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Norman Nicholson.

1914 – 1987

In his introduction to the 1947 Camden Classics edition of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights Norman Nicholson said,”No artist is an accident, yet if we try to explain genius in terms of heredity and environment we are very likely to misunderstand it greatly …”

He could have been talking about himself, or he could have been warning us off trying to define him by reference to his heredity and environment, for Norman Nicholson lived in the same terraced house in the small mining town of Millom, in what was then Cumberland, for the whole of his life.

Inevitably he was, and still is, referred to as a ‘provincial’ poet … the term (or at least the implications behind it) plainly rankled, for in 1954, in a broadcast entitled “On Being Provincial” he went on the offensive:

If you want to annoy a man who comes from the provinces, call him a provincial. For the word, used in this sense, implies the smug, the narrow, the short-sighted; implies a mere second-hand, second-rate, out of-date-existence, a bad copy of the life of the capital.

Human beings, he continued, are naturally provincial, and cities are not natural places. “Instead of a community”, he said, “we find an enormous heterogenous collection of people gathered from all corners of the country and deposited like silt at the delta of a great river.”

He went on to argue that being provincial – having roots, and a shared culture – was actually a strength, not a weakness: and for him, it was.

Norman Nicholson’s Cumberland was not the Cumberland of the English Tourist Board or the picture postcards sent in their thousands every year from the honeypots of Windermere, Grasmere and Coniston. The poems in his first collection, Five Rivers (1944), speak of Egremont, Whitehaven and Cleator Moor. They are being “regenerated” now, but then they were unlovely mining and mill towns:

In this town the dawn is late.

For suburbs like a waking beast

Hoist their backbones to the east,

And pitheaps at the seaward gate

Build barricades against the light.

(from Whitehaven)

In his second collection, Rock Face (1948), he lost his way a little. They’re still good poems, and certainly better than many written by more lauded poets, but they’re oddly anonymous, as if he became self-conscious about being provincial and deliberately tried his hand at a more ‘literary’ style.

In 1954 however, he published The Pot Geranium. In it, he returned to his roots and he did it with a vengeance. He writes of Millom, the surrounding countryside, the streets immediately around him and even the interior of 14 St George’s Terrace. The world had come to him:

It is the Gulf Stream

That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit; it is the Trade Wind

That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.

(from The Pot Geranium)

Oddly, having found his voice again, there was a lapse of 18 years before he produced another volume of poetry – which is not to say he wasn’t writing – he was. He produced most of his prose work in that time – much of it books about the Lake District – Portrait of the Lakes, Greater Lakeland, The Lakers. Perhaps he felt he had said everything there was to say, in poetry at least, about Millom and West Cumbria.

When he did finally return to poetry in 1972 with A Local Habitation, he came roaring back with a will and a whole new approach … not the places this time, but the people. His family, his friends, the shopkeepers, the local characters … we meet them all through his eyes and hear them all through his verse. There’s the local shopkeeper Harry Pelleymounter who was an amateur musician in his off duty hours; the inaccurate but enthusiastic baritone in a music competition launching into a song with gusto and “giving it Wigan” … He even wrote about himself and his grandmother:

Her forehead …..

Puckered in puzzle at this old-fashioned child

Bright enough at eight to read the ears off

His five unlettered uncles, yet afraid

Of every giggling breeze that blew.

“There’s nowt to be scared about,” she said,

“A big lad like you!”

(from Boo to a Goose)

Most poignantly perhaps, there’s the other Norman Nicholson – also a native of Millom. He and his namesake were born “two years and three streets apart” and in Nicholson, suddenly, one of his most deceptively simple poems, we get the poet Nicholson’s reaction to reading in the local paper of his alter ego’s sudden death:

And now, perhaps one day a year

The town will seem for half a minute

A place with one less person in it,

When I remember I’ll not meet

My unlike double in the street.Norman Nicholson Memorial Window in St George's Church

In 1981 he published his final collection, Sea to the West. Considering that he was then in his late 60s and in rapidly failing health it’s a surprising work. Even at that stage in his life – and knowing it could well be his last hurrah – he was experimenting. He returned again to a more literary form, but this time the poet’s own voice is heard, and it contains some of his most beautiful, elegiac poetry.

He was a man of firm Christian beliefs, and that permeates much of his work – not least the title poem of Sea to the West, which vividly describes the Irish Sea at sunset. The closing lines of that same poem provided his epitaph – carved on the headstone of his grave at St George’s Church in Millom, where there is also a beautiful memorial window to him.

Let my eyes at the last be blinded

Not by the dark

But by dazzle.


All of the individual volumes of Norman Nicholson’s poetry are long out of print, but can usually be bought secondhand at a reasonable price.

Faber and Faber produced two anthologies of his poetry – Selected Poems, which is still available, although with difficulty, and the far more complete Collected Poems, edited by Neil Curry which is not. The biographical detail, publication dates and quotations from “On Being Provincial” were taken from Neil Curry’s introduction in Collected Poems.

His prose works are readily and cheaply available secondhand, but his 1975 autobiography – Wednesday Early Closing – fetches very healthy prices on eBay and AbeBooks.

You will find a consideration of Nicholson’s novels HERE.

14 comments on “NORMAN NICHOLSON

  1. sequinonsea
    March 28, 2008


    ‘Human beings, he continued, are naturally provincial, and cities are not natural places. “Instead of a community”, he said, “we find an enormous heterogenous collection of people gathered from all corners of the country and deposited like silt at the delta of a great river.”’

    Thus spoke the poet… I think I agree with him, mind you. But then I’m rather ‘provincial’ so I would say that.

    Thanks for quoting the fragments. Beautiful.

  2. Jackie
    March 28, 2008

    It’s nice to see poetry spotlighted. Nicholson’s work has a quiet power to it, the impact spreads like ripples the more you think of it. I like how he acknowledges the universality in his quiet corner of the world, such as the winds that power the great ships is the same as the one blowing under the door. There is a wisdom in his poems that I don’t think is noticed at first.
    That stained glass window is beautiful. What a lovely memorial.

  3. marygm
    April 1, 2008

    I loved this piece. I am normally not a poetry reader but I will be looking up this poet. I particularly liked his thoughts (and your comments) on provinciality.

  4. Mhairi
    April 1, 2008

    Thank you, all.

    I love Norman Nicholson’s writing – poetry and prose – and he fascinates me as a man. It’s one of my great sorrows that I moved to West Cumbria just too late to meet him. He died a couple of years before I arrived here …

  5. David
    August 3, 2008

    Thanks, Moira for such a thorough and sensitive overview, especially of the ‘provincial’ aspect.

    If I might be a little pedantic, Egremont, Whitehaven and Cleator Moor were never either predominantly or characteristically ‘mill’ towns – Egremont and Cleator Moor were built on iron ore [haematite] mining and Whitehaven on coal mining and exporting and shipping [largely owned by the Lowthers].

    One enigma about Norman Nicholson concerns the loves of his life – particularly his relationships with women. He had two ‘old flames’ when younger but these both fizzled out for whatever reasons and he finally married late in life but this seemed to be a deep companionship rather than much else. His published work very rarely encroaches into these areas and on the rare occasions that it did, the results were fairly clumsy and, quite unlike almost all the rest of his work, fairly dire !

    The epitaph on his tombstone isn’t quite verbatim to the poem, and in fact was placed there by Nicholson himself when his wife died. However, he allowed for room for himself, both in the grave and on the headstone……

  6. Moira
    August 4, 2008

    Hello David …

    Thank you for your very welcome thoughts, additions and comments.

    Guilty as charged to the less-than-accurate description of Egremont et al! I own up to taking a bit of a shortcut there …

  7. david
    May 6, 2009

    Hi again

    Might just be worth adding that both ‘Collected Poems’ and ‘Wednesday Early Closing’ have recently been reprinted in second editions by Faber & Faber, reflecting perhaps the passing of Nicholson’s ‘wilderness years’ in terms of literary reputation and acclaim.

  8. Moira
    May 6, 2009

    Hello again David …

    Thank you for that excellent news!

    Off to Faber & Faber’s website ….

  9. david
    May 6, 2009

    The reprints[both paperbacks I think] aren’t cheap, but well worth it in their different ways – one as a collection; the other as an autobiography as only a poet can pen it. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a sequel, for things just started to get interesting when the timeline ends.

    As Nicholson once quipped himself – ”Both sex and the poetry of TS Eliot hit me very hard in the solar plexus when I was 15”

    Of the former we know little but have tobe thankful that the latter inspired some very fine poetry indeed. No disrespect to present and recent Poets Laureate, but think NN the best one we never had, in recent decades anyway.

    I’ll stop rambling on now………

  10. Pingback: Poetry Week: Wednesday Early Closing ~ by Norman Nicholson « Vulpes Libris

  11. David Marriott
    May 30, 2011

    Nicholson’s writing (poetry and prose) is evocative of industrial Cumberland — the interface between the slagheap and the fell — that so few understand. Get someone who knows the area to read it aloud to you — or even better, go there yourself, and read it aloud to yourself. The man was a genius — a provincial in the finest sense of the word, and a Cumbrian to his bones…

  12. david
    May 30, 2011

    I would say that, wouldn’t I, but totally agree !!

    focuses on your point – Melvyn Bragg’s tribute essay in that Festschrift ‘Between Comets’ dissects your point fluently and at length; so in a different way do the other tribute poems in the book, including those quoted in the article.

    So very sad, that Norman Nicholson seems to mean so very little to most of the present inhabitants of Millom – in its present state, the place needs something to be proud of and celebrated and to lift it from its dereliction and tawdriness, but their most famous son might as well have been from a strange race from far away or indeed from another planet.

  13. Pingback: Norman Nicholson – The Fire of the Lord and The Green Shore « Vulpes Libris

  14. Pingback: A poem found on the Road to Nowhere – Norman Nicholson’s ‘Rising Five’. | Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on March 28, 2008 by in Entries by Moira, Poetry: 20th Century and tagged , , , , .



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