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KISSES THREE

SIR GAWAIN & THE GREEN KNIGHT ­ A NEW VERSE TRANSLATION
by W.S. Merwin, a parallel text edition, 174pp, £8.95, Bloodaxe Books Ltd., Highgreen, Tarset, Northumberland NE 48 1RP.


The claim on the back cover of this book is that the ‘original poem and W.S. Merwin’s modern version are comparable in stature and imaginative power to another medieval (sic) epic, Beowulf,
in Seamus Heaney’s rendering.’ Well, of course Beowulf is not a medieval poem. It is an Anglo-Saxon epic written, not, as Sir Gawain is, in Middle-English but in Old English, Beowulf pre-dates Gawain by several centuries.

The two texts are hardly comparable and the respective translations are here merely being brought together as a (dodgy) bit of sales-pitch. That said, if I were challenged I’d say that Heaney’s Beowulf
had a grittier hold on its original than Merwin on his. Heaney’s is a translation in the strict sense and the Anglo-Saxon poem does from time to time need rediscovering for us as existing translations start to show their age..

Asked to review this book, I did not know, until it arrived in the post, that it was a parallel-text edition. Remembering the delight I experienced in first reading the poem as part of my university courses nearly fifty years ago, my first thought had been why should such a poem need translating. It is not in an entirely different language. A bit of effort and some adjustment on the part of the reader can reward with so much pleasure that any translation must not only feel like a discouragement of the effort that’s required and really worth making but also an inevitable diminishing of the original. So the comparisons to be made are not between Gawain
and Beowulf or Heaney and Merwin but between the original and its rendering into modern English.

Again, the back cover declares that ‘Capturing the pace, impact and richly alliterative language of the original Middle English text…Merwin brings a new immediacy to a spellbinding, timeless narrative written centuries ago by a master poet whose identity has been lost to time’. The first half of this sentence is insufficiently modest; the second half no-one ought to quarrel with.

The fact however that the texts are in parallel (on facing pages) allayed some of my misgivings. This arrangement enables readers to make there own comparisons and if the translation (though this isn’t entirely the right word) directs them back into the original then it will have served a laudable purpose. But it is not quite right to suggest that the ‘pace, impact and richly alliterative language’ of the original has been captured with a ‘new immediacy’. And it would be wrong to see Merwin’s version as a substitute for the original. It is probably as decent a working into modern English as we are likely to find but it can only be a shadow of the poem written six hundred years ago. Middle English (or in the present case a North-West-England dialect of it) has a wonderful muscularity, which, when expressed in alliterative verse, has not just pace but propulsion and pulse which modern syntax undermines.

Compare this passage with Merwin’s version. (Unfortunately, as I have no access to the Junius font, the Middle English which has its own symbols for ‘th’ and ‘gh’, I will have to use clumsy-looking brackets where technology lets me down).

              Gauan gripped to his ax, and gederes it on hy(gh)t,
              (Th)e kay fot on (th)e folde he before sette,
              Let it doun ly(gh)ly ly(gh)t on (th)e naked,
              (Th)e scharp of (th)e schalk schyndered (th)e bones,
              And schrank (th)ur(gh) (th)e schyre grece, and schade it in twynne,
              (Th)at (th)e broun stel bot on (th)e grounde.

This is the translation:

              Gawain gripped his ax and heaved it up on high..
              He set his foot on the ground in front of him
              And brought the blade down suddenly onto the bare skin
              So that the sharp edge sundered the man’s bones
              And sank into the white flesh and sliced it in two
              Until the bright steel of the bit sank into the ground.

‘ly(gh)tly ly(gh)t’ enacts the movement physically,
while ‘suddenly’ doesn’t. The same with ‘schyndered’ and ‘sundered’, ‘schyre grece’ has more fat to it than ‘flesh’. The test is to read the two passages aloud.

This is not to undervalue Merwin’s version. He is clearly doing the best he can and clearly out of love of the medieval poem. But it is impossible to produce something equivalent: what we have here is an honest and well-made approximation.

What of the original? New readers will find the form of the poem novel. It is written in four parts or ‘fyttes’, each consisting of stanzas (or verse paragraphs) of varying length made up of alliterating lines rounded of by a rhyming quatrain. The way a line works is this: each one balances four heavy stresses and any number of unstressed syllables around a pause in the middle:

              Bi a moúnte on (th)e mórne / méryly he rides

(the last word should be pronounced ‘reedez’ and the final ‘e’ on ‘morne’ should be given). Merwin’s translation is ‘In the morning, with a high heart he rides by a mountain’ which is simply statement. The original suggests the movement of the horse, almost to the jingling of the harness. I am tempted to quote Robert Frost’s description of poetry as that which gets left out in translation…which is, of course, not to say that all translations fit that description: there are some which are clearly poems in their own right. Merwin has exhilarating passages for sure and his whole enterprise is very readable but, as I’ve suggested above, the result, with a poem of such vitality as Gawain
, perhaps tells us more about our modern sensibilities than those of the fourteenth century.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
is an Arthurian Romance, a quest poem (its narrative in a sense comes full circle) about chivalry, loyalty, courtly love. It has intense narrative and dramatic drive. Arthur’s youthful court at Camelot, Gawain’s journey through North Wales and the Wirral, the scenes of sexual temptation and those describing hunting are all delivered to us in extraordinary visual and concrete detail. Like fairy stories, the poem uses number symbolism (threes and fives, a year-and-a-day) to pattern its structure with. It is, to put it bluntly, a national treasure, one of the great poems. Whether many students come across it in these days when poetry in Higher Education seems to be more and more sidelined I frankly doubt. If this book makes it possible for the poem to gain more readers then it will have performed an important service. A dynamically alive piece of writing like this does not belong in a museum. Despite the fact that Merwin has supplied a very interesting and enthusiastic Foreword, it would, I am sure, have been of some real assistance to have supplied some notes, either as footnotes or in a separate section, to explain one or two of the poem’s references…for example the historical perspective created at the beginning, which wonderfully traces the history of Britain back to the Siege of Troy.

              © Matt Simpson 2003