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Bringing a Great Poet Back to Life


by Jan Kochanowski, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak, by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 59 pp., $17.50

Two distinguished poets have translated into English a sixteenth-century Polish poet whose work reads as if he were our contemporary. The very possibility that we can respond to works written long ago is always fragile. After all, how often do we fail to overcome the gap in time that separates us from a given literary work, except when we read it as students of history, fascinated more by a reconstruction of past mores and ways of feeling than by the work itself? The rare accomplishment of Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney in translating Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), a Polish poet of the Renaissance, is that they allow us to forget about differences in mentality and read Laments as a powerful work of literature.

The art of translation has become in this century an important activity for American poets. A certain anti-elitism liberated translators from their former dependence on departments of philology specializing in a given language. Here the boldness of Ezra Pound, who, without having learned Chinese, produced some excellent adaptations of old Chinese masters, had an influential effect. The question of whether, and to what extent, the poet should know the language from which he or she translates has not been resolved; and yet the impressive translations produced by writers with little knowledge of the original language has forced critics to consider the qualities needed to practice the craft. One of the great craftsmen was the California poet Kenneth Rexroth, whose many translations and adaptations from French, Chinese, and Japanese are of particularly high quality. Rexroth usually worked with someone familiar with a language he did not know himself; he did not hide the fact that his talents for speaking or reading foreign tongues were very limited. In his essay “The Poet As Translator” he observes that “the greatest translators of Chinese”—

Judith Gautier [into French], Klabund, Pound—knew less than nothing of Chinese when they did their best translations. In fact, Judith Gautier’s lover and informant was a Thai, and himself had only the foggiest notion of the meanings of the Chinese text.1

Rexroth praises the exceptional genius of the English philologist Arthur Waley: “Not only have the best ‘translators’ not known Chinese, there is only one great translator who has, and only one in the second class—Arthur Waley, of course, and Bernhard Karlgren [into Swedish]. Waley is a special case. He is a fine poet who has deliberately limited himself, as a kind of rigorous aesthetic discipline—a little like the self-imposed rigors of Paul Valéry—to translation from the Chinese and Japanese.”2

For Rexroth the main virtue of the ideal translator is not his ability to match the words of the text with the words of his own language but sympathy—“identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance.” Such sympathy, he writes,

can carry you very far if you have talent to go with it. Hart Crane never learned to speak French and at the time he wrote his triptych poem “Voyages” he could not read it at all. His only informant was Allen Tate, a doubtful guide at best in this field, and his image of Rimbaud was an absurd inflation of the absurd Rimbaud myth. Yet “Voyages” is by far the best transmission of Rimbaud into English that exists—the purest distillation of the boyish hallucinations of the “Bateau Ivre.”3

Rexroth’s own translations—or translations in inverted commas—from Chinese and Japanese are already classics; they adapt that poetry to a modern sensibility, which is, in my view, unavoidable. What happens if contemporary taste, marked as it may be by vices of our civilization, is ignored? A huge anthology in English and Chinese, 300 Tang Poems, A New Translation, published in China in 1987, is the work of some forty scholars and professors, undoubtedly well prepared and competent in English. Unfortunately, they are not poets. The 400 pages of the book give the impression of a pains taking labor, with everything diligently rhymed; the Tang dynasty anthology sounds like an anthology of Victorian poetry.

Translation of Slavic language poetry into English poses considerable difficulties, not unlike those of poetry from the Far East. Among the graduates of the Slavic departments few are poets, and among English-speaking poets a knowledge of Russian, Czech, or Polish is rare. Russian poetry, hardly translatable because of its particular features—strongly rhymed singsong verses among them—is little known in America, though in the last decades some progress has been made in presenting the work of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Brodsky. Modern Polish poetry does a little better because, in contrast to Russian, the Polish language benefits from abandoning both meter and rhyme, so that equivalents in English can more easily be found. In my own case, my collaboration on translations of my work with my friends Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky, themselves fine poets as well as translators, has convinced me of the benefits of working with writers who know little Polish.

Stanislaw Baranczak has been a prodigy of Polish literature of this century, because of both his own verse and his nearly acrobatic deftness in rendering into Polish Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, and Seamus Heaney—not to mention the English metaphysical poets, a major achievement in itself. When translating into English, he prefers to trust the linguistic instinct of native speakers—thus, in the present case, his alliance with Seamus Heaney, who does not know Polish. The results show what a good choice he made.

Jan Kochanowski remained a leading poet in the Polish language until the nineteenth century, when he was overshadowed by Adam Mickiewicz. He was a learned humanist, educated at the University of Kraków and at Padua in Italy, who wrote verse in both Polish and Latin. The decorum of the time discouraged poets from writing about their personal lives, and we have no detailed record of his experience as a student in Italy, traveler throughout Europe, and courtier. Because of his secretiveness, we can only conjecture about his life from his poetry itself; but not much can be guessed from his early “songs,” which were so strongly influenced by Horace that often they are just adaptations. His short drama on a subject taken from Homer, The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, is an act of homage by a humanist to a major literary theme of his day. His magnificent translation from the Latin of The Psalter of David could have been done only after pious immersion in the Bible. But if it were not for Laments his work would have been of interest only to those who could appreciate the harmonies of his poetic idiom in the original Polish. In Laments, however, a man of the Renaissance vividly reveals himself as torn by emotional contradictions at a difficult moment of his life.

Kochanowski lived at the time when Europe was being transformed by the new discovery of the dignity and power of reason, which, as in the work of Erasmus, was applied to the analysis of Holy Scripture. When independent minds refused to submit passively to authority, the result was religious conflict, particularly between rising Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Kochanowski witnessed the quick spread of the Reformation in Poland, of a Calvinist rather than Lutheran variety. When he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-four, in 1584, most of the deputies to the Polish Diet were already Protestant. The counteroffensive of the Vatican at the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 established in Poland the Tridentine Catholicism that would last several centuries. In 1563 the Jesuit order arrived in Poland and in a few decades it succeeded in securing the victory of the Counter-Reformation. No literate man living in that age could claim ignorance of the basic religious choices of the day, even if some tried hard to maintain an “Erasmain” line and avoid, whenever possible, taking sides in the great controversy.

Was Kochanowski a Catholic or a Protestant like his predecessor Mikolaj Rej, “the father of Polish verse”? We do not know exactly what his affiliations were and we have no evidence that he changed from one religion to another; he spent a year, however, in Königsberg as the guest of the Prince Elect of East Prussia, who was a Lutheran. Perhaps Kochanowski was too much a rationalist and too much influenced by the books of Erasmus to make a spectacular show of embracing a new faith. The Jesuits suspected him and attacked him, perhaps because in all his work there is no mention of the name of the Holy Mary, an indication of Protestant leanings.

He had the good luck to live in a rather happy period of peace and prosperity. In contrast to France during the sixteenth century, with its religious civil wars, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the rule of the Lithuanian dynasty of the Jagellons was a tolerant and multi-denominational country. Its king expressed that tolerance when he said to his subjects: “I am a king of your bodies but not of your consciences.” The next century, however, would prove to be much less humane in this respect.

The situation of Kochanowski was not unlike that of his contemporaries, the French poets of “La Pléiade.” They all drew inspiration from the revival of Antiquity, its literary works and its philosophy. Not only Latin but also Greek writers were widely read. Italian Neoplatonists were steeped in the works of Plato and the other Greek philosophers. The Bible and wisdom of the pagan world were undergoing a strange fusion, with characters from the Scriptures and from the mythology of Antiquity coexisting in works of art. The suddenness of the reappearance of Antiquity is somewhat exaggerated by historians of culture. After all, in the Divina Commedia Dante already had Virgil for a guide through the underworld, and one of the inmates of Hell was Odysseus.

Kochanowski and the poets of La Pléiade were linked by the Horatian philosophy of carpe diem—live for the moment, not the hereafter. The influence of Horace testifies to the continuing power of the writers of Antiquity. Horace was printed, translated, and paraphrased in many European languages and we may ask how it came about that in Christian lands, religious songs and lives of the saints were superseded by a poetry imbued with the pagan philosophy of Stoicism and Epicureanism. The presence of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid in that period, with consequences for poetry up to today, is usually taken for granted, but it remains a source of wonder.

Laments is a sequence of nineteen poems about the feelings of the poet in response to misfortune, the loss of his very young daughter, Ursula. The eternal question “Why?” comes from a Christian whose imagination has been formed by humanism and religious controversy, and who is already touched by doubts that could be called modern. The title in the original is Treny—Threnodies—a genre that, like others, had to follow certain rules codified by celebrated writers of the time, most importantly by Julius Caesar Scaliger, the French scholar of Italian origin who wrote in Latin, the language of all educated Europe. According to those rules the threnody should mourn the death of a persona gravis, i.e., a person known to the public and holding a high position in society—a monarch, a prince, or a bishop. The poet, weeping over the loss of the unknown little Ursula in verse, exposed himself to a serious reproach on the part of his readers: he had gone beyond the prescribed borders of a convention. Yet not entirely, for to a large extent he preserved the structure of a threnody. And it is precisely his balancing act on the borderline of convention, and indeed his violating it, that contributes to the vividness of the poem. The procedure seems to us familiar, but it was not so in 1580, when the Laments was published.

  1. 1

    Kenneth Rexroth, Assays (New Directions, 1961), p. 37.

  2. 2

    Rexroth, Assays, p. 38.

  3. 3

    Rexroth, Assays, p. 39

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