The Elizabethan James Joyce.

Michael Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti posts an intriguing quote, from Jonathan Bate’s new book How the Classics Made Shakespeare, about Richard Stanyhurst’s translation of the Aeneid:

Thanks largely to Nashe’s attack, Stanyhurst has come to be regarded as a kind of literary-historical bad joke. The Cambridge History of English Literature solemnly asked whether we can plausibly “Imagine Dido Queen of Carthage asking in fury ‘Shall a stranger give me the slampam?'” and a more recent guide is characteristically dismissive in suggesting that Stanyhurst “insisted on not being mistaken for an ignoramus” but that his translation “proves, in unconscious burlesque, how bad neo-classical theory was.” The indecorum of high classical matter being rendered through low verbal coinages is what provokes the derision. Thus the Cambridge History again: “he surpassed in a fantastic eccentricity the vainest of his contemporaries. Never was there a stranger mixture of pedantry and slang than is to be found in his work.” Wait a minute, though: is not the juxtaposition of high and low, of kings and clowns, of soaring poetry and earthy vernacular, one of the qualities that we so value in the plays of one William Shakespeare? Do we not praise the Stratford grammar school lad to the rafters for the living sound of his lines and the astonishing array of his verbal coinages? Stanyhurst gives us: Chuff chaff, clush clash, crack-rack crashing, hob lob, hurly burly, huf puff, kym kam, muff maff, pell mell, pit pat, rags jags, swish swash, tag rag, tara-tan-tara, thwick thwack, trush trash, wig wag, yolp yalp.

Again, do we not consider the art of creating compound adjectives as one of the marks of all true poets since Homer and the ancient Greek tragedians? Stanyhurst delights in: “Herd-flock,” “Frith-cops,” “Blustrous huzzing with clush clash buzzing, with drooming clattered humming,” “It brayeth in snorting,” “The push and poke of lance,” “Deep minced, far chopped,” “Rapfully frapping,” “With belling screech cry she roareth.” One almost hears Tony Harrison’s acclaimed translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Or even the sheer zany word-adoring inventiveness of another Irishman in exile on the continent: could Richard Stanyhurst be not so much a joke as a pioneer? Was he the Elizabethan James Joyce?

In the Oxford English Dictionary, Stanyhurst is credited with the invention of a rich array of more than one hundred and fifty words, including Bepowdered, Breakvow, Carousing, Disjoincted, Distracted, Flailing, Flounce, Frolic, Gadding, Gutter, Hoblobs, Hoodwink, Makesport, Mopsy, Pertlike, Plashy, Rake, Sea-froth, Smocktoy, Spumy, Unhoused, Wanton (as a verb), and Whizling. OED also gives him nearly two hundred nonce-words, among them Bedgle, Bepurpled, Blastbob, Breedsleep, Crabknob, Garbroils, Gyreful, Hedgebrat, Pack-paunch, Plashbreach, Racebrood, Snarnoise, Sportbreeder, Uddered, Upvomited, and Windblast. Many of his coinages failed to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary at all: Bughag, Birthsoil, Foresnaffled, Hailknob, Hell-swarm, Hotlove, Lustilad, Nightfog, Rapesnatched, Seabelch, and about seventy more. And on about fifty occasions, his usage of a word predates the OED‘s earliest citation. In the following instances, Shakespeare is cited as the earliest usage but the credit should really go to Stanyhurst: Baggage, Beldam, Eyeball, Huddle, Post-haste, Quillet.

Shakespeare and Joyce may be pushing it, but the list of words is certainly impressive (I suspect “Bedgle” is a typo for Bedagle, in OED s.v. bedaggle [= bedag “To bemire the bottom of (dress)”]: 1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis ii. 29 “With dust al powdred, with filthood dustye bedagled”).

Speaking of the Aeneid, April Bernard in the November 23, 2017 NYRB recommends the new translation by David Ferry in the strongest terms: “it is what Ferry accomplishes […] that makes this new translation such a marvel throughout. […] This kind of translation almost needs a new name, to distinguish it from all the other worthy efforts to bring the ancient poets to life: it is an iteration, another version, but also—perhaps, almost—the thing itself.” And speaking of poetry, they’ve found an extra quatrain by Baudelaire (see Alison Flood’s Guardian story).


  1. I have always depended on the slampam of strangers…not so much the snarnoise, though, tbh.

  2. As for ‘bedagle’, I can say ‘dag’ is still in use, admittedly in sense ‘clot of dirty wool about the rear end of a sheep’ rather than ‘pendant point of cloth on a garment’ but they seem rather related to me.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    There is more on the author here:

  4. Good lord, I forgot all about that post — though the name Stanyhurst did sound familiar! I should routinely use the site-specific Google search every time I’m thinking about posting. At least this post features a different facet of the man…

  5. Australian “dag” ‘loser’, known in GB+Irl from teen soaps, has the same origin.

  6. I’ve wondered where this comes from – now I think I know:

    From Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”:
    Sergeant. When the foeman bares his steel,
    Police. Tarantara! tarantara!
    Sergeant. We uncomfortable feel,
    Police. Tarantara!
    Sergeant. And we find the wisest thing,
    Police. Tarantara! tarantara!
    Sergeant. Is to slap our chests and sing,
    Sergeant & Police. Tarantara! tarantara!


  1. […] Hat shares a reevaluation of the Richard Stanyhurst translation of the Aeneid, with its manufactured words. […]

Speak Your Mind