18.05.20, Roberts, Poems: Venantius Fortunatus

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Lionel Yaceczko

The Medieval Review 18.05.20

Roberts, Michael ed. and trans. Poems: Venantius Fortunatus. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 2017. pp. xx, 910. ISBN: 978-06-749-74-920 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Lionel Yaceczko
The Heights School

Who better to produce the first English translation of the collected poems of Venantius Fortunatus (ca. 540-ca. 600), a late antique poet best known for the Pange Lingua and the Vexilla Regis, than Michael Roberts? [1] Almost thirty years ago, when the old scholarly paradigm's progression from gold to silver to dark ages in the first millennium AD suggested that we could expect no better than iron, Roberts proposed that we look for jewels in late antique Latin poetry. [2] Then it was Aaron's breastplate that provided the key example of a culture in which all sorts of fashions, from textiles to interior decoration to poetry, cobbled together little bits of sparkling material into new mosaic wholes. Scholars who enjoyed The Jeweled Style will smile at Venantius's preterition of "precious stones" (2.9.33) in his direct comparison of Bishop Germanus to the brother of Moses. More than that, however, the fulfillment of a desideratum in the primary sources of the period will shed plenty of light for us to see for ourselves in broad strokes the character of a great poet of the sixth century. If we judge Poems on the whole, Roberts has succeeded in doing that.

Scholars of the last century have published almost three hundred books and articles on Fortunatus. Almost two hundred of those were published in the last thirty years, since Roberts's first article on Fortunatus in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association (1989). Many readers, however, will be delighted to find easier access to Fortunatus's full range of poems in one place.

The eleven books of Fortunatus's poetry can be summed up in broad terms as follows: 1-4, panegyrics (book 1 mostly on places, 2-4 mostly on persons, with 4 being especially concerned with epitaphs); book 5 is mostly addressed to living persons, often attempting to elicit the epistolary repartee with which readers of Tacitus and Pliny, Ausonius and Paulinus, or Sidonius Apollinaris will be familiar; the poems of books 6-7 and 9 are addressed to Merovingian royalty, courtiers, or clergy; 8 and 10 contain a good many long and short self-referential poems and poems addressed to women and concerning the merits of virginity and consecrated life, while book 10 also contains his prose commentary on the Lord's Prayer and some summaries of the life of St. Martin of Tours; 11 contains the prose commentary on the Creed, as well as a lot of very brief epigrams ostensibly on ephemeral subjects such as gifts of food and short journeys. The appendix contains the works found in Paris, Bib. nationale, MS lat. 13048 alone and published by Friedrich Leo (see introduction, p. viii). The most common meter by far is the elegiac couplet, but a few are in more complex lyric meters, e.g. the Sapphic stanza, as Fortunatus himself notifies us (9.7, stanza 3, pp. 582f).

Fortunatus is not only the most prolific writer of his time and place. This Italian-born priest of Merovingian Gaul at the service of nuns Radegund and Agnes expanded and paved the less-traveled track of Latin poetry which gives voice to the joys and sorrows of women. Just two examples are the epitaph for Vilithuta (4.26), a touching 160-line elegy on a young woman who died in childbirth; his 370-line elegy on Galswintha (6.5), a princess taken far from her home, on which Roberts published an article in 2001. Historians of culture will find in such a large corpus much that is useful, for example 72 lines in praise of Lupus (7.8), giving a hint of what Roberts could have meant by the phrase "the literary education traditional in late antiquity" (vii) [3]; two poems that, taken together, raise difficult questions: the one on consecrated virginity (8.3), 400 lines recommending religious life to a young woman, the centerpiece being an intense but hypothetical description of the unbearable pains (best avoided) of delivering a stillborn child, and an assertion that celibacy were better; the second a consolation on the death of two sons (9.2), urging their father to be a man (esto virile decus 9.2.85) and their mother to take as her example the mother of the Maccabees (bis felix pia mater Machabeorum, 9.2.103), thanking God that her children are in heaven.

In prose we have Fortunatus's Explanations of the Lord's Prayer (10.1) and the Creed (11.1). Roberts some years ago already compared Fortunatus's poetry on the Moselle (3.12f; 7.4; 10.9) to that of Ausonius. [4] A charming little ten-line elegy on an unnamed lady's handprint (11.14) is worthy of Catullus, as is the even shorter four-line De absentia sua (11.21). Radegund's lament (appendix 1: 172 lines), which has merited plenty of attention over the years, will evoke fond memories of Propertius's assertive Cynthia (e.g., Propertius Elegies 4.7) or his stately Cornelia (4.11). [5] This is only a sample of a dozen poems out of a thousand pages.

Roberts includes appendices of Notes to the text (pp. 833-840) and Notes to the translation (pp. 841-894). The latter--at just over fifty pages--makes no promise of a conventional commentary or apparatus fontium, and the vast majority of notes supply historical context, although Roberts can hardly resist noticing for the reader the echoes of Horace (Quo me…rapis, 4.17.9) and a well-known line of Vergil (heu lacrimae rerum, 4.26.5), plus countless scriptural and hagiographical allusions.

Roberts has translated a vast quantity of verse, and even arranged the figure poems for us into their intended shapes (pp. 827-830). For the most part he deserves the reader's gratitude and confidence. Roberts advertises to the reader the difficulty of representing Fortunatus's "verbal play" and "alliterative inventiveness" (xiv-xv) in the endnotes (2.20.6: praemiacum/ praemia), but he often accomplishes a translation of the original character of the poet's art: see, for example, the "pen" and the "pan" for codex and caccabus (6.8.19); or "from bridal chamber to burial" for de thalamo ad tumulum (8.3.373--but read it out loud for a taste of an essential characteristic of Fortunatus's style). For another example: in the poem on Vitalis of Ravenna, Roberts renders Fortunatus's wordplay with simplicity and charm, reproducing the dental alliteration of seductor and doctor (1.2.10) with "tempter" and "teacher" (pp. 14-15). Even when the reader might think that Roberts has not chosen well between the alternatives, Roberts has given us enough information to decide for ourselves. For example, at 2.4.19: sustulit could mean "endured", which Roberts adopts in the translation, or "abolished", as he acknowledges in the endnote. (Would "abolished" not be the more pregnant rendering here?)

As is to be expected in such a long work, there were times when the reviewer disagreed with Roberts's choices. For example, his choice of "secure" for ligare (1.2.8) strikes this reader as malapropos: will the Latinless reader be able to see that Fortunatus is telling us that Peter has earned the right to _bind_, rather than to _enter_, the gates of heaven? In a genre (hagiography) in which saints are constantly securing their place in heaven by their merits (in Fortunatus passim, but see for example Vitalis in the previous poem, line one, pp. 12-13, "by [his] virtues living forever": meritis in saecula vivens), the English word "secure" opens a semantic range beyond that of ligare.

In a hymn celebrating the elevation of Gregory of Tours to the episcopate Roberts renders the line pervigili cura stabulum sine labe gubernet, "With watchful care may he govern his flawless sheepfold" (5.3.21). The reader of both the Latin text and the English translation might object to Roberts's taking the prepositional phrase sine labe as a modifier of stabulum rather than gubernet. But the Latin is ambiguous, and Roberts is very likely right to represent a sixth-century poet charging the shepherd with the responsibility of keeping his flock perfect. Still, this ambiguity might have been preserved by translating sine labe after the word "sheepfold" instead of before it.

The production of this volume meets the high standards we expect from the DOML. Ample margins are lavished on a clean text free of distracting apparatus. At first, the plan to reserve all notes on the text and on the translation to separate sections of endnotes (833-840 and 841-894, respectively), without signals on the text-translation page spreads, might annoy the scholar that is approaching the text for a special purpose. We have to be grateful, however, for the ability to enjoy the text both as amateurs and as professionals which the editors have given us.

Other decisions in the production process reveal not only the same concern for the reader but also a fine attention to detail. One example will illustrate the point. The first note to the transation (841) contains three parenthetical remarks: (partitio); (distinctio); and (cola and commata). At first glance the reader might think he has caught an inconsistent treatment of trailing punctuation. Patience, however, reveals the editors' plan and its perfect execution. The reader is able to forget about formatting, trust the editors, and read deeply, a gift for which the editorial staff have earned the gratitude of their readership.

Such an exhaustive list of corrigenda places the success rate of the copyediting at about 97% error-free in a volume of almost a thousand pages, and ought rather to impress than to disappoint the reader. The same goes for Roberts: thanks to his efforts the humblest sparrow will receive more of the attention he deserves.

-------- Notes:

1. The only exception is the four-book, hexameter Vita Sancti Martini, as Roberts points out in his preface (xviii). An Italian translation of the Vita by Stanislao Tamburri appeared in 1991; a French one by Solange Quesnel in 1996; and Roberts himself has published two articles on the Vita (Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association [2001]; Traditio [2002]) among his twelve articles and books directly concerned with Fortunatus over the last three decades. Roberts gives a full list of recently published selections of the poetic corpus in his bibliography (pp. 895ff.) and points especially to those of Reydellet (1994-2004), Di Brazzano (2001), and Leo (1881). A few individual poems have appeared in translation in scholarly journals.

2. Roberts makes Aaron's breastplate a typical example of what he calls "the jeweled style" in his book of the same name (Ithaca, NY [1989]: 36).

3. Roberts is right to make the characterization, but some explanation was wanting. There is ample explanation in the modern scholars H.-I. Marrou and T. Haarhof, and ancient evidence in Ausonius and Sidonius Apollinaris, authors known to Fortunatus.

4. Traditio 49 (1994).

5. Most recently A.M. Wasyl, "An aggrieved heroine in Merovingian Gaul," Bolletino di studi latini 45.1 (2015): 64-75.

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