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near their camp she comes upon a young warrior all
but fatally wounded, and, with the medical knowledge
ascribed to all great ladies of romance, cures him,
loves him, marries him, and impels him to carve "An-
gelica and Medoro ' ' on every tree and grotto near the
retreat which holds them till he is well enough to be
carried off to her Oriental kingdom. Orlando, who has
searched half the world to find her, at length comes
upon the forest which records so unmistakably w^hat
he deems her infidelity, and his reason sways and
departs under the calamity. From this insanity of
Orlando the poem is named; although Orlando's mad-
ness, the superhuman strength he derives from it, and
the strange manner of its cure occupy a very small
part of the forty-six cantos.

Nor in the further development of the story does
there seem any very striking advance on the earlier
romancists. The Saracen king of Africa has gathered
a mighty force and driven the Christian armies within
the walls of Paris. Thence, after a season of terrible
pressure, the followers of Mohammed are thrown back
upon Africa and ruined. Rnggiero, their youthful
champion, is reclaimed to Christianity and at last
married to the heroine, Bradamante, overthrowing,
on the very eve of his marriage, the defiant and un-
tamable king of Sarza, Rodomonte.

This is the merest thread of a narrative, in which


are entwined a thousand adventures and episodes,
executed by a hundred knights and ladies, hermits and
sorcerers, demons and angels, the very same whom we
have met in Pulci, Boiardo, and Berni. From the
Hebrides to the Mountains of the Moon, and from the
Atlantic to the China Sea, there is not a country of
Europe, Asia, or Africa which does not exhibit some
event of prowess or horror. Nay, earth is not enough
for the poet ; the Paladin Astolfo, after riding through '
the air from France to Ethiopia on a brazen horse, is
carried up in a winged chariot, under the escort of the
Evangelist St. John, to the sphere of the moon, where
he sees many strange things and obtains the remedy
for the restoration of Orlando.

But not content with transferring wholesale to his
own pages the work of contemporary romancists, Ari-
osto borrows, steals, robs, without shame from Homer
and Virgil, Catullus and Ovid, any episode he likes,
altering them to suit himself, careless of what becomes
of the original spirit. Ulysses in the Cyclops' cave,
Nisus and Euryalus attacking the hostile camp, An-
dromeda rescued from the monster by Perseus, are all
exploited under the names of the knights and dames
who thronged the court of Charlemagne. What claim
has such a plagiary to be thought an original genius 1

It is the claim of genius itself,— that indefinable
power which, as Voltaire said, reclaims its own wher-


ever it finds it ; the power by which Virgil raised the
flames of Troy out of the ashes of dead poets whom
we only know as supplying his material; the power
that gave a livelier life to Plutarch's Coriolanus and
Cleopatra, and turned the garrulous chronicles into
Macbeth and Lear; the power which made even Isa-
iah's seraph and Ezekiel's chariot blaze with a diviner
splendor in the burning lines of ''Paradise Lost."

As Pulci and Boiardo handled the romances, their
tone, whether gay or grave, is at once tedious and
rambling; neither seems to have any hold upon his
subject, Hegnay^ un on till one thinks he will never
stop, or he may break off in the abruptest of transi-
tions with no definite purpose; he may dwell upon
minute details, or he may hurry on at a breathless
rate. In one, egregious absurdities will be told with-
out a smile ; in the other the most revered objects will
be discussed with a horse-laugh. The people go
through all their performances in one tone, either of
solemnity or of jocosity, so that one would not be
greatly surprised to find Orlando's speeches trans-
ferred to Brandimarte, or Bradamante's to Angelica;
but that the poets have seen fit to discriminate some by
the coarsest labelling, so that Margutte and Rodomonte
harp each on one string and are characters only by
being puppets. The verse is often very expressive,
but in Pulci it is so buried in local dialect that it


must go hard, even with Italians, to read it; and
Boiardo's avoidance of all medody might entitle him
to be named Richard Wagner. In this respect, as in
almost every other, Berni gave Boiardo what he
needed, and deservedly superseded him; but of all
these romancists, while they possessed unquestioned
talents, those talents hardly ever raised them above
earth,— poets they undoubtedly are, and worth read-
ing, — but not of the highest order.

But with Ariosto we find ourselves lifted into an-
other sphere. Everything is controlled by that won-
derful gift of genius, which, like his own Astolfo,
carried by his winged courser over sea and land, is
all the time holding the steed in check by the inspired
dictates of a more than human power. His hand on
that courser's rein is always firm but always light.
As soon as anything tends to be tedious— and in ro-
mances this must be— we are gently reminded of old
friends whom we have not forgotten, and enticed away
to a fresh series of adventures among new lands and
persons that we cannot help following. Wild as these
adventures are, beyond the bounds of nature, space,
and time, they are made to amuse without disgusting
us, and thrill without shocking us,— there is no at-
tempt to make them natural or probable, but they
seem so thoroughly appropriate, that we read about
them with something of the pleasure wherewith the


people of four centuries before Ariosto heard of them.
His knights and ladies are men and women,— in the
midst of their enchantments, their ministering angels,
and malignant demons, they have all the fears and
hopes, the loves and hates, of Italians in 1500, or
Americans in 1900. It seems to me Macaulay is en-
tirely wrong when he groups the "Orlando Furioso"
with the "Arabian Nights" as the story of people for
whom nobody cares. We do care; Orlando and Ri-
naldo, Angelica and Marfisa, Rodomonte and Sobrino,
Fiordeligi and Bradamante, are every one people we
can truly love or hate, and rejoice to see triumphant
or defeated.

Another great charm of Ariosto is his enlivening
every part of his story with episodes, longer or shorter,
aside from the main narrative. The battles and sor-
cery of the romances are inevitably monotonous ; they
recur again and again with almost the same detail ; it
is an inheritance from their infancy. But Ariosto
turns away whenever old friends begin to tire, and
tells us stories which do not belong specially to days
of chivalry, but to the wars and loves of all time. As
I have said, he does not hesitate to draw these from
all sources, especially the classic poets, but always with
such variations and touches of his own that the in-
ventors would have thanked him for the plagiarism.
Take, for instance, the episode of Nisus and Euryalus,


wherewith Virgil has drawn out the tears of over fifty
generations,— the two young warriors who go by night
through the hostile camp, and are overtaken and
slain successively, the elder being unwilling to leave
the younger to his fate. In Virgil they go to find their
absent chief ; in Ariosto they go on the more sacred
errand of rescuing their chief's body for burial; and
on their return and disastrous arrest, the younger,
Medoro, is not dead, but only left for dead, is found,
healed, and loved by the heroine, and passes into the
main narrative, creating the crisis of the plot.

But Ariosto does not have to borrow and embellish
all his episodes. His own creations are rich and sug-
gestive in the extreme. The pagan hero Ruggiero,
who is destined to become a Christian, has been
brought up by a magician, to whom the stars have
revealed the fate of the ward whom he loves more
than his life. He knows it is useless to fight with
destiny; yet he follows his darling boy everywhere,
staving off, by successive magic devices, the catas-
trophe that he knows he cannot avert. One of these
devices is a castle, to which all the chief persons of
the poem are successively lured ; as soon as each draws
near its walls, he or she sees leaning from the windows
the beloved face, and hears calling the beloved voice
of the heart's darling, woman or man, whoever it may
be. Then entering, they wander from room to room,


and storey to storey, everywhere hearing, sometimes
seeing, what is the only being in the world for them.
It is all a delusion : the beloved are not there ; but their
lovers pass each other unconscious in this endless
quest, no one ever aware that he is only one of a
crowd, and a crowd of his best friends, all imprisoned
here by a fruitless search, which they pursue day and
night, not heeding food nor sleep. This exquisitely
suggestive picture is drawn out at just enough length
to make the reader feel all its plaintive meaning.

An earlier adventure of Ruggiero is where he is en-
trapped into the gardens of the enchantress Alcina.
This witch seduces one gallant after another with re-
sistless charms till she is tired of them, when they are
changed to varied forms, to give place to new favor-
ites. So much is old; but Ariosto's addition, derived
perhaps from ancient fairy legends, is that it is all
unreal ; mere glistering show ; and as soon as the talis-
man is brought near, which dissolves enchantment,
the falsity of Alcina and her garden appears.

Another singularly bold and original incident is
probably better known than any other in the poem.
The madness of Orlando has proved a serious blow to
the Christians' cause, not merely from the loss of his
irresistible prowess, but from the ravages he causes
in every country where his rage takes him. It is inti-
mated that if Astolfo will betake himself on his flying


horse to the Christian king of Ethiopia, a way of
restoration will be indicated. This he does, and res-
cues the monarch from the harpies, an incident de-
liberately borrowed from Greek mythology. From
there he makes his way to the earthly Paradise, which
is, with him, on a mountain near the equator, not, as
with Dante, begirt by the Antarctic Ocean. Here he
is met by the venerable form of St. John the Evange-
list, who shows him many marvels, and then takes
him up on a chariot of fire to the sphere of the moon.
Here he sees still stranger sights, one of which sets
forth in a beautiful allegory the victory of Time over
Fame, on which Petrarch had dwelt. But it seems
that the moon is a repository of all sorts of things that
had been lost, or intangible on earth. It is here that
Ariosto gives way to very bold satire, especially di-
rected at courts and courtiers, the bitterest stroke of
which is one translated by Milton. It is well known
that the popes claimed the territory round Rome,
which they called St. Peter's Patrimony, not from the
historic grant of Charlemagne, but from a purely fic-
titious donation of Constantine to Pope Silvester. On
the basis of this forgery, which no one dared to dis-
pute, the popes were claiming vastly extended sov-
ereignty, and in Ariosto 's time the infamous Csesar
Borgia, acting for his no less infamous father, Alexan-
der YI, invaded Ariosto 's native town in Romagna,to


make it his own. Therefore among the things found
in the moon, but non-existent on earth, which Astolfo
saw, led by St. John, Ariosto places (in Milton's
version) :

Then came they to a hill of lively green,
Which once smelt sweet, now stinks as wondrously;
This is the gift, if you the cause will have,
Which Constantine to good Silvester gave.

It is here that there are bottled up the wits of every
man on earth who cannot take charge of them himself.
Astolfo is allowed to take his own bottle, and also
Orlando's fuller one, and after his return to earth and
to the Christian army, Orlando, whose naked rage
has brought him to the same place, is forcibly roped,
thrown down, his mouth shut, and the bottle of his
reason applied to his nostrils. It is duly snuffed in,
and he recovers his sanity.

This story is told with absolute seriousness, as one
among many other superhuman occurrences, yet not
with Boiardo's gravity. For Ariosto 's exquisite hu-
mor is one of his countless gifts. It is rarely rollick-
ing like Pulci's, or satirical like that of Berni, though
he has flashes of both tempers ; but is directly inher-
ited from Boccaccio. There is one long story of an
earlier Astolfo, the Gothic king of Lombardy, which
is introduced in no true connection with the plot, and
might have come straight out of the Decameron.


But Ariosto's humor is an advance on his masters'.
We see it more in the sly and unexpected hits thrown
in from time to time in narratives which Boiardo's
solemnity and Pulci's buffoonery would have made
tedious, — the humor of a man who, when he has com-
pleted a serious piece of work, can stand off, and, with
an impartial spectator's eye, detect an absurdity in
his own performance. For instance, where he borrows
from Ovid the story of Perseus and Andromeda, An-
gelica is kidnapped and carried to the Hebrides,
where, according to a very common myth, a maiden
must be exposed every day to a sea-monster to atone
for a national crime. She is tied to a rock in the dress
of Countess Godiva on her ride in Coventry. She is
duly rescued and, as soon as may be, reclothed. But
months after, wishing to reward a worthy shepherd
who had helped along her marriage with Medoro, she
gives him a costly coronet which she had brought
from her father's court in China and always kept
with her in all her wanderings. "But where she kept
it," says Ariosto, "when she was chained naked to
the rock, I cannot tell." This humor reminds one of
many of the best things in Shakespeare ; it is perhaps
more like some things in Addison, Goldsmith, or Ir-
ving; but it is most of all like the humor of Sir Walter
Scott, who is always dealing sly digs at his own stateli-
est heroes.


The verse of Ariosto is absolutely perfect for his
subject : it is melodious, yet not luscious ; free, yet not
slovenly; manly, yet not austere. Only Homer ever
applied to a great body of poetry a measure more per-
fectly wedding sound to sense. Virgil, Dante, and
Milton have lavished without exhausting the resources
of equally noble combinations on loftier and deeper
themes. But Ariosto, in his way, is as perfect as they
are in theirs. In my opinion, he surpasses his country-
man Tasso and his legitimate heir, Spenser. Dryden
might have matched, nay, have surpassed him, on the
very same subjects, but alas ! as Scott has said :

a ribald king and court
Bade him toil on, to make them sport;
Demanded, for their niggard pay.
Fit for their souls, a lighter lay;
The world, defrauded of the high design^
Profaned the God-given strength and marred the lofty line.

But if I am asked whether "Elaine" and "Guine-
vere" do not present an equally rich and varied mea-
sure wedded to an equally charming theme by an
equally great poet, I reply, "No! No!! No!!!"

Of style, that strange element neither matter nor
verse, yet linked with both, so easy to recognize, so
elusive to define, Ariosto, like many great poets, is a
master whose mastery we can scarcely analyze. It is
rich both in description and in imagination, the natu-


ral product of a magnificent age. It fulfils most of
Matthew Arnold's characteristics of Homer,— it is
rapid, direct in thought and direct in construction;
but it cannot accurately be called the grand style.
The paramount necessity in a poet of romance is to
be lively:

Tout genre est permis, hors le genre ennuyeux;
and this necessity Ariosto fulfils even where, as in
describing the funeral procession of Brandimarte, he
must be serious in tone.

In contrasting Ariosto with modern poets, it is es-
pecially interesting to note the details of his descrip-
tions. Everything which the hand of man has wrought
—everything in the way of dress, of armor, of archi-
tecture — is detailed with keenness and precision. But
when he speaks of natural scenery, it is all in general.
His fields, his forests, his mountains, his rivers, are
merely the background to his men and women, afford-
ing them difficulties to surmount or retreats to
enjoy. The prying and poking into the details of
clouds, brooks, hillsides, weeds, insects— the botanical,
anatomical, and physiological poetry of Wordsworth
and his successors, where everything inanimate thinks
and feels, and only man is dumb while colandines and
beetles talk— would be far too profound for such a
simple, untrained soul as the author of the "Orlando
Furioso." A primrose by the river's brim a yellow


primrose would have been to him— and, candidly, is
it anything more?

There is one remarkable field of outdoor obser-
vation where Ariosto pour out all the stores of eye
and thought. The terrors and triumphs of a storm at
sea are described by him again and again, and make
us realize vividly at once the dangers and the courage
of the Mediterranean mariners in the long centuries
when three hundred tons made a very large ship— as
it was in our grandfathers' day.
' The way in which Ariosto speaks of women is a very
curious part of his work. In no great narrative poem
do women play a larger and, in general, a more cred-
itable part. He has a very few female scamps; but
far the larger number of his heroines are charming,
dignified, tender, and intelligent persons, who would
improve any world where they lived. But every now
and then he breaks off and addresses the ladies in
general in a half -bantering, half -respectful strain,
which must have been read by the women of his day
with mingled pleasure and resentment. More than
once he mentions great ladies of his time with supreme
respect, as models of all the graces and virtues, and
among them one of whom Victor Hugo's very unfa-
vorable portrait has had in our day far more weight
than Ariosto 's eulogy— Lucrezia Borgia.

He begins his last canto by telling us that as he now


finds himself coming into harbor after a long voyage,
he can see assembled on the bank to greet him a great
array of illustrious men and women, whose names he
recounts in a catalogue drawn up in an overflowing
spirit of generosity; there have rarely been nobler
tributes paid by a great poet to distinguished con-

And this suggests the one serious fault which must
be found in his poem. The narrative is interrupted
with repeated descriptions and eulogies of the military
and civic prowess of the Duke of Ferrara and his
kinsmen of the house of Este; and several times the
prophetic legacies of Merlin are invoked to portray,
at endless length, the descent, partly historical, but
chiefly mythical, of this house of Este, through Rug-
giero and Bradamante, a hero and heroine of the
poem, from Hector of Troy. Now there is no doubt
that Ariosto's duke did distinguish himself in the
campaigns of Francis I in northern Italy; but those
campaigns conferred little credit on any one con-
cerned; and one might be pretty well read in the
history of France and Germany, Gaston de Foix and
Bayard, without ever hearing of Alfonso, Duke of
Ferrara. But stanza after stanza is poured out in
genealogical and monarchical panegyrics which would
have almost seemed fulsome to James I and Lewis
XIV— and Ariosto must go into the list of those who


have sunk the noblest genius in the adulation of a
courtier. Spenser went painfully near to the same
thing in the "Faerie Queene," but Milton did not seek
to buy refuge from poverty or obloquy by putting
Prince Rupert's pedigree into his poems. It must be
said that in this particular flattery Ariosto had Boi-
ardo for his pioneer and poor Tasso for his imitator.

In sum : the ' ' Orlando ' ' is like a vast demesne ; it has
bits of wild wood where lurk strange beasts, and deni-
zens more savage still; but it has store of ancestral
trees, velvet lawns, trim gardens, sparkling fountains,
and stately halls. It is filled with gallant knights on
gallant steeds, gorgeous dames and lovely maidens,
singing songs of love and war that never tire, and all
overhung with the matchless sky of Italy, revealing at
times glimpses of the sacred mountains under skies
more glorious still.

The following extracts may give an idea of the in-
finite variety of theme which the poem presents; the
first illustrates Ariosto 's power of making deep feel-
ing tremble on the edge of burlesque.

O the great goodness of the knights of old!

Rivals were these, and differing in belief;
And felt themselves by cruel blows untold

Through all their members still in pain and grief.
Yet through the winding paths and darkening wold

Together went, as each were other's chief;
And with four spurs they pricked the courser's sides
Till he arrived at where the road divides.


A description of the knave Brunello :

His height, to give you indication true,
Is not six palms, and frizzled is his head;

His hair is black, and swarthy is his hue,
Pallid his face, with beard unduly fed;

His eyes are swollen: only one can view;

Broken his nose, with shaggy brow o'erspread;

His carriage, if the man I paint in one,

Is close and short and looks alert to run.

A bit of scenery of ideal beauty :

Of fragrant laurel trees were charming bowers,
Of palms and of the loveliest myrtle there,

Cedars and oranges with fruit and flowers,

Entwined in varied forms, which all were fair;

Gave with their thick shade from the scorching powers
In summer days delectable repair;

And through the branches moved with careless flight,

Pouring their song, the minstrels of the night.

Through crimson roses and through lilies white.
Their bloom the genial breeze renewing oft.

Coneys and hares played wantonly in sight,

And deer that reared their haughty heads aloft;

Fearless of hunters' bolt or captive plight,
Feeding or standing on the herbage soft.

Sportive and swift went bounding goat and roe

That in these favored fields abundant grow.

Ruggiero is discovered in the garden of Aleina:

Alone she found him as she sought to find,
Eejoicing in the morning bright and cool.

Beside a stream that, where the hill inclined,
Ean downward towards a clear and gentle pool.


The delicate, soft weeds that round him wind

Were all of wantonness and leisure full;
Which all of silk and gold laborious wove
Alcina 's hand had wrought to deck her love.

A splendid collar, set with jewels sheen,

Hung from his neck, and half adown his breast;
And either arm, that manly once had been,

Was by a brilliant binding circlet pressed;
And piercing both his ears, a thread was seen

Of finest gold, in form a ring confessed;
And two great pearls were hanging thence in view-
Such Araby and India never knew.

All dripping were the ringlets of his hair

With sweetest scents, whose value none may say ;

Amorous was all his mien, like those who care
To serve beneath Valencian ladies' sway.

His name alone of soundness kept a share;
Tainted was all the rest, and in decay.

Thus lost Euggiero was recovered,— so.

So changed from himself by magie and brought low.

Various comparisons :

Like to a child that puts a fruit away

When ripe, and then forgets where it is stored,

If it should chance that after many a day
Thither his step returns where is his hoard,

He wonders to behold it in decay.

Rotten and spoiled, and richness all outpoured;

And what he loved of old with keen delight

He hates, spurns, loathes, and flings away in spite.

And as we see two dogs the combat wage,
Whether by envy moved, or other hate.

Approaching whet the teeth, nor yet engage.
With eyes askance, and red as coals in grate,


Then to their biting come, on fire with rage,
With bitter cries, and backs with spite elate,
So came with swords and cries and many a taunt
Circassia's knight and he of Chiaramont.

E 'en such a battle makes a daring fly
Against the mastiff in the August dust.

Or in September, or perhaps July,

The one of grain, the other full of must;

Now stings him in the snout, now in the eye.
Flies all around, and fills him with disgust,

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Online LibraryWilliam EverettThe Italian poets since Dante → online text (page 5 of 15)