- The Arundel Lyrics. The Poems of Hugh Primas ed. by Christopher J. McDonough
The author of the Arundel Lyrics offers some of the most evocative Latin love poems of the twelfth century. Hugh Primas was one of its most gifted and biting satirists. In this nicely produced volume, Christopher McDonough offers elegant English translations (in prose) and annotations to poems of [End Page 281] which he presented a critical edition in The Oxford Poems of Hugh Primas. And the Arundel Lyrics (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984). All these poems deserve to be widely known.
The first sixteen love poems of the Arundel Lyrics, often attributed to Peter of Blois, begin by celebrating the favour of Venus towards lovers. Many of them evoke similar sentiments to the Carmina burana, as in no. 2 (p. 11): Ha! Dulci morbi langueo, quo sic beate pereo! (Ah! I am faint from a sweet disease from which I thus happily die!). The translation cannot avoid creating what might seem excessively mannered verse of Latin that is always concise, with rhyme impossible to render in English, as in no. 4 (p. 23): Certant nivi, micant lene pectus, mentum, colla, gene (Her breast, chin, neck, and cheeks vie with snow, and glow gently). The translations are bold and elegant, without being literal, as in no. 8 (p. 41): Vota blando stimulat lenimine pubes, que vix pullulate in virgine tenui lanugine (Her pubic hair, barely sprouting with fine down in her girlish state, rouses my desires with its sweet solace).
Yet these very sensual poems, celebrating the delights and anguish of love, are then followed by others (nos. 17-23) that celebrate religious themes with similar verbal dexterity. There are also poems vigorously critical of worldliness in the clerical order, like no. 25: 'Among the herd of bishops there is scarcely anyone worthy of the rank except the one man.' It turns out that this bishop 'is completely devoted to Venus and follows the course of no other planet'. At the same time, the poet can offer eulogy, or celebrate Venus. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these Arundel lyrics, not fully discussed in the Introduction, is the way they are organized as if to demonstrate that their poet can turn himself to every possible situation.
McDonough gives more attention in his Introduction to Hugh Primas, who composed longer verses, with vivid humour about the experience of gambling and feasting. This is verse that needs an English translation to communicate the earthiness of its humour, such as about the cloak he was given (no. 2, p. 147): 'Scum of bishops, dregs of the clergy, filthy scrofula, who gave me a cloak without down in midwinter!' There is a vivid account of a painted whore coming out of a brothel, on whom everything is lavished, with language that might belong to a popular novel: 'And when she groans and whines, she makes her opening smaller by drawing it tight. If it was wide open, a mule would only just succeed in filling it' (no. 8, p. 165).
The Latin is not always easy, but McDonough's translations communicate vim and vigour. For anyone wanting to explore themes of sexuality, paganism, and satire in the twelfth century, these poems of Primas are rich material. There is a portrait of the effects of promotion on a monk (no. 16, p. 191): 'Now the monk has come to the bishopric, pallid and thin through fasting, but [End Page 282] soon, grinding his teeth incessantly, he gulps down hunks of six large fish, and devouring a huge pike at dinner, he grows plump and fat within two years, like pigs deprived of food.' Such satire makes one think that, when he praises Alberic for not allowing pagan authors to be studied in the schools at Reims (no. 18, p. 203), he is demonstrating a gift for eulogy that perhaps was never meant to be taken seriously. McDonough is...