In Defence of Pound’s Propertius – Mark Wilson

Although Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius was written in 1917 it would not appear in print until the publication of his Quia Pauper Amavi in 1919 where it elicited, in the main, negative reviews and controversy. Classical scholars scornfully critiqued Pound’s loose “translation” methods (something which still happens today) and the bold eroticism of the poem undoubtedly made the genteel Georgian literary clique wince with embarrassment. Eliot, with his usual far-too-circumspect detachment, left the sequence out of Pound’s Selected Poems in 1928 as if he too couldn’t cope with the heat that the poem had generated. Thomas Hardy was a far more perceptive reader when he gauged that Propertius had more to do with EP’s equivocal position as poet-artist in relation to the imbecility of the British Empire in 1917 and that certainly correlates with Pound’s own understanding of what he was trying to do by playing ventriloquist to Propertius in such a liberal fashion. Once more Pound was donning the mask or the persona in order to record his own emotional and aesthetic odyssey in early 20th Century Europe which was something he had successfully done with his earlier archaic, Pre-Raphaelite and Provencal troubadour efforts a few years previously. With the decorative confectionary stripped away though the effect with his books from Lustra (1915) onwards was more stark, strident and ultimately offensive to many.

Pound's Quia Pauper AmaviControversy still stalks Homage to Sextus Propertius, even in 2014. Despite the fact that the poem has been fully rehabilitated into the EP corpus and recognised as the key Pound poem-sequence, along with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, to pre-date The Cantos. Mauberley, however, still appears to be the preferred poem amongst most readers and critics (especially in England), but there have been exceptions to this rule of course. One thinks of how Thom Gunn in the Faber Poet-to-Poet Ezra Pound volume (published in 2000) bravely chose selections from Propertius as opposed to anything from out of Mauberley suggesting more than just a millennial sea-change in fortune. Perhaps Gunn was the first to recognise that Propertius, more than even Mauberley, was Pound’s construction of a lexical matrix that configured a distinct paradigm and vision for The Cantos itself which is embedded sporadically with ‘creative’ translations throughout. For “creative translation”, as practised by Pound and others since, certainly possesses an artistic vitality that is essential if contemporary poetry (of any period) is to be reinvigorated heedless of, and despite, the many shrill voices of dissent that have railed against it for the past century since Propertius was published. However, it needs a poet of high calibre who is both skilfully inventive and fully attentive to techne, such as Pound was, to pull the feat off.

Pound’s whole approach to ‘translation’ had been foreshadowed by precursors such as Arthur Golding and Christopher Marlowe who, working in the Elizabethan era, had not only translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Amores so that English readers could enjoy this great Latin poet’s finest two works, but had also with these “translations” created powerful contemporary English poems full of the new syntax and semantic cunning of the age. Later in the 19th Century Dante Gabriel Rossetti had done a similar thing with Dante’s La Vita Nuova and Pound wrote of Swinburne’s Villon translations: “Swinburne’s Villon is not Villon very exactly, but it is perhaps the best Swinburne we have”. Of course, Chaucer, “le grand translateur”, pre-dates all these writers and is perhaps the ultimate poet-translator-exemplar that Pound was hoping to emulate most with his many “versions” and “personae”. All these historical and literary precedents would suggest that the hue-and-cry caused by Propertius or any of Pound’s translation-projects seems to be extremely strange, otiose and ill-judged. Perhaps the real problem is poets who, since Pound, have tried to be ‘translators’ in the Poundian tradition, but who lack his inherent poetic acumen and precise employment of techne to achieve success. Usually the result of these poets’ labours is a production-line of sub-standard travesties of the original authors as well as being impotent failures as contemporary poems. Of these more later.

Back to Propertius and what makes it such a great poem-sequence. Pound was usually intent on bringing out the melopoeic (musical or sonic) qualities of the intonation in his verse-craft, but with Propertius we have the sense that he was lengthening out and trying far more for logopoeic “effects” as well. The “dance of the intellect” is indeed something which resonates in the nexus of Propertius‘s phrasing. In fact, its effect is virtually noticeable in the interplay between lines which perpetually blend ultra-modern vocabulary with words that are deliberately archaic. In addition, Pound is consciously breathing out a new configuration for his cadence rather than stuffing his words into an existing and, by implication, dead “form”:

Nor are my caverns stuffed stiff with a Marcian vintage,
                       (My cellar does not date from Numa Pompilius,
Nor bristle with wine jars)
Nor is it equipped with a frigidaire patent;
Yet the companions of the Muses
                               will keep their collective noses in my books,
And weary with historical data, they will turn to my dance tune.

Internal rhymes, alliteration and assonance certainly create melopoeic richness, but the main thrust is definitely the logopoeic “dance” between Propertius’s 1st Century BC Rome and Pound’s 20th Century AD London. “Frigidaire patent”, “Marcian vintage” and “historical data” are as contemporaneous as most of the phrases in the English poems that were being written around 1917. They also create electrical and multi-layered tensions with the more archaic nouns: “caverns, “cellar”, “dance tune”, “companions” and “Muses”. This scintillating dance between historical epochs would be something Pound would develop more radically in The Cantos but here we have its early lexical stirrings. Despite the fact Pound is employing vers libre here there is no sense that he is “padding out” or using any unnecessary words; rather the reverse. The verbal exactitude is extremely compelling and also creates an authoritative, memorable pitch. If the translation of Propertius’ original was undeniably “free” and “libre” (undoubtedly improvised from a Latin gloss with varying degrees of accuracy) there was no doubt that Pound’s writing in English wasn’t.

One of the controversial elements of Propertius when it was published was its unabashed eroticism. Pound wrote of the mysteries of Eros throughout his career and has arguably penned some of the most beautiful poems about sexual love in the English language. The appeal of the Latin love-elegists (Catullus, Ovid, Propertius) was, therefore, a natural one for Pound. What was shocking to readers in 1919, still recovering from a repressive Victorian value-system, is obviously fairly tame to late 20th/early 21st century readers/viewers visually glutted on watershed cinema and TV, colour-gloss magazines and images freely-downloadable on the internet. Pound’s approach was far more subtle though:

How easy the moving fingers; if hair is mussed on her forehead,
If she goes in a gleam of Cos, in a slither of dyed stuff,
There is a volume in the matter; if her eyelids sink into sleep,
There are new jobs for the author;
And if she plays with me with her shirt off,
           We shall construct many Iliads.

Sextus Propertius drawingHere Pound skilfully creates the erotic medium through sheer suggestion as opposed to a blatantly coarse and gratuitous presentation. The sibilance of “a slither of dyed stuff” creates sexual tension from its provocative, and intimately whispering, noun “slither” which implies “scantily dressed” and, by a further implication, purposefully so. Meanwhile “gleam of Cos” utilises a metonym to suggest the pleasure of partially-undressed foreplay with “Cos” being, perhaps, the 1st century Latin equivalent of what “Dior”, “Armani” or “Chanel” are to 20th Century fashion-speak. However, Pound’s legerdemain with language here is subtle and exquisite, which avoids making his presentation heavy-handed or cliche-ridden. Nevertheless, the jewel in the crown of this particular cluster is: “And if she plays with me with her shirt off, / We shall construct many Iliads”. The play-off between the personal/private and the public (which is Propertius’ ongoing poetic dilemma) set-up by the allusion to Homer’s Iliad revels in the irony that the extremely public Trojan War was fought for an extremely private indiscretion by one man involving another man’s wife literally “with her shirt off”. Pound’s seemingly odd choice of “shirt” here seems to work better than the more feminine “blouse” because it suggests the active, almost “masculine”, side of Cynthia in the heated agon of her intimacy with Propertius (confirmed later in the poem with: “Struggles when the lights were taken away; / Now with bared breasts she wrestled against me”). All in all, Pound seems an extremely knowing observer of sexual mores and his masterful presentation of the acts and pheromones caused by Eros is significantly better than most poets who seek to engage in this type of verse-craft. After the stifling hypocrisy of Victorian (and, by extension, Georgian) morality Pound’s poem seems a liberating cry of honest passion forty years ahead of the sexual revolutions of the 50s/60s and the films, literature, art and other cultural phenomenon that accompanied this personal-public reawakening. It also signals the more hermetic and ritualistic “mysteries of love” and natural-regeneration passages that occur frequently in Pound’s Cantos. If Mauberley was a “farewell to London”, the English cultural scene and Pound’s previous incarnation as a poet then Propertius surely heralds a new beginning for him that would eventually crystallize into the sublime macaronic and ideogrammic tesserae of The Cantos.

In terms of Propertius as a “loose” translation or even a mistranslation this, of course, was always Pound’s intention and overriding vision for the sequence. As a poet he was far too intent in capturing something essentially living, vital and dynamic in the original, qualities that are quite beyond the usual grasp of the metronomic taxidermy of more conventional, or literal, translators. Pound’s aim with Propertius was to write a contemporary, but startlingly new, English-language poem that would transcend its time by remaining “news” and thus allow it to eventually attain “classic” status. This involved inventions of new forms, linguistic kennings and structural configurations in the English “versions” which are exploits a more conventional translator of classical poetry would not even consider let alone entertain. Propertius is definitely looser than Pound’s other translations such as his Cavalcanti, Arnaut Daniel, the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer and his versions of Rihaku/Li Po in Cathay. In fact, Pound’s use of the words “Homage to…” in the title of Propertius should have signalled to readers that a ‘close’ and accurate translation was never his prime aim or intention. “Homage to…” suggests a way of grasping something much deeper about a poet-precursor rather than just technically reduplicating their poems in the English language. Pound wasn’t even trying to palm Propertius off as accurate translation (the fact that the sequence isn’t included in Pound’s 1953 Translations is conclusive proof of this) rather he was sincerely and consciously following Chaucer, Marlowe, Golding, Rossetti and Swinburne in a creative act of pure linguistic “invention” that would produce an enduring and remarkable poem-sequence. This is proved when reading the far more accurate translations of Propertius’ poems (Constance Carrier and W.G. Shepherd’s are the translations I am most acquainted with) which seem formal and dry “plaster-casts” in comparison to Pound’s living-breathing Propertius. The original Sextus Propertius certainly wrote with more decorum in the original Latinate and elegiac constraints than the American-English verbal and vers-libre swagger employed by Pound in Homage; but Pound has certainly unlocked the inner Propertius, the man of passion, by breaking-up the line, by playing more loose with the syntax and returning to more ‘natural’ speech-patterns. If Sextus Propertius had lived in London in 1917 this is certainly a credible capturing of his idiolect:

If she confer such nights upon me,
                                                       long is my life, long in years,
If she give me many,
            God am I for the time.


And yet again, and newly rumour strikes on my ear.

Rumours of you throughout the city,
                                             and no good rumour among them.


All things are forgiven for one night of your games…
Though you walk in the Via Sacra, with a peacock’s tail for a fan.

Always Pound’s desire is to “pitch” a naturally inflected and organic “voice” which constantly surprises the reader in timely, urgent fashion whilst also being “timeless” poetry. This memorable turn of phrase is what makes Propertius such a compelling and pleasurable work which can be read many times over without exhaustion: surely the indubitable sign of a true classic. And it would also herald the way for Pound’s “free” translations of Homer, Ovid, Sappho and many others that would eventually be enshrined in the gleaming marble veins of The Cantos.

Pound's Propertius VIII

Pound’s handwritten quotation from ‘…Propertius’ 1970

Unfortunately, most of those who have tried to emulate Pound in attempting “free” or “creative” translation have failed possibly because they have lacked Pound’s linguistic acumen and vision to create something new in the English language. Robert Lowell, for example, goes for a sort of half-way house in his Imitations (1962) and the result is awkwardly unsure of itself either as accurate “translation” or inspired “invention”. Since then it seems to be quite faddish for contemporary poets, who have absolutely no knowledge of original languages, to stick a “free” translation into their collections and the result is usually an uninspiring melange that employs colloquial expressionisms far too often for “effect” but which jars tonally with the rest of the poem’s vocabulary. Christopher Logue is a supreme exception to this rule with his five-volume War Music (an unfinished “account” of Homer’s Iliad) which is a magnificent work of endless literary fascination as well as genuine semantic invention which remains true to the Homeric spirit. Another successful exception to the rule is Geoffrey Hill’s 2006 version of Eugenio Montale’s The Storm where radical invention, close attention to techne and verbal precision is unsurpassed. Pound was, of course, conversant with most of the languages he “translated” from: Latin, Italian, French, Provencal and Spanish. Critics seem to forget that, for a time, he was a university Professor of Romance languages and wrote The Spirit of Romance. He could have made ‘close’ translations if he had wanted to, but in some cases chose to translate more “freely” and “creatively” in order to create great English-language poetry.

To make conclusion then: it seems to me that there is ample literary room for both types of translation in contemporary poetry. We certainly do need accurate and “close” translations in English of poets writing in other languages in order to gauge a fair representation and true assessment of that particular writer and their work. Having said that, there is still plenty of space for poets to attempt “creative” or “free” translations so long as this is clearly stated as part of the title or in some form of appended annotation. It is also clear that only a few poets have actually possessed the poetic acumen, or commanded the necessary techne, to pull-off a “creative translation” that resulted in great literature. One of these, Homage to Sextus Propertius, is Pound’s finest work outside of The Cantos as it did, indeed, create the microcosmic paradigm and poetic conditions needed for that most colossal and vital work of Modernism to come into being in the first place.


Mark Wilson, April 2014

Mark Wilson has published three poetry collections: ‘Quartet For the End of Time’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2011), ‘Passio’ (Editions du Zaporogue, 2013) and ‘The Angel of History’ (Leaky Boot Press, 2013). His poems and articles have appeared in ‘The Black Herald’, ‘The Shop’, ‘3:AM Magazine’, ‘The Fiend’ and ‘Le Zaporogue’.

About thefiendjournal

I was born in Blackpool, England and am currently based in Lancashire. Poems have been published in magazines in the U.K, Ireland, France, New Zealand, Canada, U.S.A and South Korea. A pamphlet; "MMV", was published in 2008. Hundreds of poems have been written in draft form, and multiple books are being planned and edited for future release. As well as editing 'The Fiend' I translate, paint and dabble in photography (images of which have occasionally been used here).
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