Monday, September 5, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

This isn’t something I talk about too much, because in this day and age of spontaneity it seems perverse…. But I used to have the habit of learning poems off by heart.
Sometime I will tell you the whole story of my relationship with sonnets. Suffice it to say that one day I woke up and realised that I knew two or three sonnets, by canonical poets, by heart, simply because I had read them so often. And from that point, I decided consciously to add to the library in my head. I had the habit then of taking daily 45-minute walks. So I began to take slim volumes with me on my walks, memorising sonnets one line at a time [one line taking forty or fifty pace or so]. By the end of the daily walk I knew the sonnet by heart.
I did not long persist in this habit (memorising other people’s lines can get in the way of thinking up your own), but I ended up with a mind-library of 25-or-so sonnets. Now sometimes when I take a (bookless) walk, I take them out and polish them in my head. Indeed sometimes I review them when I have to attend a boring talk.
Thus much for the prologue.
Now for the meat of this week’s homily.
You see, while some of the sonnets I memorised were indeed poetic masterpieces, others were of more questionable calibre. And yet for whatever reason I found them memorable.
They were examples of the “good bad poem”.
Take the following effusion. It is by the nineteenth century Irish poet James Clarence
Mangan (1803-1849) – best known for his “translation”, from the Gaelic, of My Dark Rosaleen. Listed in Mangan’s work only as “Sonnet”, it is one of the sonnets that sit in my mind-library:

Bird that discoursest from yon poplar bough, 
Outweeping night, and in thy eloquent tears 
Holding sweet converse with the thousand spheres 
That glow and glisten from night's glorious brow,  
may thy lot be mine! that, lonely now,  
And doomed to mourn the remnant of my years, 
My song may swell to more than mortal ears, 
And sweet as is thy strain be poured my vow.  

Bird of the poets' paradise! by thee  
Taught where the tides of feeling deepest tremble,  
Playful in gloom, like some sequestered sea,  
1 too amidst my anguish would dissemble, 
And tune misfortune to such melody,  
That my despair thy transports should resemble.

            Fairly dreadful, isn’t it? Yes, it follows the good Petrarchan form, with neat octave and sestet but – oh dear! – even by early 19th century standards, that awful la-dee-da vocabulary (“yon”, “discoursest”), that adolescent self-pity (“doomed to mourn”, “my anguish”) and especially that clunking final rhyme (“dissemble…resemble”).
Jimmy, my dear,” I’d say, if I knew him before they tumbled his poor alcoholic corpse into the grave at Glasnevin. “You’ve got talent, boyo, but rewrite it in your own language.” And he would have coughed and ignored me and died at the age of 46 anyway.
But in this poem there was one line that really got me and made me memorise the whole. It’s when he describes feeling as “playful in gloom, like some sequestered sea.” That deep ur-Freudian intuition of the gnawing subconscious, and the idea of an underground (“sequestered”) sea. Definitely a good-bad poem.
It’s a bit of a stretch to go from this to another item in my mind-library. This one I knew before the conscious plan to learn sonnets took hold. It’s because, in mid-teen years, I’d decided that it was an immortal masterpiece and I read and re-read it. It is “La Destruction” by Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) who, like James Clarence Mangan, died at the age of 46. (Come to think of it, so did James K. Baxter – it must be the age that dissolute poets decide to go.) Thus goes “La Destruction”:

Sans cesse à mes côtés s'agite le Démon;
II nage autour de moi comme un air impalpable;
Je l'avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l'emplit d'un désir éternel et coupable.

Parfois il prend, sachant mon grand amour de l'Art,
La forme de la plus séduisante des femmes,
Et, sous de spécieux prétextes de cafard,
Accoutume ma lèvre à des philtres infâmes.

II me conduit ainsi, loin du regard de Dieu,
Haletant et brisé de fatigue, au milieu
Des plaines de l'Ennui, profondes et désertes,

Et jette dans mes yeux pleins de confusion
Des vêtements souillés, des blessures ouvertes,

Et l'appareil sanglant de la Destruction!

Oh blush, blush! The very qualities that made me admire it at 16 are the very ones that now make me cringe. That overstatement. That self-dramatising as if the poet is a soul in torment. The pretence of a titanic, spiritual struggle, when, dammit, it’s only sex and opium that torment him. If I had met Baudelaire in the flesh, I would have said “Really Charlie. Stop building yourself up so much. Byron is dead, and you don’t have to do this self-dramatising thing anymore. I know you can do better.” And in Baudelaire’s case he did indeed do much, much better. So when I visited his grave in the Montparnasse cemetery last year, I didn’t have to say rude words over his mouldering remains.
And yet “La Destruction” too is a “good bad” poem. It has brio. It drives along. Even if it is melodramatic overstatment it carries you with it. Almost a good bad masterpiece.
And my sermon would end here, except for one afterthought. For years I could not find a decent translation of “La Destruction” (not that poetry can ever really be translated – but that’s another story). In a Penguin anthology Poetry of the ‘Nineties (edited by R.K.R.Thornton) I found a translation by the “decadent” poet Vincent O’Sullivan (1868-1940 – not to be confused with the New Zealand poet of the same name). It was risible. The line “La forme de la plus séduisante des femmes” was ridiculously translated as “The shape of supple girls supremely fair.”  Eventually, the best I found was a pretty good translation by Roy Campbell (1901-57). It is far from perfect, but it goes thus:

Always the Demon fidgets here beside me
And swims around, impalpable as air:
I drink him, feel him burn the lungs inside me
With endless evil longings and despair.

Sometimes, knowing my love of Art, he uses
Seductive forms of women: and has thus,
With specious, hypocritical excuses,
Accustomed me to philtres infamous.

Leading me wayworn into wastes untrod
Of boundless Boredom, out of sight of God,
Using all baits to compass my abduction,

Into my eyes, confused and full of woe,
Soiled clothes and bleeding gashes he will throw
And all the grim regalia of Destruction.

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