Saturday, 15 September 2012


“A poet’s hope: to be,
  like some valley cheese,
  local, but prized elsewhere”

Auden’s words (“Epistle to a Godson”) used by Norman Nicholson as an epigraph to Sea to the West (1981). 

On Friday I put on an adult education day course on Norman Nicholson’s poetry.   The group was full of enthusiasm for a poet whose work portrays so vividly the landscape and people of his native Cumberland.  Because we were reading a local poet dialect words, places and people came alive.  We knew exactly what he meant in “Raven” when he said “the lyle herdwicks fed in the wet pastures/For the grass was thicker there and orchids and burnet grew” (“The Raven”) or in “Wall” which begins “The wall walks the fell”.   You can see "Wall" and hear the poet reading it on the Poetry Archive website

Norman Nicholson (1914 – 1987) lived almost all of his life in Cumberland.  He was a protégé of T S Eliot (who published his work at Faber and Faber), his first collection (Five Rivers) won the Heinemann Prize, he shared the Cholmondely Prize with Seamus Heaney and Brian Jones, and he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the OBE.  He was one of my school set texts (in Six Modern Poets) where he rubbed literary shoulders with Ted Hughes, R S Thomas, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Jennings and D J Enright. 

“Is he due for a revival?” someone asked.  I hope so.  The British Library’s current and greatly acclaimed Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition includes three of his poems – “Hodbarrow flooded” and “Millom Ironworks” in the Post-Industrial Landscape section and “To the River Duddon” in the Rivers of Light section.  Ecopoetics or ecocriticism is taking a fresh look at texts from an environmental perspective.  Paul Farley and Michael Symmons-Roberts have championed the edgelands.  Nicholson wrote plenty of edgeland poems, such as “Millom Old Quarry”, “On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks” and “Bee Orchid at Hodbarrow”. 

Even his burial place is an edgeland sort of place.  He is buried in the new graveyard of St George’s Church, Millom.  Previously it had been the Station Field, where the railway shire horses were let out to graze on Sundays. 

The Station Field

Norman Nicholson 1914-1987

Loosed from their loose boxes, their breath mists
the early dawn, their iron hooves thud
the meadow turf as the great horses
race into their Sabbath freedom.

Here in the Station Field on flowery afternoons
they stand nose to tail, their feathered fetlocks
dusted with pollen.  Allotment men forage dung
from the field corner.  Here, in the new graveyard

that was once the Station Field, he lies
under the shadow of Black Coombe,
his bones to the east but his heart to the west,

and in the grass - dandelions, plantain,
cat’s ear, persistent pearlwort, as if
his words are breaking through the earth. 

© Mary Robinson 2011
(First published in Comet Spring/summer 2011)

The poet’s birth centenary will be in 2014.  There will be celebrations in Cumbria – I hope there will be celebrations elsewhere. for more about Norman Nicholson for Writing Britain at the British Libary

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