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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, 3rd Prize

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Jane Tozer

Leper, an extract from Tristran
by Béroul

…To give your King such shrewd advice
Entitles you to name your price!
I ask you now to be my tutor
As to what punishment would suit her.
By God! No one has yet devised
A fate so grim and agonised.
Lifelong he’ll be my friend, who finds
The worst of cruelties refined.
By Heaven, I honour such a mind.

My mind, Sire, is at your disposal.
Here is the gist of my proposal:
One hundred lepers, here we stand –
Deliver Yseult to our hands
As common harlot to our band
Perpetually to be shamed.
Our lust is by disease inflamed
And our desires are unrestrained.
Daily and hourly, she’ll be raped.
To be molested by incurables
Would render each night unendurable.
No woman born could tolerate
Such a humiliating fate.

She cannot not bear to look at us;
Our lesions, with their putrid crust
Our rags glued to our skin with pus!
Then she’ll recall her life with you
The elegance that once she knew:
Garments of soft-textured fur
Sable, snow-fox, miniver;
Her access to your royal heritage
Wines of the very noblest vintage
Halls of porphyry, alabaster.

Let the lazars be her masters –
All her once-majestic opulence
Turns to filthiness and feculence.
I did not always live in ordure
Till I succumbed to my disorder.
She’ll learn that there’s no turning back
When dragged into my stinking shack
And laid down on a teeming mattress
As befits an outcast’s mistress.

Such divinely vengeful drollery!
We’ll share the scrapings of your scullery –
Old bones and rotten leavings are
A leprous pauper’s caviar.
She who tore your tender feelings
Will scrabble for stale crusts and peelings
When she is begging at your gate.

By God, this is a fitting fate!
When she sees our rooms of state
So un-luxurious and unloved
She’ll rather she were un-alive.
When Yseult, the queen of snakes
Contemplates her grave mistakes
She’ll learn how grievously she’s sinned;
Then her just penance will begin
With weighty lessons to be learned.
She’ll wish to God that she’d been burned.

Translated from the Medieval French by Jane Tozer


Li rois l’entent, si respondi:
‘Se tu m’enseignes cest, sanz falle,
Qu’ele vivë et que ne valle,
Gré t’en savrai, ce saches bien;
Et se tu veus, si pren du mien.
Onques ne fu dit tel maniere,
Tant dolerose ne tant fire,
Qui orendroit tote la pire
Seüst, por Deu le roi, eslire,
Que il n’eüst m’amor tot tens.’
Ivains respont: ‘Si con je pens,
Je te dirai, asez briment.
Veez, j’ai ci conpaignons cent:
Yseut nos done, s’ert conmune.
Paior fin dame n’ot mais une.
Sire, en nos a si grant ardor
Soz ciel n’a dame qui un jor
Peüst soufrir nostre convers:
Li drap nos sont au cors aers.
O toi soloit estre a honor,
O vair, o gris et o baudor;
Les buens vins i avoit apris
Et granz soliers de marbre bis.
Se la donez a nos, meseaus,
Qant el verra nos bas bordeaus
Et eslira l’escouellier
Et l’estovra a nos couchier
Sire, en leu de tes beaus mengiers
Avra de pieces, de quartiers
Que l’en nos envoi’a ces hus,
Por cel seignor qui maint lasus,
Qant or verra la nostre cort,
Adonc verra si desconfort.
Donc voudroit miex morir que vivre,
Donc savra bien Yseut la givre
Que malement avra ovré:
Mex voudroit estre arse en un ré.


Translation commentary

Years ago, someone dear to me was shunned by the health services as he died of AIDS. Bigots still regard certain afflictions as punitive.

Sex, disease and death. In stories, leprous stigmata may signal an accursed soul. Béroul’s audience would know Yvain for a bogeyman. Yet not all lepers were labelled evil. Despite fear of contagion, compassion was shown, and care given, if only to gain heaven-points. There’s a complex of attitudes to the mediaeval leper. Many would have been misdiagnosed sufferers of conditions like psoriasis.

Béroul has another baddie who, like Yvain, is differently villainous. Frocin, li nain boçuz, betrayer of the lovers, is a dwarfish hunchback. Googling ‘Frocin’ yields a student’s appeal for clues to the dwarf’s ‘motivation’. Is the expected answer that a mediaeval poet might imply that malice was a psychological reaction to disability?

I blame standardised teaching. Béroul was observant, but deliberate analysis would be alien to him. ‘Motivation’ is a very 20th century concept. The question should be: ‘Why does Béroul make much of hideously personal descriptions?’ Answer: ‘To evoke shock and instant emotional response.’

Béroul, the story-maker, is virtually the only writer I allow to tell me what to feel. He defies subtle interpretation. Here his effects are horribly matter-of-fact: hell in a fresco. Yvain’s speech is as unequivocally nasty as playground bullying. He doesn’t stoop to weasel words, Guantánamo-style.

Could there be more meticulously protracted cruelty than this fate worse than death? It should be a painful passage to translate, but it’s easier to render the dark side than the godly. And much more fun. My model is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Béroul tells it in 36 briskly mordant lines. His audience was familiar with leprosy. I use 20 lines more, adding colour and rhyme rather than padding.

Jane Tozer