Going Abroad — Poet, Novelist, Translator and Editor David Constantine

David Constantine
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

DAVID CONSTANTINE was born in 1944 in Salford, Lancashire. He was a university teacher of German language and literature for thirty years. He has published several volumes of poetry, most recently Nine Fathom Deep (Bloodaxe, 2009). His Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2004) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and Something for the Ghosts (Bloodaxe, 2002) was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Award. As a fiction writer, his work includes a novel, Davies (Bloodaxe, 1985), and three collections of short stories, the latest being The Shieling (Comma Press, 2009).

Constantine is also a translator and editor of Hölderlin, Goethe, Kleist and Brecht. His Selected Poems of Hölderlin (Bloodaxe, 1996) is a winner of the European Poetry Translation Prize, while his translation of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Lighter Than Air (Bloodaxe, 2003) was awarded the Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation. A translation of Goethe’s Faust was published by Penguin in 2005-09. Other translations include editions of French poets Henri Michaux and Philippe Jaccottet, published by Bloodaxe. With his wife Helen Constantine, he edits Modern Poetry in Translation. He is a Fellow of the Queen’s College, Oxford.

In the Footsteps of the Gods is a “travel book,” but it is unusual — something at once “off to the side” and central in its concerns. How did you come to write it?

The book is a reprint, with a new title, of Early Greek Travellers and the Hellenic Ideal, which I published in 1984 and which has long been out of print. That book came out of my academic work on eighteenth-century Hellenism, particularly the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin.

What type of work were you doing on Hölderlin? How would you characterize Hölderlin’s significance today, for you, and perhaps for others?

Most of the travellers
were themselves
imaginative men. But I
was especially interested
in what poets – Hölderlin
and others – made of
their accounts. Myself, I
wanted to be there –
knowing both the poems
and the firsthand descriptions.

I wrote my D. Phil. on him, and then a critical introduction to his life and works. I’ve been reading (and translating) him since I was a student. He is still of the greatest importance to me. He addresses a human reality we recognize as our own. We inhabit a world in which sense — religious or existential — is not given to us: we make it, the best we can. He is the poet of hope and disappointment, the more passionate the hope, the more grievous the disappointment. Like Wordsworth (they were both born in 1770), he believed, for as long as he honestly could, that the French Revolution would bring liberty, equality and fraternity into “the very world, which is the world / Of all of us, — the place where in the end / We find our happiness, or not at all.” He is a deeply religious poet, but the gods are absent.

Could you provide a bird’s-eye view of the “quest” you describe in Footsteps?

I spent a good deal of time in Greece and on the coast of Turkey following those travellers — in libraries too, of course, but I wanted to learn the landscapes and visit all the sites myself. I was there with my family, travelling on boats and buses, we had a great time. I wanted a close connection with the Classical past.

Among the scholars/travelers you discuss, which one or two intrigue you the most, and why?

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, perhaps — chiefly a botanist, a natural scientist, with a very lively interest in the world around him and so in all traces of the Classical past (he is there in my collection Nine Fathom Deep). But I had great affection for Richard Chandler too – an Oxford scholar prepared to travel dangerously. Altogether those travellers are an amusing and sympathetic lot.


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