by ROBERT HILLYER
IN DE QUINCEY’S wonderfully eloquent reminiscences of the English Lake Poets, which are less known than his other works, yet are in my opinion the best and most sustained effort of all, there is an abundance of happy obiter dicta. Speaking of Dorothy Wordsworth’s exile from the ranks of the blue-stockings, he points out, as an example, her ignorance of Fénelon, and in a footnote adds: — “‘Calypso no savoit se consoler du depart’ etc. For how long a period (viz. nearly two centuries) has a Calypso been inconsolable in the studies of young ladies! As Fenelon’s most dreary romance always opened at one or other of these three earliest and dreary pages, naturally to my sympathetic fancy the poor unhappy goddess seemed to be eternally aground on this Goodwin sound of inconsolability. It is amongst the standing hypocrisies of the world that most people affect a reverence for this book, which nobody reads.” Substitute for Fenelon about half the authors, ancient and modern, to be found on any college reading list, and you will note that the hypocrisy continues unabated. Or consider the thousands of volumes purchased to grace a living-room table that have no place in the mental furniture.
On the whole, French literature has not had a good effect on the English. La Rochefoucauld did not have the English language in mind, however Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot may have thought of him as a fellow author. The genius of the two languages is completely different. English depends on a large margin of interpretation; French narrows it down to almost nothing. Consequently, writers in the English tongue, when predominantly influenced by the French, become merely obscure; and French authors, influenced by the English, misplace their caesuras. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan” is just as untranslatable into French as “Dieu, que le son du cor” is untranslatable into English. Sir Thomas Urquhart, in his translation of Rabelais, made the nearest marriage, but English so tempted him with its profusion that he outdid his original.
Concerning prose style, I frequently find myself out of sympathy with the bulk of critical opinion. For example, the prose of John Runyan seems to me boorish and coarse (irrespective of the story, which, if analyzed, will be found to be a mass of sadism and inconsistency). Those who compare Runyan’s style to that of the English Bible must lack any ear for the cadences of noble prose. Alfred Noyes published an excellent essay on this subject in a volume entitled (unfortunately) The Opalescent Parrot.
At the opposite extreme is the prose of Francis Thompson in his essay on Shelley, which seems to me insufferably mannered. It is the current fashion to obliterate the works of Walter Pater; yet granting that most of his essays have wilted away in their own perfume, I would still put in a good word for Marius the Epicurean. These are a few typical heresies out of a catalogue which would fill pages.
There is a small green volume, Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, which seems to me the most portable of masterpieces. I do not know whether or not it is still in print. I hope it is. I have given away dozens of copies; I wish I had more than the one left for myself. Among the epigrams: “I am the tomb of one shipwrecked; but sail thou; for when we were perishing, the other ships sailed on over the sea.” There one has as much compact philosophy as was ever expanded into thousands of volumes, so many of them unreadable.
The question of the translation of poetry is a knotty one. I have come to the conclusion that the finest and most rhythmic prose is the best medium. Arthur Waley, whose translations from the Chinese are as fine as Mackail’s from the Greek (not knowing Chinese, I must judge from the English literary effects merely), told me that the reviewers of his book had missed the main point in his technique. He was designing — at least this is my interpretation of his comment — a special form of verse for his purpose. It approximates cadenced verse; and that, in turn, at its best, is a highly rhythmic prose broken into lines according to the music and dramatic suggestion of what the poet has to say. It is non-metrical; a sort of border between verse and straight prose.
My Chinese friend, Tai Jen, thought Waley’s work good as English literature, but mistaken as translation. He would point out discrepancies between Waley’s symbolism and his own. I asked him if his own explanation was the classical interpretation in China. “Oh, no,” he answered. “Probably no other Chinese critic would accept my version. You see, in China, no two critics have ever entertained the same interpretation of a single poem.” Considering which, I think Mr. Waley is on safe ground.
When Foster Damon asked Waley to autograph 170 Chinese Poems, the amiable Orientalist complied, but after the final flourish of his pen remarked, “Doesn’t that make the book secondhand?”
The likelihood is that if a good poet translates into verse, he will re-create, and thus lose the original in his own invention; if a bad poet translates, the results cannot be good. That is why, theoretically at least, I believe that a fine prose version is better.
But one does not live up to one’s preaching. When Foster Damon and I were at the University of Copenhagen, we justified our existence by translating an anthology of Danish poetry from Oehlenschläger to Johannes V. Jensen. We not only put our version into rhyme and meter; we tried to reproduce the meter and rhyme-scheme of the originals. This performance, for the only time in my versifying career, forced me to use a rhyming dictionary. The book passed back and forth between us in agonized frenzy, or one of us would shout to the other, “What is a three-syllable anapestic word which rhymes with elephant and means fern-frond? ” It was a labor of months—fun, for all that, but more like solving a crossword puzzle than writing lyric poetry. I am still proud of some of the pieces. The volume, when published, was called A Book of Danish Verse; it is long since out of print. One reward I reaped was the information that the poems (those of them that had been set to music) could be sung to the original melodies.
A group of Danish writers and academicians tried an interesting experiment. They chose a fine passage from one of Johannes V. Jensen’s prose works — a description of an oxcart going down a leafy road through a forest. This passage they sent to Stockholm, where it was translated into Swedish. The Swedish version was then sent to Berlin, where it was translated into German; the German version was sent to Paris, and so on, until the passage had been filtered through most of the languages of Europe. The final version, in English, was returned to Copenhagen, where it was translated back into the Danish. The oxcart, the leafy road, the forest, these were still there; but in every other respect the new Danish passage bore no resemblance to the original.
Some years ago, Knopf published a translation of Johannes V. Jensen’s Braeen (The Glacier) under the title of Fire and Ice. Subsequently Wallace Stegner published a novel, Fire and Ice. The next year, Lawrence Thompson brought out a book on Robert Frost called Fire and Ice —which is, of course, the title of one of Frost’s poems. For some time to come, that will do for Fire and Ice. Authors are permitted a certain sameness in their contents, but we have a right to insist on some ingenuity in the titles.
Emerson’s famous “Brahma” is mostly taken word for word from the Upanishads.
Borrowings like these are commendable and were taken for granted in olden days. Sir Sidney Lee, one of the earliest source-hunters in England, discovering that the great Elizabethans helped themselves liberally to the common material handed over from the Classics and the Continent, came to the conclusion, as Arthur Symons expresses it, “that poets are very prosaic people at heart, and that the Elizabethan poets in particular were persons rather lacking in emotion or imagination, who translated and adapted the poems of French and Italian writers with great ability.” The point of view on re-using old material has changed within the last century. Eustache Deschamps, the contemporary of Chaucer, wishing to compliment his friend, celebrated him in a poem with the refrain ending, “Grant translateur, noble Geffroy Chaucier.”
On summer afternoons Robert Bridges would sprawl on his lawn at the top of Boar’s Hill near Oxford. He lay on his back with his knees up and scribbled away — sometimes — on The Testament of Beauty, those loose Alexandrines for which he had schooled himself in the shorter measures of the New Verse (a title to be taken literally). Occasionally a gust of wind would lift a page from his tablet and blow it away. One of these was found by a friend of mine in Sir Arthur Evans’s woods near-by. My friend expected a treasure. But the Laureate, like the meanest of us, had whiled away a hiatus in inspiration by idly scratching his name over and over in every conceivable script.
Starting at the bottom of Boar’s Hill, a mile or two from Oxford, one passed on the left a great estate crowned by Barclay Castle — an ugly pile in the best medievalism of the Albert Memorial; then, on the right, John Masefield’s house, and farther along, the house in which Odell Shepard spent several summers — a place most memorable to me for his hospitality. At the top of the hill was Robert Bridges’s house, Chilswell. It was from there that he wrote me, in 1920, after I had sent him the sort of tribute a hero-worshiper of twentyfive would send to a hallowed Laureate. It was concerned with the attacks on Bridges for inviting the German universities to resume friendly relations after the last war.
“I think that our effort at Oxford will do good,” he wrote. “The attempt to belittle its significance cannot stand; but at present the irreconcilables are so hot that it is wiser not to heckle them. On our side we have I think an increasing majority among the teachers & you will be interested to know that the undergraduates wd poll strongly for us. Moreover in the French Club here a motion of censure on the ‘manifesto’ was lost by and incontinently ‘adjourned.’ . . . The Times wd have supported us eight months ago; just now it happens that Harmsworth’s skirmishings with Lloyd George suggest another line to him: the M.P.’s cannot speak for fear of their electoral mobs, and they are gassed by the Turkish atmosphere of the House, but as Labour, when it has been able to speak, will be on our side, many of them will adopt seasonable maxims. The aweful condition of the country distracts people’s intelligence, & no one can guess what is going to happen. The women’s vote at the next election wall discover what is to be hoped from the particular intelligence of the sex. For myself I wd not have you fancy that I am suffering any of a martyr’s discomforts, or that I shd be very sensitive to them if I were. My danger is lest I shd be distracted from the serious nature of the controversy by enjoyment of the sporting side, & by the full appreciation of those humorous comicalities with which Providence so ingeniously lightens our sorrows. . .
I conceive a lecture in English poetry as an interpretation of the poetry itself. Except when a poet is inextricably bound up with his work, as were the Romantics and Whitman, there is only the verse its technique, its meaning, and the general outlook on existence — to consider. How wise Matthew Arnold was in exclaiming of Shakespeare: “Others abide our question. Thou art free.” So many writers and their work present what the philosophers would call a dualism. So many, like Christopher Marlowe, wrote divinely, but were bawdy fellows. Shakespeare was lucky in leaving scarcely a trace behind (always excepting the Baconians).
We say of a great artist that he loses himself in his work. In truth, he finds himself in his work. The work itself is the thing. Nothing else matters — not his external actions, not what solemn commentators have said about him, not where and when editions were printed of him, not from what sources he drew or how he influenced others and they him.
It is impossible to give the same lecture twice on any one poet; therefore, set notes — worst of all a written document — are impossible. Every year one’s own taste deepens and detaches; all this refreshing must be communicated. A lecture is a creative enterprise delivered before a young public who must not be misled or befooled or condescended to.
“How does he do it?” said a Harvard undergraduate as he emerged from one of Bliss Perry’s lectures on the Lake Poets. “He must have said and thought those things for more than twenty years, but when he says them the words are fresh as dew.”
Years ago when I took over the course in versification which Dean Briggs had so long and so magnificently presented at Harvard, I, being young and scared, asked him if he would let me look over his notes. He gently refused. After his death, his family gave me access to all his notes. I came to those on the course I was giving and overrode a sense of guilt by looking at just a few, which were on little cards. They had nothing on them but essential reminders of dates and facts, and a few quotations. Those beautiful and enthusiastic discourses on the marrow of our poetry had been improvisations; they had been the creation of a great critical literature, ever changing and never put down.
Lecturing, therefore, is a work of art which must be ever changing, never permanent. Had a shorthand expert taken down the Dean’s lectures, and had they been published, the result would have been misleading. It would have caught in amber what was essentially and joyously ever on the wing.