Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations

By Peter Robinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Basil Bunting’s Emigrant Ballads

I

Basil Bunting wearied of ‘Gin the Goodwife Stint’ and ‘The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer’. Victoria Forde reports a letter to Louis Zukofsky in which the poet compares his feelings about the latter to Yeats’s for ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’,1 while Peter Makin implies that it is for their overt political content that Bunting ‘eventually distanced himself from these poems’.2 A late ode in which the matter of sheep farming returns is frankly quietist:

Lambs and gimmers and wethers and ewes
what do you want with political views?
Keep the glass in your windows clear
where nothing whatever’s bitter but beer.3

Bunting’s ballads have been linked to ‘They say Etna’, partly perhaps because the longer poem contains the following lines:

Item, the Duke of Slumberwear can get more
by letting the shooting although there is nothing to shoot
but a dozen diseased grouse and a few thin leveret
than by cleaning the ditches to make the ground healthy for sheep.4

Makin observes of this poem that it ‘is a political statement that works by art. And art gives it not only force, but accuracy.’5 Bunting’s editor, though, describes this as ‘Pound-pastiche’.6 It is; even to the fake precision of ‘a dozen diseased grouse’, where insistent assonance and allitera

1 Victoria Forde, The Poetry of Basil Bunting (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1991), 88.

2 Peter Makin, Bunting: The Shaping of his Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 61.

3Basil Bunting, Uncollected Poems, ed. R. Caddel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 23.

4 Ibid. 4.

5 Makin, Bunting, 57.

6 Ibid. n.p. Bunting’s models for the poem may have been sections such as Canto XII and the ‘Hell Cantos’ XIV and XV (see Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 4th coll. edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), 53–7, 61–7.

-39-

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