Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003

Torquato Tasso had two objectives in writing Jerusalem Delivered : one religious, to exhort the Christian peoples of Europe to crusade against the heathen; the other literary, to write a new epic fusing the heroic epic and chivalric romance, conforming to classical theory. Different forces operated within him. He was...

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Torquato Tasso had two objectives in writing Jerusalem Delivered: one religious, to exhort the Christian peoples of Europe to crusade against the heathen; the other literary, to write a new epic fusing the heroic epic and chivalric romance, conforming to classical theory. Different forces operated within him. He was a devout Catholic, product of the Counter-Reformation and of Jesuitical education. He was also the product of court life at Ferrara, a center of chivalry and romantic tradition. Moreover, he was part of literary circles in Ferrara and Paris that were committed to the rules of pre-Christian writers.

Jerusalem Delivered is a Christian epic in its subject matter (the First Crusade), sentiment, and plot. Its poetic focus, however, is on the love stories. It is a new kind of epic, in the classical tradition but replacing pagan mythology with Christian figures and pagan magic with Christian miracle. It intermingles sober fact with invention, imposing classical majesty on chivalric and romantic material. Under the influence of Dante, it is an epic in the vernacular.

The main characters (except for Rinaldo) and events are historically authentic, but Tasso adds fictional episodes in which his imagination can find free expression, especially in the love scenes and battle and single combat scenes. He adds supernatural forces, divine and evil, intervening on behalf of the Christians and pagans.

The miraculous had a special appeal for Tasso, which he found in close relation to real experience. He held the traditional view of magic as the work of devils, but he did not confine it to them. He gave it a new interpretation, linking it to unintelligible human fears and dreads.

The importance of love appears early in the epic in the willingness of Sophronia and Olindo to die for each other. Love, capable of transcending human limitation, gives rise to complex situations: Pagan Erminia is frustrated by her love for the Christian Tancred; Christian Tancred falls in love with another pagan, the Amazon Clorinda. The pagan witch Armida is in love with the Christian Rinaldo, who finally succumbs to her seductions, then renounces her, only to be reconciled as she converts to Christianity.

Tasso’s characters are complex. They are convincing human beings but also stern and mighty warriors. They have shortcomings and are differentiated. The ideal lies not in any one character (although Godfrey, with his talents as leader and with his common sense and control, is the closest to the ideal Christian warrior). Godfrey is the one chosen to receive divine help. Tancred is the ideal courtier—courteous, free from envy, patient, a good swordsman, reflective but able to act. Rinaldo is the proud adventurer and romantic. He is restless, quick-tempered, formidable in battle, and supremely honorable. He is finally disciplined to the Christian cause. The pagans are different from those in romances; they are not evil but mostly honorable men and worthy warriors. They are, however, misguided.

The debate over allegory in Jerusalem Delivered began almost as soon as it appeared in public. Tasso almost immediately began to comment on his work. In Allegoria dei poema (1581), he says that there is allegory in the poem but that the literal might be enough. He later adds that readers may make multiple readings. He also says that he did not think about any allegory at first but that, pondering about it later, realized it was there, but that not all details have allegorical meaning.

The principal allegory relates to the body politic. In the disintegration of the Christian forces in the first half of the epic, and the subsequent taking of control by Godfrey, with divine help (a reflection of Tasso’s authoritarian convictions), the allegory is clear. The woods where Tancred and Erminia are lost and the Enchanted Forest produced by the evil Ismeno, protected by demons and exorcised by Rinaldo, are symbols of intellectual error and confusion. The wanderings of the characters and the circuitous reasons of Ismeno reinforce this meaning. Significantly, many episodes take place at night or in darkness. Tancred represents incontinent love, like the historical Tancred that was Tasso’s source. He pursues wrong love—Erminia in Clorinda’s armor. His wanderings represent false goals.

The Crusade is essentially a war between Good, watched over and aided by God, and Evil, watched over and aided by Satan. The providence of God is displayed by his periodic interventions: He brings about Godfrey’s selection as commander of the Christian forces and sends Michael to him with instructions for beginning the Crusade. Periodically He sends one of the angels to advise and even to help in repelling the demons. His agent, Peter the Hermit, plays a key role, too, in inspiring and counseling the Christians. On the other side, Satan sends his demons to aid the pagan army and employs the services of the magician Ismeno and the enchantress Armida to confuse the Christians.

Regeneration and redemption by the miracle of grace are significant themes. Much of the first half of the epic dwells on the disintegration of the Christian forces, their revitalization beginning with the assumption of command by Godfrey. Subsequently the Christians make their arduous passage through dangers, fears, and seductions on their way to victory. Individuals are redeemed. Clorinda, born of Christian parents but a zealous pagan, on dying learns of her Christian roots and is baptized a Christian. Rinaldo, after seduction by Armida, awakens anew to the crusading vision. Even the pagan seductress, Armida, released from her hatred and finding a higher love, is converted and baptized.

Jerusalem Delivered is generally recognized as one of the best Christian epics, and Tasso is generally recognized as the greatest Italian poet of the late Renaissance. The poem is testimony to Tasso’s goals, as a part of the Counter-Reformation, of expressing his religious ideas and, as a poet, of composing a poem in the epic form. His reformed idea of Christian heroism is colored by his love of passionate personalities and a pleasure in varied and vivid action—combining seriousness and love of life.

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