Sunday, 27 April 2014

Norman Nicholson: the Whispering Poet by Kathleen Jones. Reviewed by Dennis Hamley

Kathleen Jones chooses the subjects of her literary biographies very carefully. She concentrates on writers whose circumstances threaten to hobble the full development of their talents. There's Christina Rossetti, whose whole life experience told her she would never be first. Then the women, all talented, Dorothy Wordsworth especially so, unlucky enough to be the wives, sisters or nearly-lovers of that dangerous trio of Lake poets, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. After them was Margaret Forster, quietest of novelists. Katherine Mansfield struggled with circumstance for the whole of her short life.  And now here is one who, at first sight, seems the most self-abnegatory of them all, the fourth Lake poet Norman Nicholson.

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It's remarkable that Nicholson's reputation as a major poet was so insecure for so long.  The fourth Lake poet? Well, though it is on the Cumbrian coast, Millom, a place of mines and industry, is hardly the Lake District. But Nicholson is always aware of its looming presence: for example, he writes of Scafell Pike, in ten thousand years when Millom is dust, as 'Still there' and still watching.

He endured near-contempt from the literary establishment during most of his lifetime. However, he felt the same about them and fiercely resented their attitude. Kathleen Jones mentions John Betjeman dismissing him as an 'untechniqued poet', one of the 'silly fools' who 'like to see themselves in the Daily Herald'. To Betjeman's credit, however, he later recommended him for the Queen's Gold Medal. By the time Nicholson died he was at last accepted as a poet of some stature.

He never left Millom, the town which saw its industry decline and die during his lifetime. He chronicles this decline in quiet but profound elegies but always there is the solidity of permanence counterpointing the evanescence of human endeavour - the drystone wall, Scafell Pike. He is the poet of place and of man's relationship to nature - just as much as was Wordsworth. Nicholson knew the tradition he was part of and was never afraid of Wordsworth's reputation. He recognised, quite rightly, how uneven Wordsworth's achievement was. It is not surprising that Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney were among his champions.

Nicholson was a chronicler of decline, yet a quiet, unassuming prophet of hope. His poetry celebrates even as it shows decay.  He was a poet of understatement with is both memorable and resonant. Kathleen Jones's title The Whispering Poet captures perfectly this quiet, subtle power which can creep into the mind and lodge there for ever.

Was he merely a regional poet?  Only in the sense that Hardy was. Like Hardy, his sense of place is specific but his themes are universal. The description 'eco-poet' sometimes given him has a certain truth but makes him sound almost a sort of propagandist. Far from it. There are few poets who illustrate Keats's principle of 'negative capability' so perfectly. But he didn't seek fame: he was not attracted to the metropolitan literary world and success in his lifetime was modest.  He wrote plays, mainly religious, as well as poetry, often for E Martin Browne's Pilgrim Players. Towards the end of his life he did talks for the BBC and even appeared on television, an event which showed the inhabitants of Millom that a celebrity had lived among them for so long and they never knew! It could be assumed that his life was, to paraphrase Thoreau, one of quiet desperation. But no: Millom was his microcosm of the world, he was content with it and sought no other inspiration.

Every biography by Kathleen Jones that I have read has been completely absorbing. Here, she shows her usual sympathy and extreme powers of empathy, which get inside the minds of her subjects and make us feel, as we close the book, that now we know these people not just as writers but as intimate friends. For long parts of his life Nicholson was not a well man: she understands his struggles with illness and the effects they had on his life and work. She analyses the influence of his close but sometimes inimical family. Her critical insights are balanced, sensitive, piercing and, one instinctively feels, utterly dependable. My knowledge of Nicholson before I read this book was sufficient to, say, write a more or less decent supervision essay which might pass muster in a seminar. I now feel, if not an expert, then certainly able to make proper critical judgements and place them in the context of a particular life - a state of mind in the reader to which all good biography aspires. 

And, of course, one of the great strengths of this book, as with all Kathleen Jones's biographies, is the lucidity and quiet elegance of the prose. Unassuming yet transmitting sharp insights and engaging our feelings with its eloquent simplicity, its qualities resemble the poetry of its subject.

A lovely book. I shall return to it often.

Norman Nicholson: the Whispering Poet is published by The Book Mill (ISBN 978 0 9574332 4 3). It is also available on Kindle.