May: Three Ways (Part 1)

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.

This task was made much easier by me having e-book access to Walter Wilflingseder’s 2007 study of The Motifs and Characters in the ‘Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy’ and in the’ Laud Troy Book’.  Wilflingseder quotes the relevant passages in his brief discussion of these texts’ use of seasonal descriptions.  Here’s Guido’s original Latin prose, giving a brief chronographia (a rhetoric figure describing a time or season very vividly) to mark the month in which Paris departs on his journey to the island of Cythera:

mensis ille Maius diuersis floribus planicies aruorum
ornauerat et nouis virentes frondibus arbores in
fecunditate florum fructus proximos promittebant….

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. Mary Elizabeth Meek, p. 65)

The Laud Troy Book omits this passage – a clear sign that its author did not consider this chronographia a necessary part of his narrative, or see it as something which matched his conception of his poetic project.  Here’s this same passage from the Gest Hystoriale:

In the moneth of May when medoes bene grene
And all florisshet with floures the fildes aboute;
Burions of bowes brethit ful swete,
Florishet full faire; frutes were knyt;
Grevys were grene and the ground hilde;
Hit was likyng in laundys ledus to walke… (modernised)

[In the month of May when meadows were green and all
of the fields thereabout bloomed with flowers; shoots on
branches smelled very sweet, they put forth leaves very
beautifully; fruits were formed; groves were green and
the ground covered; It was pleasing to people to walk in clearings.]

What I’ve realised, as I’ve compared this with its source, is a very obvious point (for which I apologise).  The requirements  of form and the demands of translation trump experiments in style or poetics for John Clerk.  His room for manoeuvre is thus limited, so any poetic embellishment can only occur within these constraints.  The ms of month and May inevitably produce the meadows, with both that noun and its description added to fill out the line.  The next line inevitably alliterates fields and flowers, converting the Latin verb ornare into the Middle English florishen.

Turning to the trees, John Clerk begins with burions (a French word describing very precisely the small green shoots on the branches).  This looks to me like Clerk drawing in a word from a specialized non-literary register (as Simon Horobin shows Chaucer doing in his book on Chaucer’s Language).   The rest of the line comprises words chosen to alliterate with this unusual first noun, again with padding towards the end of the line following the three alliterating words.  Rosemond Tuve, in her 1933 study of Seasons and Months: Studies in a Tradition of Middle English Poetry, shows how Clerk, like other English poets, incorporated scientific descriptions of the seasons from the Secreta Secretorum  to supplement what he found in the Historia.  This happens at the level of lexis as well as content in these lines.

The next line responds to Guido’s figure of thought which sees the clouds of new blossom in spring as a promise of fruits to come in the autumn.  John Clerk doesn’t attempt a corresponding figure of thought in his verse, preferring again to choose botanically accurate diction rather than construct a rhetorical colour or figure.  He writes that fruits were knyt, that is the blossoms were fertilized and would in due course set fruit.  Finally, he adds lines describing the glades filled with new foliage, the ground covered (presumably with fresh grass and flowers) and the delight of those who walked in clearings.  These additions draw both on the Secreta season descriptions and on the descriptions found in French poetry such as the opening of the Roman de la Rose.

In the next post, I’ll compare Lydgate’s version of these lines in the Troy Book.  As we will see, for Lydgate form and the demands of translation are less constraining.  But for John Clerk (at least on the basis of this tiny sample) to be a poet is predominantly to manage his twin-track translation of Latin to English and prose to verse.  Within these constraints, he prefers lexical exactitude to rhetorical amplification.

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