E. Powys Mathers

For a crossword compiler to have called himself after the Spanish Grand Inquisitor may seem natural enough to those of us who have a sado-masochistic relationship with cryptic clues and you might imagine that  “Torquemada” himself was a rather austere and ascetic man. In fact, E. Powys Mathers, inventor of the cryptic crossword and the first of only three setters since 1926 of the difficult puzzle in The Observer, was described by one of the people who knew him as being the most benevolent man he’d ever met, although it seems that much of the beaming benevolence was due to drink. Mathers was an alcoholic. He was also bisexual.

In my post about the current Observer setter, Azed, I noted that Mathers was also a poet and that Carcanet had published Black Marigolds & Coloured Stars, a pairing of his first two books. It was, in fact, published by the Anvil Press, which merged with Carcanet when Anvil’s founder, Peter Jay, retired in 2015. Although the book is out of print, I was able to borrow a copy from the (excellent) National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It has an introduction by Tony Harrison, no less, who has been a fan of Black Marigolds since he first read it in the 1950’s and buys up books by Mathers whenever he can. One can see the attraction. Despite their exoticism and occasional tendency towards hyperventilation, Mathers’ translations do have a freshness and directness that gives them a timeless feel.

Black Marigolds — his first book, though printed here after Coloured Stars which appeared in the same year (1919) — is a version of the Chaurapanchasika. There are apparently different sources for this, but Mathers says in his introduction that it is a two thousand year old Sanskrit poem, written by Chauras, while he was awaiting execution in Kanchinpur for his illicit relationship with King Sundava’s daughter, Vidya.

Mathers had only a smattering of Sanskrit and all his Eastern poetry was translated “at second hand”. The original was said to have been composed in the last few hours of Chauras’s life and Mathers claimed “my rendering was finished in 1915, in two or three sessions on a box by the stove in hutments” where he was billeted. Each of the fifty stanzas begins, “Even now”, a phrase which Harrison says Mathers took either from a translation by Sir Edwin Arnold, although Arnold varies the phrase, or from A History of Sanskrit Literature by Arthur A Macdonell. Whichever is the case, it provides a very effective, quasi-hypnotic framework, which Mathers described as “a recurring monotone of retrospection”. It’s a poem that works very much by its cumulative effect, as the poet looks back at the illicit love which has brought him to this fate:

Even now
I call to mind her weariness in the morning
Close lying in my arms, and tiredly smiling
At my disjointed prayer for her small sake.
Now in my morning the weariness of death
Sends me to sleep. Had I made coffins
I might have live singing to three score. 

Coloured Stars, on the other hand, is an anthology of “fifty Asiatic love poems” from a wide variety of sources — linguistic and geographical. The problem is with the reliability of the sources. At least two of the poets whom Mathers “translates” are invented personae: J. Wing, said to be an American-born, Chinese valet; and John Duncan, a lowland Scot, who left Edinburgh after a disastrous love-affair to live the rest of his life with a tribe of nomadic Arabs. Yeats included one of Mathers’ Wing poems, “English Girl”, in his Oxford Book of English Verse. As Mathers was not a linguist, but had “a scholar’s knowledge” of French, his sources for the Eastern poems — other than those he wrote himself — were apparently collections in French translation.

The theme that links the poems in Coloured Stars is love, although there are some good hate poems here as well:

Oh! Leila!
In your heart are three things,

All the yellow cobras of Burma,
All the deadly fungi of Bengal,
All Nepal's poison flowers;

and the Altai warriors in “War Song” seem to be more in love with the accoutrements of war than the charms of their women:

To bodies yielding under the struggle of love
And rearing under the red fire of kisses,
We prefer our horses tricked with silver and gold,
Our horses that yield not beneath us
And bound only at the sight of the blood of battles.

Knowing that Mathers was such a trickster, a non-expert begins to doubt the authenticity even of the poems not written by his alter egos. Take one of the six poems called “Song”, for instance. However highly prized goats may have been in Tibet, did the people there really write love songs comparing the beloved to a goat or goats? It seems a little too much like a cultural stereotype.

Although Mathers went on to “translate” more Asiatic love poems and a version of One Thousand and One Nights, he was disappointed that he did not achieve as much as he wanted to as a writer, something for which his fame as Torquemada failed to compensate him. Anyone interested in crosswords would probably regard it as fame enough, but there is a case for the poems to be better known. Harrison’s own assessment is that: “Mathers, erotic aesthete, cocktail-shaking Chinese-American, honorary Arab nomad, bhang-chewer, Turkish bisexual, tormenting puzzle-setter, was a true if minor poet whose assimilation of Eastern modes should rank with Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound, and whose name and achievements should be much better known than they are.”

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2 thoughts on “E. Powys Mathers

  1. Such a fascinating article! I knew nothing of Mathers, don’t speak Sanskrit or Turkish and can’t do crosswords. Even now, I wonder at my ignorance of this poet. However, I once spent a fortnight in a holiday cottage reading through Yeats’s idiosyncratic Oxford Book of English Verse so I must have read at least one poem by Mathers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, John. Mathers couldn’t speak those languages either, so you’re in good company, and crosswords are just a question of learning the tricks. I didn’t know about Mathers either until recently, although I was aware of him as Torquemada.

      Liked by 1 person

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