Norman Nicholson’s ‘Topographical Notes’ in the John Rylands Library

Max Long, an English MPhil student at Cambridge University, visited the Library recently and has written a guest blog post for us about his discoveries in Norman Nicholson’s Archive:

The John Rylands Library is home to the Norman Nicholson Archive, which holds a comprehensive collection of the writer’s manuscripts and correspondence. Nicholson was first and foremost a poet, and his books, from his first collection Five Rivers (1944) to The Pot Geranium (1954) and Sea to the West (1981) sought to paint an intimate, honest picture of his local Cumbrian landscape, one in which rocks, people and industry were inextricably linked. This vision of the landscape was expressed too in his topographical works, which include Cumberland and Westmorland (1949), Portrait of the Lakes (1963) and Greater Lakeland (1968). Nicholson remained rooted throughout his life in his hometown of Millom, and his poetry reflects the often difficult experience of a struggling industrial town in the post-war years. Norman Nicholson has long been neglected by critics, who are often irritated by his religious preoccupations, his perceived provincialism and his sharp, uncomplicated verse which favours the palpable and the concrete over the abstract and ambiguous. However, the last decade has seen a much-deserved reappraisal of his poetry. The Norman Nicholson Society was established in 2006, and recently two biographies have been written about Nicholson, as well as several academic articles.

Nicholson’s archive is an entertaining collection to read through, given his unusual practice of constantly re-purposing old scraps of paper for new uses. Thus, drafts of poems are frequently written on the back of typed letters or bills addressed to him. The back sides of scribbled and notated typescript drafts of his own, too, were used for writing out poems, rough lists or even bits of topographical manuscript. Nicholson was reluctant to keep his manuscripts and correspondence. In a April 1963 letter, also conserved at the John Rylands Library, Lawrence S. Thompson, then-librarian at Kentucky University Library, wrote to Norman Nicholson requesting a “manuscript poem in your hand”. Nicholson replied that, “I am afraid that practically the whole of my manuscripts have been destroyed. It did not occur to me that anybody would be interested in them”.  He offered instead to send a manuscript of the topographical book he was then drafting, A Portrait of the Lakes:

You may feel that a topographical work will be of littel ineterst [sic] to American students, but the whole key to to [sic] imagery of my poetry can be found in this volume.

copy letter from N. Nicholson to Mr Thompson
Copy letter from Nicholson to Lawrence S. Thompson

My own visit to the John Rylands was motivated by the hope of finding a notebook kept by Nicholson which might shed some light on how he wrote down his thoughts and ideas. The archive includes two folders called “Poetry in Progress”, which contain poetical drafts, mostly written on the back of rough pieces of paper. There are also two notebooks from Nicholson’s school years, which were re-used to write clean copies of his very earliest poetry, most of it unpublished. Another small notebook, with the title Wordsworth in Lakeland, is a compendium of information relating to William Wordsworth’s relationship to specific locations in the Lake District, drawing mainly from Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries and The Prelude. However, there is only one notebook surviving in the archive which suggests continual and repeated use over time, recording immediate impressions of his surroundings and also scraps of reading and interesting anecdotes.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook
Front cover of Nicholson’s ‘Topographical Notes’

This is a small blue notebook which is labelled ‘Topographical Notes: Morecambe Bay etc.’ (NCN3/1/8). The notebook, which has a list of quotes about William Wordsworth in a very different hand on the back pastedown, as well as a quote from Matthew Arnold at the front, was probably also an old school exercise book of Nicholson’s. Several leaves have been torn from the front of the notebook, which are likely to have contained pages devoted to its previous use as school notes. A quick glance at its contents, which were indexed by Nicholson himself on the first page, suggests that the notebook was used largely to prepare for writing his topographical book Greater Lakeland (1969), which would place the notebook’s use in the late 1960s, in the immediate years before the book’s publication.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook
First opening of the notebook, showing Nicholson’s index

Nicholson’s notes are written in light blue ink, and are fiercely difficult to decipher. The writer’s rough notation, together with his abbreviations (including using a single vertical line to mean ‘the’) and the frequent rough sketches he includes beside his notes to describe buildings, mountains and other features of the land, suggests that the book was either carried around with him on short expeditions, or was used to record impressions immediately on his return. The contrast with the neat, organized notes from his Wordsworth in Lakeland notebook could not be starker.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook
This page includes some sketches of Cartmel Priory made by Nicholson

Although the tone of the notebook is characterized by an impersonal form of observation, there are a few moments where Nicholson allows a glimpse into his presence as note-taker. At Great Salkeld, after briefly mentioning the church’s fortified tower, he writes of a “road to river [..] Place where we picnicked”. The “we” here refers to Nicholson’s wife Yvonne, who helped him in his travels by driving him across the region during the preparation of Greater Lakeland. Nicholson never fully recovered from the tuberculosis that confined him to a sanatorium for two years when he was sixteen, and he struggled to walk long distances.

The notebook also includes a few rough notes from his reading, which are duly referenced with an underlined title of the book and its author. Writing about Eskdale Railway, for example, he includes notes taken from a book called Small Talk at Wreyland by Cecil Torr, as well as some information about Lancaster Canal drawn from Jack Simmons’s Journeys in England. What is interesting about these reading notes is that they are very sparse – when references from the Topographical Notes overlap with the content in Greater Lakeland, Nicholson usually adds much more detailed information. Perhaps the Topographical Notes were intended only for very quick notation, with Nicholson resorting to more detailed notes located elsewhere.

What is most fascinating about the notebook, however, is that it shows Nicholson’s note-taking to have served both his topographical and his poetical modes of writing. As Nicholson’s letter to Lawrence S. Thompson indicated, he clearly thought of both as closely related. The Notebook was in use towards the end of an eighteen-year hiatus in Nicholson’s poetic career, and some of the notes appear to show him looking at the landscape with the kind of poetic eye that dominated his later poetry. In his notes about Burgh-by-Sands, for example, he notes that there,

seems to be
1 single cooling tower over the water (overhead)
but, as you move over sands, you
see the tower slowly gets wider,
then splits into two, two – This,
is subdivided + you see four towers
side by side over four parallel
leeks of smor snot steam wh, before,
had appeared only to be one.

Topographical - Lakeland Notebook
Nicholson’s notes about Burgh-by-Sands

Nicholson’s focus here, as at a number of other sections of the notebook, is with how elements of the landscape appear changed depending on the position of the viewer. As he moves across the sands, what seemed to be one tower, is in fact four. David Cooper has written recently about how Nicholson’s later poetry shows a deep concern with light and vision, and his last Faber collection, Sea to the West (1981), contains several poems addressing the changing view of Black Combe, a mountain overlooking his Millom home. As Nicholson’s only working notebook to survive in his archive, the Topographical Notes are a valuable asset in the John Rylands Library for researchers interested in Norman Nicholson’s poetry, his unique way of reading and describing the landscape, and twentieth century note-taking practices more generally.

We are grateful to the Trustees of the Estate of Norman Nicholson for their permission to reproduce the images in this blog post.

2 comments on “Norman Nicholson’s ‘Topographical Notes’ in the John Rylands Library

  1. John Gilder

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thank You.

  2. Thanks to Max Long, this is really interesting on Norman Nicholson.

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