Per Contra

Summer 2007



From Canto Quinto of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso Translated by David R. Slavitt



Rinaldo is in Scotland, on his way to St. Andrews to act as Guinevere’s champion.  On the way, he hears a woman’s screams and finds her with two cutthroats who are about to kill her.  Rinaldo drives them off, has the young woman get on his squire’s horse’s crupper, and, as they travel, he asks her to explain how and why she came to this regrettable condition.



“I shall tell you,” she said, “of greater and worse

crimes than Greek tragedians ever recorded,

and if the sun itself appears averse

to visiting here in the north, it’s because of such sordid

and vile behavior as I am about to rehearse.

If men may kill their enemies in war, did

you ever hear of men killing friends who try

to do them only good?  Does that not defy



“all common sense? But let me begin, my lord,

at the beginning, from the time when I first came

into the king’s daughter’s service.  You’ve heard

of Guinevere, I should think: that is her name.

I had a fine place at court, but what occurred

was that cruel Love staked his peremptory claim

upon my heart.  I was, I admit, possessed,

and Polinesso seemed to me much the best



“and handsomest of all the men--the Duke

of Albany.  I loved him.  Speech is easy,

and faces are there to be judged at a single look,

but of hearts how can we make analyses?  He

came at last to my bed—in the room I took

which was Guinevere’s.  It makes me rather queasy

even now to admit how, time after time,

up to her balcony Polinesso would climb!



“This is where she often slept but now

and then she would change rooms, to avoid the heat

of summer or winter’s cold, and that was how

the room could be ours and we were able to meet

with the help of a rope ladder that would allow

him easy access. It was, I thought, discreet,

that side of the palace facing dilapidated

outbuildings where no one went or waited.



“We met quite often, and no one ever suspected,

but I so burned with love that I was blind

to the tell-tale signs that his passion was affected

and not an honest expression of his mind

and heart and soul.  Those dots I never connected

that would have drawn a picture in which I could find

the truth.  Someone with more sophistication

might well have seen through his tergiversation.



“Who knows how long I might have continued believing

in the lies that both of us found convenient, had

he had not revealed directly that he’d been deceiving

me by a suggestion that drove me mad—

that I should now help in a plan of his conceiving

to attract my mistress Guinevere.  This cad

was now in love with her, he claimed, and I

could further his suit and help him catch her eye.



“Outrage?  No.  Disgust?  Say, rather, dismay—

that people, or at least some men, are like that,

the fly we find in the perfumed ointment, one might say.

I listened to him go on, explaining what

he wanted, which was to marry her but stay

with me as well.  He said he loved me, but

she had rank and wealth.  So his design

was for me to be his mistress or concubine.



“Men are villains, you see, but women are sad

fools, or, anyway, I was: I believed

that what he said might be true—for I was mad

with love and hoped that what he had conceived

might make a kind of sense, for when he had

the king as his father-in-law and had achieved

all his goals, we might find happiness

that could somehow outweigh my deep tristesse.



“And aside from his love for me, which he declared

over and over had not diminished, he

spoke of how grateful he would be if I cared

enough for him to do this thing, and I’d see

many proofs of his passion.  I was scared

and confused and in love enough at last to agree

to speak of him to Guinevere and praise

him and further his suit in many ways.



“How could I deny him anything

or refuse to do as he asked?  I was happiest

when I could please him.  Therefore I tried to bring

the two of them together at his behest. 

I did all I could think of encouraging

her to take some notice or interest

in him, but to no avail.  For all my bother,

her heart was taken elsewhere, by another.



“This was a gentle knight, a courteous, handsome

fellow who had come to Scotland from far

off Italy, who’d learned how to fight, and some

people considered him matchless in arms (and they are

excellent judges, from whom to command some

praise like this is rare).   He was on a par

with the very best we have in Britain or

anywhere else in the noble arts of war.



“He and a brother of his had come while young

to live in the court here, improve their skill,

and attain a certain refinement by living among

our lords and ladies.  He’d earned the king’s good will

and, I might say, his love, as, rung by rung,

the monarch had raised him up—as monarchs will—

giving to him a number of towns and farms

and titles, too, with elaborate coats of arms.



“The name of this valiant knight was Ariodante,

and as dear as he was to the king, he was even dearer

to Guinevere, his daughter. Not only puissant, he

was also in love with her.  Their hearts drew nearer,

burning as hot as Aetna’s significant e-

ruptions do.  I cannot be any clearer,

but take it as a given that they were both

in love as if they had already plighted their troth.



“This love for him that filled her heart prevented

her from looking elsewhere or hearing a word

I said to her, for she was most contented

with Ariodante, and it never occurred

to her to look at the duke I’d represented

as handsome and charming—one she might have preferred

to her knight.  But the more I tried, the more

annoyed she got.  She said I was a bore.



“I told my lover--but he refused to hear--

that her heart was otherwise engaged, and she

would not respond to his suit.  It was quite clear

that there was not enough water in the sea

to quench her ardor.  For us to persevere

was absolutely hopeless for him and me.

Polinesso’s mood thereupon became quite grim

for he hated what I’d just reported to him.



“That hatred only grew and it took over

his entire being, for he was very proud

and could not bear it that some other lover

might be preferred to him.  Therefore he vowed

that he would be revenged and she would discover

that he was a man of consequence—a cloud

on her horizon and on her gallant’s too,

and they would suffer much from what he would do.



“He said that he would sow discord between

the two and make them hate each other so

that they would feel toward one another keen

enmity and shame.  He would bring her low

and visit disgrace upon her with a scene

so sordid, shameful, and public that there’d be no

living it down.  What this scheme would be,

though it made him smile, he would not confide to me.



“He brooded for some time about the small

details, and then when he was ready said

what he wanted me to do, and I was all

loving and loyal and probably out of my head,

but there I was, I confess, at his beck and call.

‘Dalinda, he whispered (and I was filled with dread),

‘a tree that one cuts down will revive and then

one has to cut it down again and again.



“‘This is what I must do, and I will do it,

until the roots are exhausted and it can not

grow back again, after what has happened to it.

It is to my taste, or say my hunger that

this elegant scheme be carried out, and through it

she will be ruined by my intricate plot.

What I want from you, next time we meet,

is the clothing Guinevere lets drop to her feet



“ ‘as she undresses for bed.  You gather and bring

them with you and put them on for our rendezvous.

Dress your hair like hers.  Do everything

you can to appear to be she.  And then when you

are up on our balcony, I’ll be imagining

her letting the ladder down to do

as we have done, on many and many a day--

so that my desire for her may fade away.



“I thought it a bit kinky and even demeaning,

but I did not see through to the fraud he had in mind.

I wanted to believe that he was weaning

himself away from his passion for her.  We find

all too often,  from duchesses to cleaning

women in love, that we can be willfully blind

to how are men are behaving and make excuses

for them.  We can be very silly gooses. 



“At any rate, he was at the same time speaking

with Ariodante, with whom he once had been

friends.  He represented that he had been seeking

Guinevere’s hand in marriage and that they were in

love.  Why was a so-called friend thus sneaking

around to interfere or trying to win

Guinevere’s heart?  Is this a way to behave

for one who is neither a villain nor a knave?



“He asked why Ariodante pursued this vain

courtship that could not possibly succeed

and would only bring to all the parties pain.

‘If I were in your place, I should not need

any such prompting but would of course refrain

without the friend having to come and plead

for me to conduct myself in a proper way.

And on this subject that’s all I have to say.’



“Ariodante answered the Duke thus;

‘I am astonished also, and even before

you’d laid eyes on the girl, there was between us

two a love that could not have been any more

ardent or sweeter or any more rapturous.

She does not love you, and I therefore implore

you, who must know this as well as I do, to yield

the girl to me and, in honor, quit the field.



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