Ezra’s Propertius: Creative Persona Or Some Captured Creature In A Pound?

When Ezra Pound’s Homage To Sextus Propertius was published in Poetry in March 1919 it was badly received by several leading classical scholars of the day for its infelicities and errors of translation. The most notorious response came in the form of a letter written by William Gardner Hale to the editor and published under the title “Pegasus Impounded” in the April 1919 edition.

It has been objected by defenders of Pound that the objections of the classicists were part of what Peter Brooker calls “a stream of unimaginative and self-congratulatory carping” (p. 151) that misunderstood what Pound was trying to do. There is certainly a degree of truth in that, as Pound had responded to something in Propertius that struck a chord with him as a critic of the British Empire during the Great War. His “creative translation” (J. P. Sullivan) of Propertius was at least in part an attempt to express something new in English that he felt he had discovered in Propertius, that is,

certain emotions as vital to me in 1917, faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the British Empire as they were to Propertius some centuries earlier, when faced withg the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the Roman Empire.

T. S. Eliot argued that,

it is not a translation, it is a paraphrase, or still more truly (for the instructed) a persona. It is also a criticism of Propertius, a criticism which in a most interesting way insists upon an element of humour, of irony and mockery in Propertius, which Mackail and other interpreters have missed.

However, Eliot was careful to exclude Homage to Sextus Propertius from the 1928 edition of Selected Poems – it was “not enough” but also “too much” a translation.

One only has to place the poem against the original to see how much attempted ‘translation’ there is in it, no matter what it was meant to be, and to discover several places where, far from creating something new, it declines into mere mistranslation, or downright blundering, as Adrian Collins noted in a letter to New Age in 1919. Collins’ comments show us that not all the critics were “unimaginative” carpers who were blind to the strengths of the poem:

Unexpectedly enough, the method often succeeds

It is, however, hardly fair to judge the ‘Homage to Propertius’ by reference to Propertius. It is obviously not meant as a translation though it ventures rather too near the original to be taken simply as a free fantasia on Roman themes. Yet the seven major blunders in No. 12 and the five in No. 5 are enough to show that Mr. Pound refuses to make a fetish of pedantic accuracy. The reader is not entitled to expect more than the ‘general sense,’ even when it is nonsense…

The case for Pound is more recently put by Rachel Turner in a paper titled Translation in Transition: Ezra Pound’s Poetic Variation on Sextus Propertius when she writes,

Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, is not so much a response to the poet himself, but an example of a modern poet using a classical author as a vehicle for his own poetic ends. Pound has perhaps been judged unfairly by traditional classical scholarship as somewhat an anomaly in his translation because it was not, in fact, to be judged as a translation.

Turner defines Pound’s Homage as “a variation on a theme” and as an,

associative, imagistic, and phonetic variation on themes presented in the Latin original.

She also acknowledges that Homage to Sextus Propertius,

is too dependent, to embedded in the Latin for it to be wholly original.

The critics are accused, in short, of judging Pound as a translator rather than as a poet.

Another defender of Pound’s technique, Peter Ackroyd (Ezra Pound and His World, 1980), goes further and thereby misses the mark when he writes that,

Homage to Sextus Propertius… elicited nothing more than casual brickbats from classical scholars who made fun of Pound’s rather loose translation of Propertius.

William Gardner Hale‘s criticism of Pound’s rendering of Propertius is anything but “casual” although he does indeed have some delicious fun at Pound’s expense while attacking his work with serious intent. I do agree, however, with Ackroyd that Pound,

often elicits great poetry from the manipulation of another’s voice, an external set of tones and circumstances which are close enough to his own to be applied without syntactical discomfort.

The key word is “often” and for all the sheer unleashed power of Homage to Sextus Propertius there are parts which fall short of being, in Ackroyd’s words, “elegant, lucid, with the tough certainty of a language that hits its mark,” particularly in the second half of Homage to Sextus Propertius – I, with its infamous “devirginated young ladies” and its “caverns stuffed with a Marcian vintage” that attracted Hale’s censure. The “devirginated young ladies” can, I think, be defended on its merits as contributing to Pound’s intention to “create something new”, but Hale’s deconstruction of Pound’s Marcian wine cellar is devastating.

Hale and the other classicists of the day are often unfairly set up as unimaginative carpers, but in point of fact several of them, including Hale, do not fit into the Procrustean stereotype of reactionary bigotry; they had also contributed to the advancement of scholarship that laid the ground for the new generation. Pound, for example, suggested that he had discovered “logopoeia” (“the dance of the intellect among words”) in Propertius whereas classical scholarship of his day “displayed crass insensitivity,” but in an essay titled Intensification of Meaning in Propertius and Others (1961) Mark Edwards points out that the qualities in Propertius that Pound admired had already been described by J. P. Postgate in the introduction to his Selct Elegies of Propertius (London, 1884), and he in turn had benefited from the scholarship of Herzberg‘s edition of 1843-5:

Actually more work had been done than Pound was aware of in the academic world, both on the poetic technique of Propertius and on the phenomena which Pound groups under the quite unacceptable term logopoeia. If he had consulted the introduction of Postgate’s edition he would have found many of the qualities he admires in Propertius identified and described as “these contrasts, these extravagancies, these fluctuations and incoherenceis, these half-formed or misshapen thoughts… this chaos…”

Led by Eliot and Pound, the avant garde of the new generation was emerging from the horrors of the Great War keen to redefine literary taste in their own terms, which meant, increasingly, in terms defined by Pound and Eliot. It is all the more to Adrian Collins’ credit that he could argue in utramque partem and appreciate the strength and beauty of the poem without blinking in the face of its manifest blunders and its egregious nonsense.

I do not know, but it seems that Pound cannot have referred to any other English translation when working on Homage, or if he did, how was it that he committed so many errors and as sometimes managed to compound his errors by offering “Baedekeresque explanations” that give the game away? I understand that he was reacting against Victorian translations of Propertius, seeking to free Propertius from “the crust of dead English” that overlooked the “ironic mode” (Brooker) in Propertius. Nevertheless, if he was reacting against them, surely he must have had them to hand the better to bring his shafts of wit to bear upon their crustiness. He could then have made use of them to avoid most of the embarrassing schoolboy gaffes that detract – distract – from his overall achievement and reduce it. Which specific “Victorian translations” was he reacting against? Did he not keep to hand Butler‘s rather florid prose translation of 1912 for the Loeb edition? If not, why not? Or, if so, why didn’t he check it? Hale recommended that he employ a Latin expert as a secretary to help him avoid his “ignorant” blunders, and one can wish that he had done so – or bought a copy of Loeb.

Notice what Pound has to say about Arthur Golding, whose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses Pound held up as an ideal example of what the translator should seek to achieve:

Golding was endeavouring to convey the sense of the original to his readers. He names the thing of his original author, by the name most germane, familiar, homely, to his hearers. He is intent on conveying a meaning, and not on bemusing them with a rumble. And I hold that the real poet is sufficiently absorbed in his content to care more for the content than the rumble.

Notice also that there are two sides to the process that he admires: first, “naming the thing of the original author” – an essential accuracy, in other words, of understanding. Second, naming that identified “thing” “by the name most germane, familiar, homely to his readers”. It will be noted that in most of the cases noted in the table, below, that Pound fails to “name the thing of the original author” and no persiflage about “translating away from” can possibly get him off the hook.

What we are witness to is the struggle of a poet to create something new in his own language from a deeper insight (as Pound believed) into a poet writing in another. In Pound’s case we get to see the blots and bish ups as well as the the freshness and the beauty of the new song; would that he had kept his erasor in better order,

exactus tenui pumice versas eat.

The table, below, lays out the Latin text of Sextus Propertius, III. ii alongside Kline’s modern translation, Butler’s 1912 translation for Loeb and Pound’s “creative translation” together with some of the responses to it. It will immediately become clear that even a casual perusal of Butler would have saved Pound from the humiliation he suffered on publishing Homage to Sextus Propertius in 1919.

PropertiusKline (2001)Butler (1912)Pound (1917)Commentary
Carminis interea nostri redeamus in orbem,
gaudeat in solito tacta puella sono.
Let me return, meanwhile, to the world of my poetry: let my girl take delight, stirred by familiar tones.Meanwhile let us return to our wonted round of song; let the heart of my mistress be moved with joy at the old familiar music.
And the devirginated young ladies will enjoy them
when they have got over the strangeness,
Hale: What Propertius says is, "Meanwhile let me resume the wonted round of my singing; let my lady, touched (by my words), find pleasure in the familiar music." That is all. (Gaudeat in solito tacta puella sono). Just possibly, though not probably, Propertius meant "young ladies" rather than "my lady." But there is no hint of the decadent meaning which Mr. Pound read into the passage by misunderstanding tacta, and taking the preposition in as if it were a negativing part of an adjective insolito. His own context should have shown him the absurdity of his version.

Richardson: The tacta of Propertius is ambiguous; it includes both: touched at heart and the opposite of intacta (untouched, virgin); Pound's rendering... does violence to the context, but it is the meaning which will escape a casual reader.
Orphea delenisse feras et concita dicunt
flumina Threicia sustinuisse lyra;
They say Orpheus with his Thracian lyre tamed the wild creatures; held back flowing rivers: They say that Orpheus with his Thracian lyre tamed wild beasts and stayed rushing rivers,
For Orpheus tamed the wild beasts
and held up the Threician river;
Pound: ... if this sequence of clauses ["...gaudeat in solito tacta puella sono/Orphea delenisse feras..."] is wholly accidental, and if the division of in and tacta is wholly accidental, then Propertius was the greatest unconscious ironist of all time.

Brooker: The lyre, not the river, was Thracian.
saxa Cithaeronis Thebanam agitata per artem
sponte sua in muri membra coisse ferunt;
Cithaeron’s stones were whisked to Thebes by magic, and joined, of their own will, to form a piece of wall. and that Cithaeron's rocks were driven to Thebes by the minstrel's art and of their own will gathered to frame a wall.And Citharaon shook up the rocks by Thebes
and danced them into a bulwark at his pleasure,
Richardson: ... an unpardonable catastrophe.
quin etiam, Polypheme, fera Galatea sub Aetna
ad tua rorantis carmina flexit equos:
Even, Galatea, it’s true, below wild Etna, wheeled her brine-wet horses, Polyphemus, to your songs.
Nay, Galatea too beneath wild Etna turned her steeds that dripped with brine to the sound of thy songs, Polyphemus. And you, O Polyphemus? Did harsh Galatea almost
Turn to your dripping horses, because of a tune, under Aetna?
Collins: Even if Polyphemous had had any horses, they probably would not have been able to sing; and, anyhow, why should they drip? Galatea's horses naturally would, as they had just come out of the sea.
miremur, nobis et Baccho et Apolline dextro,
turba puellarum si mea verba colit?
No wonder if, befriended by Bacchus and Phoebus, a crowd of girls should cherish my words? What marvel, when Bacchus and Apollo smile on me, that a host of maidens should adore my words?
We must look into the matter.
Bacchus and Apollo in favour of it,
There will be a crowd of young women doing homage to my palaver,
Hale: Mr. Pound is often undignified or flippant, which Propertius never is. For example, "I shall have my dog's day," "I shall have, doubtless, a boom after my funeral," "There will be a crowd of young women doing homage to my palaver,"
quod non Taenariis domus est mihi fulta columnis,
nec camera auratas inter eburna trabes,
Though my house isn’t propped on Taenarian columns, or ivory-roofed with gilded beams, My house is not stayed on Taenarian columns; I have no ivory chamber with gilded beams;Though my house is not propped up by Taenarian
columns from Laconia (associated with Neptune and Cerberus),
Though it is not stretched upon gilded beams;
Hale: Mr. Pound often drags, because he pads. Thus the second line is pure addition, and pure delay, in

Though my house is not propped up by Taenarian columns
From Laconia (associated with Neptune and Cerberus).

These three Baedekeresque explanations seem to have been gathered, with a modicum of labor, from Harper's Latin Lexicon, under the word Taenarus.
nec mea Phaeacas aequant pomaria silvas,
though my orchards aren’t Phaeacia’s woods, no orchards have I to vie with Phaeacia's trees,My orchards do not lie level and wide
as the forests of Phaecia,
the luxurious and Ionian,
Brooker: The Phaecians were the people of Scheria, where Odysseus was cast ashore... Pound confuses it with the Ionian town of Phocaea.

Richardson: ... an unpardonable catastrophe.
non operosa rigat Marcius antra liquor;
at Musae comites et carmina cara legenti,
nec defessa choris Calliopea meis.
fortunata, meo si qua's celebrata libello!
carmina erunt formae tot monumenta tuae.
nor does Marcian water moisten elaborate grottoes; the Muses are my companions, my songs are dear to the reader, and Calliope never tires of my music. nor hath art built me grottoes watered by the Marcian fount. But the Muses are my comrades, and my songs are dear to them that read, nor ever is Calliope aweary with my dancing.
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 nose in my books,
And weary with historical data, they will turn to my dance tune.
Hale: Propertius says, "I have no artificial grottoes watered from the Marcian flow" (Marcius liquor). The Marcian aqueduct was Rome's best water supply, recently renovated by Agrippa. Mr. Pound seems to have taken liquor as spiritous. He must then have thought of age as appropriate, and so have interpreted Marcius as referring to the legendary King Ancus Marcius; after which it was easy to add another legendary king, Numa Pompilius. The result is three lines, all wrong, and the last two pure padding.

Pound: Do him [Hale] the justice to say that the bloody Marcian aqueduct is very very familiar, and that it was a thing I might very well have remembered.

To conclude, here is a recording of Pound reading a section of Homage part VI. It seems only right to allow him the last, sonorous word: