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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XI. The Poetry of Spenser

§ 11. Orlando Furioso

When we turn from the poet’s description of his design to the method of his execution, we see that this exactly resembled his procedure in The Shepheards Calender. As, in that work, he consulted the practice of all his pastoral predecessors, so, in the structure of The Faerie Queene, he followed the lines of the great romantic poets of Italy, and particularly those of the author of Orlando Furioso. At an early date after taking his degree, he had confided to his correspondent Gabriel Harvey his hope of being able to emulate or even “overgo” Ariosto, and the whole of The Faerie Queene—particularly the first three books—bears witness to the frequency with which Spenser props his invention on that of his great Italian model. Not only did he transform many characters in Orlando Furioso, such as Atlante, Alcina, Bradamante, into his own Archimago, Duessa and Britomart, but he borrowed whole episodes from Ariosto’s poem for the purposes of his story. To mention only a few, the search of Britomart for Artegall is imitated from the search of Bradamante for Ruggiero; as the latter heroine comes to the cave of the fairy Melissa to be informed of her destiny, so does Britomart to the dungeon of Merlin; the courtship of Britomart by Artegall exactly resembles the love-making between Ruggiero and Bradamante; Britomart’s male attire occasions the same mistake about her sex to Malecasta, as in the parallel case of Bradamante and Fiordespina; the same relations exist between Britomart and Radigund as between Bradamante and Marfisa; while the transformation of the witch Duessa is directly copied from that of the Fay Alcina. Added to all this, Spenser imitates the narrative of Ariosto in the constant change of person, scene and action. He evidently hoped that while thus “emulating” Ariosto in “variety of matter” he might “overgo” him in “profite of ensample”; nor does his expectation seem unnatural, when we remember that Harington, the first translator of Orlando Furioso, was obliged to disguise the want of moral purpose in his original by insisting—it can hardly be supposed with much sincerity—that all Ariosto’s marvellous fictions are to be construed allegorically. To Spenser, it seemed possible, by blending with the romantic manner of Ariosto the varied religious, philosophical and patriotic materials of which he could avail himself, to produce a finer poem in the romantic class than any that had yet appeared. But he did not reckon with all the difficulties in his way.

Orlando Furioso embodies the quintessence of knight errantry. Its virtue lies entirely in its spirit of action. Without any well defined subject, like the consequences of the wrath of Achilles or the loss of Eden, without any single hero on whose fortunes the conduct of the poem turns, Ariosto contrived to include in a connected work an infinity of persons, incidents, marvels, descriptions and emotions, which sustains without weariness the interest of any reader who chooses to surrender his imagination entirely to the poet’s guidance. In Orlando Furioso, there is no progress from point to point towards a well discerned end; the character of the poem is proclaimed in the two opening lines,

  • Le donne, i cavalier, l’ arme, gli amori,
  • Le cortesie, l’ audaci impresi, io canto,
  • which form the prelude to a varied spectacle of human action and passion. The sole unity in this ever changing scene lies in the imagination of the poet himself, who acts as the interpreter of his puppet show, and enlists our interest on behalf of his fictitious creatures by the lively sympathy with which he accompanies them in every marvellous, humorous, or pathetic adventure. Numerous as are his personages, he never loses sight of one of them, and will break off, at the climax of a thrilling situation, to transport the reader into a different quarter of the globe, where, a few cantos back, a valorous knight or hapless lover has been left in circumstances of seemingly irremediable misfortune. His effects are produced entirely by the realistic power of his fancy; and perhaps no poet in the world has ever approached, in this respect, so nearly as Ariosto to the standard of Horace:
  • Ille per extentum funem mihi posse videtur
  • Ire poeta, meum qui pectus inaniter angit,
  • Irritat, mulcet, falsis terroribus implet,
  • Ut magus, et modo me Thebis, modo ponit Athenis.
  • The feat is accomplished simply and solely by the vivid representation of action and character. The images are complete in themselves; and to attempt to add anything to them, in the shape of reason or moral, would destroy the reality of their airy being. Ariosto, as Aristotle says of Homer, “tells lies as he ought”; he cheats the imagination into a belief in what would be probable in a really impossible situation.