Explaining Robert Frost’s ‘Education by Poetry’

An earlier post in which I talked my way through Frost’s essay ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’  has proved to be one of my most visited pieces. As both teacher and poet, I wanted to explore Frost’s often teasing pronouncements and here I want to do the same with his longer essay, ‘Education by Poetry’. This was originally a talk delivered at Amherst College. It was subsequently revised for publication in the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly (1931). Frost also separately printed an extract from the conclusion of the essay under the title ‘The Four Beliefs’. Frost’s full text can be accessed here.   In the essay, Frost argues that nothing (other than mathematics)is known in itself – our knowledge is only via relations. So we must live by crediting metaphors of self, love, art, nation and deity, among others. Yet all these break down at some point and it this awareness that education ought to provide us with. There is a clear connection to Frost’s idea of a poem as a “clarification of life [. . .] a momentary stay against confusion” (‘’The Figure a Poem Makes’).

 

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Frost does not do rebarbative. Even when ultimately – as here – he has complex and profound issues to discuss, he invites us in and we follow trustingly. Here, he lulls us with the idea that he will “urge nothing”, will merely consider and describe. Only once he has finished will we grasp that his sometimes infuriating reluctance to commit lies at the core of his thinking.

His subject is how poetry is treated in American education. One approach is to bar it which, he admits with full-on irony, “takes the onus off the poetry of having to be used to teach children anything”.

Only slightly less ridiculous is the method of other institutions which permit a few examples of traditional poetry but “bar all that is poetical in it by treating it as something other than poetry”. What Frost means by “poetical” emerges later but here he mocks the way that poems are treated as no different to other conventional knowledge-based texts (“science”) or are examined merely for their linguistic and technical illustrations (“syntax, language”).

In a passage that all English teachers will recognise, Frost ironically concedes that education treats poetry in this way in large part because we have to submit marks for assessment. The brute simplicity of a marking regime has its attractions, but it inevitably narrows our focus until we mark for little else but “for accuracy, for correctness”. Still keeping what constitutes the “poetical” up his sleeve, Frost tempts us on by suggesting that such accuracy is “the least part of my marking. The hard part is the part beyond that, the part where the adventure begins”. The adventure is the real nature of a poetic text.

The Big Idea

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Having considered the abolition and the denaturing of poetry as ways of dealing with its “nuisance” value in education, Frost considers a third way of neutralising it. Mockingly once more, he describes those who accept poetry as a separate discourse but assign it to a “nowhere”, exile it to the “flowery”, to a place diametrically opposed to the “rigorous and righteous”. Poetry here becomes mere entertainment with no truth value, no concern for, or capacity for, knowledge. Poetry occupies only that part of the curriculum that “scatter[s] brains over taste and opinion” but this is hard to assess. Teachers may resort to “a general indefinite mark of X” in such courses and if a marking regime cannot be imposed then such a course can hardly be graced with the description of ‘education’. Frost’s tone is simultaneously sarcastic and passionately concerned: “How shall a man go through college without having been marked for taste and judgment? What will become of him? What will his end be? He will have to take continuation courses for college graduates. He will have to go to night schools”.

Coming closer to his real intention, Frost really does lament this lack of education in taste and opinion. Look at the rising seriousness of concern in this passage: “they have not been educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature. They don’t know what they may safely like in the libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign”.

This is a key moment because Frost makes it clear that for all his self-deprecatory tone, the foolery and sarcasm, he is leading us to a declaration that education does have a responsibility to prepare young people to be citizens as well as members of a skilled work force. Frost expects education to inculcate interpretative skills and too many Americans leave school/college ill-equipped to “know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable”. This is not science, nor is it merely syntax or language: “metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about”. For Frost, an understanding of how metaphor works is a key part of understanding the world (he will explain this later in the essay) and an understanding of metaphor is best learned through a study of how poetry works. Education about metaphor is education through poetry and “Education by poetry is education by metaphor”.

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I find the next two paragraphs hard to follow. Frost’s end point is to return to the importance of metaphor but here he detours through the idea of enthusiasm. As much as taste, enthusiasm is not something the academy can easily mark, but Frost wants it, or at least he wants enthusiasm “taken through the prism of the intellect”. This prism metaphor suggests that enthusiasm, when processed through the intellect, refracts a pure-blooded enthusiasm (Frost calls this latter “crude” and likens it to the “oh’s and ah’s” of someone admiring – without any thought? – a sunset). Such a refraction gives rise to a continuum of different levels of enthusiasm, from “something of overstatement, something of statement, and something of understatement”. The prism of the intellect is now re-named as “an idea”. I think Frost wants a not-unsurprising blend of passion and thought in his enthusiasm – neither cold assessment (marking?) nor the oh’s and ah’s of thoughtless fanaticism.

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Frost now returns to his main theme via a slight revision of his thought, suggesting he’s really been discussing “enthusiasm tamed by metaphor”. His next point is much clearer: “I do not think anybody ever knows the discreet use of metaphor, his own and other people’s, the discreet handling of metaphor, unless he has been properly educated in poetry”. Metaphor is the prism (spawned from intellect, something of an idea) through which our emotional responses are projected to achieve knowledge. But Frost is convinced that an awareness of this fact is not shared equally amongst us and that education through poetry will serve to increase this awareness.

Now Frost begins to talk more clearly about metaphor itself. The importance of it lies in the fact that it “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, “grace” metaphors” but (as his essay argues) metaphor also “goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have”. Frost talks elsewhere of what Tim Kendall calls “ulteriority”, glossed here as the method of poetry of “saying one thing and meaning another”. The way Frost discusses this he is sure it is not an abstruse poetic idea but a day to day, almost instinctive human preference: “People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections—whether from diffidence or some other instinct”.

untitledFrost wants to make big claims for metaphorical thinking: “I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphor the whole of thinking”. He allows the exception of “mathematical thinking” but wants all other knowledge, including “scientific thinking” to be brought within the bounds of metaphor. He suggests the Greeks’ foundational thought about the world, the “All”, was fundamentally metaphorical in nature, especially Pythagoras’ concept of the nature of things as comparable to number: “Number of what? Number of feet, pounds and seconds”. This is the basis for a scientific, empirical (measurable) view of the world and hence “has held and held” in the shape of our still-predominating scientific view of it.

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Frost refers to a visiting scientist who tried to mix spatial and temporal metaphors: “The two don’t go together”. Another such modern metaphor is that a thing is “an event”. Another is that space “is something like curved”. Another is that individual particles possess a freedom. Another is the “metaphor of evolution” or indeed that the whole universe, the whole of everything, “is like unto a growing thing”. Frost wants to alert his audience to the role of such metaphors – often unrecognised as such – in both our everyday and more refined scientific views of the world. He briefly dwells on the metaphor of evolution, accepting its brilliance (in terms of its still-continuing applicability) but insisting that even this “will break down at some point”.

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These are the key paragraphs. Frost argues that our lack of understanding of how metaphor works will leave us “not safe”. We must understand “figurative values” and so be able to assess “the metaphor in its strength and its weakness”. In an image that brings to mind his poem ‘Birches’, he explains we will not “know how far [we] may expect to ride it and when it may break down”. The point is that it will break down (the boy riding the birch always comes back to earth) and education ought to give us the experience and the equipment to recognise a “good metaphor, as far as it goes, and [we] must know how far”. As I understand it, Frost wants us to approach human knowledge more tentatively, more sceptically, recognising its provisional nature because it is based in metaphors which will at some moment break down and need to be replaced by a better, more “brilliant” metaphor. The study of poetry offers us experiences of figurative thinking and (if we think of Frost’s poems) the sense of provisionality they often inculcate.

5727567383_f719380140_oThat we have a tendency to forget this provisional nature of knowledge and understanding seems to be Frost’s next point. We take up arms (as it were) by taking up certain metaphorical ideas and making totems of them. He berates Freudianism’s focus on “mental health” as an example of how “the devil can quote Scripture, which simply means that the good words you have lying around the devil can use for his purposes as well as anybody else”. That this is dangerous (makes us not safe) is illustrated by the passage of dialogue Frost now gives between himself and somebody else. The other argues that the universe is like a machine but Frost (adopting a sort of Socratic interrogation technique) draws out the limits of the metaphor, concluding he “wanted to go just that far with that metaphor and no further. And so do we all. All metaphor breaks down somewhere. That is the beauty of it. It is touch and go with the metaphor, and until you have lived with it long enough you don’t know when it is going. You don’t know how much you can get out of it and when it will cease to yield. It is a very living thing. It is as life itself”.

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Frost now returns us to the school room and what it is for a student to “Think”. It is now clear that this frequent exhortation from teachers really means “just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another”. In a clear allusion to his poem ‘After Apple-picking’, Frost says to explain to students about the workings of metaphor is to “set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky”. The most significant example of such metaphorical thinking is “the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter.” This – like all metaphors in the end – is an attempt that must fail but “it is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, that attempts to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter”. Frost clearly feels each realm is more clearly understood via metaphors of the other but (speaking in the 1930s) the main danger he foresees is a too-materialist vision of the world: “The only materialist – be he poet, teacher, scientist, politician, or statesman – is the man who gets lost in his material without a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order. He is the lost soul”. He is lost because blind to metaphors.

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Frost starts to look at metaphors through some “trivial ones” from the Odyssey – a shield and seeds of fire. These are the raw materials for an education by metaphor and recall his definition of a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion” in The Figure a Poem Makes where he arguesI would rather have trivial ones of my own to live by than the big ones of other people. But there are more significant metaphors: “the ones we live by”. Frost repeats: “[metaphor] is all there is of thinking”. He explains we do not have to write poetry to understand metaphor. Reading it serves as long as we read it “not as linguistics, not as history, not as anything but poetry”. The only form of assessment a teacher can apply to someone reading poetry is how “close” they come to it. This remains vague, to say the least, but Frost insists “everything depends on the closeness with which you come, and you ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else”.

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Evidence of such closeness to the true nature of poetry (and hence metaphor) is now termed a form of “belief”. He gives five different forms of such belief. Frost makes each sound like a sense of conviction, arising from the perception of a metaphorical connection between two things. Our giving credence to this sense of connection is also what can give rise to a fulfilling of such a connection, almost as if our belief in it gives rise to it.

His first illustration of this is in a young person’s self-belief. Is this like a young woman seeing herself as an engineer, giving that vision credit and hence pursuing it towards fulfilment? Of course, such metaphors break down and this is something more clearly acknowledged in Frost’s second example: “the belief of love”. The metaphor of a romantic relationship between two individuals must be given credence (on both sides) to be pursued but “the disillusionment that novels are full of is simply the disillusionment from disappointment in that belief. That belief can fail”.

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The third form of belief is literary or art belief. Frost focuses on the creation of a work of art which should arise not from cunning or calculation but from “belief. The beauty, the something, the little charm of the thing to be.” This is more “felt than known” (again recalling The Figure a Poem Makes) and we need to see the artist sensing a connection to something other, giving it credence, and trying to fulfil the insight, working towards it, bringing it in existence (not merely recording something already known). This is also the model for Frost’s fourth belief –  the God-belief. He’s most brief on this but the implication seems to be that God is something we bring into existence through our belief. Again, we need to remember that both literary- and God-belief is liable to failure and break down.

Here, Frost’s final belief is national belief, a belief in a nation to which we give credence and hence bring about its fulfilment, bringing it into existence. The particular and personal nature of each of these beliefs is brought out when Frost reaches for the metaphor of the painter’s palette. As he says elsewhere, being forced to adopt others’ metaphors, even a whole culture’s metaphors, becomes a form of tyranny that he would resist. This is partly because all metaphors break down eventually, but also because “I want my palette, if I am a painter, I want my palette on my thumb or on my chair, all clean, pure, separate colours. Then I will do the mixing on the canvas”. Whether we are engaged in self-, love-, art-, God- or nation-creation, we must make our own.

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Interestingly, Frost concludes by reviewing and re-ordering the five areas of metaphorical belief. Each has a “shyness” about it in that we are reluctant or incapable of pronouncing upon it until we have tried to pursue it: “only the outcome can tell”. This must be, in part, the source of Frost’s slipperiness, the sense we often have that his commitment is always provisional, or yet forthcoming. Even in national-belief, “it has got to be fulfilled, and we are not talking until we know more, until we have something to show”. This is understandably true of writing a poem which arises “not of cunning and craft [. . .] but of real art”. This is now glossed as “believing the thing into existence, saying as you go more than you even hoped you were going to be able to say, and coming with surprise to an end that you foreknew only with some sort of emotion”. In this conclusion, Frost holds back God-belief for its more traditional, ultimate position: “And then finally the relationship we enter into with God to believe the future in – to believe the hereafter in”.

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Two Cat Burglar Poems Compared: Copus and Crucefix

Here are two poems about climbing in through windows. I’m sure it’s ill-advised to pit something of one’s own against one of the best poems appearing in the Forward Poems of the Decade anthology, but the similarities were so interesting that I decided to lay good sense aside. I hoped also to put aside any spirit of competition and to further that you will find that I have adopted a very impersonal tone towards my own poem. That poem – ’17 Britannia Square’ – was first published in 2004 and it certainly feels remote from me now, as if written by someone else. The following essay zig-zags to compare the two poems as students are asked to do in the Edexcel A level examination (9ETO/03). The text of Julia Copus’s poem can be found here. My poem can be read by scrolling down the page on this link.

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Both poems convey details of the climb into a house which, in each case, is taken to represent something about the progression of individual lives, about developing identity. Copus’s climbing girl is on the brink of womanhood, a journey into “the way of the world” and her poem implies the difficulties ahead, especially, perhaps, for a woman in a patriarchal world. Crucefix’s poem is altogether more male and concentrates more on what has come to divide the two men, the surprising shift (“strangeness”) in identity over time. The forms of the two poems are similar: continuous blocks of unrhymed verse, though Copus uses a more variable line length and flowing syntax that evokes the ‘ease’ of the girl’s passage. In contrast, Crucefix’s verse halts and re-starts on several occasions, suggestive of the disjunction between his two characters.

Julia Copus’s 13 year old girl is repeatedly imaged in border territory, a “halfway” stage, a liminal state of age, sexuality, friendship and her literal broaching/breaching of “the warm flank of the house”. The journey or passage she is taking is into adulthood, a transition presented as exciting, anxious and relatively “easy”, though what awaits her is more uncertain and even forbidding. The opening descriptions emphasise her vulnerability (crouched, trembling, narrow windowsill, sharp drop). Yet she continues to find reassurance in the presence of her (similarly aged) friend, though this is precisely what she is climbing away from. For further reassurance, she dwells on the tangible details of the moment: “the fact of the open window, / the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever”. Crucefix’s ‘17 Britannia Square’ also opens with a concern to keep things “steady” but here it foreshadows the narrator’s growing awareness of changes in personal identity and relationships. The details and onomatopoeia of line 3, quickly settle us into a concrete situation, but the simile of the “coins being scraped together” is the first indication of one of the poem’s divisive elements, material wealth. Given her age, Copus’s girl was not trusted with the keys; Crucefix’s narrator readily accepts responsibility for the lock out (he forgot to pick up the keys) and self-deprecatingly confesses his own inadequacy which is again linked to the material successes of his friend: “I could not manage ten minutes / in charge of your tall, Edwardian house”.

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Copus’s girl’s physical position, perched perilously on the porch roof with its rough asphalt like “a square of petrified beach” is marvellously conveyed. The word “petrified” works physically and psychologically, evoking both stoniness and felt fear simultaneously, but it also foreshadows her eventual dive through the window, mermaid-like, into the ambiguous ocean of her future. The omniscient narrative voice asks, “What can she know / of the way the world admits us less and less / the more we grow?” The narrative voice knows the future as the girl does not and the personal pronoun (“us”) probably implies the voice is female and is making a comment on the patriarchal nature of the world of adulthood into which the girl is moving. It is a world that will “admit” her less and less. The choice of the word “admit” suggests the future will acknowledge the girl’s existence less as well as give her less literal admission to what it might offer. By contrast, watching his friend climb the ladder, it is the past that preoccupies Crucefix’s narrator. It’s interesting that the “cat-burgling high-jinks” are already distanced by being something they “might” have done, though it seems likely they did not in reality. It’s not clear whether this suggests their earlier relationship also had its limits or whether the familiar image of the wall-climbing wayward students is itself being ironised – a cliché that is displaced by the later more painfully honest assessment of their relationship. The elaborate, polysyllabic phrase used to describe what the two students hoped to evade – “vigilant authority” – also suggests the way the poem looks to evade accepted modes of presenting such male friendships.

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This is even more clear when we reach the narrator’s statement about the subject of their earlier, collegiate discussions. They focused on personal identity and the allusion to John Keats points to that poet’s ideas about Negative Capability. Keats records the sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me”. Yet this absence of a resolved (what the poem calls “determined”) self, pushing confidently outwards, facilitates delicately perceptive encounters such as catching a glimpse of a “fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (229). The resultant freshness and truth, the absence of pre-judgement in such a moment, is what Keats valued and perhaps it is what this poem strives for in its examination of male friendship. The startling simile introduced here (“how a man / could possess no determined self, like a state / that sees no need of a constitution”) also gestures towards an underlying concern about national identity too. This is reinforced by the title of the poem and suggests that the issues of identity and division on a personal level might be reflected more broadly in contemporary Britain and the narrator’s observation that such a view now “looks as much risk as opportunity” indicates he sees subsequent developments (personally or politically) as putting closeness and cohesiveness at risk.

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In ‘An Easy Passage’, lines 19-22, create a dramatic pause or lull in the poem, a briefly “lit”, but still present, paradise of innocence. The statement that “for now the house exists / only for them” pre-empts the most significant change in perspective in Copus’s poem. Their innocence is indicated by the girls’ small scope of vision and the second half of the poem enacts its innocence / experience theme by drawing away to the wider perspectives of the street, the absent mother, the workers and finally the secretary. It is the latter who is said to be “most far” from the girl. The phrase ironically has the effect of associating the two characters, perhaps implying that the girl’s future can be seen in the older woman’s present situation. If so, the portrait is not inspiring with her small plans for an “evening class” or contrastingly improbable plans for the “trip of a lifetime”. The tone adopted about the “stirring omens” in an astrology column comes close to a sarcasm at the secretary’s expense. Growing distance and division are also indicated in lines 19-27 of ‘17 Britannia Square’ via the vivid details of the friend’s climb to the top of the ladder and his awkward tipping in through the bathroom window. The paralleling of the climb up the (social?) ladder and the reflections on identity are made explicit in the yoking together of literal and psychological facts: “I see you pull up the sash, begin to wriggle /into your bathroom and it seems less a truth / to last beyond our teens”. The simile describing the damage caused by the friend’s flailing foot, as he slips through the window (breaking it and making a “white star-burst like a rifle shot”), perhaps implies the demise of the earlier self. This is again reinforced by the forcible linking of immediate, physical events with more personal developmental vocabulary: “you vanish at last, absorbed to your house, / your job, your family”.

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But ‘17 Britannia Square’ is not really a poem about envy. In fact, the narrator waits below, watching his old friend vanish into his house/life, yet remains “in love with mine”. Furthermore, the closing lines of the poem present an act of Keatsian sympathetic imagination as the narrator melds past and present, himself and his friend into a moment of alertness to the possibilities of life, even if the possibilities are of growing alienation. The tone is not dark – the friend will re-appear at his own front door “laughing” – and the explicit birthing image of line 30 is equivocally described with the phrase “bruised and quivering”. The poem leaves the reader with a heightened sense of the unpredictability of individual lives as expressed in the choice of the word “strangeness”. The word implies estrangement but also of the richness of mutability and the unexpected, perhaps reminiscent of Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”.

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By contrast, I think the youth and still-retained freedom of Copus’s two girls is described (from the secretary’s perspective now) with some envy (silver, neat, shimmering, flash, gracefully). It’s not clear if this is mere personal envy or that of an older generation viewing the more secure freedoms of younger women. Certainly, Copus loads ambiguity in at the close. The “shimmering- / oyster-painted toenails” re-evoke the beach image of line 16 and the graceful movement of the girl into the house suggests an assured transition into another element/time. Yet the simile of the nails flashing like “armaments” complicates matters. Is the suggestion that she will need not only grace and beauty but also an arsenal of weapons with which to defend herself in the adult world? Does the simile persuade us that the girl does possess such means to defend herself? Or that she lacks it (what use are painted toe-nails)? There is something surely ominous in the very last phrase, as she drops “into the shade of the house”.

So ‘An Easy Passage’ is full of the girls’ grace and beauty on the verge of adulthood. Through predominantly concrete description, the poem conveys complex emotions about their likely transition into the adult world and Copus leaves the nature of their future experiences carefully undefined. Crucefix’s poem is equally honest about what divides his two male figures as they have grown into maturity. It is largely money but also the divergent demands of house, job and family. Yet the poem develops ideas about the fluidity of personal identity from Keats’ thoughts on the matter and concludes that the human heart draws its sustenance as much from distance as closeness, pain as much as pleasure.

Being In and Above: on Friedrich Hölderlin’s ‘Hyperion’

This is my review of Friedrich Hölderlin’s only novel, Hyperion or The Hermit in Greece. The review first appeared in the Temenos Academy Review (No. 20, 2017).  The translation I am discussing is a very recent one by India Russell which was published by Melrose Books in 2016. 

 

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Begun in Tübingen in 1792 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and published in two volumes in 1797 and 1799, Hölderlin’s only novel is really a philosophical and spiritual biography of its eponymous hero. It does not deliver what a novel reader might expect in terms of characterisation, suspense or specificity of incident (though its retrospective narrative is cleverly designed). It is best read as a doorway to the more metaphysical thought that underpins the later poetry. But Hölderlin’s youthful passion and urgency are evident, for example, in the portrait of his native Germany. Its people and culture are subjected to a withering satirical attack, with the corrupt state of German life acting as the penultimate phase of Hyperion’s long education. He reports, ‘I can think of no people more torn than the Germans. Artisans you see, but no human beings, thinkers, but no human beings, priests, but no human beings […] – is that not like a battlefield, where hands and arms and all limbs lie dismembered amongst one another, whilst the shed life-blood runs away into the sand?’ Such vivid images of division – between warring powers, within bodies of individuals – are central to Hölderlin’s critique of what was wrong with late eighteenth-century Europe.

Hyperion is an epistolary novel, the narrator writing from his native Greece to a friend, Bellarmin, who lives in Germany. Hölderlin’s prose is heightened and mellifluous, dramatically ebbing and flowing; and India Russell’s translation catches this far better than Willard Trask’s 1965 version or David Schwartz’s from 1990. The writing is breathless and aspiring; it is Shelley’s prose not Keats’s. The novel’s picaresque narrative records Hyperion’s travels after his birth on the Greek island of Tenos, where he spends his childhood and school years. He moves to Smyrna, returns home, then travels again to Calaurea, an island close to the eastern coast of the Peloponnese. It is here he meets and falls in love with the young woman, Diotima. Called back to action in the world, he fights the Turkish forces occupying Greece and later fights alongside Russian troops. He is defeated and wounded, then travels to Sicily, thence to Germany, befriending Bellarmin. Only on his return to Tenos does the novel’s account of his life open. So the narrative trajectory means that Hyperion reflects on his own life’s journey in the letters. Importantly, though no significant external events intervene, we perceive a difference between the Hyperion of letter one and the man writing the final words of the novel.

 

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The retrospective nature of the narrative only partly accounts for what Hölderlin calls in the Preface Hyperion’s ‘elegiac character’. In his opening letters, the protagonist regards reflection/judgement (‘Urteil’) as a curse, cutting him off from an unthinking sense of oneness with the world. As the novel opens, it is especially in relation to the natural world that Hyperion feels this alienation, though the limits of his current understanding are revealed: ‘I know not what happens to me when I lift my eyes before your beauty […] My whole being becomes quiet and harkens’. He later exclaims, ‘To be one with all, that is the life of the Divine, that is the heaven of man’ and yet ‘a moment’s reflection casts me down […] Nature closes her arms and I stand like a stranger before her’. He identifies his schooling as having made the first break between the sense of oneness experienced by a child and this later sense of estrangement. The loss is blamed on ‘Knowledge’ which inculcates the desire to be ‘absolutely reasonable, [to] have thoroughly learnt to distinguish myself from that which surrounds me’; and in such a state of nurtured division he suffers solitude and rejection from the world about him.

 

Hölderlin’s preface to the Thalia fragment of Hyperion (published by Schiller in 1794) lays these issues out more philosophically. ‘Man would like to be in everything and above everything’ he argues, quoting Loyola: ‘Not to be confined by the largest, but to be contained in the smallest, is divinity’. He observes how this pronouncement ‘designates the all-desiring, all-subjugating dangerous side of man as well as the […] most beautiful condition he can achieve’. On one side, we desire the freedom to be above our lives, to shape them, yet on the other we long to feel at home in our world, to be in it at the cost of our liberty. With one eye on the Revolution in France, it seems to Hölderlin that pursuit of freedom at the expense of a sense of unity with the world leads to a deracinated fanaticism that harms both ourselves and the world. But on the other hand, to experience existence without liberty and self-determination is to be sunk deeply in a form of passivity verging on idiocy. Hölderlin’s originality lies in his view of human life as being endlessly dynamic, the two impulses – to be both in and above our own lives – are to be held in tension, the self drawn in contrary directions with no anticipation of a resolution.

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In the novel, Hyperion’s early and brief encounters with Adamas on Tenos present one possible easement of his sense of alienation. Excited by the older man’s devotion to the past, he reads the Classics and visits Mount Athos, Olympia, Mount Cynthus and the grave of Homer. Hölderlin’s earlier poems frequently echo just this nostalgic impulse in his idealisation of the Classical past. David Constantine points out that for Hölderlin, ‘the civilisation of Periclean Athens seemed to him the best the human race had ever achieved and he wanted an equivalent of it for his own day and age and even believed the French Revolution might bring it about’. So this is not, for Hölderlin, any simple nostalgia but rather a call to spiritual and philosophical revolution. A poem like ‘The Archipelago’ portrays the devastation of eighteenth-century Greece (under the rule of the ‘Persian’) but also anticipates its renovation:

 

Lovingly back to the waiting abandoned river

Come the people of Athens and down from the homeland’s mountains

The shining crowds, meeting like waters, replenish

The emptied plain with joy.

 

(tr. Constantine)

 

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But in the novel, Adamas’ overly literal idealisation of the past is quickly dismissed by Hyperion. Alone, Adamas travels on into Asia in search of peoples of ‘rare excellence’ who, he hopes, are still living out such ancient virtues. Left dissatisfied, Hyperion is bored and restless on Tenos. He leaves for Smyrna and encounters a very different solution to his problems in the form of Alabanda, a man devoted not to the worship of a past age but to the struggle for social change. For a period Alabanda and Hyperion live ‘like two streams which roll down from the mountains and cast off the burden of earth and stone and rotten wood and the whole inert chaos that had impeded them, to forge the way to one another and break through until where, seizing and seized with equal strength, united in one majestic River, they then begin the journey in to the wide Sea’. Such a sentence is a good illustration of Russell’s skill in this translation – the results are flowing, energetic, with just the right degree of distancing from conventional language usage. For the two men, the present state of society is like a ‘barren, rotten tree’, needing to be felled so that a ‘new world’ can grow in its place. But Alabanda is too much a man of action, a fighter, consumed with the wish to exercise freedom to effect social change and (as the simile above suggests) liable to destructive violence and a moral fanaticism. His mode of operation is to ‘burn the weeds […] blast the dull clods from the Earth!’. He himself admits to being ‘rough and offensive and unsociable’. Hyperion finds he cannot commit himself to this course either and we become conscious of his tendency to vacillate between (again) being within and without, between commitment and alienation and aware too of the fact he perceives this as is a problem needing to be resolved.

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It is on the visit to Calaurea that Hyperion meets Diotima, a young woman who is unreflectively at home in the natural world. This character was introduced into later drafts of the novel and is a portrait of Susette Gontard, the married woman whose children Hölderlin was appointed to tutor in 1795, the woman he loved. Though Susette seems to have reciprocated Hölderlin’s affections, the relationship was doomed. He dedicated the second volume of Hyperion to her. The name Diotima appears frequently in Hölderlin’s later poetry and is the name of the seer or priestess who first taught Socrates to regard love as the means of ascent to a contemplation of the Divine. In Hyperion she lives contentedly in the world as opposed to Alabanda’s position above the world, and his wish to change it. Her heart is most at home among flowers, ‘as though it were one of them’, and Hyperion enviously observes her unreflective unity with the natural world: ‘Diotima’s eyes opened wide and quietly, as a bud opens, her dear little face opened before the airs of Heaven, became pure speech and soul and, as though she began a flight into the clouds, her whole form stood stretched gently upwards in easy majesty, her feet hardly touching the Earth’.

Diotima is initially unconscious of the beauty Hyperion sees in her but she becomes more self-aware in the letters documenting their relationship. She also comes to understand the real nature of Hyperion himself, recognising that (as Hölderlin’s philosophical thinking suggests) he cannot remain content with what she has to offer. Though Hyperion may indeed wish for such oblivious contentment, it is ironically Diotima who suggests he must do otherwise: ‘Will you lock yourself in the heaven of your love, and leave the world that needs you? […] You must, like the ray of light, descend like the all-refreshing rain, you must go down into the land of the mortals, you must enlighten like Apollo’. Light, healing and poetry are, of course, among Apollo’s many attributes and it will be as an artist that Hyperion must give (as Diotima puts it) ‘what you have within you’. In ‘As on a holiday…’, one of his later hymns, Hölderlin advises his fellow poets:

 

us it behoves to stand

Bareheaded beneath God’s thunder-storms,

To grasp the Father’s ray, no less, with our two hands

And, wrapping in song the heavenly gift,

To offer it to the people.

 

(tr. Hamburger)

 

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Michael Hamburger

It takes a long time for Hyperion to accept Diotima’s proposal that his true role must be that of an artist. Only after the process of recording his life for Bellarmin does Hyperion achieve what Hölderlin’s Preface refers to as the ‘resolution of dissonances’ in his character. At one point he notes, ‘I am an artist, but I am not skilled’. He returns to Alabanda for a period, fighting and being wounded in a war with the ‘Persians’, then suffers the loss of Diotima. Her last words to him suggest that he has been ‘put to the test and it is bound to become clear who you are’. Hyperion’s test will include the writing of his self-examining epistles. In effect, Hyperion ends by pursuing an art, like Hölderlin’s mature poetry, that essays some interim representations of the Heraclitean ‘One differentiated in itself’. Russell’s essay, accompanying her translation, interprets this as the lightning strike of a ‘Divine force’, an insight that (loosely) links Hölderlin, Shelley and Empedocles. She tends to replace philosophical incisiveness with a blustering, autobiographical style, but what her exposition lacks in rigour it makes up for in enthusiasm.

 

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In a letter of 1801, Hölderlin declares there ‘is only one quarrel in the world: which is more important, the whole or the individual part’. Hyperion finally accepts that the irresolvable tension, the pulse or heartbeat vital to the fully-lived human life is that between unity and freedom, Being and reflection, living in life and above it. With new-found optimism, he compares these ‘dissonances of the world’ to lovers’ quarrels, where ‘Reconciliation is in the midst of strife and all that is parted finds itself again’. He offers a further encouraging metaphor: ‘The arteries divide and return to the heart and one, eternal glowing life is All’. What remains to us is an unending quest or process not liable to completion or final stasis. The impossibility of completion is famously expressed in the novel’s final, almost throw-away phrase (‘Nächstens mehr’). In Russell’s fine translation this is rendered as ‘More shortly’ and the ‘more’ that followed was, of course, the poetry for which Hölderlin is now most famous.

 

Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

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Recently I took part in a panel discussion about the art of translating poetry. It was chaired by Connie Bloomfield from UCL and held at the Enitharmon Gallery in Bloomsbury. I was joined by David Harsent (translating Yannis Ritsos), Emma Wagstaff and Nina Parish (co-editors of Writing the Real: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry) and Jane Duran (translating Lorca). Part of the evening was spent comparing our differing approaches to translating a poem in Catalan by Josep Lluis Aguilo. Inevitably, we differed on our approaches both to the specific and general issues raised by poetry translation. But it has prompted me to gather up these 20 thoughts on the issues in this blog post.

While preparing it, I also happened across further observations on the issue as quoted in the recently published Peepal Tree Press translation of Pedro Mir’s Countersong to Walt Whitman. The late Donald Walsh is quoted as saying “The translator’s first task is to discover exactly what the author has said . . . He must try to re-create in his language the miraculous fusion of thought and expression that produced the original work . . . the translator’s role is humble and secondary . . . he must do his best to circumvent obstacles . . . his duty is to express not himself but his author”.

As what follows will suggest, I find myself largely in agreement with such views – though the compromising, tentative, humble processes that Walsh describes here and the inevitably pyrrhic kind of victories one can expect from them are unlikely to make for dramatic headlines in literary journals or publishers’ blurbs – but I believe this is what the best translators do.

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Twenty Pointers to Translating Poetry

  1. Ask the big question: can we translate a poem? Because there are so many uncertainties, so many sacrifices, the absolute and perhaps only truly safe reply is to say: ‘No – too much will be lost’. But see #13 below – and now go to #2 (who wants to be safe anyway?)

 

  1. Ignore such crushing absolutism as expressed in #1. Roll up your sleeves and, like Shakespeare’s Ferdinand believe “some sports are painful, and their labour / Delight in them sets off”. Whatever the apparent obstacles, just do it: start shifting those logs of poetry translation if only because you want the challenge, if only because it’s a fascinating process – but mainly because it’s important (see #20)

 

  1. Know that to translate is to incur guilt. The moralistic tone in discussions of translation proves the importance of the task and suggests the passionate intimacies involved in this weird relationship between source author, translator and reader

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  1. Define translation broadly (1): responding to the emoji on my phone is an act of translation. Plus, it is not merely to transpose to another language, but from one language period to another, one language level to another (formal to vernacular), to paraphrase with clarity, to lay out logical and grammatical links more clearly, to interpret signs, symbols, gestures, facial expressions

 

  1. Define translation broadly (2): any good poem is a form of translation. Transtromer saw poems as manifestations of invisible poems written beyond languages themselves. Rita Dove says translators often understand best that any poem is merely a silhouette of our attempt to capture elusive original communications – like stepping stones across a river, the better to hear the silence

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  1. Think of turning the original source into something in the target language with the same information and with the same force as the original

 

  1. Use these simple methods (naturally used by native speakers to achieve greater clarity in communication – thanks, David Bellos) to begin to convey information and force:
    1. Synonymy – word for word replacement (literal translation)
    2. Expansion – replacement of problematic words with longer versions in the target
    3. Contraction – replacement with nothing, elision, skipping, abbreviations – turning a blind eye
    4. Topic Shifting – rearranging the sequence of the expressions for more clarity
    5. Change of Emphasis – other methods of making parts of the original expression stand out from the rest, in order to assist communication
    6. Clarification – adding expressions (not in the original) – making what was implicit in the original more explicit

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  1. Accept it – poetry is poetry so its translation is mostly a question of force – the shades and emotional colours, the rhetorical temperature, the ramifications of meaning of a word/phrase/form

 

  1. Discuss this: force is what Robert Frost called the sound of sense – poetry’s confessedly ineffable tones, gestures, interrelations, patterns – and to convey it we need to match such constituents (though not necessarily preserve them like lifeless bones)

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  1. Measure the force in a source poem via a process of triangulation – determine your direction of travel via multiple reference points connected to the source text – not only the text but also good old-fashioned literary interpretation, wider cultural perspectives, the source author’s wider oeuvre, anything you can lay your hands on

 

  1. Empathise and keep ego quiet – imagination is the major part of this triangulation process: so work hard to imagine what motivated the poem, re-live the act which gave rise to it and is enmeshed in it (thanks, Yves Bonnefoy). In translation we hope to release it from its source form into a new form that resembles/matches its original intention, intuition, yearning

 

  1. Measure the success of your empathetic act not by a term-for-term resemblance to the original poem (thanks again, Yves) but by the ontological necessity of your new words/forms/images

 

  1. Contradict my #1 – so it turns out, translation is possible if, with Bonnefoy, we regard the process of translation as poetry re-begun                                                                       . .
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  2. Be inspired by Charles Tomlinson’s formulation of the task: we look to preserve not the metre, but the movement of each poem – its flight, or track through the mind

 

  1. Close the source text, says Michael Hofmann, rightly, once your translation is beginning to gain some height in its flight. Close it!

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  1. Don’t confuse translation with versioning – the permission we give ourselves is different. To translate puts us in a position of responsibility to both the source text and a working English poem, equally. Versioning puts us in a position of responsibility only to a final working English poem

 

  1. Ask yourself how might I like my own poems to be treated – translation or version? Will you feel well served or misrepresented? Pleased or aggrieved? I’m not pre-judging your choices, but they will affect your view of your own translating processes

 

  1. Discuss this: Peter Robinson argues versions result in failures of tone or meaning, that they impoverish and almost invariably lower the tone, reducing the complexity of the original. But surely, such radical revisions might equally result in a better poem than the original? Still – neither will be a translation

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  1. Label versions and translations appropriately – we have a responsibility to the paying public who, in my experience, are always very clear about what they want to read

 

  1. Keep translating – because the desire to translate and read in translation is optimistic, humanistic and hopeful. Contra Babel, it provides evidence of a powerful urge towards community and communication. It shows there is more that unites us than divides us

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W H Auden’s Thoughts on Robert Frost

In what follows I am mostly summarising Auden’s own discussion of Frost, written in the late 1940s. But I am adding thoughts of my own as well (in the light of teaching Frost) and it would be prudent to make sure you have read Auden’s essay alongside this post.

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Auden’s essay, ‘Robert Frost’, can be found in The Dyer’s Hand (Faber, 1963) and it starts with a distinction between what a poem says and what the poet says. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ends with the statement that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. This is clearly the urn speaking and voicing a predilection for the kind of art “from which the evils and problems of this life”, argues Auden, have been “deliberately excluded” (p. 337). The Urn is such a piece of art, defining its own beauty in the act of excluding the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d” (alluded to in its own third stanza). Yet Keats’ main narrative voice does not subscribe to such a view and the possibilities of these ironic distances between poet, narrative speaker and dramatic characters (even if only an old urn) are things we should take into any reading of Robert Frost.

But Frost is not an Urn Poet, seeking beauty at all costs; Auden links such a desire with the figure of Shakespeare’s Ariel.  The Ariel poet wants a poem to be “a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play” which gives the reader delight in so far as it contrasts with our true existence in history, with our “insoluble problems and inescapable suffering” (p. 338). Taking an unprepossessing extract from George Peele, Auden characterises the Ariel poem as tending towards anonymous generalities, a verbal contraption such that, if we try to explain what pleasure it gives us, “one finds oneself talking about language, the handling of the rhythm, the pattern of vowels and consonants, the placing of caesuras etc”. Ariel has no passions – his earthly paradise is beautiful but not very earthly in truth, and nothing of consequence can happen there. An anthology edited by Ariel runs the risk of delivering mere narrowness and a monotony (or even absence) of feeling. Auden refers us to Virgil’s Eclogues, and poets like Campion, Herrick and Mallarme (I’d add other assorted Surrealists, Dylan Thomas, John Ashbery). In being turned away from historical reality, there is inevitably a narcissistic quality to Ariel poems (p. 340). Damning with faint praise, Auden notes Ariel’s worst fault is a minor one, a self-regarding triviality.

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In contrast, Frost is a Prospero Poet. To explain, Auden quotes Dr Johnson: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”. The Prospero poem should provide us with “some kind of revelation about our life”; it will act so as to “free us from self-enchantment and deception” (p. 338). In order to do this, the Prospero poet must introduce into the poem “the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly”, in other words Keats’ “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d”. Frost’s poems are recognisably of this type and they seem to derive from “an experience which preceded any words and without which the poem could not have come into being”. Rather than Ariel’s narrow focus on the beauty of the constituent verbal elements, these are now regarded as “subordinate in importance to the truth of what [the poem] says” (p. 340). Auden nominates Wordsworth as the English poet who, more than any other, has the least element of Ariel, a preponderance of Prospero. Wordsworth’s earthiness, directness of address and simplicity of language can reach peculiar, bathetic  extremes, as in ‘The Thorn:

 

This thorn you on your left espy;

And to the left, three yards beyond,

You see a little muddy pond

Of water, never dry,

I’ve measured it from side to side:

‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.

 

Yet, of ‘Mending Wall, Frost has said that he “dropped to an everyday level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above”. In Frost’s poem there are only two words with more than two syllables. This is evidence of Frost’s Prospero-like quality as Auden defines it. But the risk of such simplicity and directness – lodging any validity it possesses in the poem’s relation to truth – is that, in failing, the poet offends not merely against triviality but against truth itself. The poem may be false and a reader might conclude, “This poem should not have been written” (p. 341).

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Auden is, of course, dealing with extremes here and he admits most poetry presents a blend or tension of Ariel and Prospero qualities. But, considering a poet’s output, it is possible (and useful) to say that he or she is dominated by one or the other. So Auden describes Frost’s Prospero-like language: “The music is always that of the speaking voice, quiet and sensible . . . he rarely employs metaphors . .  yet he manages to make this simple kind of speech express a wide variety of emotion and experience” (p. 342). This achievement is because Frost’s diction is that “of a mature mind, fully awake, and in control of itself; it is not the speech of dream or of uncontrollable passion”.  The reader will often be aware of strong, even violent, emotions lying behind what is actually said, but the saying “is reticent, the poetry has, as it were, an auditory chastity”. So Frost’s poems are quiet on the surface which readers find inviting or, if more superficially read, boring. But the drama is real enough and, once entered into, not uncommonly, in Lionel Trilling’s famous observation, potentially “terrifying”.

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Auden goes on to make observations about some of Frost’s themes. ‘Two Look at Two’ is a “miraculous exception” in Frost’s general presentation of man’s relationship with Nature since the couple observing the buck and the doe seem to be rewarded with a sympathetic response. It is “As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour / Had made them certain earth returned their love”. In fact, this conclusion may seem less exceptional if we pay attention to the “As if” and – just as in Keats’ Urn – find a difference between the poet’s intention and the Ariel-like urge towards an ideal or paradisal ending to the poem (the couple’s love is returned only in their own rosy-tinted perception). More typically, Frost’s Nature is better represented by the “great buck” of ‘The Most of It’ which emerges from a lake, alien and indifferent to the human desire for “counter-love”.

This sense of cosmic indifference to the human draws from Frost his often expressed admiration of stoic courage, the ability to keep on keeping on. This, Auden points out, is the significance of Frost’s frequently deserted dwellings. In Europe, such an image might suggest “injustice and greed and the nemesis that overtakes human pride”. But in Frost, such ruins are rather “an image of human heroism, of a defence in the narrow pass against hopeless odds” (p. 345). Auden’s point is that Frost’s poetry looks forwards rather than backwards, nostalgia is not a common note; more usual, and more distinctively American, is “the ever-recurrent opportunity of the present moment to make a discovery or a new start” (p. 349). This is why Frost lauds work and labour so much. His highest virtue is the self-respect that comes from taking pride in something achieved.

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Baptiste – the French-Canadian axe-maker in ‘The Axe-Helve – is such a man and also a Prospero-like artist:

 

He showed me that the lines of a good helve

Were native to the grain before the knife

Expressed them, and its curves were no false curves

Put on it from without. And there its strength lay [. . .]

 

An Ariel axe-helve would look beautiful – but be wholly useless for the task. Frost said: “Art should follow the lines in nature [. . .] False art puts curves on things that haven’t any curves”. Unreliably narrated by a stiffly condescending New England Yankee farmer, the poem in fact favours Baptiste’s pragmatic art (which is Frost’s too). The same effect is heard in ‘Mending Wall’ in which the arrogant, mischievous narrative voice makes no headway against his less educated neighbour’s refrain: “Good fences make good neighbours”.

The narrator of ‘The Wood Pile’ is similarly undermined by his own poem. There is an Ariel-like restlessness about him. His curiosity has an aimless, insatiable quality as if the mixed nature of what lies before him is not enough. Having decided to return home, he changes his mind: “No, I will go farther – and we shall see”. What he eventually finds is an image reflective of his own failing: a wood pile, carefully and laboriously constructed and then abandoned in a restless search for novelty. Seemingly un-selfaware, he criticises the man who “lived in turning to fresh tasks” and could “so forget his handiwork”.

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It’s in ‘Birches’ that Frost most clearly engages with the contrasting desires of Ariel and Prospero. Climbing the tree “Toward heaven” is Ariel’s desire to “get away from earth a while”. This is contrasted to the earlier passage in the poem in which “Truth” breaks into the narrative, describing the irreversible damaged an ice storm can do to a birch tree: “they never right themselves”. It is Frost’s choice to take a third way, to be “a swinger of birches”, achieving a balance or sequence of both heavenward and earthward motion. If this sounds like an equal balance, it is misleading since –  as Auden argued – the scale is unmistakably tipped in Frost’s case towards Prospero. I don’t sense any irony in the declaration of ‘Birches’: “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”.

Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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2017 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Eric Langley

My work here is almost done . . .  This is the fifth and last in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2017 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 21st September 2017. Click on these links to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique)  and all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2017 shortlist is:

Maria Apichella – Psalmody (Eyewear Publishing) – reviewed here

Richard Georges – Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books) – reviewed here

Eric Langley – Raking Light (Carcanet) –  reviewed below

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree Press) – reviewed here

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry) – reviewed here

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Do poets owe their readers explanatory notes? The pro-accessibility reply is ‘On principle, no!’ The googlers reply is ‘Not necessary – let your fingers do the walking’. Others might concede, ‘On occasions, maybe, for clarity’s sake or to take the piss out of critics and academe (see T.S. Eliot). But reading Eric Langley’s debut collection – if it’s proving hard to hang on to his erudite coat-tails – perhaps you cry ‘Yes, yes, for goodness sake!’ In fact, such pleas have already been answered by a curious, anonymous website that has sprung up to explicate many of these poems. Talk about poetry moving from the writer’s desk to the academic lecture hall without passing through an ordinary reader’s hands! It’s because Langley scrupulously offers us no help at all in positioning ourselves to read about the Chinese tradition of walnut gambling, Ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, Picasso’s father, Stephen Grosson’s 1579 book Schoole of Abuse, Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, Derrida on postcards, Argus, Eurydice, Zeno, Edgar Allen Poe and (twice) the art historical term pentimenti. And that’s mostly from the opening 50 pages of this 128 page book (I think it’s about 40 pages too long).

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On the other hand, Langley often writes with a vigour and robust rhythmical quality to perform (all these poems are very performative) a sort of Elizabethan riffing to scatter-shot effect. He has a slightly annoying, almost reflex habit of sampling bits of Shakespeare mid-poem (especially from Hamlet) but Ted Hughes wrote of Shakespeare’s language that it was “an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, [a] weirdly expressive underswell of musical neargibberish” (‘The Great Theme: Notes on Shakespeare’ (1971)) and at his very best Langley catches some of this. Literally born into the Cambridge school (Langley’s father, R. F. Langley, with his son, would often holiday with J. H. Prynne), Langley junior invigorates that difficult style with a 1590s fizz and gristle (his day job at UCL is studying the bard and more obscure Elizabethan texts) in poems whose image field is most often ekphrastic, whose emotional stance is often surprisingly sentimental and whose dominant atmosphere is one of loss.

The loss is key. Fundamentally this is about language (Cambridge School again) as the poor relation to ultimate reality. Our every living moment is a catalogue of loss; certainly our every communication is a clumsy moon-shot at a too-fast moving target, a shot also plagued by the drag of our words’ etymologies. But this is also (like the Forward short-listed books by Nick Makoha and Ocean Vuong) a book about lost fathers (Langley talks about this and other things and reads a poem in this interview). In addition, Langley’s sense of loss is elsewhere associated with the recall of a romantic attachment, what he refers to at one point, transmuting Anthony Burgess, as “memory’s ultraviolence”. This stirring of long-buried materials is what the book’s title alludes to. Raking light is used in art historical investigations to reveal the artist’s false starts and abandoned intentions – a sort of alternative historical version of the final painting. In fact, it’s that often over-done, old poetical favourite, the palimpsest, in art historical terms.

So ‘In raking light’ the narrative voice explains “in the beam’s fetch / the urgent silt sits up”. Perhaps my ‘explain’ is not the right word here – there is a sort of querulous (lover’s?) complaint going on in the tone as if the voice resents this uncovering of the past.

 

Once, there was life here –

residual and errant –

hushed since, shucked under

the thick skin, the tough slough.

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The vowel music in these few lines illustrates one of the pleasures of Langley’s work, but the “thick skin” is a gift to those who might accuse him of tending to bury hurt and loss under an avalanche of erudition rather than bringing it to the light. Indeed, it’s debatable whether this poem (in 8 sections), as it continues to offer multiples of synonymous formulations of this buried/hidden trope, manages to express a humanly complex emotional state or simply obscure it in a playful, bravura performance. The poem to read alongside this one is ‘Eurydice in Euston Square’ which – once it has got past its tacked-on allusions to Orpheus’ lost wife and Proserpina – proceeds much more nakedly and accessibly:

 

Come back up stairs

if you read me

 

up in the subway

missing the tube travel,

 

missing the coach trips,

all the seaside rides,

 

the telephones, the postcards,

telegrams on spun wire;

 

come back up stairs,

and I’m hanging on

 

subjunctives, hanging on

superlatives, hanging on

 

the sound of someone

long gone to static

(apologies for some loss of formatting here – blame WordPress)

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The more linguistic and epistemological losses that preoccupy Langley are clear in the opening line of the opening poem, ‘Glanced’: ‘You lovely looker on and by and by and.” The interruptive full stop is (ahem) the point (Langley’s love of puns can be infectious). The idea is then played out (again in a riffing, repetitive style) via another old favourite, Zeno’s arrow, though this time the target is Zeuxis’ painting of grapes which (in legend) was so realistic that birds swooped down to peck them. Art imagined to be closing on the real – of course, it proves a delusion. The arrow does strike the canvas but penetrates what is really nothing, then slams into a “wall”. The final section of the poem, in fact, does suggest some possible success (see Hughes’ comment on Shakespeare’s ultimate expressive achievement through signals and hints). The concluding lines display Langley’s vigorous use of anaphora, rhyme, punning and Shakespearean allusion:

 

So glancing blown by,

so palpably hit away, so

 

keep so lovely looking still

keep lovely looking till

 

until each hungry bird

has flown and had his fill.

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The sequence, ‘Albada: Pigeons on pink’, starts (once we’ve done the googling to find out) with Picasso’s painter father, Don Jose Ruiz y Blasco. He liked to paint pigeons and for a few sections he sounds pleased with the results. But then young Pablo asks for a pencil and his father is astonished at the boy’s skill, or the degree to which his art seems to approach reality: “all these real these / really real pigeons”. Via another allusion to Hamlet, Langley then morphs the poem into an address to his own father (who wrote a poem called ‘Jack’s Pigeon’) though the two sons – Pablo and Eric – are blurred together, avoiding filial arrogance in a burst of filial piety: “it’s all still yours, still yours to say, Jose”. An albada is a Spanish love poem – this one has been re-geared into a piece about the son’s love of a father.

The two poems called ‘Pentimenti’ return to the ideas linked with raking light. The Italian word means ‘regrets’ and in art history it refers to changes an artist makes and covers over in the process of creation. The first of the poems is shorter and mixes images of painting with those of telephoning and it’s the latter that suggests this is really driven by a broken relationship in the modern world: “lost out here – dialling, dialling”. Such loss of contact and communication trips all Langley’s switches. A similar instinctive, welling up, or inundation, of potent material can be seen in the over-long, repetitive sequence in the middle of the book. This springs from a detail recounted by Galen of Pergamon that Ptolomaeus, King of Egypt, in assembling his great library, would take books from any ship that sailed into port, have them copied, then give back the copies, retaining the originals for his own book shelves. So language, knowledge, forgery, copies, signs, semiotics, morse code, the Dewey system of classification, plus Hamlet on the pirate ship and the final Alexandrian conflagration – Langley throws it all into the mix  and gives it a good stir.

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For me, the second ‘Pentimenti’ is a much greater success, presenting itself as a literal palimpsest of the earlier poem – the thoughts, drafts and revisions that might have led to it. The performance here is not the dazzling, often impossible to follow footwork of other poems in the book, but rather one of hesitations, lines of thought taken up, then dropped, crossings out and (literal) fadings out. For me this expresses the difficulties of expression more effectively than many other poems, especially in the revisions we witness which involve a switch of verb tense from present to past. Most of these observations seem (again) to be focused on a romantic relationship so that what is the case (first draft) is being transformed into what was before our very eyes. I think (actually, I’m not sure) the sequence drifts latterly towards the relationship with the father again but even the obscurities here play an affecting role and the collection’s final lines remind me of the tragic, closing moments of Brian Friel’s play, Translations, in which the Gaelic language, culture and memory seems to be fraying and withering to nothing even as we watch and the lights dim.

Langley’s book will infuriate many and please the few. There is an impressive peculiarity here, a performative jouissance concerning language and learning which the Forward short-listing committee must be responding to. But I do wish he’d had a tougher editorial voice to cut the length of the book which – especially in the mid-sections – indulgently outstays its welcome.

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