Given Voices


Fortune's Prisoner, Boethius translated by James Harpur (8.95, 96pp, Anvil)
The Dark Age
, James Harpur (68pp, 7.95, Anvil)


The Boethius poems, with the prose summarised, are his 'The Consolation of Philosophy', and this translation from his original Latin can surely only be welcomed. Boethius wrote the poems and prose in prison charged with treason in northern Italy in the early 6th century. James Harpur discusses the provenance and the ideas but gives no examples of the Latin, nor discusses the problems and decisions involved in bringing the poems into English.
  
There is variation in the line and stanza lengths. The easy flow of the language which seems remarkable given his situation, but he is talking philosophy not personal angst, from the proverbial - one might say haiku-like (only a few of these) - through the reflective via prayer to what might be called the poem as mini-essay.
  
Not that this is dull, there is a voice here - but whose? - and if 'consolation' is the prevailing purpose, and if the tone is calm, this might be taken as discipline of mind, not careless abandon. It might also be an instance of danger clarifying the essentials, while letting the essentials breathe. Perhaps.
  
No single poem adequately can represent the book, but to catch the tone of the translator, here are two of the three stanzas of 'Nero's Legacy':

     We know the havoc he wreaked: Rome blazing,
     Senators cut down, his brother murdered
     And he steeped in his mother's blood appraising
     Her corpse, dry-eyed. Sizing up its beauty.

     Yet here was someone who was emperor
     From farthest east to where the sun sinks down
     From northern regions frozen by the Bear
    To deserts where the parching south wind burns.

What began to suggest itself to me when I got into the book of his own poems, was that the same voice carries over into impersonations of these other voices. The 'Dark Age' of the title refers to back then, before the more detailed historical record: so Brendan, Columba, and more of the Irish, then in a section called 'The Monastic Star-Timetable', James (from 'The Gospel of Arimathea'), St Symeon Stylites and so on, including a few of the Boethius repeated.
   

I began to hear James Harpur's voice, and returning to Boethius, it was the translator I was hearing, not the original author. Back to his own poems, 'St Carthage in the Monastic Graveyard' begins

    That evening the sun was slanting out the crosses

and then Simeon on one of his pillars,

     Most days I think I'm split in two,
     A spirit yearning for the light,

and while the line lengths are different, the tone is the same and, once I'd started to notice, the laidback flow has a habit of finding the obvious, thus 'slanting out', 'yearning for', 'the havoc he wreaked', 'Rome blazing', 'steeped in his mother's blood', 'the parching south wind' (all from what I have quoted here), and both books are like that, all the voices speaking this English of whatever trips off the tongue as the most obvious way of saying.
   
The places and minds out of which he is writing are very different from each other, and his choice of this material, if one may put it so blandly, is in principle a pleasure to find given voice. It isn't hard to hear, empathetically, the meditative intent, and when at first I went into both books, sampling them, the immediate impact of the flow was beguiling. It didn't require much more conscientious reading, though, to begin to find the sameness, even the laziness of the language, speaking for a surface rendering of personae, rather than distinctively voicing a harder-won and imaginatively radical identification.


      David Hart 2008