- Venantius Fortunatus, Gelegentlich Gedichte: Das lyrische Werk, Die Vita des hl. Martin
The poetry of Venantius Fortunatus remains something of an underutilized resource for the social and cultural history of the early Merovingian period. Wolfgang Fels's translation, therefore,which makes available in a single volume a reliable modern translation of the entire Fortunatan poetic corpus is a welcome event. His version includes not just the Carmina and the Life of St. Martin but also the Spuria, which Friedrich Leo printed along with the authentic poems in his monumental edition of 1881.Fels, in fact, argues for the authenticity of the last of these poems (Spuria 11), but I am inclined to agree with Leo that the poem is alien to Fortunatus's manner.
The translation is clear and readable and will allow scholars to appreciate the variety of Fortunatus' subject matter and some of his distinctive literary qualities. Fels has chosen to imitate the dactylic meters of his original, mostly elegiac couplets, but hexameters for the four-book Life of St. Martin. Occasionally this requires a certain freedom in his handling of Fortunatus's language, but nothing that does violence to or inaccurately represents the original. In his Introduction Fels speaks of Fortunatus's love of word play and effects of sound, a distinctive aspect of Fortunatan poetics, which he aims to reproduce when possible. In this respect, perhaps understandably given that he is also writing a metrical version, Fels's success is mixed. To take one example, Fortunatus's alliterative comment on St. Martin's healing of a leper, which comes close to the end of book 1 of the Life, "faithful in its fealty faith faithfully made fair the foul" (1.506), finds no equivalent in Fels's translation. At times, too, I felt Fortunatus's characteristic metaphorical invention was watered down in the translation. But overall, Fels's judgment is sound, and it is to his credit that he aspires to reproduce, to the extent that he can, some of the literary qualities of Fortunatus'work as well as to reproduce its content.
In his commentary Fels aspires to provide the most basic information necessary for understanding the poem. He identifies individuals and locations mentioned in the text; he gives an ample conspectus of biblical citations and references. By comparison, he provides little or no information on the influence [End Page 325] of earlier poets on Fortunatus's work nor does he speak about such literary influences in his introduction. In this, he is probably assessing correctly the interests of his likely readers. But even for the circumstances of composition and for contextual detail, users of the translation would be wise to consult the fuller annotation in the Budé edition of Marc Reydellet and Solange Quesnel. Fels's notes are very abbreviated and can give an oversimplified impression of the state of a question. The introduction,too,would benefit from fuller engagement with the scholarship. In two cases, Fels's interpretation is implausible and contradicts that of Reydellet (on poems 11.5 and 9.15—in the latter case, he notes the discrepancy in a note). Most of the scholarship listed in the bibliography is in German, again understandably. One surprising omission, even allowing for this emphasis, is Sylvie Labarre's Le manteau partagé, published in 1998, which discusses in detail Fortunatus's Martin poem and its predecessor on the same subject by Paulinus of Périgueux.
It would be wrong, though, to end on a negative note. Most of my criticisms relate to ancillary aspects of Fels's work. The comprehensive translation of Fortunatus's entire poetic corpus is a substantial achievement and will be welcome to many students of the Merovingian period who are seeking access to Fortunatus's somewhat daunting, and occasionally difficult, body of work. [End Page 326]