I have received no letter yet from you or Mr. Harte.
London, February 8, O. S. 1750
My dear friend: You have, by this time, I hope and believe, made such a progress in the Italian language, that you can read it with ease; I mean, the easy books in it; and indeed, in that, as well as in every other language, the easiest books are generally the best; for, whatever author is obscure and difficult in his own language, certainly does not think clearly. This is, in my opinion, the case of a celebrated Italian author; to whom the Italians, from the admiration they have of him, have given the epithet of il divino; I mean Dante. Though I formerly knew Italian extremely well, I could never understand him; for which reason I had done with him, fully convinced that he was not worth the pains necessary to understand him.
The good Italian authors are, in my mind, but few; I mean, authors of invention; for there are, undoubtedly, very good historians and excellent translators. The two poets worth your reading, and, I was going to say, the only two, are Tasso and Ariosto. Tasso’s ‘Gierusalemme Liberata’ is altogether unquestionably a fine poem, though—it has some low, and many false thoughts in it: and Boileau very justly makes it the mark of a bad taste, to compare ‘le Clinquant Tasse a l’ Or de Virgile’. The image, with which he adorns the introduction of his epic poem, is low and disgusting; it is that of a froward, sick, puking child, who is deceived into a dose of necessary physic by ‘du bon-bon’. These verses are these:
fanciul porgiamo aspersi
Di soavi licor gli orli del vaso:
Succhi amari ingannato intanto ei beve,
E dall’ inganno suo vita riceve.”
However, the poem, with all its faults about it, may justly be called a fine one.
If fancy, imagination, invention, description, etc., constitute a poet, Ariosto is, unquestionably, a great one. His “Orlando,” it is true, is a medley of lies and truths—sacred and profane—wars, loves, enchantments, giants, madheroes, and adventurous damsels, but then, he gives it you very fairly for what it is, and does not pretend to put it upon you for the true ‘epopee’, or epic poem. He says:
“Le Donne, i Cavalier,
l’arme, gli amori
Le cortesie, l’audaci imprese, io canto.”
The connections of his stories are admirable, his reflections just, his sneers and ironies incomparable, and his painting excellent. When Angelica, after having wandered over half the world alone with Orlando, pretends, notwithstanding,
fior virginal cosi avea salvo,
Come selo porto dal matern’ alvo.”
The author adds, very gravely,—
“Forse era ver,
ma non pero credibile
A chi del senso suo fosse Signore.”