Basil Bunting
Black and white photograph of Basil Bunting, poet, in sitting position.
BornBasil Cheesman Bunting
(1900-03-01)1 March 1900
Scotswood-on-Tyne, Northumberland, England
Died17 April 1985(1985-04-17) (aged 85)
Hexham, Northumberland, England
Resting placeQuaker graveyard at Brigflatts, Sedbergh, Cumbria, England[1]
OccupationPoet, military intelligence analyst, diplomat, journalist
Alma materLondon School of Economics (did not graduate)
Literary movementModernism
Notable works"Briggflatts" (1966)
  • Marian Gray Culver
    (m. 1930⁠–⁠1940)
  • Sima Alladadian
    (m. 1948⁠–⁠1979)

Basil Cheesman Bunting (1 March 1900 – 17 April 1985)[2] was a British modernist poet whose reputation was established with the publication of Briggflatts in 1966, generally regarded as one of the major achievements of the modernist tradition in English.[3] He had a lifelong interest in music that led him to emphasise the sonic qualities of poetry, particularly the importance of reading poetry aloud: he was an accomplished reader of his own work.[4]

Life and career

Born into a Quaker family in Scotswood-on-Tyne, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, he studied at two Quaker schools: from 1912 to 1916 at Ackworth School in the West Riding of Yorkshire and from 1916 to 1918 at Leighton Park School in Berkshire.[5] His Quaker education strongly influenced his pacifist opposition to the First World War, and in 1918 he was arrested as a conscientious objector having been refused recognition by the tribunals and refusing to comply with a notice of call-up. Handed over to the military, he was court-martialled for refusing to obey orders, and served a sentence of more than a year in Wormwood Scrubs and Winchester prisons.[6] Bunting's friend Louis Zukofsky described him as a "conservative/anti-fascist/imperialist",[7] though Bunting himself listed the major influences on his artistic and personal outlook somewhat differently as "Jails and the sea, Quaker mysticism and socialist politics, a lasting unlucky passion, the slums of Lambeth and Hoxton ..."[8]

These events were to have an important role in his first major poem, "Villon" (1925). "Villon" was one of a rather rare set of complex structured poems that Bunting labelled "sonatas", thus underlining the sonic qualities of his verse and recalling his love of music. Other "sonatas" include "Attis: or, Something Missing", "Aus Dem Zweiten Reich", "The Well of Lycopolis", "The Spoils" and, finally, "Briggflatts". After his release from prison in 1919, traumatised by the time spent there, Bunting went to London, where he enrolled in the London School of Economics, and had his first contacts with journalists, social activists and Bohemia. Bunting was introduced to the works of Ezra Pound by Nina Hamnett who lent him a copy of Homage to Sextus Propertius.[9] The glamour of the cosmopolitan modernist examples of Nina Hamnett and Mina Loy seems to have influenced Bunting in his later move from London to Paris.

After travelling in Northern Europe, Bunting left the London School of Economics without a degree and went to France. There, in 1923, he became friendly with Ezra Pound, who years later would dedicate his Guide to Kulchur (1938) to both Bunting and Louis Zukofsky, "strugglers in the desert". Between February and October 1927, Bunting wrote articles and reviews for The Outlook, and then became its music critic until the magazine ceased publication in 1928.[10] Bunting's poetry began to show the influence of the friendship with Pound, whom he visited in Rapallo, Italy, and later settled there with his family from 1931 to 1933. He was published in the Objectivist issue of Poetry magazine, in the Objectivist Anthology, and in Pound's Active Anthology.[citation needed]

In the 1930s, Bunting became interested in medieval Persian literature, studied the language to some degree, and began publishing adaptations of Persian poems by Ferdowsi, Manuchehri, Sa’di, Hafez, and Obayd Zakani; their use of sound patterning seems to have influenced his own.[11] During the Second World War, Bunting served in British Military Intelligence in Persia. After the war, in 1948, he left government service to become the correspondent for The Times. in Iran. He married a Kurdish woman, Sima Alladadian, who was thirty years his junior. Because of his marriage to the underage girl, Bunting was fired from the British embassy.[clarification needed][12]

Back in Newcastle, he worked as a journalist on the Evening Chronicle until his rediscovery during the 1960s by young poets, notably Tom Pickard and Jonathan Williams, who were interested in working in the modernist tradition. In 1966, he published his major long poem, Briggflatts, named after the village in Cumbria where he is now buried in the Quaker graveyard.[13][14]

In later life he published Advice to Young Poets, beginning "I SUGGEST / 1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound."[4]

Bunting died in 1985 in Hexham, Northumberland.[2]

The Basil Bunting Poetry Award and Young Person's Prize, administered by Newcastle University, are open internationally to any poet writing in English.[15][16]


Main article: Briggflatts

Divided into five parts and noted for its intricate use of sound and resonances with medieval literature,[17] Briggflatts is an autobiographical long poem, looking back on teenage love and on Bunting's involvement in the high modernist period. In addition, Briggflatts can be read as a meditation on the limits of life and a celebration of Northumbrian culture and dialect, as symbolised by events and figures like the doomed Viking King Eric Bloodaxe. The critic Cyril Connolly was among the first to recognise the poem's value, describing it as "the finest long poem to have been published in England since T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets".

Portrait bust of Basil Bunting

Basil Bunting sat in Northumberland for sculptor Alan Thornhill, with a resulting terracotta[18] (for bronze) in existence. The correspondence file relating to the Bunting portrait bust is held as part of the Thornhill Papers (2006:56) in the archive[19] of the Henry Moore Foundation's Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and the terracotta remains in the collection of the artist. The 1973 portrait is displayed in the Burton (2014) biography of Bunting.[20]

In popular culture

Mark Knopfler wrote a song, titled 'Basil', about his time as a Saturday afternoon copy boy on the Newcastle Evening Chronicle when Bunting worked there. The song was recorded for Knopfler's 2015 album Tracker.




  1. ^ Poets' Graves. "Basil Bunting 1900–1985". Retrieved 23 October 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Basic Bunting – A Basic Chronology". Basil Bunting Poetry Center. Durham University. 26 May 2009. Retrieved 21 May 2010.
  3. ^ Bloodaxe Books. Archived 9 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b Schmidt, Michael, Lives of the Poets, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.
  5. ^ Pursglove, Glyn (21 March 2002). "Basil Bunting". The Literary Encyclopedia. Retrieved 7 May 2006.
  6. ^ Myers, Alan (2004). "Basil Bunting (1900–1985)". Myers Literary Guide to North-East England. Centre for Northern Studies. Archived from the original on 5 March 2006. Retrieved 7 May 2006.
  7. ^ James J. Wilhelmm, Ezra Pound: the tragic years, 1925–1972, Penn State Press, 1994, p. 128.
  8. ^ Bill Griffiths (1998). Chicago Review. 44. ((cite journal)): Missing or empty |title= (help)
  9. ^ Peter Makin, "Bunting: the Shaping of his Verse" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
  10. ^ Burton, Richard (2013). A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, Britain's Greatest Modernist Poet. Infinite Ideas. p. 133. ISBN 978-1-909-65248-4.
  11. ^ Simon Patton and Omid Azadibougar, 'Basil Bunting’s Versions of Manuchehri Damghani', Translation and Literature, 25 (2016), 339–62 (esp. pp. 341, 361-62); doi:10.3366/tal.2016.0262.
  12. ^ Loloi, Parvin (2009). "BUNTING, Basil Cheesman". Iranica Online.
  13. ^ Birch, Dana (2009). Oxford Companion to English Literature (7th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780192806871.001.0001. ISBN 9780191735066.
  14. ^ "Basil Bunting". Poets' Graves. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
  15. ^ The Basil Bunting Poetry Award, NCLA Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University
  16. ^ The Basil Bunting Poetry Award, Changes Ahead by John Halliday 29 November 2013 Archived 23 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Helen Price, 'Human and NonHuman in Anglo-Saxon and British Postwar Poetry: Reshaping Literary Ecology' (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Leeds, 2013), pp. 179-94.
  18. ^ Portrait head of Basil Bunting in clay for bronze Archived 19 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine, image of sculpture by Alan Thornhill, who travelled to Northumberland for Bunting's sitting.
  19. ^ HMI Archive. Archived 12 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting (2014), Infidea, ISBN 978 1 908984 25 8.
  21. ^ "Two Poems". Unicorn Press. Santa Barbara, Calif. 1967. Retrieved 18 December 2022.

Further reading