The Chillingham Bull stares at you from the banner at the top of the page. This is perhaps the most famous of the images produced by the great 18th Century Northumbrian Engraver, Thomas Bewick, who grew up in the village of Eltringham, some ten miles west of Newcastle (although you won’t find Eltringham on most maps, it comprises the very south-west of Prudhoe and the east of Mickley, on the south bank of the River Tyne). Bewick was a great lover and observer of nature, making detailed engravings of just about every single bird and mammal that could be found in the British Isles. This grand project took him far and wide, and, for his most famous engraving, to the far north of his own county, to the grounds of Chillingham Castle, around which ranged the famous Chillingham bulls, a herd of pure breed untamed cattle (who are still there). The historian Simon Schama, with customary hyperbole, has called the image ‘the great, perhaps the greatest, icon of British natural history, and one loaded with moral, national, and historical sentiment as well as purely zoological fascination.’
Having read all of this, amongst much else of interest in Jenny Uglow’s biography of Bewick, Nature’s Engraver, and having visited Bewick’s old house, Cherryburn, now owned by the National Trust, I was keen, next time I was in that neck of the woods to go and have a look at the cattle in the flesh. A couple of weeks ago, when my wife’s friend was visiting us from South Korea, we made a trip up to North Northumberland, and I mooted the idea of stopping by Chillingham.
‘To see some cows?’ my wife asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Just to see some cows?’ she asked.
‘Maybe not,’ I said, trying to remember how Simon Schama would have described them.
So we dropped the cows, so to speak. But all these thoughts of Northumbrians and bulls got me thinking about another work of art – another great work of art – by a Northumbrian, a long poem whose opening lines this website is named after: Briggflatts, by Basil Bunting. Bunting grew up in Denton and Throckley, on the western outskirts of Newcastle, and after several years abroad – including a long stay in Italy whilst an associate of Ezra Pound and a time working for the British Secret Service in Iran, returned to Tyneside. Here is the opening stanza of the first part:
Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawthey’s madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells’ late spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bull’s hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworm’s way.
From Briggflatts, Basil Bunting, Bloodaxe Books
What of Bunting’s bull, then? Does it bear any relation to Bewick’s, or at least to Schama’s interpretation of Bewick’s – ‘loaded with moral, national, and historical sentiment as well as purely zoological fascination’? I wouldn’t say so, no, although like Bewick, Bunting has a great feeling for nature, for the beauty of even the apparently mundane. The bull is one element in the beauty of this pastoral scene, and of the ‘music’ that it creates. It is also a symbol of youth, however, and of the springtime of life. Briggflatts is often described as an poem with autobiographical elements, and in the bull, Bunting finds an image of his young self – an image of many a young man, loud, ungainly, strong, full of energy and vitality, ‘ridiculous and lovely’; it is an image not without an element of self deprecation – the bull’s song is a raw ‘brag’ only, and even the word ‘bull’ carries associations with nonsense, as in ‘don’t talk bull!’ What could be sillier than a bull chasing the shadows of clouds across fields, shapes it barely understands? And what could be a better image for the energy and ignorance of youth?
Part one of Briggflatts represents spring, and hope and innocence – and the dancing bull is a symbol of all three. We can’t think of spring and innocence, however, without thinking of the Garden of Eden; innocence then, is a by-product of ignorance; experience and knowledge will inevitably corrupt that innocence. There is a hint, even early in the poem, of corruption, with the appearance at the end of the stanza of the slowworm – a snake-like creature, though not, interestingly enough, an actual snake. Some of the rest of the part one details the young Bunting’s experience with a young girl, and there are hints of the regret of the older Bunting – the poet – looking back on a lost love. But the main note is, as in this opening stanza, the bullish joy of the spring of life.