The white Pink, and the Pansie freakt with jeat
— John Milton, Lycidas, ln 144
“Pink,” like many words for color, has a long fascinating history. I’ll spare you the full account; you can pull it up and read the sixteen entries and pages and pages of etymology in the OED for yourself–nine nouns, two adjectives, four verbs. Here, in “Lycidas” the word “pink” is a noun. Yes, sometimes “pink” is a verb, I can think of only a couple color words used as verbs, “black” and maybe “purple” (see “Lycidas” line 141, “purple all the ground”) or someday “green,” but in most cases the action finds its roots in the color itself. “To pink” is closer to “pinch” than it is to the color midway between white and red. But here, “pink” is a noun. Sure, all color words can be and are nouns, but again, this is a case in which the color word operates apart from its place on the spectrum. In fact, the “pink” to which Milton refers may be the noun that predates the color. Pinks are flowers in the Dianthus genus, a genus that includes over 300 species. Of these, the Carnations, the Sweet Williams, and the Pinks are the most familiar. I prefer the Sweet Williams, they’re easier to grow, flashier, and sweeter. Also, like Sweet Peas, Sweet William is easy to breed for new colors and forms; one can play with the spectrum between scarlet and white, the number of petals, and (to some extent) the habit.
But back to pink … garden Pinks look best planted en masse in borders (carnations for the cut-flower trade are typically grown in green houses), as a common garden flower, they bloom (here in Indiana) in May. Right now, there are several homes on my street with Pinks, in bloom, edging the sidewalks. Were these the Pinks that Milton knew? Probably not, but it doesn’t really matter … all Pinks have pinked (frilled and pinched) petals. And that is what matters, here. He did, however, have to distinguish the white Pink from the pink Pinks, so he (or the poet from whom he borrowed these lines) paused a bit. A little thought, not this “pink,” but that “pink.” Which is to say: why “white Pink” and not “pink Pink”? No pink a funerals?
This little juxtaposition (“white” against “pink”) reminds me of the challenges of translation. (Although, to read these words in English and not know “pink” as a flower might itself be a failure of translation.) What is a translator to do? Finding the common name for D. plumarius or D. caryophyllus in your language of choice might be an option, a labor intensive option. I am betting, therefore, that most will wimp out and translate without blinking the word for “white” adjacent to the word for the color “pink.” But finding translations of Milton’s “Lycidas” also proves to be labor intensive. Where are the translations of “Lycidas”?! I have retrieved three, mostly old efforts … and a fourth which is not a translation at all. Here they are, if you know of others, please share:
Milton, John. Emile Saillens, trans. Lycidas ; Sonnets. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1971. [French]
Line 144 translated as: “Œillet blanc et pensée aux jaspures de jet” … that is, literally, a “white eyelet” … “oeillet” being the common name for Dianthus, see: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%92illet_commun
Milton, John. Simon Grynaeus, trans. Johann Miltons Wieder-erobertes Paradies nebst desselben Samson, und einigen andern Gedichten wie auch einer Lebens-Beschreibung des Verfassers. Basel : verlegts Johann Rudolf Imhof, 1752. [German]
Line 144 in prose (I have trouble with the old German script), approximately: “Die weisse Nagelblume, Die schwarz besprengte Drensaltigfeitsblume,” … I believe that’s literally “white nailflower” (Working from my memory of Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s poem “Supernatural Love“, I am going to guess that “nailflower” is an older German name for Nelken.)
Milton, John. T.J. Mathias, trans. Licida di Giovanni Milton. In: Mathias, Thomas James. Poesie liriche toscane. Milano: Vincenzo Ferrario, 1812. Pgs. 187-212. [Italian]
Line 144 loosely translated as: “Il pieghevol verbasco, e ‘l biancheggiante / Garofano, e ‘l giancinto” … again, “garofano” is the common name for dianthus, carnations, and cloves, see: http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dianthus
Milton, John. Justa Edouardo King naufrago, ab amicis moerentibus, amoris & mneias charin. Cantabrigiae : Apud Thomam Buck, & Rogerum Daniel, celeberrimae Academiae typographos, 1638. Early English books, 1475-1640 ; 761:3. [Not a translation, but a volume of poems, many in Latin, honoring the deceased Edward King, which includes Milton’s poem … in English.]
Here is another one, recommended by the Milton-L list, but I’ve yet to retrieve it:
Milton, John. Fernand Henry, trans. Les petits poèmes. Paris: E. Guilmoto, 1909. [French]
A librarian I consulted asked me if I expected to earn a PhD with this minutiae. The truth is, silly diversions like these kept me from earning a PhD. (I also have less silly diversions too, such as the obligations eating what’s left of my limited intellect.) A better topic for a short dissertation might be (as one diversion leads to another): what are the factors which make translations of “Lycidas” so rare? Perhaps a comparative literature scholar with an expertise in linguistics and economics could answer the question after five years of research and writing. I’ll skip all that and wing it:
1. “Lycidas” is a minor poem. Is it? Milton is a major poet, isn’t he? I think I can find several English translations of minor poems by Dante.
2. Much is translated into English; less is translated from English. We Anglophones expect others to read English and to do us the service of translating into English. All else will be ignored.
3. Milton in translation is ho-hum, just another treatise on this-or-that. Perhaps Milton’s verse is great, not in its subject, but in its language. (I doubt this and many poems are great in their language; translators persist, see Dante.)
4. Milton is not the “major” poet we, the Anglophones, think he is; or, that is, he is not a “world” poet. If this is true, what does it take? Who are the “world” poets? Homer, Dante, Virgil?
I am not convinced. “Lycidas” needs translators.