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This item is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

THE SEISMIC RESULT of the Referendum announced on 24 June closed a chapter in British history. The opening of that European chapter in 1975 (Poetry Nation 4 and 5) hardly registered on our quite untested seismograph. Indeed, the EU itself is first mentioned, tetchily, only in Crisis for Cranmer and King James, PN Review 13, in 1980, where it registers as a cultural and civic loss. For many in the poetry constituency, the result of the 2016 Referendum felt like a personal bereavement. And other losses followed: Sir Geoffrey Hill died on 30 June and Yves Bonnefoy the day after: two great Europeans. Their legacies remain substantial and intact. The sadness is that they are, also, complete.

This issue of PN Review contains too many family obituaries. Hill and Bonnefoy helped make the magazine. Hill contributed to Poetry Nation 3 and 4 and gave major essays to the magazine. He was a developing exemplar, especially in his copious later years. My favourite of his contributions appeared in 2002, in PNR 147: ‘Il Cortegiano: F. T. Prince’s Poems (1938)’. It reads a poem (‘An Epistle to a Patron’) that Hill loved and learned from, taking it as it first appeared in a journal, then considering the changes the poet made to it. The poem’s development ‘repays examination’ if that examination is imaginative, alert to the different contexts in which it appears.

‘An Epistle’ was collected in Prince’s first book, the aforementioned Poems. It had been published a year before (July 1937) in T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, with a different title and a slightly different text. In Poems it relates to his other poems; in the Criterion it relates to the culture of the magazine and the work surrounding it. ‘Perhaps the most significant change’, Hill says, ‘is the omission from Poems of the rather Poundian “Note” placed after the text in the Criterion version. This reads: “Letter from Leonardo da Vinci to Ludovico il Moro, c.1483. / Leon Battista Alberti, De Re Aedificatoria. / Alberti and Sigismundo Malatesta of Rimini. / Luciano Luarana and Federigo de Montefeltro of Urbino. / Michelozzo and Cosimo de Medici.”’ Hill meditates on the note and its later omission. ‘Prince is imitative, in a broad sense, of Pound’s ambition to create a poetic medium in which public and private ethics, together with true and false aesthetics, are made to circle around an unshifting fulcrum which is the power of patronage, which in turn is worldly power. That is to say, Prince, in common with Pound, MacDiarmid, and early Auden, is concerned with the nature, retention and vulnerability of the public good in ways that are scarcely conceivable under the present dispensation.’ And yet in Hill’s own work they become conceivable, regardless of Pound’s and MacDiarmid’s fatal wrong turnings. Hill prefers this poem of Prince’s to later, more popular and amenable poems with their ‘confessional vulnerability’.

He considers the circumstances of the artist in the 1930s, and his points of reference are European – as Prince is, and his models, and his critic Geoffrey Hill, who reflects that Prince learned this style not from Eliot or Pound, ‘though, sixty and more years on, it is easy to see that they are all exercising in the same terrain’. His sources were in Italy, discovered through Milton. ‘In 1954 Prince published, with the Clarendon Press, The Italian Element in Milton’s Verse, one of the few still essential works of literary scholarship and criticism produced during the past half-century.’ He notes, ‘Prince has here a scholar’s commitment to the European historical moment when certain formative minds took hold of the idea that “it is not the thoughts which make a Poet, as some would have us believe, but the locutions” (p.104, n.i).’

It is natural for Hill to pass from Prince to Auden and Eliot, and back again. There is a commonality of theme and more importantly of calculation, of rhetoric. The syntax of the ‘Epistle’ is miraculously extended, a rhetoric whose self-qualification manages to increase its volume and ultimate clarity, its living candour. Craft is not cold in such writing. ‘A degree of semantic and rhythmic intelligence, so alert that it is practically tactile, constitutes the peculiar virtues of Prince’s Poems. It is, so it seems to me, finer than the semantic and rhythmic abilities of “Triumphal March”, “Difficulties of a Statesman”, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, “Miserere”, “Ecce Homo”.’

There are things we can’t know for sure, Hill concedes, but we can speculate: ‘[…] Prince could have been influenced by the styles of political, economic and literary criticism as these were presented – or, as some would say, paraded – in the pages of The Criterion, the periodical in which his own poems were appearing in 1936/7.’ He then gives instance after instance. The case is circumstantial but convincing. Hill the poet-critic feels and conveys lived connections.

Of Yves Bonnefoy’s many contributions to PN Review (the last in PNR 226, last year), I especially value his essay ‘Translating Poetry’, itself translated by John Alexander and Clive Wilmer, in PNR 46 (1985). Bonnefoy was a great translator – of Shakespeare and Yeats, among others – and knew whereof he spoke.

The irony of Donne, the luminous melancholy of Eliot – or Baudelairean spleen, or Rimbaud’s mauvaiseté (and always, too, his hope) – are they not impenetrable worlds? And as for Yeats – the aspiration toward the Idea, toward Byzantium, on the one hand, but on the other ‘blood and mire’, both mud and ecstasy, even the fury of passion, and Adonis as well as Christ – can that be shared?

But in poetry, necessity is the mother of invention. It is sometimes possible to repress what hasn’t been experienced; and translation, when a great poet speaks to us, can bypass censorship – this is part of the feedback which, as I was saying, the translated work may generate. An energy is released. So let us follow the poem’s fascinations. But let us follow only those. If a work does not compel us, it is untranslatable.

Interviewed by Chris Miller in PNR 204 (2012) Bonnefoy touched on some of the themes Hill explores in his Prince essay. Miller asks him, ‘What relations hold between politics and poetry?’ Bonnefoy replies, ‘[...] what I call poetry is the refusal of absolute conceptual systems especially where they attempt to replace the world as it is with simple schemata – this world which is made up of existences rather than things. And since poetry takes account of and keeps alive the memory of the one great indefeasible reality that conceptual discourse fragments and would like us to forget, it goes without saying,’ he says, contentiously, ‘that poetry refuses to allow us to see in other men and women anything other than full, living presences free to assert their own rights and authorised in their own dignity.’ He goes further, in a way that, in the wake of 24 June and its proof of how ideologies, interests and prejudices appropriated the political arguments, seems naive: ‘And this is, quite specifically,’ he declares, ‘the project of democracy. I am willing to declare, as one of my great certainties, that if one has a sense of poetry – if one wants to make it burgeon in one’s outlook on the world – one cannot help but be a democrat in one’s relation to society.’ The voice rises: ‘To be able to understand poetry is to rediscover the declaration of the rights of man at its source, to revitalise it, rescue it from the ideological interpretations that it constantly endures; it is to restore it to its future.’ His credo envisages a world of uncompromised intelligences, responsible interests, a place of dialogue. Something like — a magazine, perhaps.

If we miss the continuing voices of Hill and Bonnefoy, if we miss Europe, we have the words of both poets, the literatures of Europe with borders still open. Impossible to exhaust such gifts.

This item is taken from PN Review 231, Volume 43 Number 1, September - October 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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