Edmund Spenser And The Discipline Of Translation
What is perhaps most intriguing about the volume in which Edmund Spenser's first published poetry appears is the fact that Spenser receives no credit for his contribution.
A Theatre: Title Page
We should remember, though, that at the time of publication of A Theatre For Voluptuous Wordlings (A Theatre) Spenser, still a teenager, was hardly the highly esteemed poet he would become for his contemporaries and subsequent generations of writers and critics. Even had Spenser's name appeared on the title page, it would have meant little to the reading public. The absence Spenser's name tacitly suggests that the poetry contained in A Theatre is not its most essential matter. Instead, that distinction belongs to the substantial prose pieces that surround the two sequences of translations and the emblems that appear on the pages that face each of the poems. The sheer length of the prose pieces (together they add up to over one hundred pages) is evidence that the prerogative of evaluating and articulating the significance of the text belongs to Van Der Noot (a refugee who had made his way to England to escape religious persecution of Protestants in his native Netherlands). Van Der Noot undertakes the task with relish; in fact, so emphatic is Van Der Noot's reading of the poems as condemnations of the corruption of the Catholic church that the reader would be hard pressed to interpret the poems otherwise.
Even before one reads the commentary the very structure of the volume tells us that the volume is meant to participate in a tradition of prophetic literature, the aim of which is excoriation of illicit behavior in the manner of the Book of Isaiah, for example, in the Hebrew Testament. Furthermore, the model of text and commentary in A Theatre, as Thomas Hyde has noted, is the exegetical analysis of the Bible, in which the interpreter discovers the covert, or at least not immediately obvious, meanings that reside in a passage for the reader who is unable to make full sense of the passage on his own. Given the length and intricacy of Van Der Noot's commentary, we might say that while the poems ostensibly compel the exegesis, in the end they are merely ancillary to it. The situation of the poems between Van Der Noot's prose compels them to support the anti-Catholic polemical claims of the volume as a whole. Whether or not Spenser took umbrage with the lack of recognition for his contribution to the volume is impossible to know; in fact, it is not at all clear how Spenser came to be involved in Van Der Noodt's project though it probably happened under the auspices of his teacher Richard Mulcaster at Merchant Taylors' school. In any case, the fact of Spenser's participation in the project, however it came about, tells us at the very least that a teenage Spenser allowed his work as a poet to be affiliated with fiercely anti-Catholic religious and political sentiments; in fact, one might go so far as to claim that he did not mind conflating his poetic ambitions with political and religious polemic.
This is not to imply that as Spenser matured he stripped political sentiment out of his poetry. A cursory look at The Faerie Queene, particularly Books III-VI, reveals that Spenser was perfectly comfortable making his poetry do political work. We should be wary, too, of suggesting that poetry necessarily exists in some empyrean of the aesthetic and politics to the realm of the mundane and never shall the twain meet. Spenser clearly did not believe as much and one of the more compelling themes in the corpus of his work is how the poet brings the sublime truths to which he has access to bear on the mundane world he inhabits.
Still, there remains the fact that Spenser felt compelled to return to his translations of Du Bellay's and Marot's poems in order to revise them. We should first turn our attention to what changes Spenser made in his revisitation of his early effort of translation. Most obvious are the structural changes Spenser made in order to bring the varying forms of the original translations into conformance with the form of the English sonnet. Four of Spenser's original six translations of Marot's work reproduce the 12-line form (the sonnet form as Petrarch first invented it and is it became standard in Italian and French),
12-line sonnet from A Theatre
It bears noting that Spenser's original translations, though not always expert, are quite competent (remarkably so for such a young poet); and, in fact, his rendering of DuBellay's sonnets in blank verse rather than rhyme likely reflects a savvy realization that rhyme in English is considerably more emphatic than in French. So the decision to write blank verse translations indicates not so much a lack of ability on Spenser's part as a willingness to experiment with received forms and poetic conventions. (The user may find the original and subsequent translations alongside the French source poems conveniently displayed for study under the Comparisons tab.) Before addressing what it means for the poems to have been published in the volume Complaints we should further consider the structural changes noted in the foregoing paragraphs. The decision to render the poems in the English sonnet form is evidence for the artistic habit that marks much of Spenser's mature poetry: namely his willingness, even eagerness, to work with a small palette. The Spenserian stanza of The Faerie Queene is a formidable technical challenge precisely for the reason that the redundancy of rhyme puts the poet constantly at risk of falling into a kind of trite sing-song.
Likewise, Spenser's other great innovation, the Spenserian sonnet (pattern: ababbcbcbccdcdee), is a marvel of compression. By refashioning the blank verse experiments that constitute the translations of DuBellay's poems and by supplementing the 12-line sonnets of Marot with final couplets, Spenser brings his youthful poetry into conformance with his mature artistic program. It is a curiously retroactive, even recuperative, gesture-as if an older Spenser felt the need to make "right" his earliest work by stripping it of its experimental qualities (or, in the case of the poems by Marot, its "foreignness") in order to suggest that even in his youth he had mastered the poetic idioms of his native English. Lending further support to this claim is that fact that Complaints includes not only Spenser's translations of poems by Du Bellay and Marot, but also an original sequence entitled "Visions Of The World's Vanitie."
Complaints: Table of Contents
These poems owe a great deal to Du Bellay's and Marot's poems in terms of subject matter, theme, and imagery, but they are rendered in Spenserian sonnet form. This represents a triumph of assimilation because Spenser has taken the raw material of Du Bellay's and Marot's poetry, preserved its thematic content, but presented it in such a way as to make it distinctly Spenserian.
This leads us to the intriguing question of what it means for Spenser's translations to appear in a collection of his own poems, Complaints, rather than A Theatre. First, it bears noting (as does Joe Loewenstein in the essay that accompanies this one) that we cannot be sure Spenser had any involvement in the publication of the collection, although it seems likely he did. Most obviously, publishing the translations alongside poems whose themes are mutability and decay, the unreliability and corruption of earthly institutions, the collapse of nations and empires causes the poems to reverberate much differently.
Given the polemical aims of the prose in A Theatre any mention of vanity or worldliness in the poems can hardly help but evoke in the reader a sense that what is being called out is the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. The reader of Complaints has no recourse to an interpretive essay to tell him what to make of the poems in the volume. What he has instead is less indictment of a particular institution than an exploration of how the creatures, structures, and institutions of this world-no matter how powerful, how beautiful, how greatly esteemed-inevitably decay and disappear. If there is a didactic message in the poems it is implicit rather than explicit: the only certain and constant refuge is the divine.
The theme of the uncertainty of worldly institutions is certainly of great interest to Spenser so his revision of his original translations may be read as an assertion of artistic identity against Van Der Noodt's rather reductive anti-Catholic polemic. At the same time, the theme of mutability is that of Petrarch's "Canzone Of Visions" as well, though there the impetus to the meditation on the passing away of earthly things is the death of Petrarch's beloved Laura. In revising and recontextualizing his translations, Spenser at least partially brings the poems back to their place of origin but without the sense of disappointed erotic love. Because there is no sense of a particular motivation in Spenser's poems they seem, when compared to Petrarch's sequence, less personal, more universal in resonance. The overall achievement is an assertion of the poet's vatic prerogative, a prerogative that cannot be reduced to personal lament or political polemicism.