Friday, May 16, 2014

`Lack of Sympathy with Our Most Current Prejudices'

April 22 was the centenary of the birth of the poet, critic, translator and civil servant C.H. Sisson, and the May-June issue of P.N. Review, the English poetry journal where his poems and reviews were often published and on whose editorial board he served, includes a selection of essays, “C.H. Sisson at 100,” devoted to his work. One of its contributors is John Talbot, a poet and classicist who teaches at Brigham Young University. Talbot sent me a copy of his contribution to the festschrift, “`Nothing is so dead it does not come back’: Sisson’s `Carmen Saeculare,’” looking at Sisson’s translation of Horace’s “execrable piece of work,” “at best an embarrassing case of state-commissioned official poetry.” (Sound familiar? Go here and here.) 

Horace wrote the poem in 17 B.C. at the orders of the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. The occasion was the ludi saeculares or Secular Games, put on every one hundred years or so to greet the arrival of a new saeculum or epoch. The poem, Talbot makes clear, was intended as a marketing tool for Augustus’ reign, following the dismemberment of the Republic. Despite the dubious worth of Horace’s Latin original, Talbot concludes Sisson’s English rendering is “one of his best poems.” As Talbot says, “…Sisson’s `Carmen Saeculare’ [In the Trojan Ditch, 1974] – exactly in the manner of Pope’s updated rewritings of Horace’s epistles – lets contemporary London stand in for Augustan Rome.” Some of us will remember Johnson’s imitations of Juvenal, “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Here are five of Sisson’s nineteen stanzas, including the line Talbot adapts for his title: 

“Can you remember the expression ‘Honour’?
There was, at one time, even Modesty.
Nothing is so dead it does not come back. 

“There is God. There are no Muses without him.
He it is who raises the drug-laden limbs
Which were too heavy until he stood at Saint Martin’s. 

“It is he who holds London from Wapping to Richmond,
May he hold it a little longer, Saint George’s flag
Flap strenuously in the wind from the west country. 

“Have you heard the phrase: ‘the only ruler of princes’?
Along the Thames, in the Tower, there is the crown.
I only wish God may hear my children’s prayers. 

“He bends now over Trafalgar Square.
If there should be a whisper he would hear it.
Are not these drifting figures the chorus?” 

As Talbot explains, Sisson subverts Horace’s toadying and critiques the England of his day (much as Johnson had done two centuries earlier with Juvenal). Earlier lines in the poem, Talbot says, drip with “caustic ironies,” while these “give way to something more like yearning.” Talbot gives three reasons for the poem’s excellence – its rich allusiveness (the final stanza quoted echoes the London of “The Waste Land”), the way it “partakes deeply of the nature of [Sisson’s] own original poems,” and, most intriguingly, “the ease with which Sisson gets at Christian feeling not despite, but on the strength of, the classical and specifically the Roman.” There’s much historical precedent for such strategies, of course. Every translation, adaptation or imitation mingles past and present, encouraging readers to compare and contrast them like a series of transparencies in an anatomy text laid one atop another.  In a prose commentary included with the poems and translations in In the Trojan Ditch, Sisson says his version of “Carmen Saeculare” “comes near to being a new start from the old original,” and adds: 

“Horace is a hard nut to crack, and others before me have broken their teeth on him. But he does yield his nourishment and, in the measure that it is extracted, one becomes aware of a poet of great depth as well as polish – a poet invaluable in our time not least because of his lack of sympathy with our most current prejudices.”

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