The theme for this year’s United Kingdom National Poetry Day is LIGHT. What sprung into my mind, thinking of light in Middle English poetry, was an image of jasper walls gleaming like egg white in a city which doesn’t need the light of the sun or the moon because it is lit by divinity itself: ‘The selfe God was her lambe-lyght, / The Lombe her lantyrne’ [God himself was their lamp-light, the Lamb their lantern]. It comes in what might just be the best stanza in Middle English poetry.
This is part two of my experiment looking at two different Middle English poets translating a brief seasonal description from Guido of Colonna’s thirteenth-century Latin prose account of the history of the destruction of Troy: ‘the month of May was adorning the fields of the country with various flowers, and the trees, growing green with new leaves, were giving promise of fruits to come by the profusion of their blossoms…’ (trans. Meek). Part one explored John Clerk’s version in the Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy. Scroll down to find John Lydgate’s version (with a Modern English translation) of the same description of May in his Troy Book.
This week’s selection at least manages to be topical: some descriptions of May and Spring (for more lovely descriptions, see the Clerk of Oxford’s post). This is a little test-post for an idea I had about looking at various verse translations of the same source text in order to focus on poetic praxis. Guido of Colonna’s thirteenth-century Latin prose account of the history of the destruction of Troy was translated several times into Middle English poetry: into alliterative verse by John Clerk of Whalley (now called the Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy), into four-stress couplets (now called the Laud Troy Book), and into decasyllabic couplets by John Lydgate in his Troy Book.
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 Multilingual style
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.