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Reflections on Anonymity 2.


33 SONGS AND 3 QUOTATIONS (ca. 1250 / 2022) –

With Accompanying Notes

From Then and Now – Opus 1.

(illustration by Alan Dixon)


“Art can proceed only from a purely anonymous centre.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter to ‘R.S.’ (22 November, 1920)



Highness, relax. Don’t waste your breath
On giving orders. My thin hand
Makes all men weak and powerless, and
Crowns their bowed heads with a dry wreath.


Living, I loved to wield my power,
Raised to the highest ranks of honour.
And now? I’m nothing but a goner:
Shackled and gagged, I await my hour.


Queenie, your fun and games are over,
So down you flop into your grave.
Your beauty, health and wealth can’t save
Your face – from pushing up the clover.


Oh help, where are my maids to cheer
And grace my chamber? Somebody please
Come now and set my mind at ease!
Or is my end so near?…


When I consider how this life
Is always changing: peace and strife,
Sorrow and joy – no sort of rest
Or calm – I think, when cares are rife,
To take things easy is the best.

Considering, too, that the power and glory
Of this great world will soon be history,
When all seems threatened or lost
Why seek revenge – rant, rave – feel sorry?
To take things easy is the best.

Life’s a mere flash in the blind eye
Of nothingness. I think the more we
Rage or lose heart when attacked / oppressed,
The more we suffer, the sooner die.
To take things easy is the best.

Whoever schemes or fights to win
Gains, in the end, the wages of sin:
No one and nothing on earth can last.
So live / let live. Through thick and thin,
To take things easy is the best.


On the sands a girl stood sighing,
Wearing an anxious frown.
It almost had her crying
To see the sun go down.

I hope (my dear) it won’t bore you,
But you really shouldn’t mind:
The sun goes down before you –
And comes back up behind.


One girl marries for money,
One for a handsome face,
A third for a taste of honey,
A fourth on Mama’s advice.

A fifth can’t live by herself,
A sixth was left on the shelf.
The seventh and eighth are too dim
To know why him / not him.


Rosemary and thyme
Grow in our garden.
Mother, give me a man –
I can’t wait any longer!

My daughter, sour’s not sweet:
No labourer with flat feet!
But a gent from the city –
And rich, not just pretty…


The bimbambolical church is ringing
With a bimbambolical row!
A bimbambolical ox has married
A bimbambolical cow.
Her bimbambolical mother is cooking
A bimbambolical treat,
Which the bimbambolical children are sticking
Their fingers in to eat.


“Where have you been all winter, my son?
Where did you live and what have you done?”
– “I built a house in Heligoland.”
– “That’s good.”
“What’s good? It was built on sand,
And a wild pig came and knocked it down.”
– “That’s bad.”
“What’s bad? I took my gun,
And shot the pig for its skin and its meat.”
– “That’s good.”
“What’s good? Two feet and four feet
Stole my meat in the thick of the night.”
– “That’s bad.”
“What’s bad? I cut off their flight.
Four feet is now my friend for life,
And two feet my wife.”


The summer night was dark – no moon
Was in the gloomy sky.
The only stars that could be seen
Peeped from her dark-blue eye
When, at her father’s door, I knocked,
Where I had often been:
Dressed only in her short white smock,
She upped and let me in.

Locked now in one another’s arms,
She trembled where we stood.
Our hearts being close, her breasts’ soft forms
Were warm with pumping blood
Until, without a word, the thing
I thought I’d have to win
Was round my finger like a ring:
I upped – she let me in.

She let me in and out all night:
I’d known no greater joy
Than out and in and in and out,
And on and on till day
When she, now melting with delight,
Told me to come again
And promised each and every night
To up and let me in.

Alas, her lovely belly grew –
Till she sat there, sad and dull,
And I, not knowing what to do,
Stood by her like a fool.
The tears ran down her scarlet cheeks:
Had it not been a sin?
She rued the nights and days and weeks
She’d upped and let me in.

But I could never leave her – on
Her own, and in the lurch.
And soon her mother found she’d gone
And married in a church.
Her father raged – and threw a fit…
But now all’s well again.
And our red-letter day ’s the night
She upped and let me in.


There lived a widow in Cockpen,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
She brewed good ale for gentlemen,
And always wagged it cheerily.

One winter evening, cold and wet,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
She showed a traveller to his bed,
And wagged it wantonly.

She saw a sight below his belt,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
She wouldn’t have missed for all the world,
And wagged it happily.

She saw a sight above his knee,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
She wouldn’t have missed for all the beer
In her cellar. And wagged it wildly.

Oh where do you live and what’s your trade?
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
A thresher I am, for hire, he said.
She wagged it smilingly.

And that’s my flail and working gear,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
Fine tools you’ve brought to serve me here,
She smiled. And wagged it gleefully.

A barrel of ale, the best I have,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
I’d give for a long hard night with all that,
She said. And wagged it tirelessly.

I’d sell the hair from off my tail,
Will you not, can you not, let me be?
To buy our thresher such a flail,
And so she wagged it and wagged it.


When my eyes mist
And ears hiss,

When my nose feels cold
And tongue grows mould,

When my chops go slack,
Lips black,

Mouth grins,
Spittle runs,

Hair’s in tatters,
Heart pitter-patters,

Hands tremble,
Feet stumble –

Too late! too late!
With the hearse at the gate:

I can’t flit – but will float,
As if on a boat,

From bed to stair
And out the front door

To where, by our gate,
A few mourners wait.

From there I’ll be carried
To church to be buried

With a prayer – get put
In a hole, mouth shut

With earth. A rose
Is planted. My nose

Won’t smell its root.
But I don’t give a hoot.

Nor will I care
For life up there.


Cheerful by day and lucky by night,
I’ve lived and loved. Some praised my songs
And others sang them. Righting wrongs,
They set hearts, bonfires, lust alight.

Summer still blooms, and yet I’ve brought
My harvest home already. I grieve
For all the loves and lives I must leave
Sooner than ever I’d have thought.

The hand I strummed with sinks — sends flying
A glass which, filled with foaming fizz,
I’ve often confidently pressed

To laughing lips. How bitter is dying!
O God, how sweet and cosy is
Life in our cosy, sweet little nest!


Most of the sections in ‘Thirty-Three Songs 1-3’ are loosely based on anonymous poems to be found in: R.T. Davies, Medieval English Lyrics (1963), Totentanz der Stadt Basel (ca. 1440), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (ed.), Allerleirauh (1961) – an outstanding anthology of traditional German children’s rhymes – and James Barke & Sydney Goodsir Smith (eds.), The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1964), which consists for the most part of anonymous folksongs collected but not printed by Robert Burns (cp. note on 1.x, “My dear, when your husband’s away from home”, here). Further sections (2.ii and 3.i) are based on poems by William Dunbar, and others (2.iii & xi and several in 3.) are translations from Heine or Goethe.

“Art can proceed only from a purely anonymous centre”: For a note on this quotation, see the first part of the series, here.

When I consider how this life, etc.: William Dunbar (ca.1460-1530?) is usually seen as one of the most distinctive of medieval poets. However, he is not only formally a traditionalist but the world-view underlying his verbal fireworks and sense of humour is in most respects that of Everyman. While not generally philosophical, Dunbar is also capable, in poems such as “Full oft I mus and hes in thocht” (on which “When I consider” is based) and “My heid did yak” and “I seik about this world unstabille” (on which 3.i is based), of expressing with moving simplicity the melancholy stoicism of his age – though, for modern tastes, he can be repetitious, hence my excisions.

On the sands a girl stood sighing, etc.: A translation of “Das Fräulein stand am Meere” – the first of five translations from Heine in the series, many of whose poems, including this one, were set to music (not always to their benefit) by Romantic composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schoeck. Ezra Pound, who published several ‘Translations and Adaptations from Heine’ in his early book, Personae, would no doubt have found that they sang well enough without the music (cp. note on “Sing, cuckoo, sing etc.” in the first part of the series, here). The other four translations are of: “Mein Tag war heiter” (2.xi), “In dem Walde sprießt und grünt es” (3.viii), “Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten” (3.ix), “Nacht lag auf meinen Augen” (3.x). As “33 Songs” shows, among other things, if poems such as these are, on the one hand, the work of a particular author – in this case Heine – they also become, when translated into the sequence, virtually ‘anonymous’. As Miró said, “A deeply experienced individual gesture is anonymous.”

Cheerful by day and lucky by night: A translation of Heine’s late poem, “Mein Tag war heiter”. In the translations of poems by Heine and Goethe (3.xi) in the series, I have tried to get as close to the sense and sound of the German as was compatible with writing an English poem. Translations of poems such as these can ‘quote’ the form of the originals as well as their sense, since German and English (unlike French or Italian, for example) are relatively ‘stress-timed’ or isochronous languages and the significance or ‘feel’ of their metres and stanzas is the same as or very similar to that of their English equivalents… This is one of three sorts of translation in Then and Now. The others are, firstly, the remake (such as most of the poems in ‘33 Songs’, or others based on the anonymous Totentanz der Stadt Basel and on other German children’s rhymes in Opus 3) and, secondly, the adaptation – for example, of the tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron, also in Opus 3, or from Grimms’ Märchen throughout the work (an example in the Fortnightly is ‘The Bride’s Story’, here). The difference between the remake and the adaptation is that the former takes a relatively unsophisticated or otherwise defective or only partially appropriate source and simply rewrites or ‘borrows’ from it, whereas the latter involves the calculated alteration or ‘imitation’ of an already sophisticated work of art so as to say something about or in addition to it and produce a more or less autonomous text of one’s own. A more substantial example of the first than any in Then and Now would be Shakespeare’s use of an entire play by Plautus in The Comedy of Errors, and of the second, All’s Well That Ends Well – which adapts a tale by Boccaccio, infusing it with Shakespeare’s customary moral concern – Pound’s Homage to Quintus Sextus Propertius, and (more loosely) Joyce’s Ulysses. Art has always been made of other art, in other words, as well as of life – The Merry Wives of Windsor is, in fact, the only play by Shakespeare which seems not to have a source.

Of course, a map is not the territory, and most literary categories are no more than a rough guide. Even so, they have their uses. One reason why these particular distinctions, or something like them, are worth drawing with regard to translation is that the failure to do so can easily lead to the slippery slope of rewriting (i.e. treating as raw material for a remake) the kind of highly wrought or thoroughly considered text (such as that of ‘Mein Tag war heiter’) which demands as close a translation as possible because the more it is changed or interfered with the more it will be spoiled. In the context of anonymity, this ‘crime of the mind’, as Joseph Brodsky called it, takes on a further dimension, implicit in his claim (e.g. with regard to Mandelstam in ‘The Child of Civilization’, 1977, in Less Than One) that it tended in his experience to be a matter less of incompetence or even indolence than of what he insisted was the excessive or immature “individuality” of translators: “Their conception of individuality simply precludes the possibility of sacrifice, which is the primary feature of mature individuality (and also the primary requirement of any – even a technical – translation).” Or “…all I want to do is prohibit something I haven’t written”, as he lamented elsewhere. “How is the reader with no Russian to know,” he might have added, “what I wrote and what I didn’t write? Or doesn’t it matter?”

Of the poets quoted in translation in Then and Now, Heine and Rilke have suffered notably in recent years from this sort of “individuality”, with the translator behaving practically as if he had written or could have written the original and seeing himself as licensed to change or add to it – a form of self-assertion which one might consider the very opposite of anonymity…Whereas the aspect of quotation and partial quotation involved, respectively, in straight translations and in remakes of appropriate sources can contribute an atmosphere of anonymity, at least, to an author’s writings (for example, Shakespeare’s), the alteration by a ‘translator’ of an excellent piece of work clearly does the opposite – emphasizes the presence of himself as rewriter, generally referred to as well in a preface or introduction.. A deliberate adaptation is another matter, of course, but on the whole the greater one’s source the more important it is that one should have something to say by changing it. Otherwise, one is in danger of committing an act of more or less gross disrespect – ‘at best a sacrilege,’ to quote Brodsky again, ‘at worst a mutilation or a murder’.

He never said so specifically, as far as I know, but one reason why Brodsky was fighting an uphill battle in the USA in the 1970s and ’80s was doubtless the influence of Robert Lowell’s controversial book of European poets in English, Imitations (1961, 1971), with Ezra Pound’s more dubious efforts and opinions in the background (The Translations of Ezra Pound, 1970). When it came to translating, Lowell’s immature (or, in his case, wilful and self-assertive to the point of self-aggrandizing) individuality may well have been a symptom, at least in part, of the bi-polar or ‘manic-depressive’ disorder from which he suffered for most of his adult life. It led, at any rate, in Imitations, to versions of very fine originals which were intentionally the opposite of anonymous – which emphasize from start to finish the presence of Robert Lowell as translator, rewriting whenever it suited him. In an early, very odd letter (of 2 May, 1936) to Ezra Pound, whom he hadn’t met, Lowell wrote of his need ‘to forge my way into reality’ – and his difficulties with reality, in a clinical but also everyday sense, are likely to have had an effect as well on how he forged his way into or interpreted the reality of the texts in front of him. In a painstaking essay on Imitations entitled ‘Translation, Imitation, Adaptation, or Mutilation?’ Michael Wachtel of Princeton suggests that in many of his letters and in his prose Lowell was ‘either … intentionally mystifying his friends and readers or that he wildly overestimated his ability to understand foreign languages.’ In fact he used cribs of various sorts whenever he could. Even so, it is often difficult, as Wachtel shows, to distinguish what he euphemistically terms ‘poetic license’ from “fundamental linguistic mistakes” (or ‘howlers’) of which Lowell was evidently oblivious. Brodsky’s reticence as regards Lowell (although he may have had Lowell’s versions of Mandelstam in mind – in Imitations and elsewhere – when writing ‘The Child of Civilization’) was possibly out of gratitude to the senior poet for his help and support when he first arrived as a young exile in the USA in 1972. Also, no doubt, out of respect for (some of) his poetry – which, judging from his fine ‘Elegy: For Robert Lowell’, he had read closely: more closely, at least, than Lowell had read Heine, for example. Lowell’s German, Wachtel tells us, was rudimentary at best and of the three ‘imitations’ which he called ‘Heine Dying in Paris’ he used prose cribs for I & II. When it came to the third (‘Mein Tag war heiter’), however, he seems to have struggled on his own with the original. The opening lines, for instance, combine wilful rewriting with what Wachtel convincingly argues can only be mistranslation; the second and third lines, in addition, are in no sense generally true of Heine’s poetry or his prose; “all sex and thunder” is similarly untrue and as pointlessly vulgar as the second line is pointlessly ‘poetic’ – the whole remake a cumbersome misrepresentation of the tonal precision, the impeccable style of a perfectly composed original… The following is a shortened version of my poem on this subject in Opus 1:

Heine on Lowell’s ‘Heine…’

“My zenith was luckily happier than my night;
whenever I touched the lyre of inspiration, I smote
the Chosen People. Often – all sex and thunder – ”
I pierced those overblown and summer clouds…
But my summer has flowered. Etc. etc.”
– Robert Lowell, ‘Heine Dying in Paris III’ (Imitations)

I wasn’t “dying”, Mr Lowell,
My aim was to live my life and write.
Yours was the irritable bowel,
I saw and said things straight.

I hear you didn’t treat your wives
And, worse, your children kindly either.
And your ageing parents? In our lives
Few moral Goods are (mostly) easier…

‘Mein Tag war heiter’ you mistranslated
Three times. The first and second were worse,
It’s true. A poem ‘imitated’
From someone else’s must converse

With its original, you see,
Not just mis-take it. Willy-nilly,
To falsify reality
Is mad, corrupt, or silly,

And printed text is very real.
One is at liberty to quote –
Adapt – remake it, should one feel
A need to. But here’s what I wrote:

Cheerful by day and lucky by night,
I’ve lived and loved. Etc.

How bitter is dying!
O God, how sweet and cosy is
Life in our cosy, sweet little nest!

Two love-birds – but not “stuffed”, I hope?
I fear you miss my tone and meaning
In toto. The other two whose scope
You shrank were also more than moaning.

Your sense of irony was not
Subtle enough to read my verse.
When He made your brain the Lord forgot
The humour – anger’s playful nurse.

Your “ceaseless alarm-clock” made it hard
(Among much else) to hear the words –
And, worse, the needs – of others. Bard
Of dolphins, eels, cod, spiders, birds –

And of the poet’s powerful vision –
Which, I’m afraid, contorts, distorts
The world too much too often. Your version
Of what I wrote destroyed my thoughts –

And wrecked my sonnet, needless to say.
Your fourteen liners are merely four-
teen lines: obsessive fragments. My
Rhymes convey meaning, build structures. What’s more,

We always interpret reality,
But, listen: it’s never all in the mind.
We have to meet the world halfway:
There’s that and this. Who seeks will find

A means to reach the minds of others.
If you win you lose. The American way
Will surely fail. No sisters, no brothers,
You ate your father’s balls, shall we say?

And American dreamers yawped – yahooed
Their shocked approval. You told the truth,
They proudly thought. And you thought you’d
Rebelled by shooting off your mouth.

The honest man (I’ve said elsewhere)
Is the one in – how many? who, more or less,
Knows when he’s lying. The self-deceiver
Half-hides so as to half-confess.

Such half-truths titillate our wish
To say what we think we think – to do
What we’d really rather not. You fished
For praise and blame – and hooked some, too.

You also misbehaved – and throve
On guilt, like many other ‘free’
Achievers in your land. You strove
Bravely to live for poetry.

But Art is analogous to Life –
No more. We’re saved by works, not words.
And least of all by blind belief
In God, love, flower-power, the vote, bees/birds…

And yet who dreams the waking dream
Of his life without the self-deception
Which blurs the way that how things seem
Shifts with each fear, hope, preconception

Of how they are? We lunge through life
Blindly – fulfil its expectation
Of more of the past (less peace, more strife),
Till we stand or fall in resignation:


Although one’s paler than the other, and
Much sterner – I might almost say much more
Distinguished – than his brother whose arms have held me
Almost intimately – how pleasing and how gentle
His smile was then, how blissful his gaze! – Although
They differ thus, they’re also strangely similar,
These two fair youthful figures, one of whom
Has touched my brow with poppies, with the wreath
He wears around his head, whose curious scent
Has driven away the anguish from my soul.
But such relief soon fades. I’ll only recover
Completely when the other, gravely, palely
Lowers his torch. Sleep is good. Death is better.
And best would be not to have been born.

Not that things always seemed like that:
My quatrains rhyme, clang, clash or chime,
As did my life… Unfaithful, but
Not deeply – and not all the time –

“God will forgive me. C’est son métier,”
Were my last words. But I loved living
So much that Death cannot destroy
The life of my art / the art of my leaving:

All worldly joys have withered away;
My heart has finally had its day,
And my mind has finally had to dispense
With hating evil, even with the sense
Of my own and others’ misery –
And death alone’s alive in me.

The curtain falls, the performance ends.
My beloved worldly audience wends
Its way back home. They’ve clapped and laughed
And yawned contentedly. Not daft,
They’re off to play or eat and drink
And cuddle before they sleep. I think
Homer’s Achilles got it right,
Bewailing his subterranean plight:
“The meanest living philistine
From Passau to Schweinsdorf, from Thames to Tyne,
Is luckier than I, whose blood is shed,
Than I, the Peliad, Prince of the Dead.”

The latter two translations here – apart, that is, from the third-to-last line of the second – tell the reader with no German what Heine said, at least, in the poems which form sections I and II of Lowell’s three versions in Imitations. The ‘strict metrical translators’ who, Lowell informs us in his muddled and (again) self-assertive ‘Introduction’ to the book, ‘still exist’ but ‘are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds’, are the sort of translators Brodsky wanted and praised (in ‘Ninety Years Later’, for example, in On Grief and Reason, where J.B. Leishman’s rather bland but blank-verse translation of Rilke’s ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes’ (in New Poems, 1964) is implicitly preferred to Lowell’s much looser, not to say slapdash, version, also in Imitations). Lowell writes in his ‘Introduction’ (which was reprinted, unfortunately, in 1987 in Collected Prose) as if there were only two approaches to translating poetry, with nothing between them. In practice, he lords it (or, more accurately, tries to lord it) over poets far better than he is. Even so, Imitations made sound sense to many more people than would-be translators of Mandelstam and Brodsky. In fact, its approach has become the current fashion.

To translate loosely as regards both content and form…is quite simply easier (it should go without saying) than to translate accurately…

There are obvious enough reasons for this. To translate loosely as regards both content and form (as well as to translate with the help of cribs or without having troubled to learn the source language at all) is quite simply easier (it should go without saying) than to translate accurately from the original text; and to emphasize one’s creativity as ‘translator’, claiming a version of the poem as one’s own, is to assert oneself – one’s individuality – as a writer far more effectively than by slavishly reproducing someone else’s original work. What might this tell us of ourselves and our age? When in Venice, as he often was, Brodsky felt that “Perhaps the sole function of … this century’s [art] … here is to show what a cheap, self-assertive, ungenerous, one-dimensional lot we have become” (Watermark, p.114)… The limitations of his view of Leishman’s translations of Rilke are considered in Opus 3. More successfully, he seems to be offering an alternative to Lowell’s 91 Revere Street (written at the suggestion of his psychiatrist) – in particular to its presentation of his Boston Brahmin family and its rejection of his parents, especially (of course) his father – in his modest and moving tribute to his own parents, ‘Less Than One’ (1976). The poems by Lowell which Brodsky seems to have had admiringly in mind when writing his ‘Elegy’ include ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’, ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, ‘Near the Ocean’, ‘For the Union Dead’. Nevertheless, his ‘Elegy’ begins:

In the autumnal blue
of your church-hooded New
England, the porcupine
sharpens its golden needles
against Bostonian bricks
to a point of needless
blinding shine.

Every word counts here. Likewise in the poem’s concluding stanza:

In the sky with the false
song of the weathercock
your bell tolls
– a ceaseless alarm clock.

In the context of ‘Reflections on Anonymity’, it may not be beside the point to reflect that Brodsky’s main public pronouncement on the author of Life Studies was after he had encountered the great anonymizer, Death; that one of his main interests in poetic metres was (like Yeats’s) that they had been around a lot longer than he had; and that one of his own favourite quotations was from Peter Huchel’s ‘The Angels’, of which he remarked:

It turns out that, among its other properties, dust possesses a voice:

Remember me,
whispers the dust.”

[Different versions of the above note on ‘Cheerful by day and lucky by night’ are to be found in my book, Boccaccio in Florence and other Poems (Shearsman, 2009) and, at the link in my biographical note below, after the PNR review of Opus 3 by Chris McCully. The present version attempts, among other things, to highlight the relationship of a fashionable mode of translation to certain aspects of the world we live in. —WDJ ]

W.D. JACKSON’s five books and two pamphlets are all parts of his work-in-progress, Then and Now, on the subject of the individual’s place in history. This column is also a part of that work.  His most recent book, Opus 3 (Shoestring Press, Nov. 2018)was reviewed in The Fortnightly, and was one of Frederick Raphael’s TLS Books of the Year in 2019.  A review by Chris McCully in PN Review 253 can be read here (under Altered Distances Vol 54, Nos. 1-2, ‘Special Features’).  Shoestring has published a new pamphlet, Aesopean (with woodcuts by Alan Dixon). The Fortnightly archive for W.D. Jackson is here.

ALAN DIXON was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, and has been exhibiting his prints since the 1960s.  Shoestring Press published his 73 Woodcuts in 2011 and Wood and Ink in 2013.  An exhibition of prints at the Redfern Gallery, London, was held to coincide with the launch of his most recent collection of poems, The Wall Dancer, Shoestring Press, 2017.

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