Tuesday, March 22, 2016


Poetic Diction

Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), Andrew Lang, the Poet (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), pp. 10-15:
Take, first, that famous translation of the Odyssey, Butcher and Lang. Scholars of my generation loved it. Why? Because, I think, it always remembered that the Odyssey was a poem, not merely a story; that it belonged, even when first spoken, to a past age, an age beautiful and far-away, when the world was a braver place than now. Also that it was written in a deliberately archaic poetical language, which neither the poets themselves nor their audiences spoke. Compare it with two recent translations which have their admirers. There is a translation in the Penguin series by Mr. E. V. Rieu, which, as the author modestly says, makes no attempt to represent the poetry; it tells excellently and in straightforward language the story of the poem. It makes good reading. Yet surely the sacrifice is very great. The Odyssey has lived to delight its readers for two thousand years not because it was a good story but because it was, line by line, canto by canto, a lovely poem. The second translation I will take is that by T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia, a deservedly famous man and a friend of mine—which, I am sorry to say, I consider not exactly unskilful but definitely wrong in its whole aim. Lawrence, being obsessed by the current dogmas, explains in his preface that Homer, regarded as poetry, is quite bad; being written in a language which the poets did not normally speak it is 'all Wardour Street humbug'; regarded as a novel, however, the Odyssey is quite good. He then translates in such a way as to conceal that the work was ever a poem and, having thus—excuse the word—'debunked' the poetry, he proceeds to 'debunk' Penelope and the principal characters. On this I wish to make two remarks. First, Lawrence was pretty certainly wrong in saying that the Odyssey is a bad poem, when the universal opinion of poets and critics has for some two thousand years recognized it as an extremely good poem; and the abstract a priori ground on which he condemns it is therefore probably a wrong ground. Secondly, his aim was a bad one: to 'debunk' involves cultivating a lack of appreciation towards things of unusual beauty and a lack of respect towards things greater than ourselves; whereas the aim of true education and culture is exactly the opposite: to see and love the beauty and greatness which otherwise we might be too lazy or stupid to see, too dull and self-satisfied to love. I am tempted to add a third, and for our immediate purpose a most important, criticism: he does choose his language with the purpose of destroying the poetry and thereby shows his belief in the effect of poetic or unpoetic diction. His own practice disproves his theory.

On this whole issue, therefore, I am strongly for Lang against Lawrence, and with some hesitation for Lang against Rieu. But let us consider what can fairly be said against Lang. First, take the phrase 'Wardour Street', which, I ought perhaps to explain, was a famous street in London full of theatrical costumiers, where you could hire sham wigs and helmets and armour. If, say the critics, Mr. Lang could really write about King Arthur in the language of King Arthur's time, well and good; but he cannot. It is lost. All he can do is to write nineteenth-century English with a sprinkling of obsolete words. His quasi-medieval language is a sham. Homer was better off. Though he could not exactly compose in the real language of the heroic age, he had a long, continuous tradition coming down from that age and forming a recognized dialect for epic poets. Homer's language was a sham, too, but a much better sham.

How do we answer this? The answer is that all criticism based on the word 'sham' is dangerous and misleading. Pursue it, and you will soon find yourself in the same position as the negro in Mark Twain, who could not see why any sane person should give a thousand dollars for a picture of a cow by a Dutch artist when you could buy the cow itself for less. The whole question is whether the diction you choose produces the right aesthetic effect.

Next, the realist critic will say, why should any one suppose that there was any particular poetic value in the language of a past age. Human life is always much the same. The age of King Arthur was, no doubt, quite ordinary to the people then living, just as full as our own is of household worries and bills and tiresome children and colds. No doubt. But, to us, all that side of the Age of King Arthur is non-existent; it is forgotten; we know nothing of it; tradition has only preserved for us the chivalry and the wonders, Lancelot and Guinevere, and the traitor Modred, and the splendid quests on which the knights rode out to conquer or die. Just in the same way, Homer knew of his heroic age only by legend and tradition, which naturally preserved chiefly the high-lights and splendours. Consequently the language in which he sings of the heroic age preserves some touch of the heroic age about it, and of the heroic age in its grand moments. Quite different, I presume, from the language in which the bard himself asked to have his boots mended or his bill paid. Our feeling about the splendour of the past is rather like our belief in the excellence of its buildings; we judge it by the few very strong buildings that are now standing, and forget that all the common ones have disappeared.

Lastly, it may more fairly be said that Lang's slightly archaic prose is not at all like Homer's archaic poetry. Lang is medieval and romantic and a little languid, and, of course, makes no more attempt than Rieu to represent Homer's rolling splendour of sound. Homer has a magical language and metre of his own, which one cannot represent in English; why, then, attempt it? The answer of any translator to that criticism must be a modest one: 'I know I cannot reproduce the quality of the original, but I love it and hope that I can, to a certain extent, suggest it.'

Lang then tried by his choice of words and forms of sentence to bring back, or at least suggest, the atmosphere of an age which, to him and his contemporaries, was an age of imagination and legend, an age far removed from the trivial and commonplace. He believed in Poetic Diction. That is at present an extreme heresy. The young lions cry out against it as a reductio ad absurdum of Victorian romanticism. They have much moral support from the actors who produce Hamlet and Macbeth in modern dress and the scholars who translate the Bible into the sort of language that demands no effort from the reader, either of understanding or of imagination. 'Whatever you have to say,' they argue, 'can you not say it straight in the plain language of the common man?'

That demand, it seems to me, shows a curious failure to understand the extreme vitality and variability of language. It is not a mechanical thing serving all purposes equally without change. Think of speech itself. The ordinary manuals of phonetics recognize three kinds of pronunciation ordinarily practised in English—one for casual conversation, one for ordinary lectures or reading aloud, a third for public reading of the Bible or great literature. That is not an artificial invention. It is a natural development, and occurs in all languages. Then, as to the actual words used: listen to a mother talking to a child, to a group of scientific men or literary critics talking 'shop', to an average group of talkers in a public house, or of betting men returning from a racecourse. Which is 'plain language'? The realists fail to realize that every word and phrase has, besides what we call its 'meaning', a magnetic cloud of atmosphere or association hanging about it, and the nearer it is to poetry or to religion the deeper is that cloud and the more richly charged with memories and emotion. You can, of course, take any great passage in the Bible or in Milton and by stripping off all the cloud of emotion and association turn the thing into an exact statement. If an exact statement is what you want, well and good; but you will thereby have stripped off the poetry. This is why all the great poets of the Hellenic or European tradition have used poetic diction. It is most marked of all in the father of all our poetry, Homer. Not one line of Homer could be mistaken for prose. In Greek tragedy here and there, very rarely, there are such lines. That is because it is drama; and a phrase of ordinary work-a-day prose coming in the midst of poetic language has a special effect of dramatic shock. In the main the language of tragedy is completely lifted above that in which a man asks for his boots, or complains that his tea is cold. It is the same with Roman poetry, the same with Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, Dante, Racine, Goethe, the whole line of the tradition.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?