Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Paraphrase and Patronage in Virgils Gnat

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Paraphrase and Patronage in Virgils Gnat

Article excerpt

CRITICAL ESTIMATION OF Virgils Gnat, Spenser's free translation of Culex from the "Virgilian Appendix," has grown in direct proportion to critics' understanding of the techniques of paraphrase informing the work.1 After being dismissed in the eighteenth century as a "vague and arbitrary paraphrase," Virgils Gnat was admired by more romantic critics in the nineteenth century as a work of musicality and brilliance.2 Solider appreciations came in the twentieth century from critics who compared the translation with early printed editions of Culex. Oliver F. Emerson described it as a "poetical paraphrase," noting Spenser's tendency to embellish primarily the descriptive passages.3 He accounted for the growth of the poem from 414 Latin lines to 688 English lines by the exigencies of ottava rima, the stanzaic verse into which Spenser adapted the Latin hexameters.4 Henry G. Lotspeich further vindicated the paraphrase by noting the use of images to embellish the original in several places.1 Lotspeich's most insightful observation was of Spenser's tendency to take single words as a starting point for paraphrase. In "characteristically Spenserian phrases," the poet "lets his imagination develop a fuller picture from a few simple adjectives" or "develops a single word into a line of greater pictorial vividness."6 Understanding this technique is essential not only for estimating the quality of Virgils Gnat, however, but also for interpreting its meaning-and meaningfulness-as a paraphrase.

The meaningfulness of Spenser's paraphrase is concentrated in his treatment of the word "care," which occurs several times throughout the poem, always with reference to a consistent set of meanings, images, and associations. As I will show, there is little indication of these meanings in the original; the imaginative world of care and its opposite, security or carelessness, is Spenser's own and indicates a major concern of his literary exercise. The word "care" is of no small interest because of its place in the cryptic prefatory sonnet, in which Spenser refers to the poem's dedicatee, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (d. 1588), as "the causer of my care":

WRong'd, yet not daring to expresse my paine,

To you (great Lord) the causer of my care,

In clowdie teares my case I thus complaine

Unto your seife, that onely privie are.'

The remainder of the sonnet alerts readers that the fite of the unfortunate gnat is really an allegory of Spenser's own "evill plight." Various events in Spenser's life have been alleged as the occasion of his complaint (in spite of his sullen request to keep interpretations private), but setting aside the cause, we can learn a lot about the quality of Spenser's "care" by paying attention to the elaborate frame of reference constructed around this word whenever it occurs in the translation.8 After tracing Spenser's thematic use of care and its opposite, security, I offer some interpretations of its significance with respect to Spenser's career and his relationship to Leicester.

' 'Care"

A thematic juxtaposition of the careful life and the carefree life is occasioned first by several instances of the word cura in the Latin original. Following the proem (1-41), cura first appears in an outburst on the happiness of the pastoral life: "O the shepherd's good fortune . . . aloof from the cares that afflict greedy minds in their spiteful breast."' Because it depends on a certain syntactical construction for its effect, this exclamation is classified in classical rhetoric as a "verbal" figure. Spenser drops the verbal figure for personification, one of the "mental" figures, which were techniques of amplification rather than pleasure (the effect of the verbal figures). He also imagines a place, localizing the shepherd in a den:

No such sad cares, as wont to macerate

And rend the greedie minds of covetous men,

Do ever creepe into the shepheards den.


In place of the pointed brevity of the original, he gives an imaginative description of care, anticipating one of his allegories in The Faerie Queene. …

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