Idle Things Bagration

Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing, 1606. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

Caravaggio: Saint Jerome Writing, 1606. Galleria Borghese, Rome.

It is indeed odd, even unkind, to speak of oneself. I shall write, then, about languages. We know that French is ripe with delectable sounds; Italian is considered lively; we think German harsh. There are those with an ardent penchant for Slavic or Eastern tongues; on occasion, a language is learnt for the wrong reasons: not to enjoy its literature (this should be the main cause), but to engage in liaisons of trade or to share the sadness of hatred: I have met, even though this may seem far-fetched, deeply Anglophobic people who set about the learning of a language, any language, against English. Intellectual austerity is also a form of pauperism.

I have written too much in Spanish. Those words do not mean fatigue or surfeit, but extreme leniency: nothing I have penned down deserves to stay. Borges felt his fate was la lengua castellanael bronce the Francisco de Quevedo (the Spanish (Castilian) language, Francisco de Quevedo’s bronze). It is argued that Kafka’s parents spoke a western dialect of Yiddish; it was mockingly known as Mauseldeutsch, Moses’ German. With anticipatory prudence they urged their children to employ the more purely Germanic variant. Józef Korzeniowski, before becoming Joseph Conrad, a Pole born in today’s Ukraine under the rule of Warsaw, conversed in half a dozen tongues prior to settling down in London and in English, not without uncertain comfort.

Until Shakespeare, English was a language used to obscurity: Chaucer’s tales had hardly been able to blow the torpor away. It was the heyday of French-speaking courts, the Spanish Empire, the survival of Latin, transformed into a degenerate lingua franca. The slow rise of England presented us not only with Hamlet but also with a king who dies begging for a saddle, Gibbon’s painstaking efforts (the awful revolution), the biblical emulation of prophets that Lincoln produced at Gettysburg, Churchill’s fierce promise; Wilde’s recitation of that unjustly half-forgotten poem that deserved every praise, Ravenna, composed in the manner of Pope (Byron, thy crowns are ever fresh and green); Byron’s line that remains happily and sternly untranslatable: She walks in beauty, like the night. Robert Frost thus reasoned: Poetry is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

Cervantes advised historians that they should be: “exact, truthful, and wholly free from passion, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor love, should make them swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of deeds, witness for the past, example and counsel for the present, and warning for the future.” It is wise for writers to heed the counsel: to speak, whatever the language fate has chosen for them to write in, a common idiom, that of longing.

H.B.

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