Reading a history is the easier way."
"Yes, if history did not lie. One is not sure of the truth of the facts. It is tiring, while the study of the world is amusing. Horace, whom I know by heart, is my guide-book."
"Algarotti, too, is very fond of Horace. Of course you are fond of poetry?"
"It is my passion."
"Have you made many sonnets?"
"Ten or twelve I like, and two or three thousand which in all probability I have not read twice."
"The Italians are mad after sonnets."
"Yes; if one can call it a madness to desire to put thought into measured harmony. The sonnet is difficult because the thought has to be fitted exactly into the fourteen lines."
"It is Procrustes' bed, and that's the reason you have so few good ones. As for us, we have not one; but that is the fault of our language."
"And of the French genius, which considers that a thought when extended loses all its force."
"And you do not think so?"
"Pardon me, it depends on the kind of thought. A witty saying, for example, will not make a sonnet; in French or Italian it belongs to the domain of epigram."
"What Italian poet do you like best?"
"Ariosto; but I cannot say I love him better than the others, for he is my only love."
"You know the others, though?"
"I think I have read them all, but all their lights pale before Ariosto's. Fifteen years ago I read all you have written against him, and I said that you, would retract when you had read his works."
"I am obliged to you for thinking that I had not read them. As a matter of fact I had done so, but I was young. I knew Italian very imperfectly, and being prejudiced by the learned Italians who adore Tasso I was unfortunate enough to publish a criticism of Ariosto which I thought my own, while it was only the echo of those who had prejudiced me. I adore your Ariosto!"
"Ah! M. de Voltaire, I breathe again. But be good enough to have the work in which you turned this great man into ridicule excommunicated."
"What use would that be? All my books are excommunicated; but I will give you a good proof of my retractation."
I was astonished! The great man began to recite the two fine passages from the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth cantos, in which the divine poet speaks of the conversation of Astolpho with St. John and he did it without missing a single life or committing the slightest fault against the laws of prosody. He then pointed out the beauties of the passages with his natural insight and with a great man's genius. I could not have had anything better from the lips of the most skilled commentators in Italy. I listened to him with the greatest attention, hardly daring to breath, and waiting for him to make a mistake, but I had my trouble for nothing. I turned to the company crying that I was more than astonished, and that all Italy should know what I had seen. "And I, sir," said the great man, "will let all Europe know of the amends I owe to the greatest genius our continent has produced."
Greedy of the praise which he deserved so well, Voltaire gave me the next day his translation which Ariosto begins thus:
"Quindi avvien the tra principi a signori."
At the end of the recitation which gained the applause of all who heard it, although not one of them knew Italian, Madame Denis, his niece, asked me if I thought the passage her uncle had just recited one of the finest the poet had written.
"Yes, but not the finest."
"It ought to be; for without it Signor Lodovico would not have gained his apotheosis."
"He has been canonised, then? I was not aware of that."
At these words the laugh, headed by Voltaire, went for Madame Denis. Everybody laughed except myself, and I continued to look perfectly serious.
Voltaire was vexed at not seeing me laugh like the rest, and asked me the reason.
"Are you thinking," said he, "of some more than human passage?"
"Yes," I answered.
"What passage is that?"
"The last thirty-six stanzas of the twenty-third canto, where the poet describes in detail how Roland became mad.