1930: Redimiculum Matellarum
1950: Poems 1950
1965: The Spoils
1965: The First Book of Odes
1968: Collected Poems
1991: Uncollected Poems (edited by Richard Caddel)
2000: Complete Poems (edited by Richard Caddel)
2012: Bunting’s Persia (edited by Don Share)
‘The day being Whitsun’ and ‘Loud intolerant bells’ revisited
‘The day being Whitsun’ evokes a wet and dreary quotidian London:
The day being Whitsun we had pigeon for dinner;
but Richmond in the pitted river saw
mudmirrored mackintosh, a wet southwest
wiped and smeared dampness over Twickenham.
Pools on the bustop’s buttoned tarpaulin.
Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Clapham, the Oval. ‘Lo,
Westminster Palace where the asses jaw!
So far, so dismal. Bunting is in south London, and far from happy. (Peter Quartermain has pointed out that Whit Sunday in 1928 fell on 27 May, shortly after The Outlook folded.) We imagine his wet bus journey from Richmond in south west London to Westminster via the suburbs of Twickenham, Wimbledon and Wandsworth and up through Clapham, past the Surrey County Cricket Club ground at the Oval, over Vauxhall or Lambeth Bridge to the Houses of Parliament where politicians debate (‘asses jaw’). ‘Asses jaw’ also invokes a Biblical scene of course. In Judges Samson takes bloody revenge on the Philistines for the loss of his wife: “And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith. And Sampson said, With the jawbone of an ass have I slain a thousand men.” The suggestion is that although politicians are asses their talk can be lethal. We might think that he has in mind the First World War, a conflict he considered an unnecessary and unjustified construct of the European business and political elite, but the final stanza of the poem suggests that his gloom is deepened not by the political classes but by their victims:
Endless disappointed buckshee-hunt!
Suburb and city giftless garden and street,
and the sky alight of an evening stubborn
and mute by day and never rei novae
inter rudes artium homines.
never a spark of sedition
amongst the uneducated workmen.
The quotation from Livy is a little ugly, knowledge of letters being ‘a new thing for uncivilized men’, but it doesn’t spoil the surprising turn the poem takes. Perhaps his time teaching at the Adult School in Lemington had convinced him that a proletarian revolution was impossible in a society that accepted the insults and injuries the ruling classes inflicted upon it with cheerful stoicism.
‘Loud intolerant bells’, by contrast, attacks the Church as the chief agent of betrayal, a target that was highlighted by the title under which it appeared in 1930 in ‘Redimiculum Matallarum’, ‘While shepherds watched’. Its first stanza contains hints of the Georgian style from which Bunting was desperate to distance himself:
Loud intolerant bells (the shrinking nightflower closes
tenderly round its stars to baulk their hectoring)
orate to deaf hills where the olive stirs and dozes
in easeless age, dim to farce of man’s fashioning.
To my ears there is something a little too Rupert Brooke about these tender closings and olives dozing in easeless age, but the second stanza is a less sylvan call to action:
Shepherds away! They toll throngs to your solitude
and their inquisitive harangue will disembody
shames and delights, all private features of your mood,
flay out your latencies, sieve your hopes, fray your shoddy.
The Church then will rob you of your humanity, and the deft reference to the Inquisition suggests that it will do so by force. To retain our simple virtues and pleasures we must get away from the Church and the final stanza makes it clear that there is no point in trying to reach beyond the Church to get direct access to the mysteries it has politicized for itself and its blood brother, the ruling elite:
The distant gods enorbed in bright indifference
whom we confess creatures or abstracts of our spirit,
unadored, absorbed into the incoherence,
leave dessicated names: rabbits sucked by ferrets.
Even if they cared the pagan deities would be unable to help. They have been sucked dry by priests.
These short poems provide a useful opportunity to assess the development of the twenty-eight-year-old poet’s technique, for there is a great deal going on under their surfaces. They also help us to understand what Bunting meant by his insistence that sound in a poem carries ‘meaning’. In ‘Loud intolerant bells’ Bunting weaves a web of sound which gives the stanzas a unique musical quality, and the music of the language both expresses and creates some of the complex problems in the poem. The bells introduce music immediately and the repetition and echoes of particular sounds help to structure the poem. Of course, good poetry always uses music and metre to deliver and create meaning, but here Bunting focuses very deliberately on sound as an object, as well as a mechanism, and in particular ‘tolling’, a word that also intimates rhythm. Specifically ‘tolling’ suggests monotony and regular, restricted (‘fettered’) measure. The sound doesn’t ring out a melody but ‘tolls’ ominously.
The sound ‘toll’ occurs four times, and only in the first two stanzas: ‘intolerant’,
‘olive’, ‘toll … solitude’. But even these few cases are evocative. In both stanzas the initial ‘tolls’ disturb the peaceful connotations of the words in which they echo (‘intolerant … olive’; ‘toll … solitude’). The sound invades the peace of the language, occupying the phonetic space of the words ‘olive’ and ‘solitude’. This is emphasised at a literal level in the second stanza where the ‘inquisitive harangue’ of the tolling threatens to ‘disembody’ and ‘fray’ the shepherds’ privacy and ‘solitude’. The effect is condensed in the phrase ‘toll throngs to your solitude’, whereas in the first stanza the conflict between ‘intolerant’ and ‘olive’ is protracted over three lines. This compression amplifies and intensifies the effect, and amplification (noise) could be read as a negative and disruptive force in the poem. The very first word, ‘Loud’, threatens the other images in the first stanza: the ‘shrinking nightflower closes/ tenderly round its stars to baulk [the loud bells’] hectoring’.
The parenthesis emphasises discomfort syntactically in these two lines, the whole threatened image trying to defend itself within a protective shield, the parenthesis closing around the lines reflecting the nightflower closing around its stars. And at a more literal level the image is comparatively ‘tender’ and vulnerable, in contrast to the loud, obnoxious bells.
In the third and fourth lines the noise seems to lose some of its potency: the hills and olive are ‘deaf ’ to the bells’ ‘oratory’, and ‘dim to farce of man’s fashioning’, the artificial, regulated, fettered tolling of the bells. As the landscape changes space is opened up. The antiquity of nature (‘stars’, ‘hills’, ‘easeless age’) is contrasted with the parvenu ‘farce’ of man. However, the latent threat, which initially provokes the actively defensive image of ‘the shrinking nightflower’, hasn’t disappeared in this landscape, as the ‘toll’ from the word ‘intolerant’ echoes in the word ‘olive’. This epitomises the subtle and powerful tensions Bunting enacts within the poem’s soundscape.
The olive, a symbol of peace, is disturbed in its ‘easeless age’; it ‘stirs and dozes’ rather than sleeping peacefully. Without the word ‘easeless’ we might be tempted to read the two verbs in a peaceful isolation. However, the words ‘deaf ’, ‘stirs’, ‘dozes’, and ‘dim’ are separated by ‘easeless’ – an uncomfortable, uneasy presence in the stanza. I read ‘easeless’ as a word which interrupts and at the same time captures the entire movement of the stanza, positioned in the final line to remind us of the unsettling presence of the bells which pervades the first three lines. All the natural images seem vulnerable and threatened.
The poem has an extraordinary sonorous density. An ABAB rhyme sequence reflects the regularity of tolling, amplifying the pervasiveness of the bells. It is another structural restraint which contains the natural images that struggle for freedom: shepherds, stars, ‘abstracts … absorbed into the incoherence’. The regularity of a rhyme scheme like this might suggest the inflexible and restrictive conventions of pre-modernist poetry. In the first stanza the end rhyme traces the now familiar conflict between indifference and restriction. ‘Closes’ rhymes with ‘dozes’ to suggest a quiet resilience to the impotent bells, unable to wake or startle the ‘deaf hills’ and ‘olive’, and unable to permeate the nightflowers’ ‘tender’ protection of its ‘stars’, closed fells forget him off to the noise. But the images are also closed within the rhyme pattern.
‘Hectoring’ and ‘fashioning’ couple to evoke a sense of harassment and artificiality, antagonising the dozing and closing. There is a similar antagonistic effect in the second stanza where ‘solitude’ rhymes with ‘private features of your mood’, and ‘disembody’ with ‘fray your shoddy’. This alternating rhyme pattern both emphasises and enacts the tensions and conflicts.
The poem’s epigraph reaches into the final lines: Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave. This world we have ‘desiccated’ and subordinated with a Christian totalitarianism is a world that is dying within us, closing a silent grave around itself like the nightflower closing itself around its stars in the first lines. Christian symbolism has even appropriated the most natural spiritual images, such as the stars which primitive man used to navigate through the incoherence and beautiful enormity of the world, and shepherds, nomadic men who live freely within it in a close relationship with nature. The sound of Christianity (‘Loud intolerant bells’) saturates the poem. The epigraph comes from Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ so the presence of Christ is with us from the very beginning. The ‘fettered ghosts’ are those of a ‘damned crew’ that ‘Our Babe to show his Godhead true,/ Can in his swaddling bands control … ’. The conflicts Bunting approaches in this poem reflect the conflict between monotheism and paganism that is integral to the narrative Milton weaves in his. Milton’s poem is utterly engrossed in the music and sounds of God, His voice, Man’s voice, nature’s voice, and the resonant and spiritual relationships and clashes between them.
Bunting absolutely loathed this kind of analysis. His frequent quarrels with academia were, as Peter Lewis says, motivated by a desire to ‘protect poetry from … a type of analytical criticism that promised to offer up its “meaning” or “message” or “significance”. Bunting may have scorned it but this analysis of ‘Loud intolerant bells’ is an attempt to show how much craft underpins this poem. Every word works hard to pull together complementary and contradictory ‘meanings’, but every word too is a note in the overall music of the poem. The poet was mastering his craft during his twenties and if ‘Villon’ is the most impressive expression of that craft it should not blind us to his very precise technique.
JRB 10 November 2013