1796
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Fabliaux: Preface.

Fabliaux or Tales, abridged from French Manuscripts of the XIIth and XIIIth Centuries by M. Le Grand, selected and translated into English Verse. With a Preface and Notes.

George Ellis


A paragraph in George Ellis's substantial introduction to Gregory Lewis Way's translation of Le Grand's Fabliaux describes the rationale for going to Sidney and Spenser to capture the spirit of the medieval originals. The antiquated diction is described as an "experiment," and indeed a translation that requires the use of a glossary was far from the norm, though such "gadzookery" would become common enough a decade later in the wake of Sir Walter Scott's historicist poetry. Spenser is briefly mentioned on pp. xxviii and xxxv. The preface is unsigned.

George Ellis's scholarship, building upon Thomas Warton's History of English Literature, marks a great leap forward from Thomas Percy's "Essay on the Ancient Minstrels" published thirty years earlier in the Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765). Ellis points out that Way has not felt obliged, in the interests of historical accuracy, to restore passages in the fabliaux Bowdlerized in Le Grand's collection, first published in 1781.

Ellis continues the subject in notes appended to a second volume of Way's translations, which appeared in 1800: "Though he felt that it was impossible to unite, into a consistent and uniform style, the elaborate diction and musical cadences of Pope, with the artless syntax and irregular numbers of Chaucer; yet he conceived that a language of perfect simplicity is capable of a great deal of variety, and that it may, by proper gradations, be brought to assume almost any character; and to assimilate with the appropriate diction of every period of our literature" pp. 291-92.

Gentleman's Magazine: "In the Preface and Appendix to the Fabliaux of his friend Mr. Way, are to be found some of the purest and most classical passages of Addisonian composition which this age has produced" 85 (April 1815) 372.

Henry Augustus Beer: "George Ellis, a friend and correspondent of Walter Scott, and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, who was sometimes called 'the Sainte Palaye of England,' issued his Specimens of Early English poets in 1790; edited in 1796 G. L. Way's translations from French Fabliaux of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; and printed in 1805 three volumes of Early English Metrical Romances" Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century (1899) 301.




What has been just premised will in a great measure explain the intentions of the present translator. The authors of the Cento Novelle Antiche, Boccace, Bandello, Chaucer, Gower, in short, the writers of all Europe, have probably made use of the inventions of the elder fablers. They have borrowed their general outlines, which they have filled up with colours of their own, and have exercised their ingenuity in varying the drapery, in combining the groups, and in forming them into more regular and animated pictures. Le Grand has given his authors in their native simplicity, and the present translator has adhered to his original with the most scrupulous, and perhaps with a servile fidelity. In many places he has been even literally exact. From his anxiety to attain this object he has been induced to try an experiment, of the success of which he can only judge by the suffrages of his readers. Every one has observed that certain expressions become by habit appropriate to the modes of particular periods. Spenser and Sidney, who were familiar with the spirit of chivalry, and who described what they saw and felt, have transfused into their language the stateliness and courtesy of the gentle knights whom they painted; and a writer who should attempt to delineate the manners of the age in which they lived, would find it difficult to give life and spirit to his description without borrowing many of their expressions, for which no substitutes can be found in modern language, because the modes and customs to which they refer have long since grown obsolete. From the writers of this age therefore the translator has borrowed not only a variety of words, but, as far as he could, the general cast of their expression; and with a view to remedy and little obscurity that might arise from this practice, he has given a short glossary at the end of the volume, to explain such words as may not be perfectly familiar to every reader. In short, he has endeavoured to adapt the colouring and costume of language to the manners he describes: to give an exact copy in miniature of the works of antiquated masters; not to rival or eclipse them by the superiour brilliancy of his tints, or by the nicer artifice of his compositions. . . .


[pp. iv-vi]