“Some people are flower lovers.
I’m a weed lover.”
The opening lines of “Weeds” (Sea to the West, 1981) might serve as Norman Nicholson’s poetic manifesto. Like weeds, his poems possess a homely beauty unnoticed or scorned by many. He was a weed of sorts, never cultivated but sturdy and deeply rooted. Born in 1914 in the iron-mining town of Millom, on the edge of the Lake District in Cumbria, he lived in the same Victorian house all his life but for several years spent in a tuberculosis sanatorium as a teenager. He died in 1987.
This post by Stephen Pentz at First Known When Lost introduced me to Nicholson. His poems, like his muttonchops, are somewhat old-fashioned and eccentric, but admirably so. One senses he wrote not for fame, not to take his place in literary history, but because he had little choice in the matter. He did the work he had to do. In this, and in other ways, he resembles another weed-poet, William Cowper (1731-1800), also happily provincial, who lived most of his life in Olney. Nicholson was aware of the affinity. In 1951 he published William Cowper, a study of his great precursor, and in 1975 edited A Choice of Cowper's Verse. Included in his 1948 collection, Rock Face, is “Cowper”:
“He walked among the alders. Birds flew down,
And water voles watched by the river shore.
A mist hummed on his eyelids, blurred and brown—
The self-sequestered with himself at war.
“The bright psalms were his banners: Sion, Ind,
Siloam, rang like horns down Joshua’s plain.
At noon the thunder rambled from his mind—
He felt the sun beneath the Olney rain.”
Nicholson tactfully hints at Cowper’s bouts of madness without romanticizing them. The alders might refer to this stanza from Cowper’s “The Shrubbery,” which makes his mental anguish explicit:
“This glassy stream, that spreading pine,
Those alders quiv'ring to the breeze,
Might sooth a soul less hurt than mine,
And please, if any thing could please.”
The “bright psalms” could be Cowper’s poems or "The Olney Hymns" he wrote with John Newton. In one of them, “Joy and Peace in Believing,” Cowper writes:
“When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.”
Cowper and Nicholson were serious Christians. Both reveled in nature and the English landscape. Neither was a theorist. Despite his depression, sometimes suicidal, Cowper’s poetry, Nicholson writes, is “largely the poetry of pleasure.” Again, the same might be said of Nicholson’s work. The final paragraph of his William Cowper reads like autobiography:
“His was a strange life and a strange personality; witty, and yet warped; warm-hearted, impulsive, and yet timid and reserved; sociable, and yet solitary; sympathetic, tolerant, understanding, and yet bigoted; gay and yet pathetic; endearing and lovable and yet never receiving all the love he needed…Not even Chekov, carefully selecting significant trivia, could tell us more about his characters than Cowper tells about himself in a chance remark on a hat or cat, a chair or a hare. Strange as he was, most poets are strangers compared with him. His very oddness is so companionable that we can understand his freaks and foibles better than we can understand the normal actions of saner men.”