Daniel F. Melia

title.none: Fowler, ed.., Medieval Irish Lyrics (Daniel F. Melia)

identifier.other: baj9928.0111.005 01.11.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Daniel F. Melia, University of California, Berkley, dmelia@socrates.Berkeley.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Fowler, Barbara, ed. Medieval Irish Lyrics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 105. 12.95. ISBN: 0-268-03457-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.11.05

Fowler, Barbara, ed. Medieval Irish Lyrics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 105. 12.95. ISBN: 0-268-03457-5.

Reviewed by:

Daniel F. Melia
University of California, Berkley

It seems almost churlish to criticize a book of such slender scholarly pretensions, particularly since the author is now dead and unable to respond, and I only undertake to do so here because this publication seems to me to illustrate particularly well three disturbing trends in what might be called 'popular scholarship': anachronistic 'familiarization' and homogenization of difficult and disparate texts from the past, 'translation' from a language that the 'translator' clearly does not understand adequately, and the acceptance of peculiarly low standards of scholarly accuracy and intellectual rigor when Celtic languages and cultures are under discussion.

This slim volume contains thirty-five poems (or selections from longer poetic texts) described by Fowler in her Introduction as, "remarkable for their sensuousness. They are pagan and wild, sweet and sad." (11) All these poems were composed in Old and Middle Irish between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1200, most of them by professional clerics, and in a variety of meters. Fowler's translations, however, by assuming a style of English which strives toward a kind of uniform Wordsworthian transparency, manage to obscure all metrical, stylistic, formal, and generic distinctions amongst them. Compare, for instance, the handling of a common motif in an archaic (or archaized) poem of about A.D. 800, "The Old Woman of Beare" (42):

I have no honied speech. No castrated rams are slaughtered for my bridal. My hair is sparse and gray. No cause for sorrow my wretched head veil.

I feel no grief for the white veil I wear on my head. I had veils of every hue upon my head when we drank delicious ale.

I'm jealous of no one except the plain of Feimen [a placename.]. I have worn an old crone's clothes. Feimen's crop is yellow still.

with that of "Once I had Golden Curls," (97) composed around the year 1200:

Once I had golden curls. Now my crown sprouts only a short crop of hoary hair.

I'd prefer to have raven locks upon my head rather than this scanty crop of hoary hair.

Wooing is not for me. I wile no women. Tonight my hair is hoar. I'll never be as I once was.

The latter poem, in one of the simplest stanzaic meters, was recorded in manuscript very soon after its composition and presents few if any linguistic or interpretational problems even to someone who knows only Modern Irish. "The Old Woman of Beare", on the other hand, clearly presented both linguistic and interpretational difficulties even to its medieval scribal editors. It is replete with impenetrable syntax, references to things and places otherwise unknown, hapax legomena, and stanzas which seem to have come from other poems. "Once I had Golden Curls" is put in the mouth of the aged Oisin, the son of Finn mac Cumhail; the old woman of Beare has often been interpreted as speaking in the voice of a pre-Christian goddess of local sovereignty. None of these differences could, I submit, even be guessed from these translations (though the end notes, about which more anon, do mention the possible pre-Christian origins of the earlier poem). All the translations in this collection sound exactly like these examples.

To my own ear Fowler's translations are prosy, devoid of meter, and presented in a single, flat register, though their literary qualities in English are clearly a matter of personal taste and there may be people (perhaps many people) who will find them more pleasing than I do. But these are not presented as English poems; they are presented as "translations", one feature of which is, presumably, some sense of what the originals were like in some way. Fowler says that her "interpretations of them are in my translations". (11) Taking her at her word, it would thus seem that she interprets all these poems as outpourings of personal feeling presented in ordinary conversational language and aimed at an audience of private, personal readers; in other words, "lyric" poems in the sense that Coleridge or Wordsworth would have understood the term. Unsurprisingly, there is no medieval Irish critical term for such personal poetry. While there is no question in my mind that recounting personal feeling is one aspect of the intentional art of some of these poems (notably, for instance, the first in the collection, "Pangur Ban", which depicts a scene in which a pet cat hunts mice while the speaker, a scholar, presumably a monk, hunts for meaning in a text) they fall into no single genre by medieval Irish standards or by ours. The second poem in this collection, "A Scribe in the Woods", for instance, appears in the margins of a Saint Gall manuscript of Priscian's Latin Grammar at the beginning of the section on pronouns and, while presenting a seemingly simple message about the beauties of the outdoors, manages to constitute a prayer based on a series of complex figures of inclusion and encirclement, all the while illustrating virtually every possible use and position of the pronoun in Old Irish. [1] We are here a long way from the "Lyrical Ballads". I have no quarrel with presenting a selection of medieval poetry in translation chosen by whatever arbitrary standards the translator happens to favor. I do, though, object to a university press marketing such a book as representing "lyric poems" which "travel well from an ancient culture to a modern one", as the dust jacket assures us, since treating these disparate poems as belonging to a single genre, style, or movement seriously falsifies the nature and import of the source material.

The book is presented as being "edited" and "translated" by Barbara Hughes Fowler, designations which launch us into an Orwellian world in which "editing" apparently means selecting works from someone else's relatively recent edition and translation of the same poems, and "translation" means translating that work's English translations into...English. I'm not making this up. To be sure, Fowler acknowledges in the Introduction that she has "used the text of Gerard Murphy, and I owe much to his prose translation, his notes and his glossary". (11) [2] And she certainly did use Murphy's text, using virtually all the titles he invented for the poems, reprinting selected portions of his notes to each of the poems almost verbatim and following without variation or exception the texts he established for the poems. Even the categories into which the poems are divided in Fowler's book are taken directly from Murphy, but with a curious editorial lapse. In Fowler's book the poems designated (correctly) by Murphy as being concerned with or attributed to Saint Columba (Colum Cille) are followed in the same division by four poems, clearly having nothing to do with Columba (41-48) which in Murphy's edition are categorized separately as "Secular Poems, Miscellaneous". Was it Fowler or some later editor who was unable to tell that "The Old Woman of Beare" and three other secular poems have no plausible connection with Colum Cille? It is, in fact, demonstrable that Fowler had little or no knowledge of Old and Middle Irish and was, thus, incapable both of "editing" the Irish texts in any way and of translating from the Irish rather than simply reworking Murphy's English.

Two examples of many will have to suffice. The poem called "Three Best Beloved Places" contains the phrase "Doire, dinn ard ainglech" (very literally, "Derry, place high, having angels"). Aingel (from Latin angelus) is here turned into a regular adjective by the addition of the suffix -ach/ech indicating "possessing" or "possessing the qualities of" something. Ainglech is thus an adjective meaning, fundamentally, "having, or connected with angels" fair enough as a designation of St. Columba's home base. Ard can mean "high" either literally or figuratively (or both, for that matter). In his translation, however, Murphy decided to wax poetic and translated the phrase as "Derry (noble, angel-haunted city)", a description with such fine resonance that it has passed into popular parlance in Ireland. Apparently unaware that the haunting of Derry was a feature of Murphy's translation and not of the Irish text, though, Fowler "translates" "Derry, lofty and haunted by angels", not only relying on Murphy's English but, characteristically, flattening out the compact and resonant "angel-haunted" to the discursive and prosaic "haunted by angels". Similarly, "Creide's Lament for Dinertach" begins "It e saigte gona suain, / cech tratha i n-aidchi aduair / serccoi," (very literally, "It is they, arrows that wound sleeping, / at each (canonical) hour in the night cold, / love-longings...") Murphy translates, "The arrows that murder sleep, at every hour in the cold night, are love-lamenting..." which treats serccoi, correctly, as the predicate nominative anticipated, as is normal in Old Irish syntax, by the pronoun 'e'. Serccoi is composed of the noun serc ("love") and coi (the indeclinable verbal noun of ciid, "lamenting, complaining"). Fowler, however, ignores the Irish syntax and turns serccoi into a progressive present, translating "The arrows that murder sleep each hour / of the frigid night are lamenting love", making "lamenting" an activity that the arrows carry out rather than a clarification of what they are; not a plausible translation of the Irish, but a possible reworking of Murphy's English in the absence of knowledge of what is going on in the Irish.

Now, it is one thing to take an English prose translation and turn it into English poetry, but to do that while intimating that one is doing a fresh translation from another language is just not OK. It is not OK because it establishes a fraudulent contract with the reader. In this case, a reader, perhaps a scholar of other medieval traditions, might take some of Fowler's wording here to represent some kind of "alternative" translation of the Irish and rely on it in a comparison, or draw from it some kind of erroneous conclusion about Irish metaphor; bad scholarship then spreads like a computer worm as the ripples widen. Again, here the imprimatur of a major university press lends weight to an endeavor with none of its own.

In the introduction, Fowler once again relies on the work of others (mainly in word-for-word excerpts) to provide some historical and philological information on medieval Ireland and medieval Irish. Her pronunciation guide is taken from E.G. Quin's excellent Old Irish Workbook, and her information on metrics from Ruth Lehmann's Early Irish Verse, both reliable sources of information and properly acknowledged. [3] The information on history, however, is taken from what Fowler describes as, "Katherine Scherman's charming book The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars and Kings". [4] Scherman's book is, indeed, "charming", recounted in breathy prose, and replete with photographs. It is also, alas, replete with out-of-date and erroneous information, some of it from legendary sources reported as if historical. Once again, Fowler's introductory material is a pastiche of Scherman's text, but suffers additionally from the accidental introduction of entirely new errors via paraphrase for which Scherman is not responsible, attributing, for instance, the ogam alphabet to the "Celts" (3) when Scherman, quite correctly, assigns it to the "Irish". (35) I have no real quarrel with Scherman's book (though I would not recommend it) because it is published as a general circulation, popularized history by a non-specialist writer, not as a work of "editing and translation" put out by a university press. My fear is that, owing to its provenance, Fowler's book will be adopted in college medieval history, literature or comparative literature courses by unsuspecting instructors whose students will thus become the unwitting carriers of all this linguistic and historical misinformation.

The fact that such an unscholarly exercise in decoupage got through whatever vetting process was used by University of Notre Dame Press is also, I fear, evidence that for some reason ordinary scholarly standards do not apply when Celtic languages and cultures are involved. I find it difficult to imagine (and can think of no examples of) similar productions dealing with Minnesang, or troubadour, or skaldic poetry put out amongst the regular publications of major university presses, but, alas, Fowler's book is not alone. The Harvard University Press, for instance, published David Herlihy's Medieval Households, in which the section on medieval Irish life is drawn exclusively from twelfth and thirteenth century Irish saints' lives in Latin, ignoring copious and available vernacular evidence from saints' lives in Irish, not to mention chronicles (at least one in English!), genealogies, law tracts and the like. [5] Anyone offering a description of medieval German, French or Italian society on a similar basis would be laughed out of the profession, but this tactic apparently raised no eyebrows at Harvard University Press. Let me propose that eyebrows be raised more regularly about medieval Celtic material. If some book or article involving the Middle Ages in the Celtic world asserts something that strikes you as odd, or significantly unlike what you would expect to find in the cultures you are familiar with at the same time period, please don't accept it without checking the actual sources, many of which are now available in English, French or German. "Celtic Spirituality", is the snake-oil of the moment; smell it before you use it.

To return to Fowler's book, it strikes me as doubly unfortunate that trees had to die in this particular project. Lehmann's Early Irish Verse is out of print, but Murphy's Early Irish Lyrics, and James Carney's Medieval Irish Lyrics, have been reprinted as of this writing and both are infinitely superior to Fowler's work, as is Patrick Ford's The Celtic Poets. [6] Murphy's translations are, of course, the direct source of Fowler's anyway, and, although printed with less white space around them than Fowler's, are often, to my ear, far more poetically rendered in English, and far more sensitive to the tone of the original texts. There are also many more poems in Murphy's collection than the ones chosen from it by Fowler. Carney's book translates fewer poems in Irish, but includes some important and illustrative Latin ones from the same literary milieu, and his translations are both accurate and of high literary quality in English. Carney's volume also includes a now somewhat dated, but still useful, essay on "The Irish Bardic Poet", a subject on which Carney was one of the greatest authorities. End of rant.


Accents have been left out of the e-mailed version of this review, as they do not transfer correctly in some e-mail systems.

[1] Daniel F. Melia, "A Poetic Klein Bottle," in D. Melia and A. Matonis, eds., Celtic Language; Celtic Culture: A Festschrift for Eric Hamp (Belmont, MA: Ford and Bailie, 1990), 187-98. Patrick Ford first pointed out to me the position of this poem in the manuscript.

[2] Gerard Murphy, Early Irish Lyrics, Eighth to Twelfth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956; reprinted 1962. Reprint, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998).

[3] E. Gordon Quin, Old Irish Workbook (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1975). Ruth Lehmann, Early Irish Verse (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982).

[4] Katherine Scherman, The Flowering of Ireland: Saints, Scholars, and Kings (Boston: Little Brown, 1981, reprinted 1996).

[5] David Herlihy, Medieval Households (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

[6] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. Reprint, Portlaoise: Dolmen Press, 1999). Patrick K. Ford, The Celtic Poets: Songs and Tales from Early Ireland and Wales (Belmont, MA: Ford and Bailie, 1999).