A Poet of Subtlety and Grace
Although virtually unknown in Canada, the expert in Old English and Norse had an international reputation as a translator
By Sandra Martin
Saturday, August 28, 2004 – Globe & Mail page F8
Reprinted with permisson
By profession, George Johnston was a professor of Old and Middle English. By vocation, he was one of the finest poets of the age and a revered scholar and translator of Old Norse and Faroese. By inclination, he was a calligrapher, a beekeeper and a gardener. And by reputation, he was a man as beautiful of appearance as he was of spirit.
“He brought such a sense of delight, such spontaneity to Chaucer, that I caught it like a virus,” broadcaster Robert MacNeil wrote in his book Starstruck, about being a student in Mr. Johnston’s class at Carleton University in Ottawa in the 1950s.
P.K. Page, herself a dab hand at metre and rhythm, praised Mr. Johnston’s deceptively simple and light verse by saying he was “a master watchmaker who can also build Big Ben.”
His editor, writer John Metcalf, railed: “He was a formalist poet of great subtlety, who has been excluded from any ongoing account of Canadian poetry, yet he stands at the centre of the best there is and you can only explain his neglect by saying people are uncouth and ill-educated.”
Mr. Johnston, who died on Aug. 10 of Alzheimer’s disease, was born in Hamilton on Oct. 7, 1913. His father, an Irish immigrant who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, was said to have passed his working days reciting Milton over the thunder of the locomotives.
After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto in 1936, Mr. Johnston spent the summer bicycling through Hitler’s belligerent Germany before settling in England, where he earned a living as a freelance writer. When war was declared, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and served as a reconnaissance pilot, mainly in Africa.
At war’s end, he returned to Canada and married Jeanne McRae, the woman who would be his wife and partner for the next 60 years. He went to U of T to do graduate work before embarking on his academic career, first at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. (1947-49) and then Carleton College, later University, where he taught until his retirement in 1979.
“He was well established [as a teacher of Old and Middle English] at Carleton when I arrived in 1966 and we took a liking to each other,” said James Downey, a past president of the University of Waterloo. “He was tall and handsome with gorgeous blue eyes and he had a certain eccentricity about him — he wore a gold earring years before anybody else did.”
Mr. Downey, now a senior administrator at the university, remembers that Mr. Johnston kept an old sawhorse in his office, on which he would lay out his students’ essays, and he used a straight-back farmhouse chair at a time when his colleagues opted for modern furniture.
“And no telephone. He would not allow a telephone in his office.”
From Anglo-Saxon, Mr. Johnston developed an interest in Old Norse, Icelandic and Faroese. One of the more significant influences on his mature poetry was the sabbatical year he spent in England in 1956 studying Old Norse, which eventually gave him an additional career as a translator of sagas.
In the mid-1960s, he spent a year in Denmark learning Danish and made the first of four visits to the Faroe Islands to immerse himself in the spirit of the people and the place. Subsequently, he added Icelandic and Norwegian to his linguistic and teaching repertoire.
His translations, including The Saga of Gisli (1965) The Faroe Islanders’ Saga (1975), The Greenlanders’ Saga (1976), Rocky Shores (1981) and Seeing and Remembering (1988), made him appreciate the intricate formal techniques of both the sagas and more modern Nordic poetry and adapt these forms into his own work.
Although he was virtually unknown in Canada, his translations eventually earned him an international reputation. “People have told me that you can go to Iceland and ordinary people on the street will say, ‘Ahh, George Johnston,’ and start reciting things,” Mr. Metcalf said. Mr. Johnston was also writing his own poetry, much of it composed while he was walking and all of it committed to memory. The Cruising Auk was published in 1959.
“They seem to belong to a complete and self-sufficient world that unifies the book: a small city like Ottawa that has not yet acquired the anonymity of a huge metropolis is viewed as if through reflecting mirrors that distort and change perspectives,” literary critic W.J. Keith wrote of the poems in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. “Their wit and satiric edge are sharpened by the apparently simple stanzaic forms, playful metres and rhymes,” he concluded.
Home Fires followed in 1966, a collection that Mr. Keith described as involving some of the same characters and “displaying similar qualities of lively wit and fluent movement” but also evincing Mr. Johnston’s more mature form of using colloquial speech, varied rhymes and personal experience.
He continued to experiment and to refine his technique in Happy Enough (1972), Losing a Grip (1979), Ask Again (1984), Endeared by Dark: The Collected Poems, which Mr. Metcalf edited for The Porcupine’s Quill in 1990, and What is to Come (1996).
All of this time, Mr. Johnston and his wife were raising their six children, three sons and three daughters.
“He was great fun,” said Mr. Downey, who remained a friend for 40 years. “We used to have dances and lobster dinners in the University Club, where George loved to cut a rug. He and Jeanne were just full of it [life]. It is not too much to say I loved them both.”
Victoria-based Ms. Page met Mr. Johnston at a literary party in Ottawa in the 1970s. “He was very tall with a white beard. I felt he was Scandinavian, but he said he wasn’t,” she remembers.
“He was wildly witty and his early poetry was hysterically funny,” she said. “He had a big family and they all adored each other and a lot of his poetry was about his kids.”
Added Mr. Metcalf, who knew Mr. Johnston since the late 1980s, “The thing that struck you when you met him for the first time was his kindness and gentleness more than any immediate sense of brilliance or intellect. It was just this incredible kindness towards people.”
Mr. Johnston’s sonnet Cathleen Sweeping, about watching a girl (his three-year-old daughter) engrossed in her task, makes the poet, his “thoughts as small and busy as her broom,” first doubt and then “delight” in the child’s insouciant energy and optimism.
About this poem, Ms. Page has written: “He celebrates the world and our comings and goings. He reminds us that we are human and that we can love one another and he rarely forgets the big summing up.”
Montreal writer Robyn Sarah, in an essay in The Globe and Mail in 2000, called the poem a “miracle of compression” and a “seemingly effortless fusion of form and meaning.”
She said his models came from the English lyricists and from Old English, but he went his own way, never courting the spotlight or becoming a “career” poet.
Ms. Page, who remembers Mr. Johnston pulling a comb of honey out of his suitcase on a visit to Victoria, corresponded with him for years. He had a very sophisticated ear, she said, and that, and his humour, may be part of the reason he isn’t better known. “Everybody is writing free verse now and they haven’t educated their inner ear to hear subtle rhythms and he was capable of writing in the most extraordinary verse forms.”
She once described his poems as sounding as casual as neighbours’ talk, but as intricate as lace.
Writer Mark Abley met Mr. Johnston in the 1980s and came to know him well during the years Mr. Abley was book editor and literary columnist for The Gazette in Montreal.
“I think he would have been much better known if he had engaged in the back-scratching and backbiting activities that so many writers do, but he didn’t need to do that to feed his ego. Besides not playing the game, his work tends to be more formalist than has been the norm in Canadian poetry for the past 30 years,” said Mr. Abley, who has committed some of Mr. Johnston’s poems, including In It, to memory. “It is a funny poem, but a very serious poem and because it has that patterning, you can say it to yourself on the bus.”
Among his younger admirers was poet Carmine Starnino, who said that “neglect hurts readers as much as poets.” In his view, Canadian poetry cannot really come of age until Mr. Johnston’s work is widely circulated and included in major anthologies.
If Mr. Johnston himself felt ignored, he never complained publicly.
In recent years, Mr. Downey visited the Johnstons in Huntingdon, Que., near the U.S. border, where they had retired. Mr. Johnston kept bees and continued a wide correspondence in his beautiful italic script and he and his wife read aloud to each other in the afternoons from Dickens, George Eliot and the Bible until the fog of Alzheimer’s closed in on him.
Mr. Downey said he spoke on the telephone to Jeanne a day or two after her husband’s death and “got the distinct impression that she wouldn’t mind following his lead.”
As on the dance floor, so in life. Jeanne McRae Johnston, who had lovingly cared for her husband through the ravages of his illness, succumbed to a heart attack on Aug. 20, nine days after his death. “I’m sure she hung on just to keep an eye on him,” Ms. Page said fondly.
A joint memorial service was held for both of them yesterday at the United Church in Huntingdon.
THE HUMOUR IN THE VERSE
The world is a boat and I’m in it
Going like hell with the breeze;
Important people are in it as well
Going with me and the breeze like hell —
It’s a kind of race and we’ll win it.
Out of our way, gods, please!
The world is a game and I’m in it
For the little I have, no less;
Important people are in it for more,
They watch the wheel, I watch the door.
Who was the first to begin it?
Nobody knows, but we guess.
The world is a pond and I’m in it,
In it up to my neck;
Important people are in it too,
It’s deeper than this, if we only knew;
Under we go, any minute —
A swirl, some bubbles, a fleck . . .
O Earth, Turn!
The little blessed Earth that turns
Does so on its own concerns
As though it weren’t my home at all;
It turns me winter, summer, fall
Without a thought of me.
I love the slightly flattened sphere,
Its restless, wrinkled crust’s my here,
Its slightly wobbling spin’s my now
But not my why and not my how:
My why and how are me.
Færeyingasaga and Grænlendingasaga
Stofnun Árna Magnsonar Á Islandi
Reykjavík: 1987, 142 p.
Translation: Thrand of Gotu
Erin, Ontario: Porcupine’s Quill Press, 1994, 188 p.
Original: JACOBSEN, Jørgen-Frantz
Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1938
Norwich, England: Norvik Press, 1993, 258 p.
Original: ØDEGARD, Knut
J.W. Cappelens Forlag A/S, 1983
Translation: Bee-Buzz, Salmon-Leap
Original: SIGURDSSON, Olafur Johann
Bref Sera Bodvars
Reykjavik: Heimskringla, 1945
Translation: Pastor Bodvar’s Letter
Original: ØDEGARD, Knut
Translation: Wind over Romsdal
Original: Translator’s selection
Faroe Islands (Torshaun), 1900-1974
Translation: Rocky Shores
Paisley, Scotland: Wilfion, 1981
Original: ANONYMOUS (Olafur Halldorsson, ed.)
Reykjavik: Graenlands annal, 1976
Translation: The Greenlanders’ Saga
Ottawa: Oberon, 1976
Original: ANONYMOUS (Olafur Halldorsson, ed.)
Reykjavik: Jon Helgason HF, 1967
Translation: The Faroe Islanders’ Saga
Original: ANONYMOUS (Bjorn K. Porolfsson, ed.)
Reykjavik: Islenzk Fornrit (vol. VI)
Translation: The Saga of Gisli
London/Toronto: Dent & University of Toronto Press, 1963
Original: MATRAS, Christian
Ur sjon og ur minni
The Faroese Academy and Penumbra
Translation: Seeing and Remembering
The Faroese Academy and Penumbra