27 septembre 2006

par Roger Scott


David Gascoyne’s lifelong engagement with France and the burgeoning of what would become an extraordinary sympathy with its language, its culture, and particularly its poetry, began in the 1930s. At various times in his development as a writer, Gascoyne not only translated the work of 20th century French poets, notably Eluard and the Surrealists, and Pierre Jean Jouve, but chose to write original poems in French, occasionally to translate those of fellow poets and friends and to self-translate several of his own into that language.

JPEG - 22 ko
fac similé de l’auteur

One of the earliest of his many notebooks [1] (c.1936) contains the titles of a sequence of poems in French, ‘Les Aréopages tombent’ : this proposed collection comprises four self-translations, ‘La Cage’, ‘L’Image même’, ‘La Fin est près du début’ and ‘La Vérité est aveugle’, together with a list of twenty-seven other poems, several of which have already been written, as he indicates [2]. When Man’s Life is this Meat was published in May of that year, he dedicated a copy to Georges Hugnet ; the back page was inscribed with a manuscript poem in French written by hand, ‘Eau Sifflée’. That summer, only months after the composer’s death in 1935, Gascoyne wrote ‘Elegiac Stanzas in Memory of Alban Berg’ in two drafts [3] : the first is in five sections, the second, incomplete, in three. He considered his English poem ‘unsatisfactory’ and began a French version in the summer of 1939 after his return to his parents’ home in England. It was published as ‘Strophes Elégiaques à la mémoire d’Alban Berg’ the following year in Cahiers du Sud [4]. Why he chose to return to the abandoned project some three years later and then composed the long poem in French is difficult now to ascertain. When I put this question to him on his eighty-fifth birthday in 2001 he answered straight away : ‘Because there were things that I wanted to say in French at that time’ [5]. It seems likely that the influence of the poetry of Jouve and their mutual regard for Berg’s music was a factor here and, given Gascoyne’s truly European sensibility, he may have wished to put into practice his understanding of French poésie as distinct from the English word ‘poetry’.

His poem ‘Qu’est-ce que la Décadence ?’ and his French versions of three of Kathleen Raine’s poems were published in 84 (mars, 1950) [6] ; another Raine translation appears in a notebook from c. 1954 [7] , together with draft translations of five poems by Fred Marnau [8]. Nearly forty years later Gascoyne’s poem, ‘Arbres, bêtes, courants d’eau’, dedicated to his friend Salah Stétié, was published in Poésie 92. [9]

What follows this introduction is his choice of his own poems transposed into French [10] There is today no possibility of deducing any guiding principle of selection, nor of assigning to them with certainty a specific date of completion. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that I located them in three different notebooks [11]. As self-translator, Gascoyne recognized the need to represent the complete work by both pieces of writing, and the original English poem accompanies half of the translations, which are drawn from his first three collections : ‘The Symptomatic World’ III ; [12] ‘The Cage’, ‘Unspoken’ and ‘The End is Near the Beginning’ from Man’s Life is this Meat (1936) ; ‘Amor Fati’, ‘The Fault’, ‘Cavatina’, ‘I.M. Benjamin Fondane’, ‘Sanctus’, ‘Ex Nihilo’, ‘Winter Garden’, ‘Spring MCMXL’, and ‘Oxford : A Spring Day’ from Poems 1937-42 (1943) ; ‘September Sun:1947’ and ‘Photograph’ from A Vagrant and other poems (1950) ; ‘Half-an-Hour’ (c.1960, dedicated to Meraud Guevara), ‘Remembering the Dead’ (1959) and ‘The Grass in Waste Places’ (c.1956), [13] three later poems not published together until 1988 ; ‘Seaside Souvenir’ (1933) [14], too, remained uncollected until republished for the first time in 1988.

In three of the manuscripts, unlike the tiny, meticulous calligraphy of his mentor Pierre Jean Jouve, Gascoyne’s is large and sprawling, typical of that found in some of the notebooks from the late 1940s and the 1950s. Between 1954 and 1964, apart from brief visits to England, he was the house-guest of the painter Meraud Guevara, spending six months of each year in Paris and six months at La Tour de César in Aix-en-Provence. I suspect that these versions of ‘Sanctus’, ‘Ex Nihilo’ and ‘I.M. Benjamin Fondane’ date from 1954 in Paris and the ‘blank period’ [15] of ‘those years of unproductivity’ and silence when he was unable to write a line due to la crampe. [16] However, the uniform neatness of the handwriting of the remaining poems suggests to me that they were transcribed during the 1980s [17] (with the exception of ‘The Symptomatic World’, c.1996) in the stability created by the vital influence and devotion of his wife Judy following their marriage in 1975. He seemed to gain a new lease of life and tapped into a rich vein of creativity, but he wrote little original poetry of his own. Robert Lowell, whose poetry Gascoyne admired, said of his versions of other poets’ verse in Imitations that he had produced them ‘when I was unable to do anything of my own’. [18] Gascoyne told Michèle Duclos in 1984 that ‘At times, when one can’t write poems oneself it[translation] represents a way of creating equivalents of poems that one likes or admires. [...] Above all, I like to translate poems by poets whom I know personally’. [19]

To the best of my knowledge, Gascoyne never referred in writing or in conversation to the existence of these self-translations. We may ask ourselves why a writer celebrated as the translator of the work of modern and contemporary French poets, should choose to make French versions of his own poems, a fair proportion of which have been translated in France by his fellow poets in Miserere. Poèmes 1937-42. [20] Gascoyne’s biculturalism and his activity as self-translator might bring Samuel Beckett to mind, but Beckett’s bilingualism exists on a much larger scale as he devoted most of his working life to this fundamental and essential aspect of his writing, transposing his own texts from English to French, or vice versa.

I could only speculate about the raison d’être for these texts, and would prefer instead to quote this most perceptive observation from a letter [21] sent to me by the poet, translator and essayist, Michael Hamburger. He suggests that in Gascoyne’s case the struggle ‘to incorporate the whole of a truth in poems [...] was exacerbated by the pull between French and English exemplars. [...] In his English poems there was a tension between traditional rhetoric (and rhythms and metres) and the colloquialism established by his immediate predecessors, Auden and the rest. Although Verlaine thought he wrung the neck of rhetoric in French the rhetoric re-asserted itself even in Surrealism and all the other modernisms. [...] Somehow French is a more abstract language than English ; therefore perhaps more congenial to David in his search for transcendent spirituality’.

Clearly the selection published here [22] offers the reader a new perspective on Gascoyne : original versions in two languages. Does the dynamic process of translating from English to French provide the writer too with a different perception of his own work ? Does the transcription of expression and form repeat and alter the original ?

Characterized by Philippe Soupault as ‘a French poet writing in English’ [23], Gascoyne may have felt challenged to experience the process of translating his own poems, which would accord, in one respect, with Yves Bonnefoy’s view that ‘if he himself [the translator] is a writer, he will be unable to keep his translating separate from his own work’. [24] Or did self-translation become a temporary substitute for creating new poems in English when the ability to do so had cruelly left him ? Did it, more broadly, offer a strategy to help him break the silence, a constant theme in his work from 1950 [25] when the effects of his amphetamine addiction had begun to make themselves felt, and he would suffer from writer’s block and three serious breakdowns ? It was Beckett who said that ‘All writing is a sin against speechlessness. Trying to find a form for that silence. [...] One can never get over the fact, never rid oneself of the old dream of giving a form to speechlessness’. [26]


[1Add.56040 in the Manuscripts Department in the British Library, pp.23-24

[2The titles include : ‘La Peste’, ‘La guitare de Picasso’, ‘On ne sait pas dormir’, ‘Les cieux sont rouges’. As far as I know, they were never published and have not survived

[3The first draft is in the Manuscript Department in the British Library, Adds.56041/56043, the second in the Berg Collection in New York Public Library. Both remain unpublished.

[4No.220 (janvier 1940), pp.49-52. Gascoyne told me in 1994 that he and Jouve ‘shared a passion for Berg’.

[5He agreed that there might have been something in my suggestion that there was, too, the feeling that nothing would ever be the same again after Berg’s death and in view of the deterioration in international relations in Europe. What does seem incontrovertible is the elegiac mood ; however, instead of maintaining the initial focus on Berg and his music and their significance for the poet, the ‘Strophes Elégiaques’ open out in section two to engage with the zeitgeist defined by the palpable threat of war, and the notion of mankind hellbent on a collision course with catastrophe.

[6Numéro 13, p.28, and pp.36-37 :‘Feu d’hiver’, ‘Le Monde’, and ‘L’Esprit tutelaire’. An earlier contribution, ‘Clef des mots : Mot-clef’ had appeared in Poésie, numéro 3-4 (Paris, 1948).

[7‘Nocturne’, which I sent to Temenos Academy Review ; it was published in No.8 (2005), pp.12-13.

[8Quelques poèmes de Fred Marnau’ : ‘’Ode’, ‘Maison en Russie Carpathienne’, ‘Promenade au soir’, ‘L’Air’, ‘Le Sauveur’ : ‘Versions françaises’.

[9(février, 1992), together with the poem mentioned earlier, ‘Eau Sifflée’, pp.60-62. Gascoyne chose to read his poem dedicated to his friend Stétié at the presentation in London in 1996 of the prestigious award of Chevalier dans L‘Ordre des Arts et Lettres.

[10© The estate of David Gascoyne 2006.

[11One is now in the Gascoyne Collection at the MacFarlin Library, University of Tulsa, another in the David Gascoyne Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University ; the third, 1983-1996, is in my possession.

[12This long poem in sections was written in 1936, but was not included in Man’s Life is this Meat ; it was collected for the first time in David Gascoyne, Early Poems (Warwick : Greville Press, 1980).

[13Collected Poems 1988 (Oxford University Press, 1988).

[14First published in The Sunday Referee as ‘Seaside Memories’ on 7 May 1933.

[15As Gascoyne terms it in one of his notebooks.

[16‘Introductory Notes’, Collected Poems 1988, p.xxi.

[17The self-translations ‘Seaside Souvenir/Souvenance littorale’ and ‘The End is Near the Beginning/La Fin près du début’ are handwritten in a notebook and dated 6.V.85.

[18Introduction’ (New York : Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1961), p.xii.

[19‘Entretien avec David Gascoyne’ in Cahiers Sur La Poésie, Numéro spécial : David Gascoyne (Université de Bordeaux III, 1984), p.30. My translation.

[20Collection du Miroir (Granit, 1989).

[21Dated 22/2/02. They were life-long friends. Hamburger was initially responding to my query about Gascoyne choosing to re-write the Berg poem in French, though I think his answer has a broader relevance to any consideration of the focus of the poetry from the publication of Poems 1937-42 (1943).

[22I am very grateful to both Anne Mounic and Michèle Duclos for their help in what has been a collaborative enterprise.

[23’In conversation with Kathleen Raine.’

[24‘Translating Poetry’ in PN Review, No.45 (1985), p.6. English translation by John Alexander & Clive Wilmer

[25As I pointed out in my introduction to David Gascoyne : Encounter With Silence. Poems, 1950, edited with an introduction by Roger Scott (London : Enitharmon Press, 1998).

[26Quoted by Anne Atik in How It Was. A Memoir of Samuel Beckett (London : Faber, 2001), p.95.

temporel nous contacter | sommaire | rédaction | haut de page