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Review of Charles Tomlinson's Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation - Peter Carter, The London Magazine
Same Difference by Peter CarterNext review of 'Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation'... To the 'Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation' page...
The London Magazine December / January 2005
Charles Tomlinson is nearing the end of his last 1982 Clark Lecture, 'Metamorphosis and Translation'. His theme is the 'transfusion' of the 'soul of your original' when you are translating poetry: either you have this or 'you are nowhere.' His examples of previous greats include Dryden, Pope and yes, Cowley ('In the far off days when I was at Cambridge, no one told us to read Cowley'). Their various achievements match up to Denham's exhortations from the 1656 preface to his translation of Virgil: the translator's business is not "alone to translate Language into Language, but Poesie into Poesie; and poesie is so subtle a spirit, that in pouring out of one Language into another, it will all evaporate; and if a new spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will be nothing but a Caput mortuum, there being certain Graces and Happiness peculiar to every Language, which gives life and energy to words..." Denham uses analogies from science - the pun on the post distillation residue of the Caput mortuum - yet the successful process is alchemical, magical. The struggle for any critic is to find appropriate and memorable analogies. Charles Tomlinson's preface to Translations (OUP, 1983) quotes approvingly the analogy used by Henry Gifford, his co-translator: "Translation is resurrection, but not of the body..."
Tomlinson's lecture is a matter of urgency and practice, to resurrect a line of poetry that might involve multiple transfusions, justifying by his erudition and well-chosen examples the "life and energy" of those in that line, their greatness. The lectures are brilliantly managed along a line of criticism that is itself a transfusion of approaches from Eliot and Leavis. (No anxiety of influence here, no Terry Eagleton, no signifiers.) They embody the qualities he seeks to resurrect: "This desire to transmit the strengths of another literary civilisation is something one experiences right through the history of translation. It shows the historic instinct of translators as they operate in a given civilisation and at a given time." History is now and England, specifically Cambridge, a 1980s Cambridge where Pound might be rubbished or ignored. His clinching example is to be that of Pound, and here the lecturer's urge to persuade produces a rather blunt critical instrument: "Translation requires, then, basically two things - the man and the moment: a man like Ezra Pound, and a moment like the year 1913 when the widow of Ernest Fenollosa sent Pound her deceased husband's notebooks..." And then, shazam, one is tempted to add. Qualifications (a man not a woman?, like Fenollosa's widow?, a man like Pound or Pound himself?, a year as a moment?) are swept aside. And the following account of the impact of the haiku form on Pound's composition of 'In a Station of the Metro' also shows a straining for the right analogy:
The second part of the sentence is Tomlinson's own image (part homage to 1913 trolley car poles? Michelangelo creationist moment? Frankenstein?)for the mysterious process of poetic metamorphosis. The moment when a combination of forces produces a new whole, or to cite Joyce, as Tomlinson does earlier, where opposites "by the coincidence of their contraries reamalgamerge". Joyce's resonant portmanteau word, new for new, rings true, while Tomlinson's slight struggle only emphasises the importance of the moment to the argument and the wonderful work around it, the fund of great knowledge and passion.
Tomlinson's sparky meeting with Pound stresses the historical significance of the initial reamalgamerging: the right man for the right moment, at a particular level of intensity. To cite Joyce again, as Tomlinson does, via Book XV of Ovid's Metamorphoses, is an act of metempsychosis, the word pondered over by Molly Bloom in Ulysees, a literary resurrection "at least in the form of literary descent." The whole business is perpetuated in Tomlinson's homage to Eliot and Pound (via Donald Davie) in an argument that echoes Eliot's 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. Tomlinson makes it clear that Pound was kicking against something: Pound's translation for Cathay was not just 'doing a job', it was an "explosion into the possibilities of extending his own poetry...extending that emotional concentration he was already seeking for in heaving against the Edwardian idiom, against the fluent slackness of much then-contemporary verse."
In 'The Presence of Translation', the first essay collected here, from 1989, the "richness" of English poetry is attributed to "what it managed to incorporate into itself 'in the guise of translations' (George Steiner's term); the creative translations of men like Oldham, Dryden, Pope, and in our own century, Pound, helped English to shed its provincialisms". Such re-iteration reminds one that Tomlinson's essays and lectures are in part a manifesto, authoritative and dazzling, "heaving against" the "fluent slackness" and "provincialism" of much contemporary verse. "Slackness" reminds us of a Leavisite 'incorporation' into Tomlinson's critical richness, and "provincialism" jogs a memory of Donald Davie, Tomlinson's Cambridge tutor.
Whatever the agenda, Tomlinson brilliantly reciprocates the job he describes: drawing the reader back to the strengths of other literary civilisations and offering means to re-investigate our own. His axioms are metropolitan, along the lines that Pound envisaged in London in 1914: a vortex, "a cone of energy, a whirling force attracting energies to itself." These Clark Lectures are essential reading for anyone interested in Eliot, Pound and Ovidian 'forces'; the 'magnetic' attraction of Eliot to the Tereus-Philomela story, for example:
Or the distinction between Eliot and Pound in Ovidian terms. Pound's shared feeling with Ovid that we "belong to our world and of the essential unity of men with animal creation" set against Eliot's sense of the more "provisional nature of personality". Eliot's impersonality a concealment of self, Pound's otherness a search for unity. And further to this: "metamorphosis has become a primary component of style itself" in the 20th century: "in montage, collage, decolcomania, in Joycean wordplay."
Just as "Dryden seems to me the Poundian figure of his day invigorating the talent of others by his example and his personal urging", so Tomlinson invigorates, working through example and exhortation to incorporate the riches of Dryden, Pound and many others. And it is Dryden's example that is a shifting centre to this book: his translation of Ovid unites a notion of translation as a kind of metamorphosis that informs the rest of the essays. And the discrete essay on his work, 'Why Dryden's Translation Matters', encapsulates Tomlinson's own methodology: "Dryden delighted in mirroring his authors one in another - Horace in Virgil, Virgil in Horace, Spenser in Ovid, Lucretius in Chaucer. Instances of one author reflecting on or modifying the voice of another author (think of T.S. Eliot and Baudelaire) are a fact of literary history - of literary metamorphosis, one might say, and this is a principal feature of the metamorphosis that takes place when one poet acts as the translator of another."
So, for Tomlinson, literary history as a matter of saying is metamorphic, its one constant is change. This is best said for him by Dryden's translation of Ovid, a vision of cosmic unity from Book XV:
Tomlinson's praise for the audacity of Dryden's punning use of 'Translated' is translated for us by Tomlinson: it "wittily incorporates the notion of literary translation into the concept of the ongoing world empowered by the metamorphosis of its own elements - mud and stones into flesh and blood, flesh into trees, human into divine." Sometimes, perhaps, a media fix on works such as After Ovid or Tales from Ovid can make us a little complacent about the centrality and worth of translation as incorporated into our understanding of poetics. Tomlinson via Michael Schmidt, after Dryden and Ovid, reminds us of things all too easily ignored, albeit destroyed.
Charles Tomlinson's recycled, encapsulated reckoning of Ovid's Metamorphoses ("an imaginative vision where all things are inter-related, where flesh and blood are near kin to soil and river, where man and animal share common instincts") had left its mark by the time I came to read P.J. Kavanagh's A Kind of Journal. This is a book of essays, over eighty in all, good value then, written for the Spectator (under the tag 'Life and Letters') and the Times Literary Supplement (as 'Bywords'). Tomlinson's earnest and erudite literary inter-relations were re-aligned next to a sniff of the real; one book held over against another.
Next to scholarly accounts of Eliot's imitation of bird-song as text (nightingale or hermit-thrush, twit twit twit, etc. ) come worlds walked into, convincingly and winningly rendered as part of a living pattern, the writer alive to fakery and self-deception, tracing a course. A course that can lead anywhere, certainly out of the lecture room. From a man scything thistles to a meditation on the holy qualities of lignum vitae, for example.
Take 'Landscape with No Figures', a stunning piece from February 1992. Its simple opening sentence ("Waking to a morning of snow") clicks into literary echoes (Tomlinson's early poem 'Winter-Piece' and Hardy's 'Snow in the Suburbs') but then moves on. The tone is guarded, quizzical, avowedly anti-lyrical: "Where are all the birds? There is a distant, disconsolate rook, even a lark, but that sounds grounded, uncertain. Is this prose 'poetic'? No. Only a report, an experiment, a pleasure." The reporting voice knows its stuff and how to make an experience reach beyond itself, without self-regard. A few birds sing. Visiting fieldfares are "well-tailored birds, with elegant sloping shoulders, erect, like guard officers in plain clothes." They are disturbed by starlings, "quarrelling irregulars, disciplined only in flight." The military metaphor infiltrates, isn't played for its own sake. At home there's a crash. A sparrow hawk has flown into the window: "It lay still, its yellow eyes open, the same colour as its horny legs. We picked it up, warm, and laid it on a place it could fly away from, should it recover. But slowly its eyes closed...It will have to be buried. Unnatural; but after all it was we who were in its way, who deceived it, and even in death it is a kingly presence." These snippets cannot do the whole piece justice. Tomlinson's Ovid ("all things inter-related...where flesh and blood are near kin to soil and river")is crashed into: there's no easy fit, no ready kinship: the un-peopled landscape is recorded and celebrated for its difference, the kingly presence of the sparrow hawk makes a respectful subject of its recorder.
Analogies have rightly been made between Kavanagh's work and that of Edward Thomas, but this piece and others reveal a chiselled toughness more akin to R.S. Thomas. Witness his take on the Georgians' sentimental tweeness in 'Varieties and Sports': "They grit their teeth and insist on a cheeriness to be found in the rural scene that fills the reader's heart with dole." Kavanagh's window onto the world is aware of its potential for deception. The ghostly nature of the landscape and its creatures has a lot to do with Kavanagh's acute appreciation of the fine balance to be achieved in life and art between attachment and detachment. This quality brings to mind Kavanagh's preface to A Perfect Stranger (1984) and his account of the pleasure and frustration of trying to express "some part of the 'impersonality', but what is better termed the 'suprapersonality' that I feel at the heart of everything."
This all sounds terribly serious. The essays, though, revel in bizarre or grotesque juxtapositions and employ sudden or subtle shifts in tone. Beckettian use of deadpan humour, in the face of the world's minor irritations and daily tragedies, is especially telling. Try, for example, the move from reflections on Newman to the Johnsonian "grisly old buffer" tutting in exasperation at Trevor Bailey's use of "solitary" to describe Geoffrey Boycott's batting ('Eavesdropping on Language') or imitations of mortality at the Harbourfront Festival in Toronto ('Oldtimer's Disease'): "I reflect what a strange trio of sixtysomethings we make, eating our oysters in a deserted cafe by the windswept lake, quoting Mabinogion and Theocritus. Occasionally we pause and stab the air, because the wind seems unaccountably to have swept away the name of a book, or of our dearest friend, and we look at each other with bleak sympathy."
Kavanagh's appreciation of masks, Yeatsian or otherwise, and an actor's ability to capture a voice or character and then to step out of role: both qualities enhance the anecdotes and reflections. His essays are rather like some of T.S. Eliot's, in that Kavanagh is at his most personal and revelatory when he is talking about someone else's achievements and qualities. His praise for Yeats, on re-reading Autobiographies, is apposite: "you could...find in him the inspiration for an almost Boy Scout self-renewal...if he shrank from company, he made himself enter it...He was so able to re-create himself because he believed in something outside himself..." ('Aloof to Ludicrous'). Kavanagh is prepared to mix it, whatever the trepidation.
Some essays are versions of pastoral. For example, the reader is taken to London with a nervy Kavanagh to rehearse for an episode of Father Ted ("given the part of a priest who for fifty years had sheltered a German in his room filled with Nazi memorabilia") then taken back from such "pleasant, classless, rogues-and-vagabonds camaraderie" to "here", Gloucestershire, where the local farmer has "gone organic" and Kavanagh's horizon is "composed of dung, gently steaming, like the rehearsal-room urn." A memorable pairing.
One of Kavanagh's many gifts is for this: pairings, the metaphysical poet's art of yoking together unlikely bedfellows: Augustine and Billy Collins or Dickens' Quilp and September 11th. Unlike Charles Tomlinson's sense for chartered inter-relatedness in literature, an Ovidian feel for convergence and correspondences. Kavanagh cherishes and records life and art via distinctive divergence. His magnificent appraisal of the differing qualities of Roy Fuller and George Barker ("Roy the Lion and Unicorn George") is a fine example of this: "Anyway, Fuller is deceptively quiet, domestic, fearful of death, and frequently humorous; Barker is noisy, apocalyptic...with the authentic note of human dismay beneath the often wildly flippant." It takes a particular comprehensiveness of vision to make such distinctions, to allow such qualities to stand for themselves, and a corresponding refinement of technique to do it all so deftly and memorably. Kavanagh, like Tomlinson, invigorates by example and personal urging, but unlike Tomlinson, there is no tessellated pattern of underlying agenda. "Here is God's plenty": the essays severally and collectively allow the reader to appreciate Dryden's words on Chaucer. They are an authentic and memorable celebration of difference: "The season...is full of details. They may seem repetitive: same leaves, flowers arriving more or less on cue, but they never do so in quite the same way."
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