I Don’t Know Whats

Colin Burrow

  • Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso, translated by Anthony Esolen
    Johns Hopkins, 490 pp, £50.50, November 2000, ISBN 0 8018 6322 8

No one would score many points in a game of Humiliation if they confessed they had not read Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. As his translator John Hoole put it in 1763, ‘Of all Authors, so familiarly known by name to the generality of English readers as Tasso, perhaps there is none whose works have been so little read.’ Hoole did much to change that: his translation – staid, Drydenical, but always moving and sometimes a thing of beauty – was a blockbuster which went through ten editions. By the mid to late 19th century anyone in England who read, read Tasso. Scarcely a decade went by without either another edition of Hoole or a new verse translation. There were versions by parsons, librarians and retired sea captains; there were versions in blank verse, in couplets, in Spenserian stanzas. And then they dried up. Now the word is that Tasso is dull, that he is Ariosto in corsets, a slave to the Inquisition, a servile Neoclassicist, a beastly Papal imperialist swine, an obsessive madman who savaged the best bits of the liberata in order to make the tediously well regulated, sexless orthodoxy renamed Gerusalemme conquistata, and who recognised what was best in himself only for long enough to write it down and then cross it out.

There is some truth in some of this, but not much. Tasso’s poem is a Christian epic, and it is both Christian and epic in ways that make life particularly difficult for itself. It does not proceed on the assumption that worship of a Christian god means that fighting is no longer a suitable subject for a heroic poem, or that Christian epic heroes should display Milton’s ‘patience and heroic martyrdom’ rather than clouting each other. Nor does it mine the Bible for a fitting subject. Instead, Tasso set his poem during the First Crusade in 1099, when a Christian alliance led by Godfrey of Bouillon was attempting to take Jerusalem from a Muslim garrison. Tasso chose this as the ideal setting for a Christian epic because it belonged to the Christian era, but was at sufficient historical distance to permit him to embellish it with invented episodes. It also enabled him to write an epic which was simultaneously about fighting for God and about religious and political unity. The poem could in theory translate the imperial ambitions of Virgil’s Aeneid into an argument for Papal dominance in the Church, and draw on the martial heroism of Homer to add muscle to that idea of unity.

Only in theory. From the earliest stages of the extremely extended composition of the poem, there were fault-lines within it, which widened into cracks and gulfs as the project developed. Tasso probably began the first version in Venice in the late 1550s. His decision to set the poem during the siege of Jerusalem reflected the fear of an Ottoman invasion which was widespread in Italy before the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This fear was given a personal edge in 1558 when a Turkish fleet landed in Sorrento, where Tasso was born and his sister lived. Resisting the threat from the East was one of the poem’s aims. But it had a number of other ambitions. While he was conceiving the Gerusalemme, Tasso was at work on a romance called Rinaldo (1562). He also read extensively in Neoclassical theory. This gave two additional – and incompatible – strands to his version of the epic. Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1532), Tasso’s main model of a romance, is principally about chivalrous heroes who do mad things because they are in love. At its climax Orlando goes mad with frustrated passion for the enchanting pagan Angelica, and the English knight Astolfo has to fly to the moon in order to bring back Orlando’s wits in a jar. This is gloriously irreconcilable with Aristotle’s insistence that fictions be verisimilar (or ‘the kinds of thing which could occur’). Butting together the free-wheeling I-can-do-anything-watch-me-while-I-fly-to-the-moon zeal of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso with a theory of unity which was both aesthetic (follow Aristotle) and politico-religious (serve the Pope) was enough to drive anyone mad. Throughout the composition of the liberata Tasso’s anxiety about whether he was pulling off this impossible project was reflected in his repeated requests to his friends to curb and censor what he had written, and in his own obsessive revisions.

Most of the liberata was composed in Ferrara between 1565 and 1575, under the patronage of Cardinal Luigi d’Este and his brother Alfonso, the Duke. In 1577, Tasso became convinced that his Ferrarese servants were conspiring against him. He drew a knife and attacked one of them, then fled the Ferrarese Court for two years. On his return he was enraged by what he saw as his patrons’ neglect of him, and by their refusal to give him access to his manuscripts. After a violent outburst he was incarcerated as a madman in the hospital of St Anna, where he remained until 1586. During his imprisonment he had religious dreams in the glorious technicolour of the Counter-Reformation: he heard the last trump summon him to hell, and had visions of the Virgin. He believed that he really was bound for hell as a result of his many, mostly imagined, heresies, but feared that the visions of the Virgin were only illusions brought on by his ‘infinite melancholy’. According to the engaging legends of Tasso’s madness, he was imprisoned because he was in love with Alfonso d’Este’s sister Leonora, and his patron had felt it would not do for his sister to be involved with a poet. This myth of Tasso as a genius imprisoned by malign political manoeuvrings led Byron to visit Tasso’s cell in 1817. His ‘Lament of Tasso’ presents a poet whose writing soared above the oppressive conspiracies to which he was subjected:

For I have battled with mine agony
And made me wings wherewith to overfly
The narrow circus of my dungeon wall,
And freed the Holy Sepulchre from thrall.

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