That’s one of the last lines of Basil Bunting’s long poem ‘Briggflatts’, thought by many who have more right to their opinions on poetry than I do to be the best long English poem of the twentieth century. It’s also the title of a huge Biography of Bunting by Richard Burton. I started reading that a couple of months ago, and was annoyed when Burton failed to point out that Bunting — who was very attached to the north of England — had to move right down to Reading, at the other end of the country, for his secondary education. The failure made a few short passages of the biography incomprehensible, and I wrote to Burton to complain. (I had to write via his publisher, as of course those populist devices search engines thought I must be looking for the actor, then grudgingly allowed I might want the Victorian adventurer, and never even suggested I might mean Robert, the author of ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy.’ Richard Burton the biographer of Bunting was very difficult to find.)
I have now finished reading Burton’s monumental book, (I have had a lot of other reading, and writing, to do meanwhile) and now feel thoroughly ashamed of my nerdish nit-picking. Bunting disapproved of biographies of poets — ‘By their works shall ye know them’ — though to his credit it is from Burton himself we learn this. So a biographer of Bunting has to tread carefully, between a mere adventure story like a popular sensational biography of, say, Byron or Shelley, (and Bunting’s life was almost as adventurous) or the ultimate in real obsessive (though fascinating) analytic nerdishness of J. Livingston Lowes’s ‘The Road to Xanadu’, in which he relates, literally word-by-word, a Coleridge poem to events in the poet’s life. Burton has done a magnificent job, and its strongest feature is that it returns us again and again to the poetry itself. I think Bunting himself would have approved of Burton’s book, and Bunting’s approval was not lightly given.
So apologies, and congratulations, Richard Burton.
Here are two pictures of the great poet: