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.
If you come to the poem from classical epic, or Dante, or later Renaissance epic poets such as Tasso, Spenser or Milton, its playful or satirical aspects stand out. Ariosto’s first readers, though, saw his poem not as an ironised epic but as the artistic high point in a long line of chivalric poems. When Ariosto began his poem around 1500, tales of Charlemagne and his knights had been popular for more than three centuries. These stories, purely martial at first, came to include the love affairs and courtly adventures that originally belonged to a separate branch of chivalric literature, the tales of Arthur and his Round Table. In the late 15th century this familiar material was handled with sophisticated wit by Luigi Pulci in Medici Florence and Matteo Maria Boiardo in Este Ferrara. Boiardo left his poem Orlando Innamorato unfinished at his death in 1494; Ariosto picked up where his fellow Ferrarese had left off, adopting Boiardo’s plot and characters and refining his narrative technique of interwoven storylines. In Boiardo, Orlando falls in love; in Ariosto, Orlando goes mad for love. When Ariosto declares at the beginning of his poem that he will sing of ‘cosa non detta in prosa mai né in rima’ (‘things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme’), he is making a local claim: he’s offering not a new kind of poetry or even a new story, but a new twist in a story his readers already know. Boiardo’s poem had been a success; Ariosto’s proved so successful that its precursor was eclipsed ever after.
When Orlando Furioso is introduced to English-speaking readers it tends to be compared to Don Juan. This is understandable but misleading. Byron loved the Furioso, and imitated it by adapting certain of its aspects for his own purposes, as Tasso and Spenser had adapted other aspects of it to theirs. It is no slight to Byron to observe that his purposes were less various than Ariosto’s, and his poem easier to classify. Don Juan is mock epic: it evokes the conventions of heroic poetry in jest, creating a humorous mismatch between those conventions and its non-heroic subject matter. When Byron writes
My poem’s epic, and is meant to be
Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
With love, and war, a heavy gale at sea,
A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
New characters; the episodes are three;
A panoramic view of hell’s in training,
After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
So that my name of Epic’s no misnomer
he is, of course, joking. His satirical targets are not Virgil and Homer, but the prescriptivist critics who treated standard features of epic as rules, as well as contemporary poets like Southey who reproduced them in deadly earnest. Ariosto’s relation to the epic tradition is more complex. The Virgilian elements he grafts onto his poem are not always handled ironically; sometimes they are meant to raise his material towards epic dignity. Orlando Furioso ends, for example, with a fight to the death between Ruggiero, the poem’s dynastic hero, and the pagan champion Rodomonte, an episode closely modelled on the ending of the Aeneid. If you think of the poem as essentially comic you will have trouble making sense of this Virgilian ending. Orlando Furioso’s 16th-century commentators treated it as a successor to the Aeneid, and even its detractors, who found its digressions, bawdy passages and conversational narrative voice inappropriate for a serious heroic poem, took it for granted that it should nevertheless be judged as one.
Boiardo had included in his poem the prophecy that the Este of Ferrara would descend from Ruggiero and Bradamante. Ariosto makes their dynastic marriage the epic poem’s narrative goal, deferred by many obstacles and celebrated at last in the final canto. In doing so, he adopts one of the Aeneid’s legacies to the epic tradition: the link between legendary ancestors and patron prince. This dignifies both poem and patron: it makes the events of the poem appear to have far-reaching historical consequences, and endows the patron prince with a heroic lineage, however obviously fictional this may be. (That the dukes of Ferrara derived from Carolingian knights was no more fanciful than the idea that Augustus Caesar derived from Trojan exiles.) The prestige of Orlando Furioso is enhanced by analogy with the Aeneid; the prestige of the house of Este is enhanced by comparison with Augustus, the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the Roman Empire. But the analogies involved quite a stretch. Sixteenth-century Ferrara wasn’t an empire, but a minor despotism under frequent threat from more powerful neighbours, and Ariosto’s master, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, was only the minor despot’s younger brother. Ariosto served the Este loyally from his 30th year until the end of his life, and knew his masters too well to harbour illusions about them. He knew the way they governed and what manner of men they were; he understood the pressures they faced and the limits of their power. He knew better than most how precarious their affairs could be, for the Este had employed him in sticky situations more than once. In the summer of 1510, Pope Julius II excommunicated Cardinal Ippolito and summoned him to Rome without safe-conduct. The cardinal sent Ariosto instead to make his excuses, and the irascible Julius threatened to have Ariosto thrown in the Tiber. He had to get out of Rome in a hurry.
We may be tempted to suppose, then, that when Ariosto praised the Este in his poem he did so tongue in cheek. This, however, would be to put the matter too crudely. Ariosto would have had no wish to make fun of his masters in print. A Renaissance courtier, whether literary-minded or not, would learn to employ panegyric with skill, and the skill lies not in praising insincerely but in praising tactically. On the Moon, Astolfo notices that among the countless threads representing human lives there is one, spun of the finest gold, which outshines all the rest. That special thread, St John explains, is destined for Ippolito d’Este. He will be born centuries hence in what is now a swampy village on the Po, by then the greatest city in Italy; in him God will combine all good qualities, and he will stand as a protector of virtue and learning. Then follows the allegory of Time, the river and the birds. What reads at first as an egregious piece of flattery comes to look, a few pages on, like a more pointed gesture: you see the sort of thing I can do for you, my lord.
Orlando Furioso continually juxtaposes higher and lower registers: a solemn description with a touch of absurdity, a pious sentiment and a self-interested motive, an allusion to something serious made under less than serious circumstances. These juxtapositions are often what critics have in mind when we speak of the poem’s ‘irony’. They are easier to notice than to interpret. In Canto 3, Bradamante visits Merlin’s tomb, where she is shown a prophetic vision of her Este descendants, who are impersonated by conjured demons. The scene imitates the pageant of illustrious Roman ghosts that Anchises shows Aeneas in Aeneid 6. In Virgil, this vision comes at the climax of Aeneas’ voyage through the underworld, with all of that episode’s symbolic, philosophical and historical resonance. In Ariosto, Bradamante reaches Merlin’s tomb by accident, having been dropped down a hole by a scoundrel knight, Pinabello of Maganza. What to make of the contrast? It would be too much to say that Ariosto is poking fun at the Aeneid, the Este, or the epic convention of dynastic prophecy. Even to read the passage as a desolemnised Virgilian episode may be to approach it from the wrong direction. The Pinabello business picks up a plot line familiar to the Carolingian tradition, in which the house of Maganza is always causing trouble. Knights falling down holes where they encounter something surprising is the sort of thing that often happens in Pulci and Boiardo; it may be that Ariosto is following his immediate precursors, and elevating their material by means of the Virgilian echoes.
There’s nothing tongue in cheek about Ariosto’s references to the wars that affected the Italian peninsula during his lifetime. Canto 14 begins with an excursus on the Battle of Ravenna of April 1512, at which French troops, assisted by the Duke of Ferrara’s artillery, defeated Spanish and papal forces. Ariosto praises Duke Alfonso’s heroics but dwells on the destruction: there were heavy losses on both sides, and the victorious French troops sacked Ravenna after the battle, raping women and desecrating churches. The victory brings little cause for rejoicing:
ma né goder potiam, né farne festa,
sentendo i gran ramarichi e l’angosce
ch’in veste bruna e lacrimosa guancia
le vedovelle fan per tutta Francia.
We cannot rejoice or celebrate, hearing from all over France the anguished laments of newly made widows, dressed in mourning with tear-stained cheeks.
About half the poem consists of fighting: the battles, duels and jousts that had always comprised a large part of chivalric literature’s popular appeal. Ariosto’s battle scenes are impressive, and are clearly meant to be taken seriously, but do not aim for or attain the tragic grandeur of Homer or Virgil. The death of Rodomonte at the poem’s end is satisfying in the manner of a cinematic last reel showdown. The scene is based on the Aeneid’s climactic duel between Aeneas and Turnus, but Ariosto leaves out the elements which in Virgil create sympathy for the loser. There is no supernatural portent that tells the doomed adversary his time is up, no supplication and so no moral complexity about the killing. Ruggiero brings Rodomonte to the ground and offers mercy; the furious Saracen struggles on, and is dispatched by a dagger thrust.
David Slavitt’s new abridged translation of the Furioso aims to amuse. ‘The great lesson this work can have for students,’ he writes in the preface, ‘is that poetry can be fun.’ To convey this lesson he adds dozens of his own quips, jokes and asides:
And there it is, easy as pie, although
why pie is easy is difficult to explain.
This is the one in which Venus and Mars laid.
(Lay, surely? No, no. One another! Start
paying attention. It’s transitive. Use your head.)
But this is the net that caught those two in bed.
You think it’s easy? No, it’s very hard
to say nice things to a tree – about how its bark
is worse than its bite? You can’t even send a card,
unless it has that recycled paper mark.
Ruggiero did what he could in that regard …
He reads it yet again. Indeed he tries
to deconstruct it. Reception theory has not
yet reared its fuzzy head, but his rubbed eyes
can’t make it go away …
Slavitt has Spaniards say ‘Nada!’ and Scottish knights say ‘Hoot mon!’, channels Lewis Carroll (‘oh/frabjous day!’) and Monty Python (‘Wink, wink! Nudge, nudge! Know what I mean?’), rhymes ‘visage he/syzygy’, ‘Beatrice/speech a/teach a’, ‘ring/bling-bling’, ‘Auvergne/discergne/leargne’, ‘behest/test-ament’, ‘decoration/averruncation’. Ariosto doesn’t do self-consciously jokey rhymes. Slavitt is trying to imitate Byron.
Rhyme is the great technical challenge for an English translator of Ariosto. The poem is written in ottava rima, stanzas of eight 11-syllable lines rhymed abababcc. First popularised by Boccaccio in the mid-14th century, it had become the standard verse form for chivalric poetry by Ariosto’s time. Slavitt describes the ottava rima stanza as ‘inherently humorous’, which is like saying that the piano is inherently a jazz instrument. Ariosto’s octaves range from comic to lyric to epic; Tasso used the form with equal virtuosity in Gerusalemme Liberata, a poem with few moments of levity. It is harder to rhyme in English than in Italian, however, and sustaining the ottava rima rhyme scheme for several thousand stanzas is very difficult. It has been done: Sir John Harington and Edward Fairfax, the Elizabethan translators of Ariosto and Tasso respectively, reproduced those poets’ tonal ranges in English octaves with fair success. In The Faerie Queene Spenser maintains an even more rhyme-intensive nine-line stanza over hundreds of pages with remarkably few forced rhymes, though he eased his task by inventing a pseudo-medieval vocabulary, giving himself dozens of extra words to rhyme on. The modern tendency, following Byron, has been to use rhymed stanzas for light verse, in which playful, self-consciously obtrusive rhymes are part of the atmosphere. But obtrusive rhymes are like 30-foot shots in basketball. They look good when you hit, ugly when you miss, and in all but the surest hands hits are rarer than misses. Not only must the rhyme be clever, but it must appear effortless, and that impression comes from rhyming unobtrusively the rest of the time. Byron’s famous look-at-me triple rhymes – ‘laureate/Tory at’, ‘intellectual/henpecked you all’, ‘adultery/sultry’ – charm us because in thousands of other lines he makes ottava rima look easy. When Slavitt, however, ends a canto with ‘Bear with me. It’ll be worth it, you betch’em (oh,/it’s a wretched rhyme!), in Canto Decimo’ it sounds like desperation, and the damage is self-inflicted, since nothing compelled him to rhyme on ‘decimo’ in the first place.
Slavitt’s translation shortens the poem by nearly half – a cost-containment decision, we are told in the preface. The poem’s first half is nearly complete, its second half mostly left out; the missing sections get bigger the closer we get to the end. This distorts the poem’s shape and creates a sense of flagging energy. There are further oddities in the selection. If Slavitt seeks to entertain, why does he leave out one of the poem’s best known and funniest set pieces, the innkeeper’s tale of Canto 28? (Harington’s translation of the Furioso came about, the story goes, after he circulated his version of this bawdy canto at court, and his godmother Queen Elizabeth ordered him to translate the rest of the poem as a punishment.) Cuts as short as three stanzas are made to no obvious purpose. The lunar episode is cut off in the middle. But a greater drawback is the lack of notes. This may have been another cost-containment measure, or it may reflect the belief that notes scare off the common reader, the accepted view among most publishers but quite erroneous. We all need notes when we read a 500-year-old poem; not to provide them leaves hundreds of references unintelligible. That we now require notes to understand what earlier readers would have grasped immediately is inevitable. It’s just the work of the tireless old man by the river.
A fully satisfying English translation of Orlando Furioso is probably impossible, and for readers who need to be taught that ‘poetry can be fun,’ Slavitt’s version may fill a niche. For others, there are other translations. The previous version in English verse was done in the 1970s by Barbara Reynolds. It is more conservative metrically and stylistically; Slavitt describes it as not ‘funny enough, or sprightly enough’, but Reynolds’s restraint is better suited to the poem’s serious passages than Slavitt’s sprightliness, and since she does not insert so many new jokes her humour more closely resembles Ariosto’s. If you have some Italian and want a literal English version as a crib, Guido Waldman’s prose translation is the way to go. But the best Orlando Furioso in English is still Harington’s.