1. Norman Nicholson, Wednesday Early Closing (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 17
2. 'Norman Nicholson in Conversation with David Wright' in P.N. Review 46, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1985), pp. 41-4; see NCN7/3/7/8.
3. See NCN7/3/7/8.
4. From an autobiographical typescript; see NCN4/1/4/2.
5. 'Memories of the W.E.A.' typescript; see NCN4/1/4/3.
6. See NCN3/7/3/8.
7. From an autobiographical typescript fragment; see NCN4/1/4/4.
8. 'At Home with Norman Nicholson', in Cumbria, Lakeland and the Borders (April 1968), pp. 12-17; see NCN7/3/3/5.
9. Norman Nicholson, 'Millom Delivered', in The Listener, Vol. 47 (24 January 1952), pp. 138-9, 150; see NCN7/1/4/4.
Norman Cornthwaite Nicholson, the long-awaited only son of Joseph and Edith (née Cornthwaite), was born on 8 January 1914, at 14 St George's Terrace in the small mining town of Millom in Cumbria. He was born behind the gentleman's outfitters shop run by his father, and this was to be Nicholson's home for the rest of his life; he later commented 'I feel that I have lived at this address since even before I was born' 1 . His paternal grandparents had settled in Millom in the 1860s when the town was undergoing rapid growth following the discovery of a rich vein of haematite iron ore. The iron mining industry provided the town with its economic life blood, and during the course of his life Nicholson witnessed the slow decline of this industry until the mines were finally closed down in 1968, an event which deeply affected the community and which Nicholson commemorated in his poem, 'On the Closing of Millom Ironworks'.
Nicholson's childhood in Millom is memorably documented in his autobiography, Wednesday Early Closing (1975). His mother Edith died of 'Spanish 'flu' in 1919, when Nicholson was five. For a time he was cared for by his maternal grandmother and an aunt, but in 1922 his father married Rosetta Sobey, a local woman who worked in the music shop next door to the Nicholsons in St George's Terrace. Rose moved into Nicholson's home and life, becoming his beloved 'mother' from that time forward. Under her guidance, Nicholson, christened into the Church of England, became a Methodist, and their social lives revolved around the busy Wesleyan Chapel.
Nicholson was educated at Holborn Hill School and Millom Secondary School. He was a hard working and successful scholar but in 1930, when at the age of 16 his sights were set on the Higher School Certificate and university, he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. He was sent to a private sanatorium at Linford in Hampshire, where he spent two years under a strict regime of bed rest, and was only permitted to communicate in whispers. Living alone in a chalet apart from the main sanatorium building, he looked down over the New Forest, and devoured around ten or twenty books a week. This was when the seeds of his poetic vocation were planted.
On returning to Millom in 1932, he initially hated the drabness of the town which had been badly affected by industrial depression. Nicholson's poor health prevented him from working, and he continued the sanatorium regime of regular rest and exercise for around twelve years. At first, during his daily walks he tried to escape the town he disliked and headed for the countryside or the marshes of Duddon Estuary and the Cumberland coast, developing a love of native wild flowers and birds. He soon came to realize, however, that some of the rarest flowers and the best locations for watching waterfowl were around the old mines and ironworks. He began to turn back towards the town, and over time came to see that the iron industry was as fundamental to the lives of the local people as farming the land. He was able to reconcile the drab industrial Millom with its rural surroundings, as two sides of a landscape which grew from the same rock.
The ideas he developed at this time formed the basis of Nicholson's philosophy and much of the poetry and prose writing he produced during his life. He later claimed that had he gone to university he would probably never have written poetry; his work grew out of 'this long, long period of waiting, reading, thinking, resting, sleeping, dreaming, wandering and walking about.'2 By staying in Millom he also benefited from having 'a much closer contact with the sort of people whom many poets never come in contact with at all', 3 and for him the town became lit up 'with human meaning because of its associations with people'. 4 This, combined with an enduring Christian faith, led to his conviction, most famously expressed in the poem 'The Pot Geranium', that complete fulfilment in life can be found in the most circumscribed situations, in the 'small radius of rock' of one's home town.
In the 1930s, whilst undergoing his poetic apprenticeship and evolving some of his most important ideas, at around the age of 30 Nicholson started to publish reviews, mostly anonymous, for the Times Literary Supplement. More significantly, from 1938 he began to lecture on modern literature to the local W.E.A., both in Millom and later also in Whitehaven and St Bees. He found the enthusiasm of the audiences and their animated discussions immensely stimulating after his long years of intellectual isolation, and he looked back on the W.E.A. lectures as 'one of the turning-points in my life' 5 They also resulted in the publication of his volume of lectures Man and Literature (1943). This appeared in the same year that some of Nicholson's own poems were published in a volume of Selected Poems along with work by fellow poets John Hall and Keith Douglas. Just a year later his own first collection, Five Rivers, was published by Faber and Faber where T.S. Eliot was a director. Eliot, whom Nicholson first met at the Faber offices in 1938, had had a great influence on the formation of Nicholson's poetic style; he later commented that 'Eliot, to me, was not just the beginning of modern poetry, he was the beginning of poetry.' 6Five Rivers, containing poems in varied styles on themes such as Cumbria, the War, and religion, won the first Heinemann Prize for Poetry. Similar themes run through Nicholson's second collection, Rock Face, published by Faber in 1948.
Nicholson had returned to the Church of England when he was around 15 years old, and although not a particularly religious child, he became a committed Christian as an adult. His Christian convictions, evident in his first two poetry collections, form the basis of his verse drama which he began to write during the same period. At a time when verse drama on a religious theme was experiencing a revival, Nicholson wrote his first play, The Old Man of the Mountains. E. Martin Browne (well-known for his production of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral) had encouraged Nicholson to write a biblical verse drama, and he first produced this play with the Pilgrim Players at London's Mercury Theatre in 1945. With Robert Speaight in the leading role, the play transports the story of Elijah to modern Cumberland, and also carries a warning against the exploitation of the earth's resources and consequent damage to the environment. The Old Man of the Mountains was the first of Nicholson's four verse dramas produced and published during the ensuing two decades; it was followed by Prophesy to the Wind (his post-atomic play, commissioned by the Little Theatre Guild in 1947 and published in 1950), A Match for the Devil (published in 1955) and Birth by Drowning (published in 1960).
It was Nicholson's verse drama which brought about his first meeting with his wife, Yvonne Gardner (1921-1982). A teacher at Millom Secondary School, she consulted Nicholson about a school production of The Old Man of the Mountains. The couple married at St George's Church on 7 June 1956, and the marriage transformed Nicholson's life in many ways. Yvonne moved into St George's Terrace with Nicholson and his stepmother, who had been living there together since the death of Norman's father in 1954. Despite continuing to teach, Yvonne devoted much of her life to caring for Nicholson, whose uncertain health meant up to this time he had led a very restricted life, avoiding contact with people for fear of infection. Yvonne, however, purchased a car, and this enormously extended the range of Nicholson's travels. They explored Cumberland and Westmorland, and began to take annual holidays to other parts of England, to Scotland, and a number of times to Norway. For Nicholson, these travels to Scotland, the Shetlands and Scandinavia all told him more about his own home; they showed him more mountain flowers, sea-birds, and 'above all, told me more about the Viking ancestry of the Nicholsons and Cornthwaites that I sprang from'. 7 Yvonne also played an important role in helping to organize Nicholson's numerous poetry readings, and she acted as a chauffeur, enabling him to give readings beyond Cumbria.
His next major collection of poems, The Pot Geranium (1954), was seen as a great advance on his first two collections, and marked the end of the first phase of his career as a poet. Eighteen years would elapse before his next collection, in which he turned to new themes. Although not writing poetry during this period, Nicholson was busy with other work. In the late 1940s, he had published two novels, The Fire of the Lord (1946) and The Green Shore (1947), but in the 1950s his prose work moved away from fiction to literary criticism and topography. His account of H.G. Wells's life and work (H.G. Wells) was published in 1951, as was his book on William Cowper; Nicholson wrote perceptively about Cowper, a favourite writer and another gifted provincial poet who spent much of his life in the small town of Olney. He also wrote extensively on Wordsworth, a fellow Cumbrian poet whose work he admired.
In addition, he produced various works on the history and topography of his beloved native region, such as Cumberland and Westmorland (1949), The Lakers: The Adventures of the First Tourists (1964), Portrait of the Lakes (1965), and The Lake District: An Anthology (1978). Publications like these brought Nicholson a whole new audience who did not necessarily know his poetry. He also gained more admirers through his numerous radio broadcasts and a number of television appearances.
The year 1972 saw Nicholson's return to poetry with the publication of A Local Habitation, a collection which marked a notable change of direction in his work. Looking back, he explained that his work up to The Pot Geranium had been based around a single underlying theme, that of 'the relationship of one man to his physical environment, his basic dependence on the rock and the soil whether he lived among field and fells or among streets and slagbanks.' By 1955, he felt he had made this point as well as he could, and also felt the change in literary climate which had occurred since he first began publishing in the 1940s. Perhaps surprisingly, the change in direction in his own poetry owed something to Robert Lowell's Life Studies (1959), which Nicholson read and admired during his 'fallow' period. Although not a fan of confessional poetry, Nicholson found that Lowell's poems helped to focus some of his own ideas about his family and childhood. He began to take memories of his own early life and family members as the starting-point for poems, and A Local Habitation marked a change in emphasis from the town of Millom itself to the inhabitants of the town, themes which were further developed in his final major collection, Sea to the West (1981).
The year after his final collection appeared, on 31 August 1982 Yvonne Nicholson died of cancer after a long illness. With the loss of his wife, Nicholson's life once again became more circumscribed, yet he continued to participate in the world of poetry, undertaking some readings, and even appearing on the South Bank Show in 1984. This programme (edited by fellow Cumbrian Melvyn Bragg) brought Nicholson's work to a much wider audience, and elicited many enthusiastic responses, as documented in the archive (see NCN1/2/14). Although Norman said he would never write again after Yvonne's death, he managed to produce at least two major poems: 'Epithalamium for a Niece' on the marriage of his sister-in-law's daughter; and 'Comet Come', written to mark the 1985/6 visit of Halley's Comet, which his father had seen in 1910 from Nicholson's own attic window in St George's Terrace. Nicholson remained at St George's Terrace until his death on 30 May 1987.
His distinguished career brought him many honours, including the Heinemann Prize for Poetry in 1945, the Cholmondeley Award for Poetry in 1967, the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1977, honorary degrees from various universities and in 1981 the Order of the British Empire. A poet, dramatist, novelist, critic, biographer, and topographer, Nicholson was a writer in the broadest sense. He was also a provincial writer in the most positive sense of the term, 'someone who had shared from childhood the culture of his native region', 8 and a sense of the physical and human environment of Cumbria permeates his work. He was the seventeenth Nicholson to make Millom his home, and he called the town 'a place that seems to belong to me like an outer layer of clothing, so that anywhere else I feel not properly dressed.'9 The plaque marking his house in St George's Terrace fittingly commemorates him as 'Norman Nicholson, Man of Millom'.