Torquato Tasso Essay - Critical Essays


As a historical figure, Torquato Tasso appears to embody two cultural eras: the High Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation. Some critics divide his literary production evenly and narrowly along such lines, assigning Aminta to the Renaissance, the Gerusalemme liberata to a transitional mode, and the last works to the triumph of the poet’s conservative Catholicism. This division is too facile: Like all great artists, Tasso was a complex figure. Immersed in the humanistic culture of his time, Tasso had an extraordinary facility in assimilating the works of others and integrating them in his own works. Echoes of Vergil, Horace, Homer, Sophocles, Dante, and Petrarch resound through his works, recognizable but transfused. At best, Tasso’s borrowings are poetic references and cultural commentary, enriching his text, infusing it with the familiar reverberations of tradition. His emulation is as much art as erudition. At worst, the writer can be pedantic, weighed down by his learning: Art gives way to artifice, and knowledge substitutes for inspiration. In all situations, Tasso has control of his language and mastery of his style; his verse is fine-tuned, polished, and elegant.

The taste of the Renaissance elite formed Tasso’s style. It manifests itself in his predilection for pomp, ornamentation, and decorum, and in his esteem of honor, heroism, and power. The sheer musicality of his poetry is legendary; the sound obliterates the everyday meaning of the words, freeing them to create new meanings through rhythm. His mastery of the Italian literary tradition led Tasso to experiment, to circumvent intentionally the prevailing Petrarchism of his age and play with the poetic devices available to him. His use of metaphor, conceit, hyperbole, and musical phrasing predates the Baroque, when poets sought to astonish the public with their manipulation of language. Tasso was both the heir of an ancient literary tradition and the prophet of a new style and a new approach to the written word.

As a teller of stories, whether in epic poetry or in drama, Tasso was again a harbinger of new attitudes and an inspiration to future artists. His characterizations are often unique. Drawn from traditional models, Tasso’s protagonists possess an interior life, rich in contradictions and marked by introspection. The tone of their lives is neither epic nor Arcadian, but melancholy, suffused with a voluptuous sense of death and loss. The heroic nature of the Crusaders is modified by a lingering atmospheric evanescence. They are warriors fraught with inner demons, beset by illusions, destined to disappointments. An existential angst surrounds the men and women of his poetic world. Joy, love, pleasure, and success are all fleeting or tainted. Even the bucolic world of Aminta is elegiac, tinged with melancholy and nostalgia; its happy ending cannot erase totally the various protagonists’ considerations on the loss of love, the fear of rejection, the onset of old age, and the ambiguous attractions of death.

One of Tasso’s greatest talents lies in his ability to infuse nature with a mood akin to the emotional state of the characters. The bees, the plants, the birds mate in a paean to the same instinctive love that draws Aminta to Silvia, just as the raging storm of Il re Torrismondo, in act 1, denotes the furious and confused state of mind of the protagonist, caught in the whirlwind of his guilt-ridden passion. As often, the protagonists find no outlet or communion, becoming trapped in themselves, victims of their own subjectivity. The warrior Clorinda’s femininity is hidden beneath her armor, her “external” self; Rinaldo’s suppressed sexuality develops into effeminate passivity in Armida’s garden; Aminta’s frustrated love is transformed into a death wish. Tasso’s world is peopled with individuals hungering for recognition, reaching for the unattainable, frustrated and frustrating. His ability to capture psychological nuance is matched by his mastery of the poetic form. At his best, as in Aminta, form and content merge in perfect symbiosis, achieving the harmony of great art. Whether in the epic, the pastoral, or the lyric, Tasso emerges as the voice of humankind’s inner, emotional self speaking in the language of renewed tradition.


Although Tasso did not consider himself a playwright and gave relatively minor attention to his dramatic production, Aminta is universally considered a masterpiece in its genre. The piece was the fruit of a particularly happy, peaceful period in the writer’s disturbed life. The work flowed easily and naturally from Tasso’s pen during a two-month period in the spring of 1573, whereas his second play, Il re Torrismondo, took fourteen years from inception to completion. This short compositional time, highly unusual for the perfectionist Tasso, reflects a conceptual ease that makes Aminta the most unified of the writer’s longer works. Probably meant as a divertissement for the court, the play responds to the taste and expectations of its intended public. It is a stylistically refined drama in which Tasso effortlessly incorporates numerous literary references that blend easily with his own poetry. The entire pastoral tradition, both classical and Renaissance, runs through the play. Traces of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il ninfale fiesolano (1344-1346; The Nymph of Fiesole, 1597) and Il ninfale d’Ameto (1341-1342; also known as Commedia delle ninfe), Poliziano’s Orfeo (pr. c. 1480; English translation, 1879; also known as Orpheus), Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1489; English translation, 1966), and the poetry of Dante, Petrarch, and Lorenzo de’ Medici combine with traces of Vergil’s Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.; also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575), Theocritus’s Idylls (1566; English translation, 1684), and the poetry of Ovid and Catullus and Greek romances. Sixteenth century Ferrara had also seen a revival of modern interest in the dramatic pastoral. Despite these debts, Aminta is also an original work, difficult to categorize and unrestricted by its sources.

Tasso’s contemporaries variously defined the work as a pastoral comedy or fable, an eclogue, or simply a pastoral. The playwright termed it a favola boschereccia, or woodland fable. The play contains elements of comedy, tragedy, bucolic poetry, and the dramatic eclogue. Written in an extraordinarily effective mix of seven-and eleven-syllable lines, known as polymetric verse, the work follows the classical unities rigidly. Its Italian blank verse is often quite musical and occasionally rhymed, constituting the foundation and inspiration for the recitative of eighteenth century melodrama and opera. This hybrid play is lyric, descriptive, and narrative, rather than dramatic. It is theater without action.

The plot, divided into the standard five acts, is extremely simple. Set in a metahistorical world of shepherds, Satyrs, nymphs, and gods, it is timeless. The general tone is serene, although tragic, comic, and satiric elements are present. Aminta, a young shepherd, is desperately in love with Silvia, his childhood friend. She has forsworn all men, rebuffed the boy, and chosen service to Diana and the hunt. Dafne, an aging nymph, seeks to convince the girl of her error, urging her to give up the state of useless virginity in exchange for the joys of love. Tirsi attempts to console Aminta but neither he nor Dafne are able to sway their young friends. The third act initiates a series of crises. Aminta, incited by Tirsi, has decided to act with more boldness in his courtship, only to discover that the Satyr has abducted his love, tied her to a tree, and is about to assault her. Silvia is saved and liberated by her devoted lover but does not stop to thank him. A second blow to the youth soon follows: Silvia’s bloody veil has been found, and it is presumed that the girl has fallen victim to wolves. In act 4, Silvia is safe and sound but Aminta has gone off to die. It is only at this moment that the huntress, overcome by pity for the dead shepherd, acknowledges her love for him. All ends well, however; some vegetation, an...

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