Avva recently linked to an old post in which he quoted at length a C.S. Lewis essay on Gawin Douglas’s great 16th-century translation of the Aeneid into Scots (Avva translates the essay into Russian, but reproduces the original as well). I like the section on “quaintness” so much, and it resonates so strongly with my own feelings about the idea of the exotic in general, that I’m going to quote it here:
Poetically, the first impression which Douglas’s version makes on a modern English reader is one of quaintness. I am glad that the question of quaintness should cross our path so early in the book; let us get it out of the way once and for all. To the boor all that is alien to his own suburb and his ‘specious present’ (of about five years) is quaint. Until that reaction has been corrected all study of old books is unprofitable. To allow for that general quaintness which mere distance bestows and thus to be able to distinguish between authors who were really quaint in their own day and authors who seem quaint to us solely by the accident of our position—this is the very pons asinorum of literary history. An easy and obvious instance would be Milton’s ‘city or suburban’ in Paradise Regained. Everyone sees that Milton could not have foretold the associations that these words now have. In the same way, when Douglas speaks of the Salii ‘hoppand and siggand wonder merely’ in their ‘toppit hattis’ it is easy to remember that ‘top hats’, in our sense, were unknown to him. But it is not so easy to see aright the real qualities of his Scots language in general. Since his time it has become a patois, redolent (for those reared in Scotland) of the nursery and the kaleyard, and (for the rest of us) recalling Burns and the dialectal parts of the Waverley novels. Hence the laughter to which some readers will be moved when Douglas calls Leucaspis a ‘skippair’, or Priam ‘the auld gray’, or Vulcan the ‘gudeman’ of Venus; when comes becomes ‘trew marrow’, and Styx, like Yarrow, has ‘braes’, when the Trojans ‘kecklit all’ (risere) at the man thrown overboard in the boat race, or, newly landed in Latium, regaled themselves with ‘scones’. For we see the language that Douglas wrote ‘through the wrong end of the long telescope of time’. We forget that in his day it was a courtly and a literary language,
not made for village churls
But for high dames and mightly earls
Until we have trained ourselves to feel that ‘gudeman’ is no more rustic or homely than ‘husband’ we are no judges of Douglas as a translator of Virgil. If we fail in the training, then it is we and not the poet who are provincials.
About this first mental adjustment there can be no dispute; but there is another adjustment which I think necessary and which may not be so easily agreed to. Virgil describes Aeneas, on hearing Turnus’s challenge, as
laetitia exsultans; Douglas says ‘he hoppit up for joy, he was so glad’.
To get over the low associations of the verb ‘hop’ in modern English is the first adjustment. But even when this has been done, there remains something—a certain cheerful briskness—in Douglas which may seem to us very un-Virgilian. Here is another example; Virgil writes:
Quamvis increpitent socii et vi cursus in altum
Vela voccet, possisque sinus implere secundos. (iii. 454)
Ya, thocht thi fallowis cry out, Hillir haill!
On burd! ane fair wind blawis betwix twa schetis!
[Hillir hail – a nautical cry; On burd – “aboard”]
It is admirably vivid; but it sounds very unlike the Virgil we knew at school. Let us suspend judgement and try another passage.
Purpureum et laetos oculis adflarat honores. (i. 590)
Douglas says that Aenaes’ mother made him ‘Lyk till ane yonkeir with twa lauchand ene’ [lauchand ene – “laughing eyes”]. The picture is fresh and attractive; somehow unlike the Aeneas of our imagination. But is that because Virgil has never said anything about the beauty of Aeneas, both here and in other places? On the contrary, Virgil quite clearly has told us that his hero was of godlike beauty. There has been something in our minds, but not in the mind of Douglas, which dimmed the picture; our idea of the great king and warrior and founder apparently shrinks (as Virgil’s and Douglas’s did not) from the delighted vision of male beauty. Douglas shocks us by being closer to Virgil than we are. Once a man’s eyes have been opened to this, he will find instances everywhere. Rosea cervice refulsit: ‘her nek schane like until the rois in May’. Do you prefer Dryden’s “she turned and made appear Her neck refulgent”?
But refulsit cannot possibly have had for a Roman ear the ‘classical’ quality which ‘refulgent’ has for an English. It must have felt much more like ‘schane’. And rosea has disappeared altogether in Dryden’s version—and with it half the sensuous vitality of the image. Thus, again, Douglas translates omnibus in templis matrum choris by ‘in caroling the lusty ladeis went’. If this seems altogether too merry and too medieval, turn to Dryden again, and you will find that Dryden has flatly refused to translate those five words at all. And that brings us to the real point.
It is hard to blame Dryden forsuppressing matrum chorus. In the style which he is using it simply cannot be translated. As long as we are under the spell of schoolroom ‘classicality’ we can do nothing; ‘women’, ‘wives’, ‘matrons’ are all equally fatal. But it will go at once and delightfully into the medieval line about ladies ‘caroling’. And the reason is that at this point there is a real affinity between the ancient and the medieval world, and a real separation between both of them and the modern. And as soon as we become aware of this we realize what it is that has made so many things in Douglas seem to us strangely un-Virgilian. It is not the real Virgil; it is that fatal ‘classical’ misconception of all ancient poets which the humanists have fastened upon our education—the spectral solemnity, the gradus epithets, the dictionary language, the decorum which avoid every contact with the senses and the soil. (Dryden tells us that though he knew mollis amaracus was sweet marjoram, he did not so translate it, for fear ‘those village words’ should give the reader ‘a mean idea of the thing’). Time after time Douglas is nearer to the original than any version could be which kept within the limits of later classicism. And that is almost another way of saying that the real Virgil is very much less ‘classical’ than we had supposed. To read the Latin again with Douglas’s version fresh in our minds is like seeing a favourite picture after it has been cleaned. Half the ‘richness’ and the ‘sobriety’ which we have been taught to admire turns out to have been only dirt; the ‘brown trees’ disappear and where the sponge has passed the glowing reds, the purples, and the transparent blues leap into life.
When I googled around to find a link for Gawin Douglas, I discovered the Britannica article, which says: “he is medieval in the casual way he brings his original up to date, and in the absence of ‘classical’ diction and gravity of tone.” So you see that Lewis’s strictures are not out of date, any more than Douglas’s lively Scots lines.
As for “gradus epithets,” here’s the OED on gradus:
Short for Gradus ad Parnassum ‘a step to Parnassus’, the Latin title of a dictionary of prosody until recently used in English public schools, intended as an aid in Latin versification, both by giving the ‘quantities’ of words and by suggesting poetical epithets and phraseology. Hence applied to later works of similar plan and object; also extended as in Greek gradus, and transf.