Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 36.

Boethius (tr. James Harpur), Fortune's Prisoner: The Poems of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy. Poetica 38. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 2008. Pp. 96. ISBN 978-0-85646-403-4. UK£8.95.

Jo-Marie Claassen,
University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa

James Harpur has chosen to translate, and publish separately from the prose sections with which they alternate, the poems that act as interludes between chapters of the five books of the Consolatio Philosophiae of the sixth-century Roman consular Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Boethius wrote this work in (Latin) Menippean format (alternating prose and verse) while in prison and awaiting execution by die Ostrogothic Emperor Theodoric. The prisoner recounts a long conversation with ‘Dame Philosophy’ in which she leads him to rediscover philosophical truths that he had lost through his misery. Thirty-nine poems display a variety of metres, from elegiacs, to various lyrical metres, to epic.[[1]]

Harper’s attempt is brave, on two counts. First, beside the rather old-fashioned Loeb translation by Stewart and Rand, there are three fairly recent English translations of the whole Consolatio, both prose and verse.[[2]] A case must be made out for another translation. Second, a case must be made out for reading the poems separately from the prose sections.

The poems have sometimes been considered as mere playful intermissions, written before their author’s incarceration, inserted as ornaments to relieve the heavy substance of the prose sections (that discuss the meaning of life, the fickleness of Fortune and the question of Free Will). A critic like P.G. Walsh has even suggested that these poems hardly form an organic whole. This could offer the strongest argument for presentation of the poems as a separate entity, but Harpur himself, in a well-considered introduction (pp. 11-25), shows that the poems are in fact an integral part of the fabric of the philosophical tract. Brief epigraphs, some from the prose sections, others from a variety of other sources, set the tone for each poem, as does Harpur’s own imaginative titles for the poems (so listed in the index, pp. 95f.).

Theorists cite three broad translation categories: from ‘word-for-word’, fairly literal equivalence, through ‘dynamic’ equivalence (looser rendering of the original into an appropriate register in the target language), to ‘free translation’ or paraphrase. Scrutiny of the strengths and weaknesses of three of the translations cited, produced some interesting observations. Predictably, the Loeb translation lies within the first category; those of Watts (1969) and Walsh (1999) approach the middle category in different ways. Both on occasion employ (English) rhyme, presumably to give the verses a ‘poetic feel’. Both mostly attempt to reprise the ‘look’ of the original verses (‘short’ or ‘long’ lines), Walsh perhaps more successfully. Yet the genius of the two languages differs so much that their English verses are necessarily consistently longer.

Against these, Harpur’s ‘freer’ rendering of the verses, verging on paraphrase, succeed (despite his division of sets of verses into stanzas) in conveying more exactly the ‘look’ of the verses, on occasion even comprising fewer short lines to convey Boethius’ various metra. Harpur himself expresses the hope that his renderings of these Latin verses into modern English will ‘work’ for his readers as if they had been originally composed in English. Hence it is as ‘English verse’ that the remaining section of this review will consider Harpur’s parvum opus (this is a very slight volume). Yet we must still determine whether Harpur succeeds in conveying the essence of the Latin (the mood, even more than the content) which, by definition, any translation should offer.

Whereas metre is the most salient characteristic of Latin, rhyme frequently characterises formal English poetry. Many of Harpur’s verses rhyme, most often in an alternated (or ‘couplet’) scheme within four-, five- or six-verse stanzas. He also employs a variety of interesting alternatives to full (or true) rhyme, for example ‘assonant rhyme’, where the final words of consecutive or alternating verses have a common vowel, and ‘alliterative rhyme’, with final syllables ending on the same consonant. Sometimes the ‘rhyme’ appears as ‘reading rhyme’: word-ends look the same, but are pronounced differently when spoken aloud. Such schemes frequently co-exist with true rhyme, or alternate with unrhymed consecutive verses. For example, the final words of the first five quatrains comprising Harpur’s rendering of the elegiacs of 1.m.1 (poem 1 of book 1 of the Consolatio) appear as follows: ‘poetry – sadness – distress – cry; fears – journey – days – years; old – anguish – white – folds; prime – release – prayers – time; pleasure – point – changed – leisure.’ And so it goes on.

In the next poem (1.m.2) the word music of Harpur’s five-verse stanzas is even more subtle. There is no true rhyme, but commonality of sounds lies either in the vowels within consecutive final syllables in a verse, or in their initial or final consonants, or in a combination of these, so: ‘down – dull – darkness – swells – gales; heavens – skies – moons – paths – laws; enquiring – sea – stars – east – west; spring – pop – land – ripe – grapes; life – dead – chains – ground – mud,’ and so on.

This poem displays an example of the few infelicities discernible in the collection. Harpur gets the register wrong with ‘rosebuds pop’ for ut terram roseis floribus ornet (1.m.2.19). Elsewhere Harpur has ‘if you’re rattled’ for at quisquis trepidus pavet . . . (1.m.4.15). The next poem, celebrating the Creator’s orderly rule, incongruously yokes two metaphors. It ends with a prayer for protection against the wicked, who on occasion ‘get the urge to flex / their muscles’ -- followed, rather lamely, by ‘it warms their hearts / to undermine and topple kings’.

There are other examples, but these suffice. In the main, the poems do sing in English. Harpur has achieved his self-appointed aim. Reading the poems on their own does give one a better insight into the Consolatio as a whole. It is to be hoped that Harpur’s further aim (to lure readers back to the full Consolatio) will be equally successful.

Appendices (pp. 87-93) give (I) a brief biography of Boethius and (II) a summary of the thrust of the five books of the Consolatio, followed by a select bibliography (p. 94) and an index.


[[1]] Listed by Büchner in the introduction of his edition of the Consolatio (Heidelberg 1977). See G. J. P. O’Daly, The poetry of Boethius (London 1991) for a wide-ranging discussion of poetic principles involved.

[[2]] H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand (London and New York, Loeb 1918, repr. 1926); V. E. Watts (Harmondsworth 1969); P. G. Walsh (Oxford 1999); J. C. Relihan (Indianapolis 2001, repr. 2004).