Obituary: Lindley Williams Hubbell

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Lindley Williams Hubbell, poet and translator, born Hartford, Connecticut 3 June 1901; died Kyoto, Japan 2 October 1994.

ONE OF the most extraordinary people I have ever met was the American poet Lindley Williams Hubbell. I got to know him and his work in Japan in the Sixties, at a time when the Beat poets were visiting that country and pretending to practise Zen in quite comfortable monasteries. They all knew Hubbell. But he was not one of them, though he admired certain aspects of their work and never criticised their sexual orientations or their ardent self- publicising.

When I first arrived in Japan, Hubbell was teaching Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, but also modern poets like Pound and Yeats, at Doshisha University. He astonished me by his knowledge of contemporary and classical literature, but even more so by becoming a Japanese citizen in 1960, taking the name of Shuseki Hayashi. It was a step that had been taken by another writer Lafcadio Hearn, and meant that his salary was reduced to that of a Japanese professor.

But he came of a well-to-do Hartford family and among his neighbours was Katharine Hepburn, whom he used to admire riding her pony, and later her horse, past his house. He attended Hartford High School for only two years, and after that was educated by private tutors in Greek, Latin and Provencal.

He learnt German, French and Italian from a polyglot aunt.

From 1925 to 1946, he was a reference librarian at New York Public Library.

Though he never attended university, from 1946 to 1953 he was the Head of the Literature Department at Randall School, Hartford, where he taught the History of Drama, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Modern Poetry. During that period, he travelled to Europe, where he stayed in Italy for a year, and in 1940 he lived in Puerto Rico for six months.

He told me that the greatest influence on his writing was Eleonora Duse. He was from his earliest years a passionate devotee of the theatre and the opera, and saw Duse, Bernhardt, Geraldine Farrar and Mary Garden. He also saw Nijinsky and Pavlova. And Garbo. 'So that is a very important part of my life.' Another influence was the great Shakespearean actor Robert Mantell, an American version of Donald Wolfit. Lindley attended almost every performance in which he played, both in Hartford and New York, where he asked Mantell to take him on, and he did some walk-on parts but also began to appear in roles like the little Prince Edward in Richard III, Balthasar in The Merchant of Venice and a standard-bearer in Hamlet.

Then a cousin left him a legacy and through a Japanese lady he got his first job in Japan, in 1953, cataloguing books in the library of Daitokuji Temple, after which he was given his professorship at Doshisha.

All this time, Hubbell had been writing poetry and plays, and making translations. He discovered Gertrude Stein's work in a 1922 issue of The Little Review. He read all her books then available, and while most people were riduculing her he he got angry at her detractors and wrote an article about her; she wrote to him to thank him, and they had a long correspondence which is now at Yale University. He later had dinner with Stein and her friend Alice Toklas at the Algonquin.

Hubbell's first books were published by Yale University Press: Dark Pavilion (1927), The Tracing of a Portal (1931). Later works were issued by Knopf and Alan Swallow, who published his Seventy Poems in 1965. After that, all his numerous writings were published by a devoted friend and editor, Yoko Danno, on her private Ikuta Press in Kobe. Every year I used to receive from Hubbell signed copies of these well-produced works, which included poetry, plays, translations of Greek drama and scholarly essays on people as different as George Borrow and Ezra Pound. His essay on 'The Prosody of Mauberley' is a delightful study of the influences of Gautier and Bion on Pound's work.

Once he had taken Japanese citizenship, Hubbell never again left Japan, and had no desire to do so.