Robert Frost said: “Poetry is what gets left out in translation.” That will do quite nicely, but it is like saying that the smell is what defines the cheese. Poetry, like prose, is a bulky, discrete, variable substance. It can be all of a piece or carry a great deal inside it. It can undergo successful transformations. Pope’s Iliad is not the same poem as Homer’s but it has the same story, the same characters, the same moving moments, and its own particular smell which is of course not the same as Homer’s. Frost was making the same fastidious point as A.E. Housman, who thought that poetry was often made to carry a lot of sense, meaning, or morality, and yet remained separate from them, aloof, pure, unmeaningful, to be recognized only by the tears it brought to the eyes or the prickles it raised on the skin.
Housman in the Nineties was in his own way akin to the more intellectual poetic ideals of his contemporary Mallarmé. French and American technicians of poetic meanings nowadays devise much more complex structures to analyze how a poem works; and though they may not be “poets” themselves as Mallarmé and Housman were, they see themselves as a part of the process as much as mechanics tinkering with an engine blueprinted by some designer perhaps dead. Their commentary on a poem is, they say, itself another poem; the words of the dead are modified in the guts and minds of the living, who now possess them and make of the poem a continuously ongoing process. A poem is dead if it is not continuously transformed in the lives of those who read it.
This is an obvious truth which has nonetheless to be set against an opposite one: that the words of the dead are tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. The two poets, Eliot and Auden, who express these different truths are united in their paradox: that a poem is at once unique and modifiable, both finished and forever incomplete. Our reaction to poetry should recognize the paradox; recognize, too, that it applies to different sorts of poetry in different ways. It is the function of a lyric by Heine or Pushkin to announce, as an element of its unique success, its total stability. Being unmodifiable it is also untranslatable. The stanzas of Byron’s Don Juan, on the other hand, insist on their precariousness and instability as part of their specification. Their rhymes totter along, brilliantly pretending they are not going to make it, shrugging their shoulders at the difficulty of performing this feat in the English language. Reckless and drunk with living they can reel with comparative facility into other languages and perform their act there. It will not be the same, but it will have much of the life of the original. Thus Byron’s Don Juan seduced Europe and its tongues, as Tasso and Ariosto had done before. Another different case …
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