GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

Janina Niefer, Inspiration and Utmost Art: The Poetics of Early Modern English Psalm Translations (Zurich: LIT, 2018). 59.90 euros (paperback), 466 pages, ISBN 978-3-643-90818-6 - Pádraic Lamb, Université de Tours / Université Clermont-Auvergne.

If one believes that a poem was written by God, then surely that poem would be a perfect poem. That, in essence, is the thesis which Janina Niefer traces in this welcome study of the formal poetic consequences of a theological a priori, Inspiration and Utmost Art: The Poetics of Early Modern English Psalm Translations. Though in many respects her book is very different, Niefer's monograph (adapted from her PhD thesis submitted at the University of Tübingen) shares with, for example, Kenneth Borris's Visionary Spenser and the Poetics of Early Modern Platonism (2017), a patient determination to foreground the precise literary and formal manifestations of philosophical or religious ideas whose impact on literary composition has not been appreciated, or indeed, demonstrated. It is a difficult task and the literary critic risks being overwhelmed by philosophical-historical explanations, a forest of primary sources or an overabundant secondary literature. Niefer succeeds in negotiating some of these perils better than others but, overall, her book is a valuable addition to Early Modern literature studies and translation studies, in particular to that interesting angle to be found between the so-called "religious turn" in criticism and poetic formalism.

After an introduction in which she states the main lines of the thesis, defines concisely the key notions of inspiration and perfection, Niefer includes an état de la critique which rightly but respectfully identifies a "gap in the market" which she aims to fill, describes her corpus and justifies a non-chronological approach. She is surely right to present the most independent part of her research, on George Wither's A Preparation to the Psalter (1619) first, and then to make the transition, via Robert Boyle and John Edwards' views on Biblical style, to Philip Sidney's The Defence of Poesy (first published 1595), before turning to analysis of psalm translations themselves, with the Sidney Psalter. The final section before the conclusion crosses the Atlantic to study the translation doctrine of the Bay Psalm Book (1640).

The study's starting-point is George Wither's insistence, in his A Preparation for the Psalter on the formal perfection of the Psalms of David which ensues from their incontrovertible divine inspiration. Niefer shows that Wither's comments go beyond a commonplace observation and that from this convergence of piety and poetry, he elaborates a poetics of the Psalms which extends to their contemporary translator into English. This is a reading of significant import. This section is the finest in the book, in my opinion, and thanks to her pioneering treatment of A Preparation, should now be acknowledged as one of the few extended English reflections on translation from this period. It is perhaps to be regretted, however, that Wither's own metrical psalms do not form part of the analysis. Niefer admits they are disappointing and raises a smile when she writes that "the Preparation is not suited to introduce his own translations but is much more aptly read as a conceptualisation of the Sidney Psalter" [165].

The following section attempts to read Sidney's The Defence of Poesy as another conceptualisation of the Sidney Psalter. The reading of the definition of the poet in The Defence itself is solid and sensitive: by the godlike creation of matter and verse shall ye know the poet. Niefer skilfully brings out the emphasis on formal perfection allied to the analogy between God and the poet. Problems arise, however, when this definition of the poet is applied to the translator of the Psalms: the translator of the Psalms has a God-given matter and this contradiction is not addressed before the assertion that what is true of the poet is true for the translator "who considers himself a poet (which the Sidneys clearly did)" [232]. I believe also that Sidney's mention of "attentive translation" has been misunderstood: the reference is to transference as part of imitation, rather than translation in our modern sense. I am not convinced, therefore, that a poetics of psalm translation can be extracted from the definition of the "right poet": I agree, in short, that A Preparation and not the Defence should be used to conceptualise inspiration and formal perfection in the Sidney Psalter.

The section devoted to this latter work is admirably done: close readings of relevant poetic paratexts are matched with the framework established in earlier chapters, confirming its justness and sometimes correcting previous critical readings [254-255]. The analysis blooms in a particularly detailed and rewarding reading of the translation of Psalm 51 [278-343] and other psalms [343-366].

The final and shortest section is given over to the Bay Psalm Book, which drew on the same religious-ideological bases and arrived at opposing conclusions. Effectively, in it is advanced a theory of psalm-translation which gives up formal perfection as a chimaera, or impious fancy, for Fallen Man and Woman, but holds fast to inspiration and the Psalms efficacy. The result is an anti-aesthetic poetry and an emphasis on divine illumination of the reader, listener or singer of the Psalms. The Bay Psalm Book forms a fascinating counterpoint, then, to the examples previously studied and shows the spectrum of responses within English Reformed communities to the questions of the nature and capacity of poetry in an economy of God's grace.

It is an attractive volume, clearly printed, with bibliography and index. The writing is mainly limpid, with few unidiomatic passages.

All throughout her work, Niefer maintains a dialogue with the secondary literature, which the reader may follow in some detail through the generous inclusion of critical quotations in the footnotes and discussion in the body of the text. This thoroughness, which perhaps has its origin in the format of the doctoral dissertation, is laudable, but it sometimes can obscure the clarity of the argument being advanced. Some footnotes could have been trimmed; other important quotations and asides should have been integrated into the main argument. Still others are in the footnotes and then re-occur late in the main body of the text. This does not make things easier for the reader. The profusion of references is particularly noticeable in the discussion of Sidney's The Defence of Poesy. It is a much-studied text and prior interpretations must be acknowledged. The double dialogue with this literature in the text and in the footnotes, however, becomes impossible to follow despite careful reading, with the result that Niefer's own opinion becomes unclear. She broadly follows Heninger and Mack's interpretations but that fact is shrouded by repeated relatively minor disagreements and certain points elaborated in the footnotes that belong in the text. For example, she seems to minimise the influence of Guillaume Du Bartas or Josuah Sylvester on Wither in a footnote p. 141, only to cite the evident parallels pp. 142-143, via the very criticism contained in the footnote on the previous page. I was surprised on p. 207 to read "As we have seen, Sidney's concept of the poet as a maker is based upon Scaliger's account as he presents it in the Poetices", as Niefer had previously emphasised Sidney's originality versus Scaliger's supposed superficial treatment [195]. I think the problem stems from an exaggeration -- in some ways understandable -- of her authors' originality and perhaps her own too: it does not take away from Wither or Sidney that they had models and it does not take away from Niefer's novel perspective that other critics have previously thought the same as her. The heavy engagement with modern critics has another impact: Scaliger is not quoted from the modern (German-language) critical editions but from Padelford's 1905 translated extracts; Marsilio Ficino is quoted from Panofksy's Idea without any detail of where the quotation comes from.

Janina Niefer has delivered a rich analysis of a varied corpus, shining light on little-read texts and allowing us to see, in the case of the Sidney Psalter, a well-known text in a new way. Her book will stimulate further debate on contentious points and research on areas she could not treat within the covers on one book. It is to be hoped that Niefer, currently employed as a high school teacher, will have the opportunity to pursue her research in the field, addressing perhaps in closer detail the language question, as well as the pathways which led from the Sidney milieu to Wither.

© 2019 Pádraic Lamb & GRAAT On-Line