- ‘Tears, & Tortures, & the Touch of Joy’: Byron in ItalyEd. by Alan Rawes and Mirka Horová
This Special Issue is a curate’s egg, but when it’s good, it’s very good.
The first article, by Alan Rawes, addresses Byron’s translation of the first canto of Pulci’s Morgante Maggiore. Re-reading the resulting work, one wonders what all the fuss was/is about. It isn’t very funny; there’s nothing in it which is offensive in sexual or religious terms; apart from its verse-form, there’s nothing in it resembling Don Juan, Beppo, or The Vision of Judgment. There’s nothing witty in it. Some of its couplets are downright bad:
And turn’d about, and stopp’d his journey on, And then he stoop’d to pick up a great stone.(35, 7-8)
It is alleged that Murray’s reason for shilly-shallying over publication was because of the poem’s light religious tone, but it seems more likely to have been what he saw as its unmarket-ability; as he wrote to Byron in 1820, ‘Pulci very admirably executed as it is possible – but we are convinced that it will not be <liked> popular in England’. Sales and profits were always Murray’s top priority, followed by respectability.
Rawes argues here that the Morganteis written in ‘the mode – and matter – of his [Byron’s] earlier poetry’: to wit, Childe Haroldand the Turkish Tales:
[Byron] quietly puts forward Pulci as a model that gives his earlier, non-comic Tales a pedigree – one that roots them, alongside Don Juan, in a long tradition of writing that reaches back through all kinds of narrative (comic, romantic, satirical, serious – or all brought together in one text, as by Pulci) to those accounts of moral crusades, century-old conflicts, between religious and social systems, questing and/or errant knights and extravagantly, even fantastically heroic deeds that form one of the foundations of vernacular European literature.
I’ve never heard the Giaour, Conrad, Selim, Lara, or Alp described before as ‘questing and/ or errant knights’, or their strange, self-defeating activities as ‘extravagantly, even fantastically heroic deeds’: what they’re not interested in is the Quixotic chivalry of
Redressing injury, revenging wrong, To aid the damsel and destroy the Caitiff, Opposing singly the united Strong, From foreign yoke to free the helpless native( Don Juan, XIII, 10)
It is true that, in The Corsair, Conrad rescues the ladies from the Haram: but he doesn’t make doing good his life’s full-time mission, as knights-errant do. And in part Don Quixote(subject of the lines above from Don Juan) is a satire aimed at Pulci. The Morgante Maggioreis one of [End Page 67]the works which has sent Quixote mad. The deflationary Don Juan– deflationary of Byron’s earlier works, and of their readership – is thus in an anti-Pulci tradition in content, though not in style. And the style in which Byron writes about his heroes is the reverse of vernacular. It is when he suddenly switches from Childe Haroldto Beppothat his poetry becomes vernacular.
As evidence for his thesis, Rawes adduces a number of apparent mistranslations, which he argues create the parallels between Orlando and the Byronic Heroes. Here, in stanza 16, the word is ‘chief’:
And with the sword he would have murder’d Gan, But Oliver thrust in between the pair, And from his hand extracted Durlindan, And thus at length they separated were. Orlando, angry too with Carloman, Wanted but little to have slain him there; Then forth alone from Paris went the chief, And burst and madden’d with disdain and grief.
Conrad/Lara, Alp and Selim, Rawes points out, are all chiefs. Later, in stanza 18, the word he focuses on is ‘revenge’:
Like him a fury counsels; his revenge On Gan in that rash act he seem’d to take, Which Aldabella thought extremely strange, But soon Orlando...