The Road to Sligo
SIR: Tom Paulin (LRB, 17 May) begins a review with paragraphs of potted lit. hist. about translators of the Aeneid: Gavin Douglas, Surrey, Dryden, Day Lewis – the usual list. Is Paulin, then, winding up to a review of a book about translating Virgil? Not at all: the book he has before him, Charles Tomlinson’s Poetry and Metamorphosis, is about translating (and imitating, adapting, assimilating) not Virgil, but Ovid. Ah, but that’s just the point: Tomlinson should have been talking about Virgil. And why? Because Ovid’s theme – metamorphosis – explores the interconnections, inter-dependencies and intertraffic between human life and other forms of sentient life; whereas – thus a sudden ukase from Commissar Paulin – the only acceptable themes for poetry are those that explore the relations between some human lives and other human lives, and the public aspect of such relations, that’s to say politics. To read the Metamorphoses with interest is – so Paulin manages to deduce, by a logic inaccessible to the rest of us – to show insufficient concern for the plight of the unemployed. Ovid seems to have been bored by politics, so is Tomlinson much of the time, so am I. Paulin can huff and puff as much as he likes, but he can’t deny us our right to be bored, and to say so. Meanwhile Ovid has been a classic of Western literature for 2000 years; it’s a bit late to try to eliminate him from the curriculum.
Moreover, Tomlinson shouldn’t say that Dryden as translator, and Pound, are two of a kind. Why not? Because Dryden, when he translated Virgil, is declared to have written as a flag-wagging English-man, whereas Pound when he translated Li Po obviously didn’t. Of course in the 1690s English was the tongue of one island nation, whereas by 1915 it was a thoroughly international tongue, as it is (only more so) for Tomlinson and Paulin and me. As a response to Tomlinson’s wonderfully eloquent lectures, Little Englandism (for that matter, Little Irelandism) seems more than usually irrelevant and offensive.
Silverton, near Exeter
SIR: Tom Paulin, in his interesting if rather churlish review of Charles Tomlinson’s admirable Poetry and Metamorphosis, at times resorts to just that species of urbane cultural waffle of which he seems to accuse Tomlinson. I do not know what it means to say that Dryden’s Virgil is more important than his Ovid because he wrote it for his country’s ‘honour’, or because, ‘perhaps, all verse translation must begin and end with a version of the Aeneid.’ I do know that the Ovid translations are at once truer images of their original and more alive as English verse. It is hard to find in the Virgil a passage to match the imaginative energies of the englishing of (say) the Flood or Daphne’s metamorphosis into laurel. The reason is not far to seek: however much Dryden may have aspired to be the English Virgil, he was anima naturaliter Ovidiana – the glittering surfaces of the Metamorphoses were closer to him than the numinous opacities of Virgil could ever be. Moreover, Ovid had been a far more pervasive presence in English letters, from Chaucer to Milton, than Virgil, who, as R. M. Ogilvie has remarked, is perhaps too religious for the majority of Englishmen and too little Humanist. (Significantly, it was the Anglo-Catholic T.S. Eliot who, in a potent piece of myth-making, re-asserted the claim for Virgil’s ‘adequacy’ and cultural centrality.) It is partly for its recovery of a fuller sense of Ovid that Poetry and Metamorphosis deserves respect.
School of European Studies, University of Sussex
Trouble at the Met
SIR: I was disappointed with the quality of Barbara Wootton’s review of McNee’s Law and the four reports on the Metropolitan Police by the Policy Studies Institute (LRB, 5 April). With regard to the former there are a number of surprising inaccuracies.
1. Serious reference is made to Lord Mountbatten claiming that he arranged for McNee to be appointed Commissioner of the Met. In the text it is plain that Mountbatten is referring to Mark (McNee’s predecessor) and not to McNee, while it is also suggested that the remark was mere impression-management on Mountbatten’s part.
2. The Met investigation into the corrupt activities of the Obscene Publications Squad is described as coming after the ‘Countryman’ external inquiry into corruption and as being the initiative of McNee, whereas the inquiry was conducted when Mark was still Commissioner and before ‘Countryman’ was launched.
3. The reviewer is under the impression that the assault on the Iranian Embassy in 1980 was carried out by London policemen when, in fact, members of the SAS performed the assault.
With regard to the four PSI reports I cannot help feeling that Barbara Wootton does not give them the critical attention they deserve. The PSI investigation constitutes the most serious attempt ever undertaken to study opinions about, and behaviour in, the Met with the use of both qualitative and quantitative methods. The Metropolitan Police has not substantially denied the findings. Those findings raise serious doubts about a number of crucial aspects of routine policing in London. They reveal that a major institution in British society, which has been exposed to critical scrutiny for some twenty years and which has been under constant investigation for corrupt practices for 13 years (surely unprecedented in public life?), has managed to evade reform from above and from outside. Despite the prolonged, serious endeavours of many senior officers to change and improve standards of conduct, the suspicion persists that practical everyday policing in London is still characterised by a measure of rule-bending, discrimination and lack of accountability (as a reading of Simon Holdaway’s Inside the British Police confirms).
Netherlands School of Business, Brenkelen
Dante and Auden
SIR: How can John Bayley (LRB, 15 March) call Auden ‘exemplar of English poets for whom Dante’s example has meant little or nothing’ when Auden himself has written in the ‘Sessions of the Poets’ section of the first part of New Year Letter:
So, when my name is called, I face,
Presiding coldly on my case,
That lean hard-bitten pioneer
Who spoiled a temporal career
And to the supernatural brought
His passion, senses, will and thought,
By Amor Rationalis led
Through the three kingdoms of the dead.
And when he imitated him fairly directly in the only relatively recently published unfinished poem ‘In the Year of My Youth’, and has obviously approved by following the practice of establishing ideological frameworks for verse, though in Auden’s case the ideology may have shifted rather more than in Dante’s. If Auden takes Dante’s protestation ‘Io non Enea, io non Paolo sono’ more seriously than did Yeats and Shelley, Dante is a rich enough poet to have many kinds of disciple. In an essay ‘Criticism in a Mass Society’ Auden writes: ‘The three greatest influences on my own work have been, I think, Dante, Langland and Pope.’
All Sound Christians
SIR: I was glad to read William Lamont’s letter (Letters, 3 May) with his five points about Richard Baxter, even though they were presented as objections to my own article (about C. H. Sisson.) They do at least strengthen my impression that Sisson had treated Baxter with insufficient respect. Since I have fallen among scholars, let me go slowly through Lamont’s points.
1. Yes, I was wrong to write that N. H. Keeble was ‘responsible for the excellent Everyman edition of Baxter’s autobiography in 1931’. My copy is presented as an abridgment by the Rev. J. M. Lloyd Thomas, first published (in the Everyman series) in 1931 and edited by N. H. Keeble in 1974.
2. ‘Is it fair to call Baxter a Puritan?’ I asked, tentatively. I certainly would not wish to deny Baxter any credit that might accrue to him from being called a Puritan: but (according to Keeble in 1974) Baxter in 1677 did describe this label as an ‘ambiguous ill-made word’. Keeble remarks in the same prefatory essay that ‘the usual political and doctrinal definitions of Puritanism will not apply to Baxter’ and his ‘teaching and reflections on the religious groupings of his time afford evidence for arguing that they do not apply even to the main body of Puritan opinion.’ Nevertheless (Keeble suggests) Baxter seems to have been happy to accept the label ‘Puritan’ when it was used as a term of derision by the ungodly. Keeble also advances the notion that ‘Baxter’s work rises far above the particular concerns of one period in ecclesiastical history. It is the supreme apologetic for the Puritan spirit in Christianity.’ No doubt Keeble has developed these points in his more recent book, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters but I have not read it yet.
3. When I remarked that Baxter’s account of his argument with Cromwell ‘does not accord with our usual notion of Puritans’, I meant the usual notion of us general readers. If we read of a man boldly telling Cromwell that ‘we took our ancient monarchy to be a blessing and not an evil to the land’ and claiming afterwards that he would have mentioned Charles I by name (presumably as a blessing to the land) if he had not been deterred by the danger of being accused of ‘treason’, we would not suppose that he represented ‘Puritan’ opinion.
Lamont remarks that Baxter’s private papers reveal that he was at one time more friendly to Cromwell and hostile to the Crown than his later ‘doctored memoirs’ would indicate. No doubt, during the course of his life amid the changing currents of the 17th century, Baxter sometimes threw his weight to one side or the other of the disputes, while attempting to remain consistent. In his later years he remarked: ‘I was, then,’ (1641-2, I think) ‘so zealous that I thought it a great sin for men that were able to defend their country to be neuters; and I have been tempted since to think that I was a more competent judge upon the place when all things were before our eyes than I am in the review of those days and actions so many years after, when distance disadvantageth the apprehension … But I confess for my part I have not such censorious thoughts of those that then were neuters as formerly I have had: for he that either thinketh both sides raised an unlawful war, or that could not tell which (if either) was in the right, might well be excused if he defended neither.’ When he constructed those intricate sentences Baxter must have been strongly aware of time’s changes, conscious that he had become doubtful of the value of his earlier partisan zeal, but by no means certain that this doubtfulness had brought him nearer the truth.
4. I remarked that some modern historians treat Baxter ‘as respectfully as if he were Thucydides’. Lamont responds: ‘But the point is that they shouldn’t.’ It is not for me to decide whether they should or should not. I was merely trying to illustrate (for other general readers) my impression that modern historians consider Baxter an exceptionally trustworthy witness, rather as ancient historians consider Thucydides, since both writers appear to have been unusually honest, intelligent and able to understand partisan spirit from personal experience, like a just judge experienced in advocacy.
5. Lamont suggests that the Pope’s recent visit to Britain ‘would have seemed far more outlandish to Baxter than it would to Sisson’. Might-have-beens are difficult to determine. We need not doubt that an official visit to Britain by Pope Innocent X in the 1650s would have taken Baxter by surprise; but might not Baxter have been rather pleased if he could have foreseen that Pope John Paul II would visit Britain in 1982?
I suggested that Sisson seemed to disapprove of the present Archbishop of Canterbury refusing to accept the idea that ‘the C of E is just a national church’ – for England (perhaps the United Kingdom) but nowhere else. At least that is what I intended to suggest. Lamont responds that in 1691 Baxter wrote in favour of the idea of national churches – but I do not find this relevant to the point I was trying to make: that the present Archbishop seems to regard ‘the C of E’ certainly as a national church but also as something more than that, a member of a developing international communion, while Sisson seems to want to restrict the Church’s mission to ‘this realm of England’. Is not the Archbishop’s attitude rather closer than Sisson’s to the spirit of Baxter in the 17th century?
SIR: A printer’s gremlin made my piece on gangsters (LRB, 17 May) unfair to Dashiell Hammett’s record, or his imagination. The stolen property he claimed to have recovered when working as a Pinkerton detective was not a Ferrari wheel, but a Ferris wheel – a more spectacular haul, or boast.