The Road to Sligo

Tom Paulin

Perhaps all verse translation must begin and end with a version of the Aeneid, or with an essentially Virgilian concept of art’s relation to society? In these islands, the first translator of Virgil was Gavin Douglas, whose Eneados was completed in 1513. Although my Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature appropriates Douglas as the earliest translator of the classics ‘into English’, his version was of course written in Scots and is an ennobling monument to Scotland’s separate cultural identity. For Douglas, Virgil is a holy, original and perfect figure, a divine lawgiver who inspires his readers with the pure form and essence of culture. He is end and beginning, both cedar tree and ‘A per se’. And as James Kinsley suggests, Virgil’s best translators acquire something of his luminous stature: ‘the ancient author becomes culturally effective, and the translator a “noble collateral” with him.’

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, relied heavily on Douglas’s Eneados when he translated Books Two and Four of Virgil’s epic into English. Surrey rejected Douglas’s use of rhyming couplets and drew on Italian verso sciolto to create the earliest form of blank verse in English. His lines are often supple and beautiful, and his translation is a remarkable pioneering work, a rich seed which has produced a sacred wood. However, it wasn’t until Dryden’s translation of 1697 that the Aeneid became naturalised as a major English poem. Like Gavin Douglas, Dryden writes out of pride in his nation and his native language, and he aims to create a consolidating, monumental work. In a long, dedicatory preface he states that his expressed confidence in his own translation may appear arrogant: ‘yet is intended for the honour of my country.’ He attacks the ‘affected purity’ of the French language and asserts that the self-conscious perfectionism of French writers has ‘unsinewed’ their heroic verse.

Virgil identifies Aeneas’s founding of Rome with Augustus’s long stable rule, and Dryden’s version is informed by his experience of civil war, restoration, rebellion and the Williamite revolution. Dryden had a fundamentally Hobbesian love of law and order, and his career was a slippery mixture of principled conviction and clever accommodation to the ruling powers. There is a curious moment in his preface where he goes out of his way to assert that Virgil was ‘still of republican principles in his heart’. He then contrives to make Augustus sound like a constitutional monarch and so edges a step closer to the new Whig establishment which had stripped him of the laureateship and given it to his old enemy, Shadwell.

A hostile critic would call Dryden an opportunist, but it would be more accurate to say that he is attempting to heal old wounds and soften his ‘stern age’ into peace. Similarly, C. Day Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid (1952) might be regarded as a shrewd strategy by an establishment operator who hoped one day to succeed Masefield as Poet Laureate. More charitably, it could be argued that Day Lewis’s translation had patriotic inspirations in the movement of consciousness that led to the Festival of Britain. Also, Day Lewis was writing for radio and his version therefore has significant connections with the democratic idea of ‘court’ poetry and drama which MacNeice and other members of the Thirties generation brought to the BBC. Day Lewis’s relaxed verse line has affinities with Whitman’s free verse and with the egalitarian ideas that inform it. His version was therefore appropriate to post-1945 Britain and to the great achievements of Attlee’s government.

The central theme of the Aeneid is the establishment of national identity, and Dryden’s translations of Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, Horace and other Classical authors were intended as weighty contributions to the Neoclassical cultural ideal which he initiated. His intention was to turn the Classical poets into living Englishmen and make them speak a noble and refined language. As Rossetti said, the only true motive for translating poetry into ‘a fresh language’ must be to endow ‘a fresh nation ... with one more possession of beauty’. The translator, therefore, can resemble a Washington or a Jefferson as much as a traditional monarch, and like Aeneas he plants the old gods in a new place and a new language.

The Virgilian theme and the language question are subtly explored in Brian Friel’s Translations, a play that was first performed at the Guildhall, Derry, in 1980, and published the following year. It is set in an Irish hedge-school and although all the characters, with the exception of two British soldiers, are Gaelic speakers, the play exists as a ‘translation’ of their speech into Irish English. Towards the end, the schoolmaster addresses his sleeping friend:

The road to Sligo. A spring morning. 1798. Going into battle. Do you remember, James? Two young gallants with pikes across their shoulders and the Aeneid in their pockets. Everything seemed to find definition that spring – a congruence, a miraculous matching of hope and past and present and possibility. Striding across the fresh, green land. The rhythms of perception heightened. The whole enterprise of consciousness accelerated. We were gods that morning ... We marched as far as – where was it? – Glenties! All of 23 miles in one day. And it was there, in Phelan’s pub, that we got homesick for Athens, just like Ulysses. The desiderium nostrorum – the need for our own. Our pietas, James, was for older, quieter things. And that was the longest 23 miles back I ever made.

This is a marvellous speech which fuses memories of Nisus and Euryalus with a civilised, mock-heroic rejection of epic action. And the link Friel establishes with Homer serves to remind his audience of Joyce’s epic, Ulysses, which was published in 1922, the year when civil war broke out in Ireland. Just as Dryden translates Virgil in a Homeric manner, so Joyce’s ‘imitation’ of the Odyssey has fundamental affinities with the Aeneid. Joyce is lawgiver, cedar tree and ‘A per se’. He founds a capital city and affirms a sophisticated, highly civilised, pluralistic identity entirely free from ethnic rancour and chauvinist aggression.

Not all translators, however, have followed Dryden and Joyce in seeing their task as a contribution to the formation of a national ‘conscience’ (Joyce’s special definition of the word is not in the OED). When Ezra Pound set out to purify the English language in his Cathay volume of translations from the Chinese, he created a pellucid international English rather than a species of American or British English. This stateless language is an enlightened and idealistic concept, and it informs the Clark Lectures which Charles Tomlinson delivered in Dryden’s old college, Trinity, Cambridge, in 1982. Tomlinson is an enthusiastic admirer of Dryden, whom he terms ‘the Poundian figure of his age’, and he also speaks inspiringly of the ‘unity of European culture’. His cosmopolitan range, command of languages, knowledge of music and highly civilised idea of ‘our literary heritage’ impressively insist on that unity. Unfortunately, they are powerless to prevent these lectures from being often confused and sometimes deeply silly.

Speaking of several European masterpieces, Tomlinson observes: ‘Sooner or later, if one hasn’t already done so, one is going to encounter these works, and if one looks on Eliot as an exemplary creator, one is bound to notice what he did in reactivating passages from them.’ This prissy sentence is part of an otherwise interesting discussion of Eliot’s literary and musical sources which soon disappears into an assertion of Tomlinson’s single idea – metamorphosis. This idea so obsesses him that he must find it everywhere. Everything turns into everything else and Eliot’s idea of tradition becomes ‘a conception, one might add, of the entire history of art as one vast process of metamorphosis’. Contemplating this process, Tomlinson asks: ‘Wouldn’t one sooner, in certain circumstances, be a tree than human?’ Elsewhere he refers to something called ‘the merely human’ which may refer to liberal humanists, the unemployed or other unfortunates.

At moments, Tomlinson appears to believe that he has been translated into T.S. Eliot, and his puzzling reference to ‘the tortures of the self-enclosed ego’ suggests that he is trapped in some uncomfortably private obsession which he is unable to communicate. Elsewhere a brusquely Leavisian tone – ‘Canto II, of course, is an exemplary work of the utmost literary tact’ – cuts across the protean Eliotese and foists an unexamined assertion on the audience. Like Leavis, Tomlinson appears to believe that bad prose is a sign of virtue: ‘Thus the political Dryden – and it is a besetting sin of commentators to thrust the political references to the forefront of an imagination which digests political “innovation” and “act” to its own purposes – the political Dryden brings to the realisation of Ovid in English (Ovid translated) the power of his own hard-won wisdom, a wisdom then reaching, with Ovid, beyond politics towards (one is tempted to say) the origin of species.’ Tomlinson’s comparison of Pound to Dryden is superficial and misleading because it ignores the question of language and national culture. Dryden writes a lovely sinewy English for the ‘honour’ of his country, while Pound refuses to tie his language to any particular nation. It is partly for this reason that Dryden’s Virgil is much more important than his translations from Ovid, but Tomlinson’s blindness to the present cultural chaos prevents him from understanding this.

Towards the end of the final lecture, ‘Metamorphosis as Translation’, Tomlinson recycles parts of his crisp and helpful introduction to The Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation. In doing so, he leaves his audience with a conclusion that should properly have been a starting-point: the relation of Douglas’s Eneados to ‘the tensions and energies of an age’. It is a lost opportunity which leaves behind a waste of splintered waffle and hollow exquisiteness. However, the reader who turns from these disappointing lectures to Tomlinson’s new selection of his translations will discover some enchanting versions of Machado. Tomlinson tends to translate everyone into a form of cubist pastoral, but he sometimes – as in his version of Machado’s ‘The Ilexes’ – designs austerely beautiful poems which have a Cézanne-like, sculpted splendour.

Dryden distinguished three separate kinds of translation: ‘metaphrase’ or ‘word by word’ translation, ‘paraphrase’ or ‘translation with latitude’, and ‘imitation’, which is a form of free translation. Although he rejected both metaphrase and imitation, there must always be a practical need for metaphrastic prose translation (Sinclair’s Divine Comedy, for example). And the case for imitation is made forcibly by Johnson’s ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’, where Johnson collaborates with Juvenal to create a poem which is modern and therefore original, as well as being part of Classical tradition.

Nowadays, some poets feel a slight resentment towards translations, and in his clever ‘Poem Waiting to be Translated’, Peter Porter asks:

Why not remember the heroes
of hard situations,
those who answered inquisitors
in fresh parables,
whose lyrical rejoinders
are assembled here
in memorial Penguins?

Porter is glancing at the work of Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Rozewicz, and with a slight sourness he remarks:

I have seen with my own eyes
a dissident poet eating whitebait
and joking from the corner of his mouth.

The basis of his complaint is that in England the poet can be neither dissident nor dignified laureate, and is therefore condemned to be a harmless and neglected figure.

Adam Czerniawski, who has translated both Herbert and Rozewicz, is one of the most distinguished verse translators now writing in English.[*] He has the rare gift of being able to translate from his native language – Polish – into a beautiful English plain style. His versions of Rozewicz have a quartz-like integrity and transparency, and in ‘The Survivor’ the idea of a divine, Virgilian poet is invoked by this bare litany:

I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness from light.

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

This form of antipoetry is born out of the Polish historical experience and its hard, pure style aims to express the inexpressible. Commenting on Czerniawski’s sympathetic artistry, Michael Irwin has noted that while Milosz’s translations of Rozewicz appear ‘irreducible’, Czerniawski improves on them by his daring elisions and sharp intelligence. The result is a poetry of ‘absolute transparency’, and some Polish reviewers have claimed that certain of Rozewicz’s poems improve in Czerniawski’s English.

In Poland writers are regarded as the embodiments and custodians of the national conscience, and this necessarily means that they must face or try to elude the censor (some years ago a Polish poet and translator informed me that censors have to attend regular practical criticism classes in order to spot symbolism, ambiguity, subversive irony). In ‘Poem of Pathos’ Rozewicz images the censored poet:

A poet buried alive
is like a subterranean river
he preserves within
faces names
hope
and homeland.

The poet is mnemonist, oral historian, underground river, dissident – he is Virgil condemned to the underworld, rather than a public figure who is acknowledged by the authorities. He is ‘a teacher and a master’ who can restore sight and set the alphabet to work, naming things. The Polish literary world, however, contains a number of neo-Stalinist laureates and it must be to one of them that Rozewicz is referring in his conclusion:

    a poet’s lie
is multilingual
as monumental
as the Tower of Babel
it is monstrous
and does not die.

It is fascinating to notice that when the Congress for Cultural Freedom dispatched Robert Lowell to South America he refused to tell lies and play the part of CIA Virgil. Instead he freaked, sent telegrams to the Pope on the theme of ‘America as the Roman Empire’, insulted every general he met, tried to climb all the equestrian statues in Buenos Aires, and proclaimed himself ‘Caesar of Argentina’. He was flown back to the States in a strait jacket, his madness a form of extreme integrity.

Lowell’s visit was partly intended to counter the influence of Pablo Neruda, and although Neruda was a brave and fearless figure it is sometimes hard to discern his integrity. He revered Lenin, thought that the Soviet Union could do no wrong and sounds at times like a champagne party-loyalist. The prose pieces gathered in Passions and Impressions tend to trail their loose ends like rhapsodic lianas because Neruda the public figure is always emotional and inspirational, rather than reflectively analytic. Yet his courageous attacks on United States inteference in Latin America make compelling reading.

For the Polish poet, translation is an essential part of the struggle to achieve ‘conscience’. Czerniawski is therefore advancing his country’s honour and self-respect by writing in the English language. At the same time he is making a notable contribution to English poetic style, and it is unfortunate that D.M. Thomas’s shoddy translations of Pushkin and Akhmatova should have received more attention.

Leopold Staff, who died in 1957, was one of the founding fathers of modern Polish literature and his sophisticated simplicity won the admiration of Milosz, Rozewicz and other leading poets. In Czerniawski’s translation of ‘Ars’ there is a Horatian terseness and a wise, unillusioned, colloquial gravity. Although Staff appears consistently to reject public poetry in favour of a stoic privacy, there is a concealed social criticism in the last stanza of ‘Portrait’. Staff comments on sculptural images of the male form – ‘a powerful athlete’, Donatello’s knight in armour – and concludes:

Finally Michelangelo scored
Crushing with a hammer
A marble lump of dead flesh
Which the sorrowing mother
Supports by the arms
When her son can no longer bear
His own inhuman saintliness.

In settling for what Charles Tomlinson would term ‘the merely human’, Staff offers a vision which resembles the suffering Christian humanism in the last three lines of ‘The Windhover’. Like Hopkins, he rejects the vicious sprezzatura of military heroism and in doing so comments on his society.

During the last decade, many Irish poets have been translated into Polish and this is partly because Poles see an analogy between their country’s fate and Ireland’s. Although this analogy is vulnerable at certain points (Britain, unlike the Soviet Union, seems fairly eager to make an exit from occupied territory), it means that a translation of any Irish poem into Polish has an invisible reference to the idea of being dominated by a foreign power. To translate and publish an Irish poem in Poland is therefore to make a statement which is both political and aesthetic. Ironically, this means that Irish poets who are either apolitical or mildly sympathetic to Unionism find themselves being given a radically different identity in translation.

As Seamus Deane has pointed out (LRB, Vol. 5, No 7), the translator has been of extraordinary importance in Irish writing. There is a long tradition of translation from Irish Gaelic into Irish English, and the result is ‘a kind of interstitial literature which responds to the genius of both tongues’, and so effects a form of reconciliation that is far in advance of political reality. Thus the translations of Frank O’Connor, John Montague and Thomas Kinsella point towards a national identity which is as yet not fully ratified by law and international treaty. This strong and enduring autochthonous tradition of translation is complemented by a more recent interest in translating Classical and European poetry into Irish English. To translate Tibullus, Dante, Nerval and Apollinaire is to offer glimpses of a new landscape, a fresh cultural initiative which may in time be embodied formally and institutionally. Again, translation can be seen as an ambitious type of Neoclassicism which helps to form conscience.

The Neoclassical ideal and the theme of national identity can be traced in the most brilliant imitation to appear in these islands for many years – Paul Muldoon’s ‘Immram’.[†] This long, free-floating, tightly-organised poem is a version of an eighth-century Irish legend, ‘The Voyage of Maildun’, and is cunningly relocated in modern New York. Tennyson read the story in P.W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances and versified it in 1880. He aimed to represent ‘the Celtic genius’, and grafted some Cromwellian battle scenes onto the much gentler original, as well as adding symbolic references to contemporary arguments between Irish nationalists and unionists.

Alluding a century later to this version, Muldoon puts Tennyson ahead of him in the revolving doors of a Hilton hotel which is a contemporary equivalent of the palace of art (in Poland this would be a piece of Stalinist cheesecake called the Palace of Culture). Translating into a language which combines American and Irish English, Muldoon designs a marvellous voyage which sets the poet’s imaginative privacy inside a hallucinated cityscape of high, privatised American capitalism. This ‘trip’ becomes a subtle exploration of the theme of identity which refuses the defining shade of green offered by an American cop:

‘My father, God rest him, he held this theory
That the Irish, the American Irish,
Were really the thirteenth tribe,
The Israelites of Europe.
All along, my father believed in fairies
But he might as well have been Jewish.’
His laugh was a slight hiccup.
I guessed that Lieutenant Brendan O’Leary’s
Grandmother’s pee was green,
And that was why she had to leave old Skibbereen.

If Muldoon is rejecting a sentimental and exclusive form of ethnic Irish nationalism, he is also concerned to examine the symbolist rejection of all forms of patriotism. He does so by transforming ‘the hermit of the sea-rock’ in the original legend into a derelict figure who resembles Howard Hughes:

Naked but for a pair of draw-string shorts.
His hair was waistlength, as was his beard.
He was covered in bedsores.
He raised one talon.
‘I forgive you,’ he croaked. ‘And I forget.
On your way out, you tell that bastard
To bring me a dish of ice-cream.
I want Baskin-Robbins banana-nut ice-cream.’

The ultimate private billionaire issues a Stevensish request for ice-cream, and this suggests that an analogy can be drawn between the autonomy of art and an absolutely self-enclosed hedonism founded on grotesque riches. Like Marvell in ‘Upon Appleton House’, Muldoon writes with a phantasmagoric civility which is constantly aware of the uncivil processes of history. His work shows that the enterprise of translation and imitation need not necessarily involve a Dryden-like commitment to a masterful national identity. But it does demonstrate that the translator must always be aware of the possible identities which his activity implies.

Muldoon’s fluid verse line is Ovidian in its refusal of inflexible definitions, though its ‘discandying’ qualities and melting hallucinations owe much to the sinuous essence of Gaelic culture. By making the Gaelic original accessible to readers who are ignorant of the language Muldoon significantly aligns his highly assured use of modern English with an ancient tradition. And because the original legend concludes with a feast of reconciliation which follows Maildun’s refusal to kill his father’s murderer, we make a contemporary application of the traditional story. The reader of ‘Immram’ perceives the modern Muldoon’s rejection of those atavistic and vindictive attitudes which inform Irish history. Obliquely and gently, this extraordinary translation aims to heal and salve, just as Dryden did in his Aeneid.

[*] Czerniawski has also translated some of his own poems into English. Modern Poetry in Translation 1983 (edited by Daniel Weissbort, with an introduction by Ted Hughes, Carcanet, 214 pp., £6.95, 5 May 1983, 0 85635 481 3) contains three fine auto-translations.

[†] The poem appears in Why Brownlee left (Faber, 1980).