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22.04.25 Donaghey et al. (eds), Remaking Boethius

22.04.25 Donaghey et al. (eds), Remaking Boethius

This reference work consists of several dozen entries on English translations and adaptations of the prosimetrical dialogue De consolatione philosophiae, composed by Boethius around 525 CE. The material is systematically organized on two levels.

First, following the Prologue, which treats Boethius’s Latin work itself, are seven sections that sort the English adaptations according to genre and scope: (I) twenty-four complete translations into Old English, Middle English, and Modern English; (II) five partial or abridged translations; (III) twenty translations of Boethius’s meters alone, whether complete or selective; (IV) seven “spurious, mislabeled, or lost” translations; (V) five complete Modern English renderings of the Old English Boethius attributed (questionably) to King Alfred the Great of Wessex (d. 899); (VI) an anonymous adaptation of the first book of Chaucer’s Boece; (VII) three miscellaneous “minor uses” of English translations of the Consolatio, including Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Boethian Ballade”; and (VIII) two scholarly “discussions” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries concerning the process of translating the Consolatio.

Second, within the Prologue and each of the eight sections, every cited work is treated in its own well-structured entry. In general, each entry includes the following elements: a profile of the translator; a profile of the translation, including title, description of scope and stylistic and formal features, “linguistic particularities,” audience, and textual affiliations with other English translations; sample passages from the translation; a brief “general assessment” of the work; and a bibliography, including manuscripts, editions, and secondary sources. Some entries in sections IV, VII, and VIII necessarily depart from this pattern but remain logically structured. For the sample passages of each work, the editors have astutely chosen, whenever possible, to excerpt Book 1, Prose 1, in which Lady Philosophy appears to the narrator in his prison cell, and Book 3, Meter 9, which is Philosophy’s hymn to the deity who governs the universe. This consistency encourages comparisons among the translators’ styles and their engagement with the subject matter.

The editors’ organizational scheme imposes order on a disparate assemblage of primary sources, making them inviting for the envisioned audience of “pioneer-scholars” (xxii) who will research the reception of the Consolatio by English-language authors and readers. “This inventory of English vernacularizations,” the editors explain, “is presented not only to assist scholars interested in Boethius’s final work and its reception through translation by English-speaking audiences but also to assist students interested in the history of the English language and the history of English prosody” (xii). The earlier English renderings of the Consolatio--the Old English version traditionally ascribed to King Alfred, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English Boece, and Queen Elizabeth’s translation--have already been subject to extensive study. However, as attested by the slender bibliographies attached to most of the other entries, scholars who investigate the lesser-known works covered here would indeed be pioneers. This volume makes clear which paths have been the least traveled thus far.

Beyond its practical value to specialists, this volume is a delight to explore for the sheer variety and obscurity of the material it presents. For instance, the biographical sketches illuminate the translators’ diverse motivations for adapting the Consolatio in English and serve as an efficient introduction to the historical and intellectual context of each. Also noteworthy is the large number of complete renderings of the Consolatio to survive from before the year 1700: in addition to the well-known Alfredian, Chaucerian, and Elizabethan versions, this volume contains entries on eight others, including John Walton’s complete translation of 1410. Readers may be intrigued to learn of the different moralizing purposes to which translated excerpts of the Consolatio were applied in the early modern era, or to discover that figures who are now famous for other endeavors also undertook translations of parts of the Consolatio: Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson (in collaboration with Hester Piozzi), William Cullen Bryant.

Among the partial translations of the Consolatio, one of the most remarkable is Thomas Chaloner’s (1563) metrical experiment. In Boethius’s Latin, the first meter of Book 1 is composed in elegiac couplets that are steeped in sorrow: Carmina qui quondam studio florente peregi / Flebilis heu maestos cogor inire modos (which I would translate, in a pedestrian manner, as “I, who once composed poems while my enthusiasm bloomed, am compelled--alas!--to begin, in tears, these mournful melodies”). Chaloner transforms this poem into bouncy fourteeners: “I, that whilome with plesant witt cowlde jolye ditties make, / Must now, alas! with hevy harte but sadde verse vndertake” (258). What Chaloner’s couplets lack in gravitas they make up for in vividness: “Vntymely horenes of my hedde doth stowping age resemble; / My skynne do sagg in wrinkles slacke, my fflaggy lymbes do tremble” (259).

This volume’s coverage of twentieth- and twenty-first-century translations facilitates comparison among those that are most often used for college teaching (Green, 1962; Watts, 1969; and Walsh, 1999) and more artistic renderings. The complete English rendering of the Consolatio published by acclaimed poet and translator David Slavitt in 2008 is readable and inviting, as he avoids archaizing diction and elaborates on terms and concepts directly in the translated text rather than relying heavily on explanatory footnotes. Donaghey et al. write that Slavitt’s work “might reach readers who would find a more erudite translation a bit too foreboding,” and they propose that Slavitt’s ideal audience is one “that can enjoy reading the Consolatio presented almost as a piece of contemporary fiction” (212).

Less universally appealing, perhaps, are the complete translation by Joel Relihan (2000) and the self-indulgent “historical Englishings” of Boethius’s meters, published by Peter Glassgold (1990). Whereas Slavitt brings Boethius’s dialogue into the comfort zone of a present-day audience, Relihan’s translations of the prose sections mimic Boethius’s characteristic vocabulary, his tendency toward internal cross-references, and his “pedanticisms and niceties,” while his translations of the meters “reproduce through English accents the rhythms and meters of the original (Latin) poems” (205-6; Donaghey et al. are quoting Relihan, pp. xxix and xxviii). Relihan’s marking of stress-accents in his English meters to elucidate their structure is somewhat distracting--not to mention unnecessary, since Watts also translates into English metrical forms that approximate the Latin, but without the heavy-handed use of accents--but at least the reader trusts that Relihan genuinely wished to guide the reader toward a more intimate understanding of Boethius’s original Latin. The same cannot be said of Glassgold’s lexical mashup, which employs a mostly straightforward Modern English syntax but replaces most of the Modern English words with Alfredian, Chaucerian, and Elizabethan equivalents. The result is jarring, as illustrated by Glassgold’s rendering of Book 3, Meter 9, lines 18-21:

“Þu by euenlyk causes souls and lesser lives
forþbirst, and ablyng þa hiehst in swiftest wains
sæwest hem in heuen and erþe­­--þurh fremsume æ
þa ilcan to þe aċierred, tyrnest eft with fire redux” (354).

For the meaning of these lines, compare Walsh’s straightforward rendering:

“Through causes of like nature You send forth
Both human souls and those with lesser lives.
Installing them aloft in weightless cars,
You plant them through the heavens and on the earth” (202-3).

Donaghey et al. optimistically propose that “The audience for [Glassgold’s] work is probably limited to readers already familiar with Boethius and/or to medieval scholars who might enjoy putting their own language skills to the test while revisiting Boethius” (352). This would suggest that I am part of Glassgold’s target audience, and yet I find that I am instead grateful to have been warned off Glassgold’s oeuvre after making its superficial acquaintance in this reference work.

Specialists in Old English will especially appreciate two features of this volume. First, the entry on the Old English Boethius is executed with precision and with deep expertise in the current discussions around the authorship of the prose B-text and the prosimetrical C-text (33-56). Second, the assemblage of Modern English renderings of the Old English Boethius (Part V) provides a valuable history of scholarly approaches to this work, and to the persona of King Alfred the Great, in the nineteenth century--a history that threatens to fade from view as current generations of students and researchers look back no further than the marvelous editions and translations produced by Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine in 2009 and 2012 (on which see 448-58).

Although Remaking Boethius is unquestionably a learned and well-organized reference work, readers should be alert to a few inconsistencies and shortcomings that affect the volume as a whole. On the structural level, the sections of each entry that are devoted to “Linguistic Particularities” and “General Assessment” are disappointingly thin, containing very little specific information or genuine analysis. For example, the “Linguistic Particularities” section on Boethius’s Latin Consolatio is just a few lines long. After quoting Gibbon’s famous comparison of Boethius with Cato and Cicero, it states that Gibbon “well describes the primary linguistic peculiarity of [Boethius’s] last statement to the world, the Consolatio: the text offers readers an example of late classical Latin that has stood the test of time, even into the twenty-first century, as a work of worldwide importance” (8). This is an empty evaluation. How, specifically, is the Latin characteristically “late classical”? Why, precisely, do the Consolatio’s linguistic features make it a work of “worldwide importance”? Numerous entries in this volume contain similarly vacuous statements under both the “Linguistic Particularities” and “General Assessment” headings, prompting the question of whether these topics might better have been folded into a different section of each entry or omitted altogether when the editors had nothing substantial to add.

In addition, readers should be wary of numerous factual and bibliographic inaccuracies, of which I will provide a few representative illustrations here. The entry on the Latin Consolatio identifies the ninth-century commentator on Boethius’s metrical forms as “Servatus Lupus, Abbot of Ferrara” (24), in northeastern Italy, but Lupus was actually abbot of Ferrières, in north central France. Bibliographical references to early printed books, especially those with Latin titles or names of authors, are frequently marred by misspellings. Some of these are easy to work around if the reader is paying attention, such as “Bietii” for “Boetii” (29) or “Qunique” for “Quinque” (21), but in other cases, readers who use the data provided here to look up a work in an online library catalogue are likely to be thwarted. Among the list of editions of Boethius’s meters, on p. 29, the editors provide this reference:

“Michel Maitaire, ed., Operi et Fragmenti Vetrum Poetarum Latinorum Profanorum & Ecclesiasticorum, 2 vols., London: N.p., 1713.”

Searching “Maitaire, Michel” or “Operi et Fragmenti Vetrum Poetarum” in an online library catalogue leads nowhere. Entering the misspelled data in Google leads to online booksellers who post photos of the title pages of these volumes, which make it plain that the reference should read:

Michael Maittaire, ed., Opera et fragmenta veterum poetarum profanorum & ecclesiasticorum, 2 vols., London: Nicholson, Tooke, and Tonson, 1713.

The fact that flexible search engines make it possible to emend Donaghey et al.’s bibliographical citations to a state in which they can be utilized in an online library catalogue does not mean that readers should be compelled to take this step. I would advise users of this volume to double-check against a more reliable source every bibliographical reference and every quotation (especially from Latin) that they wish to use in their own research.

Finally, some of the entries present their data in an imprecise and self-contradictory manner. For instance, Part VI consists of a single entry that treats an anonymous Middle English reworking of Book I of Chaucer’s Boece, augmented with commentary, which is attested in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.3.5. The entry first asserts that the “Adaptation [was] made after ca. 1450” (460). The entry also endorses the opinion that the manuscript was produced in the fifteenth century--an opinion ascribed to the “Bodleian catalog” (461), though no further bibliographical citation specifies which catalog is meant. The entry then claims that linguistic evidence places the “scribe’s dialect” in “the Southeast Midlands and late in the final quarter of the fourteenth century or early in the first quarter of the fifteenth century” (461). However, the editors do not explain why the dialect is identified as scribal rather than authorial, nor do they sort out why it appears that the scribe’s work here was, impossibly, executed some decades before the work of the adaptor.

The editors of Remaking Boethius should have taken the necessary steps, before this book went to press, to weed out the inaccuracies and imprecisions that pervade many of the entries. With that said, this volume is nonetheless deeply learned, and its well-organized structure makes a large and disparate body of primary source material readily accessible to readers. I expect that Remaking Boethius will accomplish its editors’ chief objective by pointing the way forward in the study of the reception of Boethius’s Consolatio.