Found in Translation: Wyatt's Appropriation of the French Rondeau
By Gayle Goh
As an ambassador of Henry’s court and a close witness of the developments that unravelled towards England’s secession from papal Rome in the 1530s, Thomas Wyatt was intimately involved with England’s early clamours for independence; an environment in which, Gavin Alexander writes, concerns over ‘the self-confidence of English literature, its sovereignty, its right to claim authentic descent from the classics…seem[ed] to move in parallel to questions of national sovereignty’. Inasmuch as writers imitated the classics, there existed too a yearning to express English independence in these processes. Nicholas Udall, for instance, states in his Dedication to Edward VI (Paraphrase of Erasmus, 1551), that ‘a translator travaileth not to his own private commodity, but to the benefit and public use of his country’. Remembering Nietzsche’s argument that ‘one can gauge the degree of historical sensibility an age possesses by the manner in which it translates texts […and] seeks to incorporate past epochs […] into its own being’ (‘On the Problem of Translation’, trans. Mollenhauer) it is appropriate to seek, in Wyatt’s translations, clues of his contribution towards the ‘self-confidence’ of English literature and language: its independent character, if such may be said to exist, and how the incorporation of source material into the English tongue transforms the object and realises the ‘own being’ of its burgeoning civilization. More specifically, this essay proposes Wyatt’s appropriation of the French rondeau as an ideal juncture at which to investigate how the literary corpora and traditions of different cultures are absorbed into a new, distinctive style adapted to the cultural and poetic context of the English language. It will argue that his rondeaus perform a bold secession from literality; rejecting the slavish transcription of line-for-line, they dare to depart from the form in order to impart and adapt the sense, anticipating Dryden’s later declaration that ‘to be a thorough translator, [one] must be a thorough poet’, and expressing himself, as Dryden phrases the matter, ‘with as much life, as if he wrote an original’.
According to the Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, the rondeau as we know it emerged in the fifteenth century, and ‘by the beginning of the 16th c. had displaced all competitors’; ‘competitors’ refer here to close relatives such as the rondel and the triolet, for which the rondeau had originally sufficed as a general term of reference. The rhyme scheme of the rondeau is as follows, where R stands for the refrain or rentrement: aabba aabR aabbaR. The refrain is comprised of the first word(s) of the first line, resulting in a relatively shorter line, which Wyatt employs to achieve a broken and abrupt effect, as in lines 1-9 of his translation of Petrarch’s ‘Or vedi, Amor’:
Behold, love, thy power how she dispiseth!
My great payne how little she regardeth!
The holy oth, wherof she taketh no cure
Broken she hath: and yet she bideth sure,
Right at her ease: and little she dredeth.
Wepened thou art: and she unarmed sitteth:
To the disdaynfull, her liff she ledeth:
To me spitefull, withoute cause, or mesure.
The appeal to ‘Behold, love’ is repeated as ‘Or vedi, Amor’ is not in the Petrarchan madrigal. The shortened line-length of the repetition forces us to pause and strain as though to behold indeed the painful sight. This terseness is stark, rendering unavoidable the scorn and ill regard of the love object. The short refrain, in almost appearing unable to keep up with the rest of the text, enacts a chasm between expectation and actualisation that recurs throughout the text, with the ‘[g]reat’ pain and ‘little’ regard (2), ‘[w]epened’ love and ‘unarmed’ object (6). Frequent caesura in the Egerton manuscript force the poem to lurch onwards in a pained, stilted manner: ‘Behold, love,’ (1); ‘The holy oth,’ (3); ‘Right at her ease:’ (5), ‘Wepened thou art:’ (6). As a result, the oath that ‘Broken she hath:’ (4) strikes us as being truly ‘[b]roken’; as broken as the poem’s lines, or the fragment that comprises its refrain. The etymological root of “refrain”, i.e. Old French refraindre, ‘to break back, break again’ (OED, n., a.) crucially elucidates the truly broken echoes of Wyatt’s refrain. The technique is employed again in ‘What vaileth trouth?’
What vaileth trouth? or, by it, to take payn?
To stryve, by stedfastnes, for to attayne?
To be juste, and true: and fle from dowblenes: […]
What vaileth truth?
ll. 1-3, 9
Here, the futility of truth in the face of ‘dowbleness’ (5) is underscored by the relative frailty of the refrain. ‘What vaileth trouth?’ is immediately followed by a series of relentless demands, in the wake of which the repetition of ‘What vaileth trouth?’ appears weak and incommensurate to the ‘crueltie’ of the love object, which ‘nothing can refrayn’ (14). The word ‘refrayn’ cleverly puns on the idea of restraint as well as the noun “refrain”, characteristic of the rondeau: a clear reminder that Wyatt’s formal choices were considered and specific to the sense he strove to convey. In selecting the rondeau, Wyatt rejects the madrigal and sonnet forms of his Petrarchan originals in favour of a medium that better evokes the fragmentation of embittered self-doubt we see evinced in these translations to a far greater extent than in his sources.
Wyatt does not hesitate to tackle and reinterpret French texts as well. Take for instance his treatment of Marot’s ‘D’estre Amoreux’. Wyatt adapts Marot’s refrain in ‘For to love her’ and essentially furnishes the remainder of the poem with his own content. But even in that adaptation we witness how the infinitive ‘D’estre’ is replaced with the more ambiguous ‘For to’. A paradox results in the last lines: ‘For at this tyme to great is the prese, / And perilles appere to abundauntely / For to love her’ (13-15). Strictly interpreted, it asserts that the speaker will ‘sesse’ (8) to love her because the danger is too great; and yet the conjunctive usages of ‘for to’ suggest multiple meanings, all of which point to the exact opposite of, or inability to ‘sesse’ loving her; ‘for to’ could mean ‘Till, until; up to, as far as’ (OED, prep. and conj., A) or ‘in order (to)’ (OED, prep. and conj., 11a.), or ‘Because of’ (OED, prep. and conj., 21). Everything the speaker says, does and feels is because he loves her, in order to love her, and will continue for as long as he loves her. Wyatt thus adds a layer of complexity and Sisyphean pathos to Marot’s relatively straightforward source text. The rondeau, notes George Nott in ‘An Essay on Wyatt’s Poems’, was usually employed ‘to express thoughts of which the character is artlessness and Naïveté, with a little turn of playfulness…about them; and not studied sentiments of grave and solemn complaint.’ ‘Why Wyatt should have used that form in translating [Petrarchan poems],’ Nott complains, ‘it is difficult to say.’ Tillyard lodges similar dissatisfaction in his Introduction to The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt: A Selection and a Study by accusing the rondeaus of being ‘anything but exquisite and easy [as the French rondeaus, e.g. those of Marot, whose works Wyatt also translated, were wont to be]: the intolerable metrical jolt…makes them grotesque and uncouth.’ Nott and Tillyard are observing, without care to understanding, the transformation of the French rondeau into the English under Wyatt’s supervision. They judge Wyatt’s work according to the standards of the French and Italian originals rather than the unique product that emerges distinct from either source.
It now remains to place Wyatt’s rondeaus in their cultural context, specifically with regards to the English language. Here I propose to examine the issue of rhyme. The comparative dearth of rhyming words in the English language as opposed to the French or Italian produces intriguing results in Wyatt’s rondeaus, as each rondeau possesses only two recurring rhymes. The challenge of working in English with only two rhymes may account for why Wyatt uses the rondeau sparingly – only nine times in his known corpus – but when he does employ it, the very difficulty of English rhyming becomes a strength in conveying the sense of the poems. Many of the rhymes in his rondeaus are tottering and imperfect, e.g. ‘remedy/wilfully’ (10/11) in ‘Helpe me to seke’, or ‘fasshion/possession’ (10/11) in ‘Yf it be so’, enhancing the effect of halting bewilderment in these poems. Sixteenth century sensibilities such as those of George Puttenham would surely have balked at Wyatt’s choices, writing as Puttenham does in The Arte of English Poesy (1590): ‘Now there cannot be in a maker a fouler fault than to…wrench his words to help his rhyme.’ Not only does Wyatt ‘wrench’ his words to sound as’ foul’ and tortured as the soul of the speaker; in ‘What vaileth truth?’ he goes as far as to repeat a word instead of rhyming it. Significantly, this word is ‘dowbleness’ (3, 8), facilitating clever wordplay with ‘dowbleness’ being doubly used. This wordplay is far less incongruous in the comparatively “clumsy” English language than pleasingly musical French.
The consequence is a recognisably English rondeau far more suited, in Nott’s words, to ‘grave and solemn complaint’. The fumbling rhyme transforms its very setting: the scheme of the rondeau, with its two recurring rhymes, is no longer dainty and musical. Instead we have jagged metre: rhythmic shifts between trochees and iambs, e.g. in ‘For to love her’ – (‘Trusting by trought’ ) and double stresses (‘I do sesse’ , italics added). The aabba aabR aabbaR scheme becomes a formal prison encasing the internal struggle of the speaker. Since a rondeau must end using what it begins with, an inevitable stasis is conjured throughout the poem – or rather, a painful cycle through the motions of argument, contemplation and exposition, only to arrive where one began. We have questions without answers, problems without solutions, desire without gratification and despair without solace. In ‘Behold, love’, the speaker laments: ‘Behold, love! / I am in hold’ (1-2). The pun here is clearly on ‘[b]ehold’ and ‘in hold’ in the sense of being imprisoned. The inability to escape reiterates the crisis of futility and the futility of the crisis. Similarly, in ‘What vaileth trouth’ the speaker declares: ‘Decyved is he… / That meaneth no gile: and doeth remayne / Within the trapp, withoute redresse’ (10-13, italics added). This need for ‘redresse’ surfaces, too, in ‘For to love her’, where the speaker laments that, having been denied ‘redresse’ (3), he is only able to ‘retorne to my first adresse’ (12); his first address, or courtship, here, may seem to imply another woman, but the rondeau form ensures that he closes with, or ‘retorne[s]’ to, his first words: ‘For to love her’, suggesting that he has returned, not to the love of another woman, but to the same torturous passion; the same address.
In conclusion, Wyatt taps into the significantly stronger potential of the English language to assume a graver tone with the rondeau than the French; the beginning, it seems, of a tradition that flourishes centuries later in the works of poets like Hardy (‘The Roman Road’) or McCrae (‘In Flanders Fields’). In appropriating his French and Italian sources, he contributes towards the ‘self-confidence of English literature’, as Alexander terms it, cementing his reputation among subsequent generations of English writers as a forefather of English literature. Recent decades have been inclined to see Wyatt anew as a complex and highly successful experimentalist; it is clearly apparent that today, almost five centuries later, we may credit his contributions to English literature in a manner that even surpasses the acclaim he received in the Renaissance. His rondeaus alone are rich in evidence of his merit.
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W.E. Simonds, ‘The Three Rondeaux of Sir Thomas Wyatt’, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1891), 89-92.
G. A. Parry, ‘A French Rondeau and a Rondeau of Wyatt’s’, The Modern Language Review, Vol. 20, No. 4 (1925), 461-462.
Anne Lake Prescott, ‘The Reputation of Clément Marot in Renaissance England’, Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 18 (1971), 173-202.
Elizabeth Heale, ‘The New “Italian Poesie”’, Wyatt, Surrey and Early Tudor Poetry (Longman, 1998).
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Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, ed. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (University of Chicago, 1992).
© Gayle Goh