Lively, Dynamic, but Hardly a Thing of "rhythmic beauty": Arthur Golding's Fourteeners
Anthony Brian Taylor
Published in Connotations Vol. 2.3 (1992)
In their response to “Arthur Golding and the Elizabethan Progress of Actaeon’s Dogs,” Charles Martindale and Sarah Annes Brown provide a useful perspective on Shakespeare’s use of Ovid, Golding, and the exegetic tradition with an attractive argument that the adventures of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor represent a “comic reworking of the story of Actaeon.”1) When in a brief closing section they turn to Golding specifically, however, they make two surprising claims. They maintain his approach to Ovid’s poem is unorthodox, irreverent, and amusing; and then, taking issue with my general estimate of his metre as inflexible and ungainly, and asserting that “Golding is more than a wayward, if engaging, original—he is a poet,” they focus on examples of “rhythmic beauty” in his work (65). As it is my intention to deal with his approach to the Metamorphoses at length elsewhere, the question here is whether epithets such as “ungainly” and “lumbering” which have been applied to Golding’s fourteeners in the past, are mistaken, and whether the translator really does deserve to be acclaimed as a poet for his handling of his metre.
In their response to "Arthur Golding and the Elizabethan Progress of Actaeon's Dogs," Charles Martindale and Sarah Annes Brown provide a useful perspective on Shakespeare's use of Ovid, Golding, and the exegetic tradition with an attractive argument that the adventures of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor represent a "comic reworking of the story of Actaeon."1) When in a brief closing section they turn to Golding specifically, however, they make two surprising claims. They maintain his approach to Ovid's poem is unorthodox, irreverent, and amusing; and then, taking issue with my general estimate of his metre as inflexible and ungainly, and asserting that "Golding is more than a wayward, if engaging, original—he is a poet," they focus on examples of "rhythmic beauty" in his work (65). As it is my intention to deal with his approach to the Metamorphoses at length elsewhere, the question here is whether epithets such as "ungainly" and "lumbering" which have been applied to Golding's fourteeners in the past, are mistaken, and whether the translator really does deserve to be acclaimed as a poet for his handling of his metre.
* * *
More than most works, early Elizabethan verse translations need to be set against the background of their time. They were produced in the fifteen sixties and seventies when, in the opinion of men of taste and [→page 206] learning, "English poetry was in a sorry state,"2) its general malaise reflected in a basic technique that consisted of "counting the number of syllables in a line," and the production of verse that had a dreary, "monotonous," rhythmic "regularity."3) And to an observer like Ascham, there was no better example of the "barbarous and rude Ryming" by which the country was afflicted, than Golding's chosen metre, the fourteener; it was a metre for "rash ignorant heads, which now can easely recken vp fourten sillabes, and easelie stumble on euery Ryme." Yet, although it was held in contempt in educated circles, the fourteener, which had long been familiar to the "rude multitude"4) through its association with ballads and hymns,5) was enormously popular with English poets. A versatile metre, it was currently used, for example, in narrative, pastoral, contemplative, and love poetry. Its basic features can be seen in these lines from an example of one of the most popular lyrical genres of the day, the lover's complaint:
What cause, what reason moueth me: what fansy fils my brains
That you I minde of virgins al, whom Britan soile sustains
Bothe when to lady Mnemosynes dere daughters I resort,
And eke when I ye season slow deceaue, with glad disport:
What force, what power haue you so great, what charms have you late found,
To pluck, to draw, to rauish hartes, & stirre out of ther stownd?6)
As is apparent here, it was written as a line of seven stresses (four and then three) with a rising (iambic) rhythm, a pronounced pause (caesura) after the eighth syllable, and strong end rhyme.7) It had a propensity to decline into sing−song; to modern ears, it is also jarring because of its disrupted syntax, words and phrases being regularly displaced to ensure stresses falling on the required syllables or to secure end rhyme. Today such displacement seems very unnatural and rather chaotic but for mid−Tudor poets it represented a way of elevating their verses by imitating Latin syntax. In this passage, for example, while this is apparent in examples like "virgins al" and "seasons slow" where the adjective follows the noun, it also explains "to lady Mnemosynes dere daughters I resort" where the English word that corresponds to the nominative, and the verb are placed at the end, and also "when I ye [→page 164] season slow deceaue" where what corresponds to the accusative is placed immediately before the verb.8)
The fourteener was popular with translators like Golding for the practical reason that it was capacious enough to be regarded as the English equivalent of Latin hexameter.9) But there were also idealistic considerations which related to the ethos of what is now often referred to as the translation "movement." The unprecedented spate of translations which constituted the main literary activity of the opening decades of the new queen's reign, was inspired by national pride. Englishmen had suddenly become aware that their country was lagging badly behind its European neighbours, and a small army of translators from all walks of life, set out to remedy the situation by making available to the many the learning that had been available only to the few.10) They also set out to show that the English language, which was widely condemned as "barbarous" and "gross," was as capable of scaling the literary heights as French or Italian. And the verse translators of the classics, while subscribing wholeheartedly to this belief in their language, were equally determined to prove the capabilities of their despised English metres. It was in such circumstances that, as the Age began, the first of the translators, Thomas Phaer, introduced "a more cleane and compendious meeter, than heretofore hath commonly bene accustomed"11) into the realms of epic poetry when he took up the traditional English fourteener to translate Vergil's Aeneid in 1558.
The result can be illustrated by the opening lines of his version of the Laocoon episode:
For as by chaunce that time a priest to Neptune chosen new,
Laocoon a mighty bull on the offring altar slew:
Behold from Tenedos aloofe in calme seas through the deepe
(I quake to tell) two serpents great with foldings great do sweepe.
And side by side in dragons wise, to shore their way they make.
Their heads above the stream they hold, their fiered manes they shake.
The salt sea waves before them fast they shoven, and after trailes
Their ugly backes, and long in links behind them drag their tailes.
Phaer's metrical strategy is to make the fourteener a strong, stately line; he does so by scrupulously observing its natural imperatives, the heavy, [→page 208] regular beat, the pause after the eighth syllable, and end rhyme, and by slowing its pace by placing the majority of stresses on long vowels as in:
And side ⁄ by side ⁄ in dra⁄gons wise, ⁄⁄ to shore ⁄ their way ⁄ they make.
Their heads ⁄ above ⁄ the stream ⁄ they hold, ⁄⁄ their fie⁄red manes ⁄ they shake.
Given his fondness for long vowels, a preponderantly monosyllabic vocabulary, in which "d's," "k's," and hard "g's," and "c's" feature prominently, and frequent repetition enhance the desired effect. And as we see in this passage, he often supplements the slow pace of his fourteeners by strengthening end rhyme with periodic punctuation. With the focus very much upon the individual line, therefore, enjambement is used sparingly; its incidence in this passage is above average but it is characteristic of Phaer that on the first occasion he impedes one line's running on into the other with parenthesis, "(I quake to tell)," and on the second, having referred to the snakes driving the waves "before them fast," he is not concerned with rhythmic "flow" but with slowing his lines down with a succession of long stressed vowels, "and after trailes," "and long in links behind them drag their tailes." His vocabulary is reasonably dignified for his day,13) and a desire for dignity underlies his moderate use of alliteration.14)
And to elevate the metre, as might be expected, he imitates Latin syntax. When the Elizabethans were taught to write Latin, they were trained to use both "grammatical or natural order" and "artificial or Rhetoricall order."15) Although based on Cicero, the more elegant "artificial order" was specifically recommended for writing Latin verse.34) Normally mid−Tudor poets imitated elements of both to give the occasional touch of elevation to their poetry—placing adjectives after nouns, for instance, was "natural," but placing object words immediately before verbs was "artificial." Where Phaer is different is that, while he does not entirely refrain from imitating "natural order," he is intent on heavy and consistent imitation of "artificial or Rhetoricall order." The first of its rules or "Precepts," for example, was that "The oblique cases (that is all besides the Nominative and the Vocative) are commonly placed in the beginning, the Nominative case in the midst, the Verbe [→page 209] in the ende" as, for example, in "Munitissimam hostium civitatem Caesar occupavit."16) This syntactical pattern is a constant feature of Phaer's translation; he regularly places what corresponds to "oblique cases" in the beginning, to the nominative "in the midst," with the verb at the end. In this passage, for instance, we have half−lines like "The salt sea waves before them fast they shoven" or "Their heads above the stream they hold," or lines like,
And side by side in dragons wise, to shore their way they make.
Other precepts of "artificial order" explain other regular features in Phaer such as why adverbs and adverbial phrases are placed directly before "the Verbe or Participle which they declare" as in "Some storme them headlong drive" (2.523) or "His arrowes on his shoulders clattring hanges" (4.161) or "the deare with bounsing leapes do flie" (4.164). And subsidiary rules like "the word governed" appearing immediately before "the words governing" explain why words that would be in the accusative case in Latin appear directly before the verb as in "Then first the cruell feare mee caught" (2.564) or "Who shall us leade?" (3.95) or "hee his fathers minde obeyed" (4.256). By repeatedly writing English as if it were an inflected language and "placing words after the manner of the purest Latinists" in the "order of Tully," Phaer thus adds strange syntax to the slow, stately pace of his fourteeners in his attempt to give them "epic" elevation.
Phaer's "epic" fourteeners with their "artificial order," heavy beat, and relentlessly regular features, sound stiff and unnatural to modern ears. But to his contemporaries, still decades away from the music of Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare, and accustomed to thin poetic fare, they were a revelation; in their view, lines like,
Behold from Tenedos aloofe in calme seas through the deepe
(I quake to tell) two serpents great with foldings great do sweepe.
showed how Vergil's "haughty verse" had obtained even "greater grace" "in foreign foot,"17) and in the opinion of one of his later admirers, in [→page 210] the fourteeners of Phaer's Aeneid, English poetry had achieved "the verye maiesty of a ryght Heroicall verse."18)
* * *
When Arthur Golding took up the fourteener to translate what his contemporaries saw as the second great Latin epic poem, although he must have been very conscious of Phaer, his basic approach was different. It can be illustrated by a somewhat similar passage which occurs when Cadmus' followers, newly arrived in Boetia, go to find water and accidentally disturb the monstrous Snake of Mars with dire consequences:
No sooner had the Tirian folke set foote within this thicke
And queachie plot, and deped downe their bucket in the well,
But that to buscle in his den began this Serpent fell,
And peering with a marble head right horribly to hisse.
The Tirians let their pitchers slip for sodaine feare of this,
And waxing pale as any clay, like folke amazde and flaight,
Stoode trembling like an Aspen leafe. The specled serpent straight
Comes trailing out in waving linkes, and knottie rolles of scales,
And bending into bunchie boughts his bodie forth he hales.
And lifting up above the wast himselfe unto the Skie,
He overlooketh all the wood, as huge and big welnie
As is the Snake that in the heaven about the Nordren pole
Devides the Beares. He makes no stay but deales his dreadfull dole
Among the Tirians. Whether they did take them to their tooles,
Or to their heeles, or that their feare did make them stand like fooles,
And helpe themselves by none of both: he snapt up some alive,
And swept in others with his taile, and some he did deprive
Of life with rankenesse of his breath, and other some againe
He stings and poysons unto death till all at last were slaine.
The pattern is set by the opening four lines. The casual, fluid sound produced by the opening couplet in which the Tyrians are performing an everyday task, is the result of the fact that the fourteener's natural imperatives have been disregarded. In the first line, the caesura is dispensed with, in the second, it is varied; and enjambement is used to de−emphasize rhyme and alleviate the iambic beat. This contrasts with [→page 211] lines 2 and 4 where, as the serpent is awakened in its lair and its head emerges as it peers about, the lines become regular with a heavy, firm beat, a caesura after the eighth syllable accentuated by inverted syntax, and strong end rhyme. The rest of the passage confirms this initial pattern, and also Golding's preference for longish sentences in which small clusters of fourteeners sweep to a focal point. Where in Phaer, then, the focus is very much on the weight and cadence of each line, in Golding, the key unit is the sentence; this means the features and pace of the fourteeners are shaped more by the sense, and there is greater allowance for the inflexion and intonation of speech. But if Golding's basic approach to the fourteener is markedly different from Phaer's, when he wants to strike the necessary "epic" note on this, as on many another occasion in his work, it is on Phaer's strong line with its strange syntax, heavy beat, slow pace, and regular features, that he has his eyes. Thus, allowing for his greater partiality for alliteration, when the tension mounts in this passage, we find him following Phaer by placing the majority of stresses on long vowels, and imitating "artificial order," in lines like,
And bend⁄ing in⁄to bunch⁄ie boughts ⁄⁄ his bod⁄ie forth ⁄ he hales.
And peer⁄ing with ⁄ a marb⁄le head⁄ right horr⁄ibly ⁄ to hisse.
While there is nothing startlingly innovative about Golding's basic metrical strategy,20) it does incorporate Phaer's strong line into a more flexible approach. However, if the encounter of the Tyrians with the Snake of Mars reveals Golding's more sensible attitude in this respect, it also reveals his metrical deficiencies. The quality of his fourteeners, for instance, is subject to sudden variation. This is illustrated by the climax of the passage which after promising to be exciting, proves curiously disappointing; once the snake has moved into explosive action with "he snapt up some alive, ⁄ And swept in others with his taile," Golding's lines immmediately lose momentum, declining into awkwardness and wordiness as they continue, [→page 212]
and some he did depriveOf life with rankenesse of his breath, and other some againe
He stings and poysons unto death till all at last were slaine.
The translator's tendency to pack out his lines with verbiage is also in evidence; here we have two of his repetitive adjectival doublets ("thicke and queachie," "amazde and flaight"), three pleonastic "did's" ("Whether they did take them to their tooles," "feare did make them stand," "some he did deprive"), and a redundant half line ("And helpe themselves by none of both"). And, like the Snake of Mars amongst the Tyrians, the fault that will inflict the most serious damage on his fourteeners also raises its ugly head as words clatter against each other as Golding maneouvres to accommodate rhyme in the passage's clumsiest line:
And lifting up above the wast himselfe unto the Skie, … .
Syntactical clumsiness is the major fault of Golding's fourteeners; to be found on every page of his Ovid, it constantly makes them ungainly. It stems from two causes. Examples of the first, the struggle to accommodate rhyme, to which reference has already been made, thread the work; here, for instance, is a couplet in which the translator is obliged to add a final meaningless rhyming word,
Next rose up helmes with fethered crests, and then the Poldrens bright,
Successively the Curets whole, and all the armor right (3.122−23)
and here lines where he has had to corrupt a verbal form,
The mariage that her selfe had made the Goddesse blessed so,
That when the Moone with fulsum lyght nyne tymes her course had go
and here is an example where he is reduced to writing nonsense,
Bothe her folke and people ran agayneThrough all the woodes. And ever as they went, they sent theyr eyes
Before them … .
(14.474−76, italics mine)
[→page 213] The second and more interesting cause relates to Latin. Phaer's use of "artificial order," which set an unfortunate precedent for other early translators, left its mark, as we have seen, on Golding. But his subscription was moderate because thankfully, for the greater part, he preferred to preserve "thenglishe phrase." But he was infected by the idea that imitating Latin syntax is epic; thus we find him occasionally doing so at the beginning of episodes to establish an initial lofty tone, as, for example, in the opening lines of the story of Achaemenides and the Cyclops:
Too him thus Achemenides, his owne man freely now,
And not forgrowen as one forlorne, nor clad in bristled hyde,
Made answer: …
And occasionally, he simply picks up scattered details from the Latin text before him, as in these lines on Arethusa in flight before the river−god, Alpheus:
But certenly he feared me with trampling of his feete:
And of his mouth the boystous breath upon my hairlace blew.
Forwearied with the toyle of flight: Help Diane, I thy true
And trustie Squire (I said) who oft have caried after thee
Thy bow and arrowes, now am like attached for to bee.
Here "oris" is responsible for the superfluous and unfortunately placed "of his mouth" but what really does the damage is the imitation of the Latin text's separation of "Forewearied with the toyle of flight" from "(I said)"—"Fessa labore fugae, fer opem, deprendimur, inquam" (v.618, italics mine). Phaer, whatever one thinks of the transposition of "artificial order" to English verse, has consistency, but Golding, working at speed and with less experience as a verse writer, was, as these examples show, indiscriminate. And in both his imitation of Latin and struggle for rhyme, as in other matters in his translation, he was occasionally, as we have seen, plain careless.
As uninspiring examples like "Did make an irksome noyse to heare" (4.608) or the "ghostes of persones deade" (2.386) show, carelessness is also sometimes painfully evident when Golding is padding out his lines [→page 214] with verbiage. Almost as constant a fault as syntactical distortion, this breeds an habitual dependence on pleonastic "do's" and "did's," countless infinitives of the "for to be," "for to keep," "for to make" variety, tautologous adjectival doublets such as "huge and big," "grim and feerce," meaningless line−fillers such as "ywis," "and eke," "welnie" and "besides," and needless repetition of every conceivable kind.23)
And if his fourteeners constantly splutter and stumble, they are in an even more parlous state when sudden lapses in his concentration occur, as happens from time to time. On such occasions, situations arise in which his lines, no longer shaped or controlled by the sense, decline into sing−song, as in:
Too her made many wooers sute: all which shee did eschew.
And going too the salt Sea nymphes (too whom shee was ryght deere)
She vaunted, too how many men shee gave the slippe that yeere.
Even worse, perhaps, are occasions when Golding seems to forget he is writing verse at all and rhythm drains away: one of many examples is:
The thing yee Romans seeke for heere, yee should have sought more ny
Your countrye. Yea and neerer home go seeke it now. Not I
Apollo, but Apollos sonne is hee that must redresse
Your sorrowes. Take your journey with good handsell of successe,
And fetch my sonne among you.
* * *
To focus on Golding's shortcomings in this way, however, is to risk pitching one's overall estimate of his work too low. If his metre flags badly when interest or inspiration lapses, generally he finds Ovid's poem inspiring. And if his metre is constantly plagued by ungainly syntax and verbiage, despite its faults it is lively and spirited. Even in passages where his metrical flaws are very apparent, Golding is able by virtue of his sheer dramatic zest to achieve some quite remarkable results. Consider, for example, the entry of Tisiphone, risen from hell to inflict madness on Ino and Athamas: [→page 215]
The sonne withdrew him, Athamas and eke his wife were cast
With ougly sightes in such a feare, that out of doores agast
They would have fled. There stoode the Fiend, and stopt their passage out,
And splaying forth hir filthie armes beknit with Snakes about,
Did tosse and wave hir hatefull heade. The swarme of scaled snakes
Did make an irksome noyse to heare as she hir tresses shakes.
About hir shoulders some did craule: some trayling downe hir brest
Did hisse and spit out poyson greene, and spirt with tongues infest.
The strange reflexive verb and the ugliness of the syntax as Golding engages in his unending struggle for rhyme in the first two and a half lines are forgotten the moment the Fury appears; here is a magnificent, small tour de force which makes it easy to understand Shakespeare's recalling the moment in Othello and Marlowe's doing so in Edward II.25) And in the impressive lines on her snakes, one hardly notices the increasing word−fillers or the Latinate inversion of nouns and adjectives in the final line.
As we see here, Golding's imperfect fourteeners are sustained by a graphic and dramatic talent. This runs deep into his translation, and is liable to surface in any scene involving activity and movement. At one level, it shows itself in a response to natural vivacity which, while it may lack any sophistication or depth, is nonetheless infectious; here, for example, is Latona changing some peasants into frogs:
Hir wish did take effect with speede:For underneath the water they delight to be in deede.
Now dive they to the bottome downe, now up their heades they pop,
Another while with sprawling legs they swim upon the top.
And oftentimes upon the bankes they have a mind to stond,
And oftentimes from thence againe to leape into the Pond. (6.472−77)26)
And vivaciousness is also occasionally in evidence in the translation's rare highspots where for fleeting moments, Golding's fourteeners almost leave their faults behind. Here, for example, is the bustling scene where her nymphs attend the goddess Diana after hunting:
… Crocale more cunning than the rest,
Did trusse hir tresses handsomly which hung behind undrest.
[→page 216] And yet hir owne hung waving still. Then Niphe nete and cleene
With Hiale glistring like the grash in beautie fresh and sheene,
And Rhanis clearer of hir skin than are the rainie drops,
And little bibling Phyale, and Pseke that pretie Mops,
Powrde water into vessels large to washe their Ladie with.
But when Golding is at his best, it is more liable to be his response to the powerful and violent drama in Ovid's text that is more to the fore; this is nowhere more apparent than in what is arguably the best moment in the work, when Jove takes action against Phaethon to save the world from destruction:
Then with a dreadfull thunderclap up to his eare he bent
His fist, and at the Wagoner a flash of lightning sent,
Which strake his bodie from the life and threw it over wheele
And so with fire he quenched fire. The Steedes did also reele
Upon their knees, and starting up sprang violently, one here,
And there another, that they brast in pieces all their gere.
They threw the Collars from their neckes, and breaking quite a sunder
The Trace and Harness, flang away: here lay the bridles: yonder
The Extree plucked from the Naves: and in another place
The shevered spokes of broken wheeles: and so at every pace
The pieces of the Chariot torne lay strowed here and there.
Neither of these passages is quite perfect and yet metre and sense are so in harmony that it is niggardly to focus on their slight blemishes. What one carries away is a sense of charming vitality from the one and of sheer dynamic power from the other. If this was the metrical norm, his Ovid would be a hugely enjoyable work, but as always with Golding, the metrical terrain is filled with bumps, dips, and hollows. Moments before the lines on Jove taking action, for example, his fourteeners, sadly blemished by repetition and verbiage, had lapsed into sing−song;29) and the lines immediately preceding the charming scene of Diana and her nymphs are rather wooden.30)
Golding's Ovid is thus an unsophisticated and powerful response to the Metamorphoses encased in rough and uneven metre and produced in an impoverished poetic landscape. It is the faults that bestrew his [→page 217] fourteeners that make any extensive reading of his translation an uncomfortable experience. The work's metrical deficiency also does much to explain why Shakespearean critics, often exercising less patience than they should, have been so quick to throw up their hands in horror, even dismissing it on one occasion as "clownish."31) And it accounts for that extraordinary feature of the most distinguished assessment of the work so far where Gordon Braden, in the face of his fourteeners' obvious and frustrating imperfections, produces conjectural revisions of Golding's lines.35) The comments of the distinguished modern poet who was himself a considerable admirer of the translation, are relevant and illustrative:
I imagine Golding has rarely been read from cover to cover. The reason for this, at least in my own case, is metrical. Even if one is careful not to tub−thump, and reads Golding's huge, looping "fourteeners" for "sense and syntax" … even then one trips; often the form seems like some arbitrary and wayward hurdle, rather than the very backbone of what is being said. One longs to change rhyme−words, cut superfluous filler−words, and reduce Golding to paragraphs.32)
It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find Martindale and Brown focusing on the "rhythmic beauty" of Golding's metre. Of course, there are occasional moments of metrical smoothness in his Ovid, but with his proneness to syntactical ungainliness and constant tendency to pack out his lines with verbiage, they tend to be very small moments rarely extending beyond half a dozen lines. The Cyclop's song celebrating Galatea's beauty on which Martindale and Brown set such store, "More whyght thou art then Primrose leaf my Lady Galatee," really should be set more firmly in context. It is a very rare example in which Golding is picking up the simple and heavy parallelism of the corresponding lines in the Latin text. Indeed, if one ventures beyond the lines they quote, one finds that, as Polyphemus continues, now deploring the nymph for her obdurate nature, Golding persists so relentlessly with the same heavy patterning for twelve more lines, that the passage becomes, in Gordon Braden's view, "numbingly straightforward"33) with a long succession of lines like, [→page 218]
More prowd than Peacocke praysd, more feerce than fyre and more extreeme:
More rough than Breers, more cruell than the new delivered Beare, … .
But the issue is not with any one particular example; it is with the very misleading impression created when a claim that Golding is a poet is supported by focusing on the "rhythmic beauty" of his fourteeners.
The Swansea Institute