Baxter x Halliwell

On Halliwell on Whalley’s Aristotle

In “The Light and the Dark: Two Translations of the Poetics” (Arion 8.1 [Spring/Summer 2000]: 144-58), Stephen Halliwell gives a comparably favourable account of the translation by Malcolm Heath and a highly unfavourable critique of the translation and commentary by George Whalley. His condemnation, at certain points, could not be more emphatic: “Whalley’s treatment of the Poetics is, by any standard, monumentally eccentric” (151); it is “the most convolutedly and disconnectedly presented translation known to me” (146); “in terms of its detail, the project is. . .colossally wrong-headed” (154). Given the vehemence of these criticisms, it is hard to see why Whalley’s translation was ever thought worth reviewing at all, much less why it should receive the extended and thoughtful (albeit, unremittingly hostile) analysis that Halliwell offers. Moreover, Whalley’s work is not at all widely known or influential, so why bother? What exactly are the issues here?

In focussing the comparison of Heath and Whalley, Halliwell says that Heath’s is “a highly reliable version that could safely, indeed profitably, be recommended in any course, classical or comparative, which called for reference to the Poetics. . .and that it could be unproblematically used alongside or in conjunction with other translations” (150). Whalley’s version, by contrast, appears altogether unreliable and unsafe. My own experience, however, is quite the reverse. I have used Whalley’s translation with great profit (in undergraduate classes and in graduate seminars) alongside those of several other writers, including Bywater, Grube, Else, Janko, Heath, and Halliwell himself. Now it could be that I am merely too obtuse to recognize a problematic use when I see one, or it could be the case that when non-classicists collaborate with classicists the authority lies all with the latter. I am certainly prepared to acknowledge that Halliwell is an authority; in fact, at the moment he seems to me the world’s leading authority on the Poetics, as well as its most reliable. Wherever he calls Whalley to account on matters of scholarship, I suspect that he must be right and I lament, afresh, the fact of posthumous publication that left Whalley at the mercy of the inadequate abilities of his editors. Had he lived to oversee the publication, he would no doubt have eliminated many of the inconsistencies that Halliwell spots, and he could well have buttressed his own approach to the scholarly cruxes with better arguments than his editors could find.

But translations work in at least two directions, and there may still be room for a comment from those on the receiving end as well as from the translators themselves. Halliwell asserts that Whalley’s cut-and-paste method is too hard to follow, that it is “bewildering,” and “if that is how I found it, after working more than twenty years professionally on the Poetics and producing two translations of my own, I dread to think what Greekless students (Whalley’s intended readership) would make of it” (152). He repeats the point a bit later: “Far from giving the Greekless reader an idea of what it is like to read Aristotle’s Greek, Whalley has constructed a peculiarly cluttered verbal labyrinth that is a painful struggle even for a specialist to work through” (154). This concern for the well-being of the Greekless student is good, but it overlooks the possibility that being a professional and an expert, far from conferring a special authority in this particular matter, may, in fact, tend rather to work as a disqualification. The one thing Halliwell can’t now know is what it’s like to be a Greekless reader of the text. He takes it for granted, too, that what is wanted is fluency and speed, whereas the single most important thing for the Greekless reader—especially the Greekless student of English literature (and even more especially the Graduate Student of English literature)—is to SLOW DOWN. Speed-reading is responsible for a good bit of the inanity in English studies just now, and also for the distorted, sub-Aristotelian jargon that many students get from a quick slide through the Poetics. And Malcolm Heath’s translation is one of the slickest: its use is therefore far from unproblematical.

One of the biggest problems, of course, is the right approach to mimesis. Halliwell decries such conventional translations as ‘imitation’ (Heath’s choice) or the equally conventional ‘representation’, and he approves Whalley’s decision “to keep ‘mimesis’ as a transliterated noun” (153). But his dealings with Heath on this matter have some curious twists. He once describes their difference on this point as a “far-reaching” disagreement, so it’s a little difficult to see why, in the next breath, he calls Heath’s translation “reliable” (150). How does that work, one wonders—wrong about a major concept, with a wrongness that has far-reaching implications, and yet still reliable? And a similar puzzle arises about his vocabulary in the first instance when he objects to Heath’s retaining the conventional ‘imitation’, an objection that comes early in a paragraph offering “a selection of other, more limited, criticisms” (149). Well, which is it—a limited criticism or a far-reaching criticism?

My guess would be that “far-reaching” is right and that “limited” and “reliable” and so on creep into a rhetorical strategy that means to be softer on Heath than it should be in order to be harder on Whalley than it need be. But why should Halliwell want to be hard on Whalley? This question, I believe, is closely related to my earlier question about why a translation regarded as altogether wrong-headed should get such extended treatment (nearly two-thirds of a lengthy 15 page review). Halliwell seems eager, perhaps overly eager, to disavow any possible similarity between his own approach and Whalley’s, but there are some interesting similarities. As noted above, Halliwell does acknowledge that both opt to transliterate mimesis rather than to translate it. Halliwell, too, it would seem, is anxious at this point to keep the Greekless reader in touch with the Greek, and in this he and Whalley are unlike virtually all other English translators. But he moves very quickly to distance himself: “Whalley makes far too much, both in his essay on translating the Poetics and in his commentary, of the idea that the work is permeated by a special emphasis on poetic activity and process, insisting that this emphasis is built into not only the use of various words of the poi- root but also the term mimesis itself” (153). The Greekless reader won’t be able to judge fully of the accuracy and fairness of this remark, but anyone who has taken note of the fact that Halliwell is himself on record as saying that “Aristotle’s guiding notion of mimesis is implicitly that of enactment” is bound to find his denunciation of the same idea in Whalley somewhat curious.

As for words of the poi- root, the most important in this context, of course, is poiesis, which presents nearly as strong a case for transliteration as mimesis does. Whalley resorts either to a sort of clumsy compromise between translation and transliteration with “the poietic art” or to a perhaps equally awkward compound construction, “poetry-making.” Halliwell will have none of this. He asserts categorically that “it is ‘poetry’” and insists that to impose “a fussy pseudo-distinction on the use of the noun poiesis serves very little purpose” (154). But among the interesting questions here is whether the authority of the classical philologist is sufficient on its own to decide the issue. The English language used to have (until the eighteenth century) a means of clarifying exactly the distinction Whalley wants to get at when it retained a serious usage for ‘poesy’ alongside the collective noun ‘poetry’. Ben Jonson is particularly succinct: poesy is the poet’s “skill, or craft of making”; a poem is “the thing done,” poesy is “the doing.” Whalley’s intention to highlight a sense of process—of making and doing—far from being a fussy idiosyncracy is an attempt to re-capture a significant distinction that was once available in English. How important that distinction is to Aristotle’s Greek I don’t know, but given the emphasis in the Poetics on the making of plots that are grounded on the principle of probability and necessity, I suspect that Whalley is on the right track.

On the making of plots, Halliwell objects to Heath’s claim that a plot is adequate “if it conforms to the underlying universal patterns to which events conform in some imaginary or fictitious world” (quoted from Heath, 149). For Halliwell (and I believe he has this right), Aristotle’s criterion of probability is flexible enough to take in some element of the imaginary or the fictitious, but it still must retain contact with the real world. How this process works in individual cases is likely to be a subtle matter, but it seems not unreasonable to suppose that there could be room in the discussion for what Coleridge thought of as the realising function of the imagination. And this brings me to Whalley’s “Aristotle-Coleridge Axis.”

Halliwell opens with something of a stock response to the suggested alignment between, as he says, “of all people, Aristotle and Coleridge, the supreme intellectual analyst and the great prophet of the imagination” (146). By the end of the review, however, he comes round to admitting that the idea may have something to it after all: “Whalley does eventually reach ground where worthwhile and challenging critical comparisons might have been made: the ground of Aristotle’s and Coleridge’s concepts of form, organic unity, and poetic mimesis” (156). But the admission is made grudgingly: Whalley gives us “only a sketch of a few starting points for reflection.” It seems more than a little ungenerous to complain of a startlingly original idea that it offers only a starting point or a sketch—which surely was exactly the intention. Similarly ungenerous is the criticism that “we would need a much more historically nuanced positioning of the terminology and the concepts of the two thinkers than Whalley is prepared to give us” (156). In the first place, we want that positioning only because the idea is itself a significant breakthrough; and second, a good bit of the historical material needed to reach the desired nuances lies in the work Whalley himself did on the Collected Coleridge, much of it still in the process of being published (again posthumously). And if it’s true that profitable comparisons are still to be made with Coleridge’s concepts of such central issues as form, organic unity, and poetic mimesis, then perhaps Whalley’s Aristotle is a more central and substantial achievement than the quirky text Halliwell depicts.

John Baxter

Dalhousie University


Stephen Halliwell, University of St Andrews (

Despite John Baxter’s protests, I find nothing to retract or modify in my review of George Whalley’s and Malcolm Heath’s translations of the Poetics (Arion 8.1 [2000] 144- 58). I wrote as I did on the principle that the truth is more important than Plato. I must, however, draw attention to some regrettably misleading inaccuracies in Baxter’s communication. Baxter is understandably protective of George Whalley’s posthumous reputation, though his confidence that Whalley’s idea of a link between Aristotle and Coleridge as critics was “a startlingly original idea” or a “breakthrough” is misplaced. In any case, it’s offensive of Baxter to impute that I “wanted” to be hard on Whalley, still more to maintain that I did so because of similarities between Whalley’s approach and my own. No serious user of either of my versions of the Poetics could see any sustained resemblance to the hyper-metaphrastic obfuscations and manglings involved in Whalley’s treatment of the text. As for supposed connections between our broader views of the Poetics, I note the flimsiness of Baxter’s remarks. First, I did not simply dismiss “poetry-making,” in the sentence Baxter quotes (without context), as a general equivalent to poiesis; I was specifically rebutting Whalley’s use of it à propos the famous sentence about universals in Poetics 9: this makes a difference. Second, in thinking that my own stress on mimesis as “enactment” is much the same as Whalley’s on poiesis as poetic activity and process, Baxter perpetrates a basic conceptual confusion: enactment, in this case, is a property of the mimetic work or performance, not of the poet’s own activity. My review documented abundant “mistakes, inconsistencies and perversities” in Whalley’s translation and notes, showing in detail that his work falls grossly below standards of professional competence.

Baxter admits that my criticisms were based on careful, authoritative scholarship: why, then, can’t he accept the book’s shortcomings, not some gratuitously imagined motive, as the sole cause of the criticisms? To make matters worse he curiously tries to turn my very expertise against me by claiming that it may “tend…to work as a disqualification” where the needs of Greekless students are concerned. “The one thing Halliwell can’t now know”, he asserts, “is what it’s like to be a Greekless reader of the text.” This is an epistemologically extravagant assertion. In addition to remembering much of the process of learning Greek myself, I happen to teach Greekless students regularly (something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Baxter). Baxter’s Greekless students must be geniuses if, unlike mine, they can benefit much from struggling through Whalley’s murky labyrinth while avoiding the numerous pitfalls it contains. If so, they could learn quite a lot of Greek for the same expenditure of energy. One thing on which I happen to concur with Baxter is his principle that Greekless students need to “SLOW DOWN” (his capitals) in their reading of translations. I would extend this to all readers of all (worthwhile) texts; I am, by nature, a painfully slow reader myself. But I’m afraid that, as already intimated, Baxter himself did not read my review slowly enough. As though catching me in an inconsistency, he creates the impression that I called a disagreement with Heath over how to translate mimesis both “far-reaching” and “limited” and then asks, pointedly, “well, which is it…?” The answer is that, as I originally stated, it is far-reaching. I never called it limited. What I called limited was, quite explicitly, a selection of criticisms of Heath’s introduction (149), one of which involved his own qualms over translating mimesis as “representation” (something, incidentally, which Baxter is wholly incorrect to say that I myself ever “decry”). I pointed out that Heath fails to address equivalent objections to his own choice of “imitation”: that is a limited criticism of a passage in his introduction, even though it relates to a far-reaching disagreement over his translation of mimesis. The difference is clear.

More generally, I’m surprised Baxter has difficulty recognising how I can have some far-reaching disagreements with Malcolm Heath’s translation yet call it “reliable.” By reliable I mean that a translation is, unlike Whalley’s, free of substantial errors or blatant misinterpretations. A translation can satisfy this criterion, as Heath’s does, yet still contain choices with which I disagree (even radically). Disagreement is compatible with scholarly respect. Baxter foists a logical fault on me by converting my disagreement with Heath into a judgement that he is sometimes “wrong,” a term I did not use. Finally, Baxter asks why I bothered to review Whalley’s book when I held such a low opinion of it. I was given the opportunity to review two very different versions of the Poetics and I did so in the form of an essay which attempted to develop some broader reflections on the challenges of translation (Baxter himself calls the piece “thoughtful”). Furthermore, having discovered how atrocious Whalley’s work was, I felt an academic obligation to alert others (not least the teachers of Greekless students) to the dangerously flawed nature of his project. I might therefore ask Baxter in turn the more pertinent and urgent question: why was the book ever published in this form?