The novelist Javier Marías has asked me, in my capacity as Poet Laureate of the English Tongue, to compile a list of the ten greatest poems in the language. I have been put in an awkward position because I do not know which nine poems of mine to choose. What I shall do instead is concentrate upon the tenth, which is not an original English poem at all: Richard Stanyhurst’s translation of the first four books of Virgil’s Aeneid, published in Leiden in 1582 and of which only two copies, both imperfect, appear to have survived. A slightly revised edition was printed the following year, in London, by Henry Bynneman. The copy in the Bodleian Library is described as being in gatherings loosely sewn together, not bound, but protected by a vellum wrapper made from a leaf taken from a handsome twelfth-century edition of the Aeneid. Christopher Baswell writes, in his Virgil in Medieval England (Cambridge University Press, 1995), “Whether this combination—the English translated book and the wrapper in its original Latin—occurred through an elegant accident of history or the inspired agency of a Renaissance wit, we shall never know.”
What Baswell does not explain is why this extraordinary work might have been an object of mirth in the first place. It is quite true that after the publication of this volume, Stanyhurst was not encouraged to produce more. The book’s earliest known critic, Thomas Nash, accuses Stanyhurst of “a foule lumbring boystrous wallowing measure.” In 1617, Barnaby Rich of Dublin speaks of him as having stripped Virgil “out of a Velvet gowne, into a Fooles coate.” I will pass over a couple of further unkindnesses. The eighteenth century is silent on the matter, which, with the likes of Mr. Pope in the vicinity, is rather a shame. In the nineteenth, Robert Southey wrote, “As Chaucer has been called the well of English undefiled, so might Stanyhurst be denominated the common sewer of the language.” Later, C. S. Lewis describes his language as “barely English” and as recently as 1996, in the pages of The New Criterion, D. S. Carne-Moss writes that Stanyhurst is “representative only of himself, for his manhandling in uncouth Tudor hexameters of the first four books of the poem is a monstrum horrendum unparalleled in the annals of translation.”
A sly defence comes from the pen of Edward Arber, who edited the 1880 edition of Stanyhurst’s Virgil: “One may say of him, that he, at any rate, had the courage of his convictions; that he, at least, had not the fear of man before his eyes, when he set to work to torture the English language.” Such is the tarnished reputation of the man who slips into my list at number ten. There is hardly a person left who remembers who Stanyhurst is. It is with thanks to the bibliophile, aficionado of Amanda M. Ros and former colleague Arthur Uphill that I owe my first acquaintance with this misjudged masterpiece.
Here is how the poem begins:
I that in old season wyth reeds
oten harmonye whistled
My rural sonnet: from forrest
flitted (I) forced
Thee sulcking swincker thee
soyle, thoghe craggie, to sunder.
A labor and a trauaile too
plowswayns hertelye welcoom.
Now manhood and garbroyls I
chaunt, and martial horror.
And here is how it ends:
Streight, with al, her fayre locks
with right hand speedelye
Foorth with her heat fading, her
liefe too windpuf auoyded.
The stuff between is beyond the reach of even our deepest analyses.
I am intrigued to learn that, in later years, at Antwerp, Stanyhurst practiced alchemy, taking it upon himself to make gold. And not coincidentally, in my view, he became a Catholic, took holy orders and went to Spain where he is said to have become a physician. Conversion of one sort or another seems to have been in the man’s blood.
I happen to know an alchemist, a holy fool from Damascus, who also practices a kind of medicine (there is, in his mind, in the curing of metal and in the curing of the body a logical connection). My Damascene friend, Suleyman, once gave me a specimen from one of his many attempts to produce gold, saying perhaps it would afford me a loaf of bread in London. It is not gold, I’m sure, but whatever it is it’s like no other metal I have ever seen. I have heard recently that he has cracked it— the problem he has been trying all these years to solve—and that he has confounded even the jewellers in the souk; and now my friend promises to send me a ring from the gold he has made. There is nothing to compare with his sheer drive. Where it will take him, of course, is another matter—I hope it is neither prison nor bedlam.
There is a connection here, believe me. Stanyhurst’s two great intellectual adventures, which involve, on the one hand, brute language and, on the other, base metal, are one and the same. What he seeks to achieve, first with hexameters and then later with an elixir, may be impossible. The poetic metal he produces, however, is like no other I have ever seen, although there are intimations here of Finnegans Wake. There is in his madness, even when it amounts to a kind of verbal incontinence, an unruffled magnificence. Where there are no words to fit the metre he either invents them or else traumatizes the nearest sound available. Sometimes he agglutinates, other times he divellicates; for the sake of a syllable he prefixes: “beblubbered,” for example. And then (this is where he truly excels) there are those mimetic effects he produces: “Whear curs barck bawling, with yolp yalpe snarrye rebounding.” Also, the alliteration is that of man whose first nature is to alliterate, “a foul fog pack paunch.” The words are driven in as if with a wooden mallet, made to fit a mad scheme. What an alchemy we have here! I once saw a man flog a mule to its face, while at the same time trying to encourage the poor creature to move forward in his own direction; the poor creature twisted and turned, and likewise Stanyhurst forces the language until it, too, spins about in maddened circles. I disarmed the stupid mule driver, but with Stanyhurst I stand no such chance. All one can do is crouch as before a desert wind and cover one’s head with a blanket before the sand fills eye and auricle. Stanyhurst is such a force of nature and, when on the loose, ungovernable. A genius such as his both blinds and deafens.
Should a man be pulled from the grave, once every hundred years or so, just so we can poke fun at him? What purpose could it possibly serve? I think perhaps there is one, in that we require some object upon which to rest the folly in ourselves. What good would it be, though, if that object were not more foolish than ourselves? As we want for excellence in our lives, so do we need its opposite; and what better than someone who can err so much better than us, who is butt naked in his absurdities? Richard Stanyhurst is a fool’s sacrifice; the altar upon which he bleeds is within our hearts. The first three books of the Aeneid, he informs us, he wrote at his leisure; the fourth he “huddled up” in ten days. What joy he must have experienced, to have run amok amid the English language, tearing it down when it was at its very height, bending it this way and that, at every turn committing verbal atrocities; yes, one may well imagine the howl of delight as he wrote, “a cockney dandiprat hopthumb, / Prittye lad Æneas … ”
We should join him where he is, at least for a while.