Per Contra

Summer 2007



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





“But there was more and worse for the sad princess,

for the man said, ‘We met on the road by chance,

and he invited me to come with him. My guess

was that he wanted company, but his utterance

and quite another meaning, which I confess

I never suspected. “Report the circumstance

of my death,” he said, “to Guinevere, who will know

why I have done this, having been brought so low.



“What you see me do will be no great surprise

to her.  You can merely say that I’d have preferred

not to have seen what I saw, or not to have eyes.”

Other than that, he offered not a word

of explanation, although I can surmise

what he might have meant.’  When Guinevere heard

this speech her face turned ashen and she burst

into tears, but this was not quite yet the worst,



“for he did not stop there but went on to tell

what happened, and how at Capobasso he saw

Ariodante jump from the cliff. He fell

headlong to the rocks and the water, into the craw

of the man-devouring sea, where it’s just as well

that he must have died at once. ‘In fear and awe,

I have come here at full speed to tell his story,

as he instructed.  I am truly sorry.’



“O God, what she said then, and what she did.

She went to her faithful bed and beat her breast,

tore her hair and clothing, and she hid

from everyone at court—who probably guessed

the reason he’d killed himself, which--God forbid!--

was wrong, crazy, and false!  And she expressed

her grief and rage in heartbreakingly keen

wailing—for what could Ariodante have seen?



“Rumors ran rife, and the king himself cried

as everyone else at court did, pouring tears.

down their faces.  The brother, though, was beside

himself with grief, and there were honest fears

that he, too, might be driven to suicide.

He also claimed to any willing ears

that Guinevere’s shameful deportment with her lover

was what his poor dear brother had killed himself over.



“So desperate was he that it seemed nothing to lose

the king’s favor—if that was the cost to be paid—

for the sake of his revenge upon Guinevere, whose

behavior had killed his brother.  He was not afraid—

for what worse could happen to him? Could the world abuse

him any further? The accusation he made

would either bring him justice or else would send

him to the block,  Either way, his pain would end. 



“Therefore, when the great hall was filled, he came

before the king and to him and the people said,

‘Sire, it was your daughter’s act of shame

that drove my poor brother out of his head,

so that death seemed good to him—and all the blame

is hers, the one he loved and would have wed,

but both his pride and love were so offended

by her behavior that his life is ended.



“‘His love for her was honorable.  In time

he hoped by service to you to further his suit,

but while he was hidden one night, he saw someone climb

up the forbidden tree to taste that fruit

he had hoped himself to gather. It was a crime,

for Guinevere came to the balcony, dissolute

and eager.  And to help him ascend, she had

a ladder. I can’t imagine a thing so bad.



“And as if this were not shocking enough, he then

offers to prove every word in combat. The king

of course is sorely distressed that among the men

and women of court, anybody should bring

such charges against his daughter.  But when

he considers further, it only gets worse.  The thing

is, that unless some champion come to defend her

and prove Lurcanio’s lying, he must send her



“to be beheaded.  Of our law you may not have known,

but it condemns any woman who lives here

and has given herself to any man but her own

husband to death—unless some knight appear

ready to defend her honor in lone

combat within a month.  And for Guinevere

that month has nearly run out.  Soon she has got

to submit herself to the headsman, guilty or not.



“The king is convinced she is innocent, and to free

his daughter, he has proclaimed that he’ll give her hand

to any knight who can challenge this calumny--

and not just her hand but a dower of money and land.

So far, no one has come forward for, if I may be

candid, Lurcanio’s famous for fighting and

nobody wants to risk losing his life

even to gain all that wealth and a beautiful wife.



“Every warrior seems to fear him who could

remove this terrible stain on her reputation.

She does have a brother Zerbino, and surely he would,

but for many months he has been on a peregrination

somewhere outside the country from which good

reports have come.  But to the king’s frustration,

nobody knows where he is now precisely.

Otherwise he would come and do quite nicely.



“Zerbino’s absence, however, does not mean

that the king is doing nothing at all, for he

is convinced that his daughter never did these obscene

things.  By rational methods he wants to see

if the accusation has substance, and he has been

arresting chambermaids in his inquiry.

I thought it prudent to be elsewhere, and suggested

to the duke that there would be danger if I were arrested,



“not only to me but to him as well.  He approved

of my sensible warning, and said I should not fear.

He thought it would be safer if I were moved

to a fortress of his, not very far from here,

where he could protect me better, and it behooved

me to go with those two men, close and sincere

friends of his, to whom he entrusted me,

with what result, sir, you have been able to see.



“It is most painful for me to have to recount

those things I did for Polinesso, from

love, or at least infatuation.  I won’t

try to excuse myself for having been dumb,

I did not expect to be rewarded.  I don’t

on the other hand believe that what I have come

to is fair, or just.  It isn’t right

for a lady to be treated thus by a knight.



He turns out to be ungrateful, treacherous, cruel,

and at the end, he doubts me, after what

I’ve done for him.  I was an absolute fool,

and trusted that he was only trying to shut

me away from danger but, insouciant and cool,

he had other and worse intentions—to put

me at the mercy of those bloodthirsty men

who were at the point of murdering me when



“you appeared, for, dead, I’d be no threat

to him and could not bring the royal wrath

that he deserves down on his head.  The debt

he owes me would be discharged in the aftermath.

This is how Love treats women!  See what we get

when we place our delicate feet on the dangerous path

of dalliance.”  Thus Dalinda told her tale

to Rinaldo as they continued on the trail.



What a chance, Rinaldo thought, for a knight

to do some good.  Guinevere, he was sure

was innocent, and therefore the chance to fight

and show the world that she was chaste and pure

was all the more delicious—although he’d been quite

prepared to enter lists to defend a whore

if that’s what she was. But her innocence was a real

attraction and it did increase his zeal.



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