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And Once Again about Tichborne’s Elegy

Tichborne’s Elegy a well-known poem by a 28-year-old Tudor guy on the eve of his execution for taking part in conspiracy against Elizabeth I

I have never asked English-speaking readers what or how they felt about Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy. It is a well-known poem, written by a 28-year-old Tudor guy on the eve of his execution for taking part in the Babington conspiracy against Elizabeth I. It is a tearful meditation on the brevity and fatality of life.

The Translator’s Labour’s Lost

I suspect that it is the poem’s melancholy and romantic feel that has made it so popular among contemporary Russian translators. On the web one can find some 5 or 6 variations, all different. Nothing wrong with this, except one thing: the majority of attempts are based around external (=obvious) characteristics of the poem. Translators have found that “Elegy” consists of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words. This obviously makes the poem very unique, and, because we’re reading a Renaissance poem – and Renaissance is well-known for its fascination with symbols and riddles – the monosyllabic words are (mis)taken for an authorial intent. Tichborne was contemplating the brevity of life, and so he used monosyllabic words to emphasise the point.

There are two problems with such interpretation. First, even when we translate prose, we still miss out on certain symbolic features in the destination text. However good we are as translators, losses are sometimes inevitable. In the end, a written text is a rhetorical exercise, and therefore we still want to entertain the reader with our translation. If it closely follows the original text but is cumbersome and distasteful, then the reader will be tired, annoyed, and not at all pleased. This means that we cannot aim for a complete lexical equivalence in translation, but rather we should aim to translate (i.e. negotiate) something else.

Russian is my native language, which I know in depth, and yet even I would struggle to provide monosyllabic equivalents to all the English monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s Elegy. And even if I did manage to find them all, the result would hardly possess much literary merit because I wouldn’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The second problem with putting too much emphasis on monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s poem is that we’re clearly trying to add to what is already contained in the poem. For some reason we are not satisfied with the fact that “Elegy” is about the fatality and shortness of one’s life, so we think we must find that which would further stress this. Let’s not think about the poem; let’s look at what I’ve just said. “We think we must find that which would further stress this“; “let’s not think about the poem“; “let’s look at what I’ve just said“. Correct me if I’m wrong but the majority of words in those phrases are monosyllabic. Because I am the living and breathing author of those phrases, I certainly declare that I didn’t plan to use monosyllabic words to stress my point. The point is very simple: there are many monosyllabic words in the English language, and a lot of them happened to be used in Tichborne’s “Elegy. Rather than assuming that Tichborne conspired (excuse the pun) to use monosyllabic words in his final poem, one should better look at this as a kind of linguistic peculiarity. It certainly adds to the poem’s feel; but, as far as I am concerned, it cannot be viewed as the poem’s most distinct feature, let alone it cannot dictate how we translate the poem.

As far as the Anglo-Saxon origin of the words goes, again I personally believe we’re walking a useless extra mile in trying to establish the uniqueness of the poem. I think so purely because I am careful of not infusing the poem with my knowledge. This is the biggest disservice I can do to myself as translator and to my readers. The question on these occasions must not be “do I know these words are Anglo-Saxon?” but “did Tichborne know these words were Anglo-Saxon?” I bet the historic origin or the etymology of the words didn’t matter to him in the hours before the execution. Someone may think differently but the question to ask is: would the origin of the words matter to you in Tichborne’s circumstances?

Tichborne’s Elegy Intent

I argued in a short essay in Russian about the complications of translating “Elegy” that it is actually a very easy poem to translate, thanks to the Russian lyrical tradition. Mysticism, melancholy, romantic troubles, forlorn love is what often distinguishes Russian poetry. Tichborne’s “Elegy” could easily be written by a Romanticist poet like Lermontov, should he have found himself in prison awaiting execution. Given Lermontov’s caliber as a poet, his poem would well exceed Tichborne’s in literary merit, but in tone and mood it could be very similar.

Last but not least, the misfortunes of translators who tried to translate “Elegy” have entirely to do with the problem of identifying the context and the intent of the poem. I have already pointed out to the problem of context: we’re placing the poem in the context of the language, whereas we must place it in the context of its own time. The themes of Tichborne’s poem are the brevity of life, fatality, death, and the inevitability of punishment, however unjust and cruel. These very themes were widely discussed not only in contemporary literature, but were explored by painters. In my Russian text I compared the colours of “Elegy” to the palette of Tintoretto’s “Marriage at Cana”: the colours are rich but dim, as if covered by the ‘frost of cares‘. There is a similar kind of melancholy and sadness in Michelangelo’s sonnets, and the whole topic of brevity of life was labeled vanitas in both painting and literature. Seen in this context, Elegy” is a bridge between Renaissance exuberance and lust for life and Baroque melancholy, presented in a rather beautiful and peculiar lyrical form.

The text of Tichborne’s Elegy

Tichborne’s intent is quite easy to comprehend. It is known that he was practising poetry, so, in addition to writing a letter to his darling wife, what could be a better way to bid farewell to this earthy life? And the poem’s intent has to do with the context in which we should read it. Again, this is not the context of the language, but of the time. Tichborne wasn’t teaching us a lesson in the English language; he wasn’t trying to tell us how many monosyllabic words there were in the English language, let alone how many of them were Anglo-Saxon. Instead, he suddenly found himself in a prison cell, and, given that he travelled to the Continent and obviously had the chance to view the works of Italian painters, all the images of vanitas, hour-clocks, and hovering deathly shadows rushed into his mind. If, like Dostoevsky in the 19th c, Tichborne had been suddenly pardoned in 1586, “Elegy” could become a stepping stone for a poetic talent. Instead, it became the last and only manifestation of any literary promise. If Tichborne was indeed practising poetry during his life, then this poem also contains his understanding that he could no longer develop his gift, and this should have been distressing also. Therefore, when we translate “Elegy“, we must strive to convey this emotional component of the original text. And, in case you wonder, this is exactly what I did in my translation.

Happy New Year!!!

Although I didn’t write every single day in December, I managed to make it look like I spent entire December blogging about anything from James Last to shoe sizes. So, this is my post #31, and, naturally, it is about the New Year.

New Year is always about dotting the ‘i’. 2006 has definitely made me stronger, as within the first six months I had experienced two losses in the manner more direct than ever before. This has also made me more empathic and appreciative of every moment we spend with those who are dear to us.
2006 was also an amazing year. I’ve met and spoken to many interesting and talented people, the connection with some of whom, I hope, won’t disappear in 2007. I’ve been involved in many different projects, acquired tons of experience, and am looking forward to make it all ever more applicable after 1 January. I also began to publish my poems, and the reviews prove that I didn’t spend time in vain, trying to find my way of putting my thoughts and emotions across.
And in August I began to blog. I noticed some advanced authors have examined the most visited/searched items on their blogs. I must be honest, I cannot always understand, whether I’m creating the interest, or whether I’m accommodating it. But these are the top labels and articles on my blog, some of which, I admit, I expected to be more of an interest to myself. Instead, like with Auden’s villanelle or Last/Zamfir’s Lonely Shepherd, people constantly visit these pages. May I also thank The Independent and Ogonyok for keeping the online copies of the articles, to which I linked in one of the posts on Bondarchuk’s film.
Various keyword combinations leading to Prévert’s poem Cortège
Most wonderfully, someone has been searching for my Russian nom de plume, obviously landing here. I’m very surprised, intrigued, but kind of happy, after all.
Hence here are some of my resolutions:
  • To keep creating/accommodating interest of my visitors
  • To go and see my parents in Moscow. I don’t know, when I go and for how long, but this must happen. I even vowed to blog about my visiting Moscow. I’m being told certain things have changed considerably. I’ve also changed considerably. So, it will probably be too considerable an experience to miss.
  • To travel
  • To find further ways and means to express my creativity
  • To meet interesting and talented people and to continue to know those whom I already met
Although I’m not generally superstitious, there are certain things I prefer to do or to make happen, instead of to talk about. This is why my resolutions end here. However, if any of my unannounced resolutions come true, I promise to let you know.
I’d love to send my New Year wishes to my parents, to my
University in Moscow, to CSV Media Clubhouse and QT Radio, to the BBC Radio Manchester, to Cornerhouse, and to the IWM North. I’m wishing to every single person I met, spoke, wrote to and worked with a very Happy New Year. In particular, the wishes go to: Richard F, Robin H, Linda K, Steve B, Paul R, Andrei R, Victor G, Ian C, Ian H, Daniel J, Constantine C, Manchizzle (who was the first to link to me), Mancubist, and the anonymous American who lives in Moscow and who was the first person to leave a comment on my blog. Happy New Year also to Tony Richards at Lakelandcam, to Ian and Minako at Art in Liverpool, and to everyone who’s been clicking through Notebooks since August.
In Russia, people normally go with a long list of wishes, which include health, wealth, love, success, etc, etc. For many years, I’ve been wishing peace. Let us have peace, let us give it a chance, let us be dreamers, and let us prove that we can make our dreams come true.
Happy New Year! С Новым Годом!
(the Russian phrase reads as ‘s novym godom‘)

PS – The images used are Soviet postcards. They all say ‘Happy New Year’ in Russian and are courtesy of www.davno.ru

Explanations – Part 1

I had to write this post because a few days ago someone inserted these gruesome keywords into search window. Maybe someone was researching into the types of capital punishment. Or maybe their curiosity was lit by my description of Tudor execution. Whatever – the person was searching for

………….. females hung drawn and quartered………………

Now, females had been hung to death, but never drawn or quartered. They could also be burnt, or beheaded (the latter was, to my knowledge, a noble privilege). But no female had been subjected to the procedure that I described in the post about Chidiock Tichborne. I think it may have to do, above all, with the understanding of and attitude to a female body. Anyone who knows better are welcome to comment on this.

Also, a bientot is a French phrase, which means see you later. It is pronounced basically as it looks, except that you don’t pronounce the final ‘t’.

And also – please forgive me those who were looking for it – another fantastic keyword combination. Someone was evidently looking for Elton John’s hit single, and googled

……………………don’t go breaking my head……………………..

Perhaps, Sir Elton uses this as an idea for a new remix.

Chidiock Tichborne (1558-1586). Elegy

I was once browsing the blogs that I read, and on ReadySteadyBook I came across a sad poem, written by one Chidiock Tichborne ‘on the eve of his execution’. I found his name remotely familiar, and later realised, why: he took part in the Babington conspiracy against Elizabeth I in 1586. As some of you may know (or guess by the dates), this conspiracy was also the one that had brought Mary Queen of Scots to her tragic end. However, I dare say, the end of the conspirators, including Tichborne, was far more tragic, since their execution was carried out in the *best traditions* of punishment for treason. They were hung, drawn and quartered. The execution was usually a gruesome one; it would include a criminal being cut open, and their insides being taken out and burnt in front of their eyes. Normally, they would die at this stage, but sometimes they were still alive by the time they had begun being cut into four parts. The sources say that such was the case of one of the Babington conspirators (not Tichborne, though). The rider in the verdict stated that the severity of punishment could be increased upon the authorities’ discretion. Nevertheless, having been reported about the popular dismay, the authorities allowed the next group of conspirators to hang until dead before being drawn and quartered.

Although Tichborne’s Elegy is not the only work that has reached us, this poem, written in such dramatic circumstances, has attracted much attention from the scholars. Indeed, the use of antithesis and paradox – the two popular Renaissance literary figures – suggests that Tichborne was definitely not new to the art of poetry. Some further information can be found over here, in The Leeds Review, where you can see the first imprint of Elegy, Tichborne’s letter to his wife Agnes, and a response to Tichborne’s poem, specially composed to diminish the creative effort of this young man.

Along with the English text, I also include my translation of it into Russian. I was immediately captivated by the text, and the chance to render all literary figures into my native language was impossible to miss. And when you consider the age of Tichborne and the severity of his execution, you probably begin to read the whole poem differently.

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Chidiock Tichborne, 1586

Мою весну мороз невзгод овеял;
На радости пиру вкусил я боль;
Растил зерно – собрал охапки плевел;
Тщета надежд – достаток скудный мой.
День пролетел, – не видел солнца я.
Живу, и жизнь окончена моя.

Слух обо мне разносят пустословы;
Листвою зелен, наземь плод упал;
Промчалась юность, – я остался молод;
Я видел мир, а он меня не знал.
Прервали нить, кудели не спрядя.
Живу, и жизнь окончена моя.

К себе вернулся я, пойдя за смертью;
Я жизнь нашел в забвения тиши;
Могилу чувствовал, когда бродил по тверди;
И умираю, путь свой не свершив.
Иссякло время до исхода дня.
Живу, и жизнь окончена моя.

Julia Shuvalova © 2006

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