Heroes and Homilies (3)

(This third section is an attempt to bring the argument a little more up to date by using three contemporary writers as a means of categorising certain ways of working with old texts, what I call ‘diachronic translation’, i.e. within the same language and literature, but across historical periods that have rendered previous texts linguistically and culturally remote.)


To come on to some of the ways in which younger poets have handled the business of retelling enables us to characterize three methods. Perhaps the closest to Heaney’s is Simon Armitage’s tack in relation to story-telling and indeed formal fidelity in his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. He forcibly links form and fable: ‘…to me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads. In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is directly located within its sound.’

He is also very interesting on the degree of translating he is attempting ‘…the majority of lines…seem to make sense, though not quite. To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lyig beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalizingly near yet frustratingly blurred. To a contemporary poet, one interested in narrative and form, and to a northerner who…recognizes plenty of the poem’s dialect…the urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible.’

In this extract, Sir Gawain is keeping his promise to meet the Green Man, a supernatural being whom the previous year, without any apparent effect, Gawain had beheaded:

Then he heard on the hillside, from behind a hard rock
and beyond the brook, a blood-chilling noise.
What! it cannoned through the cliffs as if they might crack,
like the scream of a scythe being ground on a stone…
‘My God,’ cried Gawain, ‘That grinding is a greeting.
My arrival is honoured with honing of an axe…’

By contrast, in the ‘Argument’ to J.O. Morgan’s After Maldon, he writes: ‘The poet’s aim: not to present for posterity the known and indisputably dreary facts, but to recast the real events in an unreal mould, and in so doing hope perhaps for accidental truth.’ This is a very different premiss.

‘The Battle of Maldon’ is, famously, about a real event in a more direct way than the other poems we are considering here. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that it occurred in 991 in Essex; we know the names of the people involved, and we know that the poem Morgan is working from, as he says, ‘somewhere in the intervening thousand or so years, [has lost] its beginning and end’.

When Morgan says he is departing from the facts, then, there is a sense that he is doing so in an attempt to restore what has been lost textually as well as what has been obscured by a millennia of cultural change. These elements are characterized in a phrase which recalls the slippery quiddities of Henryson’s poem: ‘accidental truth’. The main device he deploys to discover this is a strikingly apt use of anachronism, in a manner which recalls Christopher Logue’s treatment of The Iliad, as in this description of Godric, whose subsequent flight from the battle leads to a general retreat, isolating the Earl’s personal retinue, and compelling them to make a last stand:

Just as a designated driver
hangs about outside the theatre,
checks his watch from time
to time, so Godric, groom
to Byrhtnoth’s great white horse,
lingers at the battle’s back end.

To a soundtrack of distant clamour
he unpacks curry-comb, soft-bristled brush,
the thing-for-taking-things-from-horse’s-hooves.

The third way of working is outlined by Alice Oswald in her introduction to her translations of the epic similes and deaths of minor figures from The Iliad, where she says, ‘This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s energeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.’ Energeia she defines as ‘something like “bright unbearable reality”. It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.’

We are reminded of Eliot’s careful warning from ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’, but we are also, perhaps, struck by the strangeness of the image: in what way does removing the roof from a church remind us of the presence of the holy? We might think rather of the theft of lead or indeed the iconoclastic destruction of invading armies or, as in that Reformation that swept away Henryson’s worldview, of a supplanting faith.

What Oswald is pointing to, however, is an interesting point about the version as opposed to the paraphrase: her translation removes the narrative – that aspect of invention we associate with the novel, and focuses instead on the imagistic and the elegiac: two modes we still strongly associate with poetry. It is as though she is focusing the modern reader on those aspects of the epic that fiction has not yet fully appropriated.

In his introduction to his translation of The Aeneid, John Dryden produces a famous tripartite definition of translation which may serve to sum up some of the tactics reviewed here:

‘First, that of metaphrase, or turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another… The second way is that of paraphrase, or translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not altered…The third way is that of imitation, where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion…’

Perhaps, then, the three ways of approaching the poet’s quest outlined above happen – roughly – to concur with Dryden’s description. You can preserve the metre and the matter as closely as possible, as Heaney and Armitage are at pains to do, in the metaphrastic manner. You can diverge into what seem to be necessary changes of perspective, imagery or form, as J.O. Morgan and, elsewhere, Christopher Logue do, in a paraphrastic way. Or you can peel away and attempt something quite different in either style or structure, that serves to explore themes that, whatever their degree of presence in the original, echo more forcible in a distinct modern context. That is more what Patience Agbabi and Alice Oswald are engaged in, though aspects of all three modes can be found in each author’s work.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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