Per Contra

Summer 2007



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





“‘That is what I would do, and if you had

that regard for me that you claim I should show, then why

should I be the one to excuse myself?  It is sad

to have to say it, but between the two of us, I

am the one she loves and expects to marry.  Her dad,

the king, loves me as well and has looked on my

suit with favor.  Believe me, my friend, it’s true,

for I would not, for our friendship, lie to you.’



“This, of course, was just as the Duke had planned,

and he was now able to offer the reply

he had prepared, but it seemed to be off-hand

when he said, ‘My friend you are in error and I

am the one she loves, although I quite understand

how passion can deceive one, but let us try

to reason it out and be candid with one another,

keep nothing secret, and act as brother to brother.



“‘What I reveal to you, or you to me,

we must swear never to tell another soul,

for only such an oath will allow us to be

as honest as we must be to settle this whole

dispute between us. And if you will agree,

I think that we can navigate this shoal

without mishap and not risk having the great

friendship that is between us deteriorate.’



“How reasonable!  How fair!  Or so it appeared.

They took their oaths on the gospel and Ariodante,

suspecting nothing began.  He volunteered

how he and Guinevere had a covenant he

trusted absolutely and he revered

the girl for her promise (in which he was confidant, he

said) that if her father had any objection

to their marriage, she would preserve her affection



for him and never marry another but would

live alone for the rest of her earthly days.

But he was hopeful that by his valor he could

gain the king’s approval and his praise.

His object was to do the kingdom good

and thus to earn the princess by these affrays.

‘Only the brave deserve the fair,’ it is said,

and he trusted in that, and believed that they would wed.



“Everything he said, of course, was true,

and he had no need whatever for persiflage.

He had no doubts at all about her and knew

that nothing the other could say could camouflage

or in any way disfigure their strong and true

love.  Secure, he waited for a barrage

of utter nonsense from Polinesso,  who’d

have no chance of shaking his certitude.



“After a pause, he admitted that that was the whole

story, that he had no other proofs nor did he need

any.  He expect none from a soul

as pure and fine as hers.  He said that he’d

be quite content to wait until their goal

of holy wedlock was reached—as God decreed.

To ask for anything further would be wrong,

although he hoped the wait would not be too long.



“All this, the duke had pretty much expected,

and it must have satisfied his bitter spite

to answer with a carefully affected

display of regret, ‘No, no, my friend, not quite!’

His plan was to make him feel not only rejected

but furious.  ‘I am ahead of you in delight.

She only pretends with you, but with me it’s true--

not just in words but in acts of passion too.’



“‘With you, I am sorry to say, she is pretending,

leading you on, and feeding you false hope,

while with me, in our intimate and unending

conversations, she says you are a dope,

and mocks you, even as I am defending

your character and brains.  You should not mope

on her account but make a nice clean break.

You think it’s love, but you make a grave mistake.



“‘Had we not sworn an oath, I would not say

how often it is that Guinevere and I

lie naked in her bed, and while we play

she speaks of you in mirth and ribaldry,

which adds a certain zest to our soufflé.

Her actions, I’m sorry to say, thus give the lie

to what she has said to you in cruel fun.

Look elsewhere, my dear friend, at anyone!



“To this Ariodante answered at once,

‘I do not believe a word you have said.  I’m sure

you’re lying through your teeth.  I’m not a dunce

or oaf, and I know that Guinevere is pure

as the driven snow in sunlight.  For these affronts

to decency and to her, the only cure

is that you take them back, or else must prove

what you have said about the woman I love.’



“Here Ariodante is surprised, for the duke

says, ‘It is not fit that we engage

in combat over something where a look

is enough to demonstrate what I’ve said and assuage

our difficulties.’  This was an offer that shook

Ariodante’s confidence, and his rage

turned for a moment to fear.  Could it be true?

and if it was, what on earth could he do?



“His life, he thought, might end right then and there,

in chagrin or grief or apoplexy.  His face

was ashen a moment. ‘Let me see this rare

good fortune of yours,’ he said, ‘and I’ll yield my place

to you in this contest between a pair

of knights.’  But then, in order to save face,

he said, ‘I won’t believe it, I emphasize,

until I have seen it myself with my own eyes.’



“‘When the time is right, I shall let you know,’

Polinesso said, and went away, suppressing

a hearty horse-laugh, I dare say, although

perhaps he smiled.  (I am, as you know, guessing.)

A couple of nights later, the cruel tableau

took place with me, quite innocently dressing,

as the duke had instructed me, in Guinevere’s clothing

while Ariodante was hiding, in fear and loathing,



“where the duke had told him, among those derelict

buildings, where nobody ever goes, but whence

one can observe that balcony we’d picked

for our many trysts.  Ariodante was tense,

worried lest the bad duke might have tricked

him into coming here in malevolence—

to murder him.  Otherwise he had no fear

about any misbehavior of Guinevere.



“As a precaution, Ariodante had brought

his brother along--Lurcanio is his name--

prudent and brave.  Nobody better had fought

on the battlefield or at tournaments.  He came

for protection, and Ariodante dreaded naught,

for having his brother along with him was the same

as having ten men standing beside him to fight

in this out-of-the-way place in the dead of night.



“To his brother, of course, he had not said a thing

about the purpose of their nocturnal foray,

but had only instructed Lurcanio to bring

his weapons with him and stand a stone’s throw away,

ready to come if called, and lingering

until Ariodante dismissed him.  They

concealed themselves in those outbuildings and waited

but not quite certain what they anticipated.



“The brother promised that he would do as told,

and they waited in the darkness opposite

the balcony.  Eventually the bold

and deceitful man showed up, whose clever wit

was now in the service of a cruel and cold

heart—although I was unaware of it.

He made the usual sign to me and I

appeared with the ladder that he could climb up by.



“I had dressed myself in Guinevere’s long white

gown with gold embroidery everywhere,

and there was a lovely cloth-of-gold net, bright

with crimson tassels, that I wore on my hair.

Everyone at the court knew that costume, all right.

It was hardly something anyone else would wear,

but I had it on as I went out there, visible

to anyone there.  It was almost risible.



“Lurciano, meanwhile, had disobeyed

and followed after his brother, silent but close,

and curious, I should think.  Somewhere in the shade

of a wall, he stood well hidden, prepared for foes

or anything else.  I appeared at the balustrade

and they saw me in the moonlight, and only God knows

whether they doubted Guinevere yet.  I guess so,

but then, next thing that they saw was Polinesso,



“ready, apparently, for his assignation

with the woman up there who seemed to be Guinevere.

At this point the brothers’ horror and consternation

was such that they were both ready, I do fear,

to believe their eyes, when the duke, with no hesitation

at all climbed up the ladder and in a mere

matter of seconds held me in close embrace

while kissing my mouth and neck and every place



“else he could think of to drive his victim mad.

I was ardent myself, quite unaware

that we were being observed.  It was very bad,

but it was not at all my purpose to drive to despair

Ariodante –who watched this terrible cad

embracing and being in turn embraced by the fair

Guinevere . . How could this happen?  Was he nuts?

Or were all women always and everywhere sluts?



“So what does he do, do you think?  He cannot bear

such a world, such a life, and he wants to end it all

immediately.  In his absolute despair

he plants his sword on the ground, blade-up, to fall

upon it and let the hardened steel take care

of his misery forever after a small

moment of discomfort.  But his brother sees

what he is about to do and he’s



there to prevent such sin, such madness.  Had he

been that stone’s throw away, he could never have come

to interfere.  And in the event, he was glad he

had not followed all the instructions, as some

might have done.  He said (being Scottish), ‘Laddie,

I know it’s a quite a shock to recover from,

but do not kill yourself for a girl!  Hoot mon!

It’s better to find out now than later on.



“‘If anyone is to be killed, it should be she

for she is the one who is guilty.  If you must die

let it be for honor . . . and let it be

later, rather than now.  With your own eye,

you have seen what a filthy whore she is, and he

has done you a kind of favor. Quite frankly, my

advice is that we take this matter to

the king who, in such cases, knows what to do.’



“Ariodante stays his hand.  Anyway

he appears to do so.  His heart nevertheless

is pierced by how he has seen his beloved betray

her promises in flagrant lasciviousness.

Stunned, disoriented, and in dismay

he follows his brother away from this wickedness.

But his deference to his brother’s advice is a lie,

for his life is over and all he wants is to die.



“The next morning, Ariodante was gone,

having slipped away, guided by despair

and disgust, and for many days there was no one

who had any idea what had happened to him or where

he could possibly be.  And what had set him upon

this desperate path, the only people there

who knew, were the duke and of course his brother, who’d heard

the rumors and speculations but said not a word.



“After a week, or I think it was probably eight

days, a traveler came with terrible news

for Guinevere and the others at court of the fate

of Ariodante who had elected to lose

the life he detested, jumping down from a great

height into the turbulent sea that subdues

even the strongest swimmer.  In short, this renowned

knight had bidden farewell to the world and drowned.


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