Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Over-extended metaphor

I said a while ago that reviews in literary studies tend to be excellent compared to those in other disciplines. But there are always exceptions:

Dr. Rostvig is again excellent on the intellectual background, particularly in bringing familiar material into new focus. She gives a fresh turn to the topic of Augustan poetry and landscape-gardening. Her essay on the still underrated James Thomson, who played a large part in destroying the classical ideal of the beatus vir, is excellent criticism. She resolutely traces the course of the river to its end; but as it widens to the sea, the water grows shallow and the fish more commonplace. When a Watts, a Collins, or an Akenside swims by, Dr. Rostvig marks him appreciatively. But the tiddlers come in shoals here, and we are forced to look at them too with almost comic concentration. There was too much in Dr. Rostvig's first book; she still lacks the discrimination of the compleat angler.

-James Kinsley, Review of English Studies, Feb. 1960 (in a review of volume 2 of Maren-Sofie Rostvig's classic The Happy Man)

Yikes.

Molecular, shmoelecular

I often recall this statement of Fredric Jameson whenever the dissolution of the Left becomes too much to bear:

The critique of totalization in France goes hand in hand with a call for a “molecular” or local, nonglobal, nonparty politics: and this repudiation of the traditional forms of class and party action evidently reflects the historic weight of French centralization (at work both in the institutions and in the forces that oppose them) as well as the belated emergence of what can very loosely be called a “countercultural” movement, with the breakup of all the old cellular family apparatus and a proliferation of subgroups and alternate “life-styles.” In the United States, on the other hand, it is precisely the intensity of social fragmentation of this latter kind that has made it historically difficult to unify Left or “antisystemic” forces in any durable and effective organizational way. Ethic groups, neighborhood movements, feminism, various “counter-cultural” or alternative life-style groups, rank-and-file labor dissidence, student movements, single-issue movements—all have in the United States seemed to project demands and strategies which were theoretically incompatible with each other and impossible to coordinate on any practical political basis. The privileged form in which the American Left can develop today must therefore necessarily be that of alliance politics; and such a politics is the strict practical equivalent of the concept of totalization on the theoretical level. In practice, then, the attack on the concept of “totality” in the American framework means the undermining and the repudiation of the only realistic perspective in which a genuine Left could come into being in this country. There is therefore a real problem about the importation and translation of theoretical polemics which have a quite different semantic content in the national situation in which they originate, as in that of France, where the various nascent movements for regional autonomy, women’s liberation and neighborhood organization are perceived as being repressed, or at least hampered in their development, by the global or “molar” perspectives of the traditional Left mass parties.
-The Political Unconscious, page 54, note 31.

Looking back on the last decades of the 20th century, where we saw the rise of a neoliberalism (which translates to the rise of an effectively Libertarian Right, a Left that is often anti-Labor, and a far-Left that threatens to desert the Democratic Party [remember Bush got elected because so many defected to Nader, thinking him greener (!) than Gore] more than it compromises with a more moderate Left politics)--a neoliberalism that, we now plainly see, has utterly destroyed this country's infrastructure (and if it isn't plain to you, you need to look around), you have to wonder why theorists who prided themselves on their politics didn't pay more attention to statements like this. And you really have to wonder why Jameson got so much flack in the U.S. for making them at the time, from people who claim to recognize the force of his critique of the critique of totality, but who nevertheless go on to stick him in a long line of totalizers.

Because it is basically right on every single point. Getting behind people like Deleuze in the late 20th century without really adapting them to the American context made no political sense in the U.S. whatsoever. The only way it even seemed to make sense was precisely because of the state of the forces that Jameson here outlines: you denied the narrative was valid from the perspective of your particular group, concluded this meant the only valid totality was non-totality, multiplicity, a proliferating pluralism--and thereby subscribed to that narrative.

Of course, everything turns on what counts as a valid "adaptation." What I like about the quote is that it sets the bar for this so low: all Jameson asks for is some sensitivity to the resonance of the words, rather than what we might call their grammar: that is, their ability to cohere and build up a (non-totalizing) political ontology of whatever sort. But people in those days were better humanists than they thought they were, apparently, and loved their system-building: they argued, effectively, that merely "using" these theorists (as it was called) was precisely a mode of adapting them. Thus the popularity of Foucault: he's easier Deleuze.

But it is no accident that smarter theorists (Judith Butler is a good example) affirm the correctness of this Jamesonian narrative with very few reservations, because--well, a lot of them spent some time in France, and have some familiarity themselves with the resonance of the terms. To put Jameson's demand in a different way, all he is asking people to do is familiarize themselves a bit with the contexts in which these statements are made. It isn't even a demand that people familiarize themselves with the "original" context of the statement (just as it isn't the ideas of Deleuze or any of the Frenchies that Jameson is here indicting): it isn't translation, but simply reading the rhetoric (another word for this sort of resonance, which you would think would have resonance here, where Yale School ideas were popular) of the texts that is necessary, and picking up on the fact that that they come from, and address, a different situation.

In short, what I like about this quote is that is basically comes from experience, though it does not require that experience to be forceful: it doesn't take much to see that certain political concepts developed in France are meant to address a certain political state of things, and while plurality might work there, its near-inevitable result would be to further fragment a country where there has been nothing like a significant (post-Depression) Communist Party, where social issues have always been thoroughly divorced from economic ones because of the inexistence of a history of a landed aristocracy and the subsequent tenuousness of any class distinctions (a situation which is unfortunately changing today, as the lower-middle "class" of tax-paying baby-boomers screwed over by Wall Street bankers starts to develop something like the first serious class-consciousness in America since before the Depression), and groups and interests face nothing like the centralization in France.

Or, to put it more mildly--for I can't say this fragmentation didn't also provide a beneficial sort of shift of the situation in some ways (while the Labor and the Women's Movements were, however, both slaughtered in the 80's and 90's)--imported along with the ineffective political theories was a suspicion of centralization which had no practical application at all in the U.S., except as a way to protest the Vietnam War or something like the "corruption" (something so vague and unbounded it now hovers over things as banal and routine as occasional government overspending) of the Nixon administration. The repression of various groups, and a lack of means for forms of this repression to become visible, wouldn't end with the dismantling of this centralization--which, after all, has its roots in policy and could have been corrected or (but you never heard anything of the relation of theory in general to policy except by feminists and Marxists, though in the early 90's things started to turn more generally that direction under the pressure of events) retheorized.

It seems like a history of thoroughly short-sighted people: people who concluded that a sort of pluralistic local-government politics was the natural outgrowth of everything that started in the 60's, and so anything that seemed theoretically to push in that direction, or further develop that idea, was deemed useful. And there seemed no threat of losing various federal guarantees that created and sustained the environment in which such ideas could be fostered (it is especially depressing now to hear older academics remember the ample funds sluiced into universities in the 60's). But as the forces opposing everything that politics stood for grew and grew, and even used its ideas to oppose it (still happening: again, prior to an election, Republicans are making the Democrats into the politically-correct and pluralistic, concluding that the much vaunted "respect for the other" also means love of terrorists)... well, you have to be glad that things (at least in the humanities) seem to be turning in other directions: critical theory is dissolving, or rather expanding, into more focused, concrete endeavors, which nevertheless posit genuine totalizing concepts (the media of media-studies is one of them). Which also means Deleuze's rhetoric--and many other rhetorics--might finally be read, after all these years.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Self-reference and metafiction (and realism)

There's a distinction to be made between self-referential stories and metafictional stories. While self-reference rolls itself up into a ball, seeking to disappear in indexicality, metafiction sprawls, unfolds, and interrogates the consequences of self-reference and parody more than it engages in either. In metafiction is room for development, where self-reference aims for merely a more pithy postmodern version of the modernist paradox Frederic Jameson describes so well: resolution in paradox, fragmentation that effectively means closure--all of which announces the inflexibility of form at the same time as it mourns the loss of an unironic formal achievement. Of course, modernism can't be reduced to just that, but this is precisely the reduction postmodernism accomplishes in order to turn this fatalism into a weird schizophrenic joy, closing off all the utopian modernist alternatives in order to elaborate, rather than change, this relation to form. So the pithiness here comes from the sense that metafiction can be dissolved into a series of instances of self-reference (otherwise known as allegory), or the sense that in instances of self-reference, we are getting all that metafiction allows.

But the overturning of this relation between the two has itself to be overturned, set back on it's feet. Instead of narratives like that of "Seinfeld," which rigorously--and wonderfully, in its last episode, though everyone hated precisely this fact--stuck to its self-referential pseudo-closure, we need more stories like "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which is a wonderful example of the possibilities of meta-fiction. Where "Seinfeld" constantly got laughs because it was a parody of the sitcom's premise, a show about shows and so really "about nothing"--or, to put it more accurately, referring (via its plots mostly) constantly to its own status as merely plausible--"It's Garry Shandling's Show" allows Shandling the metafictional possibility of actually commenting upon the way the show will unfold, and motivating this moment of self-reference into a drama: plots often involve Garry trying to avoid having to do an upcoming scene, and all self-reference actually dissolves into a fiction that is actually about fiction. Rather than making fiction's status as merely probable the beginning and end of the story, the status actually motivates a story about fiction.

The difference is subtle (I have a little difficulty bringing it out here), but the effect is a completely different sort of tale: while "Seinfeld" maintains the division between fiction and reality and exploits it, "It's Garry Shandling's Show" has no use for such self-consciousness of fictionality, and spills over into reality, blurring it's lines. This produces, basically, realism's brand of fiction (it's this more than anything like the science fiction of which Latour speaks). Garry maintains the notion that you can actually come over to his show, and often invites the audience in for dip: the point is not that the show is accounting for it's status as a show, but rather that you don't know where the fiction begins or ends. Garry is a guy who can be on a stage and be fictional--fiction is something different than acting, in other words, or it is only that. The odd doubling-over that Latour describes so well as the point of a dualistic notion of reference--this is just another event in reality, and can interact with it only because reality is really not as opposed to fiction as we thought it was.

Another way of making the distinction is to say that the opposition of fiction is not reality but history, not in the sense that fictions are ahistorical (though this actually does apply in some ways), but that fictions are negated by an idea of reality that claims to be objective and different than the narratives we tell about it. Fiction has no problem dealing with reality, but when it meets the claim that the people it deals with are not historical persons (and, as Michael Wood explains, especially when they are real people who are embellished through fiction, like the heroes of Homer Aristotle has so many problems with), it then has all sorts of problems. It's only when we believe reality has anything to do with history in this sense that reality then becomes opposed to fiction in such an austere way. Otherwise, like Latour says, the world interprets itself: what's crucial is that meta-fiction tries to restore this state of things, while self-reference or the restricted play between allegory and irony, comes from that despairing state of things just described, and will preserve the distinction between historical reality and fiction at all costs.

A final note: I had a little trouble distinguishing between the self-referential and the metafictional above, partly because "Seinfeld" is only explicitly self-referential in its form, and this actually makes it less visible (thus the disappointment with the last episode came from people mistaking the show's form for something else that involved the sort of everyday comedy that was its subject, something that would be about something). A cleaner example might be a reality show, especially one about trying to get on TV: Kathy Griffin's reality show is a good one, while "The Comeback" is pretty much a perfect example, because it takes the premise of reality TV (something lurking behind both Shandling and Seinfeld's ventures, but not really crystallized yet) to the max, and shows it to be precisely this sort of infinite self-reference. But that's still too formal, even if it shows just how dead and boring postmodernism is when it's view of things really hits TV. A more direct example can just be taken from "It's Garry Shandling's Show," since it uses self-reference to get to the plane of metafiction. The direct reference in the scene above to the monologue that opens the show is self-referential, while what it implies in terms of action is metafictional: Nancy has to stop what she's doing to wait for Garry to finish the monologue, because it's a monologue, something that, in fiction, has a particular shape and has to be traversed in a particular fashion--and not just because Garry refers to the show and what he is doing in general, in the abstract. What's funny is the waiting, and then the fact that she realizes that because the monologue is this particular object (I think like the realists we might call it an "object," or at least that's my take on how to turn people like Harman towards narrative, via their excellent reflections on what is involved in aesthetics) she can go do something else while Garry finishes--it's this that's funny, not the reference. You can also probably distinguish between them if you look at the great theme song, though things get hazy when you try to distinguish between types of utterance, as Derrida a long time ago (and this realist possibility of metafiction is, in my reading of him, what he tries to preserve here) showed with Austin:



This is the theme to Garry's show,
The theme to Garry's show,
Garry called me up and asked if I would right his theme song,
I'm almost halfway finished,
How do you like it so far,
How do you like the theme to Garry's show.

This is the theme to Garry's show,
The opening theme to Garry's show,
This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits,
We're almost to the part of where I start to whistle,
Then we'll watch "It's Garry Shandling's Show."

This was the theme to Garry Shandling's show.


"This is the theme to Garry's Show" is self-reference, while the amazing, hilarious turn "I'm almost halfway finished," picks up the narrative potential in "Garry called me up" and starts something metafictional, which doesn't take the plausibility of fiction for granted, and doesn't try to shore it up, but explores it, makes it spill out into and merge with reality.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dryden's Chaucer

One of the most striking aspects of Fables, Ancient and Modern is its prominent inclusion of Chaucer. In the famous Preface, Dryden has more to say about him than anyone else, and it is in remarks about the Middle English poet that Dryden also makes some of his most important statements about his view of language. This makes sense, however, as translating what is nearest to Dryden's English--which is what Dryden does with Chaucer--would seem to require the most far-reaching justification in order for it to be considered translation. This is not just because Chaucer is arguably more intelligible than those authors Dryden translates who wrote in a genuine foreign language, as much as it is because the nature of the un-foreignness which translation brings to the reader is undefined. Indeed, Dryden doesn't argue that Chaucer's English is in effect foreign: this is accepted from the get-go. What he argues is that translation has a definite, positive linguistic contribution, which is different and distinct from the mere fact of bringing foreignness into English; and this closes the door on arguments maintaining that Dryden just repeats Chaucer--translation at best being the mere transmission of the original. That positive contribution Dryden defines as intelligibility, by which he means something like resonance: translation allows words to be updated, not just historically, but in terms of their "significancy," their ability to hit home within a certain community of language users. The ancient-modern quarrel hangs over all of this, but what's really important, and escapes the dichotomy, is the way Dryden makes translation fight obsolescence:

But there are other judges, who think I ought not to have translated Chaucer into English, out of a quite contrary notion: they suppose there is a certain veneration due to his old language; and that it is little less than profanation and sacrilege to alter it. They are farther of opinion that somewhat of his good sense will suffer in this transfusion, and much of the beauty of his thoughts will infallibly be lost, which appear with more grace in their old habit. [...] Yet my reason was not convinc’d with what [was] urg’d against [the undertaking]. If the first end of a writer be to be understood, then as his language grows obsolete, his thoughts must grow obscure [...] When an ancient word for its sound and significancy deserves to be reviv’d, I have that reasonable veneration for antiquity, to restore it. All beyond this is superstition. Words are not like landmarks, so sacred as never to be remov’d; customs are chang’d, and even statutes are silently repeal’d, when the reason ceases for which they were enacted. As for the other part of the argument, that his thoughts will lose of their original beauty, by the innovation of words; in the first place, not only their beauty, but their being is lost, where they are no longer understood, which is the present case.

Making the original resonate also justifies significant elaboration on the original: the argument allows translation the dignity and freedom of imitation, by giving it this unique and slightly different power:

Chaucer, I confess, is a rough diamond, and must first be polish’d, ere he shines. I deny not, likewise, that, living in our early days of poetry, he writes not always of a piece, but sometimes mingles trivial things with those of greater moment. Sometimes also, tho’ not often, he runs riot, like Ovid, and knows not when he has said enough. But there are more great wits, beside Chaucer, whose fault is their excess of conceits, and those ill sorted. An author is not to write all he can, but only all he ought. Having observ’d this redundancy in Chaucer, (as it is an easy matter for a man of ordinary parts to find a fault in one of greater,) I have not tied myself to a literal translation; but have often omitted what I judg’d unnecessary, or not of dignity enough to appear in the company of better thoughts. I have presum’d farther, in some places, and added somewhat of my own where I thought my author was deficient, and had not given his thoughts their true luster, for want of words in the beginning of our language. and to this I was the more embolden’d, because (if I may be permitted to say it of myself) I found I had a soul congenial to his, and that I had been conversant in the same studies.

But what's most surprising about this view of translation as an active, engaged force, is that however much it obliterates, it allows so much freedom for revision that it creates a sense of historical continuity between the various attempts to update the words. History ceases to be a barrier, and begins to be a tradition that translation alone establishes. Thus Dryden continues:

Another poet, in another age, may take the same liberty with my writings; if at least they live long enough to deserve correction.

And you can see some of these principles in the amazing translations. I'll end the post by just selecting two. First, the opening of the Knight's tale, and then the unbelievable translation of the description of the Parson. Here's Chaucer's opening of the Knight's tale:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
There was a duke that highte Theseus.
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time such a conqueror
That greater was there none under the sun.
Full many a riche country had he won.
What with his wisdom and his chivalry,
He conquer'd all the regne of Feminie,
That whilom was y-cleped Scythia;
And weddede the Queen Hippolyta
And brought her home with him to his country
With muchel glory and great solemnity,
And eke her younge sister Emily,
And thus with vict'ry and with melody
Let I this worthy Duke to Athens ride,
And all his host, in armes him beside.

And certes, if it n'ere too long to hear,
I would have told you fully the mannere,
How wonnen was the regne of Feminie,
By Theseus, and by his chivalry;
And of the greate battle for the nonce
Betwixt Athenes and the Amazons;
And how assieged was Hippolyta,
The faire hardy queen of Scythia;
And of the feast that was at her wedding
And of the tempest at her homecoming.
But all these things I must as now forbear.
I have, God wot, a large field to ear;
And weake be the oxen in my plough;
The remnant of my tale is long enow.
I will not letten eke none of this rout.
Let every fellow tell his tale about,
And let see now who shall the supper win.
There as I left, I will again begin.


And here's Dryden:

In days of old, there lived, of mighty fame,
A valiant prince, and Theseus was his name:
A chief, who more in feats of arms excell'd,
The rising nor the setting sun beheld.
Of Athens he was lord; much land he won,
And added foreign countries to his crown.
In Scythia with the warrior queen he strove,
Whom first by force he conquer'd, then by love;
He brought in triumph back the beauteous dame,
With whom her sister, fair Emilia, came.
With honour to his home let Theseus ride,
With love to friend, and fortune for his guide,
And his victorious army at his side.
I pass their warlike pomp, their proud array,
Their shouts, their songs, their welcome on the way.
But, were it not too long, I would recite
The feats of Amazons, the fatal fight
Betwixt the hardy queen and hero knight;
The town besieged, and how much blood it cost
The female army, and the Athenian host;
The spousals of Hippolita the queen;
What tilts and tourneys at the feast were seen;
The storm at their return, the ladies' fear:
But these, and other things, I must forbear.
The field is spacious I design to sow,
With oxen far unfit to draw the plough:
The remnant of my tale is of a length
To tire your patience, and to waste my strength;
And trivial accidents shall be forborne,
That others may have time to take their turn;
As was at first enjoin'd us by mine host:
That he whose tale is best, and pleases most,
Should win his supper at our common cost.


Despite the amazing reordering that goes on in Dryden's version--most significantly in terms of the syntax of the sentences themselves--the use of triplets and particular rhyme words to me actually seems to give some spirit of the original. What's gone is the rambling tone we attribute to Middle English, and I find that it actually makes me think about whether I really do take Chaucer seriously when I read him in the original--no small feat of Dryden's.

Now, for the Parson. Dryden notes under the title that it is "imitated from Chaucer," not translated. He also says it is "enlarged." Now, this is because (as you will see) he sticks in many lines that turn Chaucer's original into reflection on the state of religion under William and Mary--a clear instance of not only giving the words resonance, but the content as well. But, while he perhaps nowhere else used this much freedom with the content (for 13 lines in the Chaucer, Dryden takes over 40), I still think it is still a great example of how the language is updated as well. Here's Chaucer:

A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre PERSOUN OF A TOUN,
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk.
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
Benynge he was, and wonder diligent,
And in adversitee ful pacient,
And swich he was ypreved ofte sithes.
Ful looth were hym to cursen for his tithes,
But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute,
Unto his povre parisshens aboute
He koude in litel thyng have suffisaunce.


And here's Dryden:

A parish priest was of the pilgrim train;
An awful, reverend, and religious man.
His eyes diffused a venerable grace,
And charity itself was in his face.
Rich was his soul, though his attire was poor;
(As God had clothed his own ambassador;)
For such, on earth, his bless'd Redeemer bore.
Of sixty years he seem'd; and well might last
To sixty more, but that he lived too fast;
Refined himself to soul, to curb the sense;
And made almost a sin of abstinence,
Yet, had his aspect nothing of severe,
But such a face as promised him sincere.
Nothing reserved or sullen was to see;
But sweet regards, and pleasing sanctity:
Mild was his accent, and his action free.
With eloquence innate his tongue was arm'd;
Though harsh the precept, yet the preacher charm'd.
For letting down the golden chain from high,
He drew his audience upward to the sky;
And oft, with holy hymns, he charm'd their ears:
(A music more melodious than the spheres.)
For David left him, when he went to rest,
His lyre; and after him he sung the best.
He bore his great commission in his look:
But sweetly temper'd awe; and soften'd all he spoke.
He preach'd the joys of heaven, and pains of hell;
And warn'd the sinner with becoming zeal;
But on eternal mercy loved to dwell.
He taught the gospel rather than the law,
And forced himself to drive: but loved to draw.
For fear but freezes minds; but love, like heat,
Exhales the soul sublime, to seek her native seat.
To threats the stubborn sinner oft is hard,
Wrapp'd in his crimes, against the storm prepared;
But, when the milder beams of mercy play,
He melts, and throws his cumbrous cloak away,
Lightning and thunder (heaven's artillery)
As harbingers before the Almighty fly:
Those but proclaim his style, and disappear;
The stiller sound succeeds, and God is there.

The tithes, his parish freely paid, he took;
But never sued, or cursed with bell and book.
With patience bearing wrong; but offering none:
Since every man is free to lose his own.
The country churls, according to their kind,
(Who grudge their dues, and love to be behind),
The less he sought his offerings, pinch'd the more,
And praised a priest contented to be poor.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Austen's fat joke

I forgot about this notorious passage, and laughed aloud (not a rare occurrence when perusing Austen) when I was rereading Persuasion this weekend:

They were actually on the same sofa, for Mrs. Musgrove had most readily made room for him;--they were divided only by Mrs. Musgrove. It was no insignificant barrier, indeed. Mrs. Musgrove was of a comfortable substantial size, infinitely more fitted by nature to express good cheer and good humour, than tenderness and sentiment; and while the agitations of Anne's slender form, and pensive face, may be considered as very completely screened, Captain Wentworth should be allowed some credit for the self-command with which he attended to her large fat sighings over the destiny of a son, whom alive nobody had cared for.
-Persuasion, Chapter 8

The "son" is "Poor" Dick Musgrove, and the criticism of Mrs. Musgrove's display of false sentiment is merited. But what's fascinating is that Austen wins you over to the other, less defensible part of the ridicule. And if you didn't partake in the joking already, she most definitely gets you on her side with what follows: an amazing sort of apology that actually serves as justification for the mercilessness:

Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,--which taste cannot tolerate,--which ridicule will seize.
-Persuasion, Chapter 8

The passage is pretty infamous, a clear instance of "regulated hatred" (D.W. Harding's wonderful, if problematic, notion; which, however, doesn't help to explain Austen's treatment of "Poor Dick," also worried over). But it is also just hilarious, an instance of that penchant for absurdity--the image of the novel's heroine and her "pensive face" eclipsed, as it were, by this behemoth--that readers of Austen see but don't quite acknowledge as much as they should: this is the Austen who can't quite let go of something that strikes her as uproarious, however weird and wonky it may be. Readers forgive such excesses in other authors, but in their reason they often patronize Austen (indeed vainly) for such reveries, even though she is so brilliant as to combine this with a really savage jab at "unbecoming conjunctions," and make us think hard here about the nature of ugliness. Indeed, the mode seems to me more like that of Gillray or Cruikshank, or the really vile stuff one could find a few years earlier in the Jacobin Review (and real Janeites are sensitive to this discrepancy in mode, which is not one of mere propriety): it's supposed to be disturbing, supposed to make us unsure where the poignancy stops and turns ugly itself.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dryden's version

I thought that since I was comparing so many translations of this passage from the Iliad, I should also put up Dryden's version, which--I have to say--I like the best:

Achilles cut him short; and thus replied:
My worth allow'd in words, is in effect denied.
For who but a poltroon, possess'd with fear,
Such haughty insolence can tamely bear?
Command thy slaves: my freeborn soul disdains
A tyrant's curb; and restive, breaks the reins.
Take this along; that no dispute shall rise
(Though mine the woman) for my ravish'd prize:
But, she excepted, as unworthy strife,
Dare not, I charge thee dare not, on thy life,
Touch ought of mine beside, by lot my due,
But stand aloof, and think profane to view:
This falchion, else, not hitherto withstood,
These hostile fields shall fatten with thy blood.

He said; and rose the first: the council broke;
And all their grave consults dissolv'd in smoke.
The royal youth retir'd, on vengeance bent,
Patroclus follow'd silent to his tent.

Mean time, the king with gifts a vessel stores;
Supplies the banks with twenty chosen oars:
And next, to reconcile the shooter god,
Within her hollow sides the sacrifice he stow'd:
Chryseis last was set on board; whose hand
Ulysses took, entrusted with command;
They plough the liquid seas, and leave the lessening land.

Atrides then, his outward zeal to boast,
Bade purify the sin-polluted host.
With perfect hecatombs the god they grac'd;
Whose offer'd entrails in the main were cast.
Black bulls, and bearded goats on altars lie;
And clouds of savory stench involve the sky.
-in Fables Ancient and Modern, lines 411-441

The break in the speech, where Homer makes Achilles' speech buckle under the force of his anger, is wonderfully rendered. Where Pope smoothes it out, and Fagles makes too big a deal of it, Dryden simply repeats: "Dare not, I charge thee dare not, on thy life..." You'll notice it takes advantage of the line, which Dryden always segments deftly: never breaking it up, and never shooting for too much equipoise or balance, he nevertheless uses all its parts to help him out. He doesn't treat the form as an empty container, or rather is happy to let what is transfused (his famous metaphor for translation), settle into the form in this or that way, and be moulded by it. It's like blowing glass, to use another metaphor from manufacture (Dryden, by the way, was fond of these: "the genius of our countrymen in general [is] rather to improve an invention than to invent themselves, as is evident not only in our poetry but in many of our manufactures"). You blow the glass and try to get the shape as perfect as you can, but you're constantly having to negotiate the ways this very fluid material changes, under the influence of time, heat, gravity. So you work with these forces and the changes they make in the material: you turn the shape around, smooth it out, or sometimes puff it out more and change its whole dimension (if you can't get it the way you want it on the small scale, you simply switch scales, shifting between them). You'll see what I mean when you look again at the passage and see the amount of enjambment, and find the heavy use of very hard caesuras--which start as medial but then, falling too early and too late, make the middle of the line a space of action instead of a place of balance (this is why the "Dare not" line is so great).

But there are also just some really crazy, creative choices, which just win you over. "Poltroon" is just amazing, a wonderful blurty sort of word, strange and foreign. It doesn't so much break propriety as transform itself into a cussword--the effect of this being differently forceful. Something similar happens with "in effect," which sounds way too familiar to our ears now but, if you hear it and stress it a little can hear has a wonderful sort of poignancy. There's also "ravish'd," which is quite unexpected, though you might miss it the first time through. And "dissolv'd in smoke." And then a wonderful metonymy, "the shooter god." "And leave the lessening land" is wonderful, and works well with the longer hexameter closing the scene. This also highlights Dryden's relatively sparing use of alliteration and assonance: unlike Pope, who (in my opinion) uses it too much in an effort to speed up the line, Dryden uses it economically, in select moments. This makes it stick.

Overall, though, there is that vigorousness that you can see in the first phrase, "cut him short": what a surprising, fresh way to lead you into the rest of the speech. If both Pope makes Homer energetic, nimble, rapid, restoring what he calls the "light" in the classic, Dryden's version of that energy is a sort of directness, forthrightness, even plainness, a willingness to be satisfied with less and with something rougher, but weirder or more curious.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The heroic couplet

Yvor Winters has a very famous defense of the heroic couplet in his mammoth collection In Defense of Reason. I'm inclined to agree with nearly all of its conclusions, though not with the vengeful sort of impulse that leads Winters to them (and often takes him further into more absurd generalizations). This is understandable though, since even if wasn't a consequence of his particularly vengeful poetics, which tried to undo years of a particularly expressionist or expressivist (what he loves to call "Romantic") view of the role of poetry and literature by valorizing an austere hyper-rationalism, the heroic couplet had been so crapped upon over the years by so many insensitive people that some retribution was due. What's really great and still shocking, though, is that Winters focuses his argument by pitting the couplet aganst blank verse:

The heroic couplet must have certain qualities which enable the poet employing it to pass easily from description, to lyricism, to didacticism, to satire, and so on, or even at times to combine several of these qualities at a single stroke. It is doubtful whether so much freedom is possible in blank verse; the only satirical poet who has employed blank verse with major success is Ben Jonson, and much of his satire depends upon significance derived from the structure of the play--the details from line to line are usually variations upon an anterior theme rather than autonomous summaries.
-In Defense of Reason, 141

You have to appreciate that poet-critic sense of there being a stake in various verse forms, such that the fate of poetry itself seems to be in the triumph of one form over another. Though I've expressed annoyance with the sort of overzealousness of poet-critics when they get on such a track as this in the past, you can't at all blame them here, when the issue is form; and critics actually can only benefit from trying to feel things more intensely in this way (as long as they don't, like poet-critics, start turning the focus of criticism away from interpretation and towards manifesto-writing: that's how you get theory). But I say this as if critics weren't this impassioned already: most good ones are, because they have a deep, nuanced sense of form and know the significance of shifts in form throughout literary history.

Of course, everything about Winters' argument turns on his equivocating about "freedom" when he says: "It is doubtful whether so much freedom is possible in blank verse." Later, he will say that he means by freedom what we usually take to be its opposite. But if we agree that there is some sense in which freedom in general includes ease in passing between the functions Winters enumerates (description, lyricism, didacticism, satire, etc.), it's very true that the heroic couplet actually has more freedom here than blank verse.

This is because what matters in blank verse is argument. Now, argument means much more than we tend to think it does in all sorts of verse forms, or subordinates more elements to its elaboration than we--who have a very un- or anti-didactic sense of the role of literature--are usually willing to grant. But blank verse takes this to the max, because without the unity of the line, it needs higher semantic connection or a tighter syntactic arrangement. At the same time, this grammatical demand actually allows nearly any rhetorical possibility to be deployed: rather than fall back on just a few--heroic verse notably squeezes everything it can get out of parallelism, chiasmus, zeugma, and the simile, because it isn't quite capacious enough to admit any other figures--the whole canon of rhetoric is open to blank verse, and can vary them with ease. Also, because the line is stable, but not confining, new areas of interplay between meter and sense open up that are less concerned with reinforcement and more with pure rhythm. All of this explains why Milton is so much better at blank verse than Wordsworth, though the latter has more nuanced sense of the line itself and everything it can do: each speech, each narrative bit of Paradise Lost is masterfully put together as an argument and advances the argument of the whole, and this is what drives the verse along and wins you over to its movements.   In Wordsworth, the more reflective and lyric turn of the verse does not lend itself to such clarity of argument, and the principled resistance of Wordsworth to the classical canon of rhetoric--his immense privileging of certain tropes over others, which reorients rhetoric immensely--does not allow such full-on deployment of all linguistic possibilities. Only in meter does Wordsworth perhaps excel Milton as far as blank verse goes: whenever he wants to, he can easily pull off the contrapuntal effects which are the most spectacular sign of Milton's utter mastery of prosody, and complete exploitation of all the freedom of the open line--but he has such a nuanced sense of the role of rhythm (despite his rather flat theoretical presentation of it) that he can subordinate it to a timing which works on scales Milton (if only because of the novelty of his work) could not go down.

The point though, is that all of this can't happen in the heroic couplet--and that, really, this isn't a problem. For there are downsides to having the argument so much at the fore, and upsides to having a less strained relation between it and the verse form. Since in blank verse we are suddenly dealing with structures that extend over huge amounts of lines, and that suddenly become juxtaposed to the slightest variation in meter, the turns in the language, the points of pressure, become at once larger in scale and smaller than they were. This is wonderful if everything is connected via argument--we've seen what Wordsworth can do when these larger scales are exploited, and Milton most definitely plays with the smaller ones--but where argument now fills things in and connects, there was a very tight, well-fitting scale already established. And the heroic couplet takes advantage of nearly everything at this scale--which is, if not all of rhetoric, certainly most of rhetoric as well as all the tightest relations between rhyme, sense, and meter. So if we start to think of freedom in terms of a certain right-sizedness, being in the sweet spot which allows one to deftly switch between all these techniques of versification, we can see heroic couplet doesn't seem rigid or inflexible at all. Thus, Winters continues:

Ben Jonson himself employed the heroic couplet in some of his shorter poems, when he wished to indulge in a more direct and concentrated attack, and with remarkable vigor, in spite of the roughness of his versification. As a didactic instrument, blank verse is comparatively heavy and comparatively incapable of epigrammatic point; as a lyrical instrument, the range of blank verse, though wide, tends to be more closely limited to the grandiloquent and is less capable (in spite of charming passages in Fletcher and of Tears Idle Tears) of approaching the flexibility and variety of song. The heroic couplet, all things considered, appears to be the most flexible of forms: it can suggest by discreet imitation, the effects of nearly any other technique conceivable; it can contain all of these effects, if need be, in a single poem.
-In Defense of Reason, 141

You see, that's a bit strained, since whenever you read a heroic couplet you find it can very, very easily become monotonous (too regular) or, when it turns epigrammatic, too forced (too irregular). And then the comparison to blank verse becomes comical, since you'll find none of that there (the threat in blank verse, of course, is the prosaic, and even Milton falls into this sometimes). But Winters has certain very amazing possibilities of the couplet in mind, like the following, which he quotes:


No, no, poor suff’ring Heart, no Change endeavour,
Choose to sustain the smart, rather than leave her;
My ravish’d eyes behold such charms about her,
I can die with her, but not live without her:
One tender Sigh of hers to see me languish,
Will more than pay the price of my past anguish:
Beware, O cruel Fair, how you smile on me,
’Twas a kind look of yours that has undone me.


This is Dryden's very famous "One Happy Moment," and Winters is thinking about how, with the feminine ending here and the internal rhyme at the caesura, the thing turns into a song meter (see In Defense of Reason, 135-6).

But what's more telling to me is that he turns precisely to Dryden in making such a case for the heroic couplet against its strongest possible antagonist, blank verse, even though he thinks it just can't get any better than the more regular, consistent Pope:

Pope through the concentration of his entire forces upon a single method achieves a greater range in certain individual poems than Dryden ever achieves in a single poem. [...] Pope, in combining a comparable diversity into a single complexity, varies the couplet noticeably less than does Dryden; yet he is successful, and to the reader familiar with his sensibility he is one of the most exquisitely finished, as well as one of the most profoundly moving, poets in English.
-In Defense of Reason, 138

Given this, even though we might wonder why Pope couldn't be used to make the argument against blank verse, it's no surprise that after saying heroic couplets can contain"the effects of nearly any other technique conceivable [...] if need be, in a single poem," above, he gives up Dryden, and goes on to make the case for the intrinsic virtues of the couplet by hitting the point home with reference to "Popian balance":

What, then, makes the couplet so flexible? The answer can be given briefly: its seeming inflexibility. That is, the identity of the line is stronger in rhymed verse than in unrhymed, because a bell is rung at the end of every second line; the identity of the line will be stronger in the couplet than in any other stanza because the couplet is the simplest and most obvious form of stanza possible. [...] The poet may move in any direction whatever, and his movement will be almost automatically graduated by the metronomic undercurrent of regularity; and if he chooses at certain times to devote himself to prosaic explanation, the metronome and the Popian balance, emerging naked, are capable of giving his prose an incisiveness possible in no other form, and of maintaining the relationship of the didacticism to the rest of the poem--the relationship in regard to feeling, I mean, for a didactic passage would of necessity represent by explicit statement the rational relationships within the poem.
-In Defense of Reason, 142

This I think is a little too far, and is redolent of the minimalist excesses of Paul de Man, fascinated as both are with the automatic and mechanical. The bell is important, though, and even if things seem forced, Winters makes a lot of sense of it--if, that is, we read him a little against the grain and really understand that by the bell, he means not only rhyme but everything epigrammatic or everything involved in a concentrated turn in poetry, which rhyme so wonderfully helps out. This is what connects the bell to the argument about the identity of the line, more than the fact that this is the smallest stanza form.

Focusing on size and issues of regularity and automaticity instead leads him to say something which has to be one of the greatest little phrases I've read in criticism, but which seems a bit ridiculous:

A longer stanza is likely to be tyrannical.
-In Defense of Reason, 142

What follows is an interesting discussion of Spenser which justifies the statement more, so don't think it too ridiculous: my aim is only to show how committed Winters is to certain strands of his argument, rather than the one he should be following. He could have made a better case if he would have simply continued the argument against blank verse, for some people would say it is in blank verse that the identity of the line is strongest: shorn of all rhyme, it simply sits there, and rather than seeming like a part of the whole, it stands out all the more for remaining taut and internally unified. The argument here, if it would have admitted more of a role for the turn that rhyme itself gives verse, would have revealed this as a weak attempt to cover up the fact that the blank verse line is, essentially, not even a part, but a fragment, relying too much on meter. But that also would take Winters beyond the rigorous couplet of Pope back to the looser, more fanciful couplet of Dryden, who is willing often to extend a couplet into a triplet, or use amazing and absolutely unexpected rhymes and variations between rhymes. The form wouldn't be as pure.

But this, I think, should recommend Dryden all the more as the true hero of the heroic couplet, saving the form from the most vicious attacks: indeed, if we wanted to extend the argument more, we'd cite the fact that Dryden watched Milton very closely, and clearly thought his translations were a way of rivalling Milton, though they couldn't be original works of his own genius in the same sense. There's just nothing like the relaxed nimbleness of Dryden, the combination of a confident, strong line with the ability to make it fold and reform around the most playful thought. And if this isn't accomplished always by the most taut, tensed, controlled version of the form, the form in Dryden provokes it, which I think is more important than whether it is pure or not. The thing is just sheer fun, in a sense which the work and even play of Pope can't approach.

Especially when Pope is are understood as automatic, and this is the point at which we have to remember that, unlike Winters, the fact that Pope doesn't approach Dryden in this particular respect doesn't actually argue against him. For if I think that Dryden's example can defend the couplet better than Pope's, I mean only that: it does not imply that Dryden actually has a purer couplet, as Winters does with Pope. The idea that the purest form makes the best, least vulnerable model presupposes a lot about form itself that is pretty dubious, and shows us that questions about the vitality of a particular form in the end need to be posed differently and in a more historical manner: concerned with vitality, we can easily go beyond passionately delineating what a form can do when compared to another form, and, like Winters, start comparing versions of the same thing in some weird search to find the form itself. Such an effort ultimately to make us feel the weight of the form's accessibility--or, more likely, its inaccessibility--as if we ourselves could simply take it up again. Not that we can't: it's just that this will be more complex, more social and more historical venture than the effort (even given that Winters pursues it with more consciousness of the social and historical role of poetry than most) would make it seem.

In short, we shouldn't think of Pope as purer than Dryden, or Dryden as purer than Pope. Rather, we should say that Pope just has a certain inventiveness that works on a different level than Dryden, and accomplishes different things. Dryden seems to me to indeed remain more committed to the individual line, and experiments more than Pope with metrical possibilities--in the sense that Pope has too capatious an understanding of them all not to explore one without a point, just for sheer fun, and never with that happy sort of ignorance as to how it will come out. He thus actually works at the expense of the heroic couplet as a couplet sometimes. Pope, on the other hand works continually to display and reinforce masterfully chosen diction, to hit home something almost too clearly. And so when he uses the couplet, he is much more within it, exploring its ability to vary and indeed balance: one might say he thinks more in the couplet, distributing ideas and words with precision. It is from this that Pope's poise and balance comes, not from regularity.

Translations of Homer

Making my way through Pope’s Iliad again, I’m struck by its quickness, its poignancy--ultimately its poetry, after reading so much of Fagles. Take the following passage, from the first book, in which Achilles ends the quarrel with Agamemnon. I’ll use Richmond Lattimore’s translation first, which is wonderfully runs line-for-line, as a sort of neutral rendering of the scene:


“So must I be called of no account a coward
if I must carry out every order you may happen to give me.
Tell other men to do these things, but give me no more
commands, since I for my part have no intention to obey you.
And put away in your thoughts this other thing I tell you.
With my hands I will not fight for the girl’s sake, neither
with you nor any other man, since you take her away who gave her.
But of all the other things that are mine beside my fast black
ship, you shall take nothing away against my pleasure.
Come, then, only try it, that these others may see also;
instantly your own black blood will stain my spearpoint.”


So these two after battling in words of contention
stood up, and broke the assembly beside the ships of the Achaians.
Peleus’ son went back to his balanced ships and his shelter
with Patroklos, Menoitos’ son, and his own companions.
But the son of Atreus drew a fast ship down to the water
and allotted into it twenty rowers and put on board it
the hecatomb for the god and Chryseis of the fair cheeks
leading her by the hand. And in charge went crafty Odysseus.


These then putting out went over the ways of the water
while Atreus’ son told his people to wash off their defilement.
And they washed it away and threw the washings into the salt sea.
Then they accomplished perfect hecatombs to Apollo,
of bulls and goats along the beach of the barren salt sea.
The savour of the burning swept in circles up to the bright sky.
-Lattimore, 293-317.

Now for Fagles:

“What a worthless, burnt-out coward I’d be called
if I would submit to you and all your orders,
whatever you blurt out. Fling them at others,
don’t give me commands!
Never again, I trust, will Achilles yield to you.
And I tell you this--take it to heart--I warn you--
my hands will never do battle for that girl,
neither with you, King, nor any man Alive.
You Achaeans gave her, now you’ve snatched her back.


But all the rest I possess beside my fast black ship--
not one bit of it can you seize against my will, Atrides.
Come, try it! So the men can see, that instant,
your black blood gush and spurt around my spear!”


Once the two had fought it out with words,
battling face-to-face, both spring to their feet
and broke up the muster beside the Argive squadrons.
Achilles strode off to his trim ships and shelters,
back to his friend Patroclus and their comrades.
Agamemnon had a vessel hauled down to the sea,
he picked out twenty oarsmen to man her locks,
put aboard the cattle for sacrifice to the god
and led Chryseis in all her beauty amidships.
Versatile Odysseus took the helm as captain. All embarked,
the party launched out on the sea’s foaming lanes
while the sons of Atreus told his troops to wash,
to purify themselves from the filth of plague.
They scoured it off, threw scourings in the surf
and sacrificed to Apollo full-grown bulls and goats
along the beaten shore of the fallow barren sea
and savory smoke went swirling up the skies.
-Fagles, p. 87, lines 342-372

Now, for Pope:


Tyrant, I well deserv'd thy galling Chain,
To live thy Slave, and still to serve in vain,
Should I submit to each unjust Decree:
Command thy Vassals, but command not Me.
Seize on Briseïs, whom the Grecians doom'd
My Prize of War, yet tamely see resum'd;
And seize secure; No more Achilles draws
His conqu'ring Sword in any Woman's Cause.
The Gods command me to forgive the past;
But let this first Invasion be the last;
For know, thy Blood, when next thou dar'st invade,
Shall stream in Vengeance on my reeking Blade.


At this, they ceas'd; the stern Debate expir'd:
The Chiefs in sullen Majesty retir'd.
Achilles with Patroclus took his Way.
Where near his Tents his hollow Vessels lay.
Mean time Atrides launch'd with num'rous Oars
A well-rigg'd Ship for Chrysa's sacred Shores:
High on the Deck was fair Chruseïs plac'd,
And sage Ulysses with the Conduct grac'd:
Safe in her Sides the Hecatomb they stow'd,
Then swiftly sailing, cut the liquid Road.


The Host to expiate next the King prepares,
With pure Lustrations, and with solemn Pray'rs.
Wash'd by the briny Wave, the pious Train
Are cleans'd, and cast th'Ablutions in the Main.
Along the Shore whole Hecatombs were laid,
And Bulls and Goats to Phoebus' Altars paid.
The sable Fumes in curling Spires arise,
And waft their grateful Odours to the Skies.
-Pope, lines 388-417

Isn’t it amazing how quicker Pope seems! Of course, the thing to remember is just how few lines Lattimore takes to do everything: he uses twenty-four unrhymed six-beat lines. But it’s still sort of unbelievable how much Fagles just sloshes through the whole narrative here: even when he’s allowed the incredible looseness of Lattimore’s line, he needs thirty of them! Pope, of course, uses 30 lines as well, but these are heroic couplets, rhymed and (perhaps what is more remarkable, given how much both Lattimore and--again with less excuse--Fagles uses them) unenjambed. Indeed, if we consider that this means Pope used pairs of lines in iambic pentameter, we realize he almost uses less beats than Lattimore: Pope only has six more, or 150 to Lattimore’s 144. Fagles, however, takes 180 beats to say the same thing, without even having to use iambs or regular feet at all like Pope does.

Of course, poetry isn’t about trying to say things in the least amount of lines or beats or whatever. But Fagles in particular knows swiftness is still a major part of poetry (and especially translations that aim to be poetry) since the sense of rapidity we get when reading verse is often a trace of the economy of poetic language, of the fact that poetry does a lot with a little. So he tries continually to speed things up himself in the passage. Except all of his techniques--using dashes, exclamations, and plenty of deixis (all techniques taken from prose writing, by the way)--don’t seem to do anything at all except shift around register of the poem in a way that is as American as it is uncomfortable.

Pope on the other hand smoothly economizes, particularly embarrassing Fagles by never having to have recourse to something as textual or un-oral (except that this is how Fagles oddly thinks he can make a more performative, oral version of the Greek--seeming to solve things by confusing the issue) in the use of italics. Where Fagles says,

What a worthless, burnt-out coward I’d be called
if I would submit to you and all your orders,
whatever you blurt out. Fling them at others,
don’t give me commands!
Never again, I trust, will Achilles yield to you

Pope says,

Tyrant, I well deserv'd thy galling Chain,
To live thy Slave, and still to serve in vain,
Should I submit to each unjust Decree:
Command thy Vassals, but command not Me.

What’s so unbelievable in Pope’s version is the comprehension of the argument of each speech, the willingness to let the wrath of Achilles come from the force of the point he his making, where Fagles is much more willing to think that the rage comes from the breaking up of the speech, its fragmentation, Achilles’ stuttering.

At the same time, of course, this intense and compressed interplay of meaning and emphasis makes Pope lose a lot of the actual Greek. It’s worth thinking about exactly what we mean by “actual,” though. If we were trained to have a wider sense of the registers and functions of language--particularly the ways grammar opens up into rhetoric and combines with form--we might be more willing to see Pope as just trying to translate the Greek using many of less literal functions, rather than as actually being unfaithful to the original. In other words, we might be willing to argue that what we see as Pope not giving us the actual Greek--not reproducing things like its particular syntactical structures, or changing and refocusing the vehicle of various metaphors rather than giving the nearest English equivalent of them--is really just the exploitation of different techniques which do actually attempt to indeed give us the actual Greek. The emphasis upon the argument of the speeches (something he defends in his Preface as Homer’s moral and didactic aim), for example, which requires the introduction of certain metaphors not present in the original and particularly the introduction of un-Homeric grammatical structures, we could see as just the working of various rhetorical and formal devices--of which we have such limited understanding now and over which we have such little control. What’s at work in Pope, in short, may likely be something other than an extremely literalist notion of translation, where there’s no sense that rhetoric or verse form can help to translate: both of these things seem like fancy grammar getting in the way of the sense, or some effort to “clean up” the Greek. So there’s something to be said for Pope letting “Command thy vessels, but command not me” do so much work (when combined with a similar parallel structure “To live thy Slave, and still to serve in vain” two lines earlier), when we see Fagles use two unrelated phrases “Fling them [orders] at others, / don’t give me commands!” and emphasis in another.

This registered, what is so unbelievably great about Fagles’ translation is the extent to which it takes this literalist sort of fidelity and tries to turn it into poetry, give it something more than the bland, cold, cynical impulse which (except in classicists, for whom it is a way of respecting the original) typically lies behind it: seizing upon the general aim of Lattimore’s work, which is straightforward translation of sense and grammar (and which is not empty of poetry--I prefer it to Fitzgerald explicit attempts to make each line poetic, actually), and he intensifies the accuracy by finding something like the exact equivalent of the expressive force of the Greek as well. And he finds the words to do this in a distinctly American vocabulary, which is why such a big deal is made about this translation: it really feels like the first really modern American version of Homer. Again, this is exciting and disturbing at once, because that vocabulary, we find, is the demanding, stressed, whiny voice of hyperindividuals:

What I really want
is to keep my people safe, not see them dying.
-Lines 136-7

Only when we move away from Agamemnon’s speeches to the world of the Odyssey--and even then to the more pastoral scenes with Eumaeus--does the voice captured in so many idiomatic uses (“want” above being a particularly American use of the word) seem a bit less stressed, more sane, playful:

“My friend,” the swineherd answered, foreman of men,
“you really want my story? So many questions—well,
listen in quiet, then, and take your ease, sit back
and drink your wine. The nights are endless now.
We’ve plenty of time to sleep or savor a long tale.
No need, you know, to turn in before the hour.
Even too much sleep can be a bore.
But anyone else who feels the urge
can go to bed and then, at the crack of dawn,
break bread, turn out and tend our master’s pigs.
We two will keep to the shelter here, eat and drink
and take some joy in each other’s heartbreaking sorrows,
sharing each other’s memories. Over the years, you know,
a man finds solace even in old sorrows, true, a man
who’s weathered many blows and wandered many miles.
-The Odyssey, Penguin, Book 15

And even though we do have a great complaint (“Even too much sleep can be a bore”) this is humorous: “be a bore” has a sort of eagerness and sense of fun about it that couldn’t be uttered in the UK without some sense that it can slip into a sort of sourness, playful whinging.

But my point in all this is that very seldom does rhetoric or versification have a role in helping along the poetic force of the language. Indeed I like “Even too much sleep can be a bore” so much because it actually seems to approach a more regular line. With five-beats, it starts with a trochee at the beginning which you want to sort of keep continuing, then aren’t sure whether it should have slipped into a dactyl; by this point though your indecision makes your resolve to turn things into something anapestic--you’re within some sort of rhythm and are feeling it out--and this turns the line around so that it can be finished off with iambs, which are definite and rewarding and regular. This is extremely odd in a poem where the line seems so loose, so shaggy (even for a line with mere beats), that it seems to have no real role as a line except to be broken up (this is only more apparent in Fagles’ Aeneid).

In short, the language is left to fend for itself, as it were, as Fagles is concerned only with creating poetry by expressiveness and narration. These aren’t bad things in themselves--the last especially--but we can’t help but feel they are symptoms of a sort of despairing view of the role of poetry (one I think we might be on the verge of surmounting) where aim of poetry in the face of so many postmodern weirdnesses and media revolutions is to try and simply tell a story, any story, and give some sense that language is doing something, anything. The telling of stories doesn’t need to involve a position that is this desperate, one whose other reactionary side (which Fagles thankfully couldn’t care less about) involves reducing everything of this world to narrative and linguistic weirdness, so as to show there are more stories than we think. Storytelling and poetry happen in between somewhere, and conceding so much, and seeing such a huge role for the expressivity of various idioms, sets you against versification and rhetoric just like the forces you oppose--and many people do read Fagles and sometimes think they are just reading prose.

Nevertheless, if the role for such an American English isn’t wholly defined, Fagles’ collection and presentation so much vocabulary is something on the way towards renewing or making fresh a certain very old poetic task, involving both establishing the language of the people and finding fitting dialects for particular linguistic tasks. Indeed, Fagles and Pope actually aren’t too far apart in appreciating this in the author they translate (though Fagles accomplishes it as well and with creativity), since this task involves making language work with the poem. I’ll close with Pope in his Preface, who sees this helping with the meter of the work--in Fagles we might only need to substitute something more general and fundamental that is facilitated by such an immense and worthwhile task, like storytelling itself:

He was not satisfied with his language as he found it settled in any one part of Greece, but searched through its different dialects with this particular view, to beautify and perfect his numbers he considered these as they had a greater mixture of vowels or consonants, and accordingly employed them as the verse required either a greater smoothness or strength. Thus his measures,
instead of being fetters to his sense, were always in readiness to run along with the warmth of his rapture, and even to give a further representation of his notions, in the correspondence of their sounds to what they signified.