Ariosto and the Arabs :: J. L. Borges

No man can write a book. Because
Before a book can truly be
It needs the rise and set of the sun,
Centuries, arms, and the binding and sundering sea.

So Ariosto thought, who to the slow pleasure
Gave himself, in the leisure of the roads
With the shining statuary and black pines,
Of dreaming again on things already dreamed.

The air of his own Italy was dense
With dreams, which recalling and forgetting,
With shapes of war that through harsh centuries
Wearied the land, plaited and schemed.

A legion that lost itself in valleys
Of Aquitaine into ambush fell;
And thus was born that dream of a sword
And a horn that cried in Roncesvalles.

Over English orchards the brutal Saxon
Spread his armies and his idols
In a stubborn, clenching war; and of these things
A dream was left behind called Arthur.

From the northern islands, with the blind
Sun blurring the sea, there came
The dream of a virgin, waiting in sleep
For her lord, within a ring of flame.

From Persia to Parnassus — who knows where? —
That dream of an armed enchanter driving
A winged steed through the startled air
And suddenly into the western desert diving.

As if from this enchanter’s steed
Ariosto saw the kingdoms of the earth
All furrowed by war’s revelry
And by young love intent to prove his worth.

As if through a delicate golden mist
He saw a garden in the world that reached
Beyond its hedge into other intimacies
For Angelica’s and Medoro’s love.

Like the illusory splendors that in Hindustan
Opium leaves on the rim of sight,
The Furioso’s loves go shimmering by
In the kaleidoscope of his delight.

Neither of love nor irony unaware,
He dreamed like this, in a modest style,
Of a strange lone castle; and all things there
(As in this life) were the devil’s guile.

As to every poet what may chance —
Or fate allot as a private doom —
He traveled the roads of Ferrara
And, at the same time, walked the moon.

The dross of dreams that have no shape —
The mud that the Nile of sleep leaves by —
With the stuff of these for skein, he’d move
Through that gleaming labyrinth and escape;

Through this great diamond, in which a man
May lose himself by the hap of the game,
In the whereness of music drowsing,
Be beside himself in flesh and name.

Europe entire was lost. By the working
Of that ingenious and malicious art,
Milton could weep for Brandimarte’s
Death and Dolinda’s anguished heart.

Europe was lost. But other gifts were given
By that vast dream to fame’s true scions
That dwell in the deserts of the East,
And the night that was full of lions.

The delectable book that still enchants
Tells of a king who, at morning’s star,
Surrenders his queen of the night
Before the implacable scimitar.

Wings that are shaggy night, and cruel
Claws that an elephant grip,
Magnetic mountains that with loving
Embrace can shatter a ship,

The earth sustained by a bull, the bull
By a fish; abracadabras, and old
Talismans and mystic words
That in granite open caves of gold;

This the Saracen people dreamt
Who followed Agramente’s crest;
This the turban’d faces dreamed
And the dream now lords it over the West.

And Orlando is now a region that smiles,
A country of the mind for miles
Of wonders in abandoned dreams;
And not even finally smiles, but seems —

By the skill of Islam, brought so low
To fable merely and scholarship,
It stands alone, dreaming itself. (And glory
Is oblivion shaped into a story.)

Through the window, paling now, the quivering
Light of one more evening touches the book
And once again the gilding on the cover
Glows and once again it fades.

In the deserted room the silent
Book still journeys in time. And leaves
Behind it — dawns, night-watching hours,
My own life too, this quickening dream.

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

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