ENTER Carlisle Cathedral purposefully, looking straight ahead,
and you will miss him. Instead, you need to pause just inside the
door and look up, to see the bust of Norman Nicholson, sea-coal
black, face clamped between mutton-chop sideburns, staring from a
niche. He was born a century ago, and was lauded, at his death in
1987, as "the most gifted English Christian provincial poet of his
century" in his obituary in The Times.
Contemporary concerns make Nicholson's anniversary a vital time
for his historic whisper to be amplified. "There is an upsurge of
writing about the environment at the moment," the Cumbrian poet and
essayist Mary Robinson wrote. "The time is ripe for a reassessment
of Norman Nicholson's work. Let's ditch the 'provincialism' debate,
and look at his writing in the context of ecology, edgelands, and
Nicholson's "provincialism" is rooted in his static address. He
lived for all but 20 months of his 73 years in a terraced
side-street in Millom, an "edgeland" town on the west coast of
Cumbria. Views from the second-floor attic where he wrote include
the sheep pastures of Black Combe and the mountain grandeur of
Coniston Old Man, but his immediate environment was the iron and
steel industry, and its savage decline.
He celebrated the curlew's call, but also the apocalyptic fires
ofthe slag banks. In his poetry, the shepherds invited to the
nativity were men who knew the Cumbrian fells; and Christ's earthly
father, St Joseph, strolled through local allotments.
Nicholson must have seemed always a partial outsider. While his
father, another Joseph, was the meticulously dressed "Millom's
popular outfitter", and a life member of the Millom Conservative
and Unionist Club, many of his schoolfriends' fathers were
"I was not encouraged to play with other children," Nicholson
remembered. "I was not allowed out into the street; I was
cossetted, comforted, protected, and I grew up - as I could hardly
help growing up - pale, timid, dependent, self-absorbed, and rather
LOCALISM pervaded his early life. Nicholson's mother diedin 1919
from the Spanish flu epidemic, and when his father remarried in
1922, his new mother was Rosette Sobey, who worked in the music
shop next door. The Sobeys, like many who followed the iron-ore
Klondike, had moved north from Cornwall. Advancement saw them
exchange the United Methodists at Haverigg for the Wesleyan
Methodists in Millom.
Nicholson's religious practice was founded in social Methodism.
"The concerts, bazaars, socials, faith teas, and harvest-festival
sale of fruit and vegetables all took their part in the
Nonconformist ecclesiastical year," he wrote in a book of essays
published in 1966, They Became Christians. "They did not
seem very different from the Sunday services -a little less formal
and a little more boisterous, but with the same cosy friendliness,
the same readily roused enthusiasm."
His parents kept their faith at a social distance. "My father
explained that when I entered the pew, I was to sit down and lean
forward for a few seconds, with my elbows on the hymn-book ledge,
and my head in my hands, and I did this at his side for several
weeks, before I realised we were supposed to be praying," Nicholson
wrote in the autobiography of his early years, Wednesday Early
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 have liked to have "once or twice . . . 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 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 had already briefed him about the
disadvantages of being saved. "It's going to Prayer Meetings and
pulling a long face and thinking you're better than other people
and telling everybody they're going to Hell - that's what being
Given his academic ability, it was assumed that Nicholson would
enter college or university, and become a teacher - "the bright
boy's only practicable escape from the hopelessness of local
Anecdote suggested that college entrance was lubricated by
confirmation; so he began attending St George's, the imposing red
sandstone Anglican church that sat socially and theologically above
the rest of the town, and was built from Millom Ironmasters'
dividends in 1876, for about £11,000. It was here that faith met
poetry: "The lovely platitudes of Cranmer, hearing the Flesh taking
Tuberculosis intervened, and his university became a rural
sanatorium in Hampshire, where his condition meant that he was
allowed to talk only in a whisper. He lay in bed, reading. His
early Anglo-Catholic rapture stilled to agnosticism: "I neither
knew nor cared whether I was a Christian or not." His joy in the
natural beauty of his surroundings, however, enhanced by reading
Shaw and Wells, led him to revere creation: "This world
His path to faith was paved with literary paradoxes: T. S.
Eliot, "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," he wrote in They Became Christians.
"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
IN HER new biography of Nicholson, The Whispering Poet,
Kathleen Jones offers a more precise conversion. Friends associated
with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) led Nicholson to its
summer conference in 1939, and George Every SSM, a member of the
Kelham community, persuaded him to make a retreat there.
In this Nottinghamshire "gothic extravagance . . . he finally
becamea spiritually committed Christian rather than just a
ritual-observing Anglican", Jones writes. Faith and literature were
to grow together. Every sent some of Nicholson's early poems to T.
S. Eliot, who went on retreats at Kelham. "I do think there is very
likely something here, if he is young enough," Eliot responded.
Nicholson's adoption of Christianity, within the tensions of a
natural world threatened by industrial domination, formed the
recipe from which he was to write his life's work. More than 30
books and pamphlets - poetry, plays, novels, criticism, and essays
- flowed from his fountain pen, and later typewriter.
The adolescent who had been allowed only to whisper in Hampshire
began to publish from Cumberland. "I stayed at home very, very
quietly, I read and read and read and I started to write . . .
round about the age of 30 I started to publish," he later told the
Adjacent forces of nature and industry, shot through with faith
like the veins of iron ore that sustained, then abandoned, his
community, particularly hallmark his poetry, providing its energy.
When members of the Norman Nicholson Society added their tree to
the Christmas-tree festival in St George's last Christmas, their
theme was Nicholson's poem "A Turn for the Better". Typically, this
celebrates a story from the Gospel of James, outside the New
Testament, where Joseph records everything standing still at the
moment of Christ's birth.
Joseph comes to a halt "between the allotments", snow pauses in
its fall; the robin never moves to shake a feather from its head.
Workmen are stilled at their excavation, or eating lunch:
Workmen on the electric cable track
Swung picks in the air and held them there, rigid,
Raised bait to mouths and never took a bite.
The whole of the cosmos changes to "a brand-new now", released
by the cry of the Christ-child. Tree decorations included
snowflakes, and inverted flower-pots, hung like reimagined bells
over a miniature allotment. Society members were attempting to
convey "something of the poet's intention, and his fresh view of
the Christian story", one of the founders, Peggy Troll, said.
NICHOLSON published that poem in 1954, in the collection named
after his most famous poem, The Pot Geranium; but
religious poems emerge among those celebrating local, unsung towns,
overshadowed by war, in his first collection, Five Rivers
(1944). The issue of social class, like the Sobeys' social ascent,
is written into "Shepherds' Carol", with its Cumbrian geographical
vocabulary of ghyll, scree, fell, and dale.
The contending paganism and Christianity of Cumberland are also
part of that landscape for these religious outcasts, called from
their flocks to greet the Christ-child; for this is also the place
of "the stones by the sacred tree" - perhaps a pagan
gathering-place, perhaps Christ's cross.
It is there that the shepherds take "the lambs that were dropped
in the snow", in an echo of the sacrifice inherent in the "lamb of
God" they have just welcomed. The poem ends in ambiguity, arguably
prophesying the sacrifice of Christ:
It was never ourselves we thought to give -
But we gave ourselves that the lambs might live.
TODAY, Nicholson is revered more as an ecological than a
theological prophet; yet the two are interlinked. When he wrote
"The Cathedral", published in Seato the West (1981),
Nicholson was taking reference not from the 12th-century
mother-church in Carlisle, but from an abandoned slate quarry in
Little Langdale. But this "cathedral", built by taking stone away,
is also an argument for how the presence of God can be encountered
through his apparent absence, the "Negative Way" he cites in the
Similarly, the 12-line ecologists' anthem "Windscale", about the
nuclear plant, now cosmetically rechristened Sellafield, "where
sewers flow with milk, and meat", ends with a theological
indictment: "And children suffocate in God's fresh air."
This charge, if not its theological resonance, was picked up by
Seamus Heaney, one of the 40 poets assembled by the Cockermouth
poet and critic William Scammell, who edited Between
Comets as a tribute to Nicholson on his 70th birthday. Heaney
referred to "Windscale" in his "A Paved Text, for Norman
Nicholson", reaching across the Irish Sea:
Now nuclear poisons
re-anglicise a sea
that is yours and mine as well.
"The Sea to the West" of Nicholson's Cumbria laps ashore on "The
Nuclear Coast", and international nuclear-reprocessing has replaced
mining as the staple, and only large-scale, industry in West
His former home in St George's Terrace has become the Norman
Nicholson Coffee Shop. A chamber pot holds paper and crayons for
visiting children in the fireplace of a room behind the former
outfitter's shop, although Nicholson and his wife, Yvonne, were
childless. A rusting blue plaque by the single first-floor window
is set on stained pebble-dash. "Home of Cumbrian Poet Norman
Nicholson," it records; "Man of Millom".
Broadcasts, a memorial service, lectures, readings, and a
concert are celebrating Nicholson's centenary, but his memorial
window in St George's can be seen only from the outside. His old
church is locked during the week, and the vicarage is empty. His
"Christian attitudes" may have limited his literary audience, the
academic Philip Gardner has argued.
Nicholson, ever the native outsider, lies in the new churchyard,
in a grave shared with Yvonne - his head towards Black Coombe, and
his feet facing the Duddon estuary that inspired Wordsworth's
sonnets, just as Nicholson's work is inspiring today's poets who
are increasingly concerned about threats to God's creation.
The epitaph, in his own words, is nevertheless celebratory:
Let our eyes at the last be blinded
not by the dark
but by dazzle.
Norman Nicholson: The whispering poet by Kathleen Jones is
published by The Book Mill at £13 (Church Times Bookshop
£11.70 - Use code CT533 ).