Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation
by Ludovico Ariosto
translated by David R. Slavitt
Belknap, 688 pages, $39.95
Profane, urbane, jocose and headlong, Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso is the artistic and temperamental opposite of the other Tuscan epic, The Divine Comedy. In one hundred cantos constructed of threefold rhymes, traversing three worlds with four levels of interpretation, and following first Virgil, then Statius, then Beatrice, step by step, Dante passes from the Dark Wood to the source of light. Orlando Furioso rocks on horseback—sometimes flying-horseback—or wanders crazed through a landscape peopled with knights and enchanters, churls and maidens, monsters and saints. Ariosto’s ottava rima verses, like the musical octave, venture far afield yet magically return, resolved.
Every epic poet uses all that’s been written or otherwise known to his time. But Ariosto’s sources and learning fuel a comic invention akin to the greatest Hollywood sword-and-sorcery movie yet to be produced; it’s a far cry from the opera seria of Dante Alighieri and his guides. Like Ovid, another antic eclectic, Ariosto takes pleasure in profusion, love, and change. If Dante is law, Ariosto is legend. Where Dante frowns, Ariosto smiles.
Since the late eighteenth century, there have been multiple translations of The Divine Comedy in every generation. The same can’t be said for Orlando Furioso. In the introduction to his 1999 complete prose translation of Ariosto’s epic, Guido Waldman notes that, despite three eighteenth-century verse attempts, Harington’s 1591 edition wasn’t superseded until Sir Walter Scott’s friend William Stuart Rose published his English ottava rima rendition in 1831. Scott recorded in his Journal that Rose’s poem should be issued with the Italian printed on facing pages, to assist the reader in understanding the English. In 1968, just such a bilingual edition was published, edited by Stewart Baker and A. Bartlett Giamatti, the future commissioner of baseball.
Though Orlando Furioso lacks for translators, it is more than acknowledged by what T.S. Eliot might call acts of theft. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene was written explicitly to surpass the Italian epic, which celebrates the founding of Ferrara’s House of Este, much as Virgil’s Aeneid celebrates the reign of Augustus Caesar.
William Shakespeare lifted from Orlando. Don Quixote tried to live the poem. Byron, first in Beppo and then in Don Juan, found in Ariosto’s stance and stanza the perfect model for his own comic epic of state and manners, morals and emotions. Xena the Warrior Princess owes a debt to Ariosto’s casting and plotting. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Walter Scott and Jules Verne all have a common ancestor in the Este’s court poet. John Milton concludes the first sentence of Paradise Lost with his intention to pursue “things unattempted yet in prose or rime.” Milton’s vaunt is a literal translation of Orlando Furioso, canto 1, second stanza, second line: cosa non detta in prosa mai né in rima.
The Furioso is also the ultimate chivalric romance. It recounts the deeds of knights and ladies at the court of a hard-put Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who is beset by North African Islamic armies in Spain and Provence. The poem travels as well to the British Isles and the Holy Land, to Hell, to Paradise, and to the Moon. In pastoral mode, Orlando Furioso elegizes a vanished aristocracy, satirizes the leveling tendencies of gunpowder warfare, and sings the power of erotic love that brooks no distinctions. Ariosto’s two-edged dream of a resurgent Western European empire, written in a time of warring city-states, takes a science-fiction romp through the natural and supernatural.
It’s a proto-feminist, aristocratic tract, antimonastic and ambivalently heroic, caroling traffic between heaven and earth if not between God and man. The poem ends with a dagger plunged into the forehead of Saracen Rodomont, whose spirit flees, cursing to the shores of Acheron.
In my second year of college, my classmate Billy Schwartz invited me to dinner at his aunt and uncle Diane and Lionel Trilling’s apartment. Waiting for the meat loaf to be done, Trilling asked me if I’d ever heard of Henry Sutton and, chuckling, handed me a small plastic viewer, a kind of one-shot peep show. I peered: A naked woman’s back, swathed in 1960s psychedelic light, captioned The Exhibitionist, by Henry Sutton. “I got this from the publisher,” Professor Trilling said. “Take it.”
The Exhibitionist and its sequel, The Voyeur, were soft-core pornographic novels written under a pseudonym by a Yale whiz kid, David Slavitt. As a marketing talking point, the slumming academic studded his steamy tale with lots of what he called “nuggets,” meaning literary phrases—not like Mickey Spillane’s “Therein lies the rub” but highbrow and otherwise undetectable-to-the-unknowing gems.
In this version of Orlando Furioso, translator David Slavitt goes the other way. There’s no pseudonym to hide behind, but of course he’s playing with another person’s work.
Consider Ariosto’s canto 1, stanza 2, the one Milton mined:
Dirò d’Orlando in un medesmo tratto
cosa non detta in prosa mai né in rima:
che per amor venne in furore e matto,
d’uom che s saggio era stimato prima;
se da colei che tal quasi m’ha fatto,
che ‘l poco ingegno ad or mi lima,
me ne sarà però tanto concesso,
che mi basti a finir quanto ho promesso.
This is Harington’s account of the same:
I will no lesse Orlandos acts declare,
(A tale in prose ne verse yet sung or said)
Who fell bestraught with love, a hap most rare,
To one that erst was counted wise and stayd:
If my sweet Saint that causeth my like care,
My slender muse affoord some gracious ayd,
I make no doubt but I shall have the skill,
As much as I have promist to fulfill.
Assisted by the Italian, here’s Rose’s rendering:
In the same strain of Roland will I tell
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,
On whom strange madness and rank fury fell,
A man esteemed so wise in former time;
If she, who to like cruel pass has well
Nigh brought my feeble wit which fain would climb
And hourly wastes my sense, concede me skill
And strength my daring promise to fulfil.
And, finally, the Slavitt:
Orlando, as well, I’ll celebrate, setting down
what has not yet been told in verse or prose—
how love drove him insane, who had been known
before as wise and prudent (like me, God knows,
until I, too, went half mad with my own
love-folly that makes it so hard to compose
in ottava rima. I pray I find the strength
to write this story in detail and at length).
Ariosto’s stanza, one long sentence, doesn’t pause until the second line; it measures out the balance of its declaration with six rhymed, end-stopped lines. Harington hangs fire at line two, then pushes forward. Rose follows Ariosto for half the stanza, only to lose himself, and me, in a confused avowal of erotomania.
Slavitt makes of Ariosto’s one sentence two and pours on the enjambment. The first, a run-on, ends with the declaration that the speaker’s “love-folly” makes it hard to compose in ottava rima. Try reading that as prose, which, as poetry, is supposed to be at least as well written. And what to make of the lines as a declaration of feeling? Awkward, at the very least. And maybe less than heartfelt? The stanza closes with a padded couplet, where Slavitt (oddly) asks for strength, not skill.
Now, Ariosto had no problem writing ottava rima. His invocation-cum-prayer-for-inspiration acknowledges that the world can be distracting, that it’s difficult to keep going to the end, and that, while the stories he tells may be fantastic, the emotions they engage are authentic. Ariosto’s manner, like Lord Byron’s, is sincere. Were the poet not so poised and musical, the poem’s matter would be too painful to bear. So who is this narrator, the “I,” of Slavitt’s verse translation? And what’s this peek-a-boo?
Whoever is telling this tale, he is not willing to be ignored. Mayhap a learned translator, he’s also a present-tense conversationalist, a regular, easy-going guy:
The knight once more falls silent. You remember the knight
is talking to Bradamante. Those quotation
marks were reminders of this. But his story was quite
long, and during the course of his narration,
you may have forgotten the frame. But that’s all right.
Canto 2, stanza 58
I tried tilting my head to one side and squinting, to see if I could get past the lame rhymes and screaming mimis. But how to ignore this kind of clunkiness?
What can be sadder in life or in literature
than the death of a beautiful woman? What can be worse
than the sacrifice of such a lovely and pure
creature? Therefore in prose as well as verse
it comes up a lot. It’s difficult to endure
even the thought, but some of the tales we rehearse
will provide at the last minute a hero who may
deliver her from danger and save the day.
Canto 10, stanza 94
Or this mugger, doing an Eric Idle impression:
And what do you think happened that night between
Doralice and Agrican’s son? Do you
Think. . . ? (Wink, wink! Nudge, nudge! Know what I mean?)
Canto 14, stanza 63
Slavitt’s academic presenter, Charles Ross, professor of English at Purdue, describes this Orlando Furioso stanza form as “an elastic version of iambic pentameter that suits modern reading habits.” This is a strong second to the translator’s introduction, where Slavitt asserts that English ottava rima is more startling and impish than Italian (“as Byron shows us”). He states that students don’t know that poetry can be fun.
Ah, those who do not know.
There’s more to ottava rima than eight lines, as Byron, speaking of the harem, shows:
No solemn, antique gentleman of rhyme,
Who having angled all his life for fame,
And getting but a nibble at a time,
Still fussily keeps fishing on, the same
Small ‘Triton of the minnows’, the sublime
Of mediocrity, the furious tame,
The echo’s echo, usher of the school
Of female wits, boy bards—in short, a fool!
Slavitt further justifies his enterprise on the grounds that other translations are “too Elizabethan” (Harington), too “romantic and respectful” (Rose), “handy only as a trot” (Waldman), or “not funny enough” (a recent verse version by Barbara Reynolds).
All these beneficiaries of Slavitt’s contumely, living and dead, share one attribute: completeness. It may seem an odd quibble, but finishing the job might have rescued this sorry enterprise. Pleading production costs, this self-proclaimed broadener of what he calls Ariosto’s Anglophone audience defaces even the poem’s architecture. Translation stops at canto 34.
Laurance Wieder is a poet and author of Words to God’s Music: A New Book of Psalms.