Cultural Cohesion, p.14Clive James
Times Literary Supplement, 1970
Put together, these two pieces look now like a single dance on a lonely grave. Certainly the vocabulary was too harsh: “condemn,” “contempt,” “loathing” are strong words springing from a weak conception of the critical task, which is not that of a vigilante—the Leavisite odium theologicum must have got into me even when I had publicly dedicated myself to keeping it out. But there was still good reason to question Roethke’s reputation: it had been brought into existence by his ambition, and criticism soon dies if the artistic will is taken for the deed, whereupon the art dies too. It was care for poetry, I like to think, that made me so careless about a poet’s feelings—and just because he was dead was of course no good reason for speaking as if he couldn’t hear. If I would be more tactful now, it might be because the passion is gone. There is also the possibility that although I wanted my own poetry to go a different way, it depended on a parodic element, so I didn’t want to allow an unconscious use of what I proposed to use consciously. Critics who write poetry themselves, on however diffident a scale, always shape their criticism to personal poetic ends as well as universal critical ones, though they do better with the second thing if they acknowledge the first. There is at least one glaring falsity of tone: “It will need to be done by a first-rate man” can only mean “I would do it myself but I haven’t got the time,” so it was not a judicious thing to say. But on the whole I would say all this the same way now. If poetry and the criticism of it had agreed standards there would be less bitchery. As things are and will probably always be, the whole field is as inherently contentious as ice-dancing: the judges can never be popular, especially when they invade the rink.
The Metropolitan Critic, 1992
Poems and Journeys by Charles Johnston
Eugene Onegin by Aleksandr Pushkin,
translated by Charles Johnston
Appearing unannounced in 1977, Charles Johnston’s verse rendering of Eugene Onegin established itself immediately as the best English translation of Pushkin’s great poem there had yet been. It was an impressive performance even to those who could not read the original. To those who could, it was simply astonishing, not least from the technical angle: Johnston had cast his Onegin in the Onegin stanza, a form almost impossibly difficult in English, and had got away with it. Only an accomplished poet could think of trying such a feat. Yet as a poet Charles Johnston was scarcely known. Indeed, his profile was not all that high even as Sir Charles Johnston, career diplomat and quondam High Commissioner for Australia. All the signs pointed to gentlemanly dilettantism—all, that is, except the plain fact that anyone who can convey even a fraction of Pushkin’s inventive vitality must have a profoundly schooled talent on his own account.
Now a small volume of Johnston’s own creations, called Poems and Journeys, has quietly materialized, in the unheralded manner which is obviously characteristic of its author. It seems that most of the poems it contains previously appeared in one or other of two even smaller volumes, Towards Mozambique (1947) and Estuary in Scotland (1974), the second of which was printed privately and the first of which, though published by the Cresset Press, certainly created no lasting impression in the literary world. The poems were written at various times between the late 1930s and now. There are not very many of them. Nor does the Bodley Head seem to be acting in any more forthcoming capacity than that of jobbing printer. “Published for Charles Johnston by the Bodley Head” sounds only one degree less bashful than issuing a pamphlet under your own imprint.
But this time Johnston will not find it so easy to be ignored. Poems and Journeys is unmistakably an important book. Leafing through it, you are struck by its assured displays of formal discipline, but really, from the translator of Onegin, that is not so surprising. Hard on the heels of this first impression, however, comes the further realization that through the austerely demanding formal attributes of Johnston’s verse a rich interior life is being expressed. Johnston’s literary personality is not just old-fashioned: it is determinedly old-fashioned. He has set up the standards of the clubbable English gentry as a bulwark against encroaching chaos. Even those of us whose sympathies are all in the other direction will find it hard not to be swayed by his laconic evocation of the secret garden. It doesn’t do, we are led to assume, to go on about one’s predicament. Yet somehow a stiff upper lip makes eloquence all the more arresting.
Johnston’s diplomatic duties took him to Japan before the war. After Pearl Harbor he was interned for eight months. After being released in an exchange of diplomatic agents, he was sent to the Middle East. After the war there were various other appointments before he took up his post in Australia. Clearly the accent has always been on uncomplaining service. Nor do the poems in any way question the idea of dutiful sacrifice: on the contrary, they underline it. Trying to identify that strangely identifiable voice, you finally recognize it as the voice of someone who has not talked before, but who has been so amply described that you think you know him. Johnston is the sort of man who has been written about under so many names that when he writes something himself he sounds like a legend come to life. He is the faithful servant of Empire, who now emerges, unexpected but entirely familiar, as its last poet.
By an act of imagination, without dramatizing himself, Johnston has made poetry out of his own background. The same background has produced poetry before but most of it has been bad, mainly because of an ineluctable cosiness. Johnston, however, is blessed with a distancing wit. He has the intensity of gift which makes facts emblematic without having to change them. It is the classical vision, which he seems to have possessed from the start, as the first two lines of an early poem about Japan clearly show:
Over the rockbed, over the waterfall,
Tense as a brushstroke tumbles the cataract.
The visual element is so striking it is bound to seem preponderant, but there is more at work here than just an unusual capacity to see. To choose a Greek classical measure, alcaics, is an inspired response to the inherent discipline of a Japanese landscape subject: the native poets and painters have already tamed their panorama to the point that their decorum has become part of it, so to match their formality with an equivalent procedure from the poet’s own cultural stock is an imaginative coup. Then there is the subtle control of sonic effects, with the word “tense” creating stillness and the word “tumbles” releasing it into motion. He sees something; he finds the appropriate form; and then he exploits technical opportunities to elaborate his perception. The classic artist identifies himself.
But everything he was saying was said from under a plumed hat. The Lake Chuzéji of his early poems was the playground of the foreign diplomats. They raced their boats on it, giving way to each other in such elaborate order of precedence that only a chef de protocole knew how to steer a perfect race. They committed genteel adultery around its edges. A man of Johnston’s mentality, no matter how well he fitted in by breeding, must sometimes have doubted the validity of his role. He was, after all, a double agent, both loyal functionary and universal observer. But he had not yet conceived of his complicated position as his one true subject—hence a tendency, in these early efforts, towards a Georgian crepuscularity, which even affects his otherwise scrupulously alert diction. Locutions like “when day is gone” crop up with their tone unqualified: something which would not happen again once his manner was fully developed.
Internment helped develop it. The work commemorating this experience is called “Towards Mozambique” and is one of the three original long poems in the book. Datelined “Tokyo 1942–London 1946,” it should now be seen, I think, as one of the outstanding poems of the war, even though it is less concerned with fighting than with just sitting around waiting. Exiles traditionally eat bitter bread, but the narrator is more concerned to reflect than to rail against fate. The poem has something of Ovid’s sadness in the
The personal element of the tragedy comes not just from the feeling of his own life being wasted (and anyway, much of the poem seems to have been written after the internment was over) but from regret for the years that were wasted before, when diplomacy was being pursued to no effect. He reflects on what led up to this. A lot did, so he chooses a form which leaves room to lay out an argument—the Spenserian stanza whose clinching alexandrine both Byron and Shelley, in their different ways, found so seductive:
Wakening, I watched a bundle tightly packed
That scaled with clockwork jerks a nearby staff.
Hoist to the top, I saw it twitched and racked
And shrugged and swigged, until the twists of chaff
That held it to the halyard broke, and half
Released the packet, then a sharper tease
Tore something loose, and with its smacking laugh
The Jack was thrashing furiously down breeze,
Mocking the feeble stops that lately cramped its ease.
Ripping, what? (The ambiguity in the third line, incidentally, is less a grammatical error than a mark of class. Osbert Lancaster and Anthony Powell have both always let their participles dangle with abandon, and Evelyn Waugh, in the same chapter of his autobiography which tells us that only those who have studied Latin can write English, perpetrates at least one sentence whose past participle is so firmly attached to the wrong subject that there is no prising it loose. This habit has something to do, I suspect, with a confusion between the English past participle and the Latin ablative absolute.) But some of the young diplomats were not content to shelter behind Britannia’s skirts. Greatly daring, they took what opportunities they could to mingle with the locals—to penetrate, as it were, the membranes of inscrutable reserve:
Climbing with shoeless feet the polished stairs,
Gay were the evenings in that house I’d known.
The mats are swept, the cushions that are chairs
Surround the table like a lacquer throne.
The geisha have been booked by telephone,
The whisky brought, the raw fish on the ice,
The green tea boiled, the saké in its stone
Warmed to a turn, and seaweed, root and spice
Await their last repose, the tub of nutcrisp rice.
The scene is set, and soon a wall will slide,
And in will run, professional as hell,
Our geisha team, brisk as a soccer side,
We’ll ask the ones we like, if all goes well,
To luncheon at a suitable hotel . . .
Everything in the diplomatic colony is ordered, decorous and unreal. The unreality becomes most apparent during periods of leave in Shanghai, where a phoney aristocrat rules society:
“Le tennis, ce jeu tellement middle-class,”
Drawls the duchesse, whose European start,
Whose Deauville background manages to pass
For all that’s feudal in this distant part.
The locals thought she couldn’t be more smart,
And prized admission to her little fêtes,
And searched through Gotha with a beating heart,
But vainly, for the names of her estates,
And for the strange device emblazoned on her plates.
But only in the enforced idleness of internment is there time to see all this in perspective. Long months of contemplation yield no grand might-have-beens or if-onlys. Nor, on the other hand, do they bring nihilistic resignation. Britain’s imperial role is not repudiated. Neither is its inevitable passing particularly regretted. Instead, there is redemption in the moment:
Time passed. A tramcar screaming in the dark
Of total blackout down the Kudan hill
Strikes, out of wire, spark on cascading spark,
Lights from below the cherry swags that spill,
In all the thickness of the rich April,
Their pink festoons of flower above the street,
Creamy as paint new-slapped. I looked my fill,
Amazed to find our world was so complete.
Such moments, in the nick, are strange and sharply sweet.
A stanza MacNeice would have been proud to have written. Even in these few examples you can see how Johnston is beginning to realize the lexical freedom that strict forms offer. Up to the point where restriction cramps style, the more demanding the stanza, the greater the range of tone it can contain. Slang phrases like “professional as hell” and “in the nick” sound all the more colloquial for being pieced into a tight scheme.
The second long poem in the book, “Elegy,” is written in memory of Johnston’s brother Duncan, “killed leading a Royal Marine Commando raid on the Burma Coast, on the night of February 22nd 1945.” This, too, ranks high among poems of the war. On its own it would be enough to class Johnston with Henry Reed, Bernard Spencer, F. T. Prince and Norman Cameron. It is a high-quality example of what can by now be seen to be a particular school of Virgilian plangency, the poetry of the broken-hearted fields. But it is probably not one of Johnston’s best things.
It loses nothing by its air of doomed gentility. The narrator could be Guy Crouchback talking: there was a seductive glamour about the squires going off to war, and a potent sorrow when they did not come home. But though Johnston can be impersonal about himself, he cannot be that way about his brother. The poem tries to find outlets for grief in several different formal schemes, including blank verse. The stiff upper lip relaxes, leaving eloquence unchastened. There is no gush, but there is too much vague suggestion towards feeling, made all the more unsatisfactory by your sense that the feeling aimed at is real, harsh and unblunted even by time. A first-hand experience has aroused a second-hand artistic response. The air is of an Owenesque regret, of the dark barge passing unto Avalon in agony, of a drawing-down of blinds. The few details given of the lost, shared childhood leave you wanting more, but the author is caught between his forte and an ambition foreign to it: he is a poet of controlled emotion who can give way to anguish only at the cost of sapping his own energy:
Only through the hard
Shaft-face of self-esteem parsimonious tears
Are oozing, sour distillate from the core
Of iron shame, the shame of private failure
Shown up by the completeness of the dead.
I wrote in the fierce hope of bursting loose
From this regime, cracking its discipline . . .
I wrote, but my intense assertion found
No substance and no echo, and all I did
Was raise an empty monument to grief.
“Elegy” is something better than an empty monument, but it is tentative beside its predecessor “Towards Mozambique,” and scarcely begins to suggest the abundant assurance of its successor, the third long poem in the book, “In Praise of Gusto.” This contains some of Johnston’s best work and instantly takes its place as one of the most variously impressive long poems since Auden and MacNeice were at their peak. It is not as long as either “Letter to Lord Byron” or Autumn Journal but it has much of their verve and genial bravura. It embodies the quality to which it is dedicated.
“In Praise of Gusto” returns to some of the same subject matter dealt with in earlier works, but this time it is all brought fully within the purview of what can now be seen to be his natural tone, a tone which taps its power from the vivacity of experience. His dead brother is again mentioned. This time all the emphasis is on the life they enjoyed together when young. Nevertheless the effect of loss is more striking than it is in “Elegy,” where death is the direct subject. One concludes, aided by hindsight, that Johnston loses nothing, and gains everything, by giving his high spirits free rein. It might have taken him a long time completely to realize the best way of being at ease with his gift, but with consciously form
The poem is written in two different measures, the Onegin stanza and the stanza which Johnston insists on referring to as Childe Harold, although really Spenser has the prior title. Johnston’s mastery of the latter form was already proven. But by this time he could read fluent Russian and had obviously become fascinated with the breakneck measure in which Eugene Onegin unfolds its story. The Onegin stanzas of “In Praise of Gusto” give every indication that their author will one day be Pushkin’s ideal translator. As well as that, they serve the author’s present purpose. The Onegin stanza is a born entertainer. As Johnston points out in his Author’s Note, “it has an inner momentum, a sort of infectious vitality of its own.” It packs itself tight and then springs loose like a self-loading jack-in-the-box. Comic timing is crucial to it:
Beauties who manage the conjunction
Of glamour and fireside repose
Pack what I call without compunction
The deadliest of knockout blows.
Japan bewitched me. Half forgotten
Were home and faith. The really rotten
Part of it all, which, when it came
Back later, made me sweat with shame,
Was that our worlds were fast dividing
Cultural Cohesion by Clive James / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes