This outlandish and difficult poem was a great success. Paul Gerhardt Schmidt, in the introduction to his 1974 critical edition, lists twenty-seven manuscripts, thirteen of them from the thirteenth century. The extensive glosses in a number of these codices, most notably two of the fifteenth century, witness to the poem's wide audience and to the respect in which both its erudition and its style were held throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages. Petrarch attacked the poem as inept; Josse Badius Ascensius published the editio princeps in 1517.
Winthrop Wetherbee's graceful prose translation, accompanying a facing-page reprint of Schmidt's text, renders the poem accessible to an anglophone audience. It thus opens the door to another of the sources of that mixture of Ovidian artifice, Juvenalian spleen, and quadrivial learning so characteristic of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century literature. The smoothness of Wetherbee's translation is no mean feat, and it is purchased at some necessary, and generally self-acknowledged, costs: extensive recasting of syntax, departures from the usual lexical fields of some vocabulary, a great deal of interpretative expansion from the Latin text, and a smoothing out of the manneristic ornatus of late twelfth-century Latin verse. In this last case, the elimination of such ornament is sometimes demanded by the simple unavailability in English of Latin's more precise inflectional markers, as at I. 196-201. In other instances, the recasting has more to do with what a twentieth-century audience's aesthetic sense will or will not bear, as for example in a catalogue of trees on the Mount of Ambition at IV. 38-52, where fifteen successive lines begin with 'et', and the final seven of these with 'et pirus', lest the subtlety of the effect escape the reader. (Wetherbee's note on the passage remarks, with considerable restraint, 'I am willing to leave for future study the question of just what six varieties of pear are referred to in lines 46-51'.) Some users of the Latin text might at points prefer a closer rendering, as I did from time to time; the same readers will probably find themselves, at other junctures, grateful for Wetherbee's intelligent resolutions of Johannes' more precious and cryptic passages.
The introduction sets the poem in its social and cultural contexts with appealing vividness and concision, and with an attention to the economic determinants of those contexts not always so explicitly given them by medieval Latinists. The explanatory endnotes are succinct but useful. Allusions to contemporary manuscript glosses in the notes are sometimes tantalizing and might well leave the reader wishing the glosses could have been quoted directly in excerpt. In sum, the volume is a welcome and worthy contribution.
DAVID TOWNSEND Centre for Medieval Studies University of Toronto
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|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1997|
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