The Archpoet: Confession in Pavia (From Latin)

Okay, this introduction's a long one. 

The poem here translated (which is better called a "Confession in Pavia" than the "Confession of Golias") is by the Archpoet, an irreverent, blasphemously avant-garde and brilliant 12th century German(ic) cleric, ten of whose poems survived in the Carmina Burana. For my money, he is the closest medieval Europe has to the antinomian aesthetic of Persian poets like Hafiz, though the two are in many ways extremely unalike. (Actually, one could write a very interesting article comparing Hafiz to the Archpoet. The many striking similarities are every bit as illuminating as the differences.)

We do not know the fellow's name. He's just the Archipoeta, or Archpoet. This is quite fitting. Despite the anonymity, we can confidently deduce a good deal about him. His poems offer crucial information (although that doesn't mean they should be read literally as most readers for the past hundred years have done- this is a court poet and a chancery clerk, after all, not a starving artist errant.) Moreover, due to his high station and the clerical circles he moved in, the Archpoet was associated with a number of extremely well-known people whose lives are well documented, most especially his patron Rainald of Dassel, chancellor of Emperor Barbarossa.

A subset of stanzas from this poem have been used as a drinking song for over a century, titled Meum Est Propositum. But this poem is so much more than simply the greatest drinking song of all time. It is courtly literature, and mirthful commentary, of the highest caliber, written by an anti-establishmentarian chancery cleric who was court poet to the equally antinomian Rainald of Dassel, under whose patronage all the Archpoet's extant verse was composed. Rainald himself was no stranger to holy orders (indeed he is the "Prelate" and "Archbishop Elect" of the text here translated) though he was little interested in religious duties as such so much as the power that came with them, and had little patience or heed for clerical moralizing. Rainald was, in fact, an outrageous man in nearly every sense. He was a reactionary of the sort who might tell both the monkish austerity-peddler and the Vatican dignitary, face to face, to go fuck themselves. He was a dirty-fighting politician, more imperialist than the holy Roman Emperor, and almost as un-Catholic as the Pope. Indeed, he had recently been excommunicated by the time this poem was composed (which adds an important dimension to the irony.) Yet he was not only the most controversial but also one of the most sophisticated and learned intellectual patrons in Latin Christendom in his day. 

The Archpoet in this poem as ever plays on biblical and patristic themes and language, in a way that is meant as much to be stimulating and amusing to his patron as shocking and unsettling to other clerics who must have been in attendance when this poem was declaimed in Pavia. To me, the Archpoet seems to be taking Matthew 11:9 as a basic theme (venit Filius hominis manducans et bibens et dicunt ecce homo vorax et potator vini publicanorum et peccatorum amicus et iustificata est sapientia a filiis suis, "The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.")  There is a sense in which much of the poem consists of variations on this verse. The poet though takes this passage's implication far beyond the bounds of what would have been acceptable, positioning himself as a drinker and friend of sinners and applying to himself the same labels that were leveled against Jesus by his enemies. But the Germanic Archpoet isn't merely using value-inversion to shock the establishmentarian Italian clerics in Pavia who look upon him and his patron as being culturally backward. He's out to expose their austerity as hypocrisy. To this end he builds the piece into an ever more overt fictio (feigned repentance) directed toward a recently excommunicated prelate who would have been barred from the actual sacrament of confession, a subversive declaration meant to satirize the normally quite serious genre of penitential writing, and the equally serious tradition of public confession. 

Make no mistake. Tempting and even productive though it is, and has been, for later readers (especially singers) to imagine otherwise, this poem is the product of medieval Latin high clerical culture, and is produced by and for members of a clerical elite steeped in ecclesiastical latinity. Claims that the Archpoet must not have been a cleric at all are based on anachronistic and mistaken assumptions. Irreligious, and even somewhat anti-religious, this poem certainly is. What it is not, however, is popular, less so still secular (and even less does it deserve to be called a "basically pagan poem.") The Archpoet shows no signs of actual anti-clericalism. There were actual anti-clericalists in his day, and he wasn't one of them. Nor does he ever hint at the idea of actually forsaking his order. It is Rome and its orthodox moralizing he repudiates, not the institution itself. The Archpoet also is quite disdainful of the masses, and it is unlikely he would have written for the man in the street. Had he wished to do so, he could have done as some of his contemporaries did and used a vernacular. In any case, the Archpoet's own stance is made clear when he says elsewhere laici non sapiunt ea quae sunt vatis "laymen do not fathom the poet's trade." 

For all the exaltation of taverns, markets and other such riffrafferies, including a hint of brothels, these are celebrated precisely because, and only to the extent that, they shock and annoy the moralist. They should not be taken as indications that the Archpoet in his life necessarily patronized taverns and whorehouses. That said, I personally find it hard to swallow that a man of irreverence at the margins of the moral establishment, who was good friends with a man like Rainald of Dassel, lived a life of complete teetotaling virginity. Just as this poem should not be taken to represent the truth transparently (for in fact it makes feigning into an art-form), neither should one assume that it bears no relationship to the truth. No act of lying or feigning is totally unrelated to the truth. What's really going on, then? I don't really know. I doubt anyone does. The question of what is true and what is false is one the Archpoet leaves no easy answers to, which is precisely his intent, and his point. 

As for how to translate such a poem, I found it no straightforward matter. One has to square oneself, first and foremost, with the fact that English is a vernacular, and Latin - though it was not only read and written but also spoken by the 12th century clerisy - is not. What English does have is a great potential range of registers from the poetical and biblical to the obscenities you utter when you stub your toe at 2 AM after waking up to answer a phonecall that turned out to be a wrong number. In translating this poem, I have used this entire range of registers, for which there is no warrant in the original Latin beyond the ambiguous and playful spirit in which it was written. This spirit, moreover, is what made me feel at liberty to up (or update) the outrageousness by a notch or two. 

Note on the Latin text: Those who know Latin should also note that there is in the text some wordplay which will not be obvious to modern readers due to differences of Latin pronunciation. In most German pronunciations of Latin by the end of the eleventh century, V had been devoiced and was normally pronounced identically to F, at least word-initially (the contrast was later reintroduced during the Renaissance.) To my knowledge, none of the many scholars who have written about the Archpoet, or this most famous of his compositions, have noted the amusing fact that Venus, mentioned twice in this poem, would have been phonologically indistinguishable from Faenus "profit, advantage, financial gain." Likewise, vina proxima (wine nearby) contains an echo of finis proximus ("end is nigh", in reference to death, but also recalling apocalyptic phrasing from e.g. St. Augustine's De Fine Saeculi.) The poem is spangled with allusions to biblical and other religious texts, and classical ones, as well as ideas drawn from them. Explicating all of them didn't seem like it would really be worth it. I've mentioned a couple in the notes, but in most cases I've simply noted the passages in question in superscript on the Latin text for anyone who's interested in digging deeper. 

Confession in Pavia

By the Archpoet (12th Century)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Seething in my very gut  with an angry passion,
To my bitter self I speak.  Be this my confession.
As I'm made of rather light,  insubstantial matter,
I am like a little leaf  any breeze can batter.

Since we know that any true  wise man knows his station,
Builds himself a stable place  on a rock foundation,
I must be a fool indeed,  gliding like a river 
Never quite the same thing twice,  deviant forever.

Like a ship without a crew  drifting with the weather,
Like a bird on airy ways  roaming God knows whither,
I'll go free of lock and chain,  dodging all the watchers,
Join a troop of men like me:  drunkards and debauchers.

Weighty matters weigh me down,  and aren't even funny.
Making light is what I love,  sweeter far than honey.
Every order Venus gives  means delightful labor.
For she never grants a weak,  craven heart her favor.

Broad the primrose path I tread,  as is young men's fashion.
Every virtue I neglect,  vices are my passion.
Pleasuring is what I crave,  rather than salvation,
Dead in soul, I live now for  physical sensation.

It's the hardest thing to tame  Nature with mere credo,
To behold a girl with mind  pure of all libido.
We young men cannot put such  strict law into practice,
Female bodies silky-smooth  cannot but attract us.

To Your Grace do I confess.  Grant me sin's remission.
Lovely is the death I die,  sweet my pure perdition.
Charms of women pierce my breast.  If I can't possess her 
I commit adultery  in my heart with pleasure.

Who escapes unburned when cast  into conflagration?
Who stays in Pavia free  of all fornication?
Callipygian Venus here  hunts young men in leisure,
Lures them with her blowjob lips,  takes them for her pleasure.

Put a chaste Hippolytus1  in this town on Sunday.
Chaste Hippolytus is not  what he'll be by Monday.
Here all roads lead not to Rome,  but to Venus' penthouse.
Alethia's2  home is no  palace so portentous.

I'm accused of gambling too,
  told I'd best forsake it. 
Say a night of dice leaves me  in the street stripped naked.
Though I'm freezing outwardly,  mentally I'm sweating
In the smithy of my art,  better verse begetting.  

Sinful item number three  is the pub. I've never
Spurned a pub in all my years,  and nor will I ever
Till the holy hosts descend  and my eyes discern them
Singing for the dead their long  "Requiem Eternam."3 

To die in a pub while drunk  is my resolution
Where the wine can ease me through  my last dissolution.
Then shall herald angels sing  in a choir of glory:
"Deus sit propitius  huic potatori."4    
(Or: "Son of God have mercy on  this dead drunk before Thee") 

Chalices light my soul's lamp.  Spirit I am given,
And my nectar-drunken heart  rises up toward heaven.
Sweeter to me is the wine  that in pubs I order
Than the stuff that's watered down  by our Prelate's porter.

There are poets who disdain  vulgar public places,
Who run off to secret, dark,  private writing spaces,
Strive in studious toil all night,  without even eating,
But can't manage to produce  anything worth reading.

In teetotal choruses  fasting poets hustle
To avoid the brawl of pubs  and the markets' bustle,
Struggle to compose one piece  that can live forever,
And, not having lived themselves,  die from the endeavor.

Lady Nature gives to each  his own special labor.
Till my belly's full I can't  put my pen to paper,
And a boy could knock me down  without even trying.
Thirst and hunger I despise  little less than dying.

Lady Nature gives to each  his unique advantage.5 
When I write my verse I drink  wine of decent vintage,
Though the innkeeper's own stash  is the most amazing.
Wine like that will generate  gallons of gold phrasing.

I write verse proportionate  to the wine I swallow.
I can't do a thing at all,  when my belly's hollow. 
When I keep the fast I am  the worst poetaster.
But give me a glass or three,  and I'm Ovid's master. 

No I've never been bequeathed  holy inspiration,
When my belly wasn't first  filled to satiation.
But when my brain's citadel  is in Bacchus' power,
In Apollo bursts to speak  marvels by the hour.

Your Grace, I've exposed my own  wanton inclinations
And have shown the truth of your  servants' accusations.
But will they accuse themselves  with their own confessions?
For they too are pleasured by  worldly indiscretions.

Right here, in the presence of  our most blessèd Prelate
Following the Son of God,  I say let the zealot
Who would like to strike and kill  this prophetic poet,
If his own soul hath no sin,  get some stones and show it!

I've confessed to all I know  that I've perpetrated,
Spewed out all the poison that  I long cultivated.
My old life disgusts me now,  let new virtue guide me.
Men see me, but Jove6 alone  sees the heart inside me.

Now it's virtues I adore,  as I abhor vices. 
My mind is renewed and my  reborn spirit rises,
Like unto a newborn babe7,  innocently nursing,
Lest my heart again grow filled  with pride and perversion. 

Archbishop Elect8 of Köln,  behold my contrition
And be merciful to one  seeking sins' remission. 
Give a fitting penance for  what I've been confessing.
I will do as you command,  and call it a blessing. 

Even the lion, king of beasts,  when his subjects cower
Spares them and forgets his wrath,  chastening his power.
You great princes of this world  can do even better,
For that which is never sweet  is exceeding bitter.


1 - Hippolytus, a classical model of male chastity who, in the Euripidean drama which bears his name, is devoted to the virgin goddess Artemis.

2 - Alethia, the personification of truth and virtue, neither of which are to be found in Pavia as the Archpoet would have it. Instead, there is falsity masquerading as truth and depravity in virtue's clothing. It is also possible that Alethia is a textual corruption of Aricia. Aricia was Hippolytus' wife when he came to earth a second time in Aeneid VII.661

3 - The phrase comes from the opening to the Mass of the Dead.

4 - This stanza is quite a famous one. The Archpoet's audience would know that publican's imprecation from the Gospel of Luke,  Deus propitius esto mihi peccatori, "Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner", was usually repeated by Catholic penitents during confession (Orthodox Christians will recognize the same general wording in the Jesus Prayer.) They would have known, too, that the formula meum est propositum "I am resolved to..." was normally followed by a list of sins the penitent would avoid. The Archpoet replaces peccator "sinner" with potator "drinker, lush" to an effect that is quite hilarious and quite impossible to carry into English satisfactorily. So here I have imported the Latin line wholesale, which seemed in keeping with the aesthetic I wanted. But I also included an alternate English translation that can also be recited in its place.

5 - The phrasing is based on 1 Corinthians 7:7. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. The Archpoet is substituting the (feminine) Nature for the (masculine) God, setting the former up as a counter to the latter.

6 - Jove (Iovis, a late latin nominative singular remodeled on the Latin -i stem) is in Medieval Latin often used interchangeably with God (Deus.) Here, however, the pagan associations of the word are probably also to the point. It has been suggested that the use of Jove is simply for rhyme, and that the Christian God alone is the referent. Leaving aside the fact that this tremendously underrates and ignores the Archpoet's ability for subversive polysemy, if anything the words' use as a rhyme-word simply renders it all the more prominent. A passage of scripture is here being mocking paraphrased, for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

7- "Like unto a newborn babe" (Latin: Quasi modo genitus) the opening words of the mass for the first Sunday after Easter, when all infants born during Lent are traditionally baptized.

8 - The Archpoet calls Rainald the "Archbishop Elect" here hinting jokingly at his patron's recent  excommunication. Rainald had, from Rome's point of view, ceased to be a true archbishop once he had been formally separated from the Church's communion, and thus his technical episcopal status is questionable. Which doesn't stop the Archpoet from treating him, in hilarious jest, as a legitimate confessor.

The Original: 

Confessio Papiensis

Aestuans intrinsecus   ira vehementi
in amaritudine   loquor meae menti.(Job 10:1)
factus de materia   levis elementi
folio sum similis,   de quo ludunt venti.(Job 13:25)

Cum sit enim proprium   viro sapienti,
supra petram ponere   sedem fundamenti,(Luke 6:48)
stultus ego comparor   fluvio labenti,
sub eodem aëre   numquam permanenti.

Feror ego veluti   sine nauta navis,
ut per vias aëris   vaga fertur avis;(Wisdom 5:10-11)
non me tenent vincula,   non me tenet clavis,
quaero mei similes   et adiungor pravis.

Mihi cordis gravitas   res videtur gravis,
iocus est amabilis   dulciorque favis.
quidquid Venus imperat,   labor est suavis,
quae numquam in cordibus   habitat ignavis.(Tibullus 1.2.23)

Via lata gradior   more iuventutis,(Matthew 7:13)
implico me vitiis   immemor virtutis,
voluptatis avidus   magis quam salutis,
mortuus in anima   curam gero cutis.(St. Augustine, De Civitate Dei XIII.21.30)

Praesul discretissime,   veniam te precor,
morte bona morior,   dulci nece necor,
meum pectus sauciat   puellarum decor,
et quas tactu nequeo,   saltem corde moechor.(Matthew 5:28)

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

Quis in igne positus   igne non uratur?
quis Papiae demorans   castus habeatur,
ubi Venus digito   iuvenes venatur,
oculis illaqueat,   facie praedatur?

Si ponas Hippolytum   hodie Papiae,
non erit Hippolytus   in sequenti die.
Veneris in thalamos   ducunt omnes viae,
non est in tot turribus   turris Alethiae.

Secundo redarguor   etiam de ludo,
sed cum ludus corpore   me dimittit nudo,
frigidus exterius,   mentis aestu sudo;
tunc versus et carmina   meliora cudo.

Tertio capitulo   memoro tabernam:
illam nullo tempore   sprevi neque spernam,
donec sanctos angelos   venientes cernam,
cantantes pro mortuis:   «Requiem Aeternam.»

Meum est propositum   in taberna mori,
ut sint vina proxima   morientis ori;
tunc cantabunt laetius   angelorum chori:
«Sit Deus propitius   huic potatori.» (Luke 18:13, see also Ovid, Amores 2.10.29-38)

Poculis accenditur   animi lucerna,
cor imbutum nectare   volat ad superna.
mihi sapit dulcius   vinum de taberna,
quam quod aqua miscuit   praesulis pincerna.

Loca vitant publica   quidam poetarum
et secretas eligunt   sedes latebrarum,
student, instant, vigilant   nec laborant parum,
et vix tandem reddere   possunt opus clarum.

Ieiunant et abstinent   poetarum chori,
vitant rixas publicas   et tumultus fori,
et ut opus faciant,   quod non possit mori,
moriuntur studio   subditi labori.

Unicuique proprium   dat Natura munus:(1 Corinthians 7:7)
ego numquam potui   scribere ieiunus,(Martial 11.6.12-13)
me ieiunum vincere   posset puer unus.
sitim et ieiunium   odi tamquam funus.

Unicuique proprium   dat Natura donum:
ego versus faciens   bibo vinum bonum,
et quod habent purius   dolia cauponum;
vinum tale generat   copiam sermonum.

Tales versus facio,   quale vinum bibo,
nihil possum facere   nisi sumpto cibo;
nihil valent penitus,   que ieiunus scribo,
Nasonem post calices   carmine praeibo.

Mihi numquam spiritus   prophetiae datur,
nisi prius fuerit   venter bene satur;
dum in arce cerebri   Bacchus dominatur,
in me Phoebus irruit   et miranda fatur.

Ecce meae proditor   pravitatis fui,
de qua me redarguunt   servientes tui.
sed in corum nullus est   accusator sui,
quamvis velint ludere   saeculoque frui.

Iam nunc in praesentia   praesulis beati
secundum dominici   regulam mandati
mittat in me lapidem   neque parcat vati,
cuius non est animus   conscius peccati.

Sum locutus contra me,   quidquid de me novi,
et virus evomui,   quod tam diu fovi.
vita vetus displicet,   mores placent novi;
homo videt faciem,   sed cor patet Iovi.(1 Samuel 16:7)

Iam virtutes diligo,   vitiis irascor,
renovatus animo   spiritu renascor;
quasi modo genitus   novo lacte pascor,(1 Peter 2:2)
ne sit meum amplius   vanitatis vas cor.

Electe Coloniae,   parce paenitenti,
fac misericordiam   veniam petenti,
et da paenitentiam   culpam confitenti;
feram, quidquid iusseris,   animo libenti.

Parcit enim subditis   leo, rex ferarum,
et est erga subditos   immemor irarum;
et vos idem facite,   principes terrarum:
quod caret dulcedine,   nimis est amarum.

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