Skip to main content


CAT 104 crop.jpg

CAT 104. Robert Hart after Raffaelle Morghen. Ariosto. In The Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biograpphy, vol. 1. London: William Mackenzie, 1863. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Lodovico Ariosto. Italian diplomat and poet, 1474-1533. From the Imperial Dictionary: Ariosto was born at Reggio, near Modena, “where his father Niccolo was governor for the Duke of Ferrara.” His father “destined him for the profession of law,” but Lodovico followed his own creative bent. He published Orlando Furioso in 1515 while in the employ of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este of Ferrara. By the time he published an expanded edition of Orlando Furioso in 1532, Ariosto had served Ferrara as both a provincial governor and its theater director. The last years of his life “appear to have been happy”; he spent much time gardening. Ariosto was “tall of person, of complexion melancholy, given much to study and musing.” His shoulders were “square and well made, but stooping, as almost all that look much on books in their youth are inclined to be.” His portrait was “taken by Titian . . . so well to the life that a man would think it were alive.” In his chosen field, “no poet has ever surpassed, if any has equaled, Ariosto. Comparisons have frequently been instituted between him and Tasso, but they present few points of similarity, and in all such Ariosto has the advantage.” The author of this entry prefers Ariosto’s “easy and harmonious style,” Tasso being “too labored and difficult” (1: 209-10).

The engraving by Robert Hart that accompanied this commentary in the Imperial Dictionary shows exceptional fidelity to the original image engraved by Raphael Morghen in Florence in 1807 after a drawing by Pietro Ermini. Morghen’s image was published in the 1809 edition of Orlando Furioso as part of the “Fathers of the Italian Language and Poetry” series (Halsey, no. 13). Morghen’s engraving of Ariosto epitomizes those qualities for which his technique remains highly appreciated two hundred years later: “Precise line from his burin and controlled graduated tone from his regular hatching distinguish his almost photographic engravings. His exhaustively precise style was perceived as the equivalent with the burin to the chalk and brush of the Raphaelesque ideal” (Chappell, 22: 113). Hart’s 1863 reproduction has preserved these qualities to such a degree that the viewer can trace the delicate patterns of the poet’s decorative lace; distinguish individual hairs within his strong, soft beard; and trace, if one wishes, individual veins in each laurel leaf. Yet with all this detail we feel we see a living man about to speak, were he to turn a fraction more in our direction. 

Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a sixteenth-century poetic romance whose story “of ladies, cavaliers, love, and war” harks back to eighth-century conflict between the Moorish king Agramante and the Roman emperor Charlemagne. The name Ariosto does not appear in Melville’s epic poem Clarel, but it does appear in a marginal annotation that Melville wrote in the copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that he acquired in 1849 and carried with him around Cape Horn in 1860 (Sealts no.358b, MMO 358b). Melville wrote (and partly erased) the name “Ariosto” directly under that of “Tasso” on the first page of Milton’s epic poem, which famously begins with the words, “Of man’s first disobedience and fruit / Of that forbidden tree.” Melville wrote the names of these epic poets next to the lines in which Milton requests his “heavenly Muse” to “Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song . . . while it pursues / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” (fig. 1, MMO 358b [1002, 14-16]).

Melville’s marginal annotation in the opening lines of Paradise Lost shows Melville’s awareness that Milton was challenging, in his own way, the epic precedent of both Tasso and Ariosto, something Melville was himself to be doing in Clarel. The annotation also reveals Melville’s intimate knowledge of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. This is shown in the chart on “Melville’s Dated Reading in Poetry and Poetics” that Robert D. Madison contributed to the NN edition of Published Poems in 2009. Madison shows that Melville wrote Ariosto’s name next to “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” in Milton’s text because Ariosto had declared his own intention to “tell / Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme” within the text of Orlando Furioso. Melville wrote Tasso’s name next to Milton’s “Above th’ Aonian mount” because of Tasso’s invocation to “O Heavenly Muse," that high above "the Heliconian spring. . . sittest crowned with stars’ immortal rays / In Heaven, where legions of bright angels sing.” Later, at the beginning of book 7 of Paradise Lost, Melville wrote “Tasso’s invocation” next to Milton’s invocation to Urania to “Descend from heav’n” with “voice divine” to inspire him to “soar . . . above th’ Olympian hill . . . / Above the flight of Pegasean wing.” Urania, as a female astronomer, was to become the protagonist in one of the longest and most complex poems in Melville’s Timoleon, “After the Pleasure Party” (NN PP 879-80, 259-264).

The copy of Valery’s Travels in Italy that Melville purchased in Florence on the way to Bologna, Ferrara, and Venice in 1857 had extensive information on Ariosto.  Much of this information comes in the section on Ferrara, the city in which Ariosto wrote Orlando Furioso and lived out his life. Valery devotes an entire chapter to the library of Ferrara, which housed manuscripts of Orlando Furioso “covered with corrections,” more than fifty first editions of that work, and the “tomb of Ariosto,” which had been “transferred” to a special room in the library by the French in 1801. Another chapter devoted to Ariosto’s garden indicates that “he made continuous changes in his garden as in his poem: he did not leave a tree there three months in its place.” Not until 1811 did the council of Ferrara decide to “purchase the house of the illustrious poet,” which had been “shamefully underprized and effaced” by previous owners (227-30).

Valery cannot leave Ariosto’s library without giving equal attention to Tasso, Ariosto’s illustrious successor as poet-in-residence at Ferrara who wrote his masterpiece Jerusalem Delivered there in spite of being imprisoned, rather than celebrated, by Duke Alphonso II. The library of Ferrara contains a copy of “the Gerusalemme, corrected in Tasso’s hand during his captivity. The words Laus Deo are written by the unfortunate poet at the end of his almost sacred manuscript, which no one can touch without admiration and respect. There are a great many suppressed passages in it, and several successive pages are sometimes crossed out. An edition of Gerusalemme with the variations of this manuscript would be interesting.” Among other manuscripts of Tasso, Valery mentions “nine letters dated from the Hospital of Saint Anne” in which Tasso was confined and “verses . . . written . . . from his prison to the duke Alphonso. . . . One must read these verses of his own handwriting, at Ferrara, to feel the sorrow, desolation, and anguish that they express (Valery 224-26). At some point after 1863, Ariosto and Tasso became treasured companions in Herman Melville’s print collection as well as in the library at Ferrara.

Although Melville does not allude conspicuously to Ariosto or his epic poem in Clarel, he may be making a playful allusion to Orlando Furioso in “The Cuban Pirate,” a poem whose protagonist is a “Midget! yet in passion a fell / Furioso.” Melville’s prose headnote explains that this furious midget is a “scintillant West Indian humming-bird hardly bigger than . . . a bee.” This poem is one of the “Weeds and Wildings” manuscripts that remained unpublished at Melville’s death in 1891. Its subject and imagery resemble those of many of the bird and bee poems that Emily Dickinson left unpublished at her death in 1886. Beginning with the lines “Buccaneer in gemmed attire— / Ruby, amber, emerald, jet,” Melville’s poetic marauder resembles the “Buccaneers of Buzz . . . with Gilt Surcingles” in one of Dickinson’s bee poems. Melville’s “gemmed” buccaneer sailing through the summer sea in order to “board and rape” a flower resembles the Dickinsonian bee that in its “burnished Carriage / Drove boldly to a Rose.” The “ruby, amber, emerald, jet” coloring of Melville’s “scintillant” humming-bird resembles the “Resonance of Emerald” and “Rush of Cochineal” on the “Route of Evanescence” left by Dickinson’s most memorable hummingbird. The latter Dickinson poem was the only one to have been published in Melville’s lifetime, in 1891, the year he died with his own hummingbird “in gemmed attire” still among his papers (NN BBO 101; Johnson, Collected Poems, nos. 1405, 1339, 1436).