Reflections on Milton and Ariosto
Roy Flannagan
Ohio University

Flannagan, Roy. "Reflections on Milton and Ariosto." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 4.1-16 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/flanmilt.html>.

  1. We used to have a good piece of literary gossip about Milton and his supposed scribbles in a 1591 edition of Sir John Harington's translation of Ariosto. William Riley Parker, the great biographer of Milton, transmitted and endorsed the rumor. According to Parker, sometime around the year 1642, awaiting the return of his errant wife Mary Powell, Milton "had reread Sir John Harington's translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso" (Parker 251).

  2. This sounds too good to be true. We would have Milton, awaiting the return of his estranged wife, perhaps reading Canto 28 over and over. Parker is referring to a marginal note in a copy of the 1591 edition of Harington, which he thought "almost certainly in Milton's hand" (884). The note, actually to be found at the end of Canto 46, reads "Questo libro due volte Io letto, Sept. 21. 1642" (Columbia ed. 18: 336). I have always wanted to believe that this book belonged to Milton and was written in it by him, but that bit in Italian had always seemed a bit touristy[1] to me -- why Italian, why that canto, and why should Milton boast about reading a book twice? John Shawcross, in 1963, denied that the spelling or the handwriting was Milton's.[2] Working independently, Sotheby's Peter Beal also listed the marginalia among "undoubtedly spurious" attributions.[3] Parker's gossip, as a consequence, should be disbelieved, though the same misinformation remains enshrined in the Columbia Milton and the Yale Milton, and critics are still citing it as truth; Mary Ann Radzinowicz, for example, does so (8).[4] Some mystery remains: the book, that 1591 copy of Ariosto in which Milton was supposed to have written, has disappeared so far as I know. Maurice Kelley saw it. The Reverend H. A. D. Surridge apparently bought it and reported on it in 1938 (Parker 861, 884), but no one knows anything of Surridge. When Gordon Campbell and Peter Beal went separately looking for the book, Campbell could not locate it. Beal reports that it is "privately owned in England."[5] With the witnesses of Shawcross and Beal, though, we can be assured that the hand in the margin was not Milton's.

  3. As if this weren't confusing enough, Milton certainly did read the poet he called "Ariosto of Ferrara" (Of Reformation [Yale ed.] 1: 558), and in Of Reformation he himself translated two four-line sequences from Canto 34, from the English knight Astolfo's slightly sacrilegious voyage to the moon, where the lunatics who have lost their wits reside, where Astolfo is guided by St. John the Evangelist. Milton's translation is very close to that of Sir John Harington, in the two four-line passages from which he chooses to quote. So we can conclude that Milton did indeed read Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, probably in the original but certainly in Harington's famous folio. Thanks to John Shawcross and to Peter Beal, however, we know he did not scribble in that 1591 book.

  4. Milton's comments in Of Reformation (dated May 1641) reveal his critical perspective on Ariosto. In bringing St. John to the Moon, Ariosto is culpable: "he feigns," says Milton, laconically ([Yale ed.] 1: 560).[6] Upon arriving at the episode dealing with Astolfo on the moon, Milton writes, a reader has to be "following the scope of his [Ariosto's] Poem in a difficult knot" (560). Ariosto, perhaps because he is taking a man to the moon as well as defaming the sanctitude of St. John, is considered to be feigning as a writer and composing knotty poetry or a knotty plot. Milton always uses the word feign pejoratively -- the same way he uses the word fable as a verb -- to put down writers who do not admit eternal Christian truths, whether they are the unenlightened ancient poets like Ovid, or modern Roman Catholic, romantic epicists like Ariosto. Pagans and Papists look alike.

  5. Either the plot or the poetry itself of Orlando Furioso, Milton implies, is in a "knot." The more polite word that many modern critics use for Ariosto's intricate plotting is tapestry (Wiggins).[7] Milton seems to be on to something critically with that knot image, and he does not appear to use it in a complimentary way: a few pages later in Of Reformation he contrasts the "sober, plain, and unaffected stile of the Scriptures" with the "knotty Africanisms, the pamper'd metafors; the intricat, and involv'd sentences of the Fathers; ..." (568; emphasis mine). Milton apparently did not like tapestry plots or knotty styles.

  6. We can add up the epithet "of Ferrara," the "feign" reference, and the "difficult knot" to indicate that Milton knew something of Ariosto's biography and possibly about his connection with the Este family in Ferrara (by 1641 Milton had been to Italy and come back); that he was highly suspicious of an Italian romantic epic's attempt to take an English knight to the moon; and that he considered Ariosto's plotting to be "knotty."

  7. In 1642, when he published Reason of Church Government, Milton was still thinking of Ariosto, and the famous unobeyed injunction of Pietro Bembo to Ariosto that he should write in Latin rather than in his native tongue.[8] Milton expressed his opinion about his choice to write poetry in English, borrowing from Harington's life of Ariosto:
  8. For which cause, and not only for that I knew it would be hard to arrive at
    the second rank among the Latines, I apply'd my selfe to that resolution
    which Ariosto follow'd against the perswasions of Bembo, to fix all the
    industry and art I could unite to the adorning of my native tongue; . . . .
    ([Yale ed.] 1: 810-11)

  9. Milton is certainly following Harington's "Life of Ariosto," included as an appendix to his translation of Orlando Furioso, very closely:
  10. . . . when Bembo would have disswaded him [Ariosto] from writing
    Italian, alledging that he should winne more praise by writing Latine,
    his answere was that he had rather be one of the principal and chiefe
    Thuscan writers then scarce the second or third among the Latines,
    adding that he found his humour (his Genius, he called it) best inclining to it.[9]

    Milton is making an implicit comparison between himself, as native vernacular poet writing beautifully in London English, and Ariosto, who made the same choice to write in the choicest Italian, the Tuscan dialect also used by Dante and Boiardo (at least in Berni's refacimento).[10]

  11. Though Milton seems to have had a youthful infatuation with the poetry of Ariosto, Boiardo, Vida, DuBartas (through Sylvester), Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, he seems to have rejected the poetic styles and the subject matter of almost all of their works by the time he wrote Paradise Lost. But Tasso is not in this list. His epic theory gave Milton the underpinning for his own sage and serious epic poetry (Rhu 77-92; Brand 250-56), and Jerusalem Delivered was an example of serious elegance and eloquence -- even of hidden allegory (see Treip) -- that he could not ignore. But why was Ariosto to be relegated to the status of the writer of episodes that needed to be parodied, satirized (see Kantra), and discarded as part of the "tinsel trappings" that had, for Milton, infested romantic epic, causing him to reject King Arthur and the Matter of Britain as a subject and to choose instead the timeless and placeless history of Adam and Eve?

  12. Following a method derived from Clark Hulse in his recent book (1-25), I would like to carry a tradition of illustration from Ariosto to Harington to Milton, in the posthumous 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost, in order to indicate what Milton would have kept and what he would have rejected of Ariosto's method of constructing an epic.[11]

  13. Two panels of illustrations, the first from the infamous Canto 28 in Harington's translation, show Harington's typical, lovable, "dirty" tricks. Being something of a professional rogue and mischief-maker,[12] Harington took Ariosto's illustration to Canto 28 and caused three obscene panels to be added to it, scenes of copulation that one hardly notices until one looks closely. Neither Milton nor his illustrators would think of posing Adam and Eve in this way. Although they are naked and make love, neither Milton nor his illustrators would let Adam and Eve's nudity in their love-making become prurient.[13]

  14. Milton dropped what he considered to be trivial or titillative. His Adam and Eve do not carve their names on trees (see Lee), nor is Eve a flirtatious bolter like Angelica. The comedy in Paradise Lost is heavy by comparison with that in the Orlando Furioso -- it exists, as Tasso said it should, in the heavier forms of sarcasm or dark humor holding evil up to ridicule and scorn. There is very little of what appears to be gratuitous humor in Paradise Lost, perhaps some in that elephant who writhes his lithe proboscis to make Adam and Eve laugh, and perhaps some in the situation of Adam telling God why He doesn't need a mate, while Adam does.

  15. In thinking for thirty years or so about Ariosto and Milton -- with or without believing that Milton made marginal comments in a specific edition of Harington's translation -- I keep returning to what Milton in his argument to book 3 first labeled the Limbo of Vanity.
  16. So on this windie Sea of Land, the Fiend
    Walk'd up and down alone bent on his prey,
    Alone, for other Creature in this place
    Living or liveless to be found was none,
    None yet, but store hereafter from the earth
    Up hither like Aereal vapours flew
    Of all things transitorie and vain, when Sin
    With vanity had filld the works of men:
    Both all things vain, and all who in vain things
    Built thir fond hopes of Glorie or lasting fame,
    Or happiness in this or th' other life;
    All who have thir reward on Earth, the fruits
    Of painful Superstition and blind Zeal,
    Naught seeking but the praise of men, here find
    Fit retribution, emptie as thir deeds;
    All th' unaccomplisht works of Natures hand,
    Abortive, monstrous, or unkindly mixt,
    Dissolvd on Earth, fleet hither, and in vain,
    Till final dissolution, wander here,
    Not in the neighbouring Moon, as some have dreamd;
    Those argent Fields more likely habitants,
    Translated Saints, or middle Spirits hold
    Betwixt th' Angelical and Human kinde:
    Hither of ill-joynd Sons and Daughters born
    First from the ancient World those Giants came
    With many a vain exploit, though then renownd: (440-65)[14]

  17. What Ariosto had done with his moon inhabited by lost wits, Milton deliberately distorts into anti-Roman Catholic propaganda. Milton seems to be correcting Ariosto's moral misconceptions about what sorts of odd beings might be inhabiting worlds other than ours. The Limbo of Vanity is a parody of Ariosto's Moon of Lost Wits. Just as Milton's illustrators would change Harington's innocent prurience to serious cyclical depiction of the activities of Adam and Eve, Milton makes Ariosto serious and uses his own version of Ariosto's moon-wandering with which to make sardonic satire. Milton rises up against Italian religion and Italian false-hearted literature, to some extent betraying friends in Italy that he had kept contact with at least into the late 1640s (Parker, 934-35). To set the record straight, however, Milton never told his Italian friends such as Carlo Dati that he would not betray them on religious grounds.

  18. The satire in the Limbo of Vanity narration in Paradise Lost is unique in the epic. It is obviously satire, it is propaganda, and it is out of place--except that it is in a Satanic setting, at a point in the epic when Satan is chaotically sailing through the air towards Earth. It associates the Roman Catholic Church that Milton had observed in action in 1638 with indulgences, relics, icons, abuses, much as Chaucer's depiction of the Summoner and Pardoner does. It makes the reader laugh abusively at the prospect of all those precious relics floating in air.

  19. When I think, often, of what Milton might have received from Ariosto -- his equal in brilliance and poetic control -- I keep returning to the Moon of Lost Wits and the Limbo of Vanity. What Milton did to Ariosto's voyage is similar to Harington's manipulation of Ariosto's illustration: he took it away from Ariosto, put it into his own pocket, altered it, and corrected Ariosto's irreverence toward his own Roman Catholic religion with his, Milton's own, sardonic seriousness about his version of protestantism.


      (as viewed by Milton)

    (as evidenced in practice in PL)

    Net Linear progression--avoidance of the snare
    Tapestry Chronology as represented in 1688 Folio illustrations
    Diffuse epic Focused and unified epic
    Frivolous and suspicious, for irreverence Moralistic and reverent
    Episodic (short attention span) Coherent (demands fit reader's concentration)
    "labyrinthine plenitude" (Shapiro 14) Spare ethic with words
    Rules to be broken Eternal truths to be maintained
    Nothing taken seriously (McNulty xi) Everything guided by God's providence
    Mirroring and doubling (Shapiro Ch. 5) Mirroring and doubling and echoing
    Moon of Lost Wits (OF 35.27&28) Limbo of Vanity


1. "Touristy" in the sense of "devised in order to sell something." I have in mind icons such as the "Milton mulberry" at Christ's College, Cambridge, or the "Milton stepping stone" at Forest Hill, the site of the Powell family home, where Milton according to local rumor was either supposed to have gotten down from his carriage on his way to meet Mary Powell or where he was supposed to have stood while proposing. I have learned of these various local tourist landmarks firsthand while visiting both places.

2. Apparently Parker read his pupil Shawcross' article too late to influence him in the biography, though Parker (861) alludes to this article without ascribing it.

3. Beal (2: 80).

4. Gordon Campbell will correct Parker's assumption in the new and revised edition of Parker's biography, as he just has written me by electronic mail. In answer to my query if he had corrected Parker on the 1591 Ariosto, Gordon Campbell wrote me, "Yes, I corrected Parker. I don't know where it [the edition of Ariosto] is. Nor does Peter Beal, who was asked to look at it some years ago." Shawcross, however, wrote me that Beal did indeed see the book and independently reached the conclusion that the hand was not Milton's (letter of 19 February 1996).

5. Campbell (electronic mail note of 9 February 1996). Beal calls the Ariosto "undoubtedly spurious, despite elaborate claims made by earlier commentators" (80).

6. Since Harington uses the word "feign" in the context of what a poet does for a living in his own defense of poetry, in his foreword to his translation, Milton may be using Harington against Ariosto. See McNulty (4-5).

7. John Addington Symonds used the web and tapestry image to describe the plotting of Boiardo's Orlando Inamorato: "We might compare Boiardo's romance to an immense web, in which a variety of scenes and figures are depicted by the constant addition of new threads. None of the old threads are wasted; not one is merely superfluous. If one is dropped for a moment and lost to sight, it reappears again" (1: 406). McNulty (xli) prefers an architectural image.

8. The Yale editors (1: 810-11n71) cite Giovanni Battista Pigna, I Romanzi, nè quali della Poesia & della vita del'Ariosto con nuovo mode si trata (Venice, 1554), who was actually one of Harington's sources for information about Ariosto's life (McNulty xlviii). Pigna was the first to notice the relationship between Ariosto's mad Orlando and Seneca's mad Hercules (Ascoli 55).

9. I quote from McNulty (571). The Yale editors make the connections between the two passages as well (Yale 1: 810-11n71).

10. See H.F. Woodhouse, Language and Style in a Renaissance Epic: Berni's Corrections to Boiardo's "Orlando Innamorato" (London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1982). Neil Harris concludes "To define the influence of the Orlando Innamorato on Milton (and the same is most likely true of Spenser) we must make our principal text Berni's refacimento" (86; Harris's argument is supported by information provided on pp. 71-87).

11. For quite a different perspective on "the possibility of deep and fundamental similarities between these two poems," see DiCesare xx-xxii.

12. In his notes to Book 41, Harington wrote "one end of my travell in this worke is to make my frends merie" (McNulty 480).

13. So far as I have been able to determine, Diane McColley's recent book on Milton's Eden and the visual arts does not mention prurience, or satire, or humor, in depictions of Adam and Eve in Paradise or out of it. But in an email message to me on March 1, Professor McColley pointed out that many of the seventeenth-century depictions of Adam and Eve have humorous elements, such as elephants copulating in Eden or an apparently drunken Adam and Eve after the Fall. These are elements that Milton played with: though his elephants don't copulate, they do a silly dance; and Adam and Eve do become intoxicated from the effects of eating the fruit.

This illustration, from Book 9 of the 1688 folio edition of Paradise Lost, is excerpted here with permission (and is available in complete form) from the Milton Quarterly internet site, <URL: http://voyager.cns.ohiou.edu/~somalley/pl9.html>.

14. The quotation from Paradise Lost is from my edition.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Ascoli, Albert Russell. Ariosto's Bitter Harmony: Crisis and Evasion in the Italian Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.
  • Ariosto, Ludovico. Ariosto's Orlando Furioso: Selections from the Translation of Sir John Harington. Ed. Rudolf Gottfried. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963.
  • ---. Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Translated into English Heroical Verse by Sir John Harington. Ed. Robert McNulty. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.
  • ---. Orlando Furioso (the Frenzy of Orlando): A Romantic Epic by Ludovico Ariosto. Ed. Barbara Reynolds. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1973.
  • Beal, Peter. Index of English Literary Manuscripts Volume II, 1625-1700. London: Mansell, 1993.
  • Brand, C.P. Torquato Tasso: A Study of the Poet and his Contribution to English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1965.
  • Cavallo, Jo Ann. Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato: An Ethics of Desire. Cranberry, NJ: Associated UP, 1993.
  • Chesney, Elizabeth A. The Countervoyage of Rabelais and Ariosto. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1982.
  • DiCesare, Mario, ed. Milton in Italy: Contexts, Images, Contradictions. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991.
  • Flannagan, Roy, ed. John Milton. Paradise Lost. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
  • Greene, Thomas M. The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1963.
  • Giammatti, A. Bartlett. The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966.
  • Harris, Neil. Milton's 'Sataneid': The Poet and the Devil in 'Paradise Lost.' Diss. U Leicester, 1985.
  • Hughes, Merritt Y. "Milton's Limbo of Vanity." 7-24 in Amadeus P. Fiore, ed. Th'Upright Heart and Pure: Essays on John Milton Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Publication of Paradise Lost. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1967.
  • Hulse, Clark. The Rule of Art: Literature and Painting in the Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
  • Kantra, Robert A. "Miltonic and Other Utopians." 75-92 in All Things Vain: Religious Satirists and Their Art. University Park: Pennsylvania SUP, 1984.
  • Kates, Judith A. Tasso and Milton: The Problem of Christian Epic. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1983.
  • Lee, Rensselaer W. Names on Trees: Ariosto into Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1977.
  • McColley, Diane Kelsey. A Gust for Paradise: Milton's Eden and the Visual Arts. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.
  • Marinelli, Peter V. Ariosto & Boiardo: The Origins of Orlando Furioso. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987.
  • Milton, John. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. [8 vols.] Ed. Don M. Wolfe, et al. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1953-82.
  • ---. The Complete Works of John Milton. [18 vols.] Ed. Frank Allen Patterson, et al. New York: Columbia UP, 1938.
  • Murrin, Michael. History and Warfare in Renaissance Epic. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
  • Parker, William Riley. Milton: A Biography. [2 vols.] Oxford: Clarendon P, 1968.
  • Radzinowicz, Mary Ann. Milton's Epics and the Book of Psalms. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.
  • Rhu, Lawrence F. The Genesis of Tasso's Narrative Theory: English Translations of the Early Poetics and a Comparative Study of Their Significance. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1993.
  • Shapiro, Marianne. The Poetics of Ariosto. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1988.
  • Shawcross, John T. "What We Can Learn from Milton's Spelling." Huntington Library Quarterly 26 (1963): 351-61.
  • Shumaker, Wayne. "Paradise Lost and the Italian Epic Tradition." 87-100 in Amadeus P. Fiore, ed. Th'Upright Heart and Pure: Essays on John Milton Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Publication of Paradise Lost. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1967.
  • Symonds, John Addington. Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature, in Two Parts. New York: Capricorn, 1964.
  • Treip, Mindele Anne. Allegorical Poetics & the Epic: the Renaissance Tradition to Paradise Lost. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1994.
  • Wiggins, Peter DeSa. Figures in Ariosto's Tapestry: Character and Design in the Orlando Furioso. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

  • Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

    © 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
    (December 16, 1996)