Mad for Love

Tobias Gregory

  • ‘Orlando Furioso’: A New Verse Translation by Ludovico Ariosto, translated by David Slavitt
    Harvard, 672 pp, £29.95, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 674 03535 5

Although Orlando Furioso has comic elements, it is not a comic poem. It is a chivalric romance which incorporates traditional matter – duels, jousts, quests, amorous adventures, damsels in distress, Christians v. Saracens, monsters, magic – as well as Virgilian episodes, bawdy tales, metafictional gestures, a running debate about female virtue, wry commentary on the follies of love, outrage at foreign invasions of Italy, a dynastic marriage and praise of Ariosto’s patrons, the Este of Ferrara. No part can fairly represent the whole, but one remarkable episode conveys something of the poem’s atmosphere.

Orlando, Charlemagne’s right-hand man and the hero of countless adventures, has run mad for love. To recover his lost wits, his comrade-in-arms Astolfo travels to the Moon, guided by St John the Evangelist. On the Moon all that is lost on Earth can be found. The favours of princes show up as inflated bellows, ladies’ charms as limed snares; lost wits are stored in individually labelled bottles. There, in a palace by the River Lethe, the Fates spin a thread for every human life; once spun and cut, the thread is tied to a nameplate, and a tireless old man gathers up the nameplates and drops them in the river, where they sink. A flock of crows and vultures picks up some plates, then lets them fall back into the water; but two white swans convey their chosen plates safely downstream to the temple of fame. The old man, St John explains to Astolfo, is Father Time, who would bury all in oblivion; the carrion birds are flatterers who surround princes but cannot preserve their memory; the swans are poets who alone have the power to convey undying fame. Princes, then, should take care to reward their poets, for they determine if and how their patrons will be remembered. You may think, St John continues, that the Greeks won at Troy and that Penelope was faithful to her husband because it pleased Homer to say so, but the facts are otherwise:

E se tu vuoi che ’l ver non ti sia ascoso,
tutta al contrario l’istoria converti:
che i Greci rotti, e che Troia vittrice,
e che Penelopea fu meretrice.

If you wish the truth not to be hidden from you, turn the story around: the Greeks were beaten, the Trojans victorious and Penelope was a whore.

Augustus and Nero were both murderous tyrants, but the former has the better reputation because he had the good sense to patronise Virgil. It grieves me, St John concludes, that in these times poets are so greatly neglected by their patrons. You shouldn’t be surprised that I care about this issue; while I lived, I was a writer myself. I praised my patron well, and unlike the skinflint princes of today, he rewarded me well for it.

Ariosto’s lunar episode is at once a celestial revelation like Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’ or Dante’s Paradiso and a burlesque of this tradition. As such revelations tend to, it takes a long-distance view in order to make our worldly goals look like follies, but Ariosto’s Moon is exalted only literally; it is not a heaven, but an allegorical mirror of the Earth, and the wisdom imparted there is not transcendent but cynical. In St John’s pitch on behalf of poets Ariosto combines cheeky self-interest, a career courtier’s disenchanted take on patronage, and a highly sceptical view of history. If history consists of lies told by writers on behalf of their patrons, according to the author of the fourth Gospel, then … It is characteristic of Ariosto to leave his greatest subversions implicit. The episode is both deeply funny and deeply serious, and it succeeds in being funny because it is serious. The same can be said of Orlando Furioso as a whole.

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