Saturday, 5 May 2018

Black Combe, Cumbria, in the Poetry of Branwell Bronte and Norman Nicholson

Coming across Norman Nicholson's Sea To The West (Faber 1981) at Hebden Bridge Library, I was reminded that it is just over a year since I was in the district to which most of the book's poems pay homage.  In late April 2017 I was with Ayelet Mckenzie, launching her collection Small Bear (Caterpillar Poetry 2017) at Barrow Library.


The day before the launch I was given a tour around the town and its vicinity, including a trip to Walney Island and a walk along the edges of the Walney Channel.


Splayed beyond the entrance of Barrow Museum, the Walney Chanel its self begins lethargically, a threadbare fray of patchy puddles blotching a shore of dark, wet sand and chunky pebbles.  The plateau stretches out into a desert of bumpy, rocky ridges; further across the bay there are modern vessels, pleasure boats, and a sense of calm somewhere between seaside jollity and some picture-postcard riverside.  The channel is defined by crossings and the remnants of crossings, from the thin bridge with its rickety railings, to the bridge which spans its northern edges, built in 1908 for the benefit of shipyard workers crossing to and from the yards and factories, now dotted by traffic and stretching almost incongruously against a backdrop of sand and water like the body of some huge amphibious predator. As you stroll along the pier, turn your head towards the slate-blue waters, and you notice a dark, damp, sloping sandscape of abandonment: the hulls of long-forgotten ships, wrecked boats, a bicycle slowly sinking into earth.
















Further on, you are met by the imposing mass of Black Combe, rising over the Duddon Estuary nearly two thousand feet and formed four hundred and sixty million years ago.  Like a glacial goddess of black ice, the Combe looms above the Irish sea, and is visible across the entire district, the views from its summit stretching from the Irish coast, to as far as Wales and Scotland.  Wordsworth wrote that, from the Combe, the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen that British ground commands, while his enthusiastic celebrant Branwell Bronte, who lived and worked as a tutor at nearby Broughton-in-Furness, was moved to write a sonnet in honour of the fell.

 The relationship between Branwell Bronte and the Combe has significance for me, as I have made a film about Branwell's Calder Valley Years, which were preceded by his ill-fated time at Broughton, cut short due to the early signs of an alcoholism which would lead him towards ruin. I can see why the formidable entity, almost Volcanic - Norman Nicholson called it the dynamited Combe - held such magnetism for the romantic Branwell. I want to look at both Branwell's poem, and the Black Combe poems of Norman Nicholson, to see how both poets were influenced, directly but differently, by this unforgettable natural landmark.


Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light, begins Branwell Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; before comparing the stoicism of the Combe to the vulnerability of humanity:

...he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.

Undoubtedly influenced by the Lakeland poets and Romantics, Branwell nonetheless injects a strain of pessimism into his sonnet, which, while awed by the huge and heath clad Combe, owes perhaps more to Keats' notion of Negative Capability than to Wordsworth's lyrical grandeur.  In fact, it reminds me of Houseman to a point, though rather than disappointed love it is perhaps the "unstable joy" of debauch that sees the poem's human subjects irredeemably defeated.  Branwell uses the phrase "pleasure's wiles" in another poem, and this repetition is revealing, perhaps illustrating the subconscious way in which he regarded his own descent into instability as  a snare that he was lured into by circumstance as much as a temptation to which he chose to yield.  Ultimately, it is the rock-solid invincibility of Black Combe, simultaneously omniscient and non-interventionist, that prevails , with menacing triumph, and seals the externally descriptive poem's status as an internalized, brooding prophecy against the black clouds of the Combe.


Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light
 Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; he smiles, his mighty form
Scarce bending in to peace; - more formed to fight
A thousand years of struggles with a storm
Than bask one hour, subdued by sunshine warm
To bright and breezeless rest; yet even his height
Towers not o'er this world's sympathies - he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.
Thus tempests find Blackcomb invincible,
While we are lost, who should know life so well!



 There is a sense in Branwell's poem of the Combe's presence as an anchored constant, not unlike his earliest poem to the Pole Star, contrasting with the vagaries of human experience, and the poet's own troubled life.  Unlike the Pole Star poem, Blackcombe (Branwell conflates the two words) expresses this fixity with unhappy irony.  It could almost, in its colouring of sable black, be a metaphor for the Haworth Parsonage, the childhood home to which Branwell increasingly found himself returning in the shade of adult misadventures, a place perhaps of reproach and repentance.  Perhaps more than this, it could be a foreboding image of the God-fearing faith of his Parson father, which the pleasure-seeking Branwell would abjure.  We know that this diversion from his father's path caused disturbance in his family. Branwell's own use of religion in his poems is so often blasphemous or Hellish.  Did Black Combe represent for him a sort of subconscious fear of Providence, a shadow of his formative beliefs, a kind of Hell?
Whatever its connotations, the Combe, for Branwell, was a constant in a life of change.  But Branwell was only in the area for a few months, and will have seen the Combe only through one winter and spring, so his analysis is inevitably borne of brief association.  For an in depth poetic study of this 460-million year old feature of the Cumbrian landscape, we need to turn to a more recent poet, who, unlike the itinerant Branwell, lived within sight of it for most of his life.


Born in Millom in January 1914, Norman Nicholson enjoyed a considerable reputation as a poet in his lifetime, and his work continues to gain acclaim both for its sensitive evocations of everyday working class life in his iron-mining town, and its sense of the natural and primeval - a poetry which delves deep into the long history of the earth and is rooted in the dunes of the Cumbrian coast.  Black Combe features prominently. Indeed, it is a key element in the natural heritage and folk history of his area.  In The Shadow of Black Combe, he explains how:

In wise, proverbial days they used to say
That everybody born
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will comeback there to die

and movingly delivers a sing-song like refrain, urging the spirits of the deceased:

Come
Back Arthur, come back Andy, come back Will.
Come home, 
While there's still time.

And all you who were shot in France,
Drowned in the Great Lakes,
All exiles and dole-day migrants,
Who swallowed influenza, took T.B. like snuff-
Get ready to come back. 

For Nicholson, who was of course born in the year the First World War broke out, the legacy of those shot in France, this epitaph casting them as murdered martyrs, victims, must have been a kind of primal permanence, not unlike the Combe its self, which - just like Branwell's Pole Star or Nicholson's Rock-pie of volcanic lava that is Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain - is a continual presence on the poet's horizon.  In the poem Black Combe White, he describes how:

From each rise in the road, each break in the hill's barrier,
Comes glimpse after glimpse of the nearing Combe, first white,
Then patchy, and then streaked white on black,
Darkening and sharpening every minute and every mile.
(Black Combe White)


and this image of the colouring of the Combe betrays a deeper understanding of its features, based on many years of observation. Its lower reaches heavy in Ordovician black, the Combe lightens near its peak to a heathy green or brownish tinge, depending on cloud cover or the angle of the light, like a polar bear whose fur glistens white only by means of reflecting the sun:

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.
(Cloud on Black Combe)



There is, in contrast to Branwell Bronte's powerful image of immovable solidity, a delicious sense of fluent movement in Nicholson's hymns to the hill, a feeling of the evolving cycles of time. I also feel there is an acknowledgement of the inter-connectedness of things - like a sweeping, symbiotic ballet,the elements, the atmosphere, the flora of Black Combe and its environs are woven in a misty tapestry of changing seasons. The poet once remarked in a radio interview:

The universe is not just a huge mechanical coffee‐grinder, ticking over and over without aim or purpose. It works to a pattern; it works to a plan. And part of the sheer enjoyment of being among mountains comes from our sometimes feeling swept up in the plan, where every end is a new beginning and every death a new birth.

With its strings and whiskers, its mist pulled to bits, its personified rain "clocking off" for the day, reminiscent of mill workers and his region's declining industrial life, Cloud on Black Combe is the work of a poet deeply connected with both his natural environment, and the human history surrounding him.  



 CLOUD ON BLACK COMBE

 The air clarifies.  Rain
Has clocked off for the day.

The wind scolds in from Sligo
Ripping the calico-grey from a pale sky.
Black Combe holds tight
To its tuft of cloud, but over the three-legged island
All the west is shining.

An hour goes by,
And now the starched collars of the eastern pikes
Streak up into a rinse of blue.  Every
Inand fell is glinting;
Black Combe alone lies still hides
Its bald, bleak forehead, balaclava'd out of sight.

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.

But where, in the west, a tide
Of moist and clear-as-a-vacuum air is piling
High on the corried slopes,a light
Fret and haar of hazy whiteness
Sweats off the cold rock; in a cloudless sky
A cloud emulsifies,
Junkets on sill and dyke.
Wool-end and wisp materialize
Like ectoplasm, are twined
And crocheted to an off-white,
Over-the-lughole hug-me-tight;
And over Black Combe's ram's-head, butting at the bright
Turfed and brackeny brine,
Gathers its own wool, tucks shadow out of shine.

What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again.















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