Archive for the ‘women's poetry’ Category

Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:


but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.


Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.


It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.


The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.


When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.


They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.


In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.


I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?


Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient


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Dear friends and readers,

Ten days ago Maria Musiol contacted me to tell me she has now published her study of Vittoria Colonna through the lens of Colonna’s loving friendship with Michelangelo: she says it’s a “series of essays dealing with the recorded aspects of Vittoria’s external and internal life.” She has mailed me a copy, asking me to review it and I am planning on picking up said book tomorrow. I will start reading some time tomorrow.

She has published a German version of her text in Germany — which is historically consonant with the traditions of Colonna scholarship. The only other complete translation of the poems is in German. (Besides mine — Maria Roscoe missed out some, and attributed at least one poem by Veronica Gambara to Colonna.) The standard biography by Alfred Reumont is in German; those who read it in Italian (as I do, since I cannot read German) are reading a translation. I can see Ms Musiol has a new theory about Michelangelo’s drawings as pictures of Colonna and will deal at length with their relationship (as others have done before her).

She also tells me (I hope I am not trespassing to tell this here as it is significant) that she began her project twenty years ago: “After the premature death of my husband I came to Ischia and, looking for role models as a young widow, came across Vittoria Colonna and began my research about her, because there was no adequate biography.” She’s right: Reumont is outdated and without an inner life; Jerrold omits the complicated politics central to Colonna’s life. I have been rereading Colonna’s poems with new insight and feeling over these past two weeks — since the death of my beloved husband.

Coincidentally in middle September I had a query from another woman scholar now working on Francesco Ferrante D’Avalos, the Marquis of Pescara. Rita Lamb is working on his family background, researching specifically into legends and genetic history, which connect Pescara biologically (as a natural son) to the royal Aragonese family in Naples. I went up to my attic, and took down one of my boxes of 3X5 index cards and was able to tell her the names of his mother, father, their parents, and their parents’s parents as reported at the time. None of these members of the royal family, but all close as allies, fellow aristocrats, strongly Spanish in culture, and some even friends. See my brief sketch. If she publishes, beyond offering more about Pescara, she will probably shed light on the history and culture of Ischia.

In the meantime I updated my review of Brundin’s partial edition of some of Colonna’s religious poetry, and I linked Maria’s book into two places on my site: the table of contents page and the bibliography.

11/2/13: see Widow-parlando.


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In the long winter of 1784, which I passed in Normandy, this little Novel fell into my hands … for their amusement, I translated [into English] as I read [the French], the most striking passages of the story; which appeared to me so interesting that I was induced to translate the whole; or rather to write it anew in English — Charlotte Smith, from her preface to her Manon

The idea of making a name for myself in the Republic of Letters animated all my faculties — Victorine de Chastenay, on first beginning to translate Radcliffe’s Udolpho

Pierre Arnaud’s recent translation of The Romance of the Forest

Dear friends and readers,

You will instantly recall that last month under a similar heading, I wrote about how I was working on a proposal to give a paper at this coming summer’s Chawton conference on women and translation: I didn’t fall asleep over my book after all (!). Well I did a good deal of reading and sent along two different options.

I discovered that Charlotte Smith really changed Prévost’s Histoire de Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731) and Gayot de Pitaval’s Causes Célèbres et Interessants (1734-44) to bring into the English imaginary explosively transgressive reality-based material from sexual and familial life. In Smith’s Manon L’Escaut, or the Fatal Attachment, Prévost’s enigmatic text intended to justify amoral decisions for aristocratic male readers becomes a story genuinely focused from the point of view of a pro-active heroine with a realistic pragmatic consciousness. I also found that her Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake (1790) her first fully poetic landscape novel was translated into French by M. De Montagne, who made of it a romantic “paysage.” Montagne’s romantic translation is really melodious, I loved the sounds of the French, it was like verse in prose. Smith turned gothic and sentimental romance into vehicles for critiquing the ancien regime as it was experienced in the UK at the time. Montagne helped make these sort of landscapes an accepted mode in France.

Lidia Conetti’s recent Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Udolpho: sometimes it’s better than Radcliffe or Chastenay

When I went back to Chastenay’s 1798 translation of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) I discovered Chastenay resembles Radcliffe in her reformist radical agenda, in her case much modified by her family’s devastating experience of the revolution (including imprisonment, lose of property, and her father having nearly been guillotined). She also identifies with Emily St. Aubert, Radcliffe’s heroine. What Chastenay loses in subtlety, she replaces in much more social understanding of real life experiences of unjust imprisonment, familial abuse, murders, and harrowing hostage experiences. She carries over Radcliffe’s sheer sensibility of into a focused forceful romantic paysage which adds to Radcliffe’s nightmare scenarios of dreams of nervous distraught pursuit and chase, and perhaps remembered experiences of near rapes (incest?).

A later 19th century cover to Chastenay’s translation shows an awareness of the depth of inward strangeness in Radcliffe-Chastenay

Nonetheless, I wanted to suggest that reading these texts (as people still do) as sheer female gothic obscures their critiques of the social, economic and political order which are valuable in themselves, which influenced other important books (e.g., George Sand’s Consuelo/La Comtesse de Ruddolstadt, influenced by Radcliffe through Chasteney).

Alas, I think I wrote about this more clearly here than I did in the official mandarin-type proposal. I am just so much better at writing casually in letter style. I thought by having two sets of texts I could make my argument about the value of these translated texts more strong. I would not present an analysis of each text as that would take far too long but just my findings. It interested me too that Smith’s Manon was suppressed — perhaps people thought her strong amoral heroine dangerous — and people are still today unaware of how she alters that text to make Manon the center and an active heroine (at least in Manon’s mind). Montagne’s Ethelinde is also a nearly anonymous and thus disrespected text. So they make a neat comparison with Chastenay’s whose text is still read in France and countries where French is read. There are on the Net still the frontispieces for the volumes of her 1798 text. I saw a popular copy in a good bookstore when I was in Paris for 2 weeks once. Hers also has prestige and is well-known and yet I think there is but the one article by Dorothy Medlin on 4 (!) different translations of Udolpho into French and only one small part is on Chastenay text.

A frontispiece to a French text of one of the memoirs, life-writing, travel books to emerge from the French revolution & Napoleonic wars

On the other hand, it would be fun to to expand more on Udolpho and on Mémoires de madame de Chastenay, 1771-1815 (written between 1810 and 1817, published 1896). Chastenay lived to the mid-19th century; she knew and spoke with Napoleon (who treated her with respect); she translated Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village as Le village abandonne as a genuinely protest text. I’d really like to tell more people, expand on what I’ve already written about Radcliffe’s A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (published 1795) (see my Nightmare of History in Radcliffe’s non-fiction Landscape). Radcliffe is so beautifully well-read in art books, architecture, cultures, and she is a sort of Girondist (rather like Madame de Roland), a serious reformer who means her novels to be taken in the way other novels of her era were which critiqued society. In her case the ancien regime.

Using Smith’s Prevost, Montagne’s Smith and Chastenay’s Radcliffe, a configuration of the three texts, I’d write and talk about translation. If I study Radcliffe & Chastenay’s lives, life-writing, travel, I’d write and about the two women writers, though the centerpiece would be a comparative translation study.

My larger goal is to call attention to a large body of work still ignored, to which these translations belong. When these books are studied the arguments often resemble those film adaptations once had to contend with: evaluation and judgement based solely on a one-to-one literal comparison with the assumption the first text is necessarily the most important and better. I want to show micro-analysis is still at the core of translation study but when we change our assumptions how much we have to learn and how many new and fascinating texts to read.

Hubert Robert’s Hermit in a Garden

I really enjoy reading and doing translation. It’s a real urge as such. One sits with books and books, dictionaries, thesauruses, different previous translations. Sheer language endeavour. Poetry as such. Books I’m interested in from this terrain include Isabelle de Montolieu’s influential translations of Austen into French (both of which I just bought from Amazon, complete with prefaces): Raison et Sensibilite (someone retyped the whole text, four columns a page), and La Famille Elliot, ou L’Ancienne Inclination (a facsimile, the volume labelled I contains the whole text). When Montolieu writes her prefaces to her translations of Austen, she assumes in the first no one will ever hear of Austen a decade from now nor S&S, and in the second her respect has grown enormously (she’s read Emma and MP) and feels she must translate more strictly but her sense of Austen’s place does not come near how she regards Smith (she translated one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer‘s tales and provides a preface again).

I have written on and just delighted in Felix Fénéon’s gem, Catherine Morland (1898/99, reprinted by Gallimard 1946), and recently bought Pierre Goubert’s serious literary biography of Austen, a rare treatment in French (biographies of Austen do not abound outside English, not in French either); he translated her earlier novels and wrote about them in the Pleiade. I’ve read one of two 1807 translations Stael’s Corinne, ou L’Italie into English (one read and much admired by Austen), and it’s a cross between Radcliffe and Austen! have wanted to try Isabel Hill’s 1884 Victorian and did read thoroughly the brilliant Corinne or Italy by Sylvia Raphael (often unmentioned, she died young, her book printed as an Oxford Classic, 1998).

And I do want to read more translation studies. On my TBR pile is Belllos’s Is that a Fish in Your Ear? and Suzanne Levine’s The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American fiction. I need some outside goal, deadline, to help me do all this for if it’s so pleasurable, it’s hard work.

My proposal was turned down. I think probably most unfairly. To do myself justice and also keep my thoughts where I can find them again and share them with others, I’ve put my proposal on my website. “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”. I’ve at least done myself that much justice. (Freedom the press and speech belongs to the woman who has a website.) As you know if you ever read my Sylvia blog I’m just an honorary Duchess aka ex-adjunct lecturer.


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It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original — Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” Illuminations

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates and all patchwork — Primo Levi, “Potassium,” The Periodic Table

Eugene Atget (1857-1927), The Petit Trianon

Dear friends and readers,

My theme: I’ve returned to an old love to do a new project: French-to-English and back again translations in the 18th century. I begin with Walter Benjamin and my own experiences, then cover Beebee’s book, Clary on the continent, Prevost’s different Clevelands, and various different telling individual cases (different Tom Joneses, Radcliffe’s translators); I end on Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” which deserves to be much better known.


I have a hard time remembering when I was not fascinated by translations. I think it began back in high school when at age 16 I read a probably poor translation into English of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I loved the book and wanted to know more about it, and especially I wanted to read it in French. Later on somehow reading a book in one language and then reading the same book in another gave me an experience of two weirdly interdependent books and thus worlds. When I was in college, I took French for all the years I could, extending my non-major following of it with one-credit courses: such courses met twice a week, but for one and one-half hours of sheer talk in French allowed using our books. We’d take turns using its conversations. Then in graduate school, I took a course in Italian over one summer to fulfill the language requirement (one had to pass two tests in two languages), and just loved the language, again enjoyed so much lining up a text in Italian aligned with its source or target text in English.

Anne Finch when young

During the 1980s I re-taught myself to read French and read French novels, and then for over 20 years starting the middle 1980s I taught myself to read and to translate Italian and translated Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara’s poetry and then wrote an essay on Anne Finch’s translations out of the Italian though the French. Just what I had done at first for Colonna (and what I’ve done since for a poem by Elsa Morante I found in the original Italian with French text facing it).

So when over the past week I dropped one of my projects for this fall term, the paper on Paranoia and Infamy, I naturally turned to the proposal I wanted to send to Chawton, and was happy, even eager to reread some of my books on translation (Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, The Scandals of Translation, Sherry Simon’s Gender in Translation). Did you know that over 90% of translations into the world are transations into English? how little translators are paid? How women’s writing begins in translation, how they express themselves through its covering medium?

I discovered my old folders filled with essays on translation, some read, some not read, and books and essays just on translation in the 18th century, the 19th and more recently.

Charlotte Smith by George Romney (1792)

My idea was Charlotte Smith’s translation of Prevost’s Manon Lescaut, or some study of intermediary texts between her later novels and Prevost and Rousseau, but to tell the truth I was not sure I could find something to extrapolate out of a tight narrow comparison. I do have Isabelle de Montolieu’s translation of one of Smith’s Solitary Wanderer’s Tale (Corisande de Beauvilliers, and all of M. Montagne’s (whoever he is) French translation of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake, which I also own in English. And of course Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility (with her preface) and soon will have her translation of Persuasion.

So I went about to look for previous work on individual books I’d done. I’ve now remembered my careful comparative reading of the opening of Radcliffe’s Udolpho with Victorine de Chastenay’s translation of the same text into French, something of Chastenay’s life (she was imprisoned during the terror and lost family members and emerged somewhat shattered and depressed, and various essays on 18th century translations of classics (Riccoboni and Davaux’s Tom Jones, a French and a Dutch translation of Prevost’s Cleveland contrasted to the French texts) and of course Prevost’s Clarisse.

Victorine de Chastenay (translator into French of Radcliffe’s Udolpho)

And I’ve read away and reminded myself of what I once knew. So, I spent Tuesday I spent yesterday reading translation studies and then how women in particular use translation: how the earliest women writers began (felt they had license) by translating, how it works to free, a way to express what is otherwise forbidden (that’s how I see Smith’s translation of Manon Lescaut), a way of declaring love and wanting to share (Chastenay’s Udolpho).

Jean-Antoine Watteau, unnamed shepherdess

I read Mirella Agorni’s poignant, The Voice of the ‘Translatress’: From Aphra Behn to Elizabeth Carter Author, The Yearbook of English Studies, 28 (1998 Eighteenth-Century Lexis and Lexicography): 181-95, and I compared a literal translation of Ovid’s Oenone to Paris with Aphra Behn’s translation/adaptation. In her case (as is not uncommon among men as well as women) she did not have any Latin, so someone gave her an intermediary crib. Behn turned the poem into erotica — on behalf of Oenone, a nobody. Since reading Germaine Greer’s persuasive debunking of all the myths growing up around Aphra Behn, including that she was an aristocrat (born on wrong side of blanket), supported herself sheerly by her playwriting (when it seems rather she combined being men’s mistresses with playwriting and verse, including translations, and pop novellas), I can see why she’d identify with Oenone.

Behn is worth remembering and this unashamed revelling in idyllic
pastoral too. Some of her most moving verses defend her as a translatress:

I by a double right thy Bounties claim,
Both from my Sex, and in Apollo’Ns ame:
Let me with Sappha and Orinda
Oh ever sacred Nymph, adorn’d by thee;
And give my Verses Immortality.

Jane Austen died declaring her immortality in defiance against everyone spending their afternoon so trivially.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!


The Abbe Prevost (1697-1763) translated all Richardson and Frances Sheridan’s Sidney Biddulph

Speaking very generally, as the century progressed and the novel achieved more respect, translations became more ostensibly faithful. Paradoxically at the same time (especially if you are working on the literal old model that a good translation is a sort of excellent crib — rather like those who go to movies and critique a film adaptation by how “literally” like it seemed to them to the book), translations became more creative. You can see how the author expressed her or himself through the medium.

Some of the best general essays written thus far on translation are general philosophical ones. A particularly rich one is by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”. He opens with what may seem a strange idea: “It is plausible that no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original.” The analysis in defense of this is brilliant and rich with ideas. One train of argument suggests that any translation is about the encounter of the two languages and two cultures. I find this to be so in my experience of translation. I don’t own the words I use and must use the words of my time and culture and watch them interact with the words and cultural assumptions and whole world view of the other language — French or Italian. He says the desire to translate comes partly from a love of a certain language. Again I know this is so.

Lovelace just before the rape: Simon Brett’s late 20th century illustrations for the Folio Society edition

I reread some of Beebee’s Clarissa on the Continent, about 18th century to modern translations of Clarissa — and abridgements. I know now the Broadveiw edition provides a new edition of the 3rd edition of Clarissa, thus replacing the now out-of-print 4 volume Everyman.

Beebee’s book includes a close reading of two contemporary translations of Clarissa: Prevost and Michaelis’s. He compares these two texts to Richardson’s 1st and 3rd editions of Clarissa (which are themselves different, though both think they must Frenchify the text from the point of view of French taste and ethics). Beebee teaches us how to read translations. He has a chapter where he surveys later translations and abridgements. Particularly of interest to me was Dallas’s abridgement as Trollope wrote a critique of that; it was the book 19th century readers knew Clarissa. After Dallas when some 19th century person says she’s read Clary it’s probably Dallas’s Clary.

In last chapter of Beebee’s book he compares Sherburn’s 1970s and Burrell’s 1950s abridgements. Most of the time today Clarissa is read in an abridgement in the US. In France they read Prevost’s translation (quite different in a number of ways from Richardson); in the US when I was in college (1960s) we read Burrell’s abridgement for Modern Library; the last decade or so students read Sherburn’s abridgement for Rinehart. Margaret Doody has a long article lambasting Sherburn (by the way).

I had been really delighted to come across for the first time ever a close reading and discussion of Burrell. I was not sure of his full name. His edition had never been acknowledged or described in print as far as I knew. I had read Doody and Stuber’s exposure of Sherburn’s abridgement as a far too personal, rigid, a narrow take with interjections by Sherburn (!), but never came across any commentary on Burrell.

Lovelace attacking Clarisssa (Simon Brett again)

It was Burrell’s abridgement of Clarissa that I first read at age 18-19 and was riveted by. I had the not uncommon experience of not being able to put the book down, of being gripped to read on and on into the wee hours of the dawn. The most vivid memory I had though was of disappointment; somehow or other I had missed the rape. I still remember hunting around the text the following morning (after a little sleep) and not finding it. Later false memories began to tell me I had found it later, but now I realize that in fact I must’ve read the rape for the first time in the Everyman reprint of Richardson’s 3rd edition.

Well, guess what? Burrell omitted it! He censored out the scene. It was in the Everyman I realized that Lovelace raped Clarissa in front of the other women; there I first read the famous passage where Clary says she will be his, just give her a bit of time right here, right now.

Nonetheless, I believe that Burrell’s edition influenced me & strongly; Burrell produces a romantic (vexed word I know, but I’m trying to use it in the common sense way of overwrought individualistic emotionalism and rebellion) text. Burrell will omit much surrounding matter here and there which qualifies Clarissa’s subjective interpretations and outcries. I’ve never read Sherburn so didn’t realize he actually interjects his own interpretation and sometimes himself imitates Lovelace — falls into Lovelace’s vein. Beebee shows how both men cut the book in ways which erase some of the worst aspects of Lovelace’s character. Reading them, though, against Richardson’s books teaches us what was most deeply meant to be expressed in the original — especially after you have studied a variety of translation and adaptations.

Final duel (Brett)

I probably loved Clarissa, was more grabbed by it in Burrell’s edition than I would have been in Richardson’s whole text. Burrell omitted much of the long fourth volume, especially all the Job passages and the gruesome and to me egregiously spiteful nasty dramatizations of the deaths of wicked people. He kept Lovelace’s agon, time at the assembly ball, the lead-up to the duel. (See how vicious the Deity can get; watch out is my gut response to these Burrell thought them in bad taste.) Burrell also turned Clary into a pre-Byronic heroine and softened the presentation of Lovelace.

So I was at long last vindicated. 40 years later I learned I didn’t miss the rape after all. I had not fallen asleep over my book.


Samuel Palmer (1805-81), A Dream in the Appenines (1864)

Some of the best studies I read yesterday were about the clash between cultures, languages, created worlds through languages though having the same literal stories and denotative word content, and even syntax (at times). You do have to read more than one language to do translation studies and as the central hegemonic languages in the 18th century for new literary movements were French and English, these are the languages most studies are in. I went into Annie Cointre, Alain Lautel and Annie Rivera’s La Traduction
romanesque au XVIII siecle
, especially a long essay on Prevost’s
Cleveland — in French and English and Dutch versions. It brings home so many issues, including the way history was more valued than fiction and historians paid more, how this book applied to a naive desire to read history made easy and salacious (as in our time). This was by Ellen Ruth Moerman.

Abbe Prevost reading Manon Lescaut aloud to group of admirer (1856 painting by Joseph Caraud)

To do a translation study you must do book history. Prevost had several translators; his book came out in more than one edition and it was censored differently in different countries. The Dutch translator was quite content to translate anti-Catholic church commentary, but the Catholic French one was not. All of them stigmatize the Quakers (everyone dislikes quakers because people resent general non-conformity with the larger group). Then Prevost wanted partly to delude his British audience into thinking his book was really a history, really written first in English and had the English copy published before the French. There are two different prefaces: one published in English opens with a solemn discourse on the uses of history; the other in French is more tongue-in-cheek and he defends himself for writing a preface (what is this hypocrisy that prefaces are to be apologized for; they are needed) and insinuates if you enjoyed the Man of Quality, you’ll find him in this book again.

The 1997 BBC Tom Jones understood how important Fielding’s presence can be in the novel for the reader who wants over self-conscious wit, self-reflexive mockery

Two essays on the translations of Tom Jones, one by Kristina Taivalkoski-Shilove and another by Annie Rivara (on Riccoboni’s Amelie)
very worth while. It was fascinating to discover that the freer early translation by La Place was the Tom Jones most French readers knew and preferred; that it was a labor of love Davaux did when he translated faithfully and carefully and included all the opening narrator chapters. In the 20th century Tom Jones is reprinted in popular editions without these opening chapters. For me the book is ruined; much of the deep pleasure comes from the presence of the narrator. But apparently not for a mass readership who are said to lose “interest.” Amelia was not popular, and Riccoboni’s choice to do it came out of her deep engagement with its story of unhappiness in years of marriage.

From Christopher Cave I was delighted to learn that Andre Morellet, humane philosophe who translated Beccario’s treatise demonstrating that torture turns up no valid information translated Radcliffe’s Italian. He found in her a congenial reformist spirit, but he continually rationalized her prose. She produces a super-abundance of description which cannot depict reality so many experiences are piled into one. He choses a line of description that’s clear and readily pictured. What makes for her original depth psychologically and pictorially vanishes. It’s true you can’t make fun of her text and it’s no longer what some find tedious. I just love myself getting lost in labyrinths with endless doors and locks.

Piranesi, I Carceri (opaque)

Piranesci, I Carceri (clarified)

And I spent time with my old love, Renato Poggioli’s “The Added Artificer” (in a marvelous anthology put together by Reuben Brower, On Translation). Like Venuti, he shows that a translation is another text, and one that is creative in a different way. The translator (like an illustrator) can transcend the first text by transposing another personality into the key of his or her own. You strive after self-expression by looking into a pool of art. Instead of a translation being pouring new wine into an old or previously extant bottle, the translator is taking older wine and making a new bottle with it. The translator is herself a living vessel saturated with a sparkling spirit and recreates the container someone with whom he or she has an affinity has given a previous embodiment to. A good translation may be read for itself, without comparing it to the original work.

Eugene Atget, Grand Trianon, Pavillion de Musique (1923-24)


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Tizdal my beautiful cat
Lies on the old rag mat
In front of the kitchen fire.
Outside the night is black.

The great fat cat
Lies with his paws under him
His whiskers twitch in a dream,
He is slumbering.

The clock on the mantlepiece
Ticks unevenly, tic toe, tic-toe,
Good heavens what is the matter
With the kitchen clock?

Outside an owl hunts,
Hee hee hee hee,
Hunting in the Old Park
From his snowy tree.
What on earth can he find in the park tonight,
It is so wintry?

Now the fire burns suddenly too hot
Tizdal gels up to move,
Why should such an animal
Provoke our love?

The twigs from the elder bush
Are tapping on the window pane
As the wind sets them tapping,
Now the tapping begins again.

One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight half dark
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth,
And the twigs tapping quick,
And the owl in an absolute fit
One laughs supposing creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to)his-
Cat, night, fire-and a girl nodding.

Drawing by Stevie Smith for her poem, Nodding

Dear friends and readers,

This is at least my fifth blog on a text about or with cats. Marge Piercy’s memoir, Sleeping with Cats, Doris Lessing’s On Cats, Boswell and Piozzi on Dr Johnson and Hodge, not to omit Temple Grandin who reminded me how much animals love to eat, how happy it makes them (Animals in Translation) and various poems (Elsa Morante’s “Minna the Siamese” comes to mind).

They’ve been multiplying since I adopted two cats, Clary (green-eyed tortoiseshell) and Ian (yellow-eyed male ginger tabby). I’ve learned that one knows nothing about why people like cats until one owns one. Cats are private creatures, showing their selves only to their “persons” or special friend and family. You can’t get to know a cat unless you live with him or her, and then it takes time. They do not perform for strangers. Stevie says we have made them nervous. I know they do not like changes in routine; we should do precisely the same things each day at the same time. If we deviate, they marginalize themselves, watching suspiciously until we all return to our routs again.

I told a friend about the 1978 movie, Stevie, with Glenda Jackson, how quiet and truthful it is about a writing life. My friend had noticed my Lessing and Hodge blogs and told me about a review Stevie Smith had written about a book intended to make as permanent as photos and books can a beauty contest among cats, Cats in Colour. It’s in her Uncollected Writings, Me Again, made up of poems, short prose, pictures by herself. Smith’s several-page review’s delightful, intriguing, melancholy, like her writing, has so many moods all at once, and (most unusual for a review) includes drawings and poems. It’s very hard to do justice to this prose, it’s genius-level, the points of view so much at variance and yet the perspectives all coming together to focus again and again on how there are two worlds here: “the Human Creatuere and the Animal” and how we do not respect “the Animal World.”

This descriptive section will have to do:

It is not only the cats of antiquity that seem so peculiar (3,000 years may allow some difference in form) but … scaled to the size of a thin mouse, as we observe an Egyptian puss, couched beneath his master’s chair? The Grecian cats, though better scaled, seem dull and the cats of our Christian era not much better. There is a horrible cat drawing in Topsell’s The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, dated 1607; there he sits, this cat, with a buboe on his hip, frozen and elaborate. In every line of this drawing, except for the cold sad eyes, the artist wrongs cathood. Quick sketchers do better, by luck perhaps. We all know Lear’s drawings of his fat cat Foss. There is true cathood here, though much, too, of course, of Mr Lear, so ‘pleasant to know’. Quick sketchers too can catch the cat in movement, and, though much addicted to, and fitted for, reclining, the cat moves-gallops, leaps, climbs and plays-with such elegance, one must have it so. Yet only this morning, I saw a cat quite motionless that looked so fine I could not have disturbed it. Hindways on, on top of a gray stone wall, its great haunches spred out beyond the wall’s narrow ledge,this animal was a ball of animate ginger fur; no shape but a ball’s, no head, no tail that was visible, had this old cat, but he caught all there was of winter sunshine and held it.

She leaves the book of glossy photographs, the excuse for her reverie, way behind. It does seem as if this review was actually intended to be printed as the introduction to said book.

She opens by saying cats reflect the egoism and ambition of their owners, even those not engineered into breeds and made expensive because rarer. She just wished this book had had photos of ashcan and ordinary poor and feral and wild cats “alongside” the beauties. Not that misery reveals cat-nature any more than beauty. Its cat-nature, cat-facts, cat-intransigence she’s on about in her review — as these impinge on and affect us. She concentrates and repeatedly returns to cat’s eyes: “blank and shining,” enigmatic, in themselves the eyeball expressionless. Finally or ultimately we can’t reach them nor they us, no matter how hard either side tries. She finds embarrassing and distressing how the cat does try so hard to reach us — it’s yearning gestures, its needs, and she’s more comfortable with its savage ruthless behaviors, predatory, play-bites.

As she launches into her descriptions of cat-lives, she inhabits the same territories as Lessing. She thinks we do cats a disservice by “fixing” them. We are depriving them of a real experience of cat-life — maternal duties, sexual prowess. She does know many live tragic lives, die helplessly. Nervous creatures they are, “like all tamed animals” given reason to be by us, our love as well as easy cruelty, power over them.

The last portion of the review provides what we know of cats in history, from the earliest figures to today, and writes with real plangency when she talks of how cats were burnt with women as witches — their helpers you see (an aspect of misogyny though she does not use such terms since cats are associated with women living alone). Our cruelties to cats:

witchcraft is too grim a story for here and its rites too cruel for our pampered pets. Yet I remembered the witch legends of history, as when the Scottish witches were accused of attempting the death of the King and Queen on their sea-passage home to Scotland. The witches swam a cat off the coast of North Berwick, having first christened it ‘Margaret’, they cast it into the sea to drown and thus-they said-raise a storm-wind to sink the King’s ship. For this they were convicted and burnt, for the Scots law was crueller than ours and sent witches to the stake, while we only hanged them. But in both countries the poor cat that belonged to the witch, if he was ‘apprehended’, might also suffer death by burning or hanging.

She also tells stories of individual cats she has known — like Lessing again. She describes one costuming of a cat as an angel which is really a debased bridal picture and rightly calls it “depraved.” She liked to see galloping cats (and has a poem in her the Collected Poems on “Galloping Cats”). To watch them in movement, streaking, hunting. Apparently she enjoyed teasing her cat. I can’t do that. At the very end there are stories of “good cats” and a poem reminding me of Dr Johnson and Hodge, about “Major” “a very fine cat.”

The Story of a Good Cat. This was the cat who came to the cruel cold prison in which Richard III had cast Sir Henry Wyatt when young. Because of his Lancastrian sympathies Henry had already beenimprisoned several times, and even put to the torture. The cat saved his life by drawing pigeons into the cell which the gaoler agreed to cook and dress for the poor prisoner, though for fear of his own life he dared not by other means increase his diet. There is a picture of Sir Henry as an old man sitting in a portrait with the prison cell for background and the cat, a peculiar sad-looking little cat, drawing a pigeon through the prison bars. Underneath is
written, but so faintly it is difficult to read, ‘This Knight with
hunger, cold and care neere starved, pyncht, pynde away, The sillie
Beast did fee de, heat, cheere with dyett, warmth and playe.

Remember how Christopher Smart’s cat, Geoffrey comforted him?

We have cat fables and fairy stories where all the characters are cats. And she skilfully recreates the atmosphere of an Algernon Blackwood gothic story whose center is a feel for the presence of cats:

there is a young man of French descent who is travelling in France on holiday. Suddenly the train he is on pulls up at a little station and he feels he must get down at this station. The inn he goes to is sleepy and comfortable,the proprietress is also sleepy and comfortable, a large fat lady who moves silently on little fat feet. Everybody in this inn treads silently, and all the people in the town are like this too, sleepy, heavy and treading softly. After a few days the young man begins to wonder; and at night, waking to look out over the ancient roof-tops, he wonders still more. For there is a sense of soft movement in the air, of doors opening softly, of soft thuds as soft bodies drop to the ground from wall or window; and he sees the shadows moving too. It was the shadow of a human being that dropped from the wall, but the shadow moved on the ground as a cat runs, and now it was not a human being but a cat. So in the end of course the young man is invited by the cat-girl, who is the plump inn owner’s daughter and serves by day in the inn, to join ‘the dance’ that is the witch’s sabbath. For this old French town is a mediaeval witch-town and bears the past alive within it. Being highminded, as most ghost-writers are, Blackwood makes the young man refuse the invitation and so come safe off with his soul, which had been for a moment much imperilled.

Me I like to watch them looking happy and also when they play with one another games which show them capable of semi-planning and tricking one another. I enjoy how they have favorite toys they carry about in their mouths. Ian has a string, Clary a furry looking object once meant for a mouse. Poor pussycats when they get themselves in trouble. I enjoy when they vocalize at me. I say “miaow” back and “I know” and “just so” and “I agree.” They are talking. Smith in Collected Poems has this love lyric to cats, the “eth” verbs turning it into a hymn:

The Singing Cat

It was a little captive cat
    Upon a crowded train
His mistress takes him from his box
    To ease his fretful pain.

She holds him tight upon her knee
    The graceful animal
And all the people look at him
    He is so beautiful.

But oh he pricks and oh he prods
    And turns upon her knee
Then lifteth up his innocent voice
    In plaintive melody.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And to each human countenance
    A smile of grace he bringeth.

He lifteth up his innocent paw
    Upon her breast he clingeth
And everybody cries, Behold
    The cat, the cat that singeth.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And all the people warm themselves
    In the love his beauty bringeth.

Someone said to me when I praised Lessing’s book as non-sentimental, nonsense, it’s all sentiment. Quite right. So too Smith’s essay. We try not to be but do not succeed.

Here’s my free translation of Morante’s poem, applying it to Clary. I told myself I liked the non-sentimental ending but probably I found appealing Morante’s attempt to capture cat-behavior.

Clary the tortie

I’ve a tiny beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, I name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

(from Elsa Morante, Alibi, Poèmes, Édition bilingue, French translations by Jean-Noel Schifano)


A New Yorker cartoon from a couple of weeks ago

I will though end on some unsentimental poetry and warn my reader these demand a strong stomach. They are not by any of the above writers. First up, an post-WW1 & 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74). This Rufus (I allude to Lessing’s Rufus), like some of us when so badly hurt, enraged, could not be brought back:

Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

Smith says it’s better to love your cat to the point of folly than not to love them at all. And she has a passage that takes into account the same insight as Kaschnitz:

We were now swimming above a sandbank some half mile or so out from the shore. Presently the sandbank broke surface and we
climbed out and stood up on it. All around us was nothing but the sea and the sand and the hot still air. Look, I said, what is this coming? (It was a piece of wreckage that was turning round in the current by the sandbank and coming towards us.) Why, I said, it is a cat. And there sure enough, standing spitting upon the wooden spar was a young cat. We must get it in, said Caz, and stretched out to get it. But I saw that the cat was not spitting for the thought of its plight — so far from land, so likely to be drowned-but for a large sea-beetle that was marooned upon the spar with the cat, and that the cat was stalking and spitting at. First it backed from the beetle with its body arched and its tail stiff, then, lowering its belly to the spar, it crawled slowly towards the beetle, placing its paws carefully and with the claws well out. Why look, said Caz, its jaws are chattering. The chatter of the teeth of the hunting cat could now be heard as the spar came swinging in to the sandbank. Caz made a grab for the spar, but the young cat, its eyes dark with anger, pounced upon his hand and tore it right across. Caz let go with a start and the piece of wreckage swung off at right angles and was already far away upon the current. We could not have taken it with us, I said, that cat is fighting mad, he does not wish to be rescued, with his baleful eye and his angry teeth chattering at
the hunt, he does not wish for security.

And second, Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.


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Mathilde Blind (1872) by Lucy Madox Brown (1843-94), chalks on grey paper

Dear friends and readers,

Frances Wilson’s summary of Mathilde Blind’s life in her review of Angela Thirkell’s book which tells the story of the four women-as-partners in Ford Madox Brown’s life, the last of which was Mathilde Blind, is unbeatable for vivacity and concision:

Mathilde was raised in Germany by an overbearing revolutionary stepfather who knew Karl Marx; her brother shot himself after failing to assassinate Bismark. In her own first attempt at revolt, Mathilde was expelled from school for atheism. A feminist, journalist, critic, poet, translator, novelist and biographer, she was a fabulously beautiful wild card (and most likely a lesbian) who shared with Madox Brown an interest in radical politics. She lived as a friend with the artist and his wife on and off for 20 years, until Emma’s death in 1890. Because none of their letters survives we cannot know the true nature of the relationship between Mathilde and Madox Brown; Thirlwell concludes that it “was probably not physical in the full sense”, but contained “a special erotic charge”. But had Mathilde felt any physical passion for Madox Brown, she seems the type to have expressed it. Mathilde is not only the most interesting of Madox Brown’s loves, she was also probably the most interesting woman in London at that time.

I’ve chosen her also because I found her poems in a book which choses unusual poets, provides a strong biography, and gives a lengthier selection than usual, Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology. Blind’s are strong, passionate, electrifyingly descriptive and intelligently feminist, socialist. To begin with,

Manchester by Night

O’ER this huge town, rife with intestine wars,
Whence as from monstrous sacrificial shrines
Pillars of smoke climb heavenward, Night inclines
Black brows majestical with glimmering stars.
Her dewy silence soothes life’s angry jars:
And like a mother’s wan white face, who pines
Above her children’s turbulent ways, so shines
The moon athwart the narrow cloudy bars.
Now toiling multitudes that hustling crush
Each other in the fateful strife for breath,
And, hounded on by diverse hungers, rush
Across the prostrate ones that groan beneath,
Are swathed within the universal hush,
As life exchanges semblances with death.

A Winter Landscape

ALL night, all day, in dizzy, downward flight,
     Fell the wild-whirling, vague, chaotic snow,
     Till every landmark of the earth below,
Trees, moorlands, roads, and each familiar sight
Were blotted out by the bewildering white.
     And winds, now shrieking loud, now whimpering low,
     Seemed lamentations for the world-old woe
That death must swallow life, and darkness light.
But all at once the rack was blown away,
     The snowstorm hushing ended in a sigh;
     Then like a flame the crescent moon on high
Leaped forth among the planets; pure as they,
Earth vied in whiteness with the Milky Way:
     Herself a star beneath the starry sky.

She felt herself an internal exile; someone exiled from the rest of her society by virtue of her inner self. Towards the end of her life she wrote in her Commonplace book “I have been an exile in this world. Without a God, without a country, without a family.” Her series of love lyrics, published in The Ascent of Man (a Darwinian perspective made optimistic) is called Love in Exile. It begins:


THou walkest with me as the spirit-light
     Of the hushed moon, high o’er a snowy hill,
Walks with the houseless traveller all the night,
     When trees are tongueless and when mute the rill.
Moon of my soul, 0 phantasm of delight,
     Thou walkest with me still.

The vestal flame of quenchless memory burns
     In my soul’s sanctuary. Yea, still for thee
My bitter heart hath yearned, as moonward yearns
     Each separate wave-pulse of the clamorous sea:
My Moon of love, to whom for ever turns
     The life that aches through me.

She was deeply active on behalf of impoverished women and prostitutes, and her purview included non-western women. Blind’s poem “Mourning Women” describes, then addresses, the Muslim women of Egypt (from the volume Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient
and Occident

Mourning Women.

ALL veiled in black, with faces hid from sight,
     Crouching together in the jolting cart,
     What forms are these that pass alone, apart,
In abject apathy to life’s delight?
The motley crowd, fantastically bright,
     Shifts gorgeous through each dazzling street and mart;
     Only these sisters of the suffering heart
Strike discords in this symphony of light.

Most wretched women! whom your prophet dooms
     To take love’s penalties without its prize!
Yes; you shall bear the unborn in your wombs,
     And water dusty death with streaming eyes,
And, wailing, beat your breasts among the tombs;
     &But souls ye have none fit for Paradise.

Samuel Fildes (1843-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

Many many more poems at Matilde Blind (1841-96)


As to a more extended view of her life, I don’t mean to suggest she lived a solitary or at all reclusive existence. She’s much better known for her political and social activities. Her father had been a Jewish banker and she was born in Mannheim, Germany, but when he died and her mother remarried, the revolutionary leader, Karl Blind, the family moved to Paris, and from there to England where Matilde was educated at a London girls’ school. She tried to again admission to university lectures and her failure fired her first enthusiasm for women’s education. When she died, she bequeathed her estate to Newham College, Cambridge, to found a scholarship for women.

Her first poems were dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini, and she supported the Italian revolutionaries; she was influenced by and admired Elizaabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, about whom she wrote yet another life (1883). Shelley, Byron inspired her. Two poems show her time in Scotland, one set in the Hebrides deals with religious questions from an atheist angle (The Prophecy of St Oran, 1881). The Heather on Fire (1886) is about the shameful Highland clearances, razed villages, people driven cruelly into further absymal poverty and emigration. There is no false romance here: we see the “agonizing plight of a crippled old woman whom no-one removed from her home before” it was set on fire; we see the people herded onto beaches to set sail for Canada. The scope, sincerity, intensity and authentic concern made her poems admired. She was no favorite with critics; her poems were not designed for male readers. Her fallen woman poem of a prostitute dying in a hospital was seen as distasteful. The pains of childbirth were not their concern. But Arthur Symons did published a full Poetical Works in 1900.

John Everett Millais (1829-96), Blow blow though winter wind (a Scotland scene)

As to her prose writing, she admired Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote an article on her (1878) and herself spent her life as an independent woman. She traveled widely in Europe and Egypt and through Scotland, published translations from Goethe, and wrote a life of the French revolutionary, Madame Roland (1886), and (her most famous work today) translated the extraordinary Journal of Marie Bashkirseff (1890), herself a fine artist. Her one experimental novel, Tarantella: A Romance is online (18805). To sum up her social existence as seen by others, confident, generous, she had circles of friends in the arts (especially the Pre-Raphaelites), knew the radical novelists, Mona Caird, was friends with Eleanor Marx. Blain says that Blind loved to give “‘literary dinners’ in rooms in well-chosen hotels.”

Lucy Madox Brown, The Duet (1870), watercolor on paper

See wikipedia and recent articles:

S. Brown, “‘A Still and Mute-Born Vision’: Locating Mathilde Blind’s
Reproductive Poetics,” Essays and Studies 56( 2003): 123-144.

James Diedrick, “‘My Love is a Force That Will Force you to Care’:
Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind’s Dramatic Monologues.”
Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 359-386.

James Diedrick, “A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in the
Dark Blue.” The Victorian Periodicals Review 36.6 (2003): 210-241.

Christine Sutphin, “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints:
Augusta Webster’s A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and
Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry 38.4 (2000) 511-532

As to Lucy, as will have been seen she succumbed to romantic pictures of actors playing Shakespeare. But then these sold. But she also wrote a book, on Mary Shelley and it’s online.

I thank my good friend, Fran, for helping me find some of the above material and filling me in on her knowledge of Blind from Fran’s childhood in Lancaster and now life in southern Germany.

I had begun to place my foremother poet blogs over on Austen Reveries where they have mounted up to 18, as under the sign of a central women writer (who also wrote verse); but this one I felt really was not a life which can be placed with Austen as a gravatar, example. For the other (25) foremother poets on this blog, see the archive here.


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Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say? (Carol Shields, Swann)

Mary Cassat, Modern Women (mural) for Women’s Building

Mary Cassatt, detail of mural as a painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some may remember that I reported on a lecture and book I learned about on the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892-93 where the stupendous aim was to gather a copy of every book published by a woman since 1492, and while they came short of that goal, they came as close as anyone could in 1892-93. I wrote a blog that got many hits about the lecture and book, Right Here I see My Own Books: “I did not think there were so many books in the world written by women … ”

In this year’s issue (it comes out once a year) of the Woman’s Art journal, there is an essay on the pathetically little art that has survived from this heroic endeavor, complete with a few photos of the building before it was torn down.

Women’s Building, Northern Pavilion

Women’s Building, Reading Room (Hall of Honor)

The crime — or tragedy – is how all was destroyed and dispersed again — by plan! The article is by an independent scholar, Charlote Garfinkle, “Progress Illuminated: Two Stained Glass Windows from the 1893 Woman’s Building, Woman’s Art Journal, Spring summer 2012. The survivors are two murals and a church-like stained glass window. I’ve put these and the photos of this exhibit to which thousands came in an album for us. You see above the Hall of Honor where you could read some of the women’s books as well as one of the murals: Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women.

As the two presenters of the lecture and writers of the book, Right Here I see My Own Books“, Sarah Wadsworth and Wayen Wiegland, did say the art of this place was limited by the mainstream range of the types of women who ran the clubs which engineered this feat and it may seem a bit stodgy to look at Massachusetts as Mother hovering over the (as yet) coming woman of liberty, but the ideals were all we would want today (and rarely have). Mary Cassett’s mural has women working in a garden like another mural I’ve seen by her, and Mary MacMonnie’s Primitive Women remind me of Puvis de Chavannes (everyone dressed in pseudo-Greek like dresses):

The title of Elizabeth Parsons, Edith Blake Brown and Ethel Isadore Brown’s stained glass contribution, Massachusetts Mothering the Coming Woman of Liberty, Progress and Light is embarrassing, and the imagery highly traditional:

Garfinkle thinks Mary Crease Sears’s Seal of Boston has much private imagery:

Here is a final surviving photo:

The East Facade

The Woman’s Art Journal is itself a marvelous periodical: printed on art paper, it’s just filled with images. It has several long essays, and 23 pages of reviews of a couple of columns each. Expect more from me taken from this periodical from time to time.

For example (one more article): A long essay on the once popular caricatures by Minna Citrone, Jennifer Strebe’s “Minna Citron’s Feminanities: her commentary on the culture of vanity.”

Citron, Hope Springs Eternal/Bargain Basement (1930s)

Citron’s art was social realism intended to critique the present political and social order, especially the workings of unameliorated capitalism. Here’s a cornucopia of her art; and here some of her fellow women print-makers.

She also worked in traditional tropes. Her self-image of the artist makes herself out to be a powerful woman, but not quite no vanities (look at the pretty shoes and improbably fancy dress with the scarf), living in an apartment in the city, where she is not at all cut off from its realities …


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