Brief Note on Orlando Furioso

Edmund Hardy

Kenneth Koch brought an Orlando sensibility of multiple high-pulp threads to his long poems - 'Ko, or a Season on Earth' and 'The Duplications' - and so he goes on the list of ideal translators who never did, along with Byron, Scott and Spenser, though of course I wouldn't want to swap the time these poets spent on their own epics for translation work (What's this? Do I hear someone being sniffy about 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel'?). For 'Orlando Furioso' in English verse, the long task required has produced a morass of uninspiration, but three versions stand out as distinctive of their kind.

This is verse 25 of the first book, in which Ferraù, a Spanish knight, frustrated in his pursuit of the beautiful Angelica, goes back to retrieve his helmet from the river where he had earlier lost it. Ferraù strips a branch and uses it to search in the water. But then, he sees the helmet rising up, a head emerging from the stream, the ghost of a knight Ferraù once slew, when he had promised to bury the helmet with the body. One's armour is not a dress; it is a soul worn on the outside. The original:

Con un gran ramo d'albero rimondo,
di ch'avea fatto una pertica lunga,
tenta il fiume e ricerca sino al fondo,
né loco lascia ove non batta e punga.
Mentre con la maggior stizza del mondo
tanto l'indugio suo quivi prolunga,
vede di mezzo il fiume un cavalliero
insino al petto uscir, d'aspetto fiero.
This is translated by William Stewart Rose - a friend of Sir Walter Scott, urged by Scott to finish his translation of Orlando - as:

A bough he severs from a neighbouring tree,
And shreds and shapes the branch into a pole:
With this he sounds the stream, and anxiously
Fathoms, and rakes, and ransacks shelf and hole.
While angered sore at heart, and restless, he
So lingered, where the troubled waters roll,
Breast-high, from the mid river rose upright,
The apparition of an angry knight.
What I like in this is the list of three, "Fathoms, and rakes, and ransacks shelf and hole." It's frantic but also fathoms and rakes are recognisably two different actions, but ransacks suggests both of them and also a useless waving about of the pole in an increasing helmet-not-finding frenzy. Barbara Reynolds in her 1975 translation for Penguin Classics wrote:

First from a tree a branch he pulled and stripped,
Shaping and smoothing it to form a pole,
Which delicately in the stream he dipped,
Poking with care in every nook and hole,
Although with patience he was ill-equipped.
Boredom at last began to try his soul,
When, rising from the stream – a gruesome sight –
He saw the head and shoulders of a knight.
This is characteristically stilted and undramatic. "Poking with care" is hardly an improvement on Rose's "he sounds the stream", and boredom trying the soul is an embellishment with no compelling idea in it.

So to John Harington, who was commanded by Elizabeth I to translate all of the poem after he had tried his hand at the tale of Giocondo, producing rather indiscreet verses for ladies, Elizabeth thought. Harington's 1591 translation:

25 -
Hard by the banke a tall yong Popler grew,
Which he cut downe, thereof a pole to make,
With which each place in feeling and in vew,
To find his scull he up and downe doth rake,
But lo a hap unlookt for doth ensew,
While he such needlesse frutelesse paine doth take,
He saw a Knight arise out of the brooke,
Breast-hie, with visage grim, and angry looke.
He makes up the detail of it being a specifically Poplar tree, but perhaps we think of Italian paintings and frescoes with those clusters of green fluid darkness, the poplar trees. Harington suggests the pole is an extension of the senses - "in feeling and in vew" - but he forgoes further lines about searching in the river in favour of a superbly condensed build up of tension - "But lo a hap unlookt for doth ensew," sounds a warning, but we aren't sure what kind of hap this will be - if Ferraù is simply going to fall over and get a bit wet, or if he will be challenged by another knight, or what. The next line tells us nothing new, cranking up the tension so we really concentrate on the final couplet:

He saw a Knight arise out of the brooke,
Breast-hie, with visage grim, and angry looke.
The Knight arising from the water suggests the supernatural without underlining it as Rose does - "apparition" - or over-stating it as with Reynolds' "a gruesome sight" loaded on top of "d'aspetto fiero", literally "fierce aspect".

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