Sunday, 13 May 2018

On Translating Homer

In the correspondence that ensued from his recent review in the London Review of Books of three new translations of the Odyssey, Oxford academic Colin Burrow remarks that “one doesn’t have to read beyond the first two lines of William Morris’s verse translation to realise it’s not going to offer much poetical joy (‘Tell me, O Muse, of the Shifty, the man who wandered afar,/After the Holy Burg, Troy-town, he had wasted with war’)” .  I’m not sure how well any of us are equipped to challenge that critical judgment.  Even devoted Morrisisans may well not have read Morris’s 1887 version of Homer, and even if we have, we probably do not possess the mastery of ancient Greek which would let us do a comparison with the original itself.

So we perhaps have to turn to older and better equipped commentators for some help here.  One looks first to J.W. Mackail, as always, but he doesn’t give us much comfort, since in his view Morris’s Odyssey chiefly demonstrates a “disparity between the original and the method of rendering”, which in this case is the anapaestic meter of Sigurd the Volsung.  Half a century later, Geoffrey B. Riddenhough, who wrote learnedly about several Morris translations, notes that in the Homer version Morris ‘once more … reveals his curious hatred of the Latin element in the English language, a feeling which he allows to falsify his translation”.

So far, so bad, then; and Colin Burrow’s judgement would appear to be in the ascendant.  So we must turn instead to Oscar Wilde who reviewed the two volumes of Morris’s Homer as they came out with gusto: “of all our English translations this is the most perfect and the most satisfying”.  Or, twenty-seven years later, there is A. Clutton Brock’s little book on Morris where, though conceding that the translation is “rough and odd at times”, he insists that Morris “has kept the momentum and excitement of the story better than any other translator … it is as near to Homer as we are likely to get until another master of narrative poetry as great as Morris chooses to spend some years of his life upon a translation”.  These assessments should be enough stimulus to us, surely, after the BBC’s recent gripping mini-series on Troy: the Fall of a City, to turn to Morris’s Odyssey to follow up the character – admirably played by actor Joseph Mawle - who was far and away the most intriguing figure in the BBC version.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Marx at 200

As for everyone else on the Left, the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birthday means a lot to me.  But ‘Marx at 200’ has been emotionally overshadowed by what I might term ‘Nigel North at 60’, the death on April 16 of my close childhood friend as his multiple health problems took him away from us three months short of his sixty-first birthday.  I mentioned in a previous post that the white working-class neighbourhood in which I grew up from the late 1950s now barely exists in its old form, and Nigel’s death gives that observation traumatic concrete force; he still lived just around the corner from my parents’ home in Southend-on-sea, so had remained quite literally part of that neighbourhood all his life.  His death therefore feels to me not just a great personal loss but an historical end-point, as if not just a deep part of my own being, but a certain precious idea of England, has gone with him.  “I love my country as it used to be,” he once said to me, and I can feel that immense pull of a shared working-class past too.  I shall have to be careful that my mourning does not turn into melancholia.

How move forward, then, emotionally and politically?   Perhaps by going one generation further back, paradoxically – to my paternal grandfather Henry Smith Pinkney, who was a lifelong Communist.  That was a political identity which itself took rise from a particular experience of class and locality – the mining villages of the North-East and then Kent, in Grandad’s case; but which also generated a universal idea of emancipation which, a generation further back still, could pull even a wealthy middle-class Victorian like William Morris across to its new utopian dreams and practice.   So the ‘idea of Communism’ still persists – and Marx at 200 is part of that – even if a particular historical embodiment of it, i.e. the Leninist party, is now definitively past.  So I here rededicate myself to that project of liberation, true in that to the working-class neighbourhood and upbringing that Nigel North and I shared – even if, his own father having been a Conservative Party activist, his political identity was more conflicted than mine.  I don’t ever want to stop remembering and mourning my dear friend, lost to us as he has been far too early, but the idea of Communism is a project open and utopian enough to point also to Miltonic fresh fields and pastures new.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Suggestion for the Morris Societies

William Morris repeatedly acknowledges his debt to Geoffrey Chaucer in The Life and Death of Jason, produced the great Kelmscott Chaucer with Edward Burne-Jones in 1896, and had his narrator William Guest declare in News from Nowhere that he ‘fairly felt as if [he] were living in the fourteenth century’.  He might, therefore, have been very interested in a curious academic-administrative practice adopted at Oxford University in the 1920s.

When Professor George Gordon returned to Oxford from Leeds University to take over as Merton Professor of English Literature in 1922, he set up a postgraduate seminar which was attended by such students as C.S. Lewis and Nevill Coghill, who would become Oxford luminaries themselves in due course.  A decision was taken – whether by Gordon himself or by the postgraduates, I’m not sure – to keep the minutes of each meeting in Chaucerian verse, and some of these minutes survive, including some fine lines by Coghill describing Lewis’s paper on Edmund Spenser on 9 February 1923: ‘Then to Sir Lewis turned the Professour/(That was our tales juge and governour)’, and so on.

Minutes in Chaucerian verse – what an admirable and learned idea!  And how apt, one would think, given Morris’s own Chaucerian passion, to the various international Morris Societies today.  So I commend this old Oxford practice to the Morris Society committees, although they might in turn object that, in certain moods, Morris would accuse Chaucer of betraying English by his excessive openness to French and Italian literary traditions.   In which case they would then be obliged to take one further philological step backwards and have their minute-makers write up their notes in Gawain-style alliterative verse or Anglo-Saxon or even in Old Icelandic itself. 

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Words from the Future

The last time I taught my Utopias half unit, in late 2011, we were in the middle of the international Occupy movement.  Lancaster had its own Occupy camp, in Dalton Square, and one of my students would cycle in from it to our seminar on A Modern Utopia or Herland, and then pedal busily back to her tent in town to continue the protest.  This time round, we are in the midst of significant political events again, though not of the same international scale.  For the academic pensions strike is well under way at sixty-odd British universities, and this is becoming as much a general political protest against the neo-liberal diminution of the very idea of the university as it is a strike on a specific financial issue.

Two of my Utopias seminars have fallen casualty to the strike, though I hope the students have been reading and pondering the texts none the less.  The two books involved have certainly been much on my mind during these weeks of industrial action.  The first is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, in my view the greatest of the 1970s utopias.  One sentence in particular leaps out at me, as I re-read under these new circumstances.  After leaving his anarchist utopia Anarres for capitalist dystopia Urras, Shevek finally makes contact with the political resistance there and informs them: ‘I came here because they talk about the lower classes, the working classes, and I thought that sounds like my people.  People who might help each other’.  Well, the kind of white working-class community in which I grew up half a century or so ago barely exists in its old form any more, but new communities form themselves in new struggles; and certainly the Lancaster University union picket line, as it has evolved over the last few weeks, has come to feel like ‘my people.  People who might help each other’.

The second text which will not now get discussed in our seminars is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, a raw and powerful book which I have not re-read for several years.  Piercy runs utopian time-travelling in the opposite direction to Bellamy and Morris: Luciente here travels back from a utopian future to the racist nightmare which is the 1970s New York faced by Connie Ramos.  The utopian visitor from Matapoisett brings hope and wisdom, but she is a frail ontological presence too: ‘We are only one possible future.  Do you grasp?’  For it turns out that the utopians need Connie as much as she needs them: ‘You may fail us … You of your time … You of your time may fail to struggle altogether’.  Or, as Luciente had earlier asked her: ‘How come you took so long to get together and start fighting for what was yours?’

That is a question we on the picket line have been asking ourselves too.  How has it taken so long to mount collective resistance to the neo-liberal university on this scale?  For in and beyond the pensions issue itself, we are now fighting for utopia too: for a transformed notion of the university which would break from the marketised dystopia of the present, without just reverting to old-style liberal definitions of the institution either.  This is as yet a frail utopia, facing enormous hostile political and economic forces.  Yet if the new community of resistance which has come into being remains ‘true to one another’ – to wrench Matthew Arnold’s phrase from ‘Dover Beach’ out of context – and if we can involve our students in our arguments and vision, then perhaps we too can open the present to intimations of a better future.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Poem for the Picket Line

I had hoped to pop down south today for the ‘Morris in Oxford’ walk led by Martin Stott, but morning duty on the trade union picket line at Lancaster University campus has been calling instead, followed by afternoon radical ‘Teach-Outs’ at the Gregson Institute in town.  Our strike against the attempt by UUK (Universities UK, i.e., the employers) to savagely cut academic pensions has so far proved tremendously invigorating, and is amounting indeed, as it goes on, to nothing less than the reinvention of the idea of the university against its wholesale marketisation in recent decades.

Colleagues from English Literature and Creative Writing brought poems to the picket line this morning, and though I didn’t get to read mine out at the event itself, I thought I’d offer it here.  Since William Morris visited Lancaster on a political lecturing tour in November 1886, I chose one of his Chants for Socialists, but felt I might take the liberty of tweaking it a little for our current needs.  So here is my version, which I dedicate to Lancaster’s Vice-Chancellor Mark E. Smith who, unlike many other VCs up and down the country, has not yet come out in support of his staff against UUK on the pensions issue.  Morris’s three-stanza poem ‘No Master’ therefore in 2018 becomes ‘No VC’:

Saith lecturer to student, we’ve heard and known
That we no VC need
To live upon this campus, our own,
In fair and manly deed.
The grief of academics long passed away
For us has forged the chain,
Till now each worker’s patient day
Built up the House of Pain.

And we, shall we too, crouch and quail,
Ashamed, afraid of strife,
And lest our lives untimely fail
Embrace the Death in Life?
Nay, cry aloud, and have no fear,
We few against the world;
Awake, arise!  The hope we bear
Against UUK is hurled.

It grows and grows – are we the same,
The feeble band, the few?
Or what are these with eyes aflame,
And hands to deal and do?
This is the host that bears the word,
No VC high or low –
A lightning flame, a shearing sword,
A storm to overthrow.

On ‘Or what are these … ‘ I was going to make a big sweeping outward gesture to the hundred plus pickets – one hundred and seventy yesterday! – who have been turning up at the Lancaster campus main entrance for the last fortnight.  That Oxford Morris walk, delightful as it would have been, will have to wait till next year.