Why Edmund Spenser Matters in the 21st Century?

In late September of 2017, Trevor Joyce’s Fastness was the subject of a cursory – one might say dismissive – review in the Irish Times . Notwithstanding, Fastness is a book that – in line with the rest of Trevor Joyce’s body of work – deserves more than the scant attention it has so far received in Ireland.

Before approaching Fastness one needs some familiarity with Joyce’s previous uses of Edmund Spenser – chiefly Rome’s Wreck published in 2014 by Cusp Books. Then, Joyce brought his translatory powers to bear upon Spenser’s English in a re-imagining of Spenser’s Ruines of Rome. A chief difference between that and Joyce’s most recent book present is that there was no facing page presentation with the original and translation set side by side. In Fastness, we are treated not just to a facing page translation, but also a helpful introduction from Joyce. His introduction is indispensable in helping to understand the logic of the choices Joyce makes, and to untangle this layered poem.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3535DB” class=”” size=”19″]Language is neither fixed nor static and Edmund Spenser’s English is separated from our own by several centuries.[/perfectpullquote]

First though, it’s worth our time thinking about the subtitle to the poem. We all know that translation from one language to another presents sometimes insurmountable challenges of context and meaning; everpresent is the constant anxiety over what is lost in translation. But how to regard translation from one language into ostensibly the same language?

Translating from English into English assumes constants of that language. But what Trevor Joyce is trying to achieve in Fastness is not a mere act of replacing one set of English words for another set. The full title of the volume is Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. This subtitle contains within it a key to anyone who might be trying to figure out just what it is Joyce is up to in translating from English into English. Joyce notes that ‘the provocation [of the subtitle] is quite deliberate’(xvii).

Language is neither fixed nor static and Edmund Spenser’s English is separated from our own by several centuries. Who Spenser was, when he was born, his social status, what he read, what he ate, etc., all formed his language use, as they do our own.

So what are we to do now with Spenser’s English? Even in his own time, as Joyce’s introduction notes, Spenser employed a deliberately archaic style in his writing, to great effect. So Joyce asks: ‘Now, in such different times, can such a freak speak to us?’

Joyce certainly thinks so and this translation sets out to prove that. We are all, after a fashion, translators. In the course of our daily lives we translate from one kind of English into another that we know we can understand. Whether it is in meeting with official forms of language, or language we know that seeks to conceal as much as it reveals in the media and elsewhere. An original text and its translation are probably best understood as two separate but related texts. It might help to read Fastness in this mode too.

It could work as a stand alone text, without the facing page. But what is Joyce’s aim in taking the English of a coloniser, and reworking it in the early 21st century? Aside from his major poetic works, Spenser is best known among historians for his A View of the Present State of Ireland, which takes a dim view of the local population. Joyce is pretty clear about his intentions when he writes in the introduction:

‘Poetry is a complex instrument, and a poet like Spenser knows how to play it to the full, and any response needs to take account of all that. The most adequate, fully engaged response, I would argue, is another poem that picks up all the carefully distributed threads of Spenser’s utterance and gives them radically altered in many ways, but recognizably chiming with the original, and adding new meaning. (xv)’

Why Edmund Spenser Matters In The 21st Century?

In addition to this, he even notes that he sees this translation as an intervention into how Spenser will be read, since the actions of Spenser etc. were themselves determinants in Joyce’s own outcomes in life, which he traces in a kind of potted family genealogy. One imagines perhaps that no one should be able to read the Mutability Cantos in future without at least some reference to Joyce’s efforts at reworking them.

This translation is dedicated to the memories of three (all recently deceased) poets – Tom Raworth, Paddy Galvin and Mike Smith. Each has had a significant impact on Joyce’s work over the years, in ways too various to consider succinctly here. But a small note is worth making of Mike Smith, Joyce’s comrade in Dublin in the 1960s, and half the team that produced The Lace Curtain and the New Writer’s Press, being especially prominent in his poetic genealogy. In 2004, Smith published Maldon & Other Translations . He subtitled that poem A version . Not definitive. In the introduction Smith provides, he writes that

Finally, a comment might perhaps be made on an Irish poet translating what is, among other things, an English national text. The events described in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ might just as easily, with a change of names of persons and places, serve essentially as a description of what took place at Dublin’s Clontarf in 1014. (Smith, Maldon & Other Translations, 2004:10)

There are echoes of this in the introduction to Fastness as Joyce considers the fact that although Spenser is an avowedly English poet, his greatest work, The Faerie Queen, might be considered an Irish poem. Even Joyce’s translation of The Poems of Sweeny, Peregrine are subtitled ‘A working of the corrupt Irish text (1966-76)’ . So we have versions, workings, and laterly translations from the English of this or that person.

We are beyond the realm of traditional understandings of the act of translation as a simple exchanging of one language for another in the rendering of a story or a poem. Not unironically, and surely not unintentionally, the mutability of language, and the Mutability of the poem, are connected. This is a layered book, the fruits of an extraordinary labour, and it requires of its reader something other than the merely cursory.

The poem itself is a seemingly straightforward tale:

I’ve heard how this Mutability one time
rose against all the gods at once,
to disempire them. So let me tell you. (Canto VI, 1, 6-8)

Contrast this with Spenser’s original:

I will rehearse that whylom I heard say,
How she at first her self began to rear,
‘Gainst all the Gods, and th’Empire sought from them to bear.

Elsewhere in the poem, we read how Earth ‘thralled to her Might’ is now ‘strongarmed […] to be her gimp’. Similarly ‘her Palace bright’ becomes ‘this flash Palace’. Later in the poem ‘…lusty Spring, all dight in Leaves of Flow’rs’ becomes ‘Spring, primped/ in blossoms’. I wished almost for pimped in blossoms. It may seem more simplistic but don’t be fooled. The language is as tightly wound in Joyce’s translation as the baroque, high allegorical of Spenser’s original. There is nothing sloppy or accidental about the choices or the gaps (even seeming rifts) between the language Joyce employs to render Spenser anew. This is not Baz Luhrmann giving a new setting to Shakespeare’s old language in Romeo + Juliet , Joyce is utterly reshaping the language to present needs. Mutability is emboldened, ennobled, in her new speech. Thanks to Joyce’s efforts, Spenser’s freak speaks once more.

Joyce, Trevor, Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser , Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press 2017, 86pp. ISBN 978-1-881163-61-9, $17

Submissions are open for all HeadStuff poetry categories, including Poem of The Week (Every Friday), Unbound (longer sequence of poems from a single poet), and New Voices (submissions from poets under the age of 30.) We accept both written, audio and video recorded poems as long as the quality of the audio and video is of a high standard.

Please see our Submissions page for more information.

Featured image source here