Michael Calabrese

title.none: Finch, trans., Complete Works of the Pearl Poet

identifier.other: baj9928.9504.005 95.04.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, California State University, Los Angeles

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Finch, Casey, trans. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xi + 176; (alk. paper). ISBN: ISBN 0-520-06874-2 ISBN 0520-07871-3 (pbk. alk. paper).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.04.05

Finch, Casey, trans. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xi + 176; (alk. paper). ISBN: ISBN 0-520-06874-2 ISBN 0520-07871-3 (pbk. alk. paper).

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
California State University, Los Angeles

I spare the reader the cliche simile about what the act of "translation is like." I've read far too many of those precious figures in pouring over a dozen prefaces to one or another of the Pearl poems. I will rather simply say that in the case of Finch's book, translation is access, access to the in-duplicable poetry of the Pearl poet. The volume, translating all the poems but Pearl into alliterating anapestic tetrameter—a meter quite distinct from that of the original alliterative long line—might stir up much dismay on the part of purists who value those translations that strive to reproduce the syllabic variation and variously modulated rhythms of the original poetry. And Finch's large poetic license will jar many who simply won't find corresponding terms in the original verse for words Finch uses in translation. Finch anticipates this and states baldly that he knows that translation is an extreme form of criticism: "It [translation] has interpreted the text with the most violent form of intervention, mediating absolutely between the original and the reader" (ix). This admission, of course, allows Finch to pursue his own performative, regularly rhythmic versions of the Pearl poet's works. He bases his decisions on the contention that, "In their public and theatrical delivery—in whatever form—they would have gained an instant rhythmic regularity that the text as it stands on the page does not convey" (xi).

But despite the dangers inherent in such a project—such as the chance that all won't agree with Finch's particular imagination of the rhythmic regularity he posits—in many useful and important ways the book is a medieval professor's dream, allowing us to conveniently teach all these 5 poems on the undergraduate level. I used it in a non-Chaucer medieval survey for English majors here at Cal. State, Los Angeles, assigning every poem and monitoring student reaction to the poetry of the translation. To state it baldly: Having all these poems lively and expressively translated into verse, in one affordable volume, with Andrew's and Waldron's edition on facing pages, and with their glossary is about the best textual situation one can hope for in an undergraduate medieval survey class. Far too often, we teach only Gawain or Gawain and Pearl. This volume conveniently allows us to get Cleanness and Patience and the seldom discussed Erkenwald into the classroom. So especially for those of us who have become "anti-Nortonian," Finch's book is a gem. I will describe the volume further, then discuss Finch's prosody and each individual poem in turn, offering praise, evaluation and the obligatory homage to "what's lost" in the vile, Satanic act of translation (see Rosenberg's depiction of translators, lxxvii).

This handsome book, complete with a small but expressive pentangle on the cover, features a translation and a facing page Middle English text of five poems: Pearl, Cleanness, Gawain and Patience (drawn from the Andrew and Waldron edition of those four poems) and St. Erkenwald (from Clifford Peterson's ed.). In addition, Andrew's and Waldron's glossary is reprinted here verbatim. These features allow the non-specialist and the student who has not yet read Chaucer or who had not yet studied Middle English to wet their beaks in the poet's original language. Unfortunately, the volume includes no separate glossary for Peterson's text of St. Erkenwald, somewhat diminishing the usefulness of the original Middle English text because students cannot therefore find glossary references to that poem.

Finch's notes reproduce, expand, or edit those of Andrew and Waldron, and he provides his own notes for St. Erkenwald. On the whole the notes are brief and helpful, but are buried in the back, where you have to dig for them. Finch's introduction to the poems is useful, especially for new students. The discussions of the poems' shared characteristics, such as the poet's "sense . . of the visual medium, his propensity for what today is called the cinematic" (6), his use of parataxis (what Finch calls "Incarnational Art"), and his constant contrasts between "the human and the divine, the individual and the universal" (15) serve the good purpose of providing students some of the standard but provocative critical chestnuts about the five poems. The 8 page bibliography, containing editions, criticism and related scholarship fills out the book's apparatus. But Finch emphasizes poetry and not critical apparatus, which he only provides, I would conclude, to offer responsibly an historically and linguistically understandable document and to provide a basic and adequate framework for new readers of the Pearl poet. On the undergraduate level the apparatus is completely adequate. Some may have hoped for a "guide to pronunciation" section, but this teachers must provide on their own, and of course tapes could supplement this enterprise.

Naturally, I can't overestimate how useful it is to have the facing page on hand; it enriches the undergraduate teaching of the poem profoundly and allows the students to see the very process of translation, to determine what's lost, and most importantly, to hear the original language of the poems. Even the new student, with the help of the glossary and a little imagination and sensitivity to cognates can "interactively" develop renderings of their own. It amazed me how many times, after I had fought with them through some of the original, that they would say "I wouldn't have translated that word that way" or "I like that translation, because the associations of that word really resonate, etc., etc." In short Finch's book, as classroom text allows for learning and for playful frolic with the Middle English poems themselves. This goes a long way toward de-mystifying the whole notion of translation and shows our students much more of what we are about than can be gleaned from the few scraps of alliterative revival verse some editions and anthologies offer in preface to a translation of one of the poems.

Let's sample some of Finch's poetry from each work, highlighting his choices as poet and seeing what's gained and lost in those choices. My selection here by definition excludes 99.9% of all possible comparative illustrations, which could range over 1000s of lines, each of which could be compared with scores of translations. But I hope my samples will both whet the appetite and satisfy the teacher's and the scholar's curiosity about this rendering of the poems. Pearl, O pleasure for a prince, Enclosed in gold, so clean and clear, I own that all the orient's Fine pearls, though pure, provide no peer So round, so rich, so wrapped in glints Of light, so small so smooth and dear. In gems that I have judged, no hints Are seen of her superior. In a garden green with grass, my cheer Was lost! It lunged to land. O lot! A lovelorn, longing look I bear For that precious pearl without a spot. (ll. 1-12) Whereas Finch adopts a "fairly regular anapestic tetrameter" for the longer alliterative lines of the other four poems, for Pearl he renders the shorter alliterative line into iambic tetrameter, " a verse form with a more venerable history in English" (xi). But in all the poems, Finch trims the amount of unaccented syllables, believing that translations that allow themselves the "wide variations in the number of unaccented syllables that occur in the original—while technically faithful, nonetheless lose the underlying rhythmic regularity that the original was meant to display" (xi).

So almost each line of translation is shorter (compare Borroff), but Finch does maintains the rhyme scheme and the loose alliteration of Pearl, loose in that the original poem does not alliterate regularly. So in l. 2 he renders the poet's AAXA as AXAA. In l. 11 he takes something like AAXA and renders AAAX, furthermore cross-roughing—or finessing, if you will, the major alliteration of "D and the minor alliteration of "L" into an extra "trick" alliteration on "L": love, lorn, long, look. The point of my bad bridge metaphor is that Finch self consciously transfers poetic effects that he detects in the original into his own new poetry, translating not only the words but also the poem's rhythm regularity and its dramatic alliterative variation. He need not stick to the alliteration or the vocabulary of the original to do this.

He makes clear that these are his choices. These lines quoted are poetry, and he derives each element of his poetic translation consciously from the poet's own particulars: Finch just translates them into new particulars of his own. This distinguishes his from Borroff's translations, which are unparalleled for metrical and dictive accuracy and fidelity. Yet Finch does not so wildly open the floodgates of invention as John Gardner, who saw even his own planned translation guidelines as too restrictive, violating them more often than not— willingly and honestly, no doubt (Gardner ix). Finch's invention is more focused and faithful, but at the same time strays far from Borroff's and from Tolkien's technically masterful homages to the original.

Let's look at the content and vocabulary of this passage. "So smal, so smothe her sydez were" becomes "so small, so smooth and dear" (l. 6). Sadly, Finch smoothes out pearl's sides too much, eliminating this concrete corporal image altogether, losing its anthropomorphic force and leaving, in translation, these words "small smooth and dear" syntactically detached. We know they must modify "pearl" from line one of the translation, but they seem to modify the much closer noun "light." This can confuse particularly a new reader, who may not know what the original says or feel the need to compare. The drooping monosyllables of "Hit fro me yot"— become the over-animated "It lunged to land," which sounds too much like the animals in Cleanness bounding out of the ark. The nearly untranslatable "I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere" becomes the loose "A love lorn longing look I bear" a line which makes only a weak attempt to express the queasy, distinctly medieval malady of "luf- daungere." Borroff says "now lovesick; the heavy loss I bear" Gardner just says "I mourned;" Gollancz had said in 1918 "by despot love despoil'd;" and in 1967 John Crawford wrote "wounded by the power of love. All these fail, as does, of course, Vantuono's literal gloss, "I lament, grief stricken by frustrated love," but oddly Finch turns the feeling into a "look," an interpolation and, for me, distracting extension of the original. Perhaps more disappointingly "pryuy" (12) becomes "precious," thus reducing the mystery of pryuy ("secret" in Borroff) to just another general, value superlative. All readers of Chaucer know how important "privitee" can be and readers should not be denied that important concept here.

Let's look at Gawain. Here Finch uses the anapests, acknowledging the dangers, "Not the least of which," says Finch, "is the fact that it can tend to trivialize, to sound like children's narrative poetry or light verse" (xi). But Finch hopes that "given the right modulation" anapests "would lend the translations a stately `medieval' quality." In particular reference to Gawain he hoped that the "rigidity and `learnedness' of the form would . . .confer the same courtly dignity and sensitivity to decorum with which the poem's protagonist is so movingly concerned" (xi). Such hopes transcend translation, for Finch wants to translate more than poetry, finding a new meter that expresses a theme. Since we can debate themes and the appropriateness of wanting to convey decorum above all others, this is risky business. How for example will Gawain's failure at decorum be expressed? Will the verse become less rigid and learned then? Let's listen in on Gawain and the lady, on their second date: Said Sir Gawain, "May God in his goodness reward you! I am glad that one goodly and gracious as you— One so courteous and kind—would thus come here to me, And take pains to make past times with so poor a man; For the graces you've given I'm grateful indeed. Should I try, though, to teach you of true love's ways And to tell of the text, giving tales of knights To a lady whose learning and lore in the craft Is so deep, and who doubtless has double the skill Than a score or more such as myself could display; I'd be foolish, in faith, and my folly would show! What you please I'll perform, though, provided I can; I am highly beholden; your behest I'll obey As a servant a sovereign's, so save me my God." Then she tempted him, testing and trying to bring Him to sin. (Who can say what she thought in her heart?) But with graciousness Gawain still guarded himself Without fault. Both felt not unfriendly at all But gay. Bath bathed in blithe delight And laughed at lengthy play. She kissed her comely knight And, waving, went away. 1535-56 Here, as Gawain tries to keep the situation rigid, learned and decorous, the regular formality of the anapestic tetrameter serves well. And Finch gets drama in to the verse through the enjambed lines toward the end: bring / him to sin; guarded himself / Without fault. These lines show suspense as Gawain fights to keep things decorous, and they break up the stately, defensive, "it aint me babe" rhetoric above. Note however that the great image of the lady "waving" as she goes is his invention—part of the "untold number of liberties with the texts" that Finch acknowledges taking (ix). Also notice as Finch says, that he hopes the iambs of the bob and wheel "allow the ear a little rest, as it were." I would say they do just that. To Finch's credit he very often tries to modulate his own rigidity to vary the rhythm and to express drama and theme. In this particular stanza, I think he does this well.

I offer just a few more examples, favorites of mine from the great first stanza of fit four of the original Gawain. "The snawe snitered full snart, that snayped the wylde" becomes "Snow is shooting down sharply and stinging each beast." Here the anapestic rhythm takes the sting out of the sharp snow, for though "snow" alliterates, it's unstressed. One line above, Finch has to use bland filler to get an initial anapest: "There is north wind enough to numb the flesh" (2002). In 2006 the great, anglo-saxonic image of Gawain's "locked eyelids" becomes, disappointingly "his lids were kept lowered." Yet a few lines below Finch maintains the great image of Gawain's cleaned armor: "And the rings had been rocked free of rust" (2018). I can throw praise or blame on to thousands of lines, but I'll stop and I'll turn to the other poems now.

In Cleanness, the most sorely under-taught of the four Pearl ms. poems, Finch's verse serves the voice of God well, capturing his grand matter of factness, both the ease and the intensity of his thoughtful speech about slaughtering the Sodomites: A great sound comes from Sodom; it sinks in my ears. And Gomorrah's meanness moves Me to wrath. I am nearing there now and will know for myself If they're really as wretched as rumors suggest. There's a lust they have learned that I like not at all; In their flesh they have found this gross fault, far the worst. Every male's vile mate is a man like himself. And with one like a woman, two wickedly join. I in private provided a practice for them; What I sanctioned was sweet, and it sought nature's way. It was good" said God, "because guided by love Two paramours' play I portrayed then myself. I made thus a manner, a means to make love, In which two, when together would make such delight— And I mean here a man with his mate, his true wife— That in paradise pleasure would prove hardly more, All as long as their loving's unlewd. I ordained That they do such in secret and silently too; Then the flame of love's fire could be fanned up so high That all the evils on earth could not end such delight. 689-709 "Guilt" is not "meanness." The "said God" intrusion distracts us unnecessarily, and I would hate to read student papers that compare this to Chaucer's "quod she" in the Prioress's Tale! The reference to marriage is not in the original, where, significantly it's only implied. the absence of a reference to marriage is important, so Finch's verse constitutes a decisive critical interpretation. "Unstyred with sight" does not mean silently; it means "un-aroused by sight [of each others bodies]." But these aside, this passage, and many others more, read in tone and texture, somewhat like the original. Perhaps Finch's interpolated rhythm works particularly well in homey dialogue, as opposed to in more clerkly voiced passages, such as the description of the sharp snow above. In any case Finch captures God's front porch intimacy, divine dismay, and maniacal violent streak all at once.

From Patience, where a pleasingly anapestic Jonah romps as vividly and charmingly as ever through his bumbling misapprehensions of God's will, I point out the following lines only because my students queried them. At 274-75, the poet offers: "And [Jonah] stod vp in his stomak that stank as the deuel. / Ther in saym and in sor3e that sauoured as helle." Finch conflates the two references to the underworld into one: "So he stood in the stomach, which sank like hell. / In the fat and the festering filthiness there." Why," said my students, did Finch undouble this image? I had/have no clear answer but to say that he here unnecessarily diminished the poetry.

I find the text of St. Erkenwald particularly readable, the anapestic tetrameter suiting well the theme of driving inquiry, as in the following lines describing the confusion over the writings on the tomb of the noble pagan judge: When they'd dug to the depths of the dark, hardened earth, The men found on a floor at their feet a great tomb. Its four sides were of stone very skillfully carved. In the gray marble, gargoyles grimaced and crouched. The lid, which was locked with a long, bolted spar, Was masterfully made out of marble of gray, With a border embellished with bright golden words, Which were runelike, unreadable, rare and obscure. What they meant—although masterfully made and intact— No one knew; they could never pronounce them aloud. At length many learned men looked on those words, But they failed to find out what those figures meant. 45-56 The iambic "The lid" (49) is a welcomed shift, and I assume that this last line ends with an iamb, with "figures" having only two syllables; in that case the shift brings the description of confusion over the tomb to a conclusive, inconclusive halt. The drama of discovery starts up in the next line with another iamb: "When word of the wonder had wafted through town" (57) The entire passages, though it liberally renders the poem's vocabulary ("unreadable," "rare," and "obscure" are not direct translations but interpolations), expressively and convincingly translates this moment of wonderment and inquiry, with the stressed alliterating words of the initial anapestic foot ("masterfully," "runelike," "meant," "knew," "learned," "failed") driving the narrative forward with each line.

I have given heaping helpings of Finch's translation, in order to put enough of his verse before the eyes of potential readers and teachers, who can now mine the text themselves to find thousands of other examples of both fitting and failed Finchian verse. And every word or passage that I have represented as a stretch or as a lapse in judgment is not so much a "defect" but rather a decision and interpretation. These become all the more visible as pseudo evidence of the translator's failure, ironically, because of the book's greatest feature—the inclusion of the Middle English texts for comparison. Finch's volume allows, in fact compels the student and teacher—like the reviewer—to participate in the work and the responsibility of translation. For this we must congratulate Finch. This volume, if used well, can only aid our attempt to spread the medieval word. Borroff's and Tolkien's translations are indeed poems "more like the originals" than Finch's (to use Borroff's phrase comparing her work to previous attempts), but Finch's volume, in its totality, provides plenty of access to the originals. In conjunction with the use of this volume in class, I recommend an assignment comparing translations of particular passages; this will get students into the kind of work Finch did and that we, as reviewer and reader are doing this moment. This empowers students toward the language of the original—the goal, I would hope, of any jolly jeweler.