My wife and I are approaching the end of Hearing Secret Harmonies, the twelfth and final volume of Anthony Powell’s series of novels A Dance to the Music of Time (begun last November, and contrary to Christopher Culver’s warning in June, we have not found a “drastic decline in quality with the last two volumes,” although I agree they aren’t up to the level of the earlier ones), and among the things that have intrigued me is his discussion of Ariosto, an author I knew had once been famous and much read but whom I had never paid attention to. The more I read about Ariosto, the more interesting he sounded; from Wikipedia:

Throughout Ariosto’s writing are narratorial comments dubbed by Dr. Daniel Javitch as “Cantus Interruptus”. Javitch’s term refers to Ariosto’s narrative technique to break off one plot line in the middle of a canto, only to pick it up again in another, often much later, canto. Javitch argues that while many critics have assumed Ariosto does this so as to build narrative tension and keep the reader turning pages, the poet in reality diffuses narrative tension because so much time separates the interruption and the resumption. By the time the reader gets to the continuation of the story, he or she has often forgotten or ceased to care about the plot and is usually wrapped up in another plot. Ariosto does this, Javitch argues, to undermine “man’s foolish but persistent desire for continuity and completion”. Ariosto uses it throughout his works.

That reminded me of Veltman, who similarly drops plotlines for many pages, and then I remembered Veltman had actually written a story called “Неистовый Роланд” [Orlando Furioso] (see this post from last year), and I realized Ariosto must have been quite important to Veltman and I should really give him a try. So I’m reading the version that’s easily available online, the one translated by William Stewart Rose in 1823-31 (and no, I’m not going to try reading it in Italian, this is a side interest and I want to get an idea of it, not linger over its poetic qualities), and I’m enjoying the unexpected bonus of Rose’s recondite vocabulary. Here’s a stanza from the first canto:

There, lodged by Charles, that gentle bonnibel,
Ordained to be the valiant victor’s meed,
Before the event had sprung into her sell,
And from the combat turned in time of need;
Presaging wisely Fortune would rebel
That fatal day against the Christian creed:
And, entering a thick wood, discovered near,
In a close path, a horseless cavalier.

Bonnibel! The OED (not fully updated since 1887) defines it as “Fair maid, bonny lass,” says it’s “apparently < bonny adj. + belle adj. and n.; but possibly < French bonne et belle good and fair,” and gives four citations, the first from 1579 (Spenser Shepheardes Cal. Aug. 62, “I saw the bouncing, Bellibone; Hey ho Bonibell”) and the last from 1823 (J. G. Lockhart Vow Reduan in Anc. Spanish Ballads ii, “But bid a long farewell..To bower and bonni~bell, thy feasting and thy wooing!”), just when Rose was doing his translating. And the third line flummoxed me completely: “Before the event had sprung into her sell”? The event had sprung… what? Then I realized the subject was the gentle bonnibel, with “before the event” an adverbial phrase modifying the action, but what the dickens was a sell? Turns out it’s an old word (from French selle < Latin sella) that originally meant “A seat, a low stool” but came to mean “A saddle” (latest citation 1885 R. F. Burton tr. Arabian Nights’ Entertainm. I. xx. 198 “He bade one of his pages saddle him his Nubian mare-mule with her padded selle”). Ods bodikins!

Addendum. Having gotten the Penguin translation by Barbara Reynolds from the library (thanks, Songdog!), I might as well provide her version of the stanza above for comparison:

Angelica did not prolong her stay.
She, who was promised as a victor’s bride,
Into the saddle leapt and straight away,
Choosing her moment well, set out to ride.
She had foreseen the fortune of the day
Would bring disaster to the Christian side.
Along a forest glade she took her course
And met a cavalier without a horse.


  1. Rose isn’t working very hard there.

    “Before the event had sprung into her sell”

    translates Ariosto’s

    inanzi al caso era salita in sella

    (PS: Ariosto is great. No time for a longer post at the moment though).

  2. I look forward to hearing more when you have a chance! And if there’s a translation you particularly recommend, I might be persuaded to spring for it.

  3. “I might be persuaded to spring for it”. Haven’t heard that in a long time ! There’s a similar German expression: etwas springen lassen = lay out a sum of money as a contribution, say for an impromptu party or for someone in need = spendieren.

  4. marie-lucie says

    “Before the event had sprung into her sell” translates Ariosto’s “inanzi al caso era salita in sella”

    I found the English line pure gibberish at first: it looked like the subject of “had sprung” was “the event”, which made no sense at all, but the Italian sentence makes it clear that “she” is the subject. And I had not realized that “sell” was French la selle, the saddle.

    Ariosto is known in French as l’Arioste, and his work as le “Roland furieux”. I had always assumed that Arioste was some sort of Greek adjective, rather than the poet’s actual name, with the article indicating exceptional talent, as in il Dante.

  5. If other paragraphs are as difficult as this one, wouldn’t it be easier and quicker to read it in Italian?

  6. If other paragraphs are as difficult as this one, wouldn’t it be easier and quicker to read it in Italian?

    Judging by that extract, Rose is half-Italian anyway. I’ve not read his version, but if you can handle the twisty syntax and recondite vocabulary and are only going to read some extracts out of curiosity, then I’d probably stick with it. As you say, it’s free.

    I read Orlando a while back, mostly in Italian with the help of Barbara Reynolds’ modern Penguin translation.

    One day I plan to read Harington’s Elizabethan translation, which is a shortened version but supposed to be pretty good. There is a free version available online somewhere. I’ve got it on my Kindle but it’s PDF and I have to read it “sideways” in landscape mode.

  7. About Veltman. I was vaguely aware Ariosto had some influence on Russian literature. After all, Mandelstam wrote a poem about him, describing his verse as

    На языке цикад пленительная смесь
    Из грусти пушкинской и средиземной спеси

    (which, I hope, means something like: “In the language of cicadas a captivating blend of Pushkinian sadness and Mediterranean haughtiness”)

    Pushkin can be very Ariostan; there’s the same lightness of touch and playfulness in a lot of his narrative poetry. But I assumed that Pushkin was getting this via an intermediary, Byron, who Reynolds regards as the most Ariostan poet in English (the self-mocking Byron of Don Juan, of course, not the earlier self-pitying Romantic gloomster).

    However, from Googling around, I’d now say early 19th-century Russian writers were into Ariosto big time, especially Pushkin and Gogol. Pushkin admitted he borrowed one episode of Ruslan from Ariosto and he even translated part of Canto 23 of Orlando into Russian. See here. There’s some discussion whether he did this directly from the Italian or used a French translation (he had copies of both, only the French version with all its pages cut).

  8. I posted a comment but it’s stuck in moderation. Maybe because I copied and pasted it from Notepad? Anyhow, I have a follow-up comment to that one so I’ll try to post it later today.

  9. Ariost had a huge influence on Veltman-Pushkin’s generation, probably via Voltaire before Byron. Pushkin’s first big hit Ruslan and Ludmila was inspired by Ariost and there is of course Mandelstam’s Ariost. We had him on our reading list at university though few bothered actually reading him.

  10. Now I’m even more interested in Ariosto. But if it was that important to the Greatest Generation, it seems odd that it’s never (so far as I can tell) been translated into Russian poetry; I was going to say it had never been translated at all (the Russian Wikipedia page mentions only a fragment translated by Pushkin), but Google Books turned up an 1892 prose version by Zotov.

  11. Google Books only allows only a limited preview of Ilya Kutik’s Writing as Exorcism: The Personal Codes of Pushkin, Lermontov and Gogol, which discusses the influence of Ariosto on Pushkin and Gogol. Kutik writes:

    “The reason that Ariosto’s epic was picked up by Russian Romanticism is understandable: Orlando Furioso is simultaneously heroic and fantastic, and thus represents the closest approach in classic literature to the dual ‘Schiller-Hoffmann’ Romantic mode, ironically captured by Gogol in ‘Nevsky Prospect’.”

    Kutik compares Ariosto’s description of the onset of Orlando’s madness to Yevgeny’s in The Bronze Horseman and the restoration of Kovalev’s nose in Gogol’s story to the restoration of Orlando’s wits by Astolfo.

  12. it seems odd that it’s never (so far as I can tell) been translated into Russian poetry

    It’s 40,000 lines of verse in a complicated stanza form. My guess is most poets would blanch at taking on such a task, especially when educated Russians in the 19th century were fluent in French and could read it in that language, if not the original Italian.

  13. Sure, and I wouldn’t have expected it to be translated by a particular poet or in a particular decade. But not once in the last, say, 250 years? I mean, the ancient epics got translated repeatedly, and they’re pretty damn long.

  14. I mean, the ancient epics got translated repeatedly, and they’re pretty damn long.

    I can’t find the exact stats but I think the Iliad and Odyssey are about 15,000 lines each, the Aeneid is about 10,000. Quite a bit shorter.

  15. Aha. I think I’ve found a translator who had a go at translating Ariosto into Russian. Check out the entry on Semyon Raich. He managed to translate 26 cantos, publishing 15 of them in installments in the 1830s. He stopped because they did not catch on with the public, probably because of his choice of a monotonous ballad stanza to render Ariosto’s octaves.

  16. Aha, very interesting! I feel better now, and I’m impressed at your ability to turn up that nugget of information.

  17. Raich had already used the same misconceived stanza to translate Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. At about 15,000 lines, that poem’s a much more manageable task and it appears that other Russian versions appeared in the 18th and early 19th centuries. (Tasso’s very different in spirit from Ariosto, lyrical and tragic rather than humorous; the Romantics were attracted to him because he was the archetypal mad, misunderstood poet).

    I’d guess that later on The Divine Comedy took over from Tasso as the Italian epic to translate. Again, it’s about 15,000 lines (and is divided into three roughly equal parts, which can be published individually). From what I can see from Googling around, the first full Russian translation did not appear until the late 19th century, but I might be wrong.


  18. That reminded me of Veltman, who similarly drops plotlines for many pages,

    Vasily Gippius, in his Gogol (available on Google Books), says, “We can guess that Gogol valued Ariosto not only for his brilliant style but also for his skill at constructing a truly epic, retarded narrative…” (maybe not the choice of word a modern translator would use, but you can see what he means).

    Gippius also says Gogol had portraits of Ariosto, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Fielding and Pushkin on his walls, This was because, says Gogol, “they reflected nature as it was and not as certain people wished it had been.” A dig at his critics, especially ladies who demand “a hero without the slightest blemish.”

  19. There is also a “Литературные памятники” (Literary Monuments) 2-volume full translation by Gasparov from 1993. Literary Monuments is an academic series, thorough in research, versions and comments, but not always fair in interpreting references and influences. Link to site with downloads

    The most memorable line from Mandelstam’s Ariost is perhaps this
    Власть отвратительна, как руки брадобрея. – Authority is ghastly, like the barber’s hands.
    And I love the image of a ‘grasshopper muscular, amidst the midday steppe.’

  20. Thanks for the Gasparov link; too bad the download is in Djv format. (Why are the Russians so fond of that?)

  21. I wish I knew!
    Gasparov, in turns our, is very interesting figure. I am just reading an interview with him here where he says ‘I didn’t want to translate Ariosto, I just wanted to read him.’

  22. Why are the Russians so fond of that [djvu format] ?

    What I find in the internet is that DjVu uses four compression techniques and is very fast zo decompress. It stores efficiently, but can’t adapt the presentation to the output device (the format is not “reflowable”). Several people remark that Russian scientists are fond of it. In general: “DjVu is used by hundreds of academic, commercial, governmental, and non-commercial web sites around the world to distribute scanned documents, digital documents, and high-resolution photos.” This quote is from a download page for DjVuLibre, an open-source viewer.

    Perhaps many people in Russia just got institutionally accustomed to DjVu before tablets were developed, and can’t reflow their preferences. They’re not the only ones to have this problem. At some point, in some respect, everybody finds himself on the trailing edge of market developments.


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