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This review is taken from PN Review 253, Volume 46 Number 5, May - June 2020.

Cover of Opus 3
Chris McCullyHarps and Horns
W.D. Jackson, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press) £15
It must have represented a risk, to both publisher and writer, to produce a work of 483pp. (nearly 100 of them, notes) and one moreover containing some material which has appeared in book form before (e.g. Jackson’s Boccaccio in Florence and Afterwords). Nor is it usual for any reviewer to be confronted with any poetic opus of such scale and ambition: Jackson’s comment that his work ‘is nothing if not eclectic’ (p.389) is perfectly just. The notes here, as well as the poetic reworkings and translations, range from Biblical accounts of Abraham through Ovid, Villon, Dante, Boccaccio; medieval romances, Chaucer and Shakespeare; Milton and Wordsworth; through translations (very fine translations, so far as I can judge them) from Heine and Rilke; to adaptations of (perhaps better, conversations with) Eliot and Borges. Engaging with Jackson’s work is in itself a literate education. It is also a philosophical one: there is a seriousness lying behind Jackson’s engagement with the materials and models provided by the past – an imaginative past which is here only too wonderfully present – which pushes almost all his work in the direction of a further engagement with ethics. If one cannot (and one cannot) equate goodness with success – as was Auden’s worry when he renounced ‘Spain’, whose concluding lines seemed to offer such an equation - what then, in the baleful sweep of human history, is good conduct? What can history and its writers say not only to its ‘defeated’ (thus Auden, in lines he famously and subsequently rejected) but to its exterminated?

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