A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting by Richard Burton - review by Matthew Sperling

Matthew Sperling

Last of the Modernists

A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting


Infinite Ideas 618pp £30

No other poet in English sounds like Basil Bunting. In his first published poem, ‘Villon’, written under the guidance of Ezra Pound in 1925, he had already worked out a brusque music of his own, with an ear for rhyme unusual in modernist poets:

Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that death is written over all.

And in his last published poem – headed Perche no spero, ‘Because I do not hope’, with one eye on Cavalcanti via T S Eliot, and dated 1980, when he was as old as the century – his endlessly supple ear for rhythmic variations and cross-patternings is as sharp as ever:

Now we’ve no hope of going back,
cutter, to that grey quay
where we moored twice and twice unwillingly
cast off our cables to put out at the slack
when the sea’s laugh was choked to a mutter
and the leach lifted hesitantly with a stutter
and sulky clack,
how desolate the swatchways look,
cutter …

Unusually among his modernist peers, who were variously tied up in doctrines of poetic impersonality and world-historical subject matter, Bunting is able to write from deep emotion, here looking back in old age on two failed marriages.

Richard Burton’s biography, A Strong Song Tows Us, is the first attempt to write a full-length life of the poet that takes account of all the available evidence. It was a life that seems almost implausibly replete. Bunting listed his early influences in a letter – ‘Jails and the sea,

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