Catacomb Graffiti

Clive James

Appearing unannounced in 1977, Charles Johnston’s verse rendering of Eugene Onegin established itself immediately as the best English translation of Pushkin’s great poem there had yet been. It was an impressive performance even to those who could not read the original. To those who could, it was simply astonishing, not least from the technical angle: Johnston had cast his Onegin in the Onegin stanza, a form almost impossibly difficult in English, and had got away with it. Only an accomplished poet could think of trying such a feat. Yet as a poet Charles Johnston was scarcely known. Indeed, his profile was not all that high even as Sir Charles Johnston, career diplomat and quondam High Commissioner for Australia. All the signs pointed to gentlemanly dilettantism – all, that is, except the plain fact that anyone who can convey even a fraction of Pushkin’s inventive vitality must have a profoundly schooled talent on his own account.

Now a small volume of Johnston’s own creations, called Poems and Journeys, has quietly materialised, in the unheralded manner which is obviously characteristic of its author. It seems that most of the poems it contains previously appeared in one or other of two even smaller volumes, Towards Mozambique (1947) and Estuary in Scotland (1974), the second of which was printed privately and the first of which, though published by the Cresset Press, certainly created no lasting impression in the literary world. The poems were written at various times between the late Thirties and now. There are not very many of them. Nor does the Bodley Head seem to be acting in any more forthcoming capacity than that of jobbing printer. ‘Published for Charles Johnston by the Bodley Head’ sounds only one degree less bashful than issuing a pamphlet under your own imprint.

But this time Johnston will not find it so easy to be ignored. Poems and Journeys is unmistakably an important book. Leafing through it, you are struck by its assured display of formal discipline, but really, from the translator of Onegin, that is not so surprising. Hard on the heels of this first impression, however, comes the further realisation that through the austerely demanding formal attributes of Johnston’s verse a rich interior life is being expressed. Johnston’s literary personality is not just old-fashioned: it is determinedly old-fashioned. He has set up the standards of the clubbable English gentry as a bulwark against encroaching chaos. Even those of us whose sympathies are all in the other direction will find it hard not to be swayed by his laconic evocation of the secret garden. It doesn’t do, we are led to assume, to go on about one’s predicament. Yet somehow a stiff upper lip makes eloquence all the more arresting.

Johnston’s diplomatic duties took him to Japan before the war. After Pearl Harbour he was interned for eight months. After being released in an exchange of diplomatic agents, he was sent to the Middle East. After the war there were various other appointments before he took up his post in Australia. Clearly the accent has always been on uncomplaining service. Nor do the poems in any way question the idea of dutiful sacrifice: on the contrary, they underline it. Trying to identify that strangely identifiable voice, you finally recognise it as the voice of someone who has not talked before, but who has been so amply described that you think you know him. Johnston is the sort of man who has been written about under so many names that when he writes something himself he sounds like a legend come to life. He is the faithful servant of Empire, who now emerges, unexpected but entirely familiar, as its last poet.

By an act of imagination, without dramatising himself, Johnston has made poetry out of his own background. The same background has produced poetry before but most of it has been bad, mainly because of an ineluctable cosiness. Johnston, however, is blessed with a distancing wit. He has the intensity of gift which makes facts emblematic without having to change them. It is the classical vision, which he seems to have possessed from the start, as the first two lines of an early poem about Japan clearly show:

Over the rockbed, over the waterfall,
Tense as a brushstroke tumbles the cataract.

The visual element is so striking it is bound to seem preponderant, but there is more at work here than just an unusual capacity to see. To choose a Greek classical measure, alcaics, is an inspired response to the inherent discipline of a Japanese landscape subject: the native poets and painters have already tamed their panorama to the point that their decorum has become part of it, so to match their formality with an equivalent procedure from the poet’s own cultural stock is an imaginative coup. Then there is the subtle control of sonic effects, with the word ‘tense’ creating stillness and the word ‘tumbles’ releasing it into motion. He sees something; he finds the appropriate form; and then he exploits technical opportunities to elaborate his perception. The classic artist identifies himself.

But everything he was saying was said from under a plumed hat. The Lake Chuzénji of his early poems was the playground of the foreign diplomats. They raced their boats on it, giving way to each other in such elaborate order of precedence that only a Chef de Protocole knew how to steer a perfect race. They committed genteel adultery around its edges. A man of Johnston’s mentality, no matter how well he fitted in by breeding, must sometimes have doubted the validity of his role. He was, after all, a double agent, both loyal functionary and universal observer. But he had not yet conceived of his complicated position as his one true subject – hence a tendency, in these early efforts, towards a Georgian crepuscularity, which even affects his otherwise scrupulously alert diction. Locutions like ‘when day is done’ crop up with their tone unqualified: something which would not happen again once his manner was fully developed.

Internment helped develop it. The work commemorating this experience is called ‘Towards Mozambique’ and is one of the three original long poems in the book. Datelined ‘Tokyo 1942 – London 1946’, it should now be seen, I think, as one of the outstanding poems of the war, even though it is less concerned with fighting than with just sitting around waiting. Exiles traditionally eat bitter bread, but the narrator is more concerned to reflect than to rail against fate. The poem has something of Ovid’s sadness in the Epistolae ex ponto, except that Johnston is not being sorry just for himself. He is bent on understanding misunderstanding – the tragedy of incomprehension which has brought Japan to war against the West.

The personal element of the tragedy comes not just from the feeling of his own life being wasted (and anyway, much of the poem seems to have been written after the internment was over) but from regret for the years that were wasted before, when diplomacy was being pursued to no effect. He reflects on what led up to this. A lot did, so he chooses a form which leaves room to lay out an argument – the Spenserian stanza whose clinching alexandrine both Byron and Shelley, in their different ways, found so seductive:

Wakening, I watched a bundle tightly packed
That scaled with clockwork jerks a nearby staff.
Hoist to the top, I saw it twitched and racked
And shrugged and swigged, until the twists of chaff
That held it to the halyard broke, and half
Released the packet, then a sharper tease
Tore something loose, and with its smacking laugh
The Jack was thrashing furiously down breeze,
Mocking the feeble stops that lately cramped its ease.

Ripping, what? (The ambiguity in the third line, incidentally, is less a grammatical error than a mark of class. Osbert Lancaster and Anthony Powell have both always let their participles dangle with abandon, and Evelyn Waugh, in the same chapter of his autobiography which tells us that only those who have studied Latin can write English, perpetrates at least one sentence whose past participle is so firmly attached to the wrong subject that there is no prising it loose. This habit has something to do, I suspect, with a confusion between the English past participle and the Latin ablative absolute.) But some of the young diplomats were not content to shelter behind Britannia’s skirts. Greatly daring, they took what opportunities they could to mingle with the locals – to penetrate, as it were, the membranes of inscrutable reserve:

Climbing with shoeless feet the polished stairs,
Gay were the evenings in that house I’d known.
The mats are swept, the cushions that are chairs
Surround the table like a lacquer throne.
The geisha have been booked by telephone,
The whisky brought, the raw fish on the ice,
The green tea boiled, the saké in its stone
Warmed to a turn, and seaweed, root and spice
Await their last repose, the tub of nutcrisp rice.

The scene is set, and soon a wall will slide,
And in will run, professional as hell,
Our geisha team, brisk as a soccer side.
We’ll ask the ones we like, if all goes well,
To luncheon at a suitable hotel …

Everything in the diplomatic colony is ordered, decorous and unreal. The unreality becomes most apparent during periods of leave in Shanghai, where a phoney aristocrat rules society:

‘Le tennis, ce jeu tellement middle-class,’
Drawls the duchesse, whose European start,
Whose Deauville background manages to pass
For all that’s feudal in this distant part.
The locals thought she couldn’t be more smart,
And prized admission to her little fêtes,
And searched through Gotha with a beating heart,
But vainly, for the names of her estates,
And for the strange device emblazoned on her plates.

But only in the enforced idleness of internment is there time to see all this in perspective. Long months of contemplation yield no grand might-have-beens or if-onlys. Nor, on the other hand, do they bring nihilistic resignation. Britain’s imperial role is not repudiated. Neither is its inevitable passing particularly regretted. Instead, there is redemption in the moment:

Time passed. A tramcar screaming in the dark
Of total blackout down the Kudan hill
Strikes, out of wire, spark on cascading spark,
Lights from below the cherry swags that spill,
In all the thickness of the rich April,
Their pink festoons of flower above the street,
Creamy as paint new-slapped, I looked my fill,
Amazed to find our world was so complete.
Such moments, in the nick, are strange and sharply sweet.

A stanza MacNeice would have been proud to have written. Even in these few examples you can see how Johnston is beginning to realise the lexical freedom that strict forms offer. Up to the point where restriction cramps style, the more demanding the stanza, the greater the range of tone it can contain. Slang phrases like ‘professional as hell’ and ‘in the nick’ sound all the more colloquial for being pieced into a tight scheme.

The second long poem in the book, ‘Elegy’, is written in memory of Johnston’s brother Duncan, ‘killed leading a Royal Marine Commando raid on the Burma Coast, on the night of February 22nd 1945’. This, too, ranks high among poems of the war. On its own it would be enough to class Johnston with Henry Reed, Bernard Spencer, F.T. Prince and Norman Cameron. It is a high-quality example of what can by now be seen to be a particular school of Virgilian plangency, the poetry of the broken-hearted fields. But it is probably not one of Johnston’s best things.

It loses nothing by its air of doomed gentility. The narrator could be Guy Crouchback talking: there was a seductive glamour about the squires going off to war, and a potent sorrow when they did not come home. But though Johnston can be impersonal about himself, he cannot be that way about his brother. The poem tries to find outlets for grief in several different formal schemes, including blank verse. The stiff upper lip relaxes, leaving eloquence unchastened. There is no gush, but there is too much vague suggestion towards feeling, made all the more unsatisfactory by your sense that the feeling aimed at is real, harsh, and unblunted even by time. A first-hand experience has aroused a second-hand artistic response. The air is of an Owenesque regret, of the dark barge passing unto Avalon in agony, of a drawing-down of blinds. The few details given of the lost, shared childhood leave you wanting more, but the author is caught between his forte and an ambition foreign to it: he is a poet of controlled emotion who can give way to anguish only at the cost of sapping his own energy:

                       Only through the hard
Shaft-face of self-esteem parsimonious tears
Are oozing, sour distillate from the core
Of iron shame, the shame of private failure
Shown up by the completeness of the dead.
I wrote in the fierce hope of bursting loose
From this regime, cracking its discipline …

I wrote, but my intense assertion found
No substance and no echo, and all I did
Was raise an empty monument to grief.

‘Elegy’ is something better than an empty monument, but it is tentative beside its predecessor ‘Towards Mozambique’, and scarcely begins to suggest the abundant assurance of its successor, the third long poem in the book, ‘In Praise of Gusto’. This contains some of Johnston’s best work and instantly takes its place as one of the most variously impressive long poems since Auden and MacNeice were at their peak. It is not as long as either ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ or Autumn Journal but it has much of their verve and genial bravura. It embodies the quality to which it is dedicated.

‘In Praise of Gusto’ returns to some of the same subject-matter dealt with in earlier works, but this time it is all brought fully within the purview of what can now be seen to be his natural tone, a tone which taps its power from the vivacity of experience. His dead brother is again mentioned. This time all the emphasis is on the life they enjoyed together when young. Nevertheless the effect of loss is more striking than it is in ‘Elegy’, where death is the direct subject. One concludes, aided by hindsight, that Johnston loses nothing, and gains everything, by giving his high spirits free rein. It might have taken him a long time completely to realise the best way of being at ease with his gift, but with consciously formal artists that is often the case. The last thing they learn to do is relax.

The poem is written in two different measures, the Onegin stanza and the stanza which Johnston insists on referring to as Childe Harold, although really Spenser has the prior title. Johnston’s mastery of the latter form was already proven. But by this time he could read fluent Russian and had obviously become fascinated with the breakneck measure in which Eugene Onegin unfolds its story. The Onegin stanzas of ‘In Praise of Gusto’ give every indication that their author will one day be Pushkin’s ideal translator. As well as that, they serve the author’s present purpose. The Onegin stanza is a born entertainer. As Johnston points out in his Author’s Note, ‘it has an inner momentum, a sort of infectious vitality of its own’. It packs itself tight and then springs loose like a self-loading jack-in-the-box. Comic timing is crucial to it:

Beauties who manage the conjunction
Of glamour and fireside repose
Pack what I call without compunction
The deadliest of knockout blows.
Japan bewitched me. Half forgotten
Were home and faith. The really rotten
Part of it all, which, when it came
Back later, made me sweat with shame,
Was that our worlds were fast dividing
And that my fondness must ignore
The headlong chute direct to war
Down which Japan was quickly gliding
With all its ravishingly queer
Compound of sensual and austere.

The rapacious hostesses of pre-war Shanghai and wartime Alexandria now find their perfectly appropriate rhythmic setting. One of the many things that attracted Johnston to his Russian exemplar must have been the way Pushkin gives full value to the glamour of imperial court life without romanticising its meretriciousness. Nobody who admires both will ever tire of counting the ways in which Pushkin and Mozart are like each other. Each could see all the world as it was yet neither could reshape it in any way except by making masterpieces. Even their own disasters lifted their hearts. (Pushkin said that trials and tribulations were included in his family budget.) Everything that happened belonged. Johnston has something of the same defiant exuberance:

How Egypt’s hostesses detested
The victories in our campaign:
‘Assez de progrès,’ they protested,
‘Vous étiez bien à Alamein’;
And then they’d stress in full italics
The point of being close to Alex,
The races and the gay weekends
Of bathing parties with one’s friends.
They saw no merit in advancing
Far from the nightclub and the beach
Out beyond invitation’s reach
To worlds remote from cards and dancing –
With absolutely not a face
They’d ever seen in the whole place.

But the Onegin stanza enforces epigrammatic terseness. As a countervailing force, Johnston employs the Spenserian stanza to luxuriate in his visual memories. Without sinning against cogency, they amply exploit this traditionally expansive form’s magically self-renewing supply of pentameter – a copiousness of rhetorical space which is symbolised, as well as sealed, by the long sweep of the alexandrine at the end:

Mersa Matruh. A fathom down, the sun
Lights on the faintest ripple of the sand
And, underseas, decyphers one by one
The cursive words imprinted on the strand
In the Mediterranean’s fluent hand;
For eastern waters have the graceful trick,
By way of compliment from sea to land,
Of signing their imprint, with curl and flick
Of the vernacular, in floweriest Arabic.

An extended metaphysical conceit has been matched up to a rigorous physical form: two kinds of intellectual strictness, yet the effect is of a single, uncalculated sensory celebration.

The essence of classical composition is that no department of it gets out of hand. After aberrations in artistic history the classic principle reasserts itself as a balancing of forces. In ‘In Praise of Gusto’ Johnston uses his Spenserian stanzas to specify his remembered visions, but he uses them also to unfold an argument. The same contrast and balance of perception and rhetoric was demonstrated by Shelley – a romantic with irrepressible classic tendencies – when he used the same stanza to ‘Adonais’. Shelley obtains some of his most gravid poetic effects by deploying what sounds like, at first hearing, a prose argument. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Johnston, when he remembers what the Western Desert looked like after the battles:

Such scenes have potency, a strange effect,
Contagion with an undefined disease.
They throw a chill on all whom they infect,
Touch them with sadness, set them ill at ease.
The sense that friends now dead, or overseas,
Fought here and suffered, hoped here and despaired,
Transports us outside time and its degrees.
Here is a new antique, already paired
With the most classic sites that scholar’s trowel has bared.

The poem begins in the Onegin stanza, takes a long excursion in the Spenserian, and returns to the Onegin. Though tipping its plumed hat to a younger version of the author – a satirical youth who ‘shot down other people’s fun’ – it conveys a whole-hearted acceptance of the good life, which apparently includes plenty of foie gras, champagne and personally slain partridges. If Dr Leavis were still with us it would be hard to imagine him appreciating any of this, especially when he noted the book’s dedication to Sacheverell Sitwell, familiarly addressed as Sachie. Yet the spine of the poem’s argument is that prepared pleasures, though it is churlish to eschew them, are not what inspires gusto, which is

Immediately sustained delight,
Short-lived, unhoped for, yet conclusive,
A sovereign power in its own right.
It lends itself to recognition
More aptly than to definition …

The reason it can’t easily be defined is that it is something more all-pervading even than a view of life. It is a way of being alive. Those gifted with it, if they have artistic gifts as well, can tell the rest of us what it is like. Reviewing his own life in search of its traces, Johnston now becomes one of those who have done so. The poem ends in a clear-eyed exultation.

The fourth long poem in the book is a translation of ‘Onegin’s Journey’ which was originally designed to go between the present chapters seven and eight of Eugene Onegin. Pushkin eventually decided to leave it out, but it remains a logical subject for the translator of Eugene Onegin to tackle. He makes the accomplished job of it that you would expect, revelling in the inspiration engendered by the physical obstacles of the tetrameter and the rhyme that continually looms too soon. They help contain his prolific knack – so appropriate in a translator of Pushkin – for sonic effects.

Throughout his work Johnston is to be found exploiting prosodic conventions (such as eliding ‘the’ into the initial vowel of the next word) for all they are worth. Sometimes he overcooks it, so that you have to read a line twice to pick out the rhythm. Sometimes the conversational stress and the metrical stress separate to the point where the reader must strain to put them back in touch with each other. Usually, though, Johnston maintains the old rules only in order to increase the number of ways he can speak freely. All those ways are on view in his rendition of ‘Onegin’s Journey’. But anyone wanting to acquaint himself with Pushkin would be advised to turn in the first instance to the Eugene Onegin translation itself, which Penguin has now brought out.

The appearance of this great translation in a popular format is made even more significant by the fact that it carries a 20-page introduction specially written by John Bayley. The author of the most distinguished book on Pushkin in any language, Bayley here gives the essence of his thoughts on Pushkin in general and Eugene Onegin in particular. Bayley’s book has always been the best full-length introduction to Pushkin, but until now Edmund Wilson’s essay in The Triple Thinkers (backed up by two further pieces in A Window on Russia) has been the best short one. Now Bayley has captured the second title as well as the first. I recommend this essay without hesitation as the first thing to read on Pushkin.

As for the translation itself, it is what it was hailed as when it came out, and what it will go on being for the foreseeable future. Johnston knows better than I do what it lacks of the original. When, in Chapter Eight, he makes Tatyana tell Onegin, ‘Today it’s turn and turn about,’ he is well-aware that there is an element of artificiality. In the original, Tatyana says just, ‘Today it is my turn,’ and it is one of the mightiest lines in all poetry. There is endless artifice in Pushkin but no artificiality. Yet by patient craft Johnston has kept to a minimum those necessarily frequent occasions when the painfully demanding form of the stanza forces an awkward phrase. Much more often he hits off the correct blend of intricate contrivance and easily colloquial expression. He catches the spirit of the thing, and a large part of the spirit of the thing is the formal spirit of the thing.

To a remarkable extent, Johnston possesses, not just the same sort of temperament as his model, but the same sort of talent. We had no right to expect that any English poet who combined these attributes would make translating Pushkin the object of his life. But as Poems and Journeys shows, Johnston has done a few things of his own. He has recently finished a translation of Lermontov’s The Demon. There are other Russian poems one can think of that he would be ideally fitted to give us, among them the last and most intensely organised of Pushkin’s tetrametric creations, The Bronze Horseman. But on the strength of this volume it might also be wished that Johnston would go on to compose a long original work which would go even further than ‘In Praise of Gusto’ towards transforming the age he has lived through into art.

One of the things art does is to civilise the recent past. In Poems and Journeys there are poems, both long and short, which add significantly to the small stock of works that have helped make sense of the British Empire’s passing and of Britain’s part in the Second World War. Johnston’s voice might have been more often heard in this respect, but he chose perfection of the life rather than of the work. As Auden noted, some artists have everything required for high distinction except the desire to come forward.

If Johnston had come forward earlier and more assertively, there can be no doubt that he would have received a hearing. In some of his short pieces he makes fun of the ‘Trend Police’ and describes the poems turned out by himself and his fellow gifted amateurs as ‘catacomb graffiti’. In fact, the Trend Police would not have stood much chance of shouting down work done to this standard. The locus classicus is in no more danger of being obscured than the privileged orders are in danger of losing their privileges, although Johnston would have you think, in his more predictable moments, that the contrary was true in each case.

The best reason for Johnston to think of himself as a part-time poet was that as a full-time diplomat he was well-placed to write the kind of poetry which is necessarily always in short supply – the poetry of the man who spends most of his day being fully professional at something else, the poetry for which the young Johnston so admired Marvell.

Yours to restore the wasted field
    And in distress to health
    To serve the Commonwealth;

Yet with a wider-sweeping eye
To range above the land, and spy
    The virtue and defect
    Of empires, to detect

In vanquished causes, and in kings
Dethroned, the tragedy of things,
    And know what joys reside
    Where the Bermudas ride.

In recent times we have grown used to the external formless epic – Berryman’s Dream Songs, Lowell’s History – and striven to convince ourselves that it possesses an internal form which makes up for its lack of shape. But this pious belief has become harder and harder to sustain. The virtues of the informal epic are prose virtues, not poetic ones. Only discipline can give rise to the full freedom of mature art. Charles Johnston has given us a better idea than we had any right to hope for of what Pushkin’s epic sounds like. But his long poems suggest that he has it in him to write an epic of his own. Even if he does not, his small but weighty output of original work, now that we have at last come to know of it, enriches the poetic legacy of his generation and helps clarify that nebulous, nearby area of literary history where uninspired innovation creates its permanent disturbance.