NORMAN NICHOLSON lived all his life with ‘Sea to the West’. The Times obituary described him as “The most gifted English Christian poet of his century”. Others, as a ‘provincial poet’. Both views are true, though I sense that neither fully value the power and worth of a ‘local habitation’.

Nicholson was born in 1914 in Millom – one of the rather unlovely towns of the west Cumbrian coastal strip. Apart from two years in his teens spent in a Hampshire sanitarium due to pulmonary tuberculosis, he remained in Millom until his death in 1987. A Cumbrian poet to his marrow, but not a Lakeland poet.

West Cumbria carries the scars of former industry, present neglect and ongoing isolation. To the west, it meets the Irish sea and to the east, the Lake District National Park. This is a place where coal and iron, lakes and mountains and, in the words of folk-singer Mike Donald, “poets and mining men”, are not easily separated out.

Nicholson’s lifelong habit was to look and see, hear and listen to, the characteristics of this unique place. The rhythms and cadences of Cumbrian speech give his poetic voice its character. In For the Grieg Centenary, he writes of

The crackling northern tongues,
The dialect crisp with the click of the wind
In the thorns of a wintry dyke.

A similar taut economy of expression fixes the fell which overlooks Millom. In Black Combe White, the familiar view – something which may easily become dulled and denatured – is transformed by the poet’s eye. The process of becoming re-aware of the familiar, paying it deep attention and thus discovering and sharing its value, is, I suggest, at the heart of good writing which prefers to avoid the grand gestures of romanticism. It is the poetry of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Subject to change but always dear, always ‘selfed’.

The slightly patronising tone of ‘provincial’ misses the meaning of a poet who was as deeply aware of ‘inscape’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins and as rooted in his place as was John Clare. This opening into spiritual and emotional ecology is at the heart of Nicholson’s poetry. Living in the odd ambiguity of a place not quite urban and not quite rural: a built environment which has seen better days, though bordered by the natural beauty of sea and upland, he looked away from the temptation to which a lesser poet might have succumbed: “the smug, the narrow, the short-sighted… a bad copy of the life of the capital”, instead celebrating the unique and sometimes unsettling character of his native place. In this time of increasing migratory movements and calculated cruelty towards asylum seekers, it is these qualities which give authority not only to his writing, but to his belief that it is “in our intense concern with what is close to us, that we most resemble the people of other countries and other times”.

It is perhaps this embracing of both commonality and its flowering in the individual, which feeds Nicholson’s expression of faith. This is not something the poet wears on his sleeve, rather it is the sleeve-weave. The incarnation is both local and ubiquitous; both now and eternal and the tension of paradox is apparent over and again in so much of his work. Carol for the Last Christmas Eve (which can be found here), is truly extraordinary in the literature of nativity, crucifixion and the way in which we are made part of their eternal outcomes. Eschatology meets theopoetics and in our dark nights of doubt and fear, heart speaks to heart.

Sea to the West is perhaps the best known of Nicholson’s poems. Place, memory and eternity are made vivid here and in the last three lines of the final stanza, he takes the hand of Henry Vaughan, connecting three centuries of writing on the mysteries of faith and of death. In that moment of transfiguration and hope, an unsung shore with no looks to attract our eyes becomes the vestibule of the everlasting Light.


© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen