Michael Twomey

title.none: Vantuono, ed. and trans., Pearl (Twomey)

identifier.other: baj9928.9704.008 97.04.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Twomey, Ithaca College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Vantuono, William, ed. and trans. Pearl: An Edition With Verse Translation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Pp. xxxiii, 255. $29.95 (hb), $15.29 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-268-03810-4 (hb), 0-268-03811-2 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.04.08

Vantuono, William, ed. and trans. Pearl: An Edition With Verse Translation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Pp. xxxiii, 255. $29.95 (hb), $15.29 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-268-03810-4 (hb), 0-268-03811-2 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Michael Twomey
Ithaca College

Readers of the Middle English poem Pearl are well acquainted with William Vantuono's "omnibus" edition of all four of the poems generally attributed to an anonymous fourteenth-century master known as the Pearl-poet or as the Gawain-poet. The present book follows the omnibus format, and it re-issues much the same material, updated and in a new form.

The publisher's back-cover blurb predicts that "William Vantuono's new edition of Pearl is certain to become a classroom standard because it contains for the first time a Middle English text with a facing-page Modern English verse translation as well as extensive scholarly apparatus." Accordingly, Pearl: An Edition With Verse Translation seeks to include between two covers everything useful to the student: a text with a translation and apparatus; reproductions of the manuscript's four illustrations and of the first page of the text; discussions of the manuscript, of the problem of authorship and audience, of theme and structure of the poem, of the poem's metrics and sources; linguistic, textual, and critical notes to virtually every line of the poem; a comprehensive and wide-ranging bibliography that covers not only Pearl but ancillary topics, too; and a concording glossary with etymologies.

This book is also addressed to scholars and to the semi- mythical "non-specialist" and "general reader" (p. xi; back cover). Although funding agencies and publishers warm to projects that promise to benefit broad audiences, it is extremely difficult to produce a work of scholarship that is embraced by everyone at all levels.

The text of Pearl given here is Vantuono's from volume one of his The Pearl Poems: An Omnibus Edition (New York 1984). It is a conservative text which acknowledges 12 emendations to the manuscript. All of these but one are changes of a single letter. The other, in line 997, inserts "Johan" (about which see further below) in order to supply the missing linking-word. Although one would not wish for emendation on the scale of Gollancz's edition (London 1921), some additional emendation here would be welcome. For example, MS runnen in line 28 surely should be emended to runne as in other editions, which fits the rhyme-scheme of the stanza and makes sense linguistically. The MS reading seems to be a case of the scribe's having supplied a more archaic ending for the verb before realizing the demands of rhyme in the stanza, and then not bothering to correct. On the other hand, in line 35, Vantuono separates MS sprygande to yield "spryg ande spycez" (lit., "sprig and spices," trans. as "shrubs and spices"), where other editions emend to "spryngande spycez" ("flourishing spices"). Since and sometimes does occur with final e in this MS, and words are often run together by the scribe, it seems slightly more likely that emendation is unnecessary here. Similarly, MS precos in line 60 is better left as is, rather than emended to precios as in other editions, and Vantuono defends his decision well on the basis of similar readings in the MS (see note to line 60).

The editorial decisions explained in the notes often give a record of other editors' thinking on problematic passages, as well. Not all questions are resolved, however. One would like to know, for example, what prompted Vantuono to expand MS John, with an abbreviation stroke over the final letter, to Johan (lines 788, 836, 867, 984-5, 996, 1008-9, 1021, 1032-3, 1053; cp. 1020 Jhan [to my eye the MS here reads Jhn, with an abbreviation stroke over the final letter]; and 383, 818 Jon). The one- syllable form John favored by other editors fits much better metrically than the two-syllable Johan, but on the other hand although in fourteenth-century English manuscripts an abbreviation stroke can indicate a dropped m or n, one would not expect to see John expanded to Johnn.

One final quibble is with the practice of referring only to the "new" MS. foliation and not also to the old. Anyone with access to the EETS facsimile quickly discovers that whereas the old foliation is boldly legible in the facsimile, the new foliation (in which folio 39 is folio 43, 40 is 44, etc.) is usually invisible, and finding lines in the poem on the basis of the new foliation is thus cumbersome.

The glossary, on the other hand, is admirably thorough and to my mind logically arranged. Recognizing that modern students will seek a word according to its spelling, Vantuono eschews older practices such as grouping initial u and v together when they represent the same phoneme. These practices are philologically sound, of course, but they stand in the beginner's way. The glossary is also helpfully cross-indexed so that if one does not know the dictionary form of a word one can still find it.

Vantuono modestly avers that Gordon's is "the best edition" and Borroff's translation is "arguably the best to date" (p. xi). In the opinion of this reviewer, Vantuono's text is superior to Gordon's in places where it reads the MS more accurately and where it is able to make better sense without emending, as well as in its glossary. Gordon worked without the benefit of the Middle English Dictionary, which gives an editor working in the 1990's the advantage of having a vast repository of linguistic forms at hand. But as Vantuono's Middle English text of Pearl is not new, and has been reviewed elsewhere, I will turn to the translation, which is new.

Anyone who knows medieval languages but has to teach with translations knows the frustrations of that pedagogical bete noire. And the translator must both render the text accurately and avoid repeating his many predecessors. Although even Borroff's best-selling translation has its drawbacks, it is generally accurate, and it is fluid poetry that "teaches well." Consequently it is a hard act to follow. Like Borroff's, Vantuono's translation has chosen the very difficult path of rendering Pearl as nearly as possible in the same verse form as the original: in brief, with four stresses and two, three, or four alliterating syllables per line; a rhyme scheme of ababababbcbc; a refrain line and a concatenating word for each 12-line stanza. The result here is sometimes noble, rising at times to Henry Vaughan, but it is not always faithful to the Middle English. To take but one example: line 9, "Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere," becomes "In arbor she from me did veer," which strikes a pleasing grammatical balance between she and me, as well as assonating both with veer. But the sense of the line is changed both by the choice of veer and by changing the Pearl from an object that is lost into a subject that escapes.

The reader gets very little from Vantuono about his philosophy of translation, except for the arguable point that "The use of words with denotations different from the poet's does not change the essential meaning and mood of the poem" (p. xxxii). In a general way, this is true, and probably no one lacking Middle English will come away from this translation with erroneous ideas about the action of the poem, or without having caught its elegiac tone. But I suspect that few scholarly readers will be satisfied with translations such as the example cited above. Anticipating this dissatisfaction, Vantuono provides literal translations of certain words, phrases, and lines in a running gloss at the bottom of both facing pages. Although the intention is no doubt to be helpful, the effect is implictly to undermine the verse translation. The gloss also makes the translation less citable: should one quote the translation, the running gloss, or both?

The chief value of this edition/translation of Pearl lies in its "omnibus" quality, though one must both commend and carp at the thoroughness of the omnibus approach. The Introduction, for example, presents a summary of previous scholarship on the manuscript, the anonymous poet and audience, and the theme and structure of the poem. Although this summary does not include everything written about Pearl, it is nevertheless curiously unselective. One comes away from it without a sense of the major trends in thinking about the poem--or that there even are any. Surely students will be confused by the editor's refusal to take a position, or even explain the problems, on topics such as the date of the poem: we are informed only that C. E. Wright put it before 1400 and Gervase Mathew put it after 1400 (p. xiii). Ditto the observation that whereas Angus McIntosh put the dialect of the poem to a small area in SE Cheshire or in nearby NE Staffordshire, "other scholars have hesitated to pinpoint so specific a locale" (p. xiii). And if students will miss the experienced guidance of the seasoned scholar, how can scholars have confidence in the editorial judgment of one who refuses to show his hand on such problems?

The two bibliographies are likewise unequally useful. Bibliography I, which is strictly about Pearl, has its latest entry in 1993 and should serve as a first reference for study of the poem. It helpfully includes entries on issues bearing directly on the poem, such as the authorship of the four poems in the manuscript. Bibliography II, on the other hand, needs a clearer purpose. Its (unstated) intention seems to be to list the research tools and primary sources necessary for studying the poem. One inevitably wonders why this or that work was included (or not). Kottler and Markman's concordance to the poems in Cotton Nero A.x, together with the EETS facsimile of the manuscript, would seem to belong in Bibliography I rather than here. Does the section on Bibles need to recommend so many English translations? In the dictionary section, why mention the Compact Edition rather than the full Oxford English Dictionary? In addition, Bibliography II needs to be vetted for out-of-date or non-standard editions. It should cite the Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate, which is not only more authoritative but easier to obtain than the Pauline edition. For the works of Chaucer, the 3rd Riverside edition, ed. Larry D. Benson (1988), is now the one to cite. And must Vantuono's omnibus edition of the Cotton Nero poems be cited again here, as well as in Bibliography I? It is the only edition of Pearl with this distinction.

Regardless of these drawbacks, Pearl: An Edition With Verse Translation is a very helpful tool. It is most useful for its conservative Middle English text of Pearl and accompanying glossary, for its notes to the text, for Bibliography I, and to some extent for its Introduction. Whether a book becomes a classroom standard simply because it is the first to offer both text and verse translation wrapped in study-aids is a question best left to the textbook market to answer.