Monday, May 31, 2010

Seamus Heaney translates Robert Henryson's medieval Scots verse

A middle-aged man contemplates the aftermath of Chaucer's tragic Cresseid. Abandoned by Troilus after she dallied with Diomede, did she deserve the contempt with which she was treated in this tale from the Trojan war? Robert Henryson defends her, and his serious consideration attracts Heaney to revive from his "mid-Ulster" upbringing the speech rhythms shared with a "hidden Scotland" that he hears within this late fifteenth-century poem's elegant defense of a fallen woman, turned a leper.

Heaney, as with his translations of the medieval Irish tale of mad Sweeney and his version of "Beowulf," keeps his own direct, confident manner foremost. "Who's now to guide, accompany or stand by/Me, set at odds and made so odious/ To Diomede and noble Troilus?" is the translation of "Quha sall me gyde? Quha sall me convoy,/ Sen I fra Diomeid and nobill Troylus/ Am clene excludit, as abject odious?" (10-11) You can see here the balance of freedom and fidelity that characterizes Heaney's interpretation.

Henryson's also known for his versified fables, expanded into morality tales from Aesop and other written and oral sources. He combined the popular and learned cultures and is supposed to have been a schoolmaster. Heaney admires the Scots poet's range, similar to his own, and explains Henryson's modulation as an appealing reason for rendering his tales for a wider audience.

There's no notes beyond a few sentences setting the context for the fables, and the introduction I found suggestive rather than thorough; these remain minor shortcomings of this version. Yet Heaney points us to scholarly editions, as his emphasis here's on accessible, brisk, and sententious storylines that convey sympathy with human predicaments and moral quandries. "Hence the decision to translate the poems with rhyme and metre, to match as far as possible the rhetoric and the roguery of the originals, and in general 'keep the accent'." (xiv) These do demand to be heard aloud, and the origin of Heaney's notice of Henryson was "to translate some other narrative that could be performed by an actor" after his reading of "Beowulf." (xiii) While fewer than five thousand lines of Henryson exist, perhaps this collection of his verse will inspire such a recitation of it for us today. (Posted to Amazon US 12-13-09)


Bo said...

lovely review. :)

Fionnchú said...

Bo, thought of you w/this today: "Oxford Tradition Comes to This: Death (Expound)":)