Last month I found myself greatly missing a rare, handsomely printed book I had checked out of the UCLA library many moons ago, when I was still an undergraduate. I ordered a copy online and it arrived last week. I’m not sure how I first learned of the book’s existence. I may have simply run across it in the library stacks, where I spent the better part of my college career. It’s titled, quite unassumingly, Original Poems; Together with Translations from the Sanskrit, and contains many more of the latter than of the former. Its author was the supremely eccentric Arthur William Ryder (1877-1938), instructor in Sanskrit at Berkeley, who died the year before it was published. The volume was compiled by Ryder’s colleague George Rapall Noyes (1873-1952), one of the pioneers of Slavic studies in the United States, who also furnished it with a moving biographical essay.
Both men are heroes of mine — skillful, inspired translators, who recognized that they could make a more significant contribution to the world of letters by rendering the works they loved into English than by explicating them. In fact, Noyes fostered an entire “school” of literary translators from Polish and other Slavic languages at Berkeley. In another volume I treasure, a festschrift for Noyes that bears the equally unassuming title Slavic Studies (1943), his British colleague Sir Bernard Pares (1867-1949) writes: “There is no question in my mind that the Berkeley School of Slavic verse translations is easily the first in the English-speaking world. We on our side of the Atlantic have been as much the practical gainers by its work as you on yours, for in such a domain all progress is common to all of us.”
Noyes was a kindly man, Ryder less so. As Noyes puts it — rather delicately — in his essay, his colleague sometimes “passed the bounds of discretion in expressing his scorn for very worthy men.” Among his indiscretions was a polemic with Harvard University Press, which had raised the price of their publications: “Ryder addressed to the Press violent letters of protest and was not appeased by the explanations offered him. He published and distributed the documents in the case, sending to the Harvard University Press a sarcastic bill for ninety-five dollars for ‘printing and distributing matter designed to raise the moral tone of the Press.’” This curious publication, Noyes concludes, proves Ryder’s “singular wrongheadedness and singular command of vituperative language but also his own honesty of purpose.”
Ryder’s “honesty of purpose” was also evident in his approach to teaching. He “loathed the formal features of academic life; he detested the machinery of courses and grades, examinations and degrees.” What he enjoyed most was “reading Sanskrit privately with his students or ex-students. […] He would listen respectfully to the opinions of the lowliest student, and he never tried to force his way of thinking upon anyone; for, although he might condemn with vehemence the actions or opinions of another, he staunchly upheld the right of every man to make his own mistakes in his own fashion.” In many ways, Noyes’s description of Ryder and his thinking reminds me of the poet Yvor Winters (1900-1968), who taught at Stanford, about an hour’s drive down the coast from Berkeley. I also see shades of Winters’s poetic technique — as well as that of J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985), Winters’s student — in Ryder’s wonderful translations from the Sanskrit.
All three were influential teachers, and all three seemed to regard themselves as men out of step with their era. Compare Cunningham’s witty “For My Contemporaries” with the final epigram in Ryder’s pamphlet of translations titled Women’s Eyes, first published in 1919 and included in Poems:
The critics all were jealous,
The patrons full of pride,
The public had no judgment;
And so my poems died.
And Winters’s “On Teaching the Young” resonates with Ryder’s sense of learning as a long, largely self-guided journey. Another poem from Women’s Eyes reads:
When I knew a little bit,
Then my silly, blinded wit,
Mad as elephants in rut,
Thought it was omniscient; but
When I learned a little more
From the scholar’s hoarded store,
Madness’ fever soon grew cool,
And I knew I was a fool.
Yes, I’m comparing original poems with translations, but like many natural translators Ryder seems to have expressed his own personality most clearly in the poems he rendered. There are even lovelier and wiser poems in this volume than those I’ve already cited, for instance:
“Two Kinds of Friendship”
The friendship of the rogue or saint,
Like shade at dawn or shade at noon,
Starts large and slowly grows more faint,
Or starting faint, grows larger soon.
Ryder certainly had a saint of a friend in Noyes. The copy of Poems that arrived at my home last week is inscribed by Noyes to another Berkeley colleague, Arthur E. Hutson.