Saturday, 10 August 2019

It's That Man Again

I may have put that 700-page volume of Selected Letters behind me, but it seems there's no escaping Philip Larkin. Yesterday, his birthday. Today, I find this image in my inbox, courtesy of a picture-sharing website. It shows Larkin paying a visit to his mother, and clearly having a whale of a time...
  So, to get away from Larkin, I thought I'd see if there were any literary anniversaries today. It turns out that Laurence Binyon, poet and scholar, was born on this date 150 years ago. He is remembered now chiefly for a stanza from his 1914 poem For the Fallen, which is still read at services of remembrance throughout the English-speaking world ('They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old...'). Other than that, his greatest contribution to poetry was perhaps in introducing the likes of Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington and H.D. to Chinese and Japanese art, of which he had an expert knowledge. He also did much to revive interest in Blake's pictorial work, and to save Samuel Palmer's visionary early pictures from being wholly forgotten. And he translated Dante.
 This was news to me, but in fact Binyon's translation became hugely successful when it was selected for the Viking Portable Library. It was written in Dante's own terza rima (aba bcb cdc, etc) form, despite this being impossible to sustain for very long in English without severe strain (our language is just too short of rhymes to keep the ever-rolling stream of terza rima flowing). Not that this stopped Dorothy L. Sayers attempting just the same thing with her translation (which was also, in its Penguin edition, very successful).
  Reading a little around the matter of Dante translation, I came across an essay by Clive James about his own translation (published 2013), which abandons terza rima in favour of the four-square quatrain – thereby, many would say, throwing overboard rather too much. In the course of his ruminations, James notes that, in Dante's original, 'within the terzina there is all this other intense interaction going on. (Dante is the greatest exemplar in literary history of the principle advanced by Vernon Watkins, and much approved of by Philip Larkin, that good poetry doesn't just rhyme at the end of the lines, it rhymes all along the line.)'  Yes, Larkin again – there's no escaping him.
  For the record, I maintain that the best way to read Dante is in an edition with the original on one side and an accurate prose translation on the other (as in the old Temple Classics). That way you keep the unique, unEnglishable beauty of the verse – and learn a little Italian along the way.


  1. Much as I admire Clive James, in his Dante translation he cannot resist tinkering. Right from the start he inserts things that are not there in the original. If you haven't read the original, it might not shock you when these odd extra bits pop up, but it does mean you're not getting what Dante actually made for you; if you have read the original, reading James's translation is like being in a very bumpy coach, an extremely jolting experience.