Stories from the Italian Poets

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The abstract of Dante, therefore, in these volumes (with every deprecation that becomes me of being supposed to pretend to give a thorough idea of any poetry whatsoever, especially without its metrical form) aspires to be regarded as, at all events, not exhibiting a false idea of the Dantesque spirit in point of feeling and expression. It is true, I have omitted long tedious lectures of scholastic divinity, and other learned absurdities of the time, which are among the bars to the poem's being read through, even in Italy (which Foscolo tells us is never the case); and I have compressed the work in other passages not essentially necessary to the formation of a just idea of the author. But quite enough remains to suggest it to the intelligent; and in no instance have I made additions or alterations. There is warrant--I hope I may say letter--for every thing put down. Dante is the greatest poet for intensity that ever lived; and he excites a corresponding emotion in his reader--I wish I could say, always on the poet's side; but his ferocious hates and bigotries too often tempt us to hate the bigot, and always compel us to take part with the fellow-creatures whom he outrages. At least, such is their effect on myself. Nor will he or his worshippers suffer us to criticise his faults with mere reference to the age in which he lived. I should have been glad to do so; but the claims made for him, even by himself, will not allow it. We are called upon to look on him as a divine, a prophet, an oracle in all respects for all time. Such a man, however, is the last whom a reporter is inclined to misrepresent. We respect his sincerity too much, ferocious and arrogant though it be; and we like to give him the full benefit of the recoil of his curses and maledictions. I hope I have not omitted one. On the other hand, as little have I closed my feelings against the lovely and enchanting sweetness which this great semi-barbarian sometimes so affectingly utters. On those occasions he is like an angel enclosed for penance in some furious giant, and permitted to weep through the creature's eyes.

The stories from goodnatured Pulci I have been obliged to compress for other reasons--chiefly their excessive diffuseness. A paragraph of the version will sometimes comprise many pages. Those of Boiardo and Ariosto are more exact; and the reader will be good enough to bear in mind, that nothing is added to any of the poets, different as the case might seem here and there on comparison with the originals. An equivalent for whatever is said is to be found in some part of the context--generally in letter, always in spirit. The least characteristically exact passages are some in the love-scenes of Tasso; for I have omitted the plays upon words and other corruptions in style, in which that poet permitted himself to indulge. But I have noticed the circumstance in the comment. In other respects, I have endeavoured to make my version convey some idea of the different styles and genius of the writers,--of the severe passion of Dante; of the overflowing gaiety and affecting sympathies of Pulci, several of whose passages in the Battle of Roncesvalles are masterpieces of pathos; of the romantic and inventive elegance of Boiardo; the great cheerful universality of Ariosto, like a healthy _anima mundi_; and the ambitious irritability, the fairy imagination, and tender but somewhat effeminate voluptuousness of the poet of Armida and Rinaldo. I do not pretend that prose versions of passages from these writers can supersede the necessity of metrical ones, supposing proper metrical ones attainable. They suffice for them, in some respects, less than for Dante, the manner in their case being of more importance to the effect. But with all due respect to such translators as Harrington, Rose, and Wiffen, their books are not Ariosto and Tasso, even in manner. Harrington, the gay "godson" of Queen Elizabeth, is not always unlike Ariosto; but when not in good spirits he becomes as dull as if her majesty had frowned on him. Rose was a man of wit, and a scholar; yet he has undoubtedly turned the ease and animation of his original into inversion and insipidity. And Wiffen, though elegant and even poetical, did an unfortunate thing for Tasso, when he gave an additional line and a number of paraphrastic thoughts to a stanza already tending to the superfluous. Fairfax himself, who, upon the whole, and with regard to a work of any length, is the best metrical translator our language has seen, and, like Chapman, a genuine poet, strangely aggravated the sins of prettiness and conceit in his original, and added to them a love of tautology amounting to that of a lawyer. As to Hoole, he is below criticism; and other versions I have not happened to see. Now if I had no acquaintance with the Italian language, I confess I would rather get any friend who had, to read to me a passage out of Dante, Tasso, or Ariosto, into the first simple prose that offered itself, than go to any of the above translators for a taste of it, Fairfax excepted; and we have seen with how much allowance his sample would have to be taken. I have therefore, with some restrictions, only ventured to do for the public what I would have had a friend do for myself.

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