Taking Liberties

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”—that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular—were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments; only stories of the Arthurian court (the “Matter of Britain”) rivaled them in popularity, variety, or extravagance of invention. One would scarcely guess this if one knew only of the Chanson de Roland, the late-eleventh-century poem from which the whole Carolingian cycle sprang. Unlike the earliest Arthurian fables, it was a fairly plain affair, with only a few touches of the incredible; but, once the Carolingian theme had been stated, the variations that followed—in successive chansons de geste and cantares de gesta and Heldengedichte and “epick histories”—departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478–83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516–32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively—though somehow quite nimbly—from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read and their influence pervaded all the literatures of the continent. It would be hard to exaggerate their importance for later Italian and French writers (Rabelais is unimaginable without Pulci, for instance), but they may have left their most indelible mark on English letters, from Spenser to Byron and beyond. Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

There is at least some small justice in this: Ariosto is the greatest of the three—the best poet, the most imaginative fantasist, the wittiest humorist, the gravest tragedian—and so, if only one of them is to be allowed a significant posterity, it should be he. The Furioso retains and improves on the best aspects of the other two romances—Morgante’s ribaldry and irreverence, the Innamorato’s eroticism and fancy—while enlarging the scope of action, enriching the portrayals of individual characters, and infusing the whole with a greater and more ironic sophistication.

Exactly what the poem is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications—and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

This brings me, reluctantly, to the occasion of this review.

Orlando Furioso has never wanted for translators. New English versions have appeared with some regularity ever since John Harington’s splendid edition of 1591. In modern English, there are two faithful and readable translations readily available: Guido Waldman’s in prose, and Barbara Reynolds’s in verse. Now David R. Slavitt has entered the lists with a verse rendering of his own, and, well….What can one say of Slavitt’s version? Clearly it is to his credit that he would undertake such an enormous task, and that he wants to make the book available in what he takes to be an engaging form. But, frankly, there is nothing to recommend this book. In his preface, Slavitt makes high claims for his achievement: he believes that he—unlike any of his predecessors, with the possible exception of Harington—has genuinely captured Ariosto’s mercurial “playfulness”; he is sufficiently pleased with his attempts at an English ottava rima that he does not hesitate to invoke Byron; and he thinks that the exorbitant liberties he takes with the text and the constant intrusions of his own voice into the poem somehow capture the spirit of the original better than a more faithful rendition would. On every count, he is badly mistaken.

One would never know from the book’s cover that this edition of the Furioso is an abridgement (it is little more than half the length of Ariosto’s text)—and not a judicious abridgement. The first half of the epic is more or less intact; but then it is as if Slavitt simply grew fatigued with the whole project and began hacking off great portions at random. The entire story collapses in a heap of disjointed fragments, and all of Ariosto’s mad, elegant narrative choreography is lost. Just as the poem is building to its multiple climaxes, for instance, Slavitt cavalierly skips the last eighty stanzas of Canto 30, then all of Cantos 31 to 33, then the first thirty-nine stanzas of Canto 34, and then all of Canto 35—and so on. Crucial episodes disappear altogether, and what remains is incoherent.

And then there is Slavitt’s poetry. Charles S. Ross, in his introduction to the volume, says that Slavitt writes in an “elastic version of iambic pentameter,” which is a nice way of saying that his verse does not scan very well. True, it is pentameter for the most part, but in sprung rhythm—now iambic, now dactylic or anapestic or what have you—with lines of anywhere from ten to fifteen syllables. In principle, this is a problem: the special charm of good ottava rima, as Byron showed, is its combination of aphoristic brevity and humorous digression, which only works when metric discipline is fairly rigid and the rhymes are clever. Slavitt’s dilated periods might be bearable if one did not have to read so many lines twice to hear the stresses, and if his stanzas were not so awkwardly put together. To take a specimen more or less at random:

Is it paradise? Or hell? Or is it the place
where Love was born? Everybody is dancing,
singing, or playing games. There is no trace
of snowy-headed Thought. Lascivious
seems to be what they do here. In any case,
Abundance is everywhere on display,
And scattering goodies from its cornucopia
In what could easily pass as a utopia.

This is simply laborious doggerel.

Slavitt is dismissive of the Barbara Reynolds Furioso; it is not, to his mind, “funny” or “sprightly” enough. In reality, Reynolds’s version is superior to Slavitt’s: it is complete, it is immeasurably more accurate, its versification is far more competent, and—most important—it captures Ariosto’s tone far more exactly. Take this stanza, faithfully translated by Reynolds:

What in the darkness of the night befell
Between the Tartar and the young princess
I cannot, I regret, precisely tell,
So everyone must be content to guess.
I think that they agreed together well
For in the morning they arose no less
But rather more content; and, turning to
Their host, the princess thanked him, as
 was due.

 Then compare it to Slavitt’s version:

 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?)
I’ll let you imagine what you like. But it’s
that in the morning both of them were seen
to be somewhat more cheerful. And calmer,
She thanked the shepherd for putting them
 up, and he
Said they were welcome, responding most

It is a matter of taste whether one finds the Monty Python cameo amusing, but it is matter of simple fact that these sorts of broad vaudevillian antics are utterly alien to Ariosto’s voice. His is a dry and understated brand of wit, which Reynolds much better approximates. (“I think that they agreed together well” is just right.)

Suffice it to say that I come to praise the Furioso, but to bury this latest translation. For those who want to enjoy the book in English, the best choices are still the Harington, Reynolds, and Waldman versions.


Related: William L. Portier reviews David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions

Published in the 2010-07-16 issue: 

David Bentley Hart is a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. His translation of the New Testament has recently been published by Yale University Press.

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