The Traveller – A Tribute to Michael Hamburger

Series 3 No. 1 - Introductions

Michael Hamburger’s achievement is all of a piece, though it is at the same time so various. The three main strands of his work, as poet, translator and critic, have always been twisted together into a single cord which though it can be separated out is most remarkable and distinguished as a whole.

Michael Hamburger’s achievement is all of a piece, though it is at the same time so various. The three main strands of his work, as poet, translator and critic, have always been twisted together into a single cord which though it can be separated out is most remarkable and distinguished as a whole. What gives his translations and essays their authority is his own work as a writer of verse, so that they have the knowledge of a practitioner in them (nearly all the translations, and most of the criticism, have been of poetry). Conversely, the forays into foreign work through translation and essay have meant that his own poetry, however English it might be in subject and inspiration, has always maintained a receptiveness, and an unfamiliar, extraterritorial tone and movement. Particularly in its rhythms, it is unlike nearly all of what his contemporaries have written, which has meant that in some ways it has been better received in German-speaking countries, where it is widely translated, than in Britain. The work, not surprisingly, contains the same tensions and relations as the life: Hamburger came from Berlin at the age of nine (in 1933), into a new place and a new language, and it is of course possible to read his whole work as a making sense of that enforced displacement, as the exploration and peopling of a no man’s land – an image (is it one?) he has used, in German, to evoke his position between two languages (modulations of it recur in the titles of two of his collections: The Dual Site and Ownerless Earth). Autobiography is a fourth strand of his work. But though he has written critical and autobiographical prose in German as well as English, he has only, as far as I know, ever written poetry in English. In a review of Beckett’s poems he has said: ‘To be bilingual, for a writer, is not an accomplishment but an affliction, amounting to little less than a state of schizophrenia’. In another review he calls schizophrenia the ‘central dilemma of modern western man’ and approvingly quotes Lou Andreas-Salomé characterizing it as the ‘wish to be the whole, to be All’. 

Translation itself, obviously, derives from an impulse to connect, to join and extend outwards while at the same time gathering in. Hamburger’s translations and criticism can be seen as a sustained work of connection, bringing the elements of his life to bear on one another. Often, we can think of translation as a journey outward and back, an arc-like movement out to the foreign and back to somewhere close but not identical to the starting-point, a bringing home. In Michael Hamburger’s case, the journey is also an inward one, back to a language that was once his own and only one and is both familiar and foreign, recovering it into a language which however intimately mastered is not the one that was always there. Translation (from German into English) is thus a lot more complex than bringing something home, or going out to the other, it has an element of estrangement, and it inhabits a region where the native and the foreign cannot be distinguished.

Though he has translated Baudelaire, and written on Jaccottet and Eliot among others, by far the greater part of his work has been on German writers. It is astonishing to realize how much poorer English letters would be without Hamburger – the list of German-language poets he has brought into the language cannot nearly be matched by any other translator: Goethe, Hölderlin, Rilke, Trakl, Hofmannsthal, Celan, Baermann Steiner, Huchel, Eich, Grass, Enzensberger, Jandl …, and more recently Sebald’s so-called ‘elemental poem’ After Nature. Many of these, until recently at least, have been available only in Hamburger’s versions, and they have appeared in editions of their own, properly introduced. The list would be vastly extended by his two anthologies, East German Poetry and (with Christopher Middleton) German Poetry 1910-1975. Most of this has been presented in dual-language editions, emphasising the concern to impart, the attempt to convey readers towards the original, with the translations functioning above all, and very modestly, as aids to understanding, as paths. It is not that the translations do not stand up in their own right, as animate poems in English, but on the whole Hamburger seeks to remain invisible as a translator, discreet and self-effacing, in the service of the poems he is transposing. His translations never impose themselves on the original, they try to take an impression of it, so far as that is possible in the infinitely complex commerce the act of translation represents, where it is never simply a question of one language bending to another. They put themselves at the service of the originals, and of the reader, tending to explain and clarify rather than adding their own difficulties, which verse translations can so easily do. They are also marked by an ease – the real sign of their achievement, since retracing the contours of an original, retaining the confines of the form, is anything but an easy thing. 

Each edition is an introduction: in the mode and manner of the translations, in that the original poems are printed alongside, and because an essay provides the reader with exactly what he or she needs to know for a full understanding of the context of the particular poet’s work. Hamburger is a great writer of the introductory essay, patient, original, clear, and managing to pack an enormous amount of useful material and comment into a small space. His critical prose has the same virtues as his translations – it is in service of that of which it speaks, concerned to elucidate, illuminate, connect, explore, but without pushing a particular interpretation: it aerates, opens up, releases possibilities, without ever leaving the ground of its subject, founded as it is in the close knowledge translation gives and too well-acquainted with the textures of individual poems to be able to stray into generalities. Exemplary, and possibly Hamburger’s finest achievement, is the edition of Poems of Paul Celan, whose translations manage to keep bafflingly close to the word-order and density of the originals and make hard, precise, illuminating poems in English, and whose introduction is simply one of the best things you can read to give you initial bearings, going straight to the heart of the tensions and fracturings of Celan’s poetry. Critical writing is rarely as good as this, partly because it often loses sight of its main function of mediating between work and reader and casting light on the gap between them.

For anyone wanting to find out about German literature from Romanticism onwards, Hamburger’s essays – collected in Reason and Energy, From Prophecy to Exorcism, A Proliferation of Prophets, After the Second Flood – are all but indispensable. They are expeditions into the work of Kleist, Büchner, Trakl, say, combining the thoroughness of the scholar with the sympathy and instinctive grasp of the practising writer. Hamburger leads us through the landscape of his chosen subject, making connections, gradually building up and imparting an understanding, never showy, patiently piecing together out of deftly selected elements a reading that illuminates the  work as a whole by attending to its parts. These essays are always helpful, useful, clear but not prescriptive in their judgements, giving the reader the wherewithal and freedom to continue the journey alone. Taken together they are as impressive a work of mediation as the translations. Hamburger’s most important critical book though is not made up of essays. The Truth of Poetry, first published in 1969 and often reprinted, picks an itinerary through ‘Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s’ (its sub-title), and is an education in itself. Probably no other book introduces so many European and American poets and weaves the different threads together into such an instructive and thought-provoking fabric. Hamburger’s reading is immensely wide, taking in not just the major practitioners of modernism in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese (not Russian though), but also dozens of of less well-known writers in yet more languages. The book is genuinely comparative, but keeps its focus on individual poems, so that we come out of it with a better understanding of the workings of poetry as well as of such questions as the affinity between high modernism and fascist politics, or the tension between plain-spokenness and lyrical diction. What is remarkable is that through all the diversity and multifariousness of what he considers, despite his catholicity of taste, an identifiable and even voice is always audible, a voice with an ethical timbre, and it is this that unifies and connects, guiding us through the intricacies and obliquities of the long, full period he surveys. 

In ‘An Essay on the Essay’ in his collection of ‘Occasional Pieces’ Art as Second Nature Hamburger calls the essay a walk, an excursion, and that is what connects much of his criticism to much of his poetry. Though he has written varieties of what he calls anti-poetry, his best work perhaps, certainly his most distinctive, is in the long sequences, ‘Travelling’, ‘In Suffolk’, and Late, which are structured by a walker traversing a landscape and have the rhythms of walking in them. Not a purposeful walk to a definite destination, but a slow, meditative walk that adapts to the terrain it is crossing, pausing to look closely at whatever it comes upon, guided by curiosity and attentiveness, allowing memories to lay other landscapes over the actual ones, aware of the ways time is written into place and place is written into time. The movement of the verse is both provisional and sure-footed, never arriving but always close to the variations of thought and the shifting of the seasons: ‘Here, weather is all: / To live, in the teeth of it, / As the birds do, / With a little always left over / For celebration. Or else / No longer to live …’ (‘In Suffolk’). Though the poems carry a weight of allusion and knowledge natural and historical, what they are moving towards, or forever skirting around, is putting it off, unlearning it, becoming pure movement, something both infinitely desirable and impossible:

        Knowing less and less, knowing
        That to walk is enough
        On the one, the various earth,
        To see is enough,
        The less lumbered with names,
        The more filled with the sight,
        With the light that’s nobody’s yet,
        New, after all it has fallen on,
        New, wherever it falls;

Michael Hamburger was eighty this year, and his main publisher, Anvil, has recently reissued several of his books to coincide and celebrate. His Hölderlin translations, an ongoing endeavour for more than sixty years, have come out in a further augmented edition, and there is also a new book of poems, Wild and Wounded, and Turning-Point, a collection of miscellaneous poems by Rilke. Given Rilke’s importance, it is surprising that Hamburger hasn’t translated more of him – perhaps it’s partly just because he has been translated more widely than any other German poet by other hands. Or perhaps it is a question of sympathy: in Art as Second Nature Hamburger includes a short ‘Note’ which relates an initial infatuation with Rilke that was succeeded by misgivings about ‘a smoothness, a facility, a lack of friction due to Rilke’ s singular capacity for what looks like empathy, but isn’t’. It then closes by acknowledging his richness, the ‘surprises and potentialities’. One can see this note as the germ of the translations in Turning-Point, because what brings Hamburger to overcome his misgivings is the uncollected poems and fragments Rilke wrote from 1912 onwards, after finishing his prose work, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and this is what the volume contains. Turning-Point first appeared in 1981 as An Unofficial Rilke, and the desire to present another side of Rilke is still, despite or because of the current renewed interest in his poetry, an understandable one. The main reason these poems are not as well known as the New Poems, the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus is that Rilke himself set little store by them and either didn’t publish them at all or only in magazines. He was too bent on completing the Elegies and until that was done regarded anything else as extraneous, even though in many ways he had moved on from their mode and style by the time he had finished them. Also, his idea of a collection was of something coherent, bound together into a whole, and these poems are simply too disparate to fit into a collection of this sort. 

Hamburger has selected about forty poems from what is a large body of work even without counting the late poems Rilke did collect, which he wrote in French. About two thirds of them are from the interim period, a time of crisis in many ways, between the writing down of the first elegies in 1912 and the completion of the last ones ten years later. Some, like the ‘Turning-Point’ of the title, deal with the crisis itself. As Hamburger emphasises in his introduction and demonstrates in his selection Rilke could be quite honest about his shortcomings, and could write poems of a directness, a kind of Expressionist extremity, we still don’t associate with him. The poem about his mother as a destructive force is a notable instance, or ‘Death’ (‘Here you have death, a bluish decoction / in a cup without a saucer’) or this, a ‘complete’ fragment:

        Grey love-snakes I drove out of your
        armpits. As on hot stones
        they lie on top of me now, digesting
        great lumps of satisfied lust.

Hamburger refers to, but does not include, the Seven Poems of 1915, calling them ‘a quite undisguised celebration of unsublimated phallicism’. That may be what they are, but they are also a successful confrontation of Rilke’s early symbolism of rose-gardens and jeunes filles en fleur with the realities underlying them, and it is a pity that these poems, which Celan seems to have taken hints from for some of his own erotic love poems, are missing. They elucidate quite a lot of Rilke.

Other poems here vitally augment and unsettle our image of Rilke, though it is just as easy to observe continuities with Rilke’s earlier work as it is to see the shifts. Coming to these poems in the context of Michael Hamburger’s achievement as a whole, I was struck by the frequency with which landscapes are evoked, not so much particular ones, though there are these too in ‘The Spanish Trilogy’, but imaginary or general ones, often used to convey what we normally think of as abstractions. In ‘Abandoned bare on the heart’s mountains…’ a whole existential and poetic dilemma is turned into a mountain landscape, in another ‘the landscape of love’ is ventured into again. In ‘To Music’ music is addressed as the turning of feelings into ‘audible landscape’ which is ‘beyond habitation’. ‘Palm of the Hand’ sees the palm as both landscape and walker. The wandering and arriving hand might be thought an apt image of the poet-translator, lending and receiving form in a moment of common arrival – Celan thought of the poem itself, any poem, as a handshake. And so I hope it might seem fitting to quote ‘Handinneres’ in the animate encounter of Michael Hamburger’s translation to close this tribute.

        Palm of the hand. Sole that has ceased to walk
        on anything but feeling. That faces up
        and in the mirror
        receives heavenly streets, in themselves
        That has learnt to walk on water
        when it fetches water,
        that walks over wells,
        transmuter of every way.
        That appears in other hands,
        turning its own kind
        into a landscape:
        wanders, arrives in them,
        with arrival fills them.

 Charlie Louth

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