12-1 literature

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.1 (Winter 2012)

 

literary analysis

index.8

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Selections from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: Translation and Commentary

John R. Harris

Introduction

Ludovico Ariosto passed his professional life as what we would call today a civil servant (or, with more invidious connotation, a government bureaucrat).  He knew the rules of courtesy well, but he had not the aristocratic pedigree to be a courtier.  He had read at least as many lengthy romances about knights errant as anyone else, but he personally lacked the means and the training to bear arms and the leisure to contribute readily to the vast literary fantasy surrounding such warriors.  With admirable determination, however, he appears to have devoted the years from 1511 to 1515 to composing the first edition of his rambling epic, Orlando Furioso (Orlando Gone Mad)—the more remarkably in that he was seeking patronage and employment over most of this time.  In the ensuing two decades before his death, he would persist in making major changes and additions to the text, producing two distinctly altered editions.  The huge opus (a bound copy would run about 1,000 pages in today’s standard font) represented itself as the continuation of a highly popular romantic epic from the late fifteenth century: the Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love) of Matteo Boiardo.  Ariosto indeed not only retained Boiardo’s verse and stanzaic form, but also assumed at numerous points that his readers well recalled the previous work.  For instance, Rinaldo’s chasing after Angelica immediately in the opening stanzas of Canto 1 seems a bit opaque if we do not know the history between the two in Boiardo.  Angelica had drunk of a magical fountain which plunged her into a mad passion for Rinaldo, while he had drunk of another fountain inspiring him with insurmountable aversion to her.  Then the two had refreshed themselves each at the opposite fount, and their sentimental polarities were perfectly reversed!

Such tortuously interlaced, outlandishly protracted adventures were obviously intended to amuse a bored audience of fully literate haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy, many of them women, rather in the fashion of the late great American television soap opera.  Romance has played to this audience throughout its long history.  Small wonder, then, that readers almost universally accepted the Furioso as its author had advertised it tongue-in-cheek: a continuation of the Innamorato, complete with nightmarish monsters, miraculous charms, and irresistible spells.  Of the recorded responses to the work which have reached us from the Renaissance, only the notes of Galileo (who knew his way around books as well as telescopes) seem alert to the possibility that everything has changed in the transition from Boiardo to Ariosto.  To a reader as shrewd as the beleaguered astronomer, all the monsters and charms and spells have lost their supernatural force in the later book.  They are symbols, rather, of human nature’s various flights of egotism and self-delusion—what we would call psychological pathologies; or at most, where magic really seems to allude to no derangement of the subject’s mind, it is yet unable to have any profound and lasting impact upon that mind.  People are locked within their personalities.  It pleases them to project their willful distortions of reality upon some empirical source, but the ploy is mere self-indulgence.  What need is there, after all, of a “love” fountain and a “hate” fountain to explain the fickle hearts of Rinaldo and Angelica?  Every person wise to the world knows that certain wretches in this life have made such a game of love that they are drawn only to those they cannot have.  It is madness—a general madness, expressed in dozens of specific ways.  Orlando’s is only the most spectacular and tragic lunacy.

For Orlando comes closest by far in this vast cast of characters to genuine chivalry, if such a thing ever existed: hence his spiritual (or psychological) disorder is the most disappointing.  He alone of Ariosto’s male knights does not instantly apply himself to exploiting Angelica sexually as soon as she crosses his path.  Rather, he indulges her with truly epic endurance, waiting and waiting for her to become the pure spiritual ideal that his great heart worships idolatrously.  His expectations of her, naturally, are the root of his madness.  If any woman could be the Galatea that he repeatedly and insistently thrusts upon a pedestal, it would not be this pampered and intellectually limited beauty.  One may scarcely say that he is deceived in Angelica, since he has never taken in enough of her true nature to hazard a guess at the unseen part.  She is a complete stranger to him, rather.  Shortly before going stark-raving mad over her elopement with another man (a boy, really—no fit match at all for a princess or an adult), he seems at last to grasp vaguely that the woman to whom he has dedicated his mortal life never existed, and that Angelica was the mannequin wearing this woman’s celestial garb.  His own loss of identity within the lovely phantom’s evaporated substance is utter and catastrophic.

The real Angelica, a classic passive-aggressive, is always on the run from some pursuer or other, yet she eagerly lends herself to creating these unwelcome situations.  Ariosto gives us no indication that she has ever forthrightly told Orlando of her distaste for him.  In fact, we see in her scheming enlistment of Sacripante’s services a modus operandi that appears standard for her.  Ironically (and Ariosto’s text is drenched in irony—he is the anti-Boiardo, in current idiom), the deal with the Circassian king almost sets her up to suffer the very rape she has been fleeing at the hands of Rinaldo and Ferrau.  Her schemes turn out to be dangerously obtuse.  When—without suspecting it in the least—she is saved by the happy chance of Bradamante’s passing through, she comforts the fallen Sacripante with words that claim a fine understanding of chivalry but that, instead, reveal a gross ignorance of it.  This, by the way, is the only speech she utters in Canto 1, and she has but few more throughout the vast romance.  The absence of “voice” in her is a typically subtle Ariostan clue to her psyche’s composition.  One must suppose that ravishingly beautiful women of her stamp do not enjoy being sized up ever and always at skin-level—yet she has become so accustomed (as has many a Hollywood starlet) to the power conferred upon her by such facile admiration that she has failed to develop beyond early adolescence internally.  She lets her body speak for her because its language is heeded by men: in the meantime, she does not tax her mind with the struggle to find words for her feelings.  It is not at all improbable (again, in light of Ariosto’s exquisite subtlety) that her caustic, foolish short-changing of Bradamante’s valor stems from a secret resentment of the strange knight’s not having hung around to court her like so many others—like all the others.  She does not know when she delivers these insipid lines that her savior is no less female than she herself!

Other characters in Ariosto are downright loathsome.  The back-stabbing liar and assassin Pinabello, the superannuated religious hermit whose “assistance” to Angelica is interrupted by what is now publicly denominated erectile dysfunction, and many other minor figures paint a picaresque background straight out of Don Quixote while would-be valiants occupy the foreground in real armor and strike real blows.  Ariosto would surely have had ample occasion to imbibe deeply the lessons of human duplicity, fraud, arrogance, vainglory, lust, and envy as he eked out a wage barely sufficient to sustain himself and his family.  Italian politics was in an almost chaotic state of flux at the time.  Duke Alfonso d’Este, the brother of Ariosto’s long-time employer, the Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, fell from Rome’s grace so far as to be excommunicated at one point for collaborating with the French.  If Ariosto himself hoped to steer clear of the wreckage or to profit from his patron’s later good fortunes, Lady Luck always seemed to elude his advances.  One can glimpse in him without too much squinting a soulmate of Machiavelli—yet another petty official who had studied the court at close range and was consistently overlooked by the power-brokers therein.  The heroic age was plainly dead when examined from such a wry perspective: it could plainly be seen never to have lived.  Such fine analysts of motive and constant observers of ambition would see only too well that the good in human beings, if not completely absent, is nevertheless forever being drawn into selfish designs.  As La Rouchfoucauld would write about a century later, “Altruism eventually disappears into self-interest even as rivers disappear into the sea.”

All the same, to leave so bleak an impression hanging over Ariosto’s work would be unfair.  The Furioso is often fun to read in the way of any burlesque parody of a genre grown too pompous.  To see people taking themselves too seriously—ranking their motives as far too pure and their achievements as far too brilliant—always induces a laugh, for we find it comical to surprise our fellow beings in awkward situations to which they themselves appear oblivious.  Ariosto is one of literature’s great masters at portraying such people in such situations.  (The wonderful word “rodomontade”, I may say by way of example, earned a permanent place in many Western languages thanks to the unwieldy, nearly insane boasts of Ariosto’s pagan king Rodomonte, not to Boiardo’s version of the same figure.)  The humor in question is not entirely bitter, by any means: we can laugh heartily at people we like.  Comical as Orlando’s folly is, we might not perceive much inconsistency between it and his intent if we could recognize in him nothing but another Machiavellian schemer.  Even Angelica, as noted, often becomes her own worst enemy and thereby fails to make the grade as a despicable femme fatale.  One has the sense that many of these characters might have been better or done better with a little more protection from their inner demons—that they are far more pitiable than contemptible.  The case of Ruggiero (the supposed forebear of Ippolito, to whom Ariosto dedicated his work in a vain attempt to garner some support for it), is highly instructive.  A young man so confused that he does not even know the details of his birth—does not know, in particular, that he serves the king who caused his father’s death—this wayward fiancé of the noble Bradamante lays hold of every error within his reach.  He not only defends the wrong sovereign and the wrong faith: he is also led astray by the feigned beauty of the witch Alcina (an episode copied by Spenser, lock stock and barrel, for The Faerie Queene, though of course without any awareness of its comic implications).  Ruggiero, in short, has the particular failings of many a handsome, virile youth more given to physical activity than study.  He even enters himself upon the list of Angelica’s attempted seducers when he chances to see her chained naked to a rock for the Orc’s dinner.  The best one can say of this encounter is that, along with all of Ruggiero’s other missteps, it reflects no premeditation.

No one would fault Bradamante for giving up on the lad.  Instead, she keeps his potential constantly before her mind’s eye and tracks him through his high-risk vagaries with forgiveness, intelligence, and patience ever at her disposal.  In the end, he finishes right-side-up—and this is due completely to Bradamante, the true hero of a very long story.  A Machiavellian world has no room for her virtues: indeed, they would only mislead her there into one incidence of exploitation after another.  In Ariosto’s world, however, she is the big winner.  We must not overlook the critical importance of that fact.  Virtue does exist here—and it is self-serving, perhaps, insofar as Bradamante loves her man and wants very much to share her life with him.  Socratic virtue is self-serving in the same way: it seeks the good because no rational man can be happy living in the bad.  For the very reason that our heroine’s love is ever engaged in measuring reality and constructing strategies, by the same token, it is not the fantastical chasing of a mirage that destroys Orlando.  The good life is built upon knowing oneself and knowing others, and then acting in accord with cool, objective calculations.  Suicide is of benefit to no one.

Why did so few readers even of Ariosto’s own day insist upon taking his work without a grain of salt, forever poring over his delightful vignettes straight-faced and dull-witted?  I readily confess that my own translations have inserted touches of Byron’s Don Juan in order to bring the humor out of hiding—that the original Italian rarely has the degree of word play or metrical high jinks that I have built into English.  The stiff translations of Croker (from the mid-eighteenth century) and Rose (from the mid-nineteenth) are rarely imprecise in specific choice of diction; most of the time, they may well be less so than my rendition.  We must not conclude, therefore, that Europe of the Renaissance and shortly thereafter did not literally understand Ariosto.  The Italian of this audience was in good repair.

Yet it did not understand his mood.  I shall write more of translation momentarily.  For now, however, let us not miss an opportunity to remark a phenomenon seldom discussed or studied, but often discernible in literary history.  It is this: the best parodists, being the most subtle, are also the most likely to be miscast as “serious artists”.  Ovid’s encyclopedic review of ancient myth in the Metamorphoses allows traditional tales (and the traditions remained sacred to some) to indict and convict themselves of absurdity.  He merely tells them, with selective attention to their most preposterous elements.  Yet his opus was regarded in the Middle Ages as no less reverend than Virgil’s Aeneid: Dante admits him to the circle of antiquity’s most sublime epic poets in Limbo.  Or consider Yuan Chen’s “Tale of Ying-ying” from ninth-century China.  To this day, scholars puzzle over the author’s intent.  A romance the story surely is—but is it a parodic romance?  The clues are quite Ariostan, really (if I may speak anachronistically).  We are never told that the two lovers are not really in love: we can only measure their curious responses against what our own (or any normal person’s) would have been in the same situation.  Why do they continually manufacture crises for their relationship until it ruptures under so much needless pressure?  When the little work was “rewritten” as the massive Romance of the Western Chamber, the missing happy ending was supplied, and audiences no longer had to wonder if the lovers might be psychologically out of kilter.  No doubt, Boiardo would have done the same thing to the Furioso if he could have come back to life.

Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida has been labeled a “problem play” by scholars because Troilus rings hollow as Romeo and Cressida sings her Juliet off key.  In twentieth-century cinema, when Akira Kurosawa turned the samurai warrior into a cynical renegade (and inspired Sergio Leone to plagiarize him with “spaghetti westerns” that likewise undermined the chivalrous cowboy), their films met with a dazed response, and often an indignant one.  Then their works were endlessly copied, and then—or as part of the copying process, really—inexorably morphed into an ultra-violent but once more straight-faced version of the former myth.

Something in us is resistant to parody.  Its subversion of the inherited mold, after all, does not offer any sort of replacement: the immediate option seems to be nihilism.  Ovid may have embraced that option; but, as I have tried to argue urgently, Ariosto would not have, any more than Shakespeare (with whom he shares a very guarded but indomitable hope in human nature).  Nevertheless, reading a parody on its on terms requires moral fortitude.  Flann O’Brian’s The Poor Mouth (which he originally wrote in Irish as An Béal Bocht) may be one of the funniest books ever written.  It is also, as one realizes somewhere shortly after the final page, one of the most depressing.

How, then, to translate a work whose parodic humor posterity has largely chosen to ignore?  My conclusion in Ariosto’s case was that a little friendly elbowing might serve.  Below, for instance, are offered three translations—Croker’s, Rose’s, and mine—of the same two stanzas from Canto 1.  In this scene, Angelica overhears Sacripante grieving her loss… or so we think, at first.  After all, a great battle has just been fought, thousands have been slain or wounded, and the Circassian knows that the object of his affections was in the Christian camp just before it was stormed in a rout.  He has every reason to worry over the princess’s safety: any lover would be half-mad in the same situation.  What we realize (or ought to realize) as the soliloquy proceeds, however, is that Sacripante never voices a thought about his beloved’s physical wellbeing.  The exclusive motive for all his whining and wailing is that someone else, he is convinced, will have enjoyed the harvest of that virgin flower he had hoped to keep all to himself.

Consider, then, the effect of translating the Italian as a straight love elegy, an approach one might justify through strict adherence to Ariosto’s word selection while ignoring the context that I have just outlined:

Temple Henry Croker (mid-18th century)

“But, soon as e’er from its maternal place

‘Tis pluck’d, and from its verdant stem it goes,

All that it had from men and heav’n, the grace,

The favour, beauty, totally does lose.

The virgin, who that flow’r me ne’er should cease

Tend’rer than her fair eyes, or life, to use,

Yields but to one, has all (he once could boast)

Of worth, with all her former lovers, lost.

“Vile let her be to all, by him alone

Belov’d, to whom she did her hymen grant.

Fortune ingrate! thou cruelty hast mown,

That others triumph, while I die for want!

Can I then ever her dear charms disown?

Can I myself of my own life supplant?

Ah! sooner far may end this life of mine,

Than living I should e’er her love decline.”

William Stewart Rose (early 19th century)

“But wanton hands no sooner this displace

From the maternal stem, where it was grown,

Than all is withered; whatsoever grace

It found with man or heaven; bloom, beauty, gone.

The damsel who should hold in higher place

Than light or life the flower which is her own,

Suffering the spoiler’s hand to crop the prize,

Forfeits her worth in every other’s eyes.

“And be she cheap with all except the wight

On whom she did so large a boon bestow.

Ah! false and cruel Fortune! foul despite!

While others triumph, I am drown’d in woe.

And can it be that I such treasure slight?

And can I then my very life forego?

No! let me die; ’twere happiness above

A longer life, if I must cease to love.”

Rose’s expressions (would that his surname, in this case, were another!) are of course closer to those of our day by about a century; and for that reason alone, he appears instantly preferable.  Yet the substance of his translation does not differ significantly from Croker’s.  In both, Sacripante’s obsessive “flower” imagery is treated rather like the standard tropology of a sonnet—and indeed it was so; but neither translator does anything to highlight the boorish dehumanizing of Angelica that proceeds as the rose is imaginatively fondled in this setting.  (True to form, the eavesdropping beauty herself does not appear to grasp how low her disturbing beau values her as a person.)  The second stanza emerges, too, as the standard resolve of the desperate lover to die now that he has lost his lady.  Both Croker and Rose are in fact giving us a genre of poetry very common in their time—but not the Italian poem before them.

Now for the alternative:

 

   This Translation

“As soon as severed from its mother-nest of tendrils—

Green, fresh, and unhandled—now abruptly snapped—

The rose no more possesses all that lustrous marvel,

Grace, and charm assigned it by both god and man.

The virgin, too, whose flower more than life is special,

Ought with every effort hands ’way from it slap.

If ever she surrender, never will recover

Half its price her bower for a future lover.

“Devalued, then, to others, let her by him only

Cherished be to whom she gave her priceless wealth.

Ah, Fortune—cruel, ungrateful hag, to leave me lonely,

Others rich in plunder, naught for my poor pelf.

So can it really be that no more does she own me?

Am I really free to go and hang myself?

For much do I prefer life’s breath no more to harbor

Than to seek my feast in some less fruitful arbor.”

In the first stanza, I inserted the image of a hand slapping bold male touches away from the “flower” quite on my own.  Yet am I nevertheless not closer to Ariosto’s intent—is not Sacripante riveted upon the preservation of a certain anatomical condition, first and last?  If we were to parallel Sacripante with a Shakespearean lover, it would have to be the jealous and lascivious Troilus (of recent mention) rather than Romeo.  The translation’s language must show this: the images, though cliché, must be made to feel uncomfortably off track—undignified, and maybe even burlesque.

Similarly, in the second half of the next stanza I allowed myself several more liberties.  Ariosto does not have Sacripante talk of being owned, of hanging himself, or of seeking another arbor; but the translator, I think, must absolutely do something to shatter the disastrous misconception of this morbid mourner as a young Daphnis whose Chloe has been kidnapped.  In the ancient Greek romance, Daphnis looks tirelessly for Chloe day and night all over his small world, wanting only to find her alive.  Sacripante, however, has already given up the search since the window of opportunity for saving the “virgin rose” must certainly have closed.  Slunk over a sylvan stream, he occupies the posture of Narcissus—and he is indeed a narcissist.  As far as he is concerned, the crisis is not about Angelica, but about him.  His firing neurons, along with his egotistical sense of conquest, consume his every waking thought.  He is Angelica’s slave—and his freedom from her would be tantamount to suicide—only in the sense that ripping him out of his body would have the same effect.  I may risk crudity if I say that she belongs to his epidermis—but the crudity is in this character’s own conception.  In the grotesquerie of such possessiveness is nothing at all—nothing whatever—of the classic lover’s dedicated self-sacrifice.  As for slurping the fruits of another arbor, I would defend that mild emendation as follows.  The repugnance that Sacripante feels for new amorous foraging arises only from the necessity it would impose upon him of admitting that other people exist independently of himself: i.e., he would have to give up on the notion of dissolving another’s will completely into his own.  The translator must somehow project this twisted figure as he is: he must not be allowed to escape into another language disguised as a heartsick lover!

The reader will have noticed, as well, that my meter is much more complex than that used by the other two translators.  He or she will quickly grow used to it, I hope.  Something was needed to reproduce the jaunty, energetic effect of Ariosto’s lines, with their frequent elisions and their sprightly Italian gait.  Since the pattern I devised is truly rather intricate and labor-intensive, I have reserved versification below only for the passages that strike me as most revealing of character insights or most delightful in some other way.  The interstices have been filled in with prose summaries.

 

From Canto 1

Ariosto opens by announcing his grand epic project of commemorating the great war between Charlemagne and Agramante, who is invading Europe from Africa to avenge the death of his father (at the mighty Orlando’s hands in fair combat).  The stage is set for a decisive confrontation between two faiths and two civilizations.

Orlando rides into the Christian camp just in time to draw his sword for faith and emperor—but his arrival seems almost haphazard, and he soon regrets coming at all.  He has long been absent chasing about the world for the peerlessly lovely Angelica, whom he is now transporting from Asia in the hope that she may one day return his love.  (Her company is not entirely willing: though not physically held captive, she does not share Orlando’s passion.  She has latched onto him as an escort—a punctiliously honorable and courteous escort, who never lays a hand upon her—in order to escape another abduction described in Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, her ultimate objective being to return to Cathay.  She has heretofore thought an expression of her true wants and feelings not likely to work to her advantage.)  Orlando’s immediate problem is that his cousin Rinaldo also craves the ravishing princess.  Tension mounts between the two until Charlemagne must entrust the girl to an aged duke unable to participate in the looming battle.  The king promises the damsel to cousin of this heroic pair who fights better.

Ariosto devotes all of half a canto to the epochal battle—which does not go well for the Christians.  Like his protagonists, he seems more intent on the girl.

 

           5

Angelica held long Orlando’s adoration—

Months he spent with Hindus, Medes, and Tartars cruel

A-leaving in his wake of noisy desperation

Monuments immortal of his countless duels—

Before at last he trekked in doting abnegation

Westward with his prize, forced o’er his heart to rule.

The Pyrenean foothills, where the French and Germans

Gathered round their Charles, happened to disturb him

           6

Because a rude intrusion Africa was mounting:

King Marsilio was marching north in rage,

Whoever might a sword or lance uphold accounting

Fit to rub a Christian off of history’s page.

From vanquished Spain came also Agramante, counting

Few the days till France he’d likewise full encage.

One might thus have supposed Orlando’s timing happy:

Soon, however, things grew stickier than taffy.

7

Alas!  His bella donna was from him sequestered—

Oh, thou human judgment!  How thou art deceived!

The girl for whom he’d eastered and with whom he’d westered

Far as Helius—for whose sake did he bleed

In mighty combats often—now that no more pestered

Was he by opponents, by his king was seized!

For Charles, ever mindful of the empire’s int’rests,

Deemed that line of battle needs not lovely princess.

8

It seems upon the grand arrival of the hero—

Merely days before the battle over France—

The maiden goddess-like was noticed by Rinaldo,

Cousin to the Count and slave to wild romance.

The Emp’ror had no time for Cupid’s tickling arrows:

More concerned him far the African advance.

He handled Angelique like outbreak of malaria:

Quarantined, entrusted to Graf von Bavaria.

            9

The cousin who most pagans pulverized and plastered

(Charles loud proclaimed) would have the girl as prize:

The day would give occasion frequent for the master

Of the Western world to shine before all eyes.

Despite such motive rare, however, came disaster:

Soon were put to rout the ranks of the baptized.

Along with many more, the Graf fell prey to capture.

She in his protection fled to greener pastures.

            10

For that exquisite maid who would have been the victor’s

Live-and-waiting trophy nowhere could be found.

She’d shown the camp her lovely back when it befit her,

Making prudent exit as the foe gained ground.

Somehow she’d sensed that fickle Fortune would not favor

Christian over pagan once the chips came down.

Through dark woods now she traveled where the way seemed brightest.

Suddenly a knight rose where the path seemed tightest.

11

A breastplate on his torso, helmet on his noggin,

Broadsword at his waist and shield upon his arm,

He sprinted through the forest quick as jolly Robin

’Pon a village fairground racing for the palm.

And if a village milkmaid ’neath some firewood rotten

Chanced upon a snake, she’d scarce show more alarm.

Angelica right smartly reined her nimble prancer:

Something in this knight was rather too familiar.

12

The paladin Rinaldo—peerless, gallant warrior—

Son and heir of Amon, lord of Montalban—

’Twas he who by Baiardo, best of noble chargers,

In the battle’s madness had been left to walk.

As soon as he the damsel glanced above his visor,

Knew he well, though distant, her for whom he longed.

In face no less than name she conjured up high heaven:

Figure also added to the blessèd vision.

13

The lady turned her palfrey quickly to departure,

Giving it free rein to re-traverse the wood,

Her charting of their passage going little farther

Than to read AWAY from where Rinaldo stood.

Distraught and lovely-pallid, left she to her charger

Points of fine correction, that point understood—

Who all about the forest led them in a tizzy,

Stopping only where a river curbed their whimsy.

14

And who but brave Ferrau, the heathen, splashed those waters,

Wound in martial glory’s cape of dust and sweat?

Exhausted by his recent helping with the slaughter,

Late his thoughts had turned to finding something wet.

A minor sort of blunder forced him here to loiter:

Running rather rapid in a sudden crest,

The river took his helmet while he took refreshment:

Now he fished with fingers in the bottom’s sed’ment.

15

Abruptly comes the damsel, terrified and screaming

Loud as lady’s lungs have ever uttered forth.

Distracted from his labors, curious and streaming

Wet, the Saracen desires to find out more.

The face he quickly places; though it kept a-screeching,

Beauty so complete was known in soldiers’ lore

As only the exquisite, rival-less possession of

Someone whose apt name was said to be Angelica.

16

Of course, the pagan knight was courteous in manner

(Nor more blind to women than a Christian lord).

Whatever help he might, he freely sprang to offer,

Heedless that no helm his shoulders sat athwart.

For his part, bold Rinaldo waited without tremor

While the Moslem charged him with a waving sword.

Already knew each one the other, not from sighting

Only, but besides from many rounds of fighting.

Angelica has now encountered two knights representing either side of the epic confrontation—West against East, Europe against Africa, Christian against Muslim.  Yet neither warrior seems the least preoccupied with the battle’s outcome, his king’s safety, the location of his troops, etc.  Rinaldo is looking a) for his horse, and b) for Angelica (in no particular order), and nothing else.  Ferrau seeks a helmet that toppled into the stream with complete absorption.  When Angelica happens along as a kind of “windfall” pleasure, his ever-wandering attention grows utterly (for the moment) riveted upon her in a “courteous” impulse!

 

17

A battle hereupon was joined most cruel and savage,

Just as chance had chosen, sans horse and blades bare.

Forget your cuirasses and chainmail: ne’er had managed

Blacksmith’s massive anvils their hacks to impair.

Throughout the while they hammered, something of a passage

Opened for the lady’s ever-watchful mare.

Encouraged she the beast with both sweet heels aflutter:

Off they went again through vales and forests other.

 

18

In vain for quite a bit the warriors two had tangled

One against the other for the upper hand;

To neither was the skill the other one to mangle,

Both expertly tutored how thrusts to withstand.

The knight of Montalban was first to see an angle

Wherefrom truce appeared the most productive plan:

As one who suffocates without a space to breathe in,

Urgently he struggled for a space to reason.

 

19

At last he said, “You seem as I alone offend you,

Yet a greater foe you’ll find within yourself.

If this occurs because the fiery sun upsets you—

Maybe, hatless left, your brain has turned to gel—

The Heavens know; for, sure, it vantage none portends to

Fight me till you send me slaughtered to your hell.

In such a case is yours no more than mine the damsel,

Since as we dispute, she’s wearing out her saddle.

 

20

“If you indeed desire her, how distinctly better

After her you hie now, ere we lose the race.

As soon as we secure her, let’s resume; but get her

Must you from this distance at a doubled pace.

The sword may then decide which one of us will bed her:

Let the lovely bird be tethered first in place.

As things stand now, however, nothing but exhaustion

Pays the foolish winner of this bloody auction.”

 

21

The pagan this proposal found not lacking merit:

Both agreed to brief suspension of their duel;

And such the higher power of their treaty’s tenets—

Wonder though I speak—their furious wrath to rule

That once erectly mounted, th’ heathen knight relented,

Seeing Amon’s heir reduced to walking cruel:

He prays the knight to join him on the charger’s crupper.

Off then to deliver ’ngelica two lovers!

 

22

To think what noble goodness stirred those olden heroes!

Here they were, of hostile faiths and rival hopes,

Their bodies freshly aching from exchanges fearful,

Head to foot in wounds, their truce but brief in scope:

And yet, through parlous woods, by paths describing spirals,

Back to front they balance, up and down the slopes!

A double pair of spurs the courser keen incited

Till they reached a crossroads where they ways divided.

Of course, Ariosto’s praise of the noble knights of old is entirely tongue-in-cheek.  These two, as servants of their warring kings and defenders of their warring faiths, have incurred a major obligation to pursue their individual fight to the death.  Yet they quickly wave their duty aside to chase down the contest’s sexual trophy.  Their parting of the ways symbolizes the steady divagation of their personal values from objective reference points, since neither stays focused even on the girl for very long.  Ferrau quickly resumes splashing about for his helmet now that Angelica’s lovely body is out of sight; while Rinaldo, though more persistent, is now foolishly wandering about the woods once again, at least as much in need of a horse to ride as of a girl to hug.

The “chivalrous” collaboration of Rinaldo and Ferrau does not turn up the object of their search, however; and as soon as the two separate, Rinaldo quickly becomes occupied more with finding his elusive horse (who, like Angelica, blunders across his path and then gallops away), while Ferrau (in the “out of sight, out of mind” fashion typical of him) resumes looking for his helmet.  Ariosto settles his focus back upon Angelica.  Her wild ride now takes her to yet another solitary knight in this deep, wild, but apparently well-populated wood.  Unseen, she creeps closer until she manages to overhear the cause of his obvious distress: love—and love of her!  Yet the horticultural twist of all the knight’s favorite metaphors somehow robs his lament of any sympathetic quality as it proceeds.

 

41

“Thou, Thought,” he sighed, “whose touch my heart both sears and freezes,

Causing savage pain that gnaws into my breast,

Advise me what to do now that another reaches,

Hands outstretched, the fruit that was my hungry quest!

A few looks from afar were my taste of the peach’s

Nectar that some rival sucks on now with zest.

If neither fruit nor flower fall my lot to savor,

Why, perverse reflection, slay me with such pictures?

42

“For ripened virgin girls are like unto that flower,

Rose by name, that blossoms over jealous thorns

Protecting it securely in a shady bower

Though both sheep and shepherd eye it every morn.

Caressed by dewy dawn and harmless, airy zephyrs,

Richly swells its bloom from green stem never torn.

However, lads and lasses threaten constant torment

When in love, for always love they its adornment.

43

“As soon as severed from its mother-nest of tendrils—

Green, fresh, and unhandled—now abruptly snapped—

The rose no more possesses all that lustrous marvel,

Grace, and charm assigned it by both god and man.

The virgin, too, whose flower more than life is special,

Ought with every effort hands ’way from it slap.

If ever she surrender, never will recover

Half its price her bower for a future lover.

44

“Devalued, then, to others, let her by him only

Cherished be to whom she gave her priceless wealth.

Ah, Fortune—cruel, ungrateful hag, to leave me lonely,

Others rich in plunder, naught for my poor pelf.

So can it really be that no more does she own me?

Am I really free to go and hang myself?

For much do I prefer life’s breath no more to harbor

Than to seek my feast in some less fruitful arbor.”

45

If you should ask what specter haunted this sad river,

Spilling tributary tears into its flow,

My answer: the Circassian king who from the quiver

(Sacripant his name) direct knew Cupid’s bow.

I’d also say, if need for explanation further

Came, that only love had taught him here to go.

For yet another captive of our Angelique was

He: how well she knew it judge ye by the sequel.

46

Arrived at where the sun sets, back to dawn had wandered

Sacripante, such enthrallment to her famed

Perfection held him; yet all vainly had he squandered

Travel to the Ganges, for his angel’s name

Attached was to Orlando’s steady trekking westward

France and Charles ’gainst the pagan to maintain.

His latest information had her as the spoil

Promised to the cousin who more Moors could roil.

47

Participant he’d been in Charles’ vast disaster

Suffered earlier; Angelica, he knew,

Awaited then whatever hands could reach her faster—

Yet his luck continued: searching futile proved.

The consequences sad had shaped his present posture:

Lovesick unto death, incurable his rue,

Bedewing with his tears the forest, and expressions

Coined in grief that would have stopped the sun’s progression.

48

The while this gloomy prince was bitterly lamenting,

Rivaling a stream with lachrymal cascade,

In these and other words his anguish unrelenting

(Others through whose lake I think we need not wade),

The hussy, Fortune, switched her strategy, submitting

Angelique’s fair ear unto this bleak tirade.

And so a situation favoring the lover

Opened such as eons would not bring another.

49

The lovely fugitive at first more near had stolen,

Listening to tears, plaints, protests, similes,

And other eloquence to Love’s effects beholden—

’Fore now had she heard the king’s quaint rhapsodies.

To Fortune’s sweet seduction then she turned like column

Marble-hard and cold a wearied apathy:

The action of a belle who all the world despises

Since its males can never rise as high as she is.

50

However, that this forest lonely she traverses

Preys upon her mind and recommends a guide.

The swimmer whom the water steadily submerges

Stubborn to a fault is if he silent bide.

Should this occasion flee her thanks to her reserve, ’tis

Likely she will never man so abject find.

For trial and error led her to this firm conclusion:

Sacripant’s excepted, male vows are illusion.

51

For all that, nowise plans she from his constant anguish

Sacripant to transport where his visions thrill:

Superior design is still to let him languish,

Waiting for love’s highest bliss to be fulfilled.

A fiction must she therefore deftly paint and varnish

Lest his servile hopes she indiscreetly kill.

The plan: while he escorts her, show him sighing passion;

Once the woods are past her, find a place to plant him.

52

Her calculations made, she rustles in the thicket

Just enough to sell her presence as a chance.

Upon a stage with cave and leafage at the exits

Venus might thus traipse, or virginal Diane.

Her line in sweet surprise: “Oh!  Peace and benedicit!

God be in thy hand, and for me be its lance.

For, notwithstanding looks, my virtue yet withstandeth

Batt’ring at its gate, but rescue needs from bandits!”

53

With no more joy and stupor might a doting mother

Lift her eyes to find her soldier at the door

Already grieved as dead in sobs one after other,

All his squadron lost according to report.

The likeness of that rapture words did almost smother

When the Saracen the graceful, tripping form,

An angel in its face and heaven in its bodice,

Suddenly beheld—from thin air, perfect goddess.

54

Replete enough to burst with amorous affection,

Ran he to his lady—to his idol pure—

And clasped her in a rib-lock, which had passed inspection

Never in Cathay (where things were more demure).

Within the lovely forehead crushed by his protection

Meanwhile swirled ideas of how to home return.

The plan so far was working as she’d engineered it:

To her royal doorway maybe she could steer it.

55

To start with, she supplied her past itinerary

From the day she’d sent him to the Orient

(Arabia and China him her emissary

Welcomed, among others) as she her way went.

Especially she mentioned how as mediary

Faithful, dull Orlando did her “jewel” defend:

Her virgin flower, said she (in a phrase that grabbed her),

Yet remained as sound as when her mother’s sack burst.

56

And truth this may have been—but not remotely likely

If the sitting jury had a trace of sense;

To Sacripant, however, fact most apodeictic

Was whate’er confirmed him in his dream intense.

A mind that Love has mastered reads space like a psychic,

Seeing hidden futures, lost to present tense.

So Sacripante swallowed all that poured her ladle,

Happy since his fancies seasoned every plateful.

57

“If Anglant’s cavalier no better than this handles

Golden chance at bliss with what wits fill his skull,

The worse for him; for never Fortune will so fondle

More his love as when he lone might her have culled.”

A voice within the knight, thus speaking, further mumbled:

“I at least my lesson learn: no more I mull

The pathway to her favor.  Distance made is quickest

Straightest drawn.  My pencil scribbles no more flourish.

58

“The rose, so dewy fresh when dawn its blushes matches,

Wither must at last when noon oppresses cruel.

I know, as well, that women nothing more doth ravish—

Sweetest of delights and laurel of Love’s school—

Although they wax indignant when where secret cache is

Someone bargeth in—they snivel, e’en, and pule;

Such theater and antics not this time will hold me:

Nothing keeps me now from making flesh my holy.”

Much is remarkable about this episode.  Sacripante’s obsession with Angelica’s virginity—with being the first to deprive her of it, to be exact—not only fails to qualify as a chivalrous motive, but indeed implies some deep perversion, since he does not even know at this moment if she is dead or alive.  Love is made of less selfish stuff!  As for the lady, she fully intends to exploit the situation, as she has exploited the rigidly chivalrous Orlando for so long, in order to procure safe passage through a war zone.  Yet her calculations are woefully inept.  In announcing her presence to Sacripante, she almost delivers herself to the kind of brutal rape she is fleeing in the persons of Rinaldo and Ferrau.  Only blind chance saves her.

 

59

Thus counseled by his conscience (or some like advisor),

Sweet assault the knight was mounting—when a noise

A-thund’ring from the forest’s cloudless blue horizon

Placed the siege on hold and left the ram in poise.

Adjusting quick his helmet (for those olden times in,

Knights stood ever armored, primed for combat’s joys),

He clambered up his steed and settled in the saddle,

Lance in right hand seizing, sword and shield a-rattle.

60

Directly from the wood a gallant horseman clattered,

Agile in appearance, proud, and fit to fight.

As white as snow the tunic that his breastplate covered;

Not less white, a pennon trailed the lance’s spike.

King Sacripante fumed to see his plans in tatters

Rudely torn by loud, intruding errant knight.

For ecstasy delayed by uncouth interruption,

Hell was now to pay in furious eruption.

61

The stranger having neared, the pagan in defiance

Shouted spite and vowed him quickly to unhorse.

I doubt the other scored him higher than a nuisance,

Judging by the acts that cut this swagger short.

A single motion set the charger in compliance

With a lowered lance whose point gave sharp retort.

The Saracen was no less fluent in that language:

Zealously they turned their hands to writing carnage.

62

A pair of adversary lions or wild oxen

Would upon each other likewise leap and smack.

These warriors two with power equal to a dozen

Midway in the clearing met with mighty crack.

The echo of their shields went rippling like a tocsin

Up and down the valley, such was their impact;

And had not master craftsman fashioned either cuirass,

One or both had stopped a blow for which no cure is.

63

As valiant were their mounts that fueled the crash’s engine:

Mountain rams have never hammered heads so hard.

Unhappily, the pagan’s died from the collision—

Lasting peace attend his noble equine heart!

The other beast, though reeling, came right in an instant:

Touch of spur sufficed to give him second spark.

The Saracen could only chew the dust that settled,

Trapped ‘neath his late steed and fifty pounds of metal.

64

The unknown champion who saw his adversary

Sprawling on the ground beneath a horse’s rump,

Adjudging further combat now unnecessary,

Advertised no interest in renewing thumps—

But skirting the debris of skirmish temporary,

Shook out either rein and took off at a run.

Before the pagan warrior yet was off his dollop,

Mile or more the stranger surely must have galloped.

65

Astonished and agape, a ploughman so had staggered

After lightning bolt had fall’n with god-like pound,

Arising live in body still, though bruised and haggard,

Only to his plough team find dead on the ground;

And then to see a pine tree, late the lord of pastures

Lofty and sublime, now shaved of all its crown:

Exactly thus bewildered, Sacripant his sanity

Questioned as Angelica watched the whole calamity.

66

The knight heaves sighs and groans, not on account of torment

Caused by broken bone or joint left misaligned;

Instead, mortification—shame at his deponent

Posture—turned him redder than he’d ever shined.

Especially his lady’s excavating talents

Pinched him (from beneath his steed she’d helped him climb).

In my opinion, not a word he would have spoken

If the dame in pity hadn’t sought to stroke him.

67

“Cheer up, milord!” cajoled she.  “Brood not on this setback.

Falling did the horseman’s prowess not indict—

The horse’s, rather; whose affections ran to haystacks

More than to the trumpet signaling a fight.

Nor should your brusque opponent go forth spouting claptrap,

Who would sooner flee than from his mount alight;

From what I know of knighthood, little shows of mettle

He who leaves the field before dispute be settled.”

68

While comfort gave the lady in this vein insensate,

Suddenly, with horn and wallet at his flank,

A messenger quite anxious mounted on a jennet

Reigned in their discourse with license due his rank.

Of Sacripant he sought the loan of half a minute,

Asking him if knight displaying whiteness blank

Upon his shield and likewise bare white all his pennon

Had within the forest past them lately ridden.

69

Responded Sacripante, “As you see, but lately

Came he and departed, leaving me afoot;

Confide in me his name, please, who has thus irately

Slain my horse and limping ’long the way me put.”

Said to him t’ other, “Answer I can truly make thee,

Sans delay, though maybe better not to look.

For now I do inform thee, hast received a drubbing

From an arm whose owner shares thy mother’s plumbing.

70

“Intrepid this knight-maiden, though of rarest beauty,

Nor need I her name so famous more evade:

Remember Bradamante, who thy honor booty—

All its boasts and conquests—for herself hath claimed.”

So much delivered, exit quick on other duty

Made the rider, leaving Sacripant dismayed,

Unable to discover proper word or gesture

Fit to greet by girl a hero’s disinvesture.

71

A while he stood amazed before th’ equation’s numbers,

Vainly: all the figures never changed their sum.

His savage onslaught squelched by comely lass in armor…

Every re-addition more his honor stung.

Angelica’s spry mount he commandeered in slumber,

Shock of revelation silencing his tongue.

The maid he took behind him—far her deflorition

From his troubled mind, which needed new ignition.

In the opening canto’s crowning irony, the one truly chivalrous defender who comes to Angelica’s assistance is in fact a female!  It should be added, however, that Bradamante intends Angelica’s defense no more than the latter recognizes her imminent danger from Sacripante’s lust.  Angelica, despite constantly using her unparalleled beauty to scheme and manipulate, lives the hit-and-miss existence of someone unguided by any trace of principle or higher purpose.  She not only fails to grasp the peril from which the strange knight has rescued her: she rebukes that knight in a rather dull misread of the laws of chivalry—for if Bradamante had indeed dismounted to finish the fight while Sacripante was trapped under his horse, the “rules” would allow her to lop off his head as he lay fully helpless.

 

In the few stanzas of the First Canto that remain, Rinaldo’s runaway steed Baiardo happens upon Sacripante and Angelica.  The pagan king attempts to seize the charger and very nearly receives a death-blow from the mighty horse for his troubles, but the lovely princess is able to quiet the noble beast with ease and soothes him sufficiently that he will accept the knight in his saddle as she resumes her former mount.  The stage is now set for further misadventures in the next canto.

 prae-17

CONTINUED IN NEXT ISSUE

 Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.