Michael Hamburger Hamburger, Michael (Vol. 5) - Essay

Hamburger, Michael (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hamburger, Michael 1924–

Hamburger is a German-born English poet, translator, and critic. Hamburger has achieved a sturdy reputation as a poet; in addition, he is the outstanding translator and interpreter of German poetry for English readers. His collected translations of Hölderlin and Hugo von Hofmannsthal are considered definitive. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Mr. Hamburger's book [The Truth of Poetry] gave me most furiously to think, not only because of its high level of thoughtfulness and sensibility, but because it is so disturbingly informative. To be told about poet after poet, from country after country, to be shown examples of their work, to be introduced to their theories about poetry, and their views of the universe, and their personal circumstances, and the titles of their books, and the kind of thing they said in their letters, is to be (as another contemporary poet has put it) "bombed with information." Because Mr. Hamburger knows so much about poetry, in so many languages, and has thought about it so deeply, and is such a good poet himself, and explains it so clearly without minimising the difficulties—because of these things, his book is truly frightening: I mean it makes me want to get up from my chair and run away. For what his book really demonstrates, as he knows perfectly well, is the sheer chaos of modern poetry, the lack of agreement about anything at all…. [The] great strength of this book, and also what makes it unsettling, is that it demonstrates how little the poets of the modern world, with all the force of their art and the logic of their persuasion, have been able to convince one another. (p. 53)

John Wain, in Encounter (© 1970 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1970.

Ownerless Earth is an important book. It reveals the full range of Michael Hamburger's poetry, selecting from work published in six previous collections (from Flowering Cactus of 1950 to Travelling of 1969), and including a good deal of very recent poetry. Furthermore, it contains his best and longest poem to date, the superb sequence called 'Travelling', previously available only in a limited edition booklet. This book makes one more than ever aware of Hamburger's true stature as a poet—for he is, or so I believe, one of the few really first-rate poets writing in England today. Hamburger's fine intelligence, his sensitivity, his feeling for the craft of poetry, his seriousness, and his pleasantly grumpy humour and satiric ingenuity, are all qualities which should have won him a far greater audience than that which he actually has.

Hamburger's concern is with the existence—and of ever-growing threat and damage to that existence—of natural and human orders which speak, in whatever various ways, of beauty and individual quality, of decency and love. It is a concern very much like Hopkins' in the last century, except that the damage (and the threat of continuing damage) to these orders is far greater than in Hopkins' time; and that Hopkins's concern was partly motivated by religious belief, whereas Hamburger is a humanist—though one whose world is not without "aura". It is, in fact, this quality of "aura"—or rather, of indefinible senses of life which arise between the hard physical things by the way in which these are presented in the poem—which constitutes much of what Hamburger is about, and which is present as much in many of the poems Hamburger labels "of time and place", and the ones of human interaction, as those which are called in the present book "dream poems." (pp. 139-40)

David Miller, "Michael Hamburger: Some Remarks on His Poetry," in Agenda, Autumn-Winter, 1973/4, pp. 139-48.

If Hamburger's poems can be taken as manifestations of the moral consciousness of the modern European Jew, which they can and must be, it is necessary to add immediately that the poet's ancient, glittering eyes are gay. His work is not very often flawed by the puritanical and solemn earnestness characteristic, for example, of some of Jon Silkin's poetry…. If Michael Hamburger writes with an outraged moral consciousness, and he often does, he is also a connoisseur of the chaos that outrages him and threatens to destroy his world. (p. 46)

Hamburger writes … straight political poems, sometimes satirical or ironic, sometimes more or less didactic; there are poems that manage to transmute even the most recalcitrant (including political) materials into more or less purely formal structures; and there are poems in which the magician and moralist in Hamburger meet and fight it out. Throughout, there is a preoccupation with the possibility of falling into silence, and there are many poems about language, about words: "I can't do without them. / But I hate them as lovers hate them / When it's time for bodies to speak." (p. 47)

[He] continues to investigate the relationship between language and possession of all kinds, and he travels. [Ownerless Earth] may seem at first to be a journey toward that point at which the Efficacious Word is finally found and uttered, a point (in space, in time, in mind) which becomes, by naming it, real and one's own. But it is in fact a journey well beyond that point (or delusion) through an ownerless earth indeed, an earth not to be possessed by language (or any other human instrument), though it may be encountered in terms of language, travelled or experienced in terms of its strange agency. (p. 48)

John Matthias, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), April, 1974.

[Michael Hamburger] learned British English. And it is possible to think that he learned it too well. National characteristics are mostly mythical: through most of his history the English man has been flamboyant and histrionic, as he is today; but for perhaps 200 years influential classes chose to cultivate a different image, of the Englishman as tightlipped, reticent and laconic, a specialist in understatement. Michael Hamburger perhaps acquired this code of speech and behavior with the peculiar fervor of the exotic seeking assimilation. To me, who was brought up to embrace the same now superannuated code, this is very attractive and touching. But it will come as a shock to readers who know Hamburger chiefly as exemplary translator, particularly of the schizophrenic visionary Friedrich Hölderlin.

Nevertheless the translator and the poet do not live in separate apartments. It is true that an early poem called "Hölderlin," is one of Hamburger's worst; and 20 years ago, when he tried to emulate Hölderlin's Hellenism directly, it came out as sub-Tennyson. But his translator's devotion to German poetry has been essential to his sense of his own identity—…. And if the other half or greater half of that identity was English (and very precisely located too, in London suburbs south of the Thames), that English suburban scene is registered in mysteriously spare and dancing lyrics like "Grey Heat," "The House Martins," "The Jackdaws," by a sensibility that has manifestly acquired the sensuous but uncloying opulence of German poets like Trakl or Rilke. As for the Jewish allegiance, it is acknowledged at moments all the more hair-raising for being few and far between, as when it surfaces suddenly in a poem of typically British domesticity and wry deprecation:

        I hear my children at play
        And recall that one branch of
          the elm-tree looks dead;
        Also that twenty years ago I
          could have been parchment
        Cured and stretched for a
        Who now have children, a
          And the fear of those winds…. (pp. 30-1)

Michael Hamburger is a contemporary whom I respect without reservations and an English poet who will be read and remembered long after more flashy and quarrelsome talents have burned themselves out. (p. 31)

Donald Davie, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1974.

In one respect, [A Mug's Game, Hamburger's autobiography,] is not a poet's tale of a poet's life. Hamburger has always been acutely aware—sometimes restrictively so—of roles, masks, personae, of disparate selves for separate functions. Here he plays the chronicler, not the poet. Here he is expressly dealing with remembered superficialities, knowing full well that 'the most intense, most formative experiences may have eluded the chronicler because they have no context, no frame of reference in time and place'. Those experiences he leaves to the poet, who compiles a different book. (pp. 102-03)

Doubts that he could write good poems in English because it was not his first language, because word and thing did not lie naively close, left their mark on his poetry in a certain austerity of diction. This may account for his relative lateness in finding an individual voice; it does account for his most distinctive achievement: the body of translations from the German he has given to the English tradition. All the self-effacement and adaptability to other men's voices that bedevilled his own beginnings as an independent poet stood him in triumphant good stead here: one thinks of his lifelong service to Hölderlin, which began when he was still a schoolboy, devoting his talents to another poet's work at an age when that other marvellous boy, Hofmannsthal, whom he has served equally devotedly, was pouring out his own first flood of lyrics. The scrupulousness he practised in rendering other men's rhyme and rhythm has brought its reward in his own performance. Translating functioned as five-finger-exercises for him, sustained him through dead periods, enabled him to explore the nuances and exactitudes of his all-but-own, of his own language…. He is a poet of fine precision, not of broad effect, and I suspect that much of [his] finesse has been learnt from his craft of translating. (p. 104)

Joyce Crick, "The Chronicler and the Poet: Michael Hamburger at 50," in Poetry Nation (© copyright Poetry Nation, 1974), No. 3, 1974, pp. 102-08.

If ever poems were autotelic, these [in Ownerless Earth] are. The voice is a poet's in the agony of poiesis…. From the beginning, thirty years ago, Hamburger's has been a tyrannical muse, demanding feeling and knowledge, the solemn and the facetious. The poet is called to see what is there, but also what is not there and what is beyond. (p. 73)

Life is a pilgrimage into deprivation, into death. Death is the polarity of satiety, but it is also the completion of need, and thus a synthesis of the entire dialectic. Again and again, Hamburger offers death as coterminous with life. Beginning and end coalesce. (p. 74)

His relief from the agony of poiesis is the taking up of his heritage, in some sense at least a heavenly heritage. By putting birth and death together he can

          … look up and see
          A strip of sky …
          Begin again, saying:
          Mountain, Lake. Light.
          Earth. Water. Air.
          You. Nothing more. No one's.
                 ("Traveling IV")

It is in these very poems of noetic synthesis that Hamburger recaptures the felicities of form he lost in his prosaic 1950's … and his crab free verse of his 1960's…. Those were arid years, without the oases of couplets from "Palinode," skillful off- and slant-rimes from "The Sacrifice," and the flawlessly metaphysical "Mathematics of Love," a poem worthy of Jack Donne. The voice of the poet seems reborn as he approaches rebirth…. (pp. 75-6)

Tony Herbold, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974.