Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation
by Ludovico Ariosto
translated by David R. Slavitt
Belknap, 688 pages, $39.95
Profane, urbane, jocose and headlong, Ariostos 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. Ariostos ottava rima verses, like the musical octave, venture far afield yet magically return, resolved.
Every epic poet uses all thats been written or otherwise known to his time. But Ariostos sources and learning fuel a comic invention akin to the greatest Hollywood sword-and-sorcery movie yet to be produced; its 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 cant be said for Orlando Furioso . In the introduction to his 1999 complete prose translation of Ariostos epic, Guido Waldman notes that, despite three eighteenth-century verse attempts, Haringtons 1591 edition wasnt superseded until Sir Walter Scotts friend William Stuart Rose published his English ottava rima rendition in 1831. Scott recorded in his Journal that Roses 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 Spensers Faerie Queene was written explicitly to surpass the Italian epic, which celebrates the founding of Ferraras House of Este, much as Virgils 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 Ariostos 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 Ariostos 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 Estes court poet. John Milton concludes the first sentence of Paradise Lost with his intention to pursue things unattempted yet in prose or rime. Miltons 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. Ariostos 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.
Its 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 Trillings apartment. Waiting for the meat loaf to be done, Trilling asked me if Id ever heard of Henry Sutton and, chuckling, handed me a small plastic viewer, a kind of one-shot peep show. I peered: A naked womans 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 Spillanes 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. Theres no pseudonym to hide behind, but of course hes playing with another persons work.
Consider Ariostos canto 1, stanza 2, the one Milton mined:
Dirò dOrlando in un medesmo tratto
cosa non detta in prosa mai né in rima:
che per amor venne in furore e matto,
duom che s saggio era stimato prima;
se da colei che tal quasi mha fatto,
che l poco ingegno ad or mi lima,
me ne sar però tanto concesso,
che mi basti a finir quanto ho promesso.
This is Haringtons 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, heres Roses 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, Ill 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).
Ariostos stanza, one long sentence, doesnt 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 Ariostos one sentence two and pours on the enjambment. The first, a run-on, ends with the declaration that the speakers 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 its difficult to keep going to the end, and that, while the stories he tells may be fantastic, the emotions they engage are authentic. Ariostos manner, like Lord Byrons, is sincere. Were the poet not so poised and musical, the poems matter would be too painful to bear. So who is this narrator, the I, of Slavitts verse translation? And whats this peek-a-boo?
Whoever is telling this tale, he is not willing to be ignored. Mayhap a learned translator, hes 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 thats 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. Its 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 Agricans son? Do you
Think . . . ? (Wink, wink! Nudge, nudge! Know what I mean?)
Canto 14, stanza 63
Slavitts 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 translators introduction, where Slavitt asserts that English ottava rima is more startling and impish than Italian (as Byron shows us). He states that students dont know that poetry can be fun.
Ah, those who do not know.
Theres 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 echos 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 Slavitts 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 Ariostos Anglophone audience defaces even the poems architecture. Translation stops at canto 34.
Laurance Wieder is a poet and author of Words to Gods Music: A New Book of Psalms .