An Un-bowdlerised Boccaccio  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"An Un-bowdlerised Boccaccio" is an article which appeared in the Book Mart on John Payne's unexpurgated translation of the Decameron. It can be found in a rough OCR version here.

Begin text

{Watford's Antlquariaru)

In a pungent and trenchant letter which he wrote some twelve years ago to ITie Atherueum^ respecting certain proceedings of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, and its enterprising secretary, in regard to the circulation of an English translation of "the book entitled Rabelais," Mr. Swinburne took occasion to remark that if that Society were to merge itself into one for the suppression of the Bible,its operations, though still perhaps provocative of ridicule, would be no longer open to the charge of hypocrisy.

We are not aware that anyone has yet been rash enough to attempt on the sacred Scriptures that operation which derives its name from the reverend gentleman who mutilated the text of Shakspere by cutting out all the naughty passages. To Rabelais the process would, it is to be feared, be inapplicable; and indeed his first English translator, Sir lliomas Urcbard, had to exhaust the vernacular vocabulary, and perhaps to coin phrases its poverty failed to yield, in order to find expressions sulficiently maladorous to serve as equivalents for those of the French original.

Boccaccio has, until now, suffered more than any foreign classic, and with less reason, from the "prurient prudery" of his translators. The old Roman poets, who ** outsingand outlove us," were subjected to a process of purification far less cruel than this. When an epigram of Martial, or a poem of Catullus, was considered too warm or too plain-spoken for ears polite, or un.suited vlrglnlbus jmerUqae, it was bodily omitted or relegated to an appendix by the editor or translator. But Boccaccio has fared dif- ferently. Free from all filth, fresh as a daisy or as a rose with the morning dew upon it, if he ever errs in speech it is through an excess merely of frankness of utterance and gaiety of heart characteristic of a simpler and manlier time. If coarse, he is coarse


In no other sense than that in which all the great masters of song and romance, of poetry and fiction, in Italy, France, Spain, and England, from the thirteenth century to the eighteenth, are coarse. If he is to be read at all (and we do not of course recom- mend the * Hundred Merry Tales' for the reading of maidens or striplings of tender age), he should be read in his integrity, either hi the original Italian, or in a translation not emasculated by omissions, falsification, substitutions of the abstract for the concrete, and mealy-mouthed periphrases and para- phrases, as are the versions hitherto offered to English readers. We therefore hail with pleasure the appearance of a complete, unabridged, and en- tirely un-BowdJerlsed translation* —the work of a genuine poet and scholar — which, both in its literary execution and in its typographical produc- tion, is in every way worthy of the occasion, and does honour and credit to all the parties concerned . We were rather disappointed at the outset to find no prefacefrom the hand of the translator; but we re- flected that such "good wine needs no bush: " and the foot-notes, full of graceful scholarship and of leamhig other and better than the dry-as-dust kind, neither too ample nor too sparse, neither too fre- quent nor too few, and above all things, really ser- viceable in elucidation of the text, leave nothing to be desired in themselves, and make full amends for, if they do not reconcile us to, the absence of an in- troduction. The exquisite songs with which each of the Ten Days closes, are rendered for the first time by a true poet into something better than the doggerel travesties that have defaced all earlier translations, and that have so cruelly misrepre8ented the sprightly, sparkling, luminous and airy verses of Boccaccio. The style is intentionally and con- sciously archaic, to match as far as may be with the period of the original.

Every student will, of course, turn at once with curiosity to the story of Alibech and Rustico (the tenth story of the Third Day), hi which Bohn's translator resorted to the clumsy device of leaving the salient passages of the original untranslated, and adding a French translation in a foot-note. This is notoriously the great crux for the translator of the Decameron; this, and also perhaps the seventh story of the Second Day, the tale which La Fontaine has told with such verve and skill under the title of La Fiancée du roi de Garbe, In both these cases— as also in the hardly less crucial ones ot * The Priest and the Moitar' (vol. ill. p. 42); " Masetto de Lamporecchio (i. 250) ; and '* Ricciardo Minutolo )1. 302)— Mr. Payne has succeeded In sur- mounting the difiicuities of his self-imposed task with infinite delicacy and with consummate skill and mastery of touch, and has produced a spirited translation in which none of the freedom, boldness, and mediaeval /raTicTiise of the original is shirked or sacrificed.

But the reader will find himself mistaken, if not disappointed, who takes up the * Decameron ' either hoping or fearing to find in it nothing but a record of illicit amours, and more or less vivacious or sala- doiis stories of breaches of the Seventh Command- ment; still more if he expects to meet with the luscious descriptions in which Aretino and Meursius, De Sade and De Nerciat revel. A subtle and fragrant perfume and aroma of poetry hangs about its leaves wherever one opens the book, which makes it perennially dear to all lovers of English verse. From this source some of our greatest English poets, from Chaucer to Tennyson and Swinburne, have drawn Inspiration. Who does not remember the i«tor3r of 'Patient Grisel,' immortalised a second time by the father of English poetry ? From this ever-blossom- ing tree was plucked some of the mellow fruit of glorious John Dryden's old age. Crossing the Channel, here La Fontaine found the originals of some of his liveliest and most sparkling stories. Here, in England, again, and in our ovm century, readers will not forget Byron's allusion to the woods of Bavenna, the

" Evergteen forest which Booooclo*8 lore And Diyden's lay made haunted ground to me;"

nor the delicious versions into which Keats has rendered 'The Pot of Basil,' and Mr. Swinburne, in our own time, *The Complaint of Monna Lisa.' To this treasury also the Poet Laureate was indebted for the groundwork of his poem of 'The Golden Supper,' and his play of *The Falcon.' Such dear and sweet traditions, new and old, cling about this auroral book, that it has become doubly and trebly dear for the sake of later singers and other names; and henceforth no English lover of Boccaccio will fall to associate with it also the name of John Payna

RiCHABD HEBinE SHEPHEBD.

« The Dec^uneron of GiovaoDi Boccaool (II Boccaooio) now first completely done Into Bngllsb prose and verse by John Payne .... Translator of the Poems of Master Frands Villon of Paris, the Book of the Thous, and Nights and One Night, Ac. In three volumet^, pp. zii.,884; xil., 860; xii., 864. London: xdgoolxxxvt. Printed for the Villon Society by private Bubscrlpt ion and for private circulation only.




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