Christopher Middleton:​ Poet celebrated for his urgent and vivid verse and his translations, especially from German

He wrote well, and with a good-humoured, impassioned eloquence, about the animals and birds with which we are fortunate to share this planet

The poet, translator and essayist Christopher Middleton was born in Truro, Cornwall in 1926, and from there went on to prep school, public school and, following four years in the RAF (1944-48), Merton College, Oxford. His first memory, he once confided to an interviewer, was of sitting on a back doorstep in Ely, Cambridgeshire, trying to crack open a lead pencil - early evidence of the investigative impulse, you might say. As a boy of 14 he was already, he recalled, reading "widely and erratically".

Even before that tender age he had already committed to memory a considerable number of stanzas from Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. At public school in rural Herefordshire, he ranged around the centuries, devouring the Greek and Latin poets, Auden, Macneice and Co, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. He made his first trip to the Mediterranean in 1948, thrilled to be escaping the greyness of English skies. A more complete rupture occurred a decade and a half later, when he decamped to Texas – "a poor man's Mediterranean," as he once called it.

The greater part of the second half of his life, from the middle 1960s onwards, was spent in the US, where he served as Professor of Germanic Languages at the University of Texas, Austin. Fortunately, he never had to risk lessening his passion for English literature by actually teaching it.

Middleton, whose verse is generally spoken of as "experimental", was a restless spirit among poets, which went hand in hand with a life-long compulsion to travel – he was a regular visitor to France, Germany and Turkey, for example. Few poets have been quite so fully steeped in the literature of other tongues. He belonged to no school or movement, and he is quite impossible to place or to pigeon-hole.

Listening to him speak, you would have detected not a trace of an American accent – in fact, his sojourn among the tall skies and the wide open spaces of Texas seemed, if anything, to strengthen his English identity. And yet he could never be described as a typical Englishman abroad. You could scarcely imagine anyone less blimpish. He enjoyed, you felt, being the Other who was forever travelling in pursuit of "the other land", whether it be a physical place or a domain of the imagination. Throughout his life he was classified by the American authorities as a "resident alien" – which seems to sum up this ever restless polymath to a tee.

His poetry, which was rooted in a scholarship very lightly worn, drew its sources from whatever happened to be preoccupying him at the moment of its creation, be it Roman numismatics, a Cretan deity or the proud grace of a passing feline. He could be very fastidious about small things. He wrote well, and with a good-humoured, impassioned eloquence, about the animals and birds with which we are fortunate to share this planet. The word "creation" was one that he loved.

Middleton hated the ego-boosting reportage that often passes for poetry in our time, and what he dismissively described as "prosing". Art was too serious for such casualness, he believed. He believed in the power of the Muse to seize hold of and direct the powers of the imagination. Poems, which issued from a kind of elsewhere, were acts of creation themselves, not drearily dutiful acts of recording. "Language," he once said, "functions to create experience anew."

His poems were unpredictable, often as playful as they were serious, powered and energised by the moment of their invention – you had no idea what subject he would alight on next. Intellectually omnivorous, he seemed to be engaged in a near perpetual dance from subject to subject. Poetry at its best was all about the invigoration, the re-charging of language. Poems arrived, unbidden, like a kind of miracle. His own poetry, which could be formally quite strict when the need arose, but occasionally almost as loosely discursive as that of William Carlos Williams, felt both modern and unmodern. Sometimes it made predictable stanzaic shapes on the pages; at other times – especially during the 1960s – it seemed to drift in the direction of concrete poetry. The shape of a poem on a page always mattered a great deal to him.

The first book of poems whose existence he chose to acknowledge (earlier collections, published during the 1940s, were dismissed by him as disastrous and derivative) was Torse 3 (1962), which already possesses the qualities for which he would come to be admired: that ability to transfigure experience in a language which feels both urgent and vivid. He wrote steadily until the end of his life, and some of his critics consider his very last books – which included Poems 2006-2009 – to be among his best.

In addition to his own poetry, he translated a good deal from other tongues – French, Swedish, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish – but most often from German, including works by Gottfried Benn, von Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Holderlin and others, and works by the supremely odd Swiss prose writer Robert Walser, whose cause he championed for more than half a century. A selected edition of the letters of Friedrich Nietzsche appeared in 1969. In 1962 he and Michael Hamburger edited Modern German Poetry, an important, bilingual anthology of German poetry from 1910-1960.

That book's long and erudite introduction, with its impassioned account of the development of the poetry of German Expressionism, reads like a kind of manifesto, a plea to poets of his own day to look farther than the shores of England. Middleton's poetry feels far removed from the cautious provincialism of so much British poetry of the postwar period. He always has one ear cocked to the work of European Modernism. He takes risks. He perpetually re-invents himself.

Towards the end of his life he spent time in a care home in Texas, in the company of his precious library of several thousand books, all categorised exactly as they had been in his apartment, so that he would always be able to reach for – or ask others to do so on his behalf - the exact one he needed.

John Christopher Middleton, poet and translator: born Truro 10 June 1926; died Texas 29 November 2015.

Comments