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.

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