It stands to reason that Edward de Vere began to write poems long before 1573, when he contributed a prefatory verse and letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte. His uncles were poets or translators of poets, and his tutors would have assigned exercises in translation from the great poets of Greece and Rome. We know that he wrote “Comedies and Interludes”; while still in his early teens, he would have seen Interludes written specifically for “children” to play, printed and for sale in London bookstalls. For all we know, he may have tried his hand at translating the comedies of Plautus, or ventured to compose original short pieces suitable for his fellow students to perform. No such piece of juvenilia has yet been traced to his hand. But if he was at all proud of his earliest work, we have good reason to expect that he would have been prouder still to see it in print.
In 1557, when Edward, Lord Bulbeck was still in his greenest years as a student, his martyred uncle Henry Howard’s poems were offered to the public, in the collection now known as Tottel’s Miscellany. This honorable precedent may help to explain Oxford’s later disregard for high-society’s collective frown against noblemen allowing their jewels of poesy to be hawked in Paul’s Churchyard. From his first signed contribution to the London literary scene – his letter to his friend Bedingfield, justifying his publication of a private translation – the earl of Oxenford endorsed the power of print to establish a writer’s individual ‘Vertue’, and he did so in strikingly personal terms:
Again we see if our friends be dead, we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs: Whereby when they be dead in deed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument, but with me behold it happeneth far better, for in your life time I shall erect you such a monument, that as I say [in] your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your vertuous life, shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone.
Curiously, the only ‘monument’ that Oxford ever raised for his friend Bedingfield was through his patronage of a translation of another man’s philosophic reflections. At first glance, one might think that the publication of Cardanus Comfort would erect a monument NOT to Bedingfield, but to the virtue of the Italian astrologer, physician and notorious gambler, Hieronymus Cardano. But Oxford clearly meant to celebrate the blushing student Thomas, who professed to hope that the earl would “conceal mine imperfections.” Impulsively, Oxford denied his friend’s self-effacing request:
For rather than so many of your country men should be deluded through my sinister means of your industry in studies (whereof you are bound in conscience to yield an accompt) I am content to make spoil and havoc of your request… What doth avail a mass of gold to be continually imprisoned in your bags, and never to be employed to your use? I do not doubt even so you think of your studies and delightful Muses. What do they avail, if you do not participate them to others?
Here we have the strongest possible witness to what Edward Oxenford might have done with his own studies in the “delightful Muses”. No social stigma or fear of envious scorn, it seems, would have stayed his course to the printer’s shop, with finished manuscripts in hand, to “participate them to others” for the benefit of his countrymen. Publication would have been both a duty to the Commonwealth and a comfort to the soul. If his birth precluded an open participation in the literary marketplace, he would simply need to invent some other means to project his noble shadow.
What I find most intriguing about Oxford’s rousing encouragement to Bedingfield is the assumption that a translation can stand as a monument to the translator’s personal ‘Vertue’. Part of my own apprenticeship in the poetic craft involved translating a handful of Spanish sonnets; I well remember the strange sensation of alien adoption that would overtake me by the time I’d reached the sestet. Yet even while trying to remain faithful to the intent of the original (as best as I could make out what that might be) I couldn’t help but give the poet’s initial conceit and choice of vocabulary a spin through my own rhetorical devises. The results often seemed more of an improvisation by Marie Merkel than an original sonnet by Juan Ramón Jiménez.
“Delightful”, I believe, adequately describes the labour of love involved in translating the ever-living spirit of a foreign poet into one’s own tongue. One can’t help but apprehend a mingling of breathes in the process: where does Geronimo Cardano leave off and Thomas Bedingfield begin? How much of Arthur Brooke’s too-young-to-know-true-love heart still beats in the fourteeners he pumped out for Bandello’s Romeus and Juliet? Did the lascivious old goat Ovid leave an indelible stain on the Puritan soul of Arthur Golding? In his closing lines to Bedingfield, Oxford blithely intermixes and confuses the life of the translator with the life of the person whose work had been translated:
And in your life time again I say, I shall give you that monument and remembrance of your life, whereby I may declare my good will though with your ill will as yet I do bear you in your life.
In what way did Oxford see the translation of Cardanus Comfort as a “remembrance” of Bedingfield’s life? Was he recalling the metamorphic sensation he himself experienced through giving new life to another writer’s words, so that the finished product seemed as much a portrait of his own psyche as it was of the original author? Or was he simply anticipating future work by Bedingfield, that would record some essence of his friend’s journey through the here and now? In either case, it seems to me that Oxford’s loving promise bequeathed a new valor to the Elizabethan concept of individuality.