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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, second prize

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Duncan Forbes

by the Archpoet

I’m seething introspectively
with angry indignation
and in the bitterness of mind
I speak my condemnation.
I am a lightweight character
of slender occupation
and like a leaf that scatters I’m
a wind-blown recreation.

And since it is appropriate
for any man of vision
to build his house on solid rock
and take a firm position,
I must be in my folly like
the flowing river’s mission
and never underneath one sky
but always in transition.

I’m carried like a wayward bird,
a ship without a sailor,
as through the airy pathways I
go wandering inter alia,
no chains and fetters binding me,
no iron key my jailer,
but when I seek my kindred-kind
I find a fellow-failure.

I can’t take seriously at all
a serious sobriety;
I like a joke, the spice of life
is honey-sweet variety,
and as for Venus’s commands
they have my total piety;
she never on an evil mind
imposes her society.

Thus down the slippery slope I go
with all a youth’s defences,
I wrap myself in vices so,
forgetting virtue’s censors
and since the soul is mortified
let flesh enjoy the senses:
I seek not safe salvation now
but pleasures, the intensest.

I beg your pardon, gracious Lord,
Archbishop Holy Order,
but I’m enjoying this good death
and my voluptuous slaughter:
I’m suffering a mortal wound
from someone’s pretty daughter
and if I’m not allowed to touch
can’t I in daydreams court her?

It is so very difficult
to conquer nature’s urging,
be pure in mind and/or refined
when looking at a virgin;
we are young men and we cannot
submit to such harsh purging,
or fail to want our bodies to
enjoy a lively merging.

Translated from the Latin by Duncan Forbes


Estuans intrinsecus ira vehementi
in amaritudine loquar mee menti:
factus de materia levis elementi
folio sum similis de quo ludunt venti.

Cum sit enim proprium viro sapienti
supra petram onere sedem fundamenti,
stultus ego comparor fluvio labenti
sub eodem aere nunquam permanenti.

Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aeris vaga fertur avis.
Non me tenent vincula, non me tenet clavis,
quero mei similes et adiungor pravis.

Mihi cordis gravitas res videtur gravis,
iocus est amabilis dulciorque favis.
Quicquid Venus imperat, labor est suavis;
que nunquam in cordibus habitat ignavis.

Via lata gradior more iuventutis,
inplico me viciis immemor virtutis,
voluptatis avidus magis quam salutis,
mortuus in anima curam gero cutis.

Presul discretissime, veniam te precor:
morte bona morior, dulci nece necor;
meum pectus sauciat puellarum decor,
et quas tactu nequeo, saltem corde mechor.

Res est arduissima vincere naturam,
in aspectu virginis mentem esse puram;
iuvenes non possumus legem sequi duram
leviumque corporum non habere curam.


Translation commentary

What little we presume to know about the Archpoet is gathered from the internal evidence of the poems themselves. This unreliable evidence is also used to date his ‘Confession’ to circa 1162/3 although the poem acquired its title in the 13th century.

What drew me to this celebrated poem was the durable energy and verve of the medieval Latin lyric by the Archipoeta. Described as a tour de force, the original presents a real challenge to the translator. It is written in the ‘goliardic metre’ in verses which use feminine rhymes throughout (four per verse, each on the same sound) which are impossible to match in English, although it’s challenging to try, particularly since half- or off-rhyme can provide an expedient alternative.

This showpiece poem apparently survives in a number of manuscripts. Specialist scholars may speculate by vainly trying to identify a plausible candidate for the Archpoet but what comes across from his Latin words over eight centuries and more are the ironies and energies, the vitality and drive of the Archpoet’s highly individual ‘Confession’ concerning wine, women, gambling, sin and song.

Inevitably, I have taken some liberties with the original but I hope the result reflects something of the wit, learning, satire, feeling, humour, self-mockery, knowing self-dramatisation and the skilful versification of the Archipoeta himself.

The metre is like that of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ but the content and style of the ‘Confession’ are surprisingly individual and the sensibility seems to me both of its time and in many ways startlingly fresh. Almost all verse translations of such a lively poem are bound in a sense to be confessions of failure themselves but I hope my version may at least redirect attention to this Archpoem of the anonymous Archpoet.

Duncan Forbes