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Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

Cavalcanty by Peter Hughes (Equipage)

In a letter from late 1831to Julius Charles Hare of the Philological Museum William Wordsworth made a comment concerning his experiments in translation:

‘Having been displeased, in modern translations, with the additions of incongruous matter, I began to translate with a resolve to keep clear of that fault, by adding nothing; but I became convinced that a spirited translation can scarcely be accomplished in the English language without admitting a principle of compensation.’

The translation work that Wordsworth was engaged upon was from Virgil’s Aeneid and one poet laureate commented upon another as C. Day Lewis referred to this passage in 1969 in his Jackson Knight Memorial Lecture on ‘Translating Poetry’:

‘By this principle we presumably mean putting things in which are not there, to compensate for leaving things out which cannot be adequately rendered.’

Day Lewis went on to suggest that ‘much greater liberties can justifiably be taken with lyric verse than with narrative or didactic’ and that very word ‘liberties’ suggests a hint of danger, revolution, turning a world upside down. When Pound wrote about Cavalcanti he suggested that the canzone, Donna mi Prega, ‘may have appeared about as soothing to the Florentine of A.D. 1290 as conversation about Tom Paine, Marx, Lenin and Bucharin would to-day in a Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis, Tenn.’ Pound then goes on to suggest that Cavalcanti may well have read Grosseteste on Light, De Luce, and a reading of the opening lines of the canzone supports this idea. Grosseteste considered light to be ‘a very subtle corporeal substance, whose exceeding thinness and rarity approaches the incorporeal, and which of its own nature perpetually generates itself and is at once spherically diffused around a given point.’ As another reader of Grosseteste, the poet John Riley, recognized Light is the active principle of all things and the Bishop of Lincoln’s opening statement in Riedl’s translation reads ‘For light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ I can imagine that Pound might have regarded that Methodist bankers’ board meeting in Memphis as an opaque object.
Pound’s translation of Donna me prega opens:

‘Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love by name.

E’en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,

And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtu is, or what his force;

Nay, nor his very essence or his mode;
What his placation; why he is in verb,
Or if a man have might
To show him visible to men’s sight.

In the Preface to his own collected poems, published in 1936, Ford Madox Ford, to whom Pound had shown his canzone many years before, wrote that aureate diction was a civic menace because ‘the business of poetry is not sentimentalism so much as the putting of certain realities in certain aspects,’ and ‘poetry, like everything else, to be valid and valuable, must reflect the circumstances and psychology of its own day. Otherwise it can be nothing but a pastiche.’
Turning to Peter Hughes’s version of ‘Donna me prega – per ch’eo voglio dire’ in this new Equipage delight we can see what might halt that Memphis bankers’ board meeting in Memphis in its tracks:

‘now the lady makes me think about love’s
pit-bull attacks on the soul’s soft tissues
& those fatal core-reactor meltdowns
& deep immunity to metaphor
it’s tricky thinking through these things in ink
as love demands we loosen up our grip
on pre-existing modes of consciousness
affiliation & self-confidence
otherwise we stand no chance of melting
flowing into fresh configurations
in response to love’s accommodations
of feral power rerouted through refined
reformulations of specific lips
in actual laps tomorrow evening

The energy of these lines gives off a heat which confronts us with a social and political sense of ‘in yer face’ and that ‘deep immunity to metaphor’ ensures that any prevailing post-Movement, post-Martian, post-Mush world is left completely behind in the dusty cupboard of dead poetry anthologies. This is a world of Love which is made ‘of nothing yet feels like marble knuckles / kneading your most vulnerable hollows / articles & raw protuberances’. The energy of childhood’s games of marbles (no feeling of butterflies here!) merges with the pun on knead/need and the empty cries from empty places within. It’s superb!
This short flagging-up of Peter Hughes’s tremendously powerful evocations of Love in Cavalcanti is merely to whet your appetite and, with that in mind, take a warning about how ‘beauty’

‘finds its finest incarnation in her
being out of touch around the corner

we’ve never been quite bright enough to take
the subtle hints & reassurances
the goddess always hovers round the bend’

Ian Brinton 4th January 2016

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One response »

  1. Pingback: Oxford Launch: Vahni Capildeo & Peter Hughes, Thursday 7th April | Gareth Prior

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