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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Oscar Kuhns (1856–1929)

By Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533)

AMONG the smaller principalities of Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, none was more brilliant than the court of Ferrara, and none more intimately connected with the literature of the times. Here, on September 8th, 1474, was born Ludovico Ariosto, the great poet of the Renaissance. Here, like Boiardo before him and Tasso after him, he lived and wrote; and it was to the family of Este that he dedicated that poem in which are seen, as in a mirror, the gay life, the intellectual brilliancy, and the sensuous love for beauty which mark the age. At seventeen he began the study of the law, which he soon abandoned for the charms of letters. Most of his life was passed in the service first of Cardinal d’Este, and afterward of the Duke of Ferrara. But the courtier never overcame the poet, who is said to have begun the famous ‘Orlando Furioso’ at the age of thirty, and never to have ceased the effort to improve it.

The literary activity of Ariosto showed itself in the composition of comedies and satires, as well as in that of his immortal epic. The comedies were written for the court theatre of Ferrara, to which he seems to have had some such relation as that of Goethe to the theatre at Weimar. The later comedies are much better than the early ones, which are but little more than translations from Plautus and Terence. In general, however, the efforts of Ariosto in this direction are far less important than the ‘Orlando’ or the ‘Satires.’ At the first appearance of his plays they were enormously successful, and the poet was hailed as a great dramatic genius. But these comedies are interesting to-day chiefly from the fact that Ariosto was one of the very first of the writers of modern comedy, and was the leader of that movement in Italy and France which prepared the way for Molière.

Of more importance than the comedies, and second only in interest to the ‘Orlando’ are the ‘Satires,’ seven in number, the first written in 1517 and the last in 1531, thus representing the maturer life of the poet. Nearly everything we know of Ariosto’s character is taken from this source. He reveals himself in them as a man who excites neither our highest admiration nor our contempt. He was not born to be a statesman, nor a courtier, nor a man of affairs; and his life as ambassador of Cardinal Ippolito, and as captain of Garafagno, was not at all to his liking. His one longing through all the busy years of his life was for a quiet home, where he could live in liberty and enjoy the comforts of cultured leisure. A love of independence was a marked trait of his character, and it must often have galled him to play the part he did at the court of Ferrara. As a satirist he was no Juvenal or Persius. He was not stirred to profound indignation by the evils about him, of which there were enough in that brilliant but corrupt age. He discussed in easy, familiar style, the foibles of his fellow-men, and especially the events of his own life and the traits of his own character.

The same views of life, the same tolerant temper, which are seen in the ‘Satires,’ form an important part of the ‘Orlando Furioso,’ where they take the form of little dissertations, introduced at the beginning of a canto, or scattered through the body of the poem. These reflections are full of practical sense and wisdom, and remind us of the familiar conversation with the reader which forms so great a charm in Thackeray’s novels.

In the Italian Renaissance there is a curious mingling of classical and romantic influences, and the generation which gave itself up passionately to the study of Greek and Latin still read with delight the stories of the Paladins of Charlemagne and the Knights of the Round Table. What Sir Thomas Malory had done in English prose, Boiardo did in Latin poetry. When Ariosto entered the service of Cardinal Ippolito, every one was reading the ‘Orlando Innamorato,’ and the young poet soon fell under the charm of these stories; so that when the inward impulse which all great poets feel toward the work of creation came to him, he took the material already at hand and continued the story of ‘Orlando.’ With a certain skill and inventiveness, Boiardo had mingled together the epic cycles of Arthur and Charlemagne. He had shown the Saracen host under King Agramante driving the army of Charlemagne before them, until the Christians had finally been shut up within the walls of Paris. It was at this critical moment in his poem that Boiardo died. Ariosto took up the story where he had left it, and carried it on until the final defeat of Agramante, and his death at the hands of Orlando in the desert island.

But we must not think that the ‘Orlando Furioso’ has one definite plot. At first reading we are confused by the multiplicity of incident, by the constant change of scene, and by the breaking off of one story to make place for another. In a single canto the scene changes from France to Africa, and by means of winged horses tremendous distances are traveled over in a day. On closer examination we find that this confusion is only apparent. The poet himself is never confused, but with sure hand he manipulates the many-colored threads which are wrought into the fabric of the poem. The war between the Saracens and the Christians is a sort of background or stage; a rallying point for the characters. In reality it attracts but slightly our attention or interest. Again, Orlando’s love for Angelica, and his madness,—although the latter gave the title to the book, and both afford some of the finest episodes,—have no organic connection with the whole. The real subject, if any there be, is the loves of Ruggiero and Bradamante. These are the supposed ancestors of the house of Este, and it is with their final union, after many vicissitudes, that the poem ends.

But the real purpose of Ariosto was to amuse the reader by countless stories of romantic adventure. It was not as a great creative genius, as the inventor of new characters, as the earnest and philosophical reformer, that he appears to mankind, but as the supreme artist. Ariosto represents in its highest development that love for form, that perfection of style, which is characteristic of the Latin races as distinguished from the Teutonic. It is this that makes the ‘Orlando Furioso’ the great epic of the Renaissance, and that caused Galileo to bestow upon the poet the epithet “divine.”

For nearly thirty years Ariosto changed and polished these lines, so that the edition of 1532 is quite different from that of 1516. The stanzas in which the poem is written are smooth and musical, the language is so chosen as always to express the exact shade of thought, the interest never flags. What seems the arbitrary breaking off of a story before its close is really the art of the poet; for he knows, were each episode to be told by itself, we should have only a string of novelle, and not the picture he desired to paint,—that of the world of chivalry, with its knights-errant in search of adventures, its damsels in distress, its beautiful gardens and lordly palaces, its hermits and magicians, its hippogriffs and dragons, and all the paraphernalia of magic art.

Ariosto’s treatment of chivalry is peculiar to himself. Spenser in the sixteenth century, and Lord Tennyson in our own day, pictured its virtues and noble aspirations. In his immortal ‘Don Quixote,’ Cervantes held its extravagances up to ridicule. In Ariosto’s day no one believed any longer in the heroes or the ideals of chivalry, nor did the poet himself; hence there is an air of unreality about the poem. The figures that pass before us, although they have certain characteristics of their own, are not real beings, but those that dwell in a land of fancy. As the poet tells these stories of a bygone age, a smile of irony plays upon his face; he cannot take them seriously; and while he never goes so far as to turn into ridicule the ideals of chivalry, yet, in such episodes as the prodigious exploits of Rodomonte within the walls of Paris, and the voyage of Astolfo to the moon, he does approach dangerously near to the burlesque.

We are not inspired by large and noble thoughts in reading the ‘Orlando Furioso.’ We are not deeply stirred by pity or terror. No lofty principles are inculcated. Even the pathetic scenes, such as the death of Zerbino and Isabella, stir no real emotion in us, but we experience a sense of the artistic effect of a poetic death.

It is not often, in these days of the making of many books of which there is no end, that one has time to read a poem which is longer than the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ together. But there is a compelling charm about the ‘Orlando,’ and he who sits down to read it with serious purpose will soon find himself under the spell of an attraction which comes from unflagging interest and from perfection of style and construction. No translation can convey an adequate sense of this beauty of color and form; but the versions of William Stewart Rose, here cited, suggest the energy, invention, and intensity of the epic.

In 1532 Ariosto published his final edition of the poem, now enlarged to forty-six cantos, and retouched from beginning to end. He died not long afterward, in 1533, and was buried in the church of San Benedetto, where a magnificent monument marks his resting-place.