Norman Nicholson's Wars - The Theology of Place in his Poetry
The years 1914 and 1939, that ushered in global conflict, also marked the two births of Norman Nicholson. The first was physical and geographical, in the town of Millom, the place that was to condition his life and work. The second was spiritual and theological, an adoption of the Christian faith; that being 'born again' of which Christ speaks in the Gospel of John.
Together, geography and theology hallmark Nicholson's work. Neil Curry, in his Introduction to Norman Nicholson's Collected Poems reminds us of The Times obituary, that acclaimed 'the most gifted English Christian provincial poet of his century'. This paper adopts 'Christian' and 'provincial', blending them into what can be argued to be a 'theology of place'. Out of this mingling of location and belief came a transposition through which Nicholson brought fresh insights, and renewed life, to a faith even then cooling in an increasingly secular society, like the slag banks after the steel works' closure.
This envisioning, this paper argues, was also incorporated into Nicholson's negotiation with war. In essence this was distant; understandably so for someone confined to its second-hand experience, through local weapons testing, newspaper and wireless reports, or empathy with evacuees. But another war could well have been fomenting in Nicholson's mind; a conflict that only emerged after the guns had been silenced, and the atomic clouds dispersed. This was the war of humanity against its own home, the threat to our fragile planet from its most sophisticated inhabitants; ironically those gifted with theological insight: the betrayers of the 'theology of place'.
This paper explores this argument through three of Norman's poems. It takes reference from his gravestone, where Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson is remembered simply as 'poet'. Other understandings of theology, and other senses of place, may well inhabit his plays and novels, but our focus today is within the Collected Poems.
In Shepherd's Carol we see an example of how the decisive key to his theological explorations, the adoption of the Incarnation, is expressed through re-setting the Nativity story in Millom. I will argue that this poem is also shadowed by war, and examine how 'Nicholson's war' was more directly expressed, as in 'The Evacuees'. By the end of his life, as shown in the late poem 'Scafell Pike', humanity itself was becoming a potential memory, raising the issues of what 'place' might be like after us, and whether, and in what form, 'theology' might conceivably continue.
We start on a clear winter's night. We are in first century Palestine, and also in 20th century Cumberland; under Roman occupation, and alert for German bombers. But whatever human conflict is being plotted in Rome, or Berlin, it is among the familiar that the world is being changed.
(READ.... Shepherds' Carol)
This poem, published in Nicholson's first collection, Five Rivers, in 1944, uproots the shepherds summoned to Christ's Nativity by a 'heavenly host' of angels, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2: 8- 18), and re-sites them around Millom. Initial clues emerge through vocabulary; dirk, ghyll and scree in the first verse alone set this Nativity in the slaty dark around the town. These shepherds are men of the Cumbrian fells and dales; they own collies; they hear a sea wind that conditions reeds by the frozen mere.
They are also men transposed by circumstance; changed through holy revelation. The final line of each of the first three verses announces elevating disclosure: 'It was never...', as the details of the miracle emerge. Nicholson would have expected his readers to know this foundational Christian story, with its sky filled with angels (the 'light' of verse one), their anthem referred to in verse two, and the Christ child to whom they are led in verse three.
But after the scene-setting of the first two verses, Nicholson ventures further, into a theology of change, through place. The angels are recast, stretched across the Cumbrian fells, as 'singing cairns', and the roles assigned to the Christ child are both Biblical, but also edging towards an ancient English, more specifically Celtic, understanding.
The lambs have been born early, or without the essential attention of shepherds called to the Nativity. They have been 'dropped in the snow'. They are collected by the shepherds and taken 'to the stones by the sacred tree'. Such 'stones' could well be the stone circles scattered across West Cumbria, the origin of which could include religious worship. But these are associated frequently with pagan rituals, thousands of years before the birth of Christ. Similar associations can be made to 'sacred trees', although Christ's cross is also referred to in Christian mysticism as a 'tree' .
While the politics of this poem appear straightforward- the shepherds cast outside Jewish society by their failure to maintain religious observances become the essential witnesses to Christ's nativity- the concluding spirituality is complex. Nicholson seems to be suggesting that the bodies of lambs are taken to the sacred places for rescue, or resurrection. This is accompanied by a sacrificial 'giving' by the shepherds, 'that the lambs might live'. This engages with the Biblical symbolism of Christ as 'the lamb of God', celebrated in the Christian eucharist as 'taking away the sins of the world' (John 1: 29 and 36), though reversing the sacrificial roles of sheep and shepherd.
But this is also a poem also published in wartime, when millions were 'giving themselves' for the lives of others, in the Biblical tradition of 'laying down their lives' for their friends. Invoke the poetry of cinema and it is possible to imagine the shepherds morphing into soldiers. Could they be 'running' towards their own gravestones, joining a sacrificial community around the cross of Christ, following his example of dying for redeemed humanity? Translating this final stanza is complex, but it may be more stained by war than is initially apparent.
More widely, how, around the age of 30, had Nicholson come to adopt the Christian beliefs expressed here? What was their origin, and potential? What is the spiritual geology of his 'theology of place', and how might such geographical theology be developed?
In the Christian tradition that Norman Nicholson embraced, place defines us; in exile we feel bereft. Since the expulsion from Eden, however that is to be understood, humanity has been trying to return home. The Biblical narrative is bracketed between territories, a garden, and a city, each created by God for human wholeness, or salvation. At its heart is a man dying outside a city, but resurrected in a garden. He travels through eternity, offering individuals salvation so that the places where they live might experience it. The ultimate purpose of a 'theology of place' is redemptive.
By the end of that narrative, in the cosmic poem we know as the Book of the Revelation, we are looking at eternity pictured, or revealed, as a redeemed city, inhabited by the people of God for the worship of God. It is all rather different from Millom.
Like virtually every other aspect of Nicholson's life, with the arguable exception of his literary self-education in the New Forest sanatorium, his religious beliefs were rooted in this small steel-town. Initially they were social, rather than theological. His father's Anglicanism, and his step-mother's Methodism were equally detached. His first encounter with more vibrant theological ideas appear to be literary, through reading his father's copy of Pilgrim's Progress, and particularly its imagery of divine judgement.
'That was quite unlike my usual experience of chapel,' Nicholson recalled in Wednesday Early Closing, the autobiography of his younger life. 'For the Methodists, in my youth, contrary to what was often said of them, rarely preached, or even thought, about hell-fire. Theirs was not a religion of fear, but one of extraordinarily reassuring warmth and comfort. It was, in fact, a social religion. I suspect that, for many members of the congregation, as for my mother and certainly for me, the dogma, the theology, the sectarian tenets hardly mattered at all.'
While Nicholson's enthusiasm for poetry was encouraged by the metres he encountered in the Methodist Hymn Book, and the reception he received when reciting poems at Methodist concerts, his immediate family was sceptical about faith that implied a changed perspective, or 'conversion'.
When a formal Mission was held every five years, Joseph Nicholson would remark: 'It's the same crowd that gets Saved every blessed time. You'd wonder how they ever found time to get lost.' Young Norman would, he said, have liked 'once or twice' to have 'gone forward' and 'signed a little ticket saying we had accepted Jesus as our Saviour, rather as if we were applying for membership of the public library', but he knew such assent would lead to his mother accusing him of 'showing her up in public'.
'It only makes people start wondering what you've been up to,' she would say, 'if you go traipsing out there.'
Grandma Cornthwaite warned young Norman that acquiring a step-mother with Cornish ancestry and Methodist affiliation would condemn him to a diet of pasties, and Calvinism. In particular, there were disadvantages to 'being Saved'. ' It's going to Prayer Meetings,' she told him. 'and pulling a long face and thinking you're better than other people and telling everyone they're going to Hell- that's what being saved is.'
A key text in Nicholson's religious development is an essay published in an anthology of religious experience in 1966, called They Became Christians, in which 13 people record their change, or conversion, to Christian belief.
Nicholson's first move was pragmatic, from Methodist Sunday School to Church of England confirmation class, as confirmation was assumed to be a useful passport to college entrance. Here, the overtly social practice of Methodism was transformed into the demands of a personal belief, both more theologically and intellectually demanding.
At St George's Church in Millom he found:
'Now religion was presented as a straightforward set of statements or propositions, like geography or geometry. Something you could actually learn.' Poetry continued to accompany pilgrimage, for he also experienced a poetic expression of faith: 'the lovely platitudes of Cranmer, hearing the Flesh taking word'.
Confirmation left him somewhat cold: 'I cannot call it a conversion, for I did not seem to be converted to anything. There was no sense of guilt, nothing of a repentance which, for years, I had been taught I ought to feel. It was more like being a piano string when the damper is lifted and the lower notes are struck, and unstruck strings hum faintly in sympathy.'
Early Anglo-Catholic rapture faded into agnosticism, and by the time university prospects had been replaced by sanatorium treatment for TB: 'I neither knew nor cared whether I was a Christian or not.'
Nicholson's eventual adoption of Christianity was again a process of transposition. His joy in the natural beauty of his rural Hampshire surroundings, enhanced by reading Shaw and Wells, led him to revere 'Creation'. He adopted an interest in 'religion' as creative concern: 'My reading of Shaw and Wells gave a new purpose to my joy in nature,' he wrote.'Before, it had been merely an intuitive response of physical and imaginative pleasure. Now, it became related to human lives, values and behaviour; became, in fact, religious.'
His path to faith was paved with literary paradoxes. His reading explored TS Eliot when 'the seemingly unbelieving, disillusioned, harsh poet of The Waste Land', and Sir James Frazer's then controversial setting of Christian beliefs alongside other world faiths in The Golden Bough.
From a celebration of creation, in all its diverse physicality, Nicholson was able to embrace the reality of Christ's Incarnation through another paradox, arguing with Christians. '(I) found , to my great surprise, that some of them believed in the Incarnation no more than I did... I was appalled by this attitude and began to argue.
'I said that to deny the uniqueness of our Lord's divinity was to take the whole point out of Christianity, to remove the one concept that made it Christian at all. I do not know that my arguments convinced anyone else, but they certainly convinced me... I proclaimed myself a Christian almost as an act of protest. But once the key had been turned, all the rest turned with it- creed, liturgy, theology, the imagery, wisdom and experience of Christendom. One hesitant creak, and the whole door swung open,' Nicholson wrote in They Became Christians.
Kathleen Jones offers a more precise theological timetable. Friends associated with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) invited Nicholson to its summer conference in 1939, and George Every, a member of the Kelham Community, persuaded him to make a retreat there. Jones writes that in this Nottinghamshire 'gothic extravagance... he finally became a spiritually committed Christian, rather than just a ritual observing Anglican'.
Norman put it this way, in a letter to Sylvia Lubelsky, whom he met in the sanatorium:
'Slowly, gradually I have found myself veering to the Christian point of view and towards the complete acceptance of the Christian dogma. It has been neither easy nor impulsive...'
In his poem 'Now that I have made my decision', Norman proclaims his faith within a transubstantive acceptance; Christ being physically present in the eucharist, and in a theology of all place, encompassing the natural world:
Now that I have made my decision and felt God on my tongue
It is time I trained my tongue to speak of God,
Not with pretended wisdom , nor with presumption,
But as a tree might speak of him...
He returned to Millom where the familiar was being additionally populated with strangers. Four years later he was to remember them in his poem 'The Evacuees'
(READ The Evacuees)
This, and the poem facing it in the Collected Poems, 'Stalingrad 1942', could be said to encompass Norman Nicholson's 'Visions of War and Peace'. They are both about resilience; both about Cumberland. 'Stalingrad' is essentially a message of support; 'The Evacuees' a meditation on isolation and adoption.
'Stalingrad' makes little effort to conjure the sense of terror or siege. We do not encounter the city until line 9 in a 16 line poem. The forces ranged against it, 'the flood of fire' could equally be an image of sunset tinting the sea off the West Cumbrian coast. Stalingrad remains a place, almost abstract; devoid of people, unidentified by detail. It has become the Cumbrian coast, and in that comradeship Nicholson extends his hand.
In 'the Evacuees', by contrast, he is working journalistically, observing and interpreting at street level in 'this little town'. Detail is telling: women 'carrying their bundles'; 'children with schoolmates, and frightened children alone'. Perhaps because he has seen 'the strangers at the station', Nicholson is more able to conjure their home towns on the other side of England; the music within high Northumbrian voices, smell of the North Sea; sights of the defining fish shops.
At the centre of the poem is a tension about belonging. Most of the mothers, and the children, returned 'to the Tyneside husbands and the Tyneside coal', but some children stayed, and were changed as a result. They 'learned Cumberland vowels', were confirmed in the local church, and were incorporated into the local community through their schools. As they mature, Nicholson concludes, they will face the dilemma of belonging, having to choose between 'the foster home, or seek the unrented road'. He ends this deeply empathetic poem with, effectively, a blessing:
Grant that in the future they may find
A rock on which to build a house for heart and mind.
Here is theology of place emerging directly out of war. 'Rock' would ring with metaphysical significance in 1944, as the site of the wise man's house in the teachings of Jesus, and as the designation of Peter as the personal foundation of Christ's church. 'Heart and mind' also summarise Nicholson's poetic preoccupations of emotion conditioned by academic rigour, the lift of the heart, and graft of the mind behind his adoption of Christianity.
This adoption, within the tensions of a natural world threatened by industrial domination, formed the recipe from which he was to write his life's work. This included Biblical narratives re-sited in Cumbrian settings, as in 'The Ride to Jerusalem', extra-canonical texts also transferred to Millom, like 'A Turn for the Better', based on the apochryphal Gospel of James, and the translation of the religious into the secular to emphasise his Christian conviction of the value and sanctity of all creation.
It is significant that in his poem 'The Cathedral', Nicholson is actually writing about a quarry, a presence formed by extraction, and it is the ecological aspects of his theology that make his poetry a prophetic presence in the contemporary debates about the future of the world, and its endangered survival, not least to a writer living and thinking on what has been christened 'the nuclear coast'.
For at the other end of the Second World War was an atomic cloud. It symbolised the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the potential for destruction from the more localised world that Nicholson inhabited. The towers and chimneys of the Windscale nuclear plant, some 25 miles north of Millom were featured in 'Windscale', one of his most brief and bitter poems, published a month after the disaster in October 1957.
His case for the prosecution is ultimately theological, for the poem ends with an indictment of a generation facing death within God's creation:
Where sewers flow with milk, and meat
Is carved up for the fire to eat,
And children suffocate in God's fresh air.
Norman blamed the Windscale fire, for the breast cancer diagnosed in his wife, Yvonne eight years later. Today the debate continues about the plant's purpose and potential. 'Windscale was a gas-cooled reactor which had been built to provide weapons-grade plutonium to make bombs', wrote Kathleen Jones.
She draws perceptive links between Nicholson's theological and environmental interests. As he was writing his study of William Wordsworth, for example, he was also immersed in the theology of Charles Williams, and ideas interacted.
Kathleen Jones comments: 'Norman makes comparisons, based on his reading of Williams, of the correct Way for mankind, and he manages to bring in the environmental aspect.' This was in the late 1940s, long before such an agenda became popular. He warms to Wordsworth's 'Way of Nature', but argues that it should be both critical and comprehensive, including ' dust-bowl farming, artificial insemination, slag-banks, village slums, atom bombs...'. How we walk the Way of Nature is of vital importance because, Norman wrote 'on making up our minds depends, perhaps, the future of man'.
It is in that context that the poem 'Scafell Pike', published in Sea to the West in 1981, can be re-read.
READ Scafell Pike
The poem orders keen observation: 'look', 'watch', 'look again'. Like 'Stalingrad 1942', its subject makes almost a guest appearance, as the focus of the second stanza, and the culmination of the third. The first stanza is immediate, about the prospect from Nicholson's attic study-bedroom. Only after his eye has traversed the buildings does it reach out to 'the tallest hill in England'.
Even then the 'hill' is distant, small, and easily obscured, by 'a puff of kitchen smoke'. Its historic dimensions – 'rock pie of volcanic lava/ half a mile thick' – are only impressive in memory; their vision lost in a blink. It is only in recollection, a 'looking again' that the significance of Scafell Pike is underlined. Time is now extended, from that blink of an eye to hundreds, or thousands, of years. The symbols of spiritual and industrial power, chapel and gasworks,have been reduced to ruin and rubble. Landmarks roofs, even the town itself (perhaps significantly apart from the ruined chapel), are no longer there. Humanity itself, 'maybe', might have vanished.
The view is now open, unimpeded by buildings, or their pollution. It is now totally natural, cloud effects and ridges dominated by Scafell Pike. That alone, geology not humanity, is 'still there'.
This poem, about the biggest 'hill', raises the biggest questions. What would 'place' be like without humanity? He leaves open the possibility of some survivors- 'Maybe no men'- but would they be citizens just of scorched earth and tumbled walls? Focus moves quickly from them to the landscape.
Without people at all, or the sort of society his aerial view of Millom begins by describing, the glories of the natural world would simply continue, though unobserved and unrecorded.
Would theology, like the chapel, be simply a ruin, or would there be something of 'a new heaven and a new earth' that the Christian scriptures foretell? Perhaps that is what Nicholson here is prophesying; a clear view to the horizons, and beyond them to skies unsmudged by industry, washed clean in 'a lather-rinse of cloud'?
If so, it would be significantly different from the Biblical vision. Here, a poem that begins by looking down on human society raises its eyes, 'high', to an older, or future landscape in which humanity has written its own obituary. The wars are over, but the casualty list is humanity itself.
Not for the first time, Nicholson here appears to be negotiating with the Christian narrative. If shepherds in his carol are set to become soldiers, an unimpeded view of the summit of England here defines 'the new earth' of the Christian tradition. If there is to be a theology at all, the poem suggests, it will be silent, a post-Edenic wilderness before, or after, the creation of humankind. There is no sound in the poem, apart from the 'click'- more likely the blink- of an eye.
Kathleen Jones concludes her biography of Norman Nicholson by underlining his environmental legacy. She quotes Paul Kingsnorth, the Cumbrian founder of the Dark Mountain project that aims to raise ecological awareness through literature. Kingsnorth notes with approval Nicholson's adoption of place, as heralding ecological transition. Kingsnorth writes: 'For a writer in particular, there is perhaps nothing more unfashionable, or even unnatural, than staying at home. Maybe that attitude is going to have to change as the world does.'
Kingsnorth is a noted ecological, rather than theological, writer, but his view is not that distant from St Benedict's reported injunction to his monks to travel the world, in prayerful concern, from the confines of their cells.
Similarly, the words of Norman Nicholson can be embraced with equal elasticity. For here we have a writer whose intense localism proved actually to be liberation, enabling him to interweave faith and geography into a theology of place that stretched beyond global warfare into humanity's war against our fragile globe; a prophetic prophecy with which we need continually to engage.
Martyn Halsall 2014