AN OLD FRENCH LOVE-STORY.• IT is a welcome thing to
encounter a writer with so considerable a gift for original verse condescending to exercise his talent in a field generally worked by literary hacks or authors whose entire lack of the poetic quality too often justifies the Italian punning proverb, Traduttori, traditori. This beautiful story, hitherto only available to English readers in imperfect, because at second- hand, versions, and buried amid a heap of many other worthless fabliaux, has been rescued like a pearl from a dunghill by Mr. Bourdillon, and put forth in a rendering which, while it faith- fully reproduces the unsophisticated primitive charm of the original, is in itself an exceedingly dainty and refined piece of workmanship. Mr. Bourdillon is in love with his subject, and it will not be his fault if he does not bring his readers to his own way of thinking. But with the exception of one single passage, his enthusiasm has nothing blind or extravagant about it. In the introduction and notes, the poet gives place to the sympathetic but scholarly critic, fully alive to the childish crudities as well as the beauties of the poem, but, on the other hand, protesting with spirit against the attitude of Professor Buehler, who declared that in his edition of Aucassin and Nicolette, he had mainly considered use in lectures. "Do not all poetical instincts of the soul,' asks Mr. Bourdillon, "rise in protest against this story, of all others, being chosen as a corpus vile for dissection in the lecture-room ?"
The fate of Aucassin and Nicolette, "securely treasured and still more safely forgotten," depending for its existence on a single ill-written MS., illustrates the strange good fortune which befalls some works of literature. As to the excuse for producing a separate edition of the poem in England, we think Mr. Bourclillou makes out a strong case when he points out,— " If we bethink ourselves that at the time when the story was written [about the beginning of the thirteenth century], it would have been nearly or quite as mach at home among the educated classes in England as in its own native land, we might have thought it quite excusable that Englishmen should take an interest in the little foreign work almost as great as if it belonged to their own National Literature." His own aim he defines as having been "to put the little story before modern readers in the same spirit in which it was originally written," not over- burdening it with tedious dissertations and notes, but giving just the minimum of information a reader will require "in reading for pleasure," and answering " such questions as can hardly help suggesting themselves." We can say at once, with. out reserve, that he seems to us to have never lost sight of this aim, but to have achieved it admirably throughout. As to the old French in which the poem is written, Mr. Bourdillon admits that it may be a stumbling-block in the way of the reader's enjoyment, but insists, by way of compensation, upon "the undefinable charm of archaism which hangs about a work six centuries old." Coming to the question of translation, Mr. Bourdillon offers an effective plea for the semi-archaic mould in which he has cast his version :— " Translators and pamphrasts," he urges, "too often try to trans- mute old phrases into new, thinking thereby to represent more exactly to modern readers the ideas originally expressed. In reality, there is a much better chance of our understanding old-fashioned thoughts, if we learn to understand the old-fashioned language which conveyed them. For this reason I have tried—though with some trepidation— to follow the judicious example of Fauriel, who endeavonred, while translating the old text purely and simply into modern French, to leave still 'some slight traces of archaism.' This is, of course, a very different task in translating into an altogether new language; and I have only ventured to attempt it to a very slight extent, by leaving, as far as possible, the quaint turns and expressions of the old French, and further by the sparing admission of archaic words, hoping to preserve just enough of the old-fashioned savour to please my readers, without wearying or puzzling them."
In this particular matter, Mr. Bourdillon has acted with great
• ducomin and Nieotette : a Lone-Story. Edited in Old French, and Rendered in Modern English (with Introduction, Glossary, ), by F. W. Bonrdillon, M.A. London : Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co,
restraint, and almost uniform success, the only phrase to which legitimate exception can be taken being "never a del" for nenil nient, rather a fantastic means of avoiding the colloquialism, "not a bit of it." As regards his renderings of the verse passages, Aucassin and Nicolette being a cantefable, or half verse half prose, we think Mr. Bonrdillon has acted with discretion in substituting rhymes for the assonances of the original. To our modern ears, those assonances, no matter how skilfully reproduced, sound very insipid in English, and, more- over, the translator moves with the utmost freedom in his self-imposed fetters. The second part of Mr. Bourdillon's introduction is devoted to a very thoughtful study of the poem, and the features which link it with, or distinguish it from, similar productions. Amongst the former, he instances the use of hackneyed phrases, conventional epithets, and shows how, in describing the hero and heroine, the anonymous author, evidently a practised jongleur, simply made a list of the personal charms then held in highest esteem. In the present case, the same list is applied to both Aucassin and Nicolette alike. Mr. Bourdillon's comment on this is worth quoting c-
" The intellectual growth of the human race may well be studied in that of a child, and in a child's fairy-story the princess has always ' golden hair' and ' blue eyes.' These present a vague idea of beauty to the childish mind, and not till long afterwards does it learn to analyse the beauty of any face for itself. Moreover, it seems pro- bable that the first idea of such an analysis has always come to the human race through its painters, rather than through its poets. As Browning makes Fre Lippo Lippi say
We're mode so that we lore First when we see them painted, things we hare passed Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see.'
It is the first stage in the discrimination of beauty to recognise it painted ; it is the second to recognise it described. And this story is earlier than the Renaissance of painting."
But underneath the mechanical artifices of the minstrel, the in- spiration of the poet is constantly showing itself. The traits of the professional story-teller are all there,—Homeric repetitions ; the piling-up of words as of one " who dares not pause in his flow of language, but, after using the word that comes first, often thinks of another better ;" and mere tautologies like viel anti, strongly recalling the common colloquial Hibernicism, " ould ancient." But, entirely apart from such artifices of style, Mr. Bourdillon insists, and we think with perfect justice, that there is genuine artistic merit in Aucassin and Nicolette. This is shown by the author's "instinctive choice of the most telling incidents and the most felicitous moments for description," as well as by his power of giving a picture in a few strokes, as, for example, that of Nicolette at the window. The best example of this is perhaps the really beautiful touch in the shepherd's account of Nicolette's coming in their midst, so beautiful " que tos cis box en esclarci," "that all the wood lightened with her." Mr. Bourdillon shows signal judgment in his discussion of the episode of Torelore, the stumbling-block of most editors, and which he defends in the following excellent passage :-
" Contrast is of the very essence of art, and the author designed to heighten the effect of pure beauty in his other scenes by the contrast of a grotesque ;—just as in medireval ornament there is usually some unexpected ugliness of grinning face or scaly demon, lurking amid the shapes of purest beauty and ideal loveliness. The ' Intel augais in herbs.' of the ancients might be well applied to this ' fiend among the flowers,' which expressed a genuine feeling of medimval artists, —their recognition, in a half human, half monstrous shape, of the diablerie underlying a world of mingled beauty and corruption. English folk, who find an outlet for this same feeling in parodies and burlesques of all that they most admire, should at least bo able to sympathise in this early expression of it, even if its form be a little too crude for them fully to appreciate. It is only because the standard of taste in the rest of the story is so high, that we in- stinctively expect the whole to be in accordance with modern ideas."
Though in its essentials a drama of incident, Aucassin and Nicolette undoubtedly shows, as Mr. Bonrdillon points out, a conscious attempt to delineate and develop character. An analysis of the portrait of Nicolette leads Mr. Bourdillon into the only piece of extravagance which occurs in his pages.
propos of her serenading Ancamin in disguise, and singing the story of her own love for "on dansellon qui Aucassins avait non," he says,—" If the use of the exquisite word 'dansellon' be only a chance, due to the metre or the assonance, what can we say but that it is one of those divine chances which happen to none but the real poets of the world P" The peculiar form of this work, with its alternations of prose and verse, unique in old French literature, attracted the attention of Fanriel, who was led to suppose that the anonymous author might have borrowed from Arabian models, a supposition which the name "Ancassin" confirms. But the verse portions of Arabian
or Persian romances were mere lyrical interludes illustrating, not continuing the story, while the French poet hit upon the method as a happy device of varying the monotony of his narrative. This dual system gave him an immense advantage over writers of wholly vereilied romances, and he used his new resources with infinite tact, choosing the verse in the main as a vehicle for expressing the more passionate feelings by which the dramatis personas were actuated. Indeed, one might almost say that the cantefahle contained the germ of that form of modern opera which the French call opera comique, the essence of which is not the character of the plot, but that in it spoken dialogue alternates with verses which are sung. And in this connection it is not amiss to mention that Gr6try did set this very story to music as an opera contique in three acts, the first performance taking place at Versailles in December, 1779. Mr. Bourdillon's interesting introduction concludes with some good remarks on the crude and unformed notions of the author of the difference between prose and poetry :— " On the whole, he has not a much more elevated idea of verse than that it must be distinguished by metre and rhyme (or
assonance) In verse his style is conventional, in prose it ie natural. His verse is fall of hackneyed expressions, and 'tags' of the troubadour ; while the prose rarely or never employs these, but comes fresh from the poet's own thought, in the language of his own lips. The subjects of the verse.seetions are often trivial or trite while some of the most poetical scenes, such as that of Nicolette in the garden, are described in prose."
Of Mr. Bourdillon's power as a translator, the following passage may serve as an average specimen :—
" Prisoner now is Nicolette, In a ranked chamber set
That was wrought by cunning rare, Painted marvellously fair.
At the marble window-bay There she leaned, that luckless may. Of pale gold she had her hair, Exquisite her eyebrows were, Bright her face, curved daintily ; Lovelier did you never see. O'er the woodland gazed she oat, Saw the rose bloom all about, Heard the bird call to his mate, Then she wept her orphan fate Woe ie me! poor captive maid !
Why am I in prison laid 2 Anoassin, liege lording dear, Now am I thy loving fere, Nor of thee am I abhorred, For thy sake I am in ward, In this vaulted chamber penned, Where fall evil days I spend.
But,-0 son of Mary may !- Long herein I will not stay An so I may.' "
A comparison with the original only heightens one's opinion of Mr. Bourdillon's skill and fidelity. The following lines very happily render Aucasain's address to the star :—
" Little star, I see thee plain, That the moon draws to her train ! Nicolette ie with thee there, My love, of the golden hair. God, methinks, wants her in heaven
To become the lamp of even.
..... • • • Howeo great my fall might be, Would that I were there with thee ! Closely would I kiss and cling !— Were I son to orown?d king, Then abouldet well become me yet, Sweet Nicolette ! "
Our last extract shall be the curious outburst of At:casein in reply to Nicolette's declaration that she loved him more than he loved her
" Mack !' said Aucassin, ' fair sweet friend ! It could not be that you should love me so much as I do you! Woman cannot love man so much as man loves woman. For the love of woman is in her eye, and in the tip of the nipple of her breast, and in the tip of the toe of her foot; but the love of man is planted within, in the heart, whence it cannot go out.' "
The notes are few in number, but practical and to the point, and the glossary so complete as to enable any one who is a fair reader of modern French, and has a decent knowledge of Latin, to make a very good hand of the Picard dialect in which the romance is written. It is certainly easier reading than Rabelais, owing to the foot of the vocabulary being no much more restricted. But the translation is eo exceptionally good that it will be read with pleasure by all, whether French scholars or not, who can appreciate a beautiful old-world romance told in simple prose and flowing verse.