In this entralling, expertly researched portrait, the modernist poet is revealed as more active than Eliot and more pugnacious than Pound
Basil Bunting's Collected Poems opens with "Villon", drafted when he was 25 and then handed over, like The Waste Land four years before it, to Ezra Pound for dramatic cuts and improvements. We know relatively little about the 15th-century French poet François Villon, beyond the fact that he was involved in a murderous brawl, was banished from Paris and spent time in jail. He was clearly a hell-raiser and a vagabond, which made him popular with modernist types who sought models of poetic virility and were keen to distance themselves from the effeteness and dandyism of the fin‑de-siècle. Pound, although he was tone-deaf, wrote an opera based on "Le Testament de Villon"; in his book of essays The Sacred Wood TS Eliot compared the same work favourably to Tennyson's In Memoriam.
"Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain," Bunting writes of Villon, "hither and thither scurrying as the wind varies." Bunting emerges from Richard Burton's thoroughly researched and enthralling biography as living a life far more active and variegated than the bookish Eliot's, and even than the pugnacious, controversial Pound's. Like Villon, Bunting had several spells behind bars. Born in 1900 into a prosperous middle-class family in Northumbria, where his father was a celebrated doctor, he was just old enough to be conscripted for the first world war. On receiving his call-up papers he registered as a conscientious objector, refusing even to take up agricultural work because that would send another man to the front. His pacifism probably derived from the Quaker secondary school to which he had been sent. "They took away the prison clothes / and on the frosty nights I froze," he recalls in "Villon", and indeed it seems he was confined for weeks in a freezing darkened cell on starvation rations. Prisoners were allowed to send and receive one letter a month.
On his release, Bunting enrolled in the London School of Economics, but absconded mid-course, setting off on a trip to Denmark, Norway and Russia, which he never reached, getting himself arrested just short of the border and deported back to Newcastle. He spent most of his 20s kicking around literary circles in London and Paris, reviewing books and music for various papers in dismissive Poundian terms. In Paris he worked for a while as Ford Madox Ford's assistant on the Transatlantic Review, but soon found himself again in trouble with the authorities, this time for drunkenly assaulting a posse of gendarmes sent to arrest him for disturbing the peace. Pound was delighted to find his protege reading Villon while awaiting trial in the grande salle of the Paris courthouse; and Bunting later reflected that Villon himself might have sat awaiting sentence in the very same court. He returned shortly after his two-week sentence in a Paris prison to London, where, again à la Villon, he was occasionally so destitute he slept rough on the Embankment.
The varying winds blew Bunting hither and thither. He spent about five years with Pound in Rapallo in northern Italy, where he also got to know Yeats, who classified him as "one of Ezra's more savage disciples". In 1930, he married an American, Marian Culver. Although not as handsomely provided for as Pound's wife Dorothy Shakespear, whose annuity kept ol' Ez in typewriter ribbon and paper, remittances from her Wisconsin parents allowed Bunting to devote himself to his poetry, and to learning classical Persian. To cut down on expenses, they moved to the Canary Islands in 1933; life did prove cheaper, but Bunting disliked the landscape and people. There, he once played an "indifferent" game of chess with Franco. Even the arrival of two daughters (both given Persian names, Bourtai and Roudaba), failed to stimulate in him any desire to assume the role of breadwinner. Like Pound, he conceived of the poet as a hero whose only responsibility was to his art.
In 1936, the outbreak of the Spanish civil war drove the Buntings back to London, where Marian finally threw in the towel – despite being five months pregnant with a son Bunting would never meet (he died of polio at the age of 16). In a bitter postmortem account of their marriage, she wrote: "The idea of working for a living was so hateful to him that he screamed and raved if it was ever mentioned." Should Marian venture an opinion, she found herself "told to shut up and never open my mouth". Further, she alleges that Bunting was something of a Humbert Humbert, falling in love in Tenerife with a 12-year-old girl, on whom he lavished unwanted attentions.
Burton is quick to dismiss this vision of Bunting as a paedophile, and takes in his stride the fact that Bunting's second wife, Sima, whom he met in Persia, was 14 when they married, while he was 50. They do things differently in the east … A Bunting poem of 1964 is spoken by a Persian girl on her 14th birthday expressing surprise at the fact that she is still unwed.
The wind that eventually blew Bunting to Iran, where he was undoubtedly at his happiest, was the second world war, in which, renouncing his youthful pacifism, he was desperate to play a part. Indeed, it rescued him from aimlessness and poverty: accepted into the RAF, he was assigned to Balloon Command, and stationed in Hull and then Scotland, but on the strength of his Persian managed to get himself posted in 1942 to Iran, where an abortive barrage balloon mission was planned. He both had an excellent war and wrote some excellent war poetry – part three of "The Spoils" is as good as the best combat pieces of Keith Douglas or Anthony Hecht or Randall Jarrell. Competent and decisive, Bunting rose to the rank of wing commander, running Spitfire operations in Malta and Sicily.
The Bunting of his Persian years, which ended only with his expulsion by Mosaddegh in 1953, put me in mind of a certain breed of Englishman abroad best exemplified by Wilfred Thesiger. It's a great shame, as Burton frequently laments, that Bunting never wrote a prose book about his time there, first as a diplomat, then as a journalist for the Times – but fortunate that he wrote so many vivid and detailed letters to Dorothy Shakespear, Louis Zukofsky and others. Was he a spy? There's certainly a Graham Greene-ish element to his manoeuvring and politicking in the highest Iranian circles.
Of course, this biography has been written because in 1965 Bunting published "Briggflatts", considered one of the greatest poems of the century. Brigflatts (he added the extra g to his title to make it sound more archaic) is a tiny hamlet in Cumbria. For several years in his teens Bunting would spend a few weeks there each summer with the Greenbank family, falling in love with their daughter Peggy, to whom "Briggflatts" is dedicated. Her father, John, worked as a stonemason in the graveyard of the Brigflatts Quaker meeting house. Fifty years on, memories of these visits and of his adolescent passion jolted Bunting back to poetry; the opening section of "Briggflatts" brilliantly recasts Pound's epic mode to evoke these long-buried experiences. One of the delights of Burton's book is the chapter devoted to a close reading of the poem's effects and an exposition of its sources.
Almost as soon as it appeared, "Briggflatts" catapulted Bunting, who'd spent the prior decade working on the financial section of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, to quite astonishing fame: packed readings, tours of America, posts in US and Canadian universities, chairmanship of the Poetry Society and the Northern Arts council. English poetic modernism, at long last, had found a star to steer by.