Tolk of the Devil

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I wish someone would translate Lord of the Rings (1954-5) into English. By that I mean (of course) that I wish someone would translate LOTR into good English. I’ve looked at Tolkien’s bad English in “Noise Annoys” and “Science and Sorcery”. Here’s another example:

Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.

“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.”

“Do not speak of such things!” said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness. – The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”

Strider should have added: “Or in such a way!” In the second paragraph, Frodo suddenly talks like a Guardian-reader. Why on earth did Tolkien use “thinning process”, “indefinitely” and “actually” amid otherwise good, simple English? Thinning is obviously a “process”, so there’s no need to say it is, and “indefinitely” and “actually” are badly out of a place in a fantasy novel, let alone in dialogue there. “Considering” is less bad, but it should go too. I would improve the paragraph like this:

“Very odd,” said Frodo, tightening his belt, “seeing that there is now a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning will not go on much longer, or I shall become a wraith.”

Now there’s nothing incongruous: the only un-English word is “very”, but that doesn’t seem un-English on the tongue or to the eye. The Guardianese is gone, but it should never have been there in the first place. Tolkien should not have written like that in Lord of the Rings. And not just as a professional scholar of language: simply as a literate Englishman. H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) had been in print for twenty-eight years when The Fellowship of the Ring was first published. It’s hard to believe that Tolkien wasn’t familiar with it.

If he wasn’t, that’s a great pity. If he was, the bad prose in LOTR becomes even more inexplicable and unforgiveable. Alas for what might have been! Imagine if, per impossibile, Tolkien’s masterwork had been edited by the second-greatest Catholic writer of the twentieth-century, namely, Evelyn Waugh.

When bad prose appears in something by Waugh, it’s deliberate:

I had a fine haul – eleven paintings and fifty odd drawings – and when eventually I exhibited them in London, the art critics, many of whom hitherto had been patronizing in tone as my success invited, acclaimed a new and richer note in my work.

Mr. Ryder [the most respected of them wrote] rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities … By focusing the frankly traditional battery of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr. Ryder has at last found himself.Brideshead Revisited (1945), Book II, “A Twitch Upon the Thread”, ch. 1

Waugh was deliberately mocking the mixed-metaphor-strewn prose and pretensions of modern critics. Waugh paid great attention to language and compared writing to carpentry. It was a craft and good craftsmen do not work carelessly or use bad materials. Nothing in Brideshead is careless or casual, as we can see when the narrator, Charles Ryder, first meets the “devilish” æsthete Anthony Blanche, who has “studied Black Art at Cefalù” with Aleister Crowley and is “a byword of iniquity from Cherwell Edge to Somerville”. Blanche has a stutter and Waugh uses the stutter to underline his iniquity. Or so I would claim. Here is Blanche engaging in some papyrocentric performativity:

After luncheon he stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-à-brac of Sebastian’s room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river.

“’I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all,’” he sobbed to them from the Venetian arches –
“Enacted on this same d-divan or b-bed,
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the l-l-lowest of the dead….”

And then, stepping lightly into the room, “How I have surprised them! All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me.” Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 1

Talking about the Greek sage Tiresias, who experienced life as both a man and a woman, Anthony Blanche, a man whose surname is the feminine form of the French adjective blanc, meaning “white”, stumbles over the initial consonants of three words: “divan”, “bed” and “lowest”. Is it a coincidence that the same consonants, in the same order, appear in the Greek diabolos, meaning “devil”?

I don’t think so. If Blanche had stuttered on “surprised” too, I would be even more certain. But the –s isn’t essential. After all, it was lost as diabolos journeyed from Greek to Latin, from Latin to French, and from French to English, where it appears as “Devil”. And what does Charles Ryder later call Anthony Blanche after Blanche has spent an evening tête-à-tête trying to turn Ryder against Ryder’s great friend Sebastian Flyte? You can find out here, as Ryder discusses the evening with Sebastian:

“I just wanted to find out how much truth there was in what Anthony said last night.”

“I shouldn’t think a word. That’s his great charm.”

“You may think it charming. I think it’s devilish. Do you know he spent the whole of yesterday evening trying to turn me against you, and almost succeeded?”

“Did he? How silly. Aloysius wouldn’t approve of that at all, would you, you pompous old bear?” – Brideshead Revisited, Book I, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, ch. 2

Blanche is “devilish” and his reputation for “iniquity” is well-deserved. That’s why I think the three words over which Blanche stutters were carefully chosen by Waugh from The Waste Land. Waugh was a logophile and that is exactly the kind of linguistic game that logophiles like to play.

Words at War

Front cover of Poetry of the First World War edited by Tim KendallPoetry of the First World War: An Anthology, ed. Tim Kendall (Oxford University Press 2013)

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are famous names today, but both might have died young in the First World War. If so, they would now be long forgotten. Generally speaking, novelists, essayists and scholars take time to mature and need time to create. Poets are different: they can create something of permanent value in a few minutes. This helps explain why nearly half the men chosen for this book did not reach their thirties:

• Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
• Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)
• Charles Sorley (1895-1915)
• Patrick Shaw Stewart (1888-1917)
• Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)
• Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)
• Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

And none of them left substantial bodies of work. Indeed, “except for some schoolboy verse”, Patrick Shaw Stewart is known for only one poem, which “was found written on the back flyleaf of his copy of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad after his death” (pg. 116). It begins like this:

I saw a man this morning
  Who did not wish to die:
I ask and cannot answer,
  If otherwise wish I.

(From I saw a man this morning)

Housman is here too, with Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, which Kipling, also here, is said to have called “the finest poem of the First World War” (pg. 14). I don’t agree and I would prefer less Kipling and no Thomas Hardy. That would have left space for something I wish had been included: translations from French and German. The First World War was fought by speakers of Europe’s three major languages and this book makes me realize that I know nothing about war poetry in French and German.

It would be interesting to compare it with the poetry in English. Were traditional forms mingling with modernism in the same way? I assume so. Wilfred Owen looked back to Keats and the assonance of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced winds that knive us…
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent…
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient…
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
  But nothing happens. (Exposure)

David Jones (1895-1974) looked forward:

   You can hear the silence of it:
You can hear the rat of no-man’s-land
rut-out intricacies,
weasel-out his patient workings,
scrut, scrut, sscrut,
harrow-out earthly, trowel his cunning paw;
redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibi-
ous paradise.
   You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions
through the night-weeds – contest the choicest morsels in his
tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us; by a rule of his nature,
at night-feast on the broken of us. (In Parenthesis)

But is there Gerard Manley Hopkins in that? And in fact In Parenthesis was begun “in 1927 or 1928” and published in 1937. T.S. Eliot called it “a work of genius” (pg. 200). I’d prefer to disagree, but I can’t: you can feel the power in the extract given here. Isaac Rosenberg had a briefer life and left briefer work, but was someone else who could work magic with words:

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy betrothal sung.
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.

A beautiful poem about an ugly thing: death. A mysterious poem too. And a sardonic one. Rosenberg says much with little and I think he was a much better poet than the more famous Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They survived the war and wrote more during it, which helps explain their greater fame. But the flawed poetry of Graves was sometimes appropriate to its ugly theme:

To-day I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
  In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
  With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

A poem like that is a cure for romanticism, but that’s part of what makes Wilfred Owen a better and more interesting poet than Graves. Owen’s romanticism wasn’t cured: there’s conflict in his poems about conflict:

I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell,
  Like a sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
  Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
  And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
  In different skies.

But how good is Owen’s work? He was a Kurt Cobain of his day: good-looking, tormented and dying young. You can’t escape the knowledge of early death when you read the poetry of one or listen to the music of other. That interferes with objective appraisal. But the flaws in Owen’s poetry add to its power, increasing the sense of someone writing against time and struggling for greatness in a bad place. The First World War destroyed a lot of poets and perhaps helped destroy poetry too, raising questions about tradition that some answered with nihilism. As Owen asks in Futility:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sun-beams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Some of the poets here were happy to go to war, but it wasn’t the Homeric adventure anticipated by Patrick Shaw Stewart. He learnt that high explosive is impersonal, bullets kill at great distance and machines don’t need rest. Poetry of the First World War is about a confrontation: between flesh and metal, brains and machinery. It’s an interesting anthology that deserves much more time than I have devoted to it. The notes aren’t intrusive, the biographies are brief but illuminating, and although Tim Kendall is a Professor of English Literature he has let his profession down by writing clear prose and eschewing jargon. He’s also included some “Music-Hall and Trench Songs” and they speak for the ordinary and sometimes illiterate soldier. The First World War may be the most important war in European history and this is a good introduction to some of the words it inspired.