Nationality: British. Born: Weybridge, Surrey, 24 June 1927. Education: Trinity College, Oxford. Career: Editor, then chief editor, Heinemann publishers, London, 1951–61; director, Bodley Head publishers, London, 1961–89. Address: c/o Jonathan Cape Ltd., 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SWIV 2SA, England.
Possible Laughter. London, Hart Davis, 1959.
New and Selected Poems. London, Chatto and Windus, 1983.
Aesop's Fables. London, Jonathan Cape, 1989.
Collected Poems. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.
Editor, with Kingsley Amis, Oxford Poetry 1949. Oxford, Blackwell, 1949.
Editor, The Bodley Head Book of Longer Short Stories. London, Bodley Head, 1974; as The Book of Longer Short Stories, New York, Stein and Day, 1975.
Editor, with P.J. Kavanagh, The Oxford Book of Short Poems. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Contributor, The Folio Golden Treasury: The Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language. London, Folio Society, 1997.
Translator, The Odes of Horace. New York, Orion, 1963; London, Hart Davis, 1964.
Translator, The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition. London, Hart Davis, and New York, Random House, 1969.
Translator, The Epigrams of Martial. London, Hart Davis MacGibbon, and New York, Random House, 1973.
Translator, Selected Fables, by La Fontaine. London, Allen Lane, and New York, Viking Press, 1979.
Translator, with Colin Leach, Helen/Euripides. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Translator, Poems from the Greek Anthology. London, Folio, 1990.
Translator, The Art of Love by Ovid. London, Folio, 1993.* * *
James Michie is probably better known as a translator than as an original poet, which is hardly surprising considering the wit and energy of his versions of Horace, Catullus, and Martial. His translations are not "modern" in the usual sense—they have nothing in common, for example, with the free renderings and "homages" of Pound or Lowell—but are cast in the neoclassical tradition of Pope and Dryden, in which the order of English rhyme and meter offers a kind of substitute satisfaction for the unrenderable richness of the Latin. Thus Catullus's celebrated "Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? / Nescio, sed fieri sentio at excrucior" becomes, in Michie's version,
I hate and love. If you ask me to explain
I can't, but I can feel it, and the pain
Michie's own poetry has been collected in two volumes. The first, Possible Laughter, is slender, with only thirty-two poems, few of which are longer than a page. They reflect some of the qualities of the Latin verse that Michie has translated, its economy, its sophistication, and particularly its good-natured cynicism about human nature. The chief English influence seems to have been the light (but serious) black doggerel of Auden during the 1930s, with its popular ballad forms and quick, surprising imagery. In "Quiet, Child," for example, Michie observes,
Glumly we chew on with murder
Long past the appetite of hate.
Nothing but their shadows' outlines
Left, like grease-stains on a plate,
People leaning over bridges
And big as a telephone directory
His bomber's casualty list,
Gloved, the pilot leaves behind him,
Represented by a mist,
Individuals who were furious,
But no longer now exist.
The poems vary considerably in theme and metrical form, from the Betjeman-like "Park Concert" to the more troubled, individual voice of "Nightmare" and "At Any Rate," with their darker observations about human cruelty and helplessness. Time, with its subtle erosions, is the enemy:
The hours, pretending they do not know how to combine,Fidelity is weak, and the lovers may
Walk up as charming freebooters, unarmed, disclaiming
Allegiance to that remote and iron-grey battle-line.
hold like amulets
Precious hands, or go linking
Arms, but no one gets
Cleanly through without slinking.
Moving to kiss, although they hadn't meant
It, they'll find themselves archly winking.
New and Selected Poems consists half of poems from Possible Laughter, some lightly revised, and half of new poems. The latter are again relatively short, formal yet varied in form and subject matter, with a similar feel about them as the earlier poems.
The prevailing tone of Michie's verse is neither brutal nor tragic but much in the spirit of the man in "The End of the Sage" who achieves wisdom in death:
"Much wiser and much dafter,
Now that I quite agree
To become dead,
I achieve a witticism,
And I see at last," he said,
"Hazy like foothills possible laughter."