Mittwoch, 21. Februar 2018

Hannah Arendt on the Time She Met W.H. Auden

I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy, knowledgeable intimacy of friendships formed in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends. Moreover, there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity—not that I tested it, ever. I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, one who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the déformation professionnelle of the poet. In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.” This kind of perfection is very rare; we find it in some of the greatest of Goethe’s poems, and it must exist in most of Pushkin’s works, because their hallmark is that they are untranslatable. The moment poems of this kind are wrenched from their original abode, they disappear in a cloud of banality. Here all depends on the “fluent gestures” in “elevating facts from the prosaic to the poetic”—a point that the critic Clive James stressed in his essay on Auden in Commentary in December 1973. Where such fluency is achieved, we are magically convinced that everyday speech is latently poetic, and, taught by the poets, our ears open up to the true mysteries of language. The very untranslatability of one of Auden’s poems is what, many years ago, convinced me of his greatness. Three German translators had tried their luck and killed mercilessly one of my favorite poems, “If I Could Tell You” (Collected Shorter Poems 1927–1957), which arises naturally from two colloquial idioms—“Time will tell” and “I told you so”:
Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.
If we should weep when clowns put on their show,
If we should stumble when musicians play,
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . .
The winds must come from somewhere when they blow,
There must be reasons why the leaves decay;
Time will say nothing but I told you so. . . . [mehr]

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