The Whispering Poet

The poet, Norman Nicholson, was diagnosed as an adolescent with TB and was dispatched from his Cumbrian home to a sanatorium in the south of England where a regime of very fresh air in a hut three sides open to the air, feeding and rest included the instruction not to speak over a whisper! Though affording him ample space to read, it interrupted the trajectory of his education, thwarting any prospect of university, and drawing him back to Millom, where, until their deaths, he lived with his father and stepmother, the latter overlapping somewhat uneasily, with his wife. 

It was a confining that he captured in his signature poem, 'The Pot Geranium' (see below). A man, often ill, apparently confined to a small room, located in an industrial, soon to be a post-industrial town, that was his lifelong home; and, yet in seeing deeply into it, witnessing to its patterns and times, he is connected to every place and time. 

Yet the particularities of a place and your witnessing to it can leave you marginalized, perceived as 'provincial', disconnected from the flow of life that is metropolitan, connected and happening. Nicholson often perceived, often rightly, sometimes not, that his true measure as a poet went undervalued for being rooted in a place as unfashionable (and remote from London) as the Cumbrian coast whose most famous sight would now be the nuclear site at Sellafield (on which Nicholson wrote an edgy environmentally conscious poem after it suffered a major accident in 1957)! Strange indeed to discover the extent of this accident (5 out of a scale of 7) when reading the life of a poet!

This displacement of attention is undoubtedly to be regretted for multiple reasons as Kathleen Jones shows in her admirable biographical study, 'Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet'.  

First, because he was such a fine observer of place - of the geology and landscape that birthed Millom's industrial life and of the forces that peaking drained it of that life. His is a poetry of places unfamiliar in the Cumbrian landscape in view of, but distant from, the nature made manifest by Wordsworth.

Second, because that life witnessed to the precarious balances between human livelihood (and extraction) and the natural life that enfolded it. In short, because Nicholson was an environmental poet (and writer) presciently and penetratingly ahead of his time.

Third, because he was a quiet 'metaphysical' poet with a deep, thoughtful Christian commitment that explicitly gave us some of the most beautiful Christian poems of the twentieth century in English and, though this became more muted, remained implicit in the later verse resonating onward. Often this involved reimagining the Christian story unfolding in Cumbrian places, making them live in the landscape, actually loved and known.

Fourth, because he reminds us that the language of poetry though amplified in learning is the inheritance of every place, person if they sink into attending to the rhythms of the world and hear it sing. As the poet, Gwyneth Lewis once remarked to me, the rhythm of poetry is that of truth and truth is what civilization emerges from not what it manufactures. It can take shape and 'civilize' anywhere! Poetry is our birthright and essential and we reach for it at the moments when above all we need the confirmation of meaning.

Meanwhile, like the tortoise and the hare, I imagine Nicholson as the former, steadily, unflashingly moving along, enduring the vicissitudes of reputation, before winning a rightful place in the poets that matter.

A happy side attraction of this, as any biography, is to find oneself at one remove from one or more of its protagonists. Here I discovered, for the first time, that my friend the poet, Kathleen Raine, had at one time been close to Nicholson and he had most possibly fallen in love with her, a love probably not reciprocated; and, that his work had been advanced, and critiqued, by another friend, Ann Ridler. It is like stumbling into a vicarious kinship!

By Norman Nicholson

Green slated gables clasp the stem of the hill
In the lemony autumn sun; an acid wind
Dissolves the leaf stalks of back garden trees,
And chimneys with their fires unlit
Seem yet to puff a yellow smoke of poplars.
Freestone is brown as bark, and the model bakery
That once was a Primitive Methodist Chapel
Lifts its cornice against the sky.
And now, like a flight of racing pigeons
Slipped from their basket in the station yard,
A box kite rides the air, a square of calico,
Crimson as the cornets of the Royal Temperance Band
When they brass up the wind in marching.  The kite
Strains and struggles on its leash, and unseen boys,
In chicken run or allotment or by the side
Of the old quarry full to the gullet with water,
Pay out on their string a rag of dream,
High as the Jubilee flagpole.

          I turn from the window
(Letting the bobbins of autumn wind up the swallows)
And lie on my bed. The ceiling
Slopes over like a tent, and white walls
Wrap themselves round me, leaving only
A flap for the light to blow through.  Thighs and spine
Are clamped to the mattress and looping springs
Twine round my chest and hold me.  I feel the air
Move on my face like spiders, see the light
Slide across the plaster; but wind and sun
Are mine no longer, nor have I kite to claim them,
Or string to fish the clouds.  But there on a shelf
In the warm corner of my dormer window
A pot geranium flies its bright balloon,
Nor can the festering hot-house of the tropics
Breed a tenser crimson; for this crock of soil,
Six inch deep by four across,
Contains the pattern, the prod and pulse of life,
Complete as the Nile or the Niger.

           And what need therefore
To stretch for the straining kite? – for kite and flower
Bloom in my room for ever; the light that lifts them
Shines in my own eyes, and my body’s warmth
Hatches their red in my veins.  It is the Gulf Stream
That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit; it is the Trade Wind
That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.
My ways are circumscribed, confined as a limpet
To one small radius of rock; yet
I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry
The great white sun in the dirt of my finger nails.

From: Norman Nicholson Selected Poems 1940-1982. London: Faber & Faber
Copyright The Hunt Family


  1. Wonderful as in full of wonder and awaking wonder. An earthy and Earthy mix of transcendence and immanence.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Red Shambala

The Buddha meets Christ in embrace

Mystics of the Imagination