By Martin Sorrell.
PETER RILEY HAS GIVEN a moving account1 of a visit he made in 1984 to a remarkable fellow-poet, once esteemed but by then neglected. Two years before Nicholas Moore died on 26 January 1986 at the age of sixty-seven, Riley went to see him at his address in St Mary Cray, where Kent drifts into London. Since 1948, Moore had been living in a nondescript maisonette on Oakdene Road. I’ve taken a look round the area on Google, and it’s about as unpoetic as it gets.
By that stage, Moore himself was something of a physical wreck. An amputee; diabetes had cost him a leg. He’d never been careful with his health; he’d seen no reason to deny himself a regular bottle or two, cigars, and careless foods. But he was a feisty fighter whose soul was in better shape, nourished by cricket on the television, jazz on the radio and gramophone, flowers in the garden. He was confined to a wheelchair, on which he’d learned to whizz around the bends, down the straights and through the chicanes that constituted the room in which he did his living. Everywhere, papers and more papers, books, Lucie Rie pots used as bins, long-playing records, and hundreds of his own poems, knocked out on an old Remington. Riley called it ‘organised squalor’ – the romantic view of the poet’s lair, in short. Outside, at the back of the house, beneath grass and cabbages, was the memory of a true gardener’s garden. Moore was an expert horticulturist who three decades earlier had published a serious book on the Tall Bearded Iris. So there was every chance that the following Spring a few would assert themselves among the rank growth.
NICHOLAS MOORE, THE SON of a famous man – his father was philosopher G.E. Moore – had been a famous poet, once, briefly. For a while, his reputation stood as high as Dylan Thomas’s. The years of prominence were the 1940s. Nine of the eighteen publications listed in his bibliography belong to that decade, four to 1941 alone. None of his books and pamphlets is readily available now, except occasionally in good libraries. By a stroke of luck, the Special Collection of my local University has one. It allowed me to consult its copy of The Glass Tower: selected poems 1936-1943, published in 1944. There, I found tough but tender poems, casually demotic but erudite, poems about an unsettled urban world of frail humanity among the night life of wet streets. I found a mental asylum or two. And there was a wonderful bonus: interspersed among The Glass Tower’s pages I enjoyed paintings and drawings by the young Lucian Freud. The book is a treasure twice over.
Apart from The Glass Tower and the book in which I first encountered Nicholas Moore – the extraordinary Spleen, of which more later – the only work of Moore’s I’ve been able to see (and which happily I now possess) is one of the many pomenvylopes he bashed out on his typewriter, using variously-coloured ribbons. Moore’s method was to type on the back (the front too, sometimes) of medium-size envelopes, which he then winged off to an eclectic bunch of recipients.
I came by mine through the generosity of Anthony Rudolf, whose Menard Press re-issued Spleen in 1990, and who included it with the copy I’d ordered. I have ‘pomenvylope no. 10′ in front of me now. On the reverse is a sonnet entitled, ‘The Old Men’, and dedicated to one Henry D. Klein and a certain E.V. Cleanhead. The poem is signed Armin Coolhose, residing at Treadfoot House, Private Highballs Street, The Unamerican University of Creak.
On the front, around the edges, complementing the old 6d postage stamp and Rudolf’s address, are three little enigmatic squibs:
Break it up boys! – C. Night-Light
If president fixon wears a reggie sex scairpiece, why can’t you. Egg-head?
WHY NOT TURN A PURPLER SHADE OF PUCE YOU OLD FUDDY-DUDDY? – SEND YOURSELF A POMENVYLOPE FOR XMAS (Toujours La Politesse, star of Mule and Stooge)
The type is blotchy, made worse by an expiring ribbon and a clutter of corrections hammered over the several typos. This ‘pomenvylope’, and the few others I’ve managed to read, speak to me of the frustration Moore lived with for the decades after brief fame had become neglect. They express the dogged endurance of a poet still possessed of a strong voice and the wish to have it heard. For, as Riley found in 1984, Moore was continuing to write, copiously, something he did right up to his death. Physically as much as anything, that would have been demanding. To add to his general malfunction, his eyesight was now failing. Yet he persevered in filling reams of paper, and each new poem or aphoristic squib would be given a place somewhere on the slopes and in the crevasses of the junk mountain in his living room. When he needed a break, there was always a drink glass and a cigar, cricket on the box, jazz on the turntable. And the promise of irises.
I FIRST HEARD OF Nicholas Moore sometime in the 1980s, at a gathering of literary translators. I was wishing out loud that there was a publisher prepared to bring out a book composed of original poems accompanied by a plurality of translations of every one of them, not just the usual one each. Someone interrupted to say that such a book already existed – though ‘translation’ needed to be thought of pretty loosely. That book was Moore’s Spleen, first published in 1973. Five years before that, the Sunday Times had run a competition for the best translation of a Baudelaire poem. In due course, the newspaper received from Moore a grand total of thirty-one versions of the same poem, one of those which Baudelaire entitled ‘Spleen’ – not taken from the group of four sonnets, but the eighteen-line single stanza that reads like a sonnet, its sustained argument set out in Alexandrine rhyming couplets. It’s the one that begins: ‘Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux’ (I am like the king of a rainy country).
The king of this rainy country, we are told, is young but at the same time very old, rich yet powerless, handsome in the eyes of the women around him, but ugly to himself. The world is out of kilter, court jesters fail to amuse him, domestic pets to bring comfort. He’s a wasted skeleton, though his illness is more spiritual than physical. He’s another Hamlet; he’s lost all his mirth.
Moore’s variations on the King of Spleen are less depressive and, well, more splenetic than Baudelaire’s. Moore’s thirty-one avatars are not so much real monarchs as frustrated outsiders who sometimes incline to literature:
I am like the T.S Eliot of new wastelands;
sometimes to the life political:
I’m like the Leader of the Opposition
and at other times are self-referential:
I’m like the Winner of The Competition.
Why did Moore do something so odd? His evasive reply was that ‘one thing led to another’. What is immediately obvious, though, is the hurt at having been abandoned by the literary establishment. Moore delivers stinging swipes at its short memory. He’s the exiled and powerless ex-monarch, watching the rain pelt down on a suburban street.
Ostensibly, however, the thirty-one pieces are meant to be the systematic proof that it is impossible to translate poetry. Moore entitled his introductory essay ‘On the Impossibility of Translation’, and in its first paragraph he snorts that he’s done all these takes on Baudelaire just to show George Steiner, the judge of the Sunday Times competition, that the enterprise is futile. But it’s a futility which years before had tempted Moore, Cambridge Classical scholar, into doing translations of Catullus. He also admits that he couldn’t help but admire John Peale Bishop’s translations from Greek and Latin. Furthermore, he published a translation of a Pasternak poem in an issue of Seven, the literary review he ran early in his career. Plus which, Moore read a lot of French and Spanish poets and I fancy he wouldn’t have avoided doing at least mental translations of them.
SO, WHY REALLY DID Moore pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Steiner? Just to try to make a monkey of him? What Moore says in his introduction seems self-contradictory; he felt obliged to back up his distrust of translation with an attempt to produce at least ‘one reasonable version’. Then, for reasons he won’t explain, one version led to another, and on and on it went. My hunch is that, while Moore knew that the single, definitive translation was an illusion, translations in the plural were valid. Together, they’ stood a chance of getting the measure of the original, its metre, rhyme, idioms, references, and above all what Moore calls its tone. But I think that as he got into his stride, Moore found that Baudelaire’s poem of alienation took him beyond translation, into something confessional. Baudelaire seems to have provided the perfect metaphor for Moore’s feelings about Britain and its betrayals. Where Baudelaire’s kingdom was nameless, timeless, stateless, Moore’s is identifiably English, Welsh, Scottish. It’s a disunited kingdom of personal bêtes noires – the big publishers, the press, the BBC, and especially the Arts Council – venal and treacherous institutions all.
But Spleen is more than a sequence of slaps, more than diatribe. It grows into something significant, poignant and moving. Starting out waspishly to make a negative point, its force accumulates until it transcends its narrow beginnings. I’d even say it becomes a work of generosity. It’s a fine example of a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
I’d like to think that Moore’s reputation will flower once again. I’d like also to be told that his irises are still holding their own against the grass and cabbages of St Mary Cray.
MARTIN SORRELL is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. He has published widely in the field of translation, including three volumes in the Oxford University Press World’s Classics series, and the first substantial anthology of modern French poetry by women. In June 2010, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in The Fortnightly Review. His most recent book is Baudelaire: Paris Spleen.
This appreciation is published on the eve of the anniversary of Nicholas Moore’s death, 26 January 1986.
- Full text of Moore’s Spleen [pdf].
- Also in the Fortnightly: A Voice from the Nile by James Thomson, another unfairly forgotten poet found in our archives.