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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joel Foote Bingham (1827–1914)

By Torquato Tasso (1544–1595)

THE MOST prominent literary figure of the last half of the sixteenth century, and the last of the great four Italian poets,—familiarly called, the world over, merely “Tasso,” though his father Bernardo Tasso was a poet of some distinction, and is still read,—was born under the soft breezes and among the orange and lemon groves of Sorrento, the very ancient Roman watering-place standing on the high rocks which bound the Bay of Naples to the south. The house in which he was born, and the rocky foundations on which it stood, have long since been washed away by the dashing waves from the north; but may still be seen through the clear water below the cliff on which stands to-day the Albergo del Tasso. His sister Cornelia’s house—his frequent refuge during all his troubled life, for refreshment and comfort, and whither especially in his last great distress, when he broke away from his imprisonment, he fled in the disguise of a shepherd and found solace in a sister’s unchanging love—is still pointed out.

His life—drawn from a strain of nobility, and always passed among the great—began, advanced, and ended, in troubled splendor. Bernardo Tasso, while holding office near the person of the then Prince of Salerno, Ferrante Sanseverino, met and married at Naples a lady of the Neapolitan nobility, Porzia de’ Rossi,—a family originally from Pistoia. Her first child was a daughter, Cornelia; her second, a boy baby, Torquato, which died a few days after birth; her third, a son who received the name of the babe that died, and became our illustrious Torquato.

The family at the time were in a kind of retreat at Sorrento, whither the father had fled from the court at Salerno, for the quiet of study and for completing a poem he was then composing. But at the time of our poet’s birth—the 11th of March, 1544—he was not at home, being in response to his official duty at the war in Piedmont; and afterward attending upon his royal master in the Netherlands, where the terms of peace were negotiating. Returning to his home, the father saw for the first time—in January 1545, the child being then ten months old—the baby which was to bring such renown and such misery to his house.

The retreat in Sorrento continued till 1550. Here the little boy enjoyed the care of a most affectionate and exemplary mother; the instruction of the learned chaplain of the family, Don Giovanni d’Angeluzzo; and above all, the devoted attention of his wise and brilliant father. But in Torquato’s sixth year, the father—having in connection with his princely master fallen into the disfavor of Spain, on matters concerning the Inquisition—was obliged to flee. He being unable to take his family with him,—having lost his own fortune by confiscation,—the family was transferred to Naples to exist upon the mother’s dower. In the loving care of his excellent mother, Torquato attended the Jesuit schools, lately established there, for four years longer; making under these skillful masters astonishing progress in the Latin and Greek languages. In his tenth year the dower, by some fiction of law, was virtually revoked. The family means having now utterly vanished, Torquato was sent to Rome to share the exile of the father; the mother and Cornelia took refuge in the convent of San Festo. The separation of the mother and little son was heart-rending to both. From the effects of it the mother died in the convent two years later, and Tasso to his dying day never recovered. He refers to it thirty years afterwards in tearful words in the ‘Ode to the River Metauro,’ some stanzas of which are given at the end of this article. At the death of the mother, Cornelia was transferred to the care of an uncle. She was married early, with no dowry but her goodness, accomplishments, and beauty, to Marzio Sersale, a gentleman of Sorrento, of good family but of slender fortune. Husband and wife were worthy people, and passed their lives happily together.

At Rome, under the care of his father and the best teachers, Torquato continued to make the most remarkable progress in study. In his thirteenth year, having already mastered the Latin and Greek languages, he was entered a student at the University of Padua; and at seventeen graduated with honors in the four departments of Civil Law, Canon Law, Theology, and Philosophy.

During these years, however, he had devoted himself with an intense and loving zeal to poetry; “in stolen hours,” as he says, and certainly to the strong disapproval of his father. Before graduation at Padua he visited and studied at various universities of northern Italy; and especially at Venice, where the father was then residing; and where, in its musical and voluptuous atmosphere, his literary opportunities were greatest of all, and his poetical inspirations stimulated by poetical associations and environments. But while still a student at Padua, he sent to his father at Venice the manuscript of his ‘Rinaldo’; an epic poem, having for material the legends of Charlemagne and the Moors. In irresistible admiration of the production,—and fortified by the judgment of the best critics of the day, who declared it to be a marvelous work for one so young,—the father now laid aside the former disapproval of his son’s poetical studies, and gladly permitted the poem to be published at Venice in 1562, before the young poet had completed his eighteenth year.

It was received with unmeasured applause; and the young author was soon known throughout Italy by the name of Tassino (our dear little Tasso). From this moment his fame was assured. The father foresaw and predicted, with undisguised exultation, the coming glory of his son; and it was evident to all that a new star of the first magnitude had arisen in the firmament of letters. Torquato remained for three years more (till he should reach his majority) at Padua, Bologna, Mantua, and other universities, continuing the most diligent study of philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry. The father then, notwithstanding the bitter experiences of his own life in connecting his fortune with the favor of princes, consented that his son should enter upon the via dolorosa of the courtier.

The fame of ‘Rinaldo’ easily obtained for him access to the court of Ferrara, first as a gentleman in the suite of the Prince Cardinal Luigi d’Este (with whom he made his celebrated journey to France, where he gained the lifelong and fruitful friendship of the King, Charles IX., and of the great Ronsard, the then favorite and laureate of the French); afterward and most important of all, as attaché to Alphonso II., brother of the Cardinal and reigning Duke of Ferrara. Nothing could be more splendid and gay than the beginning of this courtly career. He was caressed by the duke, assigned beautiful lodgings and an ample pension, and exempted from any specified duties, in order that he might in leisure and tranquillity finish the great poem on which it was known that he had been already some years engaged; and for which, in the young poet’s mind, the ‘Rinaldo’ had been only a tentative precursor. He was welcomed by the sisters of the duke, Lucretia and Eleonora, and by the ladies of the court; and was admitted by them into great familiarity.

After five years of such stimulated labor on his great poem, Tasso took a recess of two months; and in this playtime, wrote for the amusement of the great ladies the pastoral drama ‘Aminta,’—a poem of such beauty that if he had written nothing else, it would have made his name immortal. It was represented, at the expense of the duke, with the greatest splendor, and received with enormous éclat. It is a play of five acts in blank verse, varying from five to eleven syllables, with intervening choruses: a translation of one of the most celebrated of which—‘The Golden Age’—is given at the end of this article. The theme, indeed, is not new,—a young girl averse to love, who, conquered finally by the proofs of fidelity and sacrifice exhibited toward her by her lover, consents to espouse him. But the perfect construction of the story, the exquisite conceits never exceeding pastoral simplicity, the melody of the verse, the fascinating expression of affection, met with such favor from the age, that many editions in Italy and several translations into the Romance languages followed in quick succession. From the great difficulty of transfusing its soft-flowing melodies into the Gothic and Germanic speech, it has been but little translated and little known in the North.

During the ten years of such glittering fortune, he at last brought to a conclusion his magnificent poem on the great Crusade. Almost from this moment began the sad series of sorrows, suspicions, neglect, imprisonment, and untold miseries, which from now on overshadowed his life with ever-increasing gloom. Many times he left the court and wandered through Italy; but an irresistible force always brought him back to Ferrara. Discontent at a less welcome reception there than formerly (or the fantasies of a growing insanity) led him into such extravagances, even towards the ladies and the very princesses, that the duke shut him up as a lunatic in the Hospital of St. Anna. In this dreary abode (a shocking cell, said to be that occupied by him, is still shown), surrounded by the most appalling sights and sounds of human misery, he was for more than seven years—1579–86—confined, notwithstanding the most urgent intercessions of the princesses and of some of the most eminent persons in Italy for his liberation. In this gloomy period were written numberless letters still preserved for their literary value, a book of Classic Dialogues of extreme elegance, a book of Moral Discourses, a large part of more than a thousand sonnets, and admirable replies to the assailants of his epic. His now published works fill more than thirty volumes.

Tasso, liberated at last through the continued pressure of the intercessions of his friends,—and especially by that of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the enlightened and generous Duke of Mantua, the Mæcenas of his age,—left Ferrara forever. He now resided for a time at Mantua, at Florence, at Naples (his sister at Sorrento died two years after his liberation, but before his arrival at Naples), and finally found a welcome and repose under the shade of the “holy keys.” He was now protected by the Princes Aldobrandini; especially by the Cardinal Cinzio, and by his uncle Pope Clement VIII. This pontiff, proud to have for his guest the world-renowned songster of ‘La Gerusalemme,’ was preparing for him the laurel crown; when poor Tasso, worn out at last by his intolerable vexations and miseries, died on the 25th of April, 1595, an eminently Christian death,—clasping the crucifix, and with the words “Into thy hands, O Lord,” on his lips. The “cell” in which he lived and passed away—a large and comfortable room in the convent of St. Onofrio, near St. Peter’s, on the brow of Janiculum—is now sacredly preserved; and contains a bust of the poet taken from a waxen cast, his autograph, his inkstand and pens, the chair in which he used to sit, the crucifix—an heirloom of his father’s—before which he made his devotions, and many other mementos of his early and later days.

His funeral honors were unique, and paralleled only by those of Petrarch. Robed in a Roman toga, and crowned with the laurel wreath he was to have received in life, the body was borne by torchlight through the principal streets of Rome, amidst thousands crowding to catch a last look at the features of the dead. The body was interred, according to his desire, in a chapel of the Church of St. Onofrio. A third successive monument (each more lavish than the preceding),—most exquisitely wrought in white marble, surmounted by a bust of the poet, and inscribed with appropriate verses from the great poem,—raised by Pope Pius IX. in 1857, now glorifies the spot.

Though Tasso’s great poem was from the first received by most of every class with infinite delight, and was pronounced by all Italy the most beautiful epic of modern times, and though the poet himself could not but know that it had gained for him a seat in the first rank of literary immortals,—yet the adverse criticisms which began at once and continued for many years to pour in upon him, added gall to the overflowing cup of mingled bitternesses which he was forced to drink during all his later years. The controversy which arose among the Italian literati for and against the ‘Gerusalemme’ occupies many volumes of Tasso’s works; and although he did not accept many of the objections that were pressed both by envious foes and by avowed friends, he was compelled to admit and defend himself against certain questionable ornamentations and an apparent (and to the critics of that day, damning) violation of the “three unities.”

‘Jerusalem Delivered’ obviously contains three actions; but two so subordinated to the principal, that they all seem one. This principal subject is the pious Geoffrey, Duke of Lorraine, who leads the expedition to Jerusalem; resists the voluptuous seductions of Armida; calms the oft-occurring discords of his own army; provides against its necessities, as from time to time they arise; obtains from God relief for its thirst; sends to recall Rinaldo, who had been banished for a homicide, and by means of him, overcomes the incantation of the forest, and supplies material for his engines. He fights in person like a hero; and the sacred city having fallen, and the war with the King of Egypt having been won, he pays his conqueror’s vow in the temple of Delivered Jerusalem.

A second action has for its subject Rinaldo himself, a legendary character among the ancestors of the house of Este; a very brave youth who runs away from home to join the Crusaders. Offended in his amour propre, he kills the haughty Gernando, his fellow-soldier; and to escape the penalty, forsakes the camp and sets free the Crusading champions who had been enslaved by the sorceress Armida. He himself afterwards falls into the power of this sorceress. Geoffrey sends to liberate him, and has him brought back to the camp. In overcoming the incantation of the forest, and in slaying the fiercest enemies, he bears a principal part in the final triumph.

A third action is hinged on Tancred,—a historic character, one of the principal Normans born in Italy,—the type of a bold and courteous warrior; who is enamored of Clorinda, a hostile female warrior, but without response from her. He has a duel with Argantes, the mightiest of the Mussulman champions, and comes off wounded. The beautiful Erminia, a saved princess of conquered and sacked Antioch, once his prisoner and now free in Jerusalem, impelled by a most passionate love goes to him to cure him. He, through her disguise believing that she is Clorinda, follows her steps, and is left a slave of Armida. Freed from Armida’s snares with her other victims, by the prowess of Rinaldo, he returns to the camp. He afterwards by mistake kills Clorinda herself, who has come disguised—in armor with false bearings—to set on fire a wooden tower of the Christians. In despair he meditates suicide, but by Peter the Hermit is persuaded to resignation. In the final and successful assault upon Jerusalem, having been cured of his wounds by Erminia, though still weak he kills Argantes, and contributes his full share to the ultimate triumph of the Crusaders.

Besides this, the “machinery” of the poem—the intervention of the supernatural—is made up on the one hand, of the plots of every kind which Satan, with the advice and aid of an assembled council of demons, prepares against the Christians,—loves, arms, storms, incantations; on the other hand, of the miraculous doings of the angels, who by Divine command oppose themselves to the Infernal king.

Here were plainly three actions, although woven into one unbroken and indivisible web: and three heroes, two of them officially subordinated to Geoffrey, but not inferior to him, perhaps even his superiors in their exploits. This multiplicity, which was pleasing to the multitude because they found in the ‘Jerusalem’ almost the variety of romance, did not seem rhetorically right to the learned critics, and still less to Tasso himself. First, it seemed to an unjustifiable degree to sacrifice the “unity of action.” The “unity of place” as well was offended in making Rinaldo go into the island of Armida, situated on the extreme boundary of the world. Still further, so many loves, often very tenderly described,—of Christians for Armida, of Armida for Rinaldo, of Tancred for Clorinda, and of Erminia for Tancred,—were adjudged unsuited to the gravity of the heroic poem and to the sanctity of the argument. Beyond this, the dissatisfied critics found that the poet had wandered too far from the facts of history; and that even his style was in some parts mannered, labored, and dry, and in others had an overplus of lyric ornamentation, which was unsuited to epic gravity.

These and similar censures, piled mountain-high by the severe critics, from the first and long afterwards, on this magnificent and delightful poem, never for a moment persuaded the multitude of readers: but alas, it did persuade Tasso himself; and while Italy and all Christendom was ringing with delight and applause over the poem as it was, the distressed author set himself in the last years of his life to make over the poem. He began with the very title, which had been criticized, and produced the ‘Gerusalemme Conquistata’ in twenty-four books; four more than were contained in the ‘Liberata,’ which the whole world has nevertheless gone on reading and applauding, while the ‘Conquistata’ is almost forgotten. How far the world and the centuries have been justified in their own delight and in their applause of the poet, the reader will be surely able to judge for himself from the following selections.