Eros & Psyche

Getting back to the “science” of translation (there is no such thing), I should like to recommend Coventry Patmore’s translations of Paul Claudel. Granted, I have got this backwards. Claudel (1868–1955) was under the reasonable impression that he was translating Patmore (1823–96) into French. He was doing this during the period of his symphonic Cinq Grandes Odes, when, in the outset of the twentieth century, he sought to retrieve harmonic resonances to which his contemporaries seemed deaf or dead. Claudel, as Patmore, was profoundly reactionary, and thus incomprehensible in his day and since. (He has often been retrospectively smeared.) Even so, he is appreciated for his music, as Patmore is not, by those prepared to ignore what each is saying.

Kiss me again, and clasp me round the heart,
Till fill’d with thee am I
As the cocoon with the butterfly …

Patmore is forgotten in English, for both music and meaning. He went to extraordinary lengths to make himself understood, always a mistake in a poet. He left a trail of short essays and a treatise on metre, by which he was found out, as a Catholic alien in a Protestant milieu; among the “homegrown” cases. His comments on the “nauseous and vicious effeminacy” of his time, on its hamstrung “logic mitigated by enthusiasm,” sent even his contemporaries scrambling for their safe spaces. In a time of soft, highbrow porn, he was reverting to the Song of Solomon.

My Darling, know
Your spotless fairness is not match’d in snow,
But in the integrity of fire.
Whate’er you are, Sweet, I require …

He presented a form of erotic masculinity the opposite of the homosexual, for which the “Gay Nineties” were unprepared. His verse meditation on the fable of “Eros and Psyche,” Christianized as “body and soul,” makes no connexions that I can detect with the broken symbolism, the fey imagism, the surrealism, and Freudulent psychologism that was to follow through the Great War. And yet apart from a few floral flutterings of high Victorian lyricism, he rejects the nineteenth century just as well.

If instead of reading forward we instead read backwards, taking Patmore as the translator of Claudel, we may begin to see this. Patmore serves as the gloss, showing through the fable how the soul seeks the body, more passionately and substantively than the body seeks the soul.