A Strong Song Tows Us: the Life of Basil Bunting by Richard Burton, book review

Captivating tale of the 'conchie' who became a cult poet

Basil Bunting was a liberal-minded adventurer who turned his back on the literary world out of love for what he called "a life more physical, less logical, less covetous, less distilled out of the past, than the chained life we lead". Density can make his poems difficult, yet reading aloud loosens the knots and the love lyrics are clarity itself.

Richard Burton's splendid biography may just release Bunting's work from cult status. The life is astonishing in any terms. Long and often rackety, both rooted and exotic, it was marked by contrasts that would have sunk a spirit less buoyantly devoted to independence. Bunting makes partisans of his admirers but Burton keeps a healthy distance, recounting his subject's lavish yarns with eyebrow raised.

He is good on everything from the Northumbrian origins and Quaker education, through the brutal treatment in Wormwood Scrubs as a "conchie" in 1918, then Bunting's walk-on part in Paris with Ford Madox Ford, Hemingway and the rest, to Rapallo with Ezra Pound, and many peregrinations before the return to Newcastle in the Fifties, and the late flowering. Bunting in his thirties lived off his wife and fathering children without heed for their security. Yeats called him "one of Ezra's more savage disciples"; a misleading tag.

The gulf between the scrimping chaos of Bunting's daily life and the height of his artistic standards was straddled by a patience that looked like drift. One of the few with faith was William Carlos Williams: "Bunting is living the life, I don't know how sufficiently to praise him for it. But it can't be very comfortable to exist that way." In 1939 his American wife – pregnant again – gave up and took the children home.

Against the odds, he reinvented himself as a soldier and spy. After varied service in Britain, the Western Desert, Sicily and Naples, he traded on a shaky knowledge of classical Persian to become a linchpin of Allied intelligence between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. An establishment career failed to materialise after the war and he was expelled from Iran by Mossadeq in 1952.

By the Sixties, even Bunting's faith in his vocation had worn out. Then, unforeseeably, the bohemian gamble paid off. At rock bottom, he composed an autobiographical poem that turned on the abandonment of his first love, a stonemason's daughter in a Pennine hamlet. Everything came together in Briggflatts: a universal story, a naturalist's eye for detail, a marriage of landscape and history, infused with blood-warm emotion. Bunting knew it was "the best thing I've done by miles". The best thing, some say, that anyone has done in living memory.

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