Researching a history of Middle English poetic style necessarily involves also finding out about style in some of the other languages of medieval Britain. When translating from Latin or French, Middle English poets can choose either to simplify or omit stylistic elements of their source, or to reproduce these poetic effects in the vernacular, or to find an equivalent or analogous vernacular stylistic embellishment. One of the sources for the Middle English poet Laȝamon’s Brut, a history of Britain written circa 1200, is Wace’s Anglo-Norman poem Roman de Brut (circa 1155). Wace’s poem was, I think, a major influence on the style and techniques of narration of early Middle English poetry. Reading the two side by side (in Judith Weiss’s edition of Wace’s Roman de Brut and the Barron and Weinberg edition of Laȝamon) is a useful exercise in understanding Laȝamon’s poetic choices in action. Laȝamon combines reproduction of some parts of Wace’s style with analogous wordplay of his own. Here’s two passages (starting at RB 13,253 and B14,244 respectively) to compare: Continue reading
Next week sees Oxford University’s tribute to Seamus Heaney. Amongst all the immense losses brought about by the death of this great poet is the loss of a skilled translator of Middle English, a translator who brought medieval poetry to a wider audience. In 2009, Heaney published a translation of Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and seven of his Moral Fables. Earlier in his career, Heaney translated a short Middle English text called ‘The Names of the Hare’. This early Middle English poem is preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 86, a late thirteenth-century West Midlands trilingual miscellany written by an anonymous scribe for his own use.