Silence often implies assent, and since also I would not willingly call myself a base man, I feel obliged to respond to remarks arising from my mention of Ezra Pound's disabilities as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon. I also feel an impulse to speak the truth, as I see it, whether or not I am ignored. The remarkable invention which is the internet offers, although moves may be afoot to change this, an outlet for speech which might otherwise be denied. The dissemination of unorthodox verities, as wise men know, is commonly first met with ridicule, then followed by hostility and suppression. Discussion is the oxygen of mental life: it is open to all to challenge what I say. An even-tempered and rational approach is encouraged: unbalanced rhetoric, in which many take refuge when confounded, will be ignored.
The correspondence about Pound in the TLS was partly sparked by the following remarks: "Since the first appearance in 1911 of Ezra Pound's completely bogus "poetic version" of The Seafarer - from the Anglo-Saxon - there has existed a growing and increasingly trendy body of opinion which holds that even a rudimentary understanding of the source language is quite unnecessary when "translating" a poem .... but without a comprehensive understanding of the original language [a translator-poet] is quite simply on a creative frolic of his own. In Pound's case, he had virtually no understanding of Anglo-Saxon, beyond what he picked up from a remarkably careless reading of a dictionary; and even less perception of the poem's fundamental significance. His much-admired "version" is little more than the unacknowledged mangling of an earlier translation, published in 1902 by Lola La Motte Iddings - who actually did have an admirably clear understanding of what the poem was about. Pound's "version" succeeded in obliterating the underlying sense of the original for at least fifty years."
This was followed by a letter from Dr Chris Jones, of St Andrews University, which I've had cold feet about reproducing in full, but which can be seen here. Not that I suppose many people, other than myself, are especially interested. However, I'll give the gist of it, accurately, which shouldn't break any rules.
Jones asserted that: Pound studied "Old English" intensively for three terms at Hamilton College. He was his Professor's pride. F.C.Robinson marshalled the facts 25 years ago. There is no evidence Pound knew the Iddings translation. Pound's Seafarer "sets sail from knowledge, not from ignorance".
Following which, I was obliged to the TLS for publishing my second letter:
"Sir, - May I be granted a brief comment on the critical orthodoxy expressed by Dr Jones (Letters, March 16) in connection with Pound's Seafarer and his understanding of the language of the Anglo-Saxons? Pound's reliance on Iddings' 1902 translation is undeniable. In at least 20 instances his phrasing is identical, or near-identical, and in many cases the words used occur only in these two versions. F.C.Robinson's 1982 essay, "Pound's Anglo-Saxon Studies" points out that where Pound consulted an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, he invariably selected the wrong gloss. Pound also removed all Christian imagery from what is patently a deeply Christian poem. He may not have been ignorant of Anglo-Saxon, nor did I say he was, but simply on the evidence of his "refraction" and his "Philological Note" his understanding of the language, and the poem itself, was negligible. This is in total contrast with the sensitivity demonstrated in Iddings' scrupulous, if prolix, verse. Pound cavalierly betrays the original composition, but this may, of course, have been his intention."
The rest has been silence, and I suspect that the TLS was by now fed up with this topic. However, whatever the limpness of Pound's handshake, his 20th century presence clings limpet-like, and is cloyingly difficult to shake off. A few more of the above points, and some others, have to be addressed. In passing, my letter was extremely conservative in mentioning "20 instances" of Iddings/Pound parallels. The number (only lines 1-99 are relevant) more nearly amounts to 48. See here.
The idea that Pound, aged over 18, could have acquired anything more than minimal rudiments of Anglo-Saxon after three terms, 1904-05, at a college in New York is little short of hilarious. Hell, there was a time, within my living memory, when every English middle-class schoolboy studied Latin for anything up to ten years, retaining virtually nothing of these studies five years later. School marks in such a context are almost worthless. Truly gifted linguists, and genuinely dedicated scholars, distinguished for their clarity of mind, have spent years and decades on penetrating Anglo-Saxon, and many, many aspects of its complexities are still subject to dispute. Some of these disputes have lasted centuries. Pound's manipulation of Iddings' text is so blindingly obvious that only those already blinded by his bafflegab could fail to see it. I was blinded myself, until I began to think about it seriously.
How did Pound really achieve the effect claimed for him? What he did was, first, to shrink Lolita's text, and then to jumble it up, piling confusion upon incomprehension. Third, he wisely avoided using rhyme or a Latinate metre. Finally, perhaps the most significant aspect of his performance was that he followed the word-order of the original fairly closely. These remarks only apply to about the first third, or half perhaps, of the 99 lines he refracted. What is missing in his refraction is any interest in the ideas which the original contains. Some might argue that poetry is not about ideas, but sensations. Such a point would be arguable.
I only came to realise all this long after I had settled for producing my own version of The Seafarer. Recognizing the economy of Anglo-Saxon expression from my fluency in Swedish, my instinctive aim had been to reproduce the essence of the original, without omission, in as few modern words as possible; as well as to convey its actual thought. Brevity is the soul of wit, and pith the marrow of Anglo-Saxon. See commentary: here. The following table, giving the number of words used to translate (or refract) lines 1-99, is instructive, if not totally scientific: ie, what exactly is a word? This analysis and multilingual textual comparison was only undertaken, for amusement, long after I had virtually completed my own effort. But it showed me what Pound had been about.
Even Homer has been known to nod, thank God. The ghastly error in the above table, which had been there for several years, has now, 21 March 2014, been removed. It remains obvious that the Swedish, Estonian, Scottish and German versions are very considerably more economical in their renderings than the vast majority of their Modern English equivalents. The table lists the sum total of translations which have succeeded in transferring the words of the original (inexplicably underestimated here for many years) into fewer than 690 target language words. The number of Anglo-Saxon source words is now recognized to be 765. Pound's version, could one but make sense of half of it, is in turn greatly more compressed than Iddings'. Do the conclusions need to be spelled out? Another time, perhaps.
Like now. Alas, how hard it is to button one's lip, once the bit's between one's teeth. The English language, spread around the globe by the Viking valour of her seafarers, long after Anglo-Saxon England died, is grown so voluminous in its lexis that it threatens to become unwieldy. The French have been heard to complain that it is muddled and imprecise in thought and expression, and contrast it with the exactness of their own tongue. Writers in English, especially since about 1800, and especially American writers, and especially academics, show a fatal tendency to sprawl and flounder. Many drown in the linguistic bogs of their own gabblejabber. For these, the distilled power of Anglo-Saxon becomes intractable, and barrels of ink are exuded on wrestling with it. Approached from Beowulf's homeland, Scandinavia, a great number of these enigmatic cruces dissolve into nothing. Danish and Swedish scholars, Rask, Jespersen, Björn Collinder and O.S.Arngart, are immeasurably closer in their understandings; and, for them, large numbers of the problems and misinterpretations perceived and committed by the Anglos simply don't exist.
But how can 19 million (Swedes, Danes, Norwegians) make themselves heard over 395 million (Americans, Canadians, British)? That's two against forty: even Bronson, Eastwood and Charles XII only ventured to take on ten or so, at any one time. The "Old English" juggernaut lumbers on, top-heavy with misplaced academic investment. This is democracy: self-evidently, the majority must be right, and entitled to trample on dissent. So far, on the side of the good guys, I am joined by Dr J.S.Beard, Mr David Burns, and, surprise, surprise, James Fenton, Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1994. So let's be Spartan.
Fenton, in An Introduction to English Poetry, writes on page 1: "Some people, for instance, think that English poetry begins with the Anglo-Saxons. I don't ..... Anglo-Saxon is a different language, which has to be learnt like any foreign language. Anglo-Saxon poetry ..... is somebody else's poetry." Inspirational words! Speak the truth and a wise man will applaud you. Not only does Fenton call Anglo-Saxon a foreign language, he calls it by its apter name. He also says that it has to be learnt like a foreign language. This is the truest of his comments, and among the least equipped to learn it are those who willingly think of it as "primitive" Modern English. I once heard the noted celebrity, George Melly, refer (on television) to Scandinavian speech as "dawn language". Drenched as I am in the deluge of word-spinning gobbledegook of Anglo-American academe-speak, I am beginning to think of Modern English as twilight language. Funny how 19 million Scandinavians, on a per capita basis, continue to out-perform the rest of the world in every department of human endeavour. And yet, on the whole, they remain self-critical --- because they're still clear-headed.
In Strange Likeness, p.16, Chris Jones tells us that he has "perhaps written this book for" James Fenton. Negatively inspired by Fenton, his study, crammed with learning, treats exhaustively of Pound, Auden, Heaney and Edwin Morgan. The words "Old English" leap up, in cascades, on almost every page. Perhaps I exaggerate. A glance at Morgan's Seafarer at once shows, from the first line (This verse is my verse, it is no fable), that whatever its qualities as poetry, it totally and utterly fails to "penetrate", in Arngart's word, the poem's structure, form and content. The original Anglo-Saxon is such a perfect, succinct composition, almost anyone can piggy-back on it into something reasonably interesting; but Morgan manages to come up with nothing but a meandering mess. In an earlier essay, here, I tried to suggest that the finest interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon poem is Tennyson's Crossing the Bar, followed fairly closely by Masefield's Sea Fever, and rather more remotely by Kipling's Harp Song of the Dane Women. In England, the first two are among the best-loved poems known to the general public. Earlier English poets with a genuine feel for pre-Norman poetry might include Thomas Gray, Coleridge (perhaps) and Hopkins, as well as Tennyson. Pound's more direct nineteenth century precursor appears to me to be Lewis Carroll. The twentieth has to be reckoned one of the ugliest of centuries. Heigh-ho, time for bed.
Alexander, Michael The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound (1979)
Brooker, Peter A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (1979)
Eliot, T.S. (Introduction) Selected Poems of Ezra Pound (1928)
Fenton, James An Introduction to English Poetry (2002)
Fraser, G.S. Ezra Pound (1960)
Fraser, G.S. The Modern Writer and His World (1964)
Goodwin, G.L. The Influence of Ezra Pound (1966)
Graves, Robert. The Crowning Privilege (1955)
Hellquist, Elof Etymologisk Ordbok (1922)
Homberger, Eric (Ed.) Ezra Pound: The Critical Heritage (1972)
Jones, Chris Strange Likeness: The use of Old English in twentieth-century poetry (2006)
Jones, Peter (Ed.) Imagiste Poetry (1972)
Kenner, Hugh (Introduction) The Translations of Ezra Pound (1953)
Kenner, Hugh The Pound Era (1972)
Leavis, F.R. New Bearings in English Poetry (1950)
Morgan, Edwin Collected Translations (1996)
Newton, Sam The Origins of Beowulf (1994)
Orage, A.R. Selected Essays & Critical Writings (1935)
Pound, Ezra ABC of Reading (1934)
Pound, Ezra Guide to Kulchur (1938/1952)
Raffel, Burton The Art of Translating Poetry (1988)
Robinson, Fred C. The Tomb of Beowulf (1993)
& many others
Clive Wilmer on Pound's Life & Career
Pass the Peanuts
*** *** ***
"There is of course nothing 'Old English' about Beowulf, and that includes the language,
which is immeasurably closer to modern Swedish than it is to modern English.
Use of the term 'Old English' as replacement for 'Anglo-Saxon' is profoundly misleading."
From an email posted to ANSAX-L@listserv.wvu.edu, 10/09/2007.
A kulchur gets the poets it deserves.
pound note two
pound note four
back to judge not
essays and papers
© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2007/2012
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