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February 26, 1970 - Image 6

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The Michigan Daily, 1970-02-26

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THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Thursday, February 26, 1970

Six THE MICHIGAN DAILY Thursday1 February 26, 1970

On

Sisson's able,

cautious

'C. H. Sisson, trans., The Poetry
of Catullus, The Viking Press,
1969. $1.85. (Hard-cover edi-
tion, Orion Press, 1967.)
By JAMES ROMANO
Charles Hubert Sisson has
performed over thirty years in
British civil service and is cur-
rently Assistant Under-Secre-
tary of State, Department of
Employment and Productivity.
In addition to a translation of
some of the political poems of
Heine and this one of Catullus
(c. 87-54 B.C.), he has publish-
ed three volumes of his own
poetry, two novels, and a treat-
ise entitled The Spirit of British
Administration. Bridging his po-
litical and literary experiences,
is a collection of essays, Art and
Action, wherein he praises and
advises the accomodation be-
tween literature and the "prac-
tical life." With the sobriety of
a public official and churchman
and the pride of a p o e t, he
ranges from Andrew Marvell
and Charles Maurras to Pound
and Eliot in providing exempla
of his theme. Presumably, the
autobiographical essay at the
end of the book is to include
the author among the blessed.
Yet, as the most interesting
in a series of conventional es-
says, it typifies Sisson. He is a
versatile individual, a dedicated
servant to church and crown, a
learned poet and critic; still for
the most part, his writing,
whatever the genre, is dull. Cat-
ullus' gibe at Suffenus, a pro-
lific but bad poet, well describes
Sisson who translates:
This expert in civilized con-
versation
Is about as dull as a row of
turnips
Once he touches poetry. How-
ever
He is never so happy as when
he is writing it.
Sisson's own poetry (The Lon-
don Zoo, Metamorphoses) seems
to have been composed at the
office, amid the sterile f ,rmal-
ities of secretarial duties. There
is occasional wit a n d satire,
though often too pretentious
and strait-laced to have proper
effect. It is the lack of subtlety

in his verse that deprives it of
any, sense of lyrical spontan-
eity. Though consciously striv-
ing for the poetic worldliness of
a Yeats or Pound, Sisson has
not that special grace to mask
his experiences of t h e public
world in metaphor. Such defi-
ciency, obtrusive in his own po-
etry, ultimately brings fault to
his translation of Catullus, a
fault more regrettable because
Catullus means to reveal the
private world.
Catullus writes about himself.
He writes about the world as it
affects him personally. Even the
"Lesbia poems" concern not
Lesbia, but rather Catullus' ex-
perience with that woman. In
the love context, experience can
meanvsuffering. Whencthese
poems are not filled with the
exuberance and freshness of a
love not merely physical, they
are tinged by an amorous-mel-
ancholy that evokes from the
reader memory of sweet promise
and quarrel, of pleasure a n d
loss. T h at his expressions of
love and anguish are so con-
vincingly personal, yet univer-
sally appealing, is a distinctive
quality of Catullus' art.
One has to value as well Cat-
ullus' contribution to the de-
velopment of the lyric genre. By
an uncommon plainness and a
willingness to unveil his own
emotions and personality, he re-
shaped the Greek lyric that in-
fluenced him. Aside from the
formal definition of poetry that
is non-epic, non-dramatic, char-
acterized by brevity and variety
of metre and theme, the lyric
essentially is poetry of mood.
Whether it be love or grief or
anger or disgust, themood is
real and endures in the poet's
recreation cast into words and
images.
Catullus is the supreme crafts-
man. His premature death
meant virtually the early death
of the Ronan lyric. Poets after
him, though showing his influ-
ence, were not able to recapture
the simple honesty, clever dict-
ion and sensibility of the mas-
ter. (Horace's strophes are swol-
len, lack easy wit, and are too
concerned w i t h stylistic mat-
ters.)
Both the achievement and

poetic temperament of Catullus
are unique. Sisson's own tem-
perament is too severe to let
him translate anything but
words.
Sisson follows the Loeb edi-
tion, and in his own volume,
provides the Latin text en face.
He does not fail in giving an ac-
curate, readable translation. He
is closer to the letter, as they
say, than to the spirit. Literal-

one still wishes for a bit more
daring sensitivity than h i s
translation shows.
Four-letter words do not
make it daring. There is an art
/to Catullus' obscenity t h a t
"dirty" words can misrepresent.
Catullus is never vulgar with-
out being witty. At times, Sisson
is so gratuitously, and when the
tongue is loose, it is yet limited
to the remorseless monosyl-

'atullus
the short lyrical pieces. (In the
original, the long poems are
mainly showpieces, stylistic ex-
periments, heavily ornamented,
often tedious.) His formal, styl-
ized treatment is appropriate to
the hexameters of LXIV and
the elegiacs of LXVI-LXVIII.
The same scholarly technique,
however, is too cumbrous and
pedantic when applied to the
lyric or epigram. For example,
a pungent and clever taunt in
Catullus VI becomes, in more
than twice as many words:
It is obvious to me that you
have chosen some female
Not quite in condition, and
that no doubt makes you
silent.
Frequently, it is not verbosity
that mars the translation, but
an overeasiness with which
Sisson handles Catullus' appar-
ent intent. Vivamus, mea Les-
bia, atque amemus is a strong
exhortation, meant to provoke
immediate excitement, in es-
sence: "let us live and make
love, Lesbia!" Besides expres-
sing Catullus' personal feeling
those words represent the spon-
taneity and intensityofit h e
lyric poem. Sisson's version is
impersonal and gnomic: "Liv-
ing, dear Lesbia, is useless with-
out loving." The impact is gone;
so too, intimacy and meaning.
Usually, 'Sisson is more careful
with the sense of t h e Latin.
When he is not, the original
text on the opposite page is
some compensation, and, of
course, always supplies native
sound and rhythm.
Sisson's is one of five new
English translations of Catullus
published during the last half of
the sixties. Each is distinctive;
each has its o w n faults and
merits. Sisson's is certainly no
worse than the others. On the
contrary, in many instances his
frankness and clarity outdo the
literal or metrical contrivances
of those who strain painfully to
bring Catullus back to life. Per-
haps Sisson d o e s not strain
enough, but he shall have serv-
ed the purpose of introducing
to some an artist whose design
upon the fabric of lyric poetry
has been indelible. Sisson is a
loyal servant indeed.

Hype

b
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k
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priest

Malcolm Boyd, AS I LIVE AND BREATHE, Stages in an Auto-
biography, Random House, $6.95.
By MARK HARRIS
Malcolm Boyd is such an incredible mixture of hype and hon-
esty that any assessment of his life and work is difficult to make.
When we remember that his life is not over yet (he is only in his late
forties), it might be felt that such an assessment would be not only
difficult, but premature. He, like all of us, still has the chance to
show himself as that person he shall become. He may yet prove by hit
actions that he is either the child of Joy or perhaps the bastard of
Despair.
Meanwhile Boyd has decided to tell it himself. Like the author,
As I Live and Breathe is part hype, part honesty. The dramatist and
the sideshow barker are there. Profound insight and foolishness ming-
le in this book (life is no different).
Beneath the crust of this book there lies more than interestinr
autobiographical technique. Malcolm Boyd revealing himself will be
interesting to a growing number of people for whom Boyd has been
either the prophet or the demon. There is, in this book, the honest at-
tempt to show the struggle with self, with world, and with God.
Someone wrote to Boyd. "I can relate to you because you wear
your psychic wounds showing, maybe bleeding a little." That person
said it well. In this autobiography, wounds do show, psyche is exposed
This would be of minimal interest if it were not for three important
facts that come out of the telling.
In Malcolm Boyd's account of his experiences in the Church one
can see something of the personal costs involved in the attempt to
develop new models for vocation, faith, and action within the Church.
Like Boyd. I have gone to seminary, but my experiences were so dif-
ferent that I can only conclude that something of this change in sem
inary 'life-style' was due to the influence of men like Boyd. Places
like Canterbury House exist with some freedom now, yet it was the
Boyds of the church who had to start trying it out.
This autobiography charts the development of one white man's
consciousness of race, and his tortured attempts to deal with what
that consciousness required in terms of response. In working out his
response, all the elements of human frailty appear: he was unfeeling
intolerant, judgmental, brutal (to himself and others), but at the same
time he was very much a sensitive man; given finally to a great deal
of forgiveness and joy.
In his effort to work out his own response to racial prejudice, an
important element of Malcolm Boyd's character comes out. He ap-
pears finally as an "angry young man.' In his dissatisfaction with his
own personality, one can see the need not only for personal change,
but for social change as well In that role, with that insight about the
personal and social character of sin and guilt, Malcolm Boyd did (and
does) us all a great service.
Finally, Boyd's autobiography is proof of just how haphazard life
really can bet At any number of stages in his life, Boyd's sensitivity to
himself and the world could have stagnated. Many men entered the
ministry through the same oppressive doors, but for some, oppressio
won. Many men had occasion to voice concern for the acute problem
of the times, but not all men did so. Some have no guts for it: others
have no personality: others simply have no opportunity. Malcolm
Boyd saw and acted, but it must humble him (as it should all of us)
to realize just how thin a line separates his action from the inaction
of others.
I approached this book with some hesitation. I have only met
Malcolm Boyd on three occasions, and that from a distance. He wa i
hype and promoter on two of these. I can not say I really liked him,
on the surface of it all. Yet this autobiography says a lot about him,
and by reflection, about me as well. Because of this book I wept and
laughed a bit about Malcolm and about myself. After all, he is finally
a person, and as a person he is both good and bad, consistant and yet
bizzare, friend and yet foe. On a deep level, I like him a great deal
This is a book that deserves to be read.

ism, however, inevitably leaves
us with what MacLeish calls
"the rags and bones of mean-
ings." It is difficult to exagger-
ate the problem of translating
Catullus whose words are rich-
ly nuanced, whose sound and
metaphor are intricately pat-
terned. Tempering one's criti-
cism of Sisson for this reason,

lables of English invective. That
is to say in comparison, Latin
"dirty" words have color and
melody. Not surprisingly, Sisson
relies on Latin derivatives for
his most original t u r n-of-
phrase: "matutinal micturi-
tions."
Sisson is more successful with
Catullus' long poems than with

Today's Writers. . .
James V. Romano is a Doc-
toral Candidate in the Depart-
ment of Classics. An Episcopal
minister, Mark Harris shares
the responsibility for co-ordin-
ating the varied activities of
Canterbury House.

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jp'MES LEO .ERLI Y
author of Mid"ght,
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RVOLWTION
by WALTER STARCKE
The way to a natural high through meditation.

Also..
Recent paperbacks of note:
Hermann Hesse's third novel,
Gertrude, originally published
in 1910, has just received its
first American publication in a
translation by Hilda Rosner.
(Noonday Press Paperback, $l.-
95). The creative endeavor of
music provides the thematic ma-
terial of this novel, and Hesse,
as he does in all of his writings,
focuses upon the seemingly irre-
concilable conflicts between Di-
onysian and Apollonian sensi-
bilities . . Gerard de Nerval,
a man whose exotic, mystic, and
poetic spirit may be seen resur-
rected in such later artists as
Satie and Jarry, was one of the
most important forerunners of
the =surrealists. Three of Ner-
val's prose w a r k s - Aurelia,
Sylvia, and Emilie - and a se-
lection of his poetry have been
just published in an Ann Arbor
Paperback ($2.95) by the Uni-
versity of Michigan Press.

Harper & Row
1817

$4.95 at all bookstores

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