Other Literary Forms
Torquato Tasso’s literary work begins and ends with his discussions of poetic theory. As early as 1561 but certainly before 1570, he had composed Discorsi dell’arte poetica (1587; discourses on the poetic art), and he published a much revised and expanded version of the same work, Discorsi del poema eroico (1594; Discourses on the Heroic Poem, 1973) the year before his death. The latter is both a defense of Tasso’s own epics and an influential statement of Renaissance critical theory. Tasso’s Dialoghi (1581) embraces a variety of subjects and often includes Tasso himself as one of the speakers; these dialogues are modeled after those of Plato. Tasso’s Lettere (1587, 1588, 1616-1617), numbering as many as seventeen hundred, constitute a rich source of information about his life in elegantly crafted prose. Tasso’s pastoral drama Aminta (pr. 1573; English translation, 1591), celebrates love and has been far more influential than his tragedy of mistaken identities and incest, Il re Torrismondo (pb. 1587; the King Torrismondo).
Torquato Tasso’s importance in the history of letters is twofold: His own prodigious work has great merit, and he exerted enormous influence on artists who followed him. Tasso, the representative genius of the late Italian Renaissance, was the creator of Christian epic. In him the erudition of classical literature and Aristotelian poetic theory combined with the force of the Counter-Reformation and court life to produce Jerusalem Delivered. His reputation as a writer rests on this epic, his superb pastoral drama Aminta, some of his lyric poetry, and his synthesis of epic poetic theory.
Tasso enjoyed almost immediate renown both in and out of Italy. The romance Rinaldo showed promise, but Aminta, on the theme of innocent and natural love triumphing over various adversities of law and circumstance, established his reputation as a poet. Jerusalem Delivered, completed three years later, touched off a spirited controversy over poetic theory, with comparisons to Homer, Vergil, and Ludovico Ariosto that always recognized Tasso’s stature, whether the commentary was hostile or admiring. Tasso’s epic also excited interest in England. As early as 1584 a Latin translation of Jerusalem Delivered by Scipio Gentili was published in London. Edmund Spenser in his 1587 “Letter to Raleigh” mentioned Tasso as one of his models for The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). In 1594, the second part of the British play Godfrey of Bulloigne was performed by the Admiral’s Men. Also in 1594, Richard Carew published the Italian text and English translation of the first five cantos of Jerusalem Delivered. In the early seventeenth century, Tasso influenced Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Abraham Cowley, and John Milton. Later Tasso’s reputation suffered an eclipse, although John Hoole’s 1763 translation of Jerusalem Delivered into heroic couplets was very popular. The nineteenth century saw as many as eight new translations of the epic, the most influential being Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen’s 1824 version in Spenserian stanzas. Whether Tasso’s epic was read for its own sake or used as a source, it was admired for its love stories. Leigh Hunt, for example, chose the romantic trials of Olindo and Sofronia, Tancred and Clorinda, and Rinaldo and Armida for his Stories from the Italian Poets (1846). Early in the twentieth century, however, many critics evinced little sympathy for Tasso’sworks or his reputation.
That reputation, the picture of a man driven to or feigning madness because of persecutions endured for love, was fostered by the biography Vita di Torquato Tasso (1621), published by the poet’s friend G. B. Manso. As early as 1594, a now lost play, Tasso’s Melancholy, was performed in London. The Romantic age saw in Tasso’s writings his supposed love for Leonora d’Este and made Tasso a symbol of the suffering artist. The legend that grew up around his life inspired the drama Torquato Tasso (1790) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the monologue Lament of Tasso (1817) by George Gordon, Lord Byron, in addition to numerous musical and pictorial works. Psychological interest in Tasso has not completely disappeared, but interest in his legend no longer overshadows the worth of his writing.
Torquato Tasso was born on March 11, 1544, in Sorrento, the son of the poet and courtier Bernardo Tasso and Porzia de’ Rossi. He began his education in Naples with Jesuit teachers. His family life was disrupted first when young Tasso followed his father, exiled from the kingdom of Naples, to Rome in 1554, and again in 1556 when his mother died unexpectedly. Perhaps influenced in choice of genre by his father’s recently completed epic Amadigi (1560) and in choice of a subject by his sister’s escape from an Ottoman attack on Sorrento, Tasso wrote 116 stanzas of what was to become later his epic Jerusalem Delivered but laid aside the story of Godfrey and the First Crusade when his father sent him to Padua to study law in 1560. In Padua, law was far less interesting than Sperone Speroni and the discussion of philosophy, rhetoric, and poetic theory. Tasso wrote and published the chivalric romance Rinaldo and began writing Petrarchan love lyrics. After a period of study interspersed with escapades at the University of Bologna, he returned to Padua, probably where he wrote Discorsi dell’arte poetica. In 1565, Tasso left school (without a degree) for Ferrara and the service of Cardinal Luigi d’Este.
In Ferrara, Tasso resumed work on his epic on the liberation of Jerusalem. He also wrote lyrics for the two sisters of Duke Alfonso II, Lucrezia and Leonora d’Este. Tasso suffered the death of his father in 1569; in 1570, he traveled to Paris, his only trip outside Italy.
Entering the service of Duke Alfonso in January, 1572, Tasso began a very productive period of his life. His pastoral masterpiece Aminta was performed in 1573; he began a tragedy based on classical models in 1574; and he completed Jerusalem Delivered in 1575 at the age of thirty-one. Although he was anxious to publish his epic, Tasso submitted it to the criticism of Scipione Gonzaga and others. Tasso wished nothing in his work to offend either poetic theory or Church doctrine, but he could not bear the criticism that resulted. He left Ferrara only to return; he felt spied upon and attacked a servant with a knife; he was placed under guard, but escaped to stay with his sister in Sorrento. Tasso returned to Ferrara, then soon left to wander through Mantua, Padua, Venice, Urbino, Pesaro, and Turin before returning again to Ferrara in 1579. This time his accusations and irrational behavior led Duke Alfonso to imprison him in Sant’Anna, where Tasso remained for seven years.
Biographers have variously attributed Alfonso’s imprisonment of Tasso to the Duke’s anger at Tasso’s love for Alfonso’s sister, pique at the suggestions that his poet wished to find a new patron, fear over what Tasso might reveal to the Inquisition, or the sincere concern of an exasperated ruler to save all concerned, including Tasso himself, from the effects of real madness. Regardless of the causes of Tasso’s madness or melancholy, the conditions of his long imprisonment did not prevent him from writing, although it did prevent him from having any control over the many unauthorized editions of his works published in those years. During the years of his imprisonment, Tasso composed more than four hundred letters, many of his dialogues, considerable occasional poetry, and an Apologia (1586) for Jerusalem Delivered.
Released from prison in 1586, Tasso first went to Mantua, where he completed his tragedy, renaming it Il re Torrismondo. He traveled restlessly and published his earlier epic, Jerusalem Conquered. He also composed a number of religious poems, one of which was the religious epic Le sette giornate del mondo creato (the seven days of the creation of the world). The last of Tasso’s many journeys was to Rome, where he was to be crowned poet laureate by the Pope. Tasso became ill, however, and died at the monastery of Sant’ Onofrio on April 25, 1595.
It is apparent that, from the first, Torquato Tasso set out to reconcile a number of seeming opposites in his work: lyric and heroic, myth and history, fantasy and religion, romance and epic, popular variety and Aristotelian principle. The tension of this attempt at synthesis caused Tasso to abandon his early draft of an epic poem for a series of less ambitious compositions. Many critics believe that the tension remains unresolved.
Tasso’s lyric voice is amply represented in the almost two thousand short poems produced throughout his life. Many of them are imitative of Petrarch. In 1589, Tasso planned to publish his poems in separate volumes according to subject—amorous, encomiastic, and sacred. The love poems are among the earliest lyrics, sometimes linked to historical women such as Lucrezia Bendidio or Laura Peperara, but often general and diffuse in praise of beauty, love, and emotion. Rich in poetic devices the lyrics luxuriate in the suffering of the poet.
If the middle style characterizes Tasso’s amorous verse, the grand style characterizes his encomiastic verse. Many of these poems in praise of influential men risk being sterile or self-serving, but they can also be poignant. Many of the lyrics written in Sant’ Anna are pleas for help or pardon, addressed to Duke Alfonzo, the Ferrara princesses, or the Duke of Urbino. The Sant’ Anna lyrics exhibit a remarkable variety in tone and mood, and include a famous and atypical sonnet addressed to the cats of the prison.
Tasso’s religious lyrics reflect both personal experience and the general tenor of the Counter-Reformation. There are sonnets, canzones, madrigals, and ballads. They are concerned with both his personal fears and common religious themes such as “Le lagrime di Gesu Cristo” (“The Tears of Jesus Christ”), “Le lagrime di Maria Vergine” (“The Tears of the Virgin Mary”), and “Monte Oliveto” (“Mount Olivet”), a poem on the founding of the religious order that sheltered Tasso in Naples in 1588. The poems reflect the restlessness, melancholy, and personal suffering that are also present in so many of Tasso’s other works. Just as Erminia in Jerusalem Delivered finds a...