four-part plan in response to Zukofsky᾿s critique. He sent a final version of the completed poem in June. There is a typescript of the reconceived Part III sent in May, also marked up by Zukofsky, which influenced the final version, but this is not reproduced in The Poems, presumably because its differences from the final version were judged to be comparatively minor (Louis Zukofsky Collection, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, Box 30, Folder 13). In later years, Bunting spoke several times of having drafted all four parts, which is possible, although Bunting’s retrospective remarks are often inaccurate and the correspondence with Zukofsky strongly suggests that Part IV existed more in his head than on paper.

9 Bunting referred to these speakers as an adventurer (Asshur), a Baghdadi (Lud), a Bedouin (Arpachshad) and a Jew (Aram). Letter to Zukofsky, 13 March 1951.

10 Because Bunting refers to the poems recited by Arpachshad as “sacred / enscrolled poems” (Bunting 2021, 27-28), some commentators have assumed this is religious poetry, whereas this refers to the venerable status of these poems rather than their content. Bunting pointed out to Zukofsky that the quotations, “Those were the embers . . . Halt, both, lament . . .,” are the opening phrases of two poems from the Mo᾿allaqat (literally: hanging poems), a collection of seven pre-Islamic poems (qasidas), which are among the oldest and most influential poems in Arabic literature. The first phrase is not definitively identifiable, but by convention a qasida opens in a desert setting, looking upon an abandoned campsite which then becomes the occasion for calling up memories. The second phrase is from the most famous qasida of all, attributed to Imru al-Qals, a sixth-century prince-outlaw, and boastfully describes his colorful adventures, including an impressive catalog of sexual escapades. Arpachshad᾿s third speech refers back to the “abandoned embers” of the first quoted phrase, which strongly suggests that his sexual fantasy emulates the quasida᾿s conventional account (nasīb) of a past romantic encounter. See Letters to Zukofsky, 7 February and 13 March 1951.

11 See Letter to Pound, 14 November 1955: “‘Civic sense,᾿ as you mean it, stifles me. The more the epidemic of it spreads, the beastlier the world becomes. [...] Freedom is so expensive that every people that has been allowed to have its way has abolished it in the interest of all the hard cases which arouse their civic sense. I prefer freedom to the security thrust on me, which feels like prison bars and tastes like skilly. [...] The worst-governed countries are the happiest and most interesting to live in. Perhaps all laws that are enforced are bad.”

12 The cover photo of the 1965 Morden Tower printing of The Spoils shows a vaulted space that appears to be the winter or underground prayer room, which is not directly referred to in the poem, although the architectural features match the aesthetic Bunting describes.

13 Bunting mentions being served vodka during his visits to the Bakhtiari tribesmen and, judging from his descriptions, vodka was ubiquitous among both locals and colonialists (see various letters quoted in Burton 2013, 288, 296, 302, 312-313). However, Bunting᾿s choice to include this particular detail among otherwise perfectly local details, vafur and tea, is deliberate. In the draft typescript, Bunting wrote “my pool,” indicating that this terrace setting is based on the fairly lavish house he had in Isfahan as a Vice-Consul (see description in Bunting 1922, 163-164). Zukofsky marked the possessive pronoun for deletion. The shift from the terrace to a seemingly purely natural setting is probably explained in part by Bunting᾿s description of Isfahan as not looking or feeling like a city because it was so full of gardens and orchards (Letter to Zukofsky, 7 February 1951).

14 Another characteristic grouse in an April 1954 letter to Pound: “Anyway, I᾿m against civilization, if that᾿s what we have here. I᾿d forgotten quite how beastly it was after those years in the East, where there᾿s the azan instead of alarm clock and people still dont work if they dont want to.”

15 Bunting pointed out the shift from two elements (Xenophanes) in the first line, to four (Empedocles) in the second, adding that “The distinction is also a comment” – without elaborating (Letter to Zukofsky, 19 April 1951). Presumably, the augmentation is a move toward greater abstraction (fire and air), as well as implying a structure of harmony rather than primal conflict.

16 Bunting does not identify Bashshar bin Burd (8th century) in his notes to the poem, although in his correspondence he mentions Bashshar᾿s heretical inclinations, that is, his apparent adherence to pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism – as a Persian under Arabic rule he was well-known for his daring assertion of Persian superiority (Letter to Zukofsky, 22 March 1951). This may explain why Bunting was attracted to and even identified with Bashshar, who by all accounts was a colorful and cantankerous character; but it hardly explains his appearance in the poem as a mere name.

17 The text of The Poems mis-corrects this line, deleting the first “with” – a good example of the deafness Bunting alludes to. The editor᾿s annotation mentions that Bunting ascribed this line to Swift but is untraced; however, it is from A Journal to Stella, Letter 61.

18 Some readers have found Bunting᾿s reference to “a drowned Chinee” offensive – they seem less disturbed by the reference to “a drowned Finn.” In the hierarchies of the sailors᾿ world, with which Bunting had some contact, he would have known that Finns and Chinese were at the bottom and so surely, taken in context, we are meant to read these references satirically. Bunting defended his use of “Chinee” against Zukofsky᾿s apparent objection as in fact a more correct designation than “Chinese,” and not meant to be derogatory (Letter to Zukofsky, 25 June 1951).

19 The sizable critical work on the Northumbrian theme includes some of the biggest names in Bunting scholarship: Caddel and Flowers 1997, Quartermain 2013 and Makin 1992. Makin᾿s authoritative monograph, although a critical study of Bunting᾿s entire career, spends a full two-thirds on Briggflatts with substantial chapters each on Northumbrian warriors, saints and the Lindisfarne Gospels, which offer a wealth of historical background on what are a very modest number of lines. For somewhat more critical perspectives on the topic, see Lopez 1995 and Hart 2010, 79-105.

20 The refusal of Alexander᾿s army to follow him is not found in Firdowsi᾿s version of the Alexander romance. The Spanish epigraph to Briggflatts indicates Bunting may have known other versions, although the line he quotes is from a set piece describing spring (specifically May) that is frequently found extracted from the larger romance.

21 Elsewhere, Bunting more plausibly describes “The Well of Lycopolis” as “about as gloomy a poem as anyone would want” (Bunting 1968, n.p.).

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Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas, « The Dividing Sword: Basil Buntings The Spoils »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas

Independent Scholar

Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas is an independent scholar who has taught at universities in the U.S., China, Taiwan and Singapore and currently lives in southern Switzerland. He is editor of the scholarly web-site Z-site: A Companion to the Work of Louis Zukofsky ( and occasionally translates contemporary Chinese poetry, particularly the work of Che Qianzi.

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