La Gerusalemme liberata Torquato Tasso
The following entry presents criticism of Tasso's epic poem La Gerusalemme liberata (1581; Jerusalem Delivered). For discussion of Tasso's complete career, see LC, Volume 5.
La Gerusalemme liberata was Tasso's greatest achievement, an attempt to emulate and even surpass classical authors such as Homer and Virgil and to provide Italy with a national epic poem. While indebted to works of classical antiquity, Gerusalemme liberata is at the same time close to medieval romance; and while depicting events from the First Crusade, it also reflects the quandaries of the poet's own time, when Jerusalem was governed by a sultan and Europe was in the crisis of religious division. With Gerusalemme liberata Tasso sought to create a masterpiece that would deserve comparison with the great epics of the past; he succeeded in composing one of the most widely read and cherished books of the Renaissance.
Active at the end of a splendid developmental period in Italian literature, Tasso sought to surpass his predecessors (especially Ludovico Ariosto, with whom he is often compared) and to provide Italy with a national epic poem. However, Tasso's times were far different from Ariosto's, as the passing of the Renaissance in Italy was marked by a shift from a spirit of inquiry to the inquisitional watchfulness of the Counter-Reformation. In literature, there was a growing tendency toward prescriptive theory and conformity to rigid and established compositional rules based on the theoretical writings of antiquity. Excessively solicitous of his colleagues' and the clergy's advice and opinions, Tasso is said to have possessed the spirit of the Renaissance only to be constrained by the Counter-Reformation. Fearing that any uncorrected unorthodoxies might prevent the publication of Gerusalemme liberata, Tasso began to lend partial manuscripts of the work to colleagues, critics, and friends for their critiques. Their comments, however, irritated and humiliated him, and while he continued to defend the work, portions of it—often inaccurate—became widely available, further aggravating his concern for his reputation. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1577 and was confined to a hospital for the next seven years. It was during this period that an unscrupulous printer published without Tasso's approval an incomplete and flawed edition of Gerusalemme liberata under its original title Il Goffredo. This prompted Tasso to publish a version of the poem himself, despite his dissatisfaction with it. The debate over Gerusalemme liberata lasted throughout Tasso's confinement, while he continued to revise the poem. He was finally released in 1586, and in the years following resumed work on his epic. In 1593 Tasso published his epic—finally purged, to his satisfaction, of its impurities—under the title Di Gerusalemme conquistata (Jerusalem Conquered). With many episodes deleted or changed to answer religious objections or to adhere to classical unities, and with the language refined to the point of diminished beauty, this revised version is unanimously deemed inferior to Gerusalemme liberata.
Plot and Major Characters
Di Gerusalemme conquistata is an epic poem in 20 cantos of about 100 stanzas each. Much of its action concerns the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 to Godfrey of Boulogne and his European allies during the First Crusade. Although Godfrey led the Crusade, it is Rinaldo who is the main hero of the poem. He undergoes a fall from grace when he succumbs to the beautiful Armida and is banished from the Christian camp, but is recalled to his sense of duty in Canto 16, returns to help the Christians enter Jerusalem, and kills the Saracen hero Solimano. Similarly flawed is a secondary hero, Tancredi, who is also in love with a Saracen female warrior, Clorinda. In a tragic episode he unwittingly kills her in combat, but is roused to great deeds at the end and slays the giant Saracen Argante. The poem ends in Christian triumph, not only with the capture of Jerusalem, but also with the conversion to Christianity of the Saracen heroines, Clorinda as she dies, and Armida at the end of the poem.
Gerusalemme liberata is an overtly serious work, stoutly Christian, explicitly moralistic, and deeply concerned from its inception with such theoretical matters as the relation of truth to invention and the problem of historical authenticity. Its subject matter, a protracted military contest between Christians and Muslims, had contemporary significance in a time of continuing struggle between the Italian states and the Ottoman Empire for commercial domination of the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the themes of loyalty and treachery, and the conflicting claims of public and private obligation—so important for Renaissance epic in general—were still pertinent to the court ethos and inter-state political rivalry characteristic of the age in which Tasso lived. In the poem, the blood and gore of antique epic are mitigated by idyllic and lyric passages which derive more from Petrarch and the Greek and Latin elegiac and erotic poets than from Homer or Tasso's own sometimes rough-hewn epic forbears. The women of Tasso's poetry, in particular, and the love interests they give rise to provide a more complex foil to the traditional military skirmishing and bravado, in part because all of Tasso's characters are more fully realized and psychologically developed than those of his predecessors.
Tasso's attempt in Gerusalemme liberata to combine classical epic with traditional romance elements was the source of much critical conflict during his lifetime. Strict classicists attacked Tasso's use of the miraculous and the lack of a strict unity of action. Meanwhile, those who looked at its romantic elements denigrated it in comparison to Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso, while others condemned it for vague or emotional language. In addition, the Church denounced the portrayal of pagan magic and the loves depicted, both for their sensual quality and for the pairing of pagans with Christians. In Tasso's own time, his work was well received by the public despite the controversy in critical circles. While consensus on Gerusalemme liberata cannot be reached, it is clear that the epic had an effect on such significant figures as Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and John Dryden. Milton considered Gerusalemme liberata the only modern epic worthy of imitation. Twentieth-century critics have examined Gerusalemme liberata from a variety of perspectives. In his study of the poem, C. P. Brand maintained that the influence that the classical writers had on Tasso and his epic cannot be understated: “it is typical of Tasso's approach to art, to style and language to build on the great achievements of the past.” Other critics have analyzed the political aspects of Gerusalemme liberata. David Quint has claimed that looking at the “political picture turns Tasso's First Crusade into an emblem of the Church Militant, whose quest for souls is finally indistinguishable from the imperialist conquest of new territories and dependent subjects.” While many modern critics have praised Gerusalemme liberata for its mixture of romantic with classical elements, Dennis Looney has argued that this mixture is the poem's greatest flaw because it causes confusion and compromises the work, so that it can be considered neither as a romance nor as a true epic. For his part, Andrew Fichter has characterized the poem as a “Christian epic,” based on the theme of redemption. “Tasso's choice of redemption as a theme,” he asserts, “is perfectly suited to his purpose of constructing a true Christian epic, a poem based on Christian principles but one that also possesses the formal properties of the Aeneid, wholeness, magnitude, and unity of plot and character.”