Epics, with their heroic memories, are necessarily composed in changing times. The Iliad and the Odyssey commemorate a Bronze Age culture that had collapsed half a millennium earlier; the poems themselves signal an entirely new, recognizably classical Greece. Vergil’s Aeneid, penned at the very beginning of the Roman Empire, focuses less on the founding of Rome than it does on the end of Troy. Götterdämmerung speaks for itself; tales of the gods’ twilight cannot be told until we are well into the night. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a sustained elegy for the time when wilderness was the dominant condition of the world, and the crags, plants, and creatures in wild places were magical because the whole earth was magical—a Britain before motorways.
Ludovico Ariosto’s epic Orlando Furioso is no exception to this elegiac list; he composed his Italian vernacular version of the medieval Chanson de Roland well into the Italian Renaissance; it may have been the best-selling work of fiction in the sixteenth century. The first edition of Orlando Furioso was printed (still a relatively new phenomenon) in 1516, but Ariosto continued to work on the project for the rest of his life, adding, editing, and rewriting. His latest version, from 1532, extends over forty-six cantos of 72 to 192 eight-line stanzas; in one recent Italian edition this means precisely 750 pages of very fine print. Yet despite its monumental length, its heroic subjects, and its atmosphere of changing times, Orlando Furioso is anything but elegiac in its tone; it is the sixteenth-century version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a send-up with biting social commentary, outrageous adventures, over-the-top violence, a sexual merry-go-round, and humor at every level from the most refined to the most sophomoric. Most Renaissance jokes are as lame after five centuries as their modern equivalents will prove to be, but Ariosto can still make anyone laugh.
He was not the first Italian writer to parody chivalric romance; the Florentine poet Luigi Pulci had already sent up the Chanson de Roland in 1478 and 1483 with successive versions of his Morgante, which takes its title from a pagan giant converted by Roland to Christianity. Matteo Maria Boiardo followed a decade later with Orlando Innamorato (“Roland in Love,” first published in 1495), which he didn’t live to finish. Ariosto took on the task of finishing Boiardo’s story, which fits Roland into his real tale: the romance of the female warrior Bradamante and the Italian knight Ruggiero, a descendant of the Trojan hero Hector, the mythic ancestors of the house of d’Este.
All these poems used ottava rima, the meter of ballads, eight-line stanzas rhymed according to a strict pattern (ABABABCC) and gathered in cantos. Ariosto, too, exults in fantastic creatures like Morgante, and uses a light touch with the heroic past, along with some appropriately modern details: the action, mostly set outside Paris, moves as far away for some episodes as Japan and the moon. Orlando’s beloved Angelica comes from a kingdom near Cathay, somewhere near Bishkek, Irkutsk, or Ulan Bator, and she is not the only exotic foreigner: the cast of Orlando Furioso is a triumph of diversity. Nearly everyone has an enchanted weapon or enchanted armor, some pieces handed down through Hector from the Trojan War. But Ariosto also knows all about guns.
Like Morgante, which was composed for the amusement of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his friends, and Orlando Innamorato, composed for Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Orlando Furioso was also written for an aristocratic sponsor: Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, Ercole’s son and younger brother of the reigning duke, Alfonso d’Este. As professional soldiers and feudal landholders, the d’Este males still ostensibly subscribed to an ideal of chivalry, but theirs was a chivalry faced with a series of challenges, from gunpowder artillery to the modern nation-state, that would soon make traditional knighthood hopelessly obsolete. Ariosto composed Orlando Furioso, after all, when Machiavelli was busy writing The Prince.
Alfonso d’Este was the first Italian military leader to use gunpowder artillery, in 1510, against Pope Julius II, who confronted Alfonso, his nominal and disobedient vassal, in full armor and an enormous fur hat. Orlando Furioso sings the praises of Alfonso’s cannon, but it is worth noting that Julius eventually won what is now known as the Ferrara Salt War, by resorting to a weapon still more powerful and more avant-garde than guns: economics. The Church had more money than Alfonso; furthermore, Julius was happy to excommunicate Alfonso until he finally saw the light in 1512.
Both Alfonso and Ippolito d’Este appreciated the fact that their court poet was fully attuned to the new Machiavellian ways of thinking, and to the eternal vagaries of human nature; for decades, therefore, they employed Ariosto as a diplomat in addition to his duties as poet laureate. Among northern Italian feudal courts—city-states ruled by warlords—Ferrara emerged from the Middle Ages as more progressive than most of its neighbors, perhaps because of its proximity to republican Venice (Ferrara sits alongside the Po River just before its delta opens out into the Venetian lagoon). Like Venice, Ferrara had a thriving Jewish community; its university had been quick to adopt the new curriculum of “humane studies” already in the fifteenth century, and like the nearby University of Padua it would quickly embrace the new sciences (hosting the likes of Leoniceno, Paracelsus, and Copernicus).
The bright red brick of the d’Este palace, sitting neatly behind its moat, is considerably less grim than the huge, dark brick façade of the ducal palace in Mantua, where Alfonso and Ippolito’s sister Isabella d’Este lived with her husband, Francesco Gonzaga. The Gonzaga palace has iron cages fixed to its walls high above the piazza in which prisoners could be exposed to the scorn of the elements and the public. Ferrara had its vicious intrigues, too, but Alfonso’s wife, Lucrezia Borgia, unlike haughty Isabella, was a kind soul. When Alfonso and Ippolito’s illegitimate half-brothers Giulio and Ferrante d’Este conspired against the duke and his brother in 1506, she managed to commute their capital sentence to imprisonment in a tower of the palace. Ferrante died in confinement in 1540, but Giulio was finally released in 1559 at the age of eighty-one. He had spent fifty-three years in captivity, and was a handsome old man who wandered the streets of Ferrara for the next two years in total freedom, still dressed in the same clothing as half a century before.
Ferrara was also a musical center. Poets since Petrarch routinely described their activity as “singing,” just as the Greek and Latin poets had done. We should probably take that description literally. Composers vied with one another to set Petrarch’s sonnets to music, and Ariosto, with his ottava rima, deliberately follows the tradition of the troubadours and their ballads. When he comes to the end of a canto (a term that meant “song”), he bids Ippolito to “hear,” not to “read,” what happens next.
David Slavitt’s translation is the first to appear for some time in rhymed English verse. The transition from Italian to English is not always easy to make: Italian, richer in vowels and inflected endings than English, is infinitely easier to rhyme, but English compensates in part for that difficulty by its wealth of vocabulary, often with alternatives from both Latin and Anglo-Saxon roots. At least since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, who was himself an avid translator from Italian, English poets have composed in iambic pentameter, which tends to follow the natural rise and fall of colloquial speech, and is as close as English can get to Italian ottava rima. Typically, therefore, both Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare borrowed the rhyming scheme of Petrarch’s sonnets, but did so in iambic pentameter. Slavitt, too, has chosen this time-honored, quintessentially English meter, while preserving the pattern of Ariosto’s rhyme and allowing himself the liberties that Ariosto takes with the basic form.
The argument for translating poetry as poetry is simple: the poetic discipline is as much a part of the poem’s content as the story it tells. Thus Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf preserves the rules of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry intact and alters only the poem’s ancient, barely intelligible vocabulary. The work of translation becomes far more of a problem when poetic strictures are radically different between languages. This is the case with the poets of ancient Greece and Rome, and with the Bible. The Greeks and Romans used quantitative verse, based on patterns of long and short vowels. The natural stresses of words were less important than the nature of their vowel sounds, and rhyme was unimportant altogether.
This situation changed in the Middle Ages, when Latin and vernacular verse began to mark out meter through word accent rather than vowel quantity and the ends of poetic lines began to rhyme. Thus the rhymed, rhythmic heroic couplets that John Dryden used to translate Vergil’s Aeneid are just as alien to ancient versification as the looser varieties of blank verse that Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fagles, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Allen Mandelbaum have invented more recently to render the dactylic hexameters of Homer and Vergil.
With Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto, however, Italian rhyme and meter hew fairly close to traditional English forms, not least because those forms were originally adapted to English by writers steeped in Italian poetry. The basic problem with verse translation, however, is maintaining its quality: to suggest poetry rather than doggerel. The line between these two categories is not always easy to draw, even in Shakespeare and Keats. Dryden’s Vergil is magnificent, in part because the poetic language is natural poetic language for Dryden’s time.
Verse translation became far more complicated for translators in the early twentieth century, in part because poets were experimenting with other forms and definitions of poetry, but also because of the efforts of two eminent English classicists. Matthew Arnold’s essay “On Translating Homer” (1861), written to skewer F.W. Newman’s verse translation of the Iliad, raised the standards for verse translation to dizzying new heights:
Between Cowper and Homer there is interposed the mist of Cowper’s elaborate Miltonic manner, entirely alien to the flowing rapidity of Homer; between Pope and Homer there is interposed the mist of Pope’s literary artificial manner, entirely alien to the plain naturalness of Homer’s manner; between Chapman and Homer there is interposed the mist of the fancifulness of the Elizabethan age, entirely alien to the plain directness of Homer’s thought and feeling; while between Mr. Newman and Homer is interposed a cloud of more than Egyptian thickness—namely, a manner, in Mr. Newman’s version, eminently ignoble, while Homer’s manner is eminently noble.
In 1883, A.E. Housman lambasted English versions of Aeschylus (and Aeschylus himself) by parodying them mercilessly in his “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy”:
CHORUS: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Then wave your hand, to signify as much.
ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither by a Boeotian road.
CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?