Wednesday 22 July 2009

Chaucer's House of Fame versus Pope's Temple of Fame

Chris Lauer, our Chaucer translator (I would use the word "adapter" if it didn't sound like a connecting device), has recently sent me a few more of his wonderful translations from the great English poet. Among these, The House of Fame, a curious early work in three books in the tradition of the medieval dream visions. Some people say it's intended to be a sort of parody of the Divine Comedy – I didn't read it that way. What The House of Fame reminded me of, more than anything else, was a terza-rima poem by Petrarch, The Triumphs, a poem he wrote in a failed attempt to compete with Dante on his own ground. Chris's adaptation in modern English of The House of Fame is, as usual, superb – lively, witty and very close to the spirit of the original.

I was curious to see how Chaucer's poem compared to Alexander Pope's own version, The Temple of Fame, one of his earliest works (I call it a work, not a translation, as imitation was a form of art in Pope's time). The Temple of Fame strips most of the Chaucerian beginning and gets straight to the vision of the Temple of Fame, which only appears in the last book of Chaucer's poem. It is weird to see the same story recounted by two very great poets using two different languages and verse forms.

I must admit that, for once, Pope's heroic couplet didn't live up to my expectations. It felt too polished and constrained – it never came across as having the assurance of an original work. Perhaps there was a mismatch between language and theme – something I don't feel when I read his translation of the Iliad – perhaps it was its lack of humour that didn't work for me. The result was that it took me almost as long to read Pope's 524 lines as Chaucer's 2,000-odd lines.

Now on to the Book of the Duchess . . .


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