Review: Richard Burton,A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (Infinite Ideas. ISBN 9781908984180)
Basil Bunting has no secure footing on the sliding scree of literary reputation. He wrote fairly challenging modernist poetry, did so sporadically between long intervals, and achieved fame in his mid-sixties. He has been anthologized and enshrined in syllabi, but many more people must recognise his chiming, faintly absurd name than have any clue what he did. In this book, half a century after Bunting’s late renaissance, Oxford author and publisher Richard Burton gives the poet a much-needed push.
History hangs heavily around the early pages. Amid expository asides ranging from the relief of Ladysmith to the origins of Quakerism, Bunting the Northumbrian boy, born in 1900, is a shadowy figure darting from monument to monument in a curiously curated museum. Paucity of records for childhood and youth often pose a challenge for biographers, but here the problem is acute. Bunting despised biography and destroyed his personal papers; his life survives in a smattering of tall tales told in letters to friends. The digressive Burton creates a sometimes frustrating patchwork. But he makes a fair fist of it, aided by the engrossing, repellent charisma of Bunting.
The obscure boy first makes his personality felt through the heterodox voice of his juvenilia, culminating in a gung-ho tale of corpse-heaped battlefields—“a loud raspberry of farewell” (as Burton puts it) to the values of his Quaker school. Once school is behind, and Bunting begins to communicate with friends by letter, he springs vividly to life.