I first encountered the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson (1914-1987) through his poem Weeds, in which he celebrates Sweet Cicely over Sweet William ("though she's barred from the garden"); coltsfoot, dandelion, fat hen and plantain over honeysuckle and jasmine. Rosebay willow-herb is best of all, it seems - "a new town has risen of a thousand towers,/Every spiky belfry humming with a peal of bees". Weeds is included in this 1981 collection, as is The Bloody Cranesbill, glorifying another weed common in the northern counties. Both poems also refer to the life and living conditions of generations of Cumbrian working-folk, the images of which and of whom are drawn as much from Nicholson's memory as from the contemporary scene; for by the time he wrote much had already disappeared.
The closure of the iron ore mine and the ironworks of the coastal town of Millom, where Nicholson was born and spent virtually all his life, is another recurring theme in his poems. Gone too were the heavy horses used in his youth for local delivery of goods brought to the town's railway station, their pasture having become The New Cemetery. Nicholson foresees himself in due course being led "To that same/Now consecrated green", as he also anticipates (in The Register) that the granddaughter of the man who recorded his birth will sign his death certificate. She was his doctor.
Nicholson's grandest themes, though, were the surrounding fells, shale screes, sand dunes and sea. And some poems here hymn the fjords of Norway and the geological features of the Hebrides. The book takes its name from the poem Sea to the West, which recalls the effect of sunset on the sea; "You can find no sign of water,/Sun upflows the horizon;/Waves of shine/Heave, crest, fracture,/Explode on the shore". Timeless as those images are, for the poem Nicholson draws on his experience of them when a bicycling schoolboy, subject to evening curfew at home. Black Combe White recounts a more recent experience, of travelling sixty miles from home for a poetry reading, and the following morning being delighted to see from his hotel room window the familiar Black Combe, a prominent hill that overlooks Millom, and that the night had embellished Black Combe with snow.
My favourite poem, Scafell Pike, is timeless. Nicolson's theme is that whilst "the tallest hill in England" is glimpsed now over the roofs of Millom, and seen from there is easily obscured by "A puff of kitchen smoke",
"In five hundred, a thousand or ten
A ruin where
The chapel was; brown
Rubble and scrub and cinders where
The gasworks used to be;
No roofs, no town
Maybe no men;
But yonder where a lather-rinse of cloud pours down
The spiked-wall of the skyline, see,
Besides the content and the style, I like the poem because it is a challenge, but very rewarding, to read out loud, as are many of Nicholson's poems from that period.