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Page:The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero) - Volume 4.djvu/318

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THE MORGANTE MAGGIORE.

paraphrase, and it is evident that if these selections ever passed before his eyes, they had left no impression on his memory. He was drawn to the task partly on account of its difficulty, but chiefly because in Pulci he recognized a kindred spirit who suggested and compelled a fresh and final dedication of his genius to the humorous epopee. The translation was an act of devotion, the offering of a disciple to a master.

"The apparent contradictions of the Morgante Maggiore ... the brusque transition from piety to ribaldry, from pathos to satire," the paradoxical union of persiflage with gravity, a confession of faith alternating with a profession of mockery and profanity, have puzzled and confounded more than one student and interpreter. An intimate knowledge of the history, the literature, the art, the manners and passions of the times has enabled one of his latest critics and translators, John Addington Symonds, to come as near as may be to explaining the contradictions; but the essential quality of Pulci's humour eludes analysis.

We know that the poem itself, as Pio Rajna has shown, "the rifacimento of two earlier popular poems," was written to amuse Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the mother of Lorenzo de' Medici, and that it was recited, canto by canto, in the presence of such guests as Poliziano, Ficino, and Michelangelo Buonarotti; but how "it struck these contemporaries," and whether a subtler instinct permitted them to untwist the strands and to appraise the component parts at their precise ethical and spiritual value, are questions for the exercise of the critical imagination. That which attracted Byron to Pulci's writings was, no doubt, the co-presence of faith, a certain simplicity of faith, with 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 whatsoever things are sober and venerable. Don Juan and the Vision of Judgment owe their existence to the Morgante Maggiore.

The MS. of the translation of Canto I. was despatched to England, February 28, 1820. It is evident (see Letters, March 29, April 23, May 18, 1820, Letters, 1900, iv. 425, 1901, v. 17, 21) that Murray looked coldly on Byron's "masterpiece" from the first. It was certain that any new work by the author of Don Juan would be subjected to the severest and most hostile scrutiny, and it was doubtful if a translation of part of an obscure and difficult poem, vaguely supposed to be coarse and irreligious, would meet with even a tolerable measure of success. At any rate, in spite of many inquiries and much vaunting of its excellence (see Letters, June 29, September 12, 1821, Letters, 1901, v.