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William Wordsworth, Translations of Chaucer and Virgil. Ed. Bruce E. Graver. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0801434521. Price: $80.

  • Brennan O'Donnell

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  • Brennan O'Donnell
    Loyola College in Maryland

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Bruce Graver's new volume in the Cornell Wordsworth series provides the first full account of Wordsworth's most extensive work as a translator—his modernizations of selections from Chaucer, begun in late 1801, and the incomplete translation of Virgil's Aeneid on which he worked chiefly in 1823-1824, with significant revisions in 1827. It is actually two books in one. The first 152 pages present and contextualize Wordsworth's versions of "The Prioress's Tale," "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale" (thought by Wordsworth to be Chaucer's), Troilus and Cresida, Book V, ll. 519-686, and "The Manciple's Tale" (including the portrait of the manciple from the "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales). Except for the work on the "Manciple's Tale," which was first published by De Selincourt in 1947, all of the modernizations were published in Wordsworth's lifetime. "The Prioress's Tale" first appeared in 1820 in the River Duddon volume. The "Cuckoo" and the extract from Troilus were published in R.H. Horne, The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, Modernized (1841) and subsequently in Wordsworth's Poems, Chiefly of Early and Late Years (1842).

Pages 153-583 are devoted to the Virgil work. The translation of the Aeneid is the longest and, according to Graver, most neglected poetic composition of Wordsworth's later years. Begun as an experiment, the project developed into an attempt "to supplant John Dryden as the pre-eminent voice of Virgil in English." By 1830, Wordsworth had to acknowledge that his experiment had failed, but not before he had completed translations of Books I-III (entire), Book IV, ll. 688-692, and Book VIII, ll. 337-366, and had engaged in extended and revelatory correspondence and conversation about principles of translation with Lord Lonsdale, Coleridge, and (through his nephew Christopher Wordsworth, Jr.) some of the leading classical scholars of his day. Only a small selection of the translation—from the end of Book I, lines 901 ff.—appeared in print in Wordsworth's lifetime, in a journal of classical studies, The Philological Museum (February 1832). In 1947, Ernest de Selincourt published for the first time a complete text, in reduced type, as Appendix A of Volume IV of the Poetical Works of William Wordsworth.

Like the Cornell volumes that precede it, Graver's book is a model of scholarly care and a treasure chest of information about the composition, revision, publication, and reception of the work it presents. In addition to its presentation of authoritative reading texts, the book contains photographic reproductions and transcriptions of the most important manuscripts, a full census of manuscripts, and a meticulous account of the development of the poems from draft through fair copies and, where applicable, into first printed versions and subsequent revisions. Appendices to the Aeneid work provide selections from a series of letters of 1823-1824 to Lord Lonsdale in which Wordsworth outlines his theories of translation, a photographic reproduction of Coleridge's notes on Book I in DC MS 101, and a text of the selection published in the The Philological Museum. Coleridge's commentary on Book I, presented here for the first time in its entirety, is itself a major contribution, allowing valuable insight into the evolution of both poets' thinking about poetic diction over the quarter-century separating the Lyrical Ballads from the Aeneid work. One example may suggest the fascinating nature of these notes, which Graver characterizes as "witty, cranky, incisive, and obtuse, sometimes all at once" (163). Responding to Wordsworth's translation of Virgil's "Multa malus simulans, vanâ spe lusit amantem" as "His arts conceal'd the crime, and gave vain scope / In Dido's bosom to a trembling hope" (I. 479-480), Coleridge tells Wordsworth, "You have convinced me of the necessary injury which a Language must sustain by rhyme translations of narrative poems of great length":

What would you have said at Allfoxden or in Grasmere Cottage to giving vain scopes to trembling hopes in a bosom?—Were it only for this reason, that it would interfere with your claim to a Regenerator & Jealous Guardian of our Language, I should dissuade the publication. For to you I dare not be insincere—tho' I conjecture, from some of your original Poems (of [the inserted] more recent, I mean) that our tastes & judgements differ a shade or two more than formerly . . . .


Transcriptions of the Coleridge notations are placed in a band underneath the reading text, allowing easy reference to the passages on which Coleridge is commenting.

Graver also provides rich editorial notes, allowing close study of Wordsworth specifically as a translator. Notes following the Chaucer work explain and illustrate a number of decisions that Wordsworth made in translating from the Middle English texts that he found in Anderson's British Poets (1795). These notes show the poet striving to take into account the best available knowledge about Chaucer's text. Anderson based his texts of the "Cuckoo and the Nightingale" and Troilus and Cresida on the "notoriously corrupt" edition of John Urry (1721); the Canterbury Tales and the glossary are based on the much more reliable edition of Thomas Tyrwhitt (1775-1778). While Wordsworth is at times lead into mistranslation by Urry-Anderson, at other times he shows an appropriately skeptical attitude toward his text. The most interesting instance of Wordsworth as textual scholar is his addition of three stanzas—41, 44 and 45—missing from Anderson's text of the "Cuckoo." The note appended to published versions of the poem, in which Wordsworth identifies the added stanzas as "From a manuscript in the Bodleian," is puzzling. As Graver puts it in the Introduction, "Wordsworth was not in the habit of consulting ancient manuscripts, and even if he did, he probably was not skilled enough as a paleographer to be able to read them" (23). Graver neatly solves the mystery, showing that Wordsworth relied on an account of these stanzas provided by "H[erbert] H[ill]," Southey's nephew, in the Gentleman's Magazine for January 1839. With Hill's assistance, Wordsworth's translation comes to occupy a unique place in the textual history of the poem, as the "the first publication of the complete text of the poem, whether modernized or in Middle English, to depart from the corrupt published texts" (71).

Notes running beneath the reading text of the Virgil translation record markings and notes that appear in the editions and translations of Virgil owned by Wordsworth and probably used by him, and places in the translation where Wordsworth seems to be depending on commentary in the two seventeenth-century editions of Virgil that he chiefly used (Jan Minel and the Delphine edition of Charles de la Rue). These notes also attempt to characterize at key points significant relationships between Wordsworth's English and Virgil's Latin, and provide references to passages in Virgil that are translated or alluded to elsewhere in Wordsworth's poetical works. A second set of notes follows the Virgil work and records possible borrowings by Wordsworth from four earlier English translations of the Aeneid—those by John Ogilby, John Dryden, Joseph Trapp, and Christopher Pitt.

Graver's texts, notes, and introductions provide a context for close study and major reassessment of Wordsworth's relationship to two poets whose enormous influence on the development of his own poetry has been relatively neglected in scholarship and criticism. As an apprentice poet, Wordsworth placed Chaucer among the "four English poets whom I must have continually before me as examples." Yet, as Graver argues in his introduction, "about Wordsworth and Chaucer we know next to nothing, in spite of all that the poet said or wrote about the 'morning star' of English poetry" (3-4). Virgil, of course, would have been a staple of his education from an early age. Nevertheless, Wordsworth's most extensive and closest engagement with Virgil's style—the more that three thousand lines in which he took "a good deal of pains" to bend the English language to the "inimitable mixture of the elaborately ornate, and the majestically plain & touching" of Virgil's style—has "been largely ignored," even though the translation is Wordsworth's longest work of his later years (155). [1]

The volume also will be of great value to scholars interested in the development of Wordsworth's theories of poetic diction, and in specifics of the relationship between neoclassical and romantic poetry and poetics. Graver argues throughout the volume that Wordsworth's translations constitute a "self-conscious dialogue" and a "competition" over a span of more than two decades with the "greatest English translator," John Dryden. Graver has argued elsewhere the key issue emphasized here, that Wordsworth's Aeneid work represents a deliberate attempt to translate according to principles very different from Dryden's. The argument in brief is that, while Dryden privileged gracefulness of expression in a contemporary English idiom over literal fidelity to his original, Wordsworth sought to preserve in English as much as possible of the literal meaning—and even something of the sonic and rhythmic texture—of Virgil's Latin, even at the expense of aesthetic strangeness. Wordsworth was willing to risk what Coleridge called "unenglishisms" and even to employ practices of versification that are thoroughly unWordsworthian—frequently enjambed pentameter couplets, which he elsewhere said gave him the "sensation like that of toiling in a dream, under the nightmair," for example—in an attempt to present an English Virgil who sounded more like the Latin Virgil than he did like John Dryden or William Wordsworth. [2]

In the present volume, Graver extends such observations to the Chaucer modernizations, arguing that Wordsworth deliberately sought to counter Dryden's "progressive" notions of translation in an attempt to preserve wherever possible the antiquity, or at least the feel of antiquity, of Chaucer's language. Graver argues that Wordsworth's willingness to "bend" contemporary English to fit Chaucer's idiom reflects his awareness of developments in philology and editorial scholarship. Tyrwhitt's edition of Chaucer, in particular, by making Chaucer's meter and diction more intelligible to late-eighteenth-century readers, contributed to a more historically informed understanding of Chaucer as a poet. Graver nicely indicates the distance between Wordsworth and Dryden when he remarks that Wordsworth's comment in the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads that the "affecting parts of Chaucer are almost always expressed in language pure and universally intelligible even to his day" conveys an idea that Dryden "could not even have formulated" (10).

In any work exhibiting such complexity of detail, there are bound to be a few mistakes. Quotation marks cause trouble at several points. In two places—"The Prioress's Tale," p. 40, l. 108; Aeneid, p. 242, Book II, l. 941—close-quotation marks appear where open-quotation marks are required. In both cases, the error comes after a dash, suggesting that the glitches may have originated in the ironically named "smart-quote" feature of the word-processing package used to set the text. On page 41, line 130, a close-quotation mark [celestial," quoth she] appears with no antecedent open-quote; line 131 has an open-quote ["Of which] that has no subsequent mate. In "The Manciple's Tale," p. 67, l. 187, again there appears a close-quotation mark [will slay"], for which there is no antecedent open-quote; p. 67, l. 215 opens a quotation for which there is no closing punctuation. On page 67, an initial capital letter seems to be missing from l. 196: for ever read Never. Finally, in the Virgil translation, a bracket marking a triplet is misplaced on p. 195: instead of bracketing Book I, lines 435-437, it should mark lines 436-438.

Such minor errata by no means subtract from the impressive scholarship on display throughout this volume. Graver's book is a distinguished contribution to a great scholarly enterprise.