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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 3. Translators’ difficulties

William of Palerne is an example of a different sort, showing how hard it was for the English, even as late as the middle of the fourteenth century, to understand and translate the work of the French romantic school. The English poet takes up the French Guillaume de Palerme, a sophisticated, sentimental story written in the fluent, unemphatic, clear style which perhaps only Gower could rightly reproduce in English. This is turned into alliterative verse, with rather strange results, the rhetoric of the English school being utterly different from the French: quaint in diction, inclined to be violent and extravagant, very effective in satirical passages (as Piers Plowman was to show) or in battle scenes (as in the Morte Arthure), but not well adapted for polite and conventional literature. The alliterative poets were justified when they took their own way and did not try to compete with the French. Their greatest work in romance is Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, written by a man who understood his busness and produced new effects, original, imaginative, without trying to copy the manner of the French artists.

At the same time, while the great, the overruling, French influence is to be found in the ambitious literary work of Chrètien de Troyes and his peers, it must not be forgotten that there was also a simpler but still graceful kind of French romance with which the English translators had more success. This is best represented in the work of Marie de France; and, in English, by the shorter romances which profess to be taken from Breton lays, such as Launfal, Orfeo and the Lai le Freine. Here, the scale is smaller, and there is no superabundance of monologue and sentimental digression. The clear lines of the original could be followed by the English without too much difficulty; for the English, though long inferior to the French in subtlety, were not bunglers, except when they ventured on unfamiliar ground without the proper education.