Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet by Kathleen Jones. The Book Mill. £13
Norman Nicholson was the whispering poet. His voice was quiet. His life was retired, reserved and removed. And yet his whispered words from the small isolated town of Millom have been heard more loudly through the wider world than any other Cumbrian poet since Wordsworth.
Born in 1914, in the small house-cum-draper’s shop at 14, St George’s Terrace, where he would live all his life, Norman was a sickly baby. “I was lagged,” he says, “in layers of clothing like a water pipe protected from frost.” He was the only child of parents already bereaved. When he was four, his mother died. He lived with his grandmother, a woman made hard by a life during which she had already buried five of her fourteen sons.
His father, Joe, remarried, and Norman returned to live in “a tiny, airless box of a room” in the attic, with a dormer window and a distant view of the fells across the rooftops of Millom. Rose, his new mother, “brought something very special into Norman’s life: the poetry and rhythms of the Methodist chapel”. She gave him a voice and he found, as a twelve-year-old boy, reciting poetry to an audience, “the lovely dangerous, electric power of verse to excite and communicate”.
At sixteen, he spent two years isolated, exposed to the fresh air, lying still in a sanatorium waiting to recover from tuberculosis, afraid to use his voice, forced to speak in a whisper. He read voraciously. And, “very attractive, tall with soft, dark wavy hair and an animated face”, he fell in love, with a fellow patient, Sylvia Lubelsky.
His father’s money failing, he returned home, a chronic invalid, to watch the days pass from his attic window. He wrote poetry and plays and novels. A priest, George Every, sent some poems to T.S.Eliot. Eliot, whom Norman thought the greatest poet of the age, wrote, “I do think there is very likely something here.” This was praise and encouragement enough and Eliot remained a supporter and sponsor of Norman throughout his life.
Michael Roberts in Penrith, Helen Sutherland on Ullswater and the entrancingly beautiful Kathleen Raine in Martindale nurtured his talents. His first book, Five Rivers, was published and acclaimed, and, while still in his twenties, he’d become an established writer of national significance.
After ten years, avoiding commitment, he ended an engagement to the sympathetic Enrica Garnier. When, aged forty-two, he did get married to Yvonne Gardner, a local drama teacher, he allowed circumstances to determine that he remained in his attic bedroom. His wife and stepmother slept downstairs.
Other books followed: poetry, verse-plays, criticism, novels, and books about the landscape he loved but was prevented from knowing. He saw the world of Millom, its scarred landscape, the declining ironworks and the hardship of work and despondency of unemployment, and he also saw the wasting land and the “toadstools” of Windscale.
He wrote of the “Provincial Pleasures” of Millom and found the depth of poetic experience in his own small field. From his dormer window, he felt there was an affinity with that wider world. As Kathleen Jones says, “Norman was ‘fervently green’ before that word was coined”. His was always a poetry of man with nature.
Norman Nicholson was proud to be a Cumbrian and his work is rooted in our landscape. His voice may fade to a whisper, but it will always be clear, individual and distinct, “rhythmical, colloquial, glittering with oral devices”. It will continue to have something to say to us.
That very special voice is strengthened and confirmed by this careful, thorough, well-written and very welcome biography.
The Whispering Poet is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.
Kathleen Jones will be talking about her new biography at a special evening at Bookcase on Wednesday, 8th January, 2014, to celebrate the centenary of Norman Nicholson’s birth.