Friday, April 03, 2015


Dr. Syntax and Mr. Pound

Robert Graves (1895-1985), "Dr Syntax and Mr Pound," The Crowning Privilege: Collected Essays on Poetry (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1956), pp. 216-218 (square brackets in original; some misprints corrected by me; the essay is subtitled "prompted by The Poet as Translator; the Times Literary Supplement, Sept. 1, 1953," with the footnote "Quotations from the T.L.S. eulogy of Pound are here printed in CAPITAL LETTERS."):
DR SYNTAX: Now for our Propertius translation, boys. This morning we begin with the lines:
Multi, Roma, tuas laudes annalibus addent
    Qui finem imperii Bactra futura canent.
Sed, quod pace legas, opus hoc de monte Sororum
    Detulit intactâ pagina nostra viâ.
(Dr Syntax consults his teachers' crib, which reads: 'Multi, Roma, many men, O Rome, addent, shall add, tuas laudes annalibus, praises of thee to the annals, qui canent, prophesying, Bactra futura, that Bactria shall form, imperii finem, thine imperial frontier [i.e. that the Parthian empire shall be absorbed], sed, but, pagina nostra, my page, detulit, has brought down, hoc opus, this work, de monte Sororum, from the mountain of the Sisters [i.e. the Muses of Parnassus], viâ intactâ, by an untrodden path, quod legas pace, for thee to read in time of peace [i.e. I alone have not joined the cavalcade of popular war poets].' He sighs and looks about him.)

THE BOYS: Only to the bottom of the page, Dr Syntax, Sir.

DR SYNTAX: Ha! Very well. Let me see! Whom shall I put on to construe first? Surely our celebrated transatlantic scholar Ezra Pound who only yesterday, perhaps inspired by George Borrow's felicitous pseudo-translations from the Armenian and Polish, distinguished himself by rendering
Unde pater sitiens Ennius ante bibit
as if sitiens meant 'sitting', not 'a-thirst'. Quiet, boys, no merriment! Come on, Pound; my Fabian libra of twelve asses in one, ha, ha! I can see you are yearning to outdo yourself.

POUND (virtuously): Please, Dr Syntax, Sir! I have translated the whole passage into free verse. I call it Homage to Sextus Propertius, Sir.

DR SYNTAX: Eh, what? How very industrious and thoughtful of you! Proceed! We are all attention.

POUND (declaims):
Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations.
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities
And expound the distentions of Empire,
But for something to read in normal circumstances?
For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied?
DR SYNTAX: BREATHTAKING MAGNIFICENCE, Pound, BRILLIANT PARAPHRASES. I am delighted that you scorn to use Kelly's Keys to the Classics. You are, I see, DELIBERATELY DISTORTING THE STRICT SENSE IN ORDER TO BRING OUT VIVIDLY PROPERTIUS'S LATENT IRONY. I would go farther: I would say that you have expanded a facile and rather petty pair of elegiac couplets into what MUST SURELY PROVE TO BE A DURABLE ADDITION TO, AND INFLUENCE UPON, ORIGINAL POETRY IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN THIS CENTURY. But, pray, would you be kind enough, for the benefit of the slower-witted members of the Fourth Form, to give a literal, unpadded, word-for-word translation of the Latin, however bald? I suspect that 'CELEBRITIES FROM THE TRANS-CAUCASUS' ARE A BRIGHT NOTION OF POUND'S OWN, SUGGESTED PERHAPS BY THE SINGLE WORD BACTRA?

POUND: O, no, Dr Syntax, Sir. Please, Sir, it goes like this. Multi tuas laudes, many of your praises, Roma, O Rome, addent annalibus, will be added by annalists, qui, who, Bactra futura, being Bactrians of the future (this is a bit like Macaulay's New Zealander, isn't it, Sir?), canent, will sing, fines imperii, about your fine empire. Sed, but, quod, what about, legas, reading matter, pace hoc opus, when all this work is at peace? And then in apposition, Sir: via, a few, intacta pagina, unsullied pages, detulit, brought down, de monte Sororum, from the hill of Soritis (I looked it out, Sir, and it means 'a forked complex of logical sophisms').

DR SYNTAX: Great! This MAY SET THE ACADEMIC CRITICS ALL AGOG, but it will certainly earn you a four-column eulogy in The Times Literary Supplement. The anonymous reviewer will compare you with Marlowe, and say even kinder things about your genius than I have dared.
(Dreamily.) Talking of Dog-Latin, my boys, you all doubtless recall Virgil's immortal lines beginning:
Vere novo gelidus canis sub montibus umor
Unlike good Citizen Pound, I claim no talent for free verse, but I think I can knock up a pretty fair Shakespearean line: Vere novo, Strange yet how true, gelidus canis, the dog with chills and fevers, sub montibus liquitur, makes water at the lofty mountain's foot, umor, for a mere jest. Silence, boys, or I shall give you a hundred lines apiece! And while I am on the subject of discipline, my Poundling, let me remind you to visit my study tonight after school prayers; and mind you, fili dilectissime, no padding—ha, ha!

POUND (mutters vindictively): Pedant, Jew, pluto-democratic usurer!
(Graves didn't invent the joke about Vergil, Georgics 1.43-44: see Comical Construes.)

See also, from the same book, "These Be Your Gods, O Israel!" = The Clark Lectures, Lecture VI, pp. 119-142 (at 129):
He knew little Latin, yet he translated Propertius; and less Greek, but he translated Alcaeus; and little Anglo-Saxon, yet he translated The Seafarer. I once asked Arthur Waley how much Chinese Pound knew; Waley shook his head despondently. And I don't claim to be an authority on Provençal, but Majorcan, which my children talk most of the time, and which I understand, is closely related to it. When my thirteen-year-old boy was asked to compare a Provençal text with Pound's translation, he laughed and laughed and laughed.

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