Sjoerd Levelt (@SLevelt) has created the hashtag #FlyleafFriday, a great way of sharing the weird and wonderful things found on the flyleaves of books and manuscripts. Flyleaves are, of course, a good place for noting down or composing poems. Rossell Hope Robbins, in his anthology of Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, devotes a few pages in his introduction to poems found on flyleaves. One stanza sometimes found as a flyleaf addition is a particularly neat bit of wordplay by John Lydgate, a stanza I’ve been meaning to write about for ages. (The image above comes from National Library of Wales Brogyntyn MS ii.1 and is a bit of a cheat, as here the stanza is added into the main body of the manuscript rather than the flyleaves.) But I promise you that this stanza is recorded on several flyleaves as an addition to an existing manuscript.
This ingenious stanza (scroll down for a text and translation) is an extract from Lydgate’s Fall of Princes (Book II, lines 4432-38), found separately from its original poem in thirteen manuscripts. The stanza comes after the story of Mettius Fufetius, at the end of a section in which Lydgate, following his source Boccaccio, decries the dangers of deception, both for those who are deceived and, as this stanza argues, for the deceivers themselves. Readers liked this stanza so much that they extracted it and copied it into their manuscripts and printed books.
Lydgate here experiments with a rhetorical figure called traductio (meaning ‘transference’, ‘derivation’). Cicero defines traductio as a sort of repetition in which words can be repeated ‘not only without offence to good taste, but even so as to render the style more elegant’. George Puttenham has a characteristically vivid description in his Arte of English Poesie (1588): ‘a figure which the Latins call traductio and I the Tranlacer: which is when ye turn and tranlace a word into many sundry shapes, as the tailor doth his garments, and after that sort do play with him in your ditty.’
Lydgate does exactly as Puttenham describes, turning the morphemes and sounds of first deceit and then fraud into different shapes and producing ingeniously condensed meaning from them. There is a neat match between form and content: the repeated words rebound through the stanza just as deception rebounds upon the deceiver. However much the deceiver thinks he has gained an advantage, fraud remains, unchanged, and will be transferred back to him, just as the words themselves reappear.
Dysceyt disceyveth and shal be disceyved;
For by disceyt, who that is disceyvable,
Thouh his disceyt be nat out parceyved,
To a disceyvour disceyt is retournable.
Fraude quyt with fraude is guerdone covenable,
For who with fraude fraudulent is founde,
To such defraudour fraude wele ay rebounde.
[Deception deceives and will be itself deceived; / For through deception, he who is deceitful, / (Even though his deception is not able to be seen openly) / To such a deceiver deception is likely to be returned. / Fraud repaid with fraud is an appropriate reward, / For whoever is found to be fraudulent by means of fraud, / Fraud will always return to such a defrauder.]