A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2013), by Richard Burton
I’ve finally caught up with Richard Burton’s biography of poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985), published two years ago. It’s a hefty, generous biography: generous in the length of its quotations from never-printed, rarely reprinted, and otherwise difficult-to-obtain materials; generous in providing both a biography and a series of critical readings, in the old critical-biography mode, and indeed a fairly detailed account of the critical reception of Bunting’s books; and generous to Bunting in — unlike many classic critical-biographies — not judging him or offering any overt interpretation of his character or his behaviour. If there is a covert interpretation of the life inscribed in the narrative, it’s the well-known one: that he was neglected for much of his lifetime and redeemed by the composition and publication of Briggflatts. It’s also seems to be implied that, until the Second World War, Bunting as man hadn’t completely come into adulthood, and that he was transformed by his wartime roles and responsibilities. A moment in Bunting’s mid-teens, when he threatened to leave the Quaker boarding school to which he had been sent, becomes a kind of reference point for later self-destructive moments, but only in the vaguest of ways: Burton is reluctant to interpret what was going on in Bunting’s faintly angry, frustrated, and mildly paranoid teenage outburst, so while the later episodes are similar, the narrative repetition doesn’t amount to interpretation of the poet’s psyche or to narrative patterning.
All that is good. I enjoy reading biographies, but I worry about the distortions that they involve in order to create a compelling narrative, and I worry about the marketing-driven need to have a major new revelation (usually sexual) to offer to the world, around which the narrative must then be shaped. Bunting’s teenage crush (or whatever it was) on Peggy Greenback, and his being reunited with her 50 years later, offers potential to create that kind of biography, but Burton doesn’t over-work it. (In the Literary Review, Matthew Sperling drew attention to Bunting’s relationships with teenage girls, and Burton has responded briefly on the Infinite Ideas website about the difficulty of interpreting what was going on.)
Burton can get away with writing a biography without an overbearing interpretation or narrative line because Bunting’s life is itself full of interesting developments. His Quaker-inspired opposition to the First World War is moving and fascinating. His adventures in Persia are sometimes hilarious — I’d previously heard the one about his joining a mob who were baying for his blood — but Burton also conveys Bunting’s love for the country and its culture. Bunting’s contempt for a southern English political and cultural establishment is a consistent connecting thread.
Burton can also get away with it because Bunting himself is such a vivid and at times hilarious teller of his own life. As Burton acknowledges, Bunting the anecdotalist at times seems to have taken a leaf from the master of unreliable memoirs, Ford Madox Ford, who was briefly his employer, so the record may well be exaggerated and in other ways distorted, but the stories are consistently engaging. As well as being sceptical about the written record, Burton is alert to the theatrical elements in Bunting’s self-fashioning, especially late in life when he was able to play the role of Grand Old Man and Last-Living-Modernist. But his scepticism isn’t pushed into the position of reductive debunking.
If there’s a weakness in the narrative, it comes in the post-Briggflatts years, from 1966 to Bunting’s death, where Bunting himself seems to have begun to believe that his best years were behind him, creatively, and where Burton cannot find, or is unwilling to impose, any other narrative shape. The narrative can only be one of waiting for death; or, worse still, waiting for death while being forced, through financial necessity, to take a series of visiting professorships at universities. This phase is kept lively by Bunting’s contempt for universities, north American Creative Writing programmes, and the Arts Council, but by the late 1970s even those possibilities have evaporated. Burton tends to flit around more freely in his source materials, so that a 1983 letter to Jonathan Williams will be followed by one from 1973 to Hugh MacDiarmid (p.488) (and of course, between those two letters, MacDiarmid had died, so that Bunting’s remarks about having ‘just’ written to MacDiarmid, when ‘just’ might seem to refer to 1983, is momentarily disorienting.)
I imagine most readers will come to this biography because they already know and love Bunting’s poetry. Reading it is no substitute for reading the poetry, and only in small details does the biography (as distinct from Burton’s critical discussions) illuminate the poetry. But Bunting is an intriguing character, and, by standing at one remove from him, quoting generously and framing documents sensitively and sympathetically, Burton allows us to reach our own conclusions.