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This article is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

Out of the Ordinary Andrew Waterman

England's two historic literary traditions, that of the gifted amateur reaching back to Sidney and Surrey, and that of the professional man of letters through Dryden to Ben Jonson, have merged in the twentieth century. The first was moribund when Ezra Pound found himself dismayed by its perfunctory Edwardian heirs; changed exigencies of publishing subsequently effected the virtual demise of the old-style literary man; nowadays poets particularly are dedicated moonlighters, pursuing in the interstices of some incidental full-time bread-and-butter occupation, often enough within an uncomprehending educational system, the creative careers that are our more serious commitment. In which context it is appropriate to distinguish Charles Johnston, diplomat and former British High Commissioner in Australia who since first appearing in Horizon in the 1940s has continued occasionally to produce poems and translations of exceptional quality, as proof that, somewhere clear of a turbulent 'literary world' in which Grub Street and Academe kiss, quarrel and belittlingly sustain each other with the wearied familiarity of a long-married couple habituated beyond thoughts of the isolating freedom of divorce, serious writing within the English tradition of the amateur remains a viable artistic enterprise. Johnston's craftsmanly accomplishment and imaginative vitality expose the triter versifyings of some more prolific 'career-poets' as 'amateur' in another, pejorative sense.

Johnston has justly been acclaimed for his translations of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, previously supposed incorrigible to English. Knowing no Russian, I take the fidelity with which he has recreated the elusive texture of Onegin not simply on trust ...


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