Fourth day. Story 1. “Tancred, Prince of Salerno, slays his daughter’s lover, and sends her his heart in a golden cup: she pours upon it a poisonous distillation, which she drinks and dies.”
The text picks up after Ghismonda’s father, Tancred, chances to discover the lovers in bed and decides to have Ghismonda’s lover, Guiscardo, “a young man of lowest condition” and a servant in Tancred’s court, killed for having secretly wed his daughter (cited here at length because of Caroline’s allusion to the “tears” and her assertion of Auguste’s love of the story, one she began translating in February 1800):
Twas Tancred’s custom to come from time to time quite alone to his daughter’s room, and tarry talking with her a while. Whereby it so befell that he came down there one day after breakfast, while Ghismonda — such was the lady’s name — was in her garden with her damsels; so that none saw or heard him enter; nor would he call his daughter, for he was minded that she should not forgo her pleasure.
But, finding the windows closed and the bed-curtains drawn down, he seated himself on a divan that stood at one of the corners of the bed, rested his head on the bed, drew the curtain over him, and thus, hidden as if of set purpose, fell asleep.
As he slept Ghismonda, who, as it happened, had caused Guiscardo to come that day, left her damsels in the garden, softly entered the room, and having locked herself in, unwitting that there was another in the room, opened the door to Guiscardo, who was in waiting. Straightway they got them to bed, as was their wont; and, while they there solaced and disported them together, it so befell that Tancred awoke, and heard and saw what they did.
Whereat he was troubled beyond measure, and at first was minded to upbraid them; but on second thoughts he deemed it best to hold his peace, and avoid discovery, if so he might with greater stealth and less dishonour carry out the design which was already in his mind. . . .
[Tancred] determined to quench the heat of her [Ghismonda’s] love by wreaking his vengeance on her lover, and bade the two men that had charge of Guiscardo to strangle him noiselessly that same night, take the heart out of the body, and send it to him. The men did his bidding: and on the morrow the Prince had a large and beautiful cup of gold brought to him, and having put Guiscardo’s heart therein, sent it by the hand of one of his most trusted servants to his daughter, charging the servant to say, as he gave it to her: “Thy father sends thee this to give thee joy of that which thou lovest best, even as thou hast given him joy of that which he loved best.”
Now when her father had left her, Ghismonda, wavering not a jot in her stern resolve, had sent for poisonous herbs and roots, and therefrom had distilled a water, to have it ready for use, if that which she apprehended should come to pass. And when the servant appeared with the Prince’s present and message, she took the cup unblenchingly, and having lifted the lid, and seen the heart, and apprehended the meaning of the words, and that the heart was beyond a doubt Guiscardo’s, she raised her head, and looking straight at the servant, said: “Sepulture less honourable than of gold had ill befitted heart such as this: herein has my father done wisely.”
Which said, she raised it to her lips, and kissed it, saying: “In all things and at all times, even to this last hour of my life, have I found my father most tender in his love, but now more so than ever before; wherefore I now render him the last thanks which will ever be due from me to him for this goodly present.”
So she spoke, and straining the cup to her, bowed her head over it, and gazing at the heart, said: “Ah! sojourn most sweet of all my joys, accursed be he by whose ruthless act I see thee with the bodily eye: ’twas enough that to the mind’s eye thou wert hourly present. Thou hast run thy course; thou hast closed the span that Fortune allotted thee; thou hast reached the goal of all; thou hast left behind thee the woes and weariness of the world; and thy enemy has himself granted thee sepulture accordant with thy deserts. No circumstance was wanting to duly celebrate thy obsequies, save the tears of her whom, while thou livedst, thou didst so dearly love; which that thou shouldst not lack, my remorseless father was prompted of God to send thee to me, and, albeit my resolve was fixed to die with eyes unmoistened and front all unperturbed by fear, yet will I accord thee my tears; which done, my care shall be forthwith by thy means to join my soul to that most precious soul which thou didst once enshrine. And is there other company than hers, in which with more of joy and peace I might fare to the abodes unknown? She is yet here within, I doubt not, contemplating the abodes of her and my delights, and — for sure I am that she loves me — awaiting my soul that loves her before all else.”
Having thus spoken, she bowed herself low over the cup; and, while no womanish cry escaped her, ’twas as if a fountain of water were unloosed within her head, so wondrous a flood of tears gushed from her eyes, while times without number she kissed the dead heart. Her damsels that stood around her knew not whose the heart might be or what her words might mean, but melting in sympathy, they all wept, and compassionately, as vainly, enquired the cause of her lamentation, and in many other ways sought to comfort her to the best of their understanding and power. When she had wept her fill, she raised her head, and dried her eyes.
Then: “O heart,” said she, “much cherished heart, discharged is my every duty towards thee; nought now remains for me to do but to come and unite my soul with thine.” So saying, she sent for the vase that held the water which the day before she had distilled, and emptied it into the cup where lay the heart bathed in her tears; then, nowise afraid, she set her mouth to the cup, and drained it dry, and so with the cup in her hand she got her upon her bed, and having there disposed her person in guise as seemly as she might, laid her dead lover’s heart upon her own, and silently awaited death.
Meanwhile the damsels, seeing and hearing what passed, but knowing not what the water was that she had drunk, had sent word of each particular to Tancred; who, apprehensive of that which came to pass, came down with all haste to his daughter’s room, where he arrived just as she got her upon her bed, and, now too late, addressed himself to comfort her with soft words, and seeing in what plight she was, burst into a flood of bitter tears.
To whom the lady: “Reserve thy tears, Tancred, till Fortune send thee hap less longed for than this: waste them not on me who care not for them. Whoever yet saw any but thee bewail the consummation of his desire? But, if of the love thou once didst bear me any spark still lives in thee, be it thy parting grace to me, that, as thou brookedst not that I should live with Guiscardo in privity and seclusion, so wherever thou mayst have caused Guiscardo’s body to be cast, mine may be united with it in the common view of all.”
The Prince replied not for excess of grief; and the lady, feeling that her end was come, strained the dead heart to her bosom, saying: “Fare ye well; I take my leave of you”; and with eyelids drooped and every sense evanished departed this life of woe. Such was the lamentable end of the loves of Guiscardo and Ghismonda; whom Tancred, tardily repentant of his harshness, mourned not a little, as did also all the folk of Salerno, and had honourably interred side by side in the same tomb.
Wilhelm Schlegel evaluates Bürger’s romance against the model of Boccacio, on the one hand, and William Hogarth’s Sigismunda mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo (1759), on the other, as Bürger’s “worst aberration”. Wilhelm addresses “Lenardo und Blandine” in his essay “Über Bürgers Werke”:
Lenardo und Blandine” is undeniably and in every respect Bürger’s worst abberation. An unpleasant premonitory sign already resides in the off-hand way he remarks in the preface to the first edition of “old novellas” how a similar story occurs under the name ‘Guiscardo and Ghismunda’, as if nothing more were to be derived from his model than more or less the initial foundation.
And yet that “old novella” comes from no less a master than Boccaccio, and specific details show irrefutably that, deviations notwithstanding, Bürger was thinking of The Decameron, whence one cannot spare him the charge of having absolutely no sensibility for the grand style of this narrative and its moral beauty. For those capable of reading and sensing this piece in the original language (for none of the previous translations has yet wholly captured the character of the original), this ballad by comparison necessarily seems like nothing more than tempestuous ranting and childish babbling alongside the sublime and serene eloquence of a wise person.
From beginning to end, every possible feature has been debased, distorted, and overladen, and the grief and pain that in the original attest the most noble powers of the soul and to which the princess surrenders her very life with serene, tragic dignity, has been recast as wild rage. . . .
The disgrace of a series of psychological illustrations done by a psychological dilettante grotesquely recounting the ballade from moment to moment [see Caroline’s letter to Luise Gotter on 3 April 1784 (letter 40), note 6] is as little unmerited as are the dreadful imitations the sheer quantity of which none of Bürger’s previous romances prompted.
A more appropriate parallel would be Hogarth’s painting Sigismunda, who thought that what his friends related to him concerning the noble style of Italian historical painters was but empty illusion; he presumed then to paint as well as Correggio, chose a scene from this novella, and the result was just as one might expect [Hogarth, Sigismunda Mourning over the Heart of Guiscardo (1759); Tate Gallery, London]:
According to the testimony of his friend Walpole, Hogarth’s heroine resembled Sigismunda about as much as “I resemble Hercules,” looking instead like a wailing kitchen maid who has just been dismissed from service. Thus the chastisement for an artist’s lack of belief in any genre higher than his own! And thus also with Bürger’s ballade . . .
[*] The Decameron, trans. James Macmullen Rigg, vol. 1 (London 1906), 271–74, fourth day, story 1. Wilhelm Schlegel, “Über Bürgers Werke,” Charakteristiken und Kritiken, 2:1–96, here 51–56 (Sämmtliche Werke 8:64–139, here 105–8). Illustration: Hans Schäufelein, Ghismonda, Guiscardo, and the Prince of Salerno, from The Decameron, woodcut (before 1534); The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back.
Translation © 2014 Doug Stott