Death stole away last Saturday, clutching to his breast the life of the man I most loved in the world. He was no mere prince among men; he was not in my eyes one of the mortals. He was my father, and nothing less.
In making the arrangements for the funeral, my instinct was that the service should include an appropriate poem. I thought of Dylan Thomas’ ‘And Death shall have no dominion’ but, with its description of bones picked clean, I felt it was, if you pardon the expression, too close to the bone. I decided instead on John Donne’s sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’ which you may consider a crassly obvious choice, though, to my surprise, the undertakers had not heard of it or known it to have been used.
Preparing for the day, I naturally read and re-read the verses, a process that I had forgotten can have an alchemical effect, transforming the words in your mouth as you recite them. In the circumstances, I think I will be forgiven for not researching the poem more deeply. A cursory glance across the internet now shows me there is a useful and detailed explication of the sonnet’s scansion, which would perhaps have saved me from some misplaced stresses. But a poem, even one of such artifice as a sonnet, is not formed only of its meter. Here is a brief comment of what this reader found as he prepared to speak before his father’s coffin.
For a modern recitation, the most problematic part of the poem is what appears to us to be the failed rhyme of the final couplet:
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And Death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.
But I came to realise that the rhyme was not central to those lines. What matters is the final word of the penultimate line, which is like an explosion following the staccato gun-fire of the monosyllabics which precede it. Indeed, ‘eternally’ is one of only two four-syllable words in a poem dominated by monosyllables. The other occurs in the ninth line, where normal grammar seems nearly to break down:
And soonest our best men with thee shall go,
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery.
Again, I began to understand that the point of the line was the breaking of single-syllable dominance with a final word that also provides an uplifting, imperfect cadence. In such circumstances, normal grammar need not apply.
I have not read Donne’s sonnets in detail but, from what I have seen, the preponderance of monosyllables in this poem is unusual even for him. Is it too much to sense in this word-selection part of the poet’s purpose? Death, the end, that brings life to a full stop, and falls on us like an enormous no — death is, in its form and its nature, monosyllabic. And, while acknowledging that, this sonnet also turns language against it, both using monosyllables to deny it — ‘be not proud, … thou art not so’ — and introducing polysyllables as if they were a form of release. Death’s grunt is pitted against man’s potential for eloquence and belief.
Patrick Gillespie, the American poet who gives us the intelligent dissection of the sonnet’s scansion on-line, describes ‘Death be not proud’ as a poem of defiance. I understand that reading of it, though I defy anyone to make the last line sound like a resounding challenge. ‘Death, thou shalt die’ — that wonderful oxymoron — is a phrase simply not made to be shouted or expressed in anger; if it were, it would fall limp, giving Death a final victory in the silence that followed. It seems to me, instead, that what Donne has given us is a poem of confidence, where unshakeable Christian belief in the resurrection of the body allows the reader to step close to Death and whisper in his ear: ‘why swell’st thou then?’ The words ‘we wake eternally’ are a celebration, which leave us with no need for gloating. The final line that follows is a recognition of the magnitude of the miracle that lies at the heart of Christian faith, to be spoken in quiet wonder.
As I have mentioned recently, I am working away on providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England, which, forty years after its author’s death, is to be resurrected virtually, as it were, with an on-line edition on the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature website. It has given me the opportunity to bring together some shards of information which help clarify, if not fully resolve, some quandaries. Here is one of those.
Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, owned several manuscripts of Latin translations of Plutarch’s Vitae, some of which he gave to the University of Oxford, in his donation of 1444, and one of which, as we shall see, was shipwrecked in Cambridge after his death. The relevant booklists have been or are being edited in the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (that for Oxford by Rod Thomson, and that for King’s, Cambridge, already published, by Peter Clarke); I use the sigla of that series in the following notes. I will also cite the invaluable guide to the Latin Plutarch recently published by Marianne Pade and which I have discussed elsewhere.
Two of Humfrey’s Plutarch manuscripts are known now to survive. One is London: BL, MS. Harl. 3426, a set of translations by Leonardo Bruni, given to Oxford (UO3.97); the other Oxford: Magdalen College, MS. 37 (A), including renditions by the little-known (and less-loved) Antonio Pacini. This latter codex does not appear in Humfrey’s gifts to the University. Several other inventory entries attest to manuscripts that are now lost, like, for instance the mention of a Vita Pelopidae (UO3.100), which must be the translation produced by Humfrey’s secretary, Antonio Beccaria of Verona, and dedicated to Pietro del Monte (Pade, i, pp. 221 – 23 & ii, pp. 70 – 71). Another example occurs in the inventory of King’s College, Cambridge, probably made in 1457.
Here I should enter a caveat: as it is known that King’s asked for books owned by Humfrey on his death to be donated to the new college and as two surviving manuscripts from the King’s inventory (Cambridge: King’s College, MS. 27 and London: BL, MS. Harl. 1705) are, indeed, Humfrey books, it has sometimes been assumed that his library was given wholescale to King’s. This is demonstrably incorrect: probably only a small proportion of Humfrey’s collection reached Cambridge, as is shown by the fortunes of several of the prince’s other books; and only a proportion of the books listed in 1457 came to King’s from the chattels of the late duke of Gloucseter. But, having said all that, there is one lost book, formerly owned by King’s, that we can say for certain came from the duke’s palace of Greenwich. The entry reads ‘Vita Agidis et Cleomenis Lacedemoniorum regum…’ (UC29.154), which the modern editor, Peter Clarke, identifies as ‘Plutarch, Vita Agidis et Cleomenis, probably as tr. Antonio Beccaria (together with nine other of the lives)’. I think we should delete the word ‘probably’ , and the clause in parantheses.
The evidence Peter Clarke has in mind is a passage in a lively late-fifteenth-century eulogy of Vittorino da Feltre, schoolmaster to princes and to humanists like Beccaria. In it, the author, another of his pupils, Francesco Prendilacqua, takes the opporunity to praise Beccaria, and lists his works, which, he says, include translations of:
Vitas ex Plutarcho XI Romuli, Thesei, Solonis, Demetrii, Agidis, Cleomenis, Pelopidae, Coriolani, Alcibiadis, Timoleontis, Eumenis [F. Prendilacqua, De Vita Victorini Feltrensis Dialogus, ed. J. Morelli (Padua, 1774), pp. 66 – 67]
This list has sometimes been considered suspect and, certainly, for some of these translations there is no independent evidence, but Beccaria certainly did, as we have already seen, put into Latin while in England the Pelopidas, as well as the Romulus (even though that version, even including the dedication to Humfrey, was cribbed from Giovanni Tortelli). As the only other known translation of the Agis & Cleomenes was made in the late 1450s, after the production of the King’s catalogue, we should give Prendilacqua credence and be confident that the entry refers to Beccaria’s translation.
However, we should not entertain the suggestion that the King’s manuscript included all of the humanist’s renditions of Plutarch. That is, in fact, an impossibilty, since two of Beccaria’s known renditions of Plutarch, the Alcibiades paired with the Coriolanus, were composed about a decade after the humanist had returned to his homeland [Pade, i, pp. 323 - 26]. Nor would this suggestion sit well with what we can surmise of Beccaria’s habits. We know a fair amount about how Antonio Beccaria worked, because we have some other of his translations, from St. Athanasius, in his holograph, in London: BL, MS. Royal. 5 F. II and Cambridge: King’s, MS. 27. You can know see Beccaria’s script on-line, thanks to the generosity of the British Library. The manuscript now in the Royal collection is formed of booklets and it appears that he presented the work to his master, Humfrey, section by section: he practised the rule of small gifts often, rather than outsize presents irregularly. In that case, the booklets were gathered together and presented as one volume to Oxford (UO3.21). But, in the case of his Plutarch versions, the evidence of the book-list would suggest that each Life was kept separately and appears as a separate entry.
I have talked of there being ‘some’ lives are in the 1444 Oxford book-list. I have mentioned two, for both of which Humfrey’s copy is lost: Pelopidas, and Romulus (UO3.105). Immediately following the second entry, there is another (UO3.106), one which has left scholars, including myself, scratching our heads. It refers to a ‘Vita Demetrii’ — but the only known translation of Plutarch’s life of Demetrius comes from the end of the 1450s. However — and here is the point of this intricate discussion — look at the list from Prendilacqua above: he states that his former class-mate at Vittorino’s school translated this very work. The explanation for the entry, then, is that it was another Plutarch Vita translated by Humfrey’s Veronese secretary, presented to the duke and given away by him only a few years later.
This identification allows us to make a further, tentative suggestion. Note the ordering of Prendilacqua’s list. It would not seem to have any rationale in relation to the subjects of the Lives themselves and, of course, it could simply be random. But it is usually assumed that the Romulus was the first text presented by Beccaria to Humfrey in the late 1430s, and the Pelopidas is tentatively dated to 1441 – 2, while it is known, as I have mentioned, that the Alcibiades and Coriolanus were translated in the late 1450s. Might the list be in chronological order of translation? If so, it would suggest that Antonio Beccaria also rendered Plutarch’s Vitae of Solon and of Theseus into Latin while in England — versions which, like several others he produced, are lost.
The identification of Humfrey’s Vita Demetrii as being by Beccaria does away with the need to muse, as Marianne Pade does [i, pp. 254 - 56], about whether Guarino could have sent to Humfrey a translation of the Demetrius but which no longer survives. Guarino certainly wrote a letter to the duke, which may have been accompanied by a manuscript of Plutarch translations. Pade suggests that it might have included a collection of Guarino’s versions plus the Lucullus translated by Guarino’s pupil, Leonardo Giustiniani. If so, it would equate with the 1444 reference to ‘vitam Timonis et Lucilli 2o fo. hominibus (UO3.91, where the lectio probatoria appears in Giustiniani’s preface [Pade, ii, p. 120]). But there were other routes by which the Giustiniani, a popular translation, could have reached England, and if Guarino did send a manuscript with his letter, it may instead have been of his translation of Plutarch’s moral essays, one of which was certainly available in Oxford in the mid-1440s.
This brings me to my final point: the strange death of the Lives in England. Humfrey’s library shared the interest in Plutarchan biography that was fashionable in Italian humanist circles. But the taste at the ducal palace in Greenwich was no trail-blazer in England: interest in that aspect of Plutarch was surprisingly limited this side of the channel. It was, indeed, the moral essays that entertained Humfrey’s compatriots more. The neglect that eventually saw several translations of Plutarch vanish began soon after the duke of Gloucester’s own demise.
My waking hours at the moment are being spent providing addenda and corrigenda to Roberto Weiss’ Humanism in England during the fifteenth century, for the projected on-line edition to be produced in the autumn by the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature. Checking a reference he provides to Charles Kingsford’s English Historical Literature this morning, I note that a passage from a chronicle recording the death of the duke of Gloucester in custody in 1447 contains praise of the late prince, with the transcription opening thus:
hic dux erat vix literatissimus…
Even I have hardly been as harsh in criticism. Given the context, Kingsford, or his typesetter, clearly slipped where it should say ‘vir literatissimus’. A claim which, even these five words demonstrate, could hardly be made for the chronicle’s author.
Enjoy the weekend!
On Thursday 2nd July in the Year of Our Lord 2009, most people in Oxford were wondering how to survive the relentless heat. Rod Thomson, meanwhile, was working coolly away in Corpus library, where, to add to his already-extensive record of scholarly achievements, he now can add unearthing a manuscript formerly owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester. It is a discovery that has made the sun shine all the brighter on my day.
The manuscript is Corpus MS. 1, a later thirteenth-century Bible, localised to Oxford. What had previously gone unnoticed was the partially covered, and partially erased ex libris at the top of the final verso (fol. 488v). I can confirm that it is undeniably and irrefutably the ‘short’ ownership inscription by the duke: Cest livre est a moy homfrey duc de gloucestre. The erasure, which removed part of the Christian name and all words following, is by scraping (itself a scrape of information which may assist to piece together this manuscript’s odyssey).
The verbum probatorium does not accord with the inventories of the duke’s gifts the University of Oxford, nor to any entry in the catalogue of King’s College, Cambridge (where a few – we should not overstate the number – of his books were washed up after his death). This codex can, therefore, take its place among the majority of those which survive from his collection for it is a remarkable fact that it appears that the rate of survival of those that reached an institution in his lifetime, or soon after, has been lower than those that remained in his hands. At the same time, this manuscript is highly unusual among the extant books which he owned as it is the only complete Bible that we can say for certainty was his. There are, of course, his lavish Psalters (London: BL, MSS Royal 2 B I and Yates Thomson 14) but nothing quite in this category.
It is for Prof. Thomson to coax further from the manuscript the secrets it blushes to tell the world, as he continues his work on the catalogue of the college’s collection. What is certain is that he can take his place among a small group of scholars who, in the past century, have discovered a manuscript once owned by ‘Good Duke Humfrey’. The roll-call includes Berthold Ullman, Roberto Weiss, Christopher de Hamel, Tilly de la Mare, Ian Doyle and, most recently, the young Dutch scholar, Hanno Wijsman. I hope Rod considers himself in worthy company.