Scholia Reviews 2 (1993): 8

P. G. Walsh (ed. and tr.), Love Lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Pp. xxxv + 218. ISBN 0-8078-2068-7.US$39.95.

Richard Whitaker
Classics, University of Cape Town

For most of us the Carmina Burana means that very attractive collection of some twenty-five medieval lyrics set to music by Carl Orff. But Orff’s Carmina are only a small selection from the poems which make up the contents of the celebrated Codex Buranus. This manuscript, discovered in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern in 1803, and now in Munich, has given its name to the poems it contains, the Carmina Burana [hereafter CB], 228 pieces (disregarding later additions) of various sorts: moralizing and satirical poems, drinking songs, miscellaneous verses, and about 120 love lyrics.

In the volume under review P. G. Walsh presents us with his own text and translation of, and commentary on, about half of these love lyrics. An introduction sets out the essential information that the reader will need, dealing with such topics as the nature of the Codex Buranus; the range of themes contained in the medieval love lyric, especially the balance constantly sought between the coming of spring and the burgeoning of love; the conventions of courtly love and the ways in which they are occasionally parodied in the poems; the characteristic blending of Classical learning and Christian tradition; the basic differences between Classical and Medieval Latin (the `most troublesome feature [being] the simplification of ae and oe into e‘ [], which can produce forms at first glance baffling to the Classicist, cepi = coepi, or equis =aequis). The body of the book contains the poems, each followed by a translation, brief general discussion of the genre and literary qualities of the piece, and commentary on points of detail. A bibliography and three indexes round off the volume.

In his essay, `Poetic meaning in the Carmina Burana’, Peter Dronke, writing of the monumental edition of the CB by Hilka, Schumann and Bischoff,[[1]] drew attention to the disproportion between the character of the poems and the nature of the scholarly apparatus applied to them: `some ofthe swiftest and lightest poetry of Europe has been enclosed in one of the heaviest fortresses that scholarship has ever erected’.[[2]] The same charge could not be levelled at Walsh’s book, one of the most pleasing features of which is the judicious way in which the editor presents us with precisely the right amount of material we need to interpret and appreciate each poem. Inevitably in a collection such as this, where many of the poems are similar in theme and genre, the editor must repeat himself in the commentary. Yet Walsh manages always to find a fresh way of commenting even on very similar poems, while keeping cross-reference to a minimum.

The text that Walsh presents is a reading text. Rather than indicating lacunae, which might hamper the process of reading, he makes quite free use of supplements, either his own or those suggested by other scholars. There is no apparatus criticus, but Walsh discusses any significant textual problems in the notes. Given the exhaustive apparatus in the edition of Hilka et al. this seems a very sensible arrangement. Walsh prints a number of his own emendations. These seem to me mostly well-judged and at least as plausible as the numerous emendations of other scholars that he also prints. Especially good is Walsh’s emendation of 35(113).2, a, que manent tristia amantes (a quo monet B, obelized by Schumann).[[3]] Sometimes the conjectures of others, conscientiously recorded by Walsh, seem better, as at 16(76).2, ingredi non poteram, ut optatu bene (B), where I would prefer Manitius’ optavi (printed by Schumann) to Walsh’s optati [sc.templi, in the previous line].

Occasionally Walsh makes over strict demands of his poets and insists that they produce perfectly regular rhythms. For instance, at 53(163).2 even the rigorous Schumann was satisfied with the text of B: omnis largus odit avarum. But Walsh prints his own text, omne largum oditavarum, with the comment: `This is my hesitant suggestion to remedy the syllabic balance and the internal rhyme’ (p.183). But the suggestion seems somewhat arbitrary. The internal rhyme here is no worse than that betweenmestum and dolorem (which Walsh retains), in stanzas 1 and 5. And in the question of regularizing the rhythms of the texts I would tend to come down on the side of Dronke: `what evidence have we that such a poet [he is writing of the author of CB 90, but the point is of general application] was obsessed by the classroom mentality, that for him regularity of rhythm and rhyme were more important artistically than what he wanted to express?'[[4]] Most of these lyrics were designed to be sung, so many apparent irregularities of metre may well have been smoothed out by the music.

Walsh makes quite clear the aim of the translations that he offers with his text: `I have…appended literal translations intended to help students who are struggling with the Latin. They are not to be judged as literary artifacts'(p. ix). Judged in terms of the purpose for which they are designed these versions are admirable. Always thoughtful, idiomatic, free of `translationese’, they provide a supplement to the Commentary, making clear how Walsh interprets difficult or ambiguous passages. Here is a specimen of Walsh’s translations:

1. Tempus transit horridum,
frigus hiemale;
redit, quod est placidum,
tempus estivale.
quod cum Amor exigit
sibi principale
qui Amorem diligit,
dicat ei vale!

‘The grisly time of the winter’s cold is passing, and the summer season of balmy weather returns. Now that Cupid is demanding this season as his before all others, any lover of Cupid must hail its coming.’

2. Mutatis temporibus
tellus parit flores;
pro diversis floribus
variat colores.
variis coloribus
prata dant odores;
philomena cantibus
suscitat amores.

‘With the transformation of the seasons, the earth brings forth its blossoms, diversifying the colors according to the variety of flowers. The meadows with their blossoms of diverse hue bestow fragrant scents. The nightingale rouses love feelings with its songs.’

dicat ei vale in stanza 1 could mean either `say farewell to winter’ or `greet the summer’. Walsh’s translation shows how he interprets the passage.

Walsh’s commentary on the poems covers a variety of topics, textual as well as literary. Walsh helps us to construe difficult passages, pointing out peculiar features of Medieval Latin orthography and syntax; he cites Classical models for many passages; he explains all mythological and historical references. But, as he indicates in the Introduction, Walsh is especially interested in the manipulation of convention: `the pleasure gained from the writing and the reading of these poems is the pleasure of intellectual play in relaxation. The critic must accordingly respond to them by envisioning them as rhetorical creations in which the authors devise variations of situation and presentation while frequently adhering to a basic formula’ (p. xix). Walsh comments sensitively and fully on these aspects of the poems. He is very alert to variation, parody and subversion of the conventions of such forms as the Spring poem, the Marian hymn, the Courtly Love lyric. I feel, however, that Walsh sometimes contrasts too bluntly technical sophistication and the expression of feeling in the poems, as for example in this comment on 53(163): `Before we signal the poem as emotional release from personal frustration, we should note the art of the craftsman conspicuous in the alliterative balance . . . etc.’ (p. 183). But a high level of craftsmanship is surely consistent with, may in fact help to express, intensity of feeling; one need only think of the poetry of Propertius or John Donne.

There are wonderful poems in this collection, and every reader will have his or her favourites. I particularly enjoyed the pieces by Peter of Blois — rightly singled out by Walsh for his (often ironical) mastery of the conventions of the various sorts of love lyric. (Yet, if Walsh’s attribution to Peter of 24[84] is correct, he is also capable of producing a poem that will make 20th century readers blench: a description in highly sophisticated verses of a rape.) Apart from the numerous delightful Spring poems, other pieces that stand out are: 16(76), a lengthy, high-flown account of a visit to a classy brothel (the woman in charge is Venus in hertemplum), with a rather perfunctory `moral’ — which can have fooled no-one — tacked on to the end; 17(77), a characteristically medieval combination of Marian religiosity and eroticism; 50(157), an attractive example of the pastourelle genre; 60(178), a witty, ironical commentary on the cruelty and unreality of the conventions of courtly love. I quote the first stanza of the last-mentioned piece, with Walsh’s translation:

1. Volo virum vivere
viriliter; diligam, si diligar
equaliter. sic amandum censeo,
non aliter. hac in parte fortior
quam Iupiter,
nescio procari
commercio vulgari; amaturus forsitan,
volo prius amari.

1. I want to live a man’s life, as a man should. I’ll plight my love if I’m loved on equal terms. This is my idea of right loving, no other way. To this extent I’m a better person than Jupiter — I can’t woo a woman by a common transaction. Perhaps I’ll give my love, but I want to be loved first.

A few points of criticism and disagreement in details:

7(67).4a: Walsh translates naris eminentia / producitur venuste / quadam temperantia; / nec nimis erigitur / nec premitur /iniuste as `the line of her nose extends charmingly with a certain restraint. It neither juts out too sharply nor is unduly bulbous’. But premitur cannot imply `bulbous’. The contrast here must be between excessive prominence and excessive snubness. (Walsh’s translation seems to be at odds with his commentary ad loc.)

10(70).12a-12b: on p. 37 Walsh argues (mistakenly, I think), against Dronke and others, that these stanzas should not begiven to the girl. He says that the sentiments here — In trutina mentis dubia / fluctuant contraria / lascivus amor et pudicitia — are `too indelicate’ for her. But they are surely no more `indelicate’ than the sentiment of stanza 15 — totam subdo tibi me — which certainly belongs to the girl.

11(71).2b: Walsh wrongly translates merule as `lark’ (in 3[58].1, a very similar passage, he correctly translates the same word as `blackbird’).

29(92).72: Walsh translates vertex est pennatus (of Cupid) as `his shoulders winged’. Clearly this is what our normal conception of the god would demand. But vertex can only mean `head’. Either we must emend to a word like armus, or take it that Cupid is imagined here as something like Mercury, with winged brows or cap.

On several passages involving questions of double entendre or obscenity, Walsh seems to me to go astray. For instance: how can telum in 16(76).6 suggest `penis’? The view of anatomy implied by the context — telum fero pectore — would be positively bizarre. By contrast, Walsh makes no comment on the obvious double entendre of ferule in 24(84).2: sed tremula virguncula . . . ut primula discipula / nondum subiecta ferule, / tremit ad blanditias. And he seems unnecessarily cautious in his comment on 60(178).4: casto pene similis Hippolyto — `There may be a double entendre in pene here’. Finally, also in 60(178).4, the gesture referred to in the phrase [meseducat…digito is clearly one of invitation; it is simply the beckoning gesture with the curved index finger. Walsh’s comments on the obscene gesture with the middle finger — a gesture of dismissal — are beside the point. (Both the passages Walsh cites, Martial 6.70.5-6 and Juvenal 10.53, refer to rude dismissal.)

But these are minor criticisms. This is an excellent book, learned but never pedantic, a pleasure to read, stimulating one to read more widely in medieval poetry. The book is beautifully produced by the University of North Carolina Press; I found no more than a couple of insignificant misprints.


[[1]] A. Hilka, O. Schumann & B. Bischoff, Carmina Burana (Heidelberg 1933-70).

[[2]] Peter Dronke, The Medieval Poet and his World (Rome 1984) 249-79; quotation from p. 249.

[[3]] The system of reference is as follows: 35(113).2 refers to poem no. 32 in W.’s selection (= CB 113), stanza 2.

[[4]] Dronke, op. cit. n. 2, 254.