Basil Bunting’s poem “Briggflatts” has been hailed as the successor to Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” and T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Bunting himself, meanwhile, has been almost forgotten.
If Basil Bunting were not remembered for “Briggflatts”—his longest and best poem, first published fifty years ago—he might still be remembered as the protagonist of a preposterously eventful twentieth-century life. By the age of fifty, he had been a music critic, a sailor, a balloon operator, a wing commander, a military interpreter, a foreign correspondent, and a spy. He had married twice, had four children, lived on three continents (and one boat), survived multiple assassination attempts, and been incarcerated throughout Europe. He had also apprenticed at Ezra Pound’s poetic “Ezuversity” in Rapallo, played an “indifferent” game of chess with General Francisco Franco in the Canary Islands, and communicated with Bakhtiari tribesmen in classical Persian. Educated in Quaker schools, he was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the First World War—and released after a brief hunger strike—only to high-mindedly rush into the Second, during which he served in the Royal Air Force and MI6. Eventually, as he boasted to Pound’s wife, Dorothy, he became “chief of all our Political Intelligence in Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.” As a LondonTimes correspondent in Tehran, in 1952, he watched as a hired mob congregated outside his hotel and chanted, “death to mr. bunting!” Guessing, correctly, that nobody calling for Mr. Bunting’s death had ever seen the man, Bunting joined the mob and chanted along with them. Soon after, he and his family fled the country, driving from Iran to Bunting’s mother’s house in England—a one-month trip—in a company car.
By the nineteen-sixties, though, Bunting’s life was at an uncharacteristic lull: he had spent the previous decade in his home of Northumberland, working at local newspapers, where he ended up subediting the business page and stock tables. He confessed in a letter to the publisher Jonathan Williams that his life had been “one of struggling to keep my belly filled and my children’s bellies filled, and no time whatever for literary pre-occupations.” His time as a chameleonic world-traveller, and as a poet, seemed to be behind him. From 1930 to 1951, the never-prolific Bunting had published several multi-movement “Sonatas,” a few dozen shorter “Odes,” and translations from Persian and Latin, which he modestly called “Overdrafts” (drafts, that is, penned over poetic predecessors—overdrafts taken on the literary treasury). Enchanted early by Pound—Yeats’s first impression of Bunting was of “one of Ezra’s more savage disciples”—Bunting obeyed Pound’s modernist commandment to “Make It New,” resuscitating and recombining past traditions. But he had published nothing since his apocalyptic war poem “The Spoils,” and he had never secured a British publisher, not even a small press of the sort that disseminated his work in the U.S. and Italy.