- Parisina et Darkness by Lord Byron
Charles Dickens, in Pictures from Italy, records that he saw the ‘dreary town’ of Ferrara, ‘half an hour before sunrise one fine morning’. He noted the traditional sights, Ariosto’s house and Tasso’s prison, then added: ‘[b]ut the long silent streets, and the dismantled palaces, where ivy waves in lieu of banners, and where rank weeds are slowly creeping up the long-untrodden stairs, are the best sights of all’. The city was best at this time of day:
without a single figure in the picture; a city of the dead, without one solitary survivor […] In one part, a great tower rose into the air; the only landmark in the melancholy view. In another, a prodigious castle, with a moat about it, stood aloof: a sullen city in itself. In the black dungeons of this castle, Parisina and her lover were beheaded in the dead of night. The red light, beginning to shine when I looked back upon it, stained its walls without, as they have, many a time, been stained within, in old days; but for any sign of life they gave, the castle and the city might have been avoided by all human creatures, from the moment when the axe went down upon the last of the two lovers: and might have never vibrated to another sound
Beyond the blow that to the blockPierced through with forced and sudden shock– Dickens here slightly misquotes lines 486–7 of Byron’s Parisina (the text in the McGann edition reads ‘sullen’ for ‘sudden’).
In 1425, Niccolò III d’Este, Marquess of Ferrara, had both his wife Parisina and his illegitimate son, Ugo, executed in the Ducal Palace (Dickens’s ‘prodigious castle’), because of their adulterous relationship. The subject is one that naturally attracts: set in a remote past, but in a place still there to be visited; at its core, the tensions and anxieties surrounding some of the most important of human affairs – family, honour, love, sex, guilt, loyalty. The transgressive nature of all adulterous relationships is compounded by the son/stepmother connection, with its dynamic of natural unnaturalness, the absolute intimacy of incest.
Parisina has been the subject of operas by Donizetti in 1833, and by Mascagni (with a libretto by Gabriele d’Annunzio) in 1913. In McGann’s reading, Byron’s interest in the subject derives from a range of stimuli. At one level, his Parisina is about justice and moral conflict; at another, it is about Byron’s personal life and the social world of the regency. It is important to say at once that this new translation by Danièle Sarrat into French does all the things that good translations do. Not least it sends the reader constantly back to the original to see what is happening there. Reading translation, as ever, is like watching a mechanic with dirty hands, working at the very heart of what fits and what does not.
For her version of Parisina, Ms Sarrat has chosen to turn Byron’s original octosyllabic couplets into French alexandrines. The alexandrine has been, since the sixteenth century, the staple metre of serious French verse. In the hands of the seventeenth-century dramatists, it became both an extremely versatile medium for the expression of the deepest emotions and an increasingly strict metrical form. For an Anglo-Saxon audience used to the idiom of Shakespeare, it can seem extraordinary that one of the most memorable lines in Racine’s Phèdre should be: ‘[l]a fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé’. The line, with its apparently unshakable sense of balance, achieved through the position of the caesura after the sixth syllable, illustrates a formal patterning that became a metrical standard in French versification, one that was only [End Page 197] seriously challenged in the nineteenth century (Hugo’s ‘I have dislocated that great fool of an alexandrine’).
Many of Ms Sarrat’s alexandrines conform to the classical model, and do so to great effect. Bernard Beatty, in a characteristically terse and...