Category Archives: British Literature

String of Beginnings: Michael Hamburger’s Autobiography

String of beginnings, a lifetime long,
So thin, so strong, it’s outlasted the bulk it bound,
Whenever light out of haze lifted
Scarred masonry, marred wood
As a mother her child from the cot,
To strip, to wash, to dress again,
And the cities even were innocent…
—Michael Hamburger

Of all the autobiographies I’ve read this year, Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings has been the most intriguing to me.  Born in Berlin to a Jewish family, “It was the month of the year when Kafka left Berlin to die. It was the day, March 22nd, of Goethe’s death and his cry for more light.  The year, 1924, was one of relative stabilization after the failure of a Hitler-Ludendorff ‘putsch’ and the success of Schacht’s measures against an inflation so extreme that it had turned most Germans into undernourished millionaires.”  Hamburger describes the autobiography, however, as “intermittent” since it only covers the years of his life between 1924 and 1954.

Originally published in 1973 under a different title, A Mug’s Game, and reissued in 1991 as String of Beginnings, Hamburger discusses in an interview with Peter Dale his reasons for limiting the scope of this second edition of his autobiography and for not publishing a sequel:

At one time I had planned a continuation, but my publisher didn’t want another volume, not having done well with the first.  Also, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write a second book on the same lines, as a factual and chronological account.  I then planned an altogether different sort of book, organized by theme, rather than documentary sequence, and with more freedom of movement and association than the chronological presentation had given me.  It had also become clear to me that it is virtually impossible to write truthfully about living relatives and friends in a non-fiction book—or about one’s own life, for that matter.

In the first chapter of String of Beginnings, he also elaborates on his very strict approach to writing autobiography.  Hamburger feels that too many autobiographies read more like novels because of an author’s tendency to embellish the truth.  He says of this genre, “Neither the chronicler’s nor the novelist’s way is adequate, because too much of one’s life is beyond recall, and the experience that made us what we are lies neither in moments nor in recurrences, but in a fusion of both far too subtle to be retracted.”  Much of the text of his autobiography contains direct quotes from letters to friends, family and acquaintances or paraphrasing from diaries that he kept.  Hamburger never veers from his strict writing standards.

Despite the “chronological presentation” of  his autobiography there are three “strings” that he highlights throughout the book which, he implies, affect him for the rest of his life: writing his own poetry, interacting with other poets and traveling.  Although Hamburger is best know for his translations, especially those of Holderlin which he started work on at the age of fifteen, it is the composition of his own, original poems that occupies his mind more than anything else.  The original title of the book,  A Mug’s Game, was taken from a comment made to Hamburger by T.S. Eliot who was reflecting on the, oftentimes futile, life and career of a poet, “‘A mug’s game,’ T.S. Eliot called it, aware of the risk he shared with those whose persistence was a blind obstinacy, a waste of themselves and others.  Or wasn’t it—even at the worst?  Where even the best is for ever being reexamined and re-assessed, where any new development could be a falling-off or a final defeat, mightn’t it be enough to go on trying?”

And go on trying Hamburger did.  Before he enrolls in the army, he spends a few terms at Oxford where he kept writing poetry and subjecting himself to the feedback of other famous poets.  He knows that his biggest flow is that his verse is too mechanical and he is not really seeing enough of life will translate into good poetry: “Though I published early, and had made literary connections even at this time, without being award of looking for them, the only success I wanted was to write good poems…”  Furthermore, he admits that the influence of poets he worshipped, like T.S. Eliot, was too great on him and he had trouble finding his own voice: “It is easy enough in retrospect to see why it took me so long to write my own poems, good or bad.  All my responses were exaggerated, inwardly over-dramatized, as it were, and utterly unstable, because I was trying out one stance, one identity, after another.”

The number of  poets—famous, infamous and obscure—that he meets during his time at Oxford is astounding.  Hamburger argues, “To write about oneself is to write about other people…” and the “other people” whom he discusses most in his autobiography are poets.  He meets Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, David Gascoyne and Peter Hofler, just to name a few.  The  most intriguing writer of them all for me, however, was a close friend whom he simply refers to as “X.”  X is about ten years older than Hamburger and is an academic; they had a falling out over the publication of Hamburger’s autobiography so Hamburger keeps X’s identity a secret throughout the book.  But X’s impact on Hamburger’s career and life as a poet is inescapable and the entire autobiography would fall apart with the exclusion of this friend and fellow author.   (I’m still curious to know the identity of X and I’m sure that someone has figured it out.  So if you know his identity please leave me a comment!)

The final “string” that one follows through the thirty years of Hamburger’s life is that of traveling.  Even though he and his family emigrate from Berlin to London in 1933, he gets his first real experience of Europe when he is a soldier in the British army during World War II.  He is stationed in both Italy and Austria and his favorite activities in those places are those which take him away from tourist areas and off the beaten path.  After his first visit to Paris he decides that big cities are places he would rather avoid: “If I have no business in a large city, and no close friends, all I find there is ghosts—‘the soul of all those who have lived there.’ absorbed by walls.”  One of my favorite, amusing stories in the book is when he is traveling in Austria, after being released from the army, and he moves from one small town to the next.  In one of these backwater places he stays at a rather strange little hotel which he eventually realizes, after many days, is a brothel.   Italy becomes one of his favorite places to visit, especially the countryside around Florence and Fiesole: “What really captivated me about Italy was the least palpable of phenomena—the mere smells on the banks of the Arno, the precise colour of olive trees, silver-white-green-blue-grey, something about the landscape at Fiesole that I couldn’t describe. ‘Self-sufficiency of the landscape, architecture, people,’ I noted. ‘No need for transcendence.  How the sun melts the written word.'”

Michael Hamburger lived until the age of 83 and I am so sad that there is no autobiographical account of the years between 1955 and 2007.  How did his life evolve in his last forty years?  What other poets did he meet?  How did he view the development of his poetry?  To what other places in the world did he enjoy traveling?  And in his interview with Peter Dale he alludes to his marriage with poet Ann Beresford and some of the troubles they had over the years which I would also have been interested to learn more about.  Maybe some day there will be a thorough biography of Michael Hamburger which will continue with his string of beginnings.

For the extra curious, these are the editions of the books I’ve discussed in my post:

A Mug’s Game by Michael Hamburger. Carcanet Press, 1973.

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger. Skoob Books, 1991.

Michael Hamburger, A Reader.  Declan O’Driscoll, ed. Carcanet Press, 2017.

Michael Hamburger in conversation with Peter Dale. Between the Lines, 1998.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, German Literature, Nonfiction

Full of Delights, of Pleasure, Of Tenderness: The Poets’ Dante

I have been reading some of the essays from The Poets’ Dante which arrived in the mail yesterday. It is a collection of writing from some of the most prominent 20th century poets who reflect on how Dante has shaped their own verses. I offer here a few passages from some of my favorite essays so far:

Ezra Pound comments on the genre and classification of the Divine Comedy:

The Divine Comedy must not be considered as an epic; to compare it with epic poems is usually unprofitable. It is in a sense lyric, the tremendous lyric of the subjective Dante; but the soundest classification of the poem is Dante’s own, ‘as a comedy which differs from tragedy in its content,’ for ‘tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly,’ and the end is terrible, ‘whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings the matter to a prosperous end.’ The is, in fact, a great mystery play, or better, a cycle of mystery plays.

Jorge Luis Borges on the intensity and gentleness of Dante:

Carlyle and other critics have observed that the most notable characteristic of Dante is intensity. If we think of the hundred cantos of the poem, it seems a miracle that that intensity never lets up, except in a few places in the Paradiso which for the poet were light and for us are shadow. I can’t think of another example, except perhaps Macbeth, which begins with the three witches and continues to the death of the hero without a weak moment.

I would like to mention another aspect: the gentleness of Dante. We always think of the somber and sententious Florentine poem, and we forget that the work is full of delights, of pleasure, of tenderness. That tenderness is part of the structure of the work. For example, Dante must have read somewhere that the cube is the most solid of volumes. It was a current, unpoetical observation, and yet Dante used it as a metaphor for man, who must support misfortune: ‘ben tetragono ai colpi di fortuna,’ man is a good tetragon, a cube. That is truly rare.

And Seamus Heaney’s personal reflection on his experiences with the Divine Comedy:

What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together, the strong strain of what has been called personal realism in the celebration of bonds of friendship and bonds of enmity. The way in which Dante could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to a scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country. The main tension is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self.

This is only a very small sampling of the book and I will, no doubt, spend some time with this volume as I pick my way through the variety of essays it contains.

Earlier today my husband noticed, with a wry comment and smirk, that I had acquired yet two more books on Dante. The intensity with which I throw myself into things has become a bit of a family joke—books, blogging, gift wrapping, acquiring the best coffee/teas, fashion/shoes, etc. (a small selection of my “obsessions” that my husband has pointed out, for which he claims he loves me dearly). And, yes, I have applied the same intensity to reading Dante and everything I can get my hands on about Dante. I have, I think, one final post left in me—a wrap up of sorts with a list of various books, essays, and translations I have acquired along the way. The journey from Hell, to Purgatory to Heaven has been a truly rich, rewarding and intense reading experience for me—an intense book, indeed, to match the intense person I can be. If you’ve enjoyed my posts then thanks for paying attention; if you are sick of me going on about the Divine Comedy then I promise the end is nigh and I will be reading different authors this week!

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Italian Literature

Impatient and Inexperienced with men: More thoughts on Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Ovid, in Book I of his epic poem the Metamorphoses, tells the story of the wood nymph Daphne whose transformation into a tree is sad and tragic.  Daphne loathes the idea of marriage and desperately clings to her life as a maiden nymph and a devotee of the goddess Diana (L. 478-80—all translations of the Latin are my own).: “Many suitors asked for her hand in marriage, but Daphne, turning away from these pursuers in disgust, not only impatient with men but also lacking any knowledge of men, roams the remote woods, not giving a shit about marriage, love or weddings.”

One of the saddest parts of this narrative, for me, is when Daphne begs her father not to marry her off to one of these suiotrs (L. 486-489): “Let me stay a virgin forever, dearest father.  This same wish was granted to Diana by her own father Zeus.”  But Ovid states that Daphne is too pretty to stay single: “Her father tries to humor her, but her own good looks prevented what she wanted, her very beauty made her wish an impossible one.”  Just as this observation is being made about Daphne’s future, the god Apollo arrives on the scene who is burning with a deep passion to overtake Daphne with his amatory advances.

Apollo, who is normally a god associated with reason and good sense, loses his mind over Daphne after being struck by Cupid’s arrow.  The passages that lead up to Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne are full of piercing, penetrating, arrows.  Cupid, after being teased by Apollo, pulls two arrows from his quiver and takes aim: “The arrow which causes someone to fall in love is golden and gleams with a sharp point, but the arrow which causes someone to reject love is dull and has lead under its shaft.”  Needless to say, Apollo is pierced with the golden arrow and Daphne is hit with the dull one.  An intense chase through the woods immediately ensues; Ovid uses images of the hunt as metaphors to describe the terror of Daphne’s pursuit.  In order to point out delicately the sinister tone of this passage I always ask my students, “What is Apollo’s goal here?  What will he do to Daphne if he captures her?”

As I read more of Gwendolen’s story in Daniel Deronda, I am convinced that George Eliot had Ovid’s Daphne in mind as she was writing her story of a beautiful, naïve young woman who clings to her maidenhood.  Gwendolen says on several occasions that she finds men disgusting and she hates when they make love to her.  Eliot says of her protagonist, “Her observation of matrimony had inclined her to think it rather a dreary state, in which a woman could not do what she liked, had more children than were desirable, was consequently dull, and became irrevocably immersed in humdrum.”  Like Daphne, Gwendolen views marriage as a permanent restraint on her freedom and she is impatient with men and inexperienced with them: “…She objected, with a sort of physical repulsion, to being directly made love to.  With all her imaginative delight in being adored, there was a certain fierceness of maidenhood in her.”  What was that lead arrow that causes her to reject men and love?  We can only speculate (a trauma early in life or a preference for those of the same sex?  Matters for a whole different essay.)

Gwendolen’s uncle, Mr. Gascoigne, the local rector, serves as a surrogate father to her and has more than one talk with her about the importance of marriage and making a good match.  He is convinced that her beauty and charm will attract a good suitor.  And when a local aristocrat and heir to titles and a fortune, a Mr. Grandcourt, shows interest in his niece Mr. Gascoigne makes it clear that the only path for her in life is to submit to a “good marriage”: “‘My dear Gwendolen,’ he said, rising also and speaking with benignant gravity, ‘I trust you will find in marriage a new fountain of duty and affection.  Marriage is the only true and satisfactory sphere of a woman, and if your marriage with Mr. Grandcourt should be happily decided upon, you will have probably an increasing power, both of rank and wealth, which may be used for the benefit of others.  These considerations are something higher than romance.'”  Similar to Daphne’s predicament, Mr. Gascoigne makes it clear to his nieces that marriage is the only option for a woman, especially one who is beautiful; taking vows has nothing to do with what a woman wants or doesn’t want, it is simply a matter of obligation.

The pivotal scenes during which Grandcourt, normally a reasonable and unemotional man, pursues Gwendolen occur at two different archery competitions.  Eliot weaves images of golden arrows, piercing, conquests, the hunter and the hunted throughout these scenes.  I found the description of Gwendolen, as she is about to set off to the archery competition, rather melancholy and foreboding as the comparison with Daphne floated through my mind: “Gwendolen looked lovely and vigorous as a tall, newly-opened lily the next morning; there was a reaction of young energy in her, and yesterday’s self-distrust seemed no more than the transient shiver on the surface of a full stream. The roving archery match in Cardell Chase was a delightful prospect for the sport’s sake: she felt herself beforehand moving about like a wood-nymph under the beeches (in appreciative company), and the imagined scene lent a charm to further advances on the part of Grandcourt…”

As Grandcourt decides that Gwendolen will be his wife, and his possession, his pursuit of her becomes more intense and he remarks to a friend that his new wife will be “brought to kneel down like a horse under training…though she might have an objection to it.”  This image of forcing self upon Gwendolen eerily recalls Apollo’s reason for pursuing Daphne.

In the end, Daphne calls, once again, on her father for help but the result is the destruction of her form and beauty and a transformation from the carefree, happy maiden that she once was.  It is clear from the foreshadowing in Eliot’s tale that Gwendolen’s fate will be something similar to Daphne’s.  Reading Daniel Deronda though the perspective of Ovid’s myth also makes Gwendolen’s pretending to be St. Cecilia that much more fitting and foreboding; as I mentioned in an earlier post , this martyr also rejected marriage and wished to stay a maiden but in the end was destroyed despite her wishes.

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Catullus, George Eliot and Soul-Sickness: A Translation of Carmen 76

Classes will be starting up for me soon and this fall I am very excited that I will, once again,  be teaching a Catullus course to my upper level Latin students.  As I was looking through my notes and preparing my course materials, I was lingering on the Roman poet’s Carmen 76 which, for many reasons, is difficult to teach.  Instead of going through his poems in numerical order (there are 116 poems in his corpus), I group them by theme: The Lesbia poems, the friendship and enmity poems, the poems about poetry.  Poem 76 falls into the Lesbia set of poems and it is the very last one I translate with my classes; for me it is the ultimate end of their love affair and he references many of the other poems he has previously written about her in this elegy.  In my mind this is most definitely the end of the affair.

Students always struggle with this poem because of the syllogism in the first few lines, the indirect speech, infinitives, etc.  But they also have a difficult time with the subject matter.  They have no patience for Catullus and his sick heart; time and again I hear them argue that he is weak, whining, feckless and on and on.  For a group of people who are prone to melodrama and tend towards emotional ebullience (I say this with the utmost love and affection for them), one would think that they would have more sympathy with or even empathy for Catullus.   But, alas, this is never the case.  It could be, I’ve always thought,  that they recognize in him the very qualities which they abhor in themselves; he mirrors the sentiments in the shows that they watch and music that they listen to.  Perhaps he is all-too familiar to them.  Or, as I also suspect, the depth of their emotions hasn’t quite reached the levels of soul-sickness that Catullus displays—they have yet, luckily, to get their little hearts broken like our dear poet.  Whatever the reasons for their distaste,  I will give it my best try, once again, to teach this poem and elicit a bit of tenderness for Catullus’s lost love.

I offer here my own translation of lines 10-26 of Carmen 76,  my favorite piece of the poem:

But why should you crucify yourself any longer?
Why don’t you settle your mind and walk away
from this and, even if the universe is against you,
stop being so wretched. It is difficult to put aside
a long love affair; it is, indeed, very difficult; but
put it aside by whatever means necessary. This will be your
only salvation, and you must conquer this: You need to do
this whether you think it is possible or not. Oh gods, if
there is any way for you to show mercy, and if you’ve
ever brought a man relief on his deathbed, then look
down on me who is at this moment so wretched, and if
I have lived a decent life then relieve me of this
plague and this ruin. What a lethargy
has slithered into every part of my being and
has expunged every ounce of happiness from my heart.
And I do not ask what I know is impossible, that
she love me in return or that she decide to be faithful;
but I want to be well again and put aside this soul-sickness.
Grant me this, oh gods, in answer to my prayer.

I decided to translate the Latin morbum (usually rendered as “sickness”) in the penultimate line as “soul-sickness” because it captures so well the complete misery that Catullus feels at the loss of this relationship. I was reading Daniel Deronda this weekend and the female protagonist of Eliot’s novel rejects a kind, loving, and very eager young suitor named Rex.  When his love is not returned, this twenty year-old decides that he can no longer continue his studies at Oxford and asks his father for permission to run away to the Canadian colonies where he can live off the land in an attempt to get over his sorrows.  When Rex’s father objects to this ridiculous plan and tells his son that love has softened his brain and good sense Eliot writes of him: “What could Rex say?  Inwardly he was in a state of rebellion but he had no arguments to meet his father’s; and while he was feeling, in spite of anything that might be said, that he should like to go off to “the colonies” tomorrow, it lay in a deep fold of his consciousness that he ought to feel—if he had been a better fellow he would have felt—more about his old ties.  This is the sort of faith we live by in our soul-sickness.”

Rex and Catullus, eager, intense, passionate young lovers, are suffering from the same affliction.  I like to think that Catullus would approve of me borrowing Eliot’s phrase, “soul-sickness” to describe his condition.  Catullus does get over Lesbia—he runs off to the colonies, which in his case is Bithynia in Asia Minor and the time away proves to be the best cure for him.  I hope that Rex’s fate in Eliot’s narrative is similar.

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The Worst Kind of Irreligion: George Eliot on the Reception of Daniel Deronda

I am reading George Eliot’s journals and letters alongside her novel Daniel Deronda.  In a letter dated the 29th of October, 1876, she describes to her friend Mrs. H.B. Stowe her surprise that Daniel Deronda has not met with more resistance because of its Jewish subject matter.  She describes the shameful racism and bigotry she witnesses among her own class:

As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with.  But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians towards Jews is—I hardly know whether to say more impious or more stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as to my nature and knowledge could attain to.  Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us.  There is nothing I could care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs.  But towards the Hebrews we western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment.  Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting?  They hardly know that Christ was a Jew.  And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek.  To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion.  The best that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity —which is still the average mark of our culture.

The U.K., of course,  is not the only country in which racism, bigotry and xenophobia are a persistent, national problem .  Eliot’s words are just as relevant today, unfortunately, for the culture of racism that the current leadership in the U.S. has incited which is horrifying, shameful and disgusting to witness.  I am glad that Eliot does not mince words and calls it what it is—ignorance and stupidity.

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