No 3 - 1974
The Chronicler and the Poet:
Michael Hamburger at 50
Michael Hamburger, Ownerless Earth: New and Selected Poems, Carcanet, £2.75 – cloth, £1.25 – paper
A Mug’s Game: Intermittent Memoirs, Carcanet, £3.25.
IT is always a landmark, sometimes a watershed, to write an autobiography, just as it is to look back and choose out of a lifetime’s works those poems that seem to their maker worth perpetuating. Michael Hamburger has reached some such crest of the hill. He has of late done both, and in both tasks confessed to the difficulty of relating his present self to an altogether different earlier one. But that self wrote those poems and lived that life; that soil was fruitful, though it has no present owner now — his most recent poems bear the title ‘Travelling’. So he puts a milestone on the roadside and moves on (‘a place called rest and be thankful’, noted Keats, another proud walker reaching a mountain pass, ‘which we took for an Inn — it was nothing but a Stone’).
Both volumes are selections. Mercifully, the autobiographer does not set out to Tell All. But what principle of selection has governed a poet’s tale of a poet’s life? The sceptical prose title — Eliot’s view of the job — gives one some indication: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing. And indeed, it is in some respects a sad book. Hamburger seems to have gone out of his way to look for the regrets, the sins of omission, the opportunities lost, the time he wasted, the lives he helped drably or dramatically to mess up: the homosexual school friend, a glamorous Mephisto, not supported loyally enough; the one-step-forward-two-steps-back love affair; the help of Herbert Read appreciated too late. The early chapters present a picture of a young man the autobiographer does not seem to like very much, and who probably did not like himself very much at the time: bookish, priggish, deeply inhibited, driven by intense self-dissatisfaction — a baby Faust before the bargain. (One childhood snapshot shows him costumed just so. So that is how the German Bildungsbürger imagined their young!) Far away he may be, but the autobiographer’s mug, facing the title-page tense and introverted, is witness to that young man’s legacy to his middle-aged heir.
In one respect, it is not a poet’s tale of a poet’s life. Hamburger has always been acutely aware — sometimes restrictively so — of roles, masks, personae, of disparate selves for separate functions. Here he plays the chronicler, not the poet. Here he is expressly dealing with remembered superficialities, knowing full well that ‘the most intense, most formative experiences may have eluded the chronicler because they have no context, no frame of reference in time and place’. Those experiences he leaves to the poet, who compiles a different book. And partly out of tact, more out of mistrust of the exclusive truthfulness of his own view, he refrains from describing people’s appearances, from speculating about their motives. ‘My recollection of my friend did not tally with his image of himself’, he admits, leaving that friend — by his insistent request — unnamed. Contrariwise, he is reluctant to round off event into anecdote — sooner includes a piece of honest fiction. An uneasy chronicler’s tale, then — but still of a poet’s life, however inaccessible the rag-and-bone-shop. For Hamburger’s long-practised critical gift enables him to analyse his own peculiar problems as a creative writer: the early derivative— ness (it takes a great deal of distance from that young man to quote G. S. Fraser’s comment on him — ‘ghosting for the ghost of Yeats’ — or to reprint a boiling fragment on childhood by Dylan Hamburger Thomas); the effort of impersonality — all those ‘he’s’, all those dramatic voices and the virtual absence of one called ‘I’; rhetoric and Ideas restricting imaginative flexibility; too much restraint; not enough flow. He is often so negatively critical of himself that there are times when the reviewer can only cry ‘Stop stop. Impersonal snaffle and bit all right, but what about this for a bloody horse?’
EPITAPH FOR A HORSEMAN
Let no one mourn his mount, upholstered bone
He rode so cruelly over bog and stone,
Log, fence and ditch in every kind of weather;
Nor glibly hint those two came down together:
A horse fell dead and cast his master down,
But by that fall their union was undone.
A broken jade we found, the rider gone,
Leaving no token but his cold clean gear,
Bit, reins and riding-crop for friends to gather.
None but a beast’s remains lie buried here.
That is achieved and absolute; it is one of many, and has all the virtues of what Hamburger calls his faults.
The range of problems most his own arises from his position, first imposed and then chosen, between two languages and two cultures. His autobiography fills this out for us: how he came to this country as a nine-year-old boy with his family as a refugee from Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in Germany; his fragmentary memories of places and people left behind; how he lived through the discomforts of transition in Edinburgh, while his father, a distinguished Berlin paediatrician, swotted his way through First M.B.; the comparative stability in St. John’s Wood; under the various conformist pressures of English Public School, wartime Oxford, the Army. His Jewishness was seemingly unproblematical, the bitter irony of this persecution lying in the fact that his father’s generation was already entirely secular and assimilated. But the boy’s linguistic sense of identity was problematic. He learned quickly — to assimilate afresh. Doubts that he could write good poems in English because it was not his first language, because word and thing did not lie naively close, left their mark on his poetry in a certain austerity of diction. This may account for his relative lateness in finding an individual voice; it does account for his most distinctive achievement: the body of translations from the German he has given to the English tradition. All the self-effacement and adaptability to other men’s voices that bedevilled his own beginnings as an independent poet stood him in triumphant good stead here: one thinks of his lifelong service to Hölderlin, which began when he was still a schoolboy, devoting his talents to another poet’s work at an age when that other marvellous boy, Hofmannsthal, whom he has served equally devotedly, was pouring out his own first flood of lyrics. The scrupulousness he practised in rendering other men’s rhyme and rhythm has brought its reward in his own performance. Translating functioned as five-finger-exercises for him, sustained him through dead periods, enabled him to explore the nuances and exactitudes of his all-but-own, of his own language:
. . . his heritage regained,
By grace of exile, of expropriation.
How fine an ear he has developed in the course of it! In ‘Tides’, for example, a poem about regularities, both rigidities and rhythms, there occur the lines: ‘The metronome it was in my own head/That ticked and ticked . . .’ Accustomed to the spoken sequence of Hamburger’s syntax, the reader balks at that ‘Metronome it was’. Why not ‘It was the metronome’, which comes more freely to the ear, both rhythmically and syntactically? But on second thoughts, Hamburger’s order, holding inflexibly to the basic iambics, forces a mechanical beat upon the line. Exactly. The metronome it was. Too slight — too obvious? — a point to go on about? I don’t think so. It is in such craftsman’s care for expressive detail that much of Hamburger’s strength lies. He is a poet of fine precision, not of broad effect, and I suspect that much of this finesse has been learnt from his craft of translating.
He has written elsewhere about this degree of distance in his relationship to the English language. In his autobiography, appropriately, it is coloured by more personal feeling. In wartime, it was suggested that like so many, he should change his name. He chose not to. Moreover, as a writer learned as well as practised in his two traditions he can place himself in that line of linguistic scepticism and eclecticism of tradition that characterises the modern movement. That movement was European: the figures of the absolute poet, the learned poet, the poet exploring the lost roots of his own tradition or shoring up the fragments of other traditions against the ruins of his own — these personae are recognisable in Rilke and Hofmannsthal as much as in Yeats or Eliot or Pound. They can all be found in Hamburger’s several works as critic, translator and poet. He is himself to a large extent a latecomer to just this line, and we would do well to listen to him. For this Europeanness is something that English writers are still — it is shamefully banal to have to spell it out — reluctant to take into account: witness the insular incomprehension with which his most ambitious critical work was largely greeted here: The Truth of Poetry: a Survey of Tensions in European Poetry since Baudelaire. His reach is wider than most of his critics’ grasp.
As a poet he came to learn his way out of the impersonal hermetic manner — one of the hidden threads in the autobiography is the route taken; negative capability was a painful acquisition for him, not a naive matter-of-course. It fits this pattern that so many of the poems selected from his first volumes, Flowering Cactus (1950) and Poems 1950-51 (1952) follow Yeats and Rilke and are poems-about-poetry, single symbols referring back to themselves and their function. In the very first poem in this volume, the water of ‘Paddington Canal’ tells
Of a reversed Atlantis wisely built
To catch and to transform
The wasted substance of our daily acts,
Accommodate our mad and lovely doubles
In a more graceful city timelessly.
[‘Lovely’ is a bit flabby, but the movement of the line is not.]
Hamburger has put art in its place too early on. Exploring the same metaphor in the ‘Nordseebilder’, Heine barely escaped falling into the water! In these early poems we have the poet as snooker-player (certainly a mug’s game!), the poet as Prospero, the poet-cum-critic, wittily, as frog (where Schiller said hybrid, Hamburger says amphibian). There is no ‘I’, only ‘Judas Iscariot’, or ‘Hölderlin’. This last poem, given to the voice of Hölderlin in his derangement, takes issue with the grandeur and misery of the poet’s calling as the Atlantis poem does not. As it proceeds, Hamburger puts into Hölderlin’s mouth a metaphor for the vain energy of frustrated utterance: ‘No caged old panther I, pacing my madness,’ says the docile, silent Hölderlin, reminding us of Rilke’s beast, in the Jardin des Plantes. In establishing these links: (anonymous) Hamburger-Rilke-Hölderlin, the young poet is presenting a figure of something spelt out much later in the prose of The Truth of Poetry, as one paradoxical general aspect of modern poetry: the ultimate wisdom reached in silence, ‘where no flowers grow’. And he does so by means characteristic of such poets, by hidden, integrated quotation. Again and again in Hamburger’s earlier poems one finds these links established by literary reference, pointing to a universality of poetic dilemma. The title ballad of The Dual Site (1958) starts off as Kafka’s famous tale The Judgment does:
To my twin who lives in a cruel country
I wrote a letter at last.
It explores some of the same possibilities: the tension between the everyday self and the remote unconscious self:
Though I watch figures in a city office
And he the waves of the sea . . .
Calm as the jackdaws that nest in crannies
And no more prone to doubt . . .
This is poetry made out of literature, as those jackdaws signal. Calm? No unpoetical jackdaw that I ever saw quarrelling on an untransformed compost heap was calm. Nor are the jackdaws of emblematic convention: their sole attribute is thievishness. These are Czech jackdaws, kavky; one of them often played games with his name, and for him impatience was the prime sin. The ballad ends more hopefully than Kafka’s terrible Judgment did; the remote self replies and points to the possibility of wholeness, a shared plot of earth,
‘. . . the dual site
Where even you and I
Still may meet again and together build
One house before we die.’
The jaunty, ancient-revival, MacNiece-ish ring might be called thieved by so property-conscious a bard as Robert Graves, but it is not, most certainly not, inappropriate. It makes it all sound like whistling in the dark.
Even in later collections, when Hamburger has learned to sing, to write love poems, dream poems, to say ‘I’, to pun for fun, write doggerel, develop a satiric vein, when the tone has lightened and the austere monosyllables turned to conversation, when timeless Atlantis has yielded to ‘Poems of Time and Place’, one of those places is still ‘Orpheus Street, S.E.5.’ But the jackdaws have certainly changed. Though a symbolic memory of their function in the earlier poem still attaches to them, they have ceased to be a literary code. They have become — jackdaws in time and place, not in the least calm, still inhabiting the plot of land that the poet, his tenure ended, is about to leave.
Gone, I thought, had not heard them for years;
Gone like the nuthatch, the flycatcher,
Like the partridges from the bulldozed hill.
Now it was I who was going,
And they were back, or had never gone,
Chucking, bickering up on the elm’s bare branches.
I forgot the changes, the chores,
Jackdaw’s corpse in the water tank,
Jackdaw’s nest, jackdaw’s dry bones, dry feathers
Stuffed down the chimneys —
No longer mine to clear.
I heard them, I saw them again in the cold clean air
And, going, my tenure ended,
Brought in the harvest of three thousand weathers,
The soot, the silver, their hubbub on trees left behind.
Word and thing are no longer far apart, but close. The re-transformation of those jackdaws from crossword-clue to their almost untransformed selves offers a good example of a general change in Hamburger’s manner: to call it from the hermetic to the echoing real is not sufficiently differentiated, but will serve as a first rough description. One sees his difficulty in selecting: the poet who wrote this poem has little in common with the poet who wrote ‘The Dual Site’. His later work, more direct, more himself, represents a stage far beyond the ghost of the ghost of Yeats.
This poem also offers an appropriate occasion to reflect on the relevance — or not — of Hamburger’s autobiography to the selected poems. As indicated, Hamburger the chronicler doubts that it has any — but he it was who ruefully recalled Kafka’s words about impatience. Certainly it adds very little to the Jackdaw poem to know that in middle life he left a country home he had loved, and whose grounds were subsequently built over. An earlier letter to his unnamed friend does help a little. He is writing about the novel. What he has to say applies to poetry, to his own poetry, too. ‘If the novel can’t go forward along increasing lines of subtlety and sensibility, then it can go forward or back to a new simplicity . . . That’s the way of art: it is never exhausted.’
Given this development in Hamburger’s work, there are still continuities: he never abandons the self-contained, single-symbol poem, only loosens the form; key images are constant: the traveller, habitations lost and found, lands and persons possessed and relinquished, dust and earth, seed and tree and flower; there is always the continued preoccupation with the vehicle of poetry, a beat-up tin lizzy now, carrying satire and song and talk; still above all the preoccupation with words, words, words, and the shifting closeness or distance between word and thing. The pathological dissociation between them that he discerned in Adolf Eichmann’s terrible, voluble performance in the dock offered him a means to come to poetic terms with the impersonality that made destruction easy, a destruction that caught up members of his own family too:
Words cannot reach him in his prison of words
Whose words killed men because those men were words . .
The sustained word-play in this symphonic sequence ‘In a Cold Season’, as tense and witty as in the blackest of the Sonnets, becomes a desperately serious game indeed. It is a remarkable group of poems, calling at the end in a brilliant conceit for mercy for the clerk who had so tainted words:
Dare break one word and words may yet be whole.
In this recapitulation, there is a special sense in which the poetry is in the pity: it is only pity, pity for the pitiless, than can draw dissociated word and thing back together again and redeem the word.
The arrangement of poems in the selection makes it difficult to establish chronology exactly, but it seems it is after the Eichmann sequence that he himself comes to write his poems of time and place and jackdaws that are virtually jackdaws.
His finest poems are the last in this selection, the group called Travelling (1969). They are complex and dense and easy, and again develop those same themes of the traveller and the lands he traverses, partings, waitings, lovings and recollections, landscapes and relinquishings, identifiable rivers and lakes and seas, as much as mountains of the mind. The literary luggage is carried lightly now, the references more incorporated, more his own. He remembers his own learning:
. . . With greedy lore to pounce
On a place and possess it.
In his maturity, he finds a way of repudiating Hölderlin’s terrible division between fruition and barrenness:
Here in the same garden
Branches are barer,
The late pears ripe.
The sequence requires a review to itself.
In the course of his chronicle, Hamburger pays tribute to two shining English poets who gave him help and criticism and kindness and example: Edwin Muir and Vernon Watkins. Neither of these had doubts about the mug’s game: they neither wasted their time nor messed up their lives. Nor were they English. An Orcadian and a Welshman; they too with a memory of another culture and hence open to other cultures; they too with other languages in their ear and just beyond the tip of their tongue. Translators and mediators too, of Kafka and of Heine, perpetuating the works they had transplanted, as Hamburger says, as in the city garden,
. . . foxgloves
Find a wood, though the woods were felled.
Which is a very good metaphor for what Hamburger himself has done and been.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The