British Romanticism and Italian Literature: Translating, Reviewing, Rewriting

By Laura Bandiera; Diego Saglia | Go to book overview

Laura Bandiera (Università di Parma)


Wordsworth’s Ariosto: Translation as Metatext and Misreading

Following John Harington’s 1591 pioneering translation, three complete versions of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando
Furioso
appeared between 1755 and 1823: one by William Huggins, the second (published in 1783) by John
Hoole, the last produced by William Stewart Rose. This essay discusses these works through an exploration of the
textual and paratextual strategies employed by the translators to cope with traditionally contradictory evaluations
of Ariosto’s work, thus paving the way for new approaches. In particular, the essay focuses on William
Wordsworth’s surprisingly insensitive translation, dated November 1802, of a fragment from Canto I of the
Furioso. In the light of Wordsworth’s poetics and poetical practice, this fragment reveals an ambivalent attitude
towards romance and Ariosto that may be reconstructed through Book V of The Prelude (written in 1804) and
Peter Bell (1798 and 1806 versions).

In 1802 William Wordsworth embarked on the task of translating Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a rather singular choice for a poet who had consciously rejected fantasy for reality, and the exotic for the humble. Of this version, presumably comprising the first two cantos of the poem, only a fragment has survived (I, 5–14).1 Very little is known about the poet’s initiative, when exactly it took place or to what extent it was carried out,2 although Wordsworth’s rather surprising but well-documented predilection for Ariosto’s masterpiece may be sufficient to account for it.3 It must seem even more surprising, then, that the only surviving part of the version, which must be either a preliminary draft or a fragment of a much longer completed work, appears to be ultimately devoid of literary merits and in no way indicative of Wordsworth’s great poetical ability. Nor do the poet’s own comments help to clarify the matter. For, strangely enough, considering Wordsworth’s almost obsessive habit of revising his texts, he never seems to have had any doubts about this work. On the contrary, from what we know, he looked on it with unjustified confidence. In words that sound disrespectful towards Ariosto’s great artistic achievement, Wordsworth

1 For Wordsworth’s text, see the Appendix to this essay.

2 The few existing indications suggest that Wordsworth carried out and completed the English version of Cantos I and II in the latter part of November 1802. But it also seems that Wordsworth returned to the Orlando Furioso at least once in later life, this time translating, in his own words, ‘three books of Ariosto’. None of this material, however, has survived. See June Sturrock, ‘Wordsworth’s Italian Teacher’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 67 (1985), 797–812, 227–28.

3 Surprising, at least, for the general reader, or even for the scholar not intimately acquainted with Wordsworth’s life and minor production.

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