In which he goes down the Rabbit Hole.
(This is the second of three posts about the forthcoming edition of Basil Bunting's Complete Poems.)
More than one of Anhaga’s blurb writers noticed the acknowledged ghost of Bunting and Briggflatts. For the Blurbs click here
So Briggflatts is a poem I think I know well, which often alludes to a period of history I’m supposed to know very well. But I’d struggle to annotate it. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to this new edition is that I want to see how an experienced editor deals with this problem. I’m glad it’s his problem, not mine.
This new ‘complete’ promises to be ‘scholarly’, which means it’s for people who want more than just the poems. At a promised 320 pages (the Amazon.co.uk page currently says 624 which is daunting if correct as number of pages escalates) ) it will add 80 +/- pages to the existing text. I admit that I am a devoted reader of footnotes, endnotes, prefaces, introductions, appendixes, bibliographies and other scholarly apparatus. Edna Longley’s editing of Edward Thomas raised endnotes to a work of art that at times were more interesting than the poems they claimed to elucidate. If there is a rabbit hole to go down, I will go in search of the odd, the arcane and the interesting for its own sake. However, I think it’s worth remembering that Peter Makin said Briggflatts was a poem that ‘should not need annotation but would tolerate it.’ I think he’s right.
The first danger of annotation is that it can perpetuate the myth that Bunting really was ‘complex and allusive’. Allusive perhaps. And Complex. But complex in the way the carpet pages of the illustrated Gospels he so often invoked are complex patterns, not complex in the way the Cantos are complex blocks of words incomprehensible without notes.
There’s an example of this problem in Peter Makin’s book, Bunting the Shaping of his verse. Quoting the lines from section three:
Banners purple and green flash from its walls
pennant of red, orange blotched on pale blue,
glimmer of ancient arms
to pen and protect mankind.
Makin wrote that Bunting remarked in a letter that these were ‘of course the aurora Borealis’. Makin claims that this was traditionally regarded as a fortification to pen in mankind. The image, according to Makin, is from Lucretius, referring by implication to Epicurus, and that leads to a discussion of the latter and to a conclusion, a page later: ‘Epicurus is both Alexander the courageous quester, and the gentle slow-worm’.
I have never read Epicurus and have only glanced at Lucretius in translation, having no Latin and less Greek and so this kind of annotation might as well be written in a foreign language. Should I now go and read both in order to understand something I’m reasonably sure I understand anyway? I admire Makin’s book, but some of his readings of individual poems are far harder to follow than the poems themselves. (See for example his reading of To Mina Loy, Ode 17 in the First book of Odes. P.298ff))
Annotations are based on assumptions that cluster around two centres in opposition to a third.
The first is the idea of the literary allusion with all its well-known problems. ‘Over there’, outside of the poem, independent of time and knower, is a body of knowledge which the poet explicitly gestures towards for effect. The facts can be linked to the poem and that linking will be an important contribution towards your understanding of the poem.
So yes Liam, off to the library with you, read Lucretius and study Epicurus and while you’re at it learn about Slowworms and marble and how to carve a tombstone. And find a good map to check the route followed by the boy and girl, who apparently didn't go anywhere near Stainmore.
The other cluster groups around the more recent idea of Intertextuality, though different people use the term in different ways. The words of the poem are nothing more than a linguistic portal: you enter through them into language and trace out possible lines of allusions that lead away behind it like the tendrils of a man of war jellyfish in an infinite number of possible directions. Or if you prefer a more visual metaphor, the poem is like a settlement on a map, seen from above, with all sorts of paths and roads leading away from it to link it to other settlements.
Choose your metaphor and then if you trace these connections, not pausing to consider whether they’re there or you’re creating them, or Bunting knew they were there, you will eventually end up a long way from the poem. You won’t know anything more about the poem, but the poem is really just a node where various linguistic strands mingle on the way through so it doesn’t really matter.
You can’t map the limits of a connotation. How do you annotate an allusion? How do you even decide, once you’ve gone past obvious names, what constitutes a ‘significant allusion’?
Even if you accept, and there’s no reason not to, that there is an set of facts out there about who Cuthbert or Aneurin [sic], or Eric Bloodaxe ‘were’, the ‘objective facts’ especially in the case of Bunting’s early medieval allusions, are never going to be straight forward.
‘Follow the clue patiently’ wrote our poet, ‘and you will understand nothing’.
Take an apparently simple case where I don’t need a footnote. I translated both Aneirin and Taliesn while studying medieval Welsh.
I hear Aneurin number the dead, his nipped voice.
Aneurin (Aneirin): Semi-legendary ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’ or ‘British’ poet who may have lived in the 6th Century. He is credited with the composition of (or some of) Y Goddodin, a poem or series of poems which commemorate a (possibly legendary, possibly historical) massacre in which, after a year’s feasting, a brave group of ‘Welsh’ or ‘British’ warriors rode out from Edinburgh (?) to fight the encroaching ‘English’ and only the poet, or three warriors, or one warrior, or one warrior and the poet, or three warriors and the poet, survived. The poem is made up of individual verses, often praising a named individual who died in the battle. Aneurin, or the poem attributed to him, certainly ‘number[s] the dead’.
How much of that knowledge is necessary to illuminate that line? Or how much is your reading of that line improved by that knowledge if you didn’t know who Aneirin was.
Is there a reason why Bunting spells Aneurin with a U? Should we add that Y Gododdin is famously difficult, if not actually impossible in some places, to translate? Editors from Williams to Jackson and on have been forced to admit that in places their reading of the words in the manuscript is highly educated guess work. Arguments over its authenticity, authorship and the historical reality of the battle have kept scholars happily busy for years. Or do we need to consider the role of the poet in 6th Century northern Britain, if we knew it, in order to contrast it with Bunting’s own experiences on his return to Northumbria after his final exit from Persia.
And why is Aneurin’s voice described as ‘nipped’. Perhaps nipped is more important than Aneirin.
Once you start, where do you stop? And how do you decide what is and isn’t important. The other question, which is the one I’d like to know the answer to, is how much did Bunting know about Aneirin?
Did he know Early Welsh? He taught himself Persian so it isn’t hard to believe. Or where did he get his translation from if he didn’t. The version I used as an undergraduate was not published until 1969 and its editor, Kenneth Jackson, pointed out that while there had been prior translations some were ‘absurd’ or ‘inadequate’ and the ‘epoch making edition of Sir Ifor Williams’ was published in Welsh.
What did Bunting know? There’s a throwaway comment about Welsh in an interview Bunting gave in October 1982: ‘Somebody wrote to us in Rapallo, I don’t remember who, calling our attention to Welsh, possibly. ..I took it up, and have since been so greatly interested in cynghaned and so forth, and what you could do with the Welsh Ideas’ (Paideuma 38, p.20). But it’s not hard to look up cynghaned and you don’t need to know any Welsh to understand the idea.
And to what extent would the answer to that question qualify the annotation or illuminate the poem? David Jones used Sir Edward Anywyl’s translations from 1909-1910 to provide the epigraph for each section of In Parenthesis (1937), and much has been made of this. But Jones hadn’t read Y Goddodin until after he’d finished his own book. (See the letter to Harman Grisewood (12th August 1957) qtd in Robichaud, Paul (2007): Making the Past Present: David Jones, The Middle ages and Modernism p. 58.)
Tangled in here are the associated questions of how much of what we know as ‘objective fact’ was available to the poet at the time of writing and how well the poet knew it, and if there are variations between ‘fact’ and its use in the poem are they significant. (There's another related one: How well does the person doing the annotations know the subject?)
Briggflatts is flatly declarative about Eric Bloodaxe’s career, but the history is nowhere near that straightforward. If you’re interested, watch Michael Wood’s ‘In Search of Eric Bloodaxe’ written and presented over a decade after Briggflatts was written, to see an historian sifting through the information about Eric’s career and what happened to him at the end of it. https://youtu.be/Mokjnea_enM
Peter Makin, in his discussion of Eric Bloodaxe, relies on a book published in 1977 that obviously wasn’t available to Bunting. Bunting knew Sir Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England, (see letter qtd in Makin p. 170) but Stenton makes it clear that whatever happened to Bloodaxe at the end is not clear from the sources. He died on Stainmore, but whether ‘in flight’ or in battle against enemies (unspecified) is not clear.
Would it matter if Bunting got it wrong? Or did he make some of it up for the glorious roll of: Bloodaxe, king of York/king of Dublin, king of Orkney at the end of part one which becomes, King of Orkney, king of Dublin, twice/ King of York in part two, with its ambiguous dangling ‘twice’. (He was twice King of York, whether or not twice King of Dublin, or even King of Dublin or King of Orkney is not certain).
Bunting did discuss his use of history and his knowledge of it in his letters though they often sound contradictory. If Burton’s biography is anything to go by, Bunting did love a good story. And the stories seem to have changed to entertain the audience, as they should do, when one is not on oath. Retrospective justifications and explanations by any writer are always suspicious.
The use of letters and recorded interviews to illuminate a poem walks the problematic line outlined by Wimsatt and Beardsley long before Bunting wrote Briggflatts. They might say this is all interesting, but once you import external evidence into a reading of the poem, the reading becomes ‘private’ and its public value diminishes.
I said there are two clusters of assumptions about annotations that are in opposition to the third. See next post for the third.