The Whispering Poet was the title of a 1972 BBC TV Look Stranger series documentary about Norman Nicholson. This fully explored his quiet, colloquial ‘Psst! – listen to me! I want to show you something!’ style of communication, about his rather solitary life in and around a decaying nondescript, unlovely post-industrial small town on the outer fringes of the county that was then Cumberland. It does not convey the broad scope and sheer quality of his very wide range of literary output, nor the paltry critical recognition it received, nor the many contradictions and complexities contained within his personal life and character.
‘The best Poet Laureate that Britain never had’ might perhaps have been a more appropriate title, but no single phrase, however pithy, can hope to subsume it all. That is the purpose of this far lengthier critical biography of Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson, English Poet (1914-1987).
A biographical subject’s life and a critical study of that subject’s literature or oeuvre calls for very different treatment. It is sometimes proclaimed that literature should be approached with disregard for its author’s personal life, but, in Nicholson’s case his life events and the particular places in which they took place without a doubt shaped his output or works.
For one example, of many possible, had he not contracted tuberculosis as a teenager, Nicholson’s life would almost certainly have taken a very different path, probably one leading far away from the town of his birth, and his literary works, if any, would probably have taken on a very different form and content, too. For another very salient example, had he not been deprived of his natural mother from the age of four, his whole emotional, social, and perceptual development would almost certainly have resulted in a the shaping from infancy onwards of a very different human being.
In a local radio interview, towards the end of his life, Nicholson explained that, unlike others with the opportunity to fall back upon an alternative means of earning a living, as a young but very disabled adult he had absolutely no choice but to persevere in his efforts to become a writer despite many years of initial rejections and rebuffs, which would have forced better placed or healthier individuals simply to give up trying.
Despite coming from a rather ordinary family background, Nicholson was extraordinarily gifted, intellectually. His habitat of Millom was the absolute antithesis of, say, Bloomsbury. Millom’s tough, grimy ore miners and ironworks hands must have regarded this strange person in their midst as a very peculiar interloper. Yet Nicholson craved to stay put in the town for nearly all of his seventy-three years of mortal life, to remain part of the community that was this rather strange small Cumbrian town. He loved to constantly to roam its rural hinterland, making both town and country and their respective flora and fauna the focus of both the centre of his interest and of his writings.
These are just a few of the topics I hope to address, and my overall aim is to recount and critically to evaluate a hitherto incompletely-recorded and critically-neglected literary life.
Perhaps with a nod to Wordsworth’s Prelude, Nicholson published a prose autobiography covering his formative years up to the age of around eighteen in 1975, which was published when he was sixty-one years of age, so it was both retrospective and selective, but nonetheless hugely accomplished and entertaining. But, tantalisingly, the account ends before the author’s literary career ever begins. There was to be no sequel either from Nicholson, who was essentially, despite his enthusiastic artistic and literary gregariousness, a very private man indeed. His lifetime’s collection of books and papers are preserved in academic literary archives, but he had made sure to cull them ruthlessly beforehand, and they represent only a fragment of their former volume and range, revealing little about Nicholson’s inner life, especially relating to the period before his marriage at the age of forty-one, in 1955.
Despite some accomplished verse drama during the 1940s and early ‘50s, Nicholson regarded himself primarily as a poet, but relied upon jobbing journalism and assorted prose writings for his main income. As a teenager, he had contracted serious and near-fatal tuberculosis which left him in very frail health thereafter, and denied him the opportunity of a university education and of a conventional job, such as in teaching or within an academic institution.
Intensive literary ‘networking’ was a striking and pervasive feature of the whole of Nicholson’s life, in spite of his underprivileged background and his self-chosen remote location within the town of Millom, in industrial S.W. Cumberland.
To attempt to explain the nature of this particular ‘networking’, one significant and immediately noticeable facet of his life was that Nicholson was always an active and enthusiastic member of a vibrant and close-knit nationwide web which interlinked the leading writers and artists of the day. T.S. Eliot was typically this web’s central figure, but other notable participants included E. Martin Browne, Kathleen Raine, Anne Ridler, Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Michael and Janet Roberts, Bro. George Every and very many more. Nicholson became a prolific letter writer in order to maintain contact with all his faraway friends, but it is sad for biographers that very little of this vast correspondence survived a deliberate and in many ways, callous, culling on the part of both Nicholson and of George Every.
In 1968/1969, a King’s College, Cambridge English graduate, Philip Gardner, undertook a PhD at Liverpool University, entitled The poetry and drama of Norman Nicholson, with reference to contemporary English provincial poetry and the Christian drama of the 1940s and 1950s. Gardner was allowed virtually complete access to the extensive papers then held by Nicholson himself and those of his lifelong friend and mentor, Bro. George Every and of his old friend and early literary champion, Mrs Bessie Schiff (nee Satterthwaite). The bulk of this correspondence is now destroyed / lost forever, so Gardner’s thesis remains the only extant primary source material, and has therefore of necessity been referred to extensively in connection with this critical biography.
Gardner went on to publish in the United States in 1973 a book based upon his Nicholson thesis which remained for the following forty years virtually the only published full-length critical study of Nicholson and his work. Gardner himself, from 1964, followed an academic career at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, becoming an Associate Professor and later full Professor in their English Literature faculty and a world-respected commentator and academic authority upon the work of E.M. Forster, as well as Philip Larkin and Edmund Blunden. This information is drawn from the dust cover notes of Gardner’s published Nicholson book, which also state that Dr Gardner was a personal friend of Norman Nicholson from as early as 1957.
Curiously though, the text of Gardner’s book on Nicholson was significantly abridged in order to cut out a significant episode in Nicholson’s early manhood, this being his close relationship with a vivacious and talented school teacher, Enrica Garnier, which had suddenly and unexpectedly ended just after the end of World War II. It is not entirely removed, in that an end note to the ‘Nicholson’s Life’ introductory section does mention a friendship ‘of strong private importance’ with Enrica Garnier, but the contrast here between the thesis and the book is nonetheless striking.
The issue of any tenuous and often controversial linkage between a poet’s life and works first emerges here. Nicholson as a poet of a particular specific regional or geographical place is a rather self-evident linkage. And the influences and impetuses arising from Nicholson’s personality, along with the manifold events that impacted upon his life, are almost equally self-evidently connected; for example, his early experiences and successes as a boy reciter in his home town of Millom, and the pervasive and profound effect upon his entire life of his contracting a serious and debilitating illness in the form of extensive tuberculosis. These matters will be discussed in further detail later in this book.
There are, too, distinct parallels with some of Nicholson’s contemporaries, particularly fellow regional poets such as Charles Causley (1917-2003), Jack Clemo; Basil Bunting, R.S. Thomas and even Hugh MacDiarmid. Almost identical are the similarities between Causley and Nicholson: both were of working class background, both were autodidacts, both were inextricably attached to the towns of their birth, and even their poetic styles were very similar. The distinguished American poet and critic, Dana Gioia has acutely observed (in discussing Causley, but the deep insight equally into a full understanding of Nicholson’s work is obvious too):
There is no better way to approach Causley’s poetry than through his life, because few modern poets have been so meaningfully rooted in one time and place. Charles Stanley Causley was born in 1917 in the Cornish market town of Launceston where, except for six years of military service, he has lived ever since…
Nicholson was most certainly one of these ‘few modern poets’.
And very few UK poets barely out of their 20’s have ever been elected to Fellowships of the Royal Society of Literature – the same honour was bestowed on Causley, when he was around forty-one years of age. But the young Nicholson’s debut as a published poet did result in that substantial honour, and very much more. This early Nicholson work positively exudes a vivid sense of place, deft originality of craftsmanship and overall glittering promise, as in, for example:
Brown clouds are blown against the bright fells
Like Celtic psalms from drowned western isles.
The slow rain falls like memory
And floods the becks and flows to the sea,
And there on the coast of Cumberland mingle
The fresh and the salt, the cinders and the shingle.
(Extract, from Five Rivers, 1944)
…The long cord of the water, the shepherd’s numerals
That run upstream, through the singing decades of dialect
He [i.e., Wordsworth] knew, beneath mutation of year and season,
Flood and drought, frost and fire and thunder,
The frothy blossom on the rowan and the reddening of the berries,
The silt, the sand, the slagbanks and the shingle,
And the wild catastrophes of the breaking mountains,
There stands the base and root of the living rock,
Thirty thousand feet of solid Cumberland.
(Closing lines of To the River Duddon, 1944)
The remarkable early promise was not fully sustained in later years, and this biography attempts to find a possible explanation. But, this is not an ‘authorised’ biography: all of Nicholson’s literary works are protected by copyright, which his literary executor and agents have steadfastly refused to lift for this writer. That has, in one sense, been an impediment, especially in permitting adequate critical commentary and evaluation of Nicholson’s exquisite craftsmanship, but it has also brought with it a valuable opportunity to tell the full story with unfettered freedom.
I have attempted here to tread a tightrope between footnote-infested academic rigour and general interest; between reference reading and leisure browsing; between dull dryness and reasonably colourful readability.
So, hoping fervently that I have succeeded just a little in striving to overcome these dilemmas, for better or for worse, here it all is…
 Merged with Westmorland and parts of other adjacent counties in 1974 into the new county of Cumbria.
With BBC Radio Cumbria (1970s).
 NICHOLSON, N. (1975) Wednesday, Early Closing, Faber & Faber, London. (Hereinafter referenced as ‘WEC’).
 Hereinafter referenced as ‘Gardner’s thesis.’
 GARDNER, P.G., (1973) Norman Nicholson (Twayne’s English Authors, 153), Twayne, New York – hereinafter referenced as ‘Gardner’s book’.
 Gardner’s book, end note 32, page 163.