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Edwards, Michael (ed.), Duclos Michèle (trad.), Charles Tomlinson: comme un rire de lumière

Paul Volsik
p. 185-188
Référence(s) :

Edwards, Michael (ed.), Duclos Michèle (trad.), Charles Tomlinson: comme un rire de lumière, Paris: Caractères, 2009, 132 p. ISBN: 978-2-85446-433-7.

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1This translation of a selection of poems by Charles Tomlinson into French, in the ideal format—a bilingual edition—is an excellent initiative. Contemporary poetry is in real need of committed passeurs like Michèle Duclos, whose sympathetic and informed investment in their poets has a double effect, subtly and rightly reworking the hierarchies of the original canon (Charles Tomlinson is at the moment somewhat marginalised in Britain) and at the same time proposing a universe which readers in the host culture will potentially and hopefully find profitable. Tomlinson himself is a translator of, among other texts, French poetry, and thus also gave access to important figures. I myself encountered Machado thanks to his translations. More indirectly he is himself, in his own work, a “passeur” of the innovations of American poets like Oppen, Williams, Moore and Zukofsky—indeed his first readership was more American than British. Paradoxically, this openness to the “foreign” has never masked nor attenuated the characteristic rootedness of his work. He himself quoted Lawrence saying “all creative art must rise out of a specific soil and flicker with the spirit of place” (in Tomlinson’s case the Potteries of his youth or the Bristol where he worked as an academic). But it is not just a question of climate, light or landscape—what is at stake in the “Englishness” of the work of Tomlinson is also, as Michael Edwards’ excellent introduction rightly suggests, the locus of certain intellectual traditions, certain aesthetic priorities, and thus a certain particular reworking of the British intertext—for example the presence of the aesthetic and moral priorities of Ruskin.

2The selection of poems offers an excellent and balanced presentation of the work. One finds in Tomlinson’s work what is traditionally seen as a certain “typically” English hesitation about the poetics and the politics of “excess” of the sort Tomlinson has read into the confessional tradition and Sylvia Plath or the British neo-Romantics of the forties, whose work was influenced by Dylan Thomas. For the perceived dangers of political excess (the work of “men of extremes”) one finds in this collection on the one hand poems that deal with central figures in the French Revolution (“Charlotte Corday”, “For Danton”. . .) in which one reads a historically British horror of the violence of that Revolution, and on the other poems (like “Siena in Sixty Eight”) which criticise the “frivolity” of a certain contemporary political activism on the one hand or that deal with the murderousness of certain types of “commitment” (cf. “Assassin” about the killing of Trotsky by Ramon Mercader, who, typically for Tomlinson, is blinded by his own sense that “I am the future”) on the other. Though these (Orwellian?) texts deal explicitly with “foreign” manifestations of political terror they do so in a context of a very general condemnation of the political enthusiasm and blindness about what one might call Stalinism (though Tomlinson would probably call it communism) and its avatars (hence his distaste for the poets of the thirties. . .). The particularities of his critical articulation of personal and political excess is perhaps best shown in this selection in his poem entitled “Prometheus” where one finds a certain prototypical reticence about the Russian composer (whose work “Prometheus” is opposed to the gentler and emblematically “English” and merciful “Greensleeves”). Scriabin was a man who saw himself as a Promethean figure, whose stealing of fire, whose mystic synaesthetic projects (combining music—“a mob of instruments” says Tomlinson—with projections of light) seem to the poet emblems of a certain form of aesthetic hubris that can only provoke political disasters. As we know, towards the end of his life Scriabin planned a multi-media work to be performed in the Himalayas, that would bring about the armageddon, “a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world”. Thompson turns his back on such ambitions, looks more towards the solitary and subtle experience of the rebirth, the coming to life, of an apparently known world (see his “Ararat”). “We have lived through the apocalypse too long” says Tomlinson. He is more a Wordsworthian than a Shelleyan.

3But the expression “known world” is unfair, for what is perhaps most interesting in his poems is the process of discovery which suggests a radical unknowability of the apparently known and a knowing that shows constant respect for elements that resist. Tomlinson’s poetry is a form of heightened wakefulness in front of mysteries, epiphanies that manifest themselves in an often unpeopled world. Donald Davie, his mentor in Cambridge, wrote in 1955 of an early collection “<the poems> improve the world. Once we have read them, it appears to us renovated and refreshed, its colours more delicate and clear, its masses more momentous, its sounds and odours sharper, more distinct.” But more revealing perhaps is a famous quotation (mentioned by Michèle Duclos in her postface) where Tomlinson suggest that what interests him is a world/work that manifests: “the hardness of crystals, the facets of cut class, but also the shifting of light, the energising weather which is the result of a combination of sun and frost—these are the images for a certain mental climate, components for the moral landscape of my poetry in general”. This quotation is particularly revealing in the way it combines what Edwards sees as a prototypical English interest not only in the visual (cf. his interest in painters like Braque or Cézanne or his own art work of which a few interesting examples are given in the collection) but a visual that combines an epiphanic stasis (of which a painting might be the incarnation) with metamorphosis, and the “real” with the mental and the moral. It is this encounter that one hears in the title of the collection “Comme un rire de lumière” and that Tomlinson himself finds in the “Ode to Arnold Schoenberg”, in a form of redemption that delivers the world but also the idiom (for him the English language) and the instrument (for him poetry). It is this that one finds in a very concentrated form in a poem like “The Track of the Deer”.

4Though this priority links him back in some ways to Thomas Hardy, Tomlinson’s work, like that of all original poets, is in fact a very particular reworking of multiple traditions (modernist—in his experiments with line-lengths for example—but also eighteenth century in a certain moral syntax). It is thus right that this timely translation should encourage us to look at him again. If one may be allowed to quote a famous remark by Valéry about Baudelaire’s translations of Poe.:

5Celui-ci [Poe] livre à celui-là [Baudelaire] tout un système de pensées neuves et profondes. Il l’éclaire, il le féconde, il détermine ses opinions sur une quantité de sujets [. . .]. Tout Baudelaire en est imprégné, inspiré, approfondi. Mais, en échange de ces biens, Baudelaire procure à la pensée de Poe une étendue infinie. Il la propose à l’avenir.

6and with all due sense of the respective historical weight of the poets involved, one may perhaps suggest that these translations, by their very existence, generate a form of reciprocity, that just as France is being given the opportunity to discover a very “English” poet, the English poet is being given a new and by definition unpredictable future.

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Référence papier

Paul Volsik, « Edwards, Michael (ed.), Duclos Michèle (trad.), Charles Tomlinson: comme un rire de lumière », Études britanniques contemporaines, 39 | 2010, 185-188.

Référence électronique

Paul Volsik, « Edwards, Michael (ed.), Duclos Michèle (trad.), Charles Tomlinson: comme un rire de lumière », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 39 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 février 2016, consulté le 22 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2819

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Paul Volsik

Université Paris VII—Denis-Diderot

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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