Don Juan III: Byron and Margutte Byron’s translation was not his first creative tribute to Pulci. In Stanza 45 of Don Juan Canto III, a casual reveller tells Lambro that he is more interested in the food and drink than in who’s giving the party. The stanza seems to have emerged from Byron’s pen and on to the rough draft – where it is numbered 47 – with relative ease. As can be seen below, Byron made only one truly false start – with the second word of the seventh line. He wrote the correct version of the third line hesitantly, then crossed out the last two words, to re-write them more cleanly over his erasure. Another minor hiccup occurred with the stanza’s final word:
“I know not – said the fellow – who or what
“He is or whence he came, and little care –
“But this I know – that this roast > fat>
“And that good wine neer washed down better fare –
“And if you are not satisfied with that –
“Direct your questions to my neighbour there,
“He’ll answer all for better or for worse –
“For none likes more to hear himself converse.2
However, when he came to make the fair copy – where the stanza was numbered 44 – something about the “fellow”’s cheerful indifference as to Juan’s identity and origin seems to have struck him; and he appended to it, vertically in the right-hand margin, a stanza from Pulci’s Morgante: 44.
“For none likes more to hear himself converse.
Note + Rispose allor Margutte, a dirtel tosto,
Io non credo piu al nero ch’all’azzurro;
Ma nel cappone, o lesso, o vuogli arrosto,
E credo alcuna volta nel burro;
Nella cervogia, e quando io n’ho nel mosto,
E molto piu nell’aspro che il mangurro;
Ma sopra tutto nel buon vino ho fede,
E credo che sia salvo chi gli crede. –
Pulci – Morgante Maggiore – Canto 18.th Stanza 115. –3 Most editors print the Pulci stanza (not always as close to Stanza 45 as Byron wrote it) but have for the rest been content to leave the reader with such comments as “Byron’s verse adapts the original rather freely”4 “Byron ... quotes a parallel passage ... in which someone says he likes roast capon, butter, beer and dry wine”.5 More might usefully be said: no–one has pointed out, for example, either that the stanza was well-known enough to have been quoted by others, or that it introduces a much longer and very famous passage, or that Margutte, to whom it belongs, is one of the best-known characters in Italian Renaissance literature.
In Canto XVIII, after the Christians have done battle with and killed the Sultan of Babylon, Morgante, the poem’s gigantic secondary protagonist, who acts as squire to Orlando (Roland) meets another large character, called Margutte. The name, taken from the Arabic marbut, suggests a lifesize wooden puppet, made in the shape of a Moslem warrior and used for tilting practice.6 He is “orride e brutte” (XVIII, 113, 3) but not a whole giant: he was once ambitious to become one, he explains, but changed his mind and stopped halfway. Morgante offers him friendship, but first demands a statement of faith. Stanza 115 – more important structurally to the Morgante than Stanza 45 is to Don Juan – follows:
Margutte then replied, “Briefly, I believe no more in black than in blue; but in a capon, either boiled or roasted; and sometimes I believe in butter; beer, and new wine when I have some, much more in dry than sweet; but above all, I have faith in good wine, and believe he shall be saved who believes in it.”
The parody-Credo and confession runs on for twenty-seven stanzas, and initially involves promiscuous culinary jokes against the Virgin, the Trinity, the Lord’s Prayer, the Koran, and devil-worship. Faith, says Margutte (XVIII, 117, 3) is like ticklishness: you either have it, or you don’t. He then reveals that he is the son “d’una monaca greca / e d’un papasso in Bursia, là in Turchia” (XVIII, 118, 3-4: “of a Greek nun and a Moslem cleric from Bursa in Turkey”). He claims to be possessed of seventy-seven mortal sins, and lists among them parricide, gambling, cheating, epicurean gluttony, lying, pimping, fornication (with nuns for preference, though one line – XVIII, 132, 2 – punningly indicates a commoner kind of monastic bent) theft, burglary, church-desecration and blasphemy. “Cattivo insin nell’uovo” (XVIII, 141, 8: “Wicked even from the egg”), he claims – it comes as a bit of an anticlimax – that his one redeeming feature is loyalty (“... tradimento ignun non feci mai”: XVIII, 142, 8).
The passage may be one subtext to Byron’s own parodic “poetical commandments” (Don Juan I sts.104-6)
Falstaffian in carnal energy, Byronic in omni-directional facetiousness, Margutte travels with Morgante for the rest of the eighteenth canto, and for much of the nineteenth. Assuming chivalric airs (XIX, 37) the two rescue a captive Moslem maiden called Florinetta, who is guarded by a lion and two giants. These they kill (XIX, 7-52) and, journeying on to restore her to her family, further kill, and sometimes cook and consume, a variety of creatures, including a buffalo (XVIII, 155) a unicorn (XVIII, 195) a giant turtle (XIX, 56) a basilisk (XIX, 67: it is Florinetta who suggests that this might make a good meal) an elephant (XIX, 76) and a crocodile (XIX, 109). The supposedly Christian Morgante often plays false with his new companion, monopolising the food, and stealing his wine: but admires him, referring to him (XVIII, 199, 7) as “... il maestro di color chi sanno”: Dante’s phrase for Aristotle, at Inferno IV 131. Eventually, after Florinetta has been returned home, Margutte wakes up to find that a barbary ape is pulling his boots on and off, and dies in an explosion of laughter (XIX, 147-9).7 The joke has been set up by Morgante, who weeps sincere buckets at its unforeseen consequence.
Although at one stage he burns down an inn, having pilfered it thoroughly and ridden off on the innkeeper’s camel (subsequently eaten) and although he is profoundly subversive by verbal implication, it is hard to take Margutte as the comprehensively incarnate devil which his confession would have us see. Attilio Momigliano describes him as “un enorme mariolo, immaginato da un poete che non avrebbe fatto male ad una mosca”8 – roughly, a great pantomime rogue, imagined by a writer who had never hurt a fly in his life.
The entire episode is an invention without parallel in the earlier epics: Pulci solemnly attributes its climax to an Egyptian writer called Alfamenonne (XIX, 153). It at once sets off and parodies the episodes featuring the ordinary Christian mortals, many of whom themselves spend as much time eating as doing battle: see, for instance, the gluttony of the monks in Stanzas 66 and 67 of Canto I, in Byron’s translation9when Morgante unexpectedly brings back two boars for them to eat. Religious faith may be the characters’ ostensible motivation, but fleshly appetite is their actual motivation.
Byron’s attention had first been drawn to Pulci by Orlando in Roncesvalles, a version of the Morgante by his friend John Herman Merivale, son-in-law of Joseph Drury, the headmaster at Harrow. Published by Murray in 1814, it is an ottava rima rendition of the account of the final battle only, using the last four of Pulci’s twenty-eight cantos. Morgante is mentioned only in the notes: Margutte is mentioned nowhere, for Merivale has no time for Pulci’s burlesque intention:
... it is impossible to deny that, in the most serious passages [in the Morgante], the reader is often offended by the sudden interposition of low buffoonery or of the grossest profaneness; and the same debasing strain is often continued through several cantos.
Let it [“the author’s ignorance” and “contempt of moral and literary discipline”] then remain among the unexplained and perhaps inexplicable phœnomena of the human mind ...10 Merivale had, in The Monthly Magazine for 1806, published two articles on Pulci and the Morgante, though it’s not clear that Byron had read them. See Appendix below for the two passages translated by both writers.
Later, Byron – led by Merivale, for whose Orlando in Roncesvalles he professed admiration11 – read the fourth volume of the Histoire Littéraire d’Italie by Pierre Louis Ginguené formerly French ambassador in Turin. Ginguené devotes his fifth chapter to “Louis Pulci”: severe in his tastes (naturally preferring Tasso) he too apparently finds the Italian’s impiety hard to take:
Je prie qu’on ne se scandalise pas, mais qu’on veuille bien se rappeler mes doutes sur l’emploi sérieux des textes sacrés et des prières qu’on trouve si frèquemment dans le poëme du Pulci.12 However, Ginguené, unlike Merivale, is aware that the poem’s comic element is important, and relates the Margutte episode in some detail:
Morgant était resté en France; il est inutile de dire pourquoi. C’est alors qu’il rencontre cet autre géant nommé Margutte, dont Voltaire a cité quelques traits. Morgant, frappé de sa taille énorme et de sa figure hétéroclite, lui demande qui il est, s’il est chrétien ou sarrazin, s’il croit en J.-C. ou en Mahomet. < est une tranche de foie grillé; elles peuvent être trois ou deux, ou une seule, et celle–là du moins c’est vraiment du foie qu’elle dérive, etc.>> Je ne fais plus de réflexions [adds Ginguené], je cite, et sans doute cela suffit.13 Voltaire had referred to the Morgante in his preface to La Pucelle d’Orléans (published officially in 1762). Writing under the pseudonym “Don Apuleius Risorius, Bénédictin”, he too had quoted Margutte’s credo and confession – in a cut and selected version, leaving out many stanzas – while describing their author smilingly as “l’écrivain de son temps le plus modeste et le plus mesuré ...”14 Byron had read Voltaire at school15 and he makes a comparison between the Pucelle and Southey’s Joan of Arc in a note to English Bards, line 621.
Byron’s first reference to Ginguené is in a letter to Murray of March 5th 1820:16 we may wonder whether he first encountered Margutte’s credo in the original, in Ginguené’s translation, or in Voltaire. The incident of Morgante and the boars is related by Ginguené, too.17
The question is, why did Byron bother to write the stanza as a note to one of his own which bears only a peripheral relation to it? The unnamed “fellow” who answers Lambro’s enquiry is perhaps Marguttean in appetite, but not in taste: and it is hard to see what he says as bearing any relationship to the Creed. He does no more in the action of the poem, so his stanza is not introducing us to an important new character. Byron may just have been struck by the distant syntactical echoes between his stanza and Pulci’s: but if this was all, why go to the trouble of copying the Italian out? A prouder sense of continuity is being signalled – except that no-one has ever picked it up. Quoting Margutte, so as to place him implicitly as subtext for the following episode, namely the feast given by Juan and Haidee, is the way Byron chooses of telling us that the world about which Lambro is enquiring – one “innocently” created from his old world by Haidee and her lover – is, like the world of Don Juan as a whole, dominated by appetite, not ethic; rollicking flesh, not tight-lipped spirit; dionysiac chaos, not christian harmony. As Margutte’s death laughing at the ape (his mirror-image) implies, man is here far closer to bestiality than to godhead. One does not ask who rules, or where people come from: one merely takes from the passing moment whatever gratification it offers. Facetious humour is not just one way of coping with such a world: it is the only really appropriate way.
Certain religious truisms are evidently being queried by both poets: and not moral truisms only. Margutte dies in “una selva ombrosa” (XIX, 144, 4: compare Inferno, I, 2) having put Morgante through his second conversion in the poem, and convinced him finally “che in riso e ‘n giuoco s’arrechi ogni cosa” (XIX, 144, 2: “that the source and end of all things is laughter and joking”). Compare Paradiso, VII, 73-5:
Più l’é conforme, e però più le piace;
chè l’ardor santo ch’ogni cosa raggia,
nella più somigliante é più vivace.
“[That which emanates from The Divine Goodness] is more in conformity with it, and therefore pleases it more: for the holy ardour that irradiates all things is brightest in that which is most like itself.”
Byron, who would not at all have been surprised by the idea of a facetiously humorous power ruling the world, borrows several other ideas from Pulci: as Peter Vassallo points out,18 line 198 of The Vision of Judgement – in which St. Peter sweats – is derived from Morgante XXVI, 91; and the reaction of the Devil to Waterloo at Stanza 6 of the same poem derives from, but is very different from, the reactions of Eaco, Minós, Rodamanta, Satàn and Caron to the battle of Roncisvalle in XXVI, 90. Cain’s mind-expanding voyage round the universe with Lucifer in Act II seems to come in part from the airy trip taken by the knights Rinaldo and Ricciardetto with the devils Astarotte and Farferello, in Pulci’s Canto XXV: Astarotte – a theologically-minded devil, after Byron’s own heart – gives them a startling pre-Columbian description of the world’s global configuration (XXV, 228 – 232); encouraged, writes Ugo Foscolo19 by Paolo Toscanelli, the mathematician who, in his old age, encouraged Columbus.
However, before all these later matters have got under way, Morgante himself has followed Margutte to wherever flesh-loving giants go:20 he dies from a poisonous crab-bite, shortly after having saved the Christian fleet by killing (although not eating) a whale (XX, 45-57).