the seafarer


On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos

There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense............

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

  Basil Bunting (1900-1985)

In The Pound Era, published by Faber 1972, Hugh Kenner remarks [footnote: p.151] of Pound's Seafarer that "it seems impossible that he had at his elbow Cook's 1902 prose translation, or for that matter a crib of any kind." Although Cook may conceivably have produced a separate prose translation, it seems more likely that Kenner has in mind the LaMotte Iddings verse translation included by Cook and Tinker in their Translations from Old English Poetry, published by Ginn & Co, 1902. Immediately, one asks oneself why Kenner goes out of his way to deny Pound's use of this "crib". One smells a rat in his bag. As to whether or not Pound had it "at his elbow", readers are invited to judge for themselves:

Lola LaMotte Iddings, 1902

Ezra Pound, 1911

1.   I can sing of myself a true song

May I for my own self song's truth reckon

2.   oft the comfortless night-watch hath held me

I oft spent narrow night-watch

3.   as it tossed about under the cliffs

while she tossed close to cliffs.

4.   My feet were imprisoned with frost

My feet were by frost benumbed,

5.   ice-chains

chill its chains

6.   sighs round my heart

sighs hew my heart round

7.   on the ice-cold sea passed the winter

on ice-cold sea weathered the winter

8.   exile in wretchedness

wretched outcast

9.   robbed of my kinsmen

deprived of my kinsmen

10.   with icicles hung.

hung with hard ice-flakes

11.   there I heard only

there I heard naught

12.   ice-cold waves

ice-cold waves

13.   for mead-drink the call of the sea-mews

the mews' singing all my mead-drink

14.   storms on the rocky cliffs beat

storms on the stone-cliffs beaten

15.   full oft the sea-eagle forebodingly screamed

full oft the eagle screamed

16.   with pinions wave-wet

with spray on his pinion

17.   this little he knows

this he little believes

18.   in the city some hardship

'mid burghers some heavy business

19.   proud and wine-flushed

wealthy and wine-flushed

20.   how weary I oft

how I weary oft

21.   it snowed from the north

snoweth from north

22.   hail fell upon earth

hail fell on earth

23.   thoughts of my heart

The heart's thought

24.   the high streams, the salt waves in tumultuous play

on high streams the salt-wavy tumult traverse

25.   afar off

afar hence

26.   nor so daring in deeds

nor his deed to the daring

27.   what the Lord God shall bestow

whatever his lord will

28.   no heart for the harp has he

he hath not heart for harping

29.   no delight in the world

nor world's delight

30.   nor in aught save

nor any whit else save

31.   woodlands are captured by blossoms

bosque taketh blossom

32.   wanderer eager

man eager

33.   nobleman comprehends not, the luxurious man,

Burgher knows not --- He the prosperous man

34.   now my spirit uneasily turns in the heart's narrow chamber

now my heart burst from my breast-lock

35.   eager and greedy

eager and ready

36.   over the tracts of the sea

o'er tracks of ocean

37.   I can not believe that earth's riches forever endure

I believe not that on earth-weal eternal standeth

38.   ere its time comes,

ere a man's tide go,

39.   violence, age, and disease

Disease or oldness or sword-hate

40.   the soul away, doomed to depart

breath from doom-gripped body

41.   praise from the living

laud of the living

42.   'gainst the malice of fiends

'gainst foes his malice

43.   joy 'mid the hosts

delight mid the doughty

44.   all pomps of earth's kingdom

all arrogance of earthly riches

45.   earth's glory grows aged and sear

earthly glory ageth and seareth

46.   his countenance loses its color

his face paleth

47.   gray-haired he laments

grey-haired he groaneth

48.   though the grave should be covered with gold

though he strew the grave with gold

For closer comparison of these, or any other two versions, in side-by-side frames, click [here].

Kenner's kind word for Lola LaMotte Iddings


Forty-eight samples, and rising: problem solved.

The congruence of vocabulary alone indicates that Pound had Iddings' translation right in front of his nose, if not at his elbow. To name only nineteen instances: sing/song, night-watch, tossed, chains, sighs, ice-cold sea, wretchedness/wretched, kinsmen, mead-drink, cliffs, beat/beaten, pinions/pinion, wine-flushed, tumultuous/tumult, heart for the harp/heart for harping, tracts/tracks, disease, malice, grey-haired, as well as the three little words: mid, oft, ere, are sufficient proof, to me at any rate, that Pound's poem is largely an ingenious re-moulding of Iddings' original text. Quite apart from the parallel sequences of image and concept, and other similarities of phrasing, a number of the words just mentioned, from all the versions examined, occur only in these two texts; and Pound, pace a spirited apologia by F.C.Robinson, The Might of the North, in The Tomb of Beowulf, Blackwell, 1993, was evidently following Iddings with particularly close, but closely concealed, not to say disguised, attention. In A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste Pound advises: "Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it." (My italics). The debt of one writer to another, whether lesser (ignored) or greater (concealed), is, naturally, diverting. As a diversion, for example, consider what has been done by and to A.E.Housman [here].

Robinson's assertion in a second essay from the collection already mentioned, Ezra Pound and the Old English Translational Tradition, that Pound's Seafarer "succeeds in suggesting the quality of Old English verse without seeming quirky or bizarre", appears to me a bizarre opinion from an eminent scholar. The innocent fact is that Pound's poem is both bizarre and grotesque, and his "translation" even more so. A man who reads "angels" as "Angles", "tern" as "stern", and "dwellings" as "berries", would not, presumably, seriously defend his claim to the title of translator. But what can be said for:

Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy,
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides 'mid burghers some heavy business?


For this there's no mood-lofty man over earth's midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful?


My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That on earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous?


Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard?

The "brilliant paraphrases" and "breathtaking magnificence" (see Dr Syntax and Mr Pound, Robert Graves, The Crowning Privilege, 1955 ---- the words were used of Pound's Seafarer by G.S.Fraser, anonymously, in the TLS, 18th September, 1953) of the new flęschoma stitched up by Pound for his marks were, and remain, invisible to more than one wide-eyed observer. Several of these are named by Fraser in Ezra Pound, Oliver & Boyd 1960, Chapter III, Pound and His Critics. Graves, the unmemorable poet, whose verse output seems to have had no impact at all, harboured an almost physical antipathy ("plump, hunched, soft-spoken, and ill-at-ease, with the limpest of handshakes" --- These Be Your Gods, O Israel!) for the prophet of modernism.

Graves refused to sign the petition protesting against the "treatment accorded to U.S. Traitor Pound when the G.I.s caught up with him", less, one suspects, because of Pound's support for the Axis, than because of his "sprawling, ignorant, indecent, unmelodious, seldom metrical" verse. Poetry and politics make queasy fellows, but some sort of vortex encourages their bent to mesh. Most art is entangled in politics: but perhaps the mark of true art is that it scorns the greasy pole. The earnest student might care to trawl the net to see what Ezra really said, cast a cold eye on what s/he fishes up, and then press on.

Graves also comments that, to follow Pound, a "source of poetic inspiration would, I suppose, be the litter left behind by foreign students in a Bloomsbury hostel". The touch of chauvinistic irritation is a bit of a giveaway. "Collage", the term used by Graves to describe the technique employed by Eliot in The Waste Land, and "litter" are now the everyday currencies of contemporary art.

Pound's Alps still tower over the poetic landscape, in the distance, and are unlikely to crumble without further honest excavation. The day of Graves and his objections has yet to come, and maybe never will. Points in favour of the case for Pound, as "translator", are put by Murat Nemet-Nejat here [go to mnn.htm, and return].

"What is modernity?", asked J.Isaacs, in The Background of Modern Poetry (Bell & Son 1951, p.15). "Is it obscurity, is it private reference, is it cacophony, is it the immediate and not the eternal, the particular and not the general? Is it the personal and satiric note? Is it the anti-heroic and debunking? Is it all or some of these?" Impenetrability. (H.Dumpty.)

John Livingston Lowes, in January 1918, at the Lowell Institute in Boston, delivered a lecture on The Diction of Poetry versus Poetic Diction (contained in Convention and Revolt in English Poetry, Constable, 1938) in which he quoted Stevenson: "My two aims may be described as: 1st. War to the adjective. 2nd. Death to the optic nerve."

Lowes goes on to remark "Well, the two battle cries of the New Poetry, as I catch their echoes, are: 1st. War on the eloquent. 2nd. Death to the cliché." In these early comments on modernism, Lowes goes on to say that "the movement is positive ... in its attitude towards the diction of poetry. It proposes to use, in the words of the Imagist pronouncements, 'the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word .....'..... That has been authoritatively interpreted as meaning 'the exact word which conveys the writer's impression to the reader.'"

Pause. These remarks by Lowes and Isaacs were originally inserted here as an exploratory prologue to a detailed study of what Pound was about, why his performance was thought so effective (in certain quarters) and why his influence is undeniable. But the post-modern era is with us now; the interest palls in old hats, and it's simply easier to say that Pound translated the seafarer's message (if he grasped it) into his personal medium. He used the words which conveyed his subjective impression of The Seafarer: this had almost nothing to do with what the Anglo-Saxon was actually saying, or intending to say. The door to the 20th century was kicked down, the centre of the Zeitgeist fell apart, and sound and fury, signifying nothing, slouched into being. Check E.J.Barton, The McLuhan-Pound Correspondence [here]. So what if the world's disjointed axle crack? The melancholy madman, whether gloomy, dolorous, Danish or Spanish, still takes up arms against the sea of troubles, still single fights forsaken virtue's cause, seeks wretched good, arraigns successful crimes.

"I confess that I am seldom interested in what he is saying, but only in the way he says it." T.S.Eliot on Pound, quoted by F.R.Leavis, in New Bearings in English Poetry, Chatto 1959, p.136.

unlikely to be continued

November 2006. An essay by Lee Garver, Assistant Professor of English at Butler University, has appeared in Journal of Modern Literature, Summer 2006, entitled Seafarer Socialism: Pound, the New Age and Anglo-Medieval Radicalism. This raises a number of interesting issues in connection with Pound's mangling of Lola's honest endeavour, so it seems I find myself prompted to carry on sounding off on Pound. Next Page.

January 2007. Another essay, by Chris Jones, Lecturer in English Poetry at St Andrews, has been noted. This is entitled 'Ear for the sea-surge': Pound's Uses of Old English. Next Page.

It is curious, possibly interesting, but more likely irrelevant, that "Lolita" was the pet name used of Lola LaMotte Iddings by her brother; and that Vladimir Nabokov, in a 1967 Paris Review interview, referred to her exploiter and his works as ''the pretentious nonsense of Mr. Pound, that total fake." One could say that humbugs of a feather flock together.

In The Art of Translating Poetry, 1988, the industrious scholar B.Raffel has much to say about Pound's (and his own) Seafarer. Here is a sample (p 25): "Notice in particular how ingeniously Pound has balanced a very deliberate aping of the Old English with just as deliberate approximations. His 'journey's jargon,' for example. stems from sithas secgan ('to tell/speak of journeys/voyages'). His phrase alliterates, but not (not?) according to the pattern used in the original." However, sižas secgan, in my unhumble opinion, does not primarily mean "tell of voyages". It means "explain the ways": cf Sw. sätten säga; [see annotation]. Pound's 'journey's jargon', of course, while remarkably ugly, means nothing at all. Is 'jargon' an exemplary instance of Imagiste exactness?

Later on (p 165) Raffel remarks: " not go to Ezra Pound's translation for an accurate portrayal of the Old English soul or of the Old English mind. The heart probably beats harder in his translation. I think it beats more complexly, as well as rather more accurately, in mine." Inaccurate though Raffel's version is, it would be extremely difficult to be more inaccurate than Ezra. Raffel makes some interesting points in his remarkable book, which is only marred, perhaps, by his excessive modesty when discussing his own work. Still, other interpreters are no less modest, no doubt. dómr um daušan for the summing up. [Back to commentary].

In Translation & Literature, Volume 3, 1994, M.J. Alexander has an article entitled Old English Poetry into Modern English Verse. On page 70 of this periodical, Alexander writes: "It was Ezra Pound's translation of The Seafarer which prompted me to translate other Old English poems into verse. When I asked Pound in 1961 if I could dedicate my book The Earliest English Poems to him, he replied: 'If you think ..... it can be done ..... without irony', a warning which I did not heed."

Was this remark by Pound actually some sort of shame-faced, inexplicit acknowledgement that his mastery of Anglo-Saxon was possibly not all that it had been taken to be? When he described his Seafarer as his "heave to overthrow the iambic" it can only have been the iambic of Lola LaMotte Iddings that he was referring to.

Ezra Pound
Expounded sound
At the expense
Of sense.

pound note two
pound note three
pound note four

John Irons has an interesting page on poetic plagiarism: here.

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