Luigi Puli The Morgante Maggiore

Byron’s translation of Canto I

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Byron’s translation of Canto I
Byron made his translation between October 29th 1819 and February 20th 1820. He was very proud of it:

I think my translation of Pulci will make you stare – it must be put by the original stanza for stanza and verse for verse – and you will see what was permitted in a Catholic country and a bigotted age {to a Churchman} on the score of religion; – and so tell those buffoons who accuse me of attacking the liturgy. – –21

The play [Faliero] as you will – the Dante too – but the Pulci I am proud of – it is superb – you have no such translation – It is the best thing I ever did in my life.22
I have finished my translation of the first Canto of the “Morgante Maggiore” of Pulci – which I will transcribe and send – it is the parent not only of Whistlecraft – but of all jocose Italian poetry. – – You must print it side by side with the original Italian because I wish the reader to judge of the fidelity – it is stanza for stanza – and often line for line if not word for word. – – – – – – – – –23
Pulci is my favourite – that is my translation – I think it the acme of putting one language into another. – – – –24
But John Murray never published it. It appeared in The Liberal No 4, on July 30th 1823, over three years after it had been written. Murray had written to Byron:
Probably you will tell me if we shall print the Translation from Pulci, with its facing Italian at the end of the Volume. With regard to what your Lordship says as to what was permitted in a Catholic & bigoted age to a Clergyman – I humbly conceive & am surprised that you do not perceive that – religion had nothing to do with it – It was Manners – and they have changed – A man might as well appear without Cloaths – and quote our Saxon Ancestors – The Comedies of Charles Seconds days are not tolerated now – and even in my Own time I have gradually seen my favourite Love for Love absolutely pushed by public feeling – from the stage – it is not affectation of morality but the real progress and result of refinement – and {our minds} can no more undergo the moral & religious grossness of our predecessors that our bodies can sustain the heavy Armour which they wore –25
It is very hard in 2009 to see the source either of Byron’s defiant defence of the translation, or of Murray’s objections to it. Few if any doctrines are discussed in it, let alone queried (as they are in later cantos of the Morgante). The monks are portrayed as gluttonous in stanzas 66 and 67, but one would think this hardly blasphemous, even by the canting standards of 1820. Morgante’s “conversion to Christianity” (45, 8) is extremely rapid, but he’s a simpleton, and subjecting him to systematic catechism him would be a challenge. It’s true that the very first stanza uses ideas from the opening of St. John’s gospel, but it’s impossible to gauge, even in the Italian, if Pulci is being facetious, and no easier in Byron’s version.

The distance between our post-Python ease with jocular Christianity, Jesus and jokes, and the canting standards of 1820 is hard to bridge. It was the very fact of placing a holy man next to a rock-hurling giant which gave offence – so tenuous was the confidence of the Established Church in the face of the threats, real or imagined, from Methodism, Catholicism, Jacobinism, Cuvier, and so on.

E.H.Coleridge writes,
That which attracted Byron to Pulci’s writings was, no doubt, the co-presence of faith, a certain simplicity of faith, with a an audacious and even outrageous handling of the objects of faith, combined with a facile and wanton alternation of romantic passion with a cynical mockery of whatever things are sober and venerable. Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment owe their existence to the Morgante Maggiore.26
Murray, indifferent as he was to such things, may have been covering the fact that he didn’t think the poem marketable. Either that, or he sensed that Anglicanism was by 1820 so insecure and paranoid that the merest whiff of scepticism would be read as an encitement to disestablishment.

Think of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins reading the Morgante.

The clerical establishment (mouthpiece: the Quarterly Review; proprietor: John Murray) decreed that base buffoonery and low expressions were out of place in poetry – their presence in Shakespeare himself was much regretted, and his Porters and Gravediggers were rarely seen on stage. As for coarse language, we have only to remember Dr Johnson “scarce able to check his risibility” when Lady Macbeth speaks of the ministers of darkness “peeping through a blanket”. Pulci in the Morgante, and Byron in Don Juan, offended these class-based criteria. The Morgante was properly consigned, for its publication, to the ungentlemanly radical John Hunt.

J.H.Merivale, in one of his 1806 articles, had explained that, low as some of Pulci’s language might seem, it had in reality a most respectable pedigree:

The humour of those ages, when the world was only struggling to break through the darkness of ignorance by which it was enveloped, was also of a peculiar stamp. The common proverbs and maxims which are now so vulgar, and suggest nothing but the lowest ideas, because they are constantly in the mouths of the meanest people, were the invention of those days, and owed their origin to the native wit and judgment of poets and philosophers.27
Byron does not excuse his poet’s low humour and vulgar language in this way. How he would excuse it, if pressed, we cannot say, for no-one was interested enough in the question to press him.

Jerome McGann praises the translation;28 few other commentators have given it much attention, perhaps because Byron has, with self-effacing professionalism, refrained from lacing it with too much Juanesque wit.

In his edition, E.H.Coleridge is dismissive: “There is no resemblance whatever between Byron’s laboured and faithful rendering of the text, and Merivale’s far more readable paraphrase [in Orlando in Roncevalles]”.29
Byron’s intention in translating the Morgante was to advertise the long Southern European tradition of which his supposedly heterodox Don Juan was the latest offshoot: but what with John Murray’s indifference, and the indifference of the reception given to The Liberal when the translation was finally brought out in it, his gesture fell on unreceptive ground.

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