Basil Bunting

Poem: Villon
Poet: Basil Bunting
Link: Villon

“Vision is lies,” Basil Bunting says near the start of “Villon,” and indeed it is, for one in conditions such as these:

To the right was darkness and to the left hardness
below hardness darkness above
at the feet darkness at the head partial hardness
with equal intervals without
to the left moaning and beyond a scurry.

Bunting (or is it Villon?) is in a dark cell, imprisoned for refusing compulsory military service. The poem is his prison-ballad, on the model of, and with frequent reference to, the 15th century French poet-criminal François Villon’s own famous prison-ballad, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” Bunting captures extremely well the disorientation of his experience, in several ways.

To begin at the beginning, then, here is the first stanza:

He whom we anatomized
‘whose words we gathered as pleasant flowers
and thought on his wit and how neatly he described things’
to us, hatching marrow,
broody all night over the bones of a deadman.

The use of pronouns here immediately creates ambiguity. Who is “He”? Well, Villon, obviously. (The quote that takes up the second and third lines is from the preface to a 16th century edition of Villon’s poems.) But what is Villon doing? Well, he “speaks,” despite having been “anatomized”—despite being dead. And further still, he is “broody all night over the bones of a deadman.” In a sense, however, it is precisely Bunting who, in his cell, is brooding over Villon. Bunting is alive and speaking. Villon is dead. And yet the stanza makes perfect sense. There is a sense in which Bunting, in his cell, is dead (though alive), and in recalling Villon is nurtured back to some kind of life (think here on the double meaning of “broody”).

The result of this is a partial indistinguishability of the two poets. Bunting tells he us that he is dead and Villon alive, and that Villon nurtures him. Yet we know that Bunting is literally alive, and Villon literally dead, and that it is Bunting who is “hatching marrow” from Villon’s bones. Perhaps this explains the other curious pronoun in this stanza: “us,” not “me.”

The disorientation also stretches to the poem’s style. The first section shifts, abruptly, from wholly non-metrical (≠ non-rhythmical) free verse to an almost jaunty song in iambic quatrains, a song that goes on for nine stanzas:

Remember, imbeciles and wits,
sots and ascetics, fair and foul,
young girls with little tender tits,
that DEATH is written over all.

And so on. But even here, Bunting never lets it get too jaunty. The rhyme scheme constantly varies: the above is ABAB (with B as an off-rhyme), the next is ABAB (with A as an off-rhyme), and after that is ABAC. And then there is the fourth stanza of the song, with perfect ABAB lines, which Bunting counteracts by making the lines rhythmically lumpy (though they scan just fine):

Three score and ten years after sight
of this pay me your pulse and breath
value received. And who dare cite,
as we forgive our debtors, Death?

Bunting also varies line lengths. Most are in iambic tetrameter, but there are a few wild cards: “is Death’s collateral” and “die, die in pain,” for instance. And, lastly, the penultimate stanza of the song is not a quatrain at all, but only three lines (rhymed ABA) that bleed directly into the final stanza.

It is, all told, a strange song. Is it full of life, or just demented? Perhaps both. That is appropriate for the song that a prisoner sings himself in the dark.

The poem’s second section makes the opposite shift, in a manner even more disorienting. After ten non-metrical lines, it again slips back into rhymed iambic tetrameter (couplets now), again with just enough off-rhymes and non-rhymes and other deviations to keep from pure jaunt. And then it goes off somewhere wholly other, an almost ecstatic ode to the collectors of individual data (“O anthropometrics!” and later, “O Bertillon!”), culminating in these haunting lines:

Homer? Adest. Dante? Adest.
Adsunt omnes, omnes et
Blacked by the sun, washed by the rain,
hither and thither scurrying as the wind varies.

The poets are all present, all accounted for, in Bunting’s cell.

All the while, Bunting has kept up the ambiguity between himself and Villon. The aforementioned quatrains that end part one of the poem mix characters from Villon’s ballad (e.g. Helen, as well as Abelard and Eloise), as if Bunting were rewriting that poem, with characters from Bunting’s own experience (e.g. the dancers Genée and Lopokova). And this merging of Bunting with Villon is made more or less explicit in the quasi-refrain of part two: “Whereinall we differ not.”

The poem ends in open air, but not exactly in freedom. The opening lines of this part are deliberately enjambed at grammatically awkward points, as if Bunting is stumbling as he walks:

Under the olive trees
walking alone
on the green terraces
very seldom
over the sea seldom
where it ravelled and spun
blue tapestries white and green
gravecloths of men…

He is free of the prison’s bars, but not of its hold. And this is captured in the poem’s miserable, perfect final lines:

How can I sing with my love in my bosom?
Unclean, immature and unseasonable salmon.