Eva Hoffman's 1989 book, Lost in Translation, about changing languages and cultures, is the classic on the subject. It is, I think, one of the great twentieth century books, combining memoir, clear analysis and poetic precision of metaphor and association.
Some time ago I said a little - too little - about Hoffman's new novel, Illuminations. I should have said more. However, today she writes in The Guardian. In it, she returns to the themes of Lost in Translation:
It was one of the powerful lessons of emigration that language is not only something you use, but something that lives within you, that shapes your perceptions, and constructs your very self. Without it, I lost my conduit to my own subjectivity. And so, I wanted badly to recreate in my second language the relationship I had to my first. In a sense, I wanted English to become a fully expressive instrument; and for that, I needed to learn not only its vocabulary and grammar, but its inflections and rhythms, its specific music.
Absolutely. This is one aspect of the question I want to explore about the Englishness of English poetry. She goes on to compare writing - essentially prose writing, the construction of novels - with music in terms of time.
…most forms of expression rarely attain the felt form, the condensed meaningfulness of music. Writing, especially in the extended medium of prose, almost necessarily deploys the materials of explicit narrative. It talks of specific situations or events, of "what happens", and sometimes what will happen next. Music also unfolds in time, and contains development, reiterations, turns of theme. But it rarely makes an argument, or "tells a story." Its meanings are built through a self-referential, inner logic. Writing is made of discrete particles of perception; music can sometimes say everything at once, can express both grief and joy in the same chord.
And finally she moves to a discussion of the relationship of romanticism to violence.
…But I also wanted to explore the Janus face of romanticism, the way that the quest for transcendent meanings can lead to the drive for violence, as well as for sublimity. In my novel Illuminations, these two polarities meet - and eventually, terribly collide - in an encounter between Isabel Merton, the protagonist, and her increasingly fanatical nationalist lover. Because music adumbrates meanings rather than ideas, it is rarely ideological; but its intensities have appealed to extremist ideologues of all stripes. Lenin apparently loved Beethoven's Appassionata. But in another sense, music is the opposite of extremism, or the simplistic reductiveness of violence; a great composition can include anger and even rage, but it contains these within complex and multi-layered form; and almost always, the music we love works its way through the darker emotions to a more reconciled acceptance.
Yes, 'the Janus face of romanticism', and 'But in another sense...' The issue of containment. In Clockwork Orange Alex is moved and driven by Beethoven's Ninth. Hitler's love of Wagner and Schubert. Romanticism and big numbers. Auden's Numbers and Faces in 1950:
...Lovers of small numbers go benignly potty,
Believe all tales are thirteen chapters long,
Have animal doubles, carry pentagrams,
Are Millerites, Baconians, Flat-Earth Men.
Lovers of big numbers go horribly mad,
Would have the Swiss abolished, all of us
Well purged, somatotyped, baptised, taught baseball:
They empty bars, spoil parties, run for Congress...
There are, of course, moments when romanticism is the only possible state of mind. English is the language of small numbers generally. It may be all those tiny parts of speech and the lack of grand military inflections. Almost all its abstractions are borrowed from Latin. Difficult to go horribly mad on borrowed abstractions.
One way of looking at poetry is as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. Another, as someone once said, is as "a shower of fine particulars".*
Boring as this may seem to those who live with it all the time, it was one of the attractions of English for those of us who grew up in constant expectation and fear of big numbers. And I am not thinking only of six million.
*Wrong. Misremembering a passage from Anthony Hecht's marvellous Venetian Vespers, thus:
To give one’s attention to such a sight
Is a sort of blessedness. No room is left
For antecedence, inference, nuance.
One escapes from all the anguish of this world
Into the refuge of the present tense.
The past is mercifully dissolved, and in
Easy obedience to the gospel’s word,
One takes no thought whatever of tomorrow,
The soul being drenched in fine particulars.