Thursday, December 28, 2006

I need not always be original...

Statue of the poet Ludovico Ariosto
Located in Reggio Emilia
(Image from Wikipedia)

... pursuing the ever new in prose or rhyme.

I have a precedent in this in Milton, who opened his great Paradise Lost epic with these words:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, [ 5 ]
Sing Heav'nly Muse,that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill [ 10 ]
Delight thee more, and Siloa's Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian Mount, while it pursues [ 15 ]
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime. (PL 1.1-16)
On the Milton Listserve this morning (morning for me, anyway), Professor Jameela Lares mentioned the well-known fact -- though unknown to me -- that Milton (1608-1674) was borrowing from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) in stating that his flight "pursues / Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime" (PL 1.15-16).

I should have known this, for Alastair Fowler notes it in his annotated edition of Paradise Lost (Longman, 1998):
16. Echoing Ariosto's boast Cosa non detta in prosa mai, né in rima (Orl. Fur. i 2). (Fowler, 59)
Fowler then dryly adds, "The claim to novelty was a common opening topic," and cites pages 85f of Ernest Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953) for more on this topic -- which means that Fowler owes a debt of his own to Curtius (borrowings all around, it seems).

Also, the greatly useful online Paradise Lost hosted by Dartmouth College at the Milton Reading Room tells us this in a footnote:
Line 16. The line ironically (maybe even sarcastically?) recalls the stanza 2 of canto 1 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.
That link itself was provided by the Milton Reading Room and takes us to this translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, where in Canto 1, Stanza 2, we find as promised:
In the same strain of Roland will I tell
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,
On whom strange madness and rank fury fell,
A man esteemed so wise in former time;
If she, who to like cruel pass has well
Nigh brought my feeble wit which fain would climb
And hourly wastes my sense, concede me skill
And strength my daring promise to fulfil.
Ariosto's translator here was William Stewart Rose (1775-1843), who by his choice of words -- "Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" -- obviously intended to echo Milton's echo of Ariosto.

But for those who know Italian, here's Ludovico Ariosto's original Italian for Canto 1, Stanza 2 of Orlando Furioso:
Dirò d'Orlando in un medesmo tratto
cosa non detta in prosa mai, né in rima:
che per amor venne in furore e matto,
d'uom che sì saggio era stimato prima;
se da colei che tal quasi m'ha fatto,
che 'l poco ingegno ad or ad or mi lima,
me ne sarà però tanto concesso,
che mi basti a finir quanto ho promesso.
Whether or not Milton's allusion to Ariosto was ironic is much debated. James H. Sims, in "Orlando Furioso in Milton: Heroic flights and true heroines," Comparative Literature, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), pp. 128-150, argues on page 129:
Given the obvious fact that Orlando Furioso continues the basic plot and most of the characters of Orlando Innamorato, however, Milton would neither have understood Ariosto as claiming absolute originality nor have made such a claim about his own poem. What was unattempted before Ariosto was to show the prudent Orlando driven mad by love, and what Milton attempts is the first use of the epic form to make a Christian God's ways appear just to men.
If you don't mind those annoying pop-ups and gobs of advertisements, then you can read this article online at Find Articles.

Anyway, to repeat, I have nothing original to say this morning, but I claim no originality in this my inability, for I have many precedents, even in such greats as Milton, whose more than middle flight above Ariosto I do not intend to soar, but merely intend to point out that great poets themselves have borrowed from previous poets, whether great or not, and often without explicit admission of their borrowing -- which my students, incidentally, should NOT take as a nonpoetic license to commit plagiarism with impunity!

One has to be a poet to carry that license...


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