`At the Dying Atlantic’s Edge’: Norman Nicholson and the Cumbrian Coast

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An account of the geography of the Cumbrian coast as it appears in Norman Nicholson's poetry, and its relation to his messianic politics.
This essay is about Norman Nicholson, born 1914, died 1987. In his time he was widely regarded as, to quote the Times obituary, `the most gifted English Christian provincial poet of the century’ (`Introduction’, CP, p. xv), and was a noteworthy figure on T.S. Eliot’s poetry list at Faber, which set so much of the tune from 1945 onwards. Nicholson’s poetry suffered something of an eclipse in the seventies and after: the times were not on its side, and its concerns were apparently not theirs. But there are now at least some signs of a serious Nicholson revival. Nicholson came from west Cumberland, where he spent almost the whole of his life. He might be defined as in effect the only major west Cumbrian poet, and therefore, since R.S. Thomas was of course Welsh, perhaps the only major modern writer of the English Atlantic edge, particularly in that he was singularly committed to his liminal space, what the poem called `On Duddon Marsh’ calls `the line dividing.../Europe from the Atlantic’ (CP, p. 193), spending his whole life in the small, rundown, forgotten industrial town of Millom, at the very south-western coastal tip of his county. National mythology, literature, criticism and tourism have long coincided in presenting Cumbria (until 1974, Cumberland) as in effect an inland space or territory, `the Lake District’. This imaginary construction serves as both a national heartland, analogous to Surrey, `Garden of England’, and privileged repository of the national soul, cherished in its beauty by poets and solicitously tended by its wardens. But Nicholson is the poet par excellence of Cumbria’s Atlantic edge, in geographical and geological terms, the Cumbrian coastal plain. Both his books on Lakeland and his scattered poems on the Lake District show him defining his poetic identity in contradistinction to the Lake poets. Nicholson’s poetry, then, is scarcely a poetry of the Lake District as such at all. This is arguably most obviously the case with the first two volumes, `Five Rivers’ and `Rock Face’, and the late volume `Sea to the West’. But I would also claim that it determines the content of all the other volumes, with the possible exception of `A Local Habitation’, that the themes of the poet of the Atlantic edge continue, if sometimes also in rather different versions and guises, in the other volumes. The space of the Atlantic edge fairly comprehensively determines the character of Nicholson’s vision and the substance of what he has to say. This essay offers an account of several crucial features of this vision.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCoastal Works
Subtitle of host publicationCultures of the Atlantic Edge
EditorsNicholas Allen, Nick Groom, Jos Smith
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)978-0-19-879515-5
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2017

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