Friday, June 10, 2011

"They must be read in order as they lie"

1. Lydia Davis reviews Ashbery's new version of Rimbaud (NYT). I admire Davis's stories and can see how her sensibility informs her theory of translation, but the theory itself is pointlessly austere, and I cannot see that the lines she particularly admires in Ashbery's translation are unusually good. (She doesn't say that in one of the lines she quotes, "Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime," the prosody -- dactylic hexameter -- and the punning antithesis on quick/tomb probably had as much to do with the choice as the KJV.)

2. While on the topic of translation, a passage from Dryden's preface to his translation of the Aeneid. (I went through an obscurely motivated obsession with Dryden a few years ago; could not bring myself to read very many of the plays but read all the poems and prefaces. There is a lot of appealingly specific nuts-and-bolts talk, as well as chutzpah, in his critical writing.)
What [Virgil] says of the Sibyl's prophecies may be as properly applied to every word of his--they must be read in order as they lie; the least breath discomposes them, and somewhat of their divinity is lost. [...] 
I have shunned the caesura as much as possibly I could; for wherever that is used, it gives a roughness to the verse, of which we can have little need in a language which is overstocked with consonants. Such is not the Latin where the vowels and consonants are mixed in proportion to each other; yet Virgil judged the vowels to have somewhat of an over-balance, and therefore tempers their sweetness with caesuras. ... On the other side, for the reason already named, it is all we can do to give sufficient sweetness to our language; we must not only choose our words for elegance, but for sound--to perform which a mastery in the language is required; the poet must have a magazine of words, and have the art to manage his few vowels to the best advantage, that they may go the farther. [...]

You may please also to observe that there is not, to the best of my remembrance, one vowel gaping on another for want of a caesura in this whole poem. But where a vowel ends a word the next begins either with a consonant or what is its equivalent; for our w and h aspirate, and our diphthongs, are plainly such. The greatest latitude I take is in the letter y when it concludes a word and the first syllable of the next begins with a vowel. Neither need I have called this a latitude, which is only an explanation of this general rule--that no vowel can be cut off before another when we cannot sink the pronunciation of it, as he, she, me, I, &c. [...]

I am sure there are few who make verses have observed the sweetness of these two lines in "Cooper's Hill" -
"Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage; without o'erflowing, full" -

and there are yet fewer who can find the reason of that sweetness. I have given it to some of my friends in conversation, and they have allowed the criticism to be just. But since the evil of false quantities is difficult to be cured in any modern language; since the French and the Italians, as well as we, are yet ignorant what feet are to be used in heroic poetry; since I have not strictly observed those rules myself which I can teach others; since I pretend to no dictatorship among my fellow-poets; since, if I should instruct some of them to make well-running verses, they want genius to give them strength as well as sweetness; and, above all, since your lordship has advised me not to publish that little which I know, I look on your counsel as your command, which I shall observe inviolably till you shall please to revoke it and leave me at liberty to make my thoughts public. [...] Spenser has also given me the boldness to make use sometimes of his Alexandrine line, which we call, though improperly, the Pindaric, because Mr. Cowley has often employed it in his odes. It adds a certain majesty to the verse when it is used with judgment, and stops the sense from overflowing into another line. [...]

The want of genius, of which I have accused the French, is laid to their charge by one of their own great authors, though I have forgotten his name, and where I read it.

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