Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 415-438
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Spenser and Du Bellay:
Translation, Imitation, Ruin
From French to English
Until very recently, criticism has tended toward agreement that Edmund Spenser's translation of Joachim Du Bellay's 1558 Antiquitez de Rome and Songe, published in the 1591 collection titled Complaints, is an awkwardly composed series of sonnets. Commentators have tended to follow a judgment made as early as 1928 in one of the few editions of the Complaints published in the last century (the only one not to include other writings): the editor, W. L. Renwick, underscores Spenser's rendition, in the first sonnet of the Ruines of Rome, of Du Bellay's "mon cry" as "my shreiking yell" 1 (I will return to this expression below). Echoing Renwick's term "noisy," which itself echoes and mocks Spenser's own phrasing, more than one critic has used the word "shrill" to describe the style of the translation. 2 M. A. Screech, in his commentary on the Antiquitez, settles for saying that the translation is "quite poorly" done, although he praises Spenser's capacity to judge French poets, and invokes the translation to support his argument that Du Bellay's sequence should have earned a "more important place" in the history of European poetry. 3 Indeed, the Ruines and other poems in the Complaints have only of late begun to attract much attention, after nearly seventy years of relative neglect. It would be completely unnecessary to cite the number of editions of and studies on The Faerie Queene—but worth noting that Spenser's allegorical epic has largely obscured most of his other writing.
The Ruines have often been considered an apprentice work, translations that Spenser likely did early in his career; 4 the Complaints then incorporate a number of variations on the same theme. It would be tempting to explain the presence of the translations in the Complaints as an effort to [End Page 415] complete the collection—and hence, as Ronald Bond proposes concerning the timing of its publication, as an attempt on the part of both Spenser and his publisher, William Ponsonby, to capitalize on the popularity of the first part of The Faerie Queene, which had appeared the previous year. 5 However, as Anne Lake Prescott and Margaret Ferguson suggest, even if these translations are taken to be part of the poet's apprenticeship, a thorough understanding of Spenser's oeuvre calls for a close examination of them. 6 M. L. Stapleton advances that the Ruines merit more attention because of their place in Elizabethan literature, which was self-consciously constituting itself as an autonomous, modern literary canon in a way that owed much to the poetics of the Pléïade. 7 Stapleton is among those who demonstrate that what was once assumed to be stylistic awkwardness and even mistranslation actually constitutes a productive reworking of Du Bellay, Pléïade poetics, and a number of other traditions, especially Roman and Italian poetry. In 1994, a facing text edition of the Antiquitez and the Ruines appeared, edited and with commentary by Malcolm Smith 8 —a contribution to the wider acceptance of the notion that the Complaints merit serious consideration.
The first full-length study since the renewal of interest in the Complaints to present the collection as a work quite worthy of attention in its own right, as cohesive and well-crafted—the second of two books published on the Complaints in the twentieth century 9 —is Richard Danson Brown's 1999 'The New Poet': Novelty and Tradition in Spenser's Complaints. Brown very nicely characterizes the shift in emphasis in Spenser studies, which he wishes to accentuate, by noting that "the Variorum edition (1947) calls the non-epic poetry The Minor Poems," whereas "the Yale edition (1989) uses the title The Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser." 10 In a recent article, A. E. B. Coldiron makes an excellent case that in his translations Spenser makes an essential contribution to English Renaissance literature: "Translation as Spenser practices it on Du Bellay becomes not a 'profanation' [as Du Bellay...