Jonathan Griffin (Radley College 1920 – 1924 and New College, Oxford 1924 – 1928) wrote topical books on military matters in the 1930s. During World War Two he was Director of BBC European Intelligence and was ultimately responsible for the Victory sign, made famous by Winston Churchill. For the first few years after the war, Griffin was responsible for cultural and educational matters at the British Embassy in Paris.
He resigned from the Foreign Office in 1951 and henceforth devoted himself to writing poetry and plays, subsidising his literary activities by translating prose books from the French. These translations included the first volume of General de Gaulle’s memoirs, the memoirs of Jean-Louis Barrault, the plays of Henri de Montherlant, novels by Jean Giono and Romain Gary, art criticism by Dora Vallier and René Huyghe, and the cinematographic notebooks of Robert Bresson.
Griffin’s long and complex verse play, The Hidden King, was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957. Despite poor reviews it was a popular success but, like other practitioners of poetic drama, he went out of fashion with the onset of “kitchen sink” theatre. Between 1957 and 1983, he published seven books of poetry. He lived long enough to see his Collected Poems published in the USA in two volumes (1989 and 1990). The poet and critic Jonathan Delamont made a selection of Griffin’s best poems for his UK poetry publisher, Menard Press, and these were published as In Earthlight in 1995.
Admired as a poet by Ted Hughes and others, Jonathan Griffin is probably best known as a distinguished translator of poetry and plays, mainly from the French, Portuguese and German. The plays include Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg and Claudel’s Break of Noon. His main poetry translations were of Fernando Pessoa (several volumes including the Penguin Pessoa), Camoens and René Char.
Jonathan Griffin’s papers and books have now been deposited with Radley College Archives, 2006. Some material on display is on loan for this exhibition.
by Antony Rudolf