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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2080

Article abstract: Tasso—considered to be one of the greatest Italian poets—reflects the crisis of his age, and his writings seek to reconcile classical ideals with the renewed religious fervor arising from the Counter-Reformation. In this attempt to synthesize the vision of perfection and human dignity of the classics with Christian...

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Article abstract: Tasso—considered to be one of the greatest Italian poets—reflects the crisis of his age, and his writings seek to reconcile classical ideals with the renewed religious fervor arising from the Counter-Reformation. In this attempt to synthesize the vision of perfection and human dignity of the classics with Christian spiritual values lies the significance of his major works.

Early Life

Torquato Tasso was born in the coastal village of Sorrento, just south of Naples. His mother came from a noble Neapolitan family, while his father, originally from the northern town of Bergamo, was a diplomat and an accomplished man of letters who wrote a well-known chivalric poem entitled Amadigi in 1560. Although Tasso’s first years were spent in the serene and idyllic atmosphere of the Mediterranean Sea, they were soon disturbed by a sudden and unexpected turbulence: His father, caught in the political misfortunes of his protector, the Prince of Salerno, was forced into exile, and all of his goods were confiscated. At the age of ten, Tasso was taken from the Jesuit school in Naples, where for two years he had studied Latin and Greek and had received a thorough religious training, and sent to Rome to be with his father. Thus began the agitated and roaming existence that was to mark his entire life, first by necessity and later as a tormented vocation. This abrupt separation from his mother, whom he was never to see again (she died prematurely a year later in 1556), left in the young Tasso an indelible impression that was to influence his lyrical production and reinforce his pessimistic view of the human condition. In 1557, he was at the court of Urbino; his father had just entered in the service of the duke, who was aware of Torquato’s penchant for poetry and wanted the precocious young man to be a study companion to his own son. It was at Urbino that Torquato first came into contact with the splendid yet treacherous courtly environment that was to influence his life and writings deeply. At the age of fifteen, he relocated to Venice, and it was there, where the presence of the Turks was most felt and feared, that he began a rough draft of his famous epic poem on the First Crusade. The next five years were spent studying at the University of Padua, first law, according to his father’s wishes, and then his own chosen fields of philosophy and letters. There, he met and frequented one of the most celebrated literary figures of the Renaissance, Sperone Speroni, and other famous scholars who stirred in him the ardent desire for lyrical expression.

At Padua, Tasso joined the Accademia degli Eterei and in 1562 published a chivalric poem in octaves, Rinaldo (English translation, 1792). This is a significant work in that it contains many of the themes that were to characterize his later production: the thirst for glory, adventure, and love and the yearning for chivalric ideals. It was during this time that Tasso’s first doubts on religious matters surfaced—a lifelong spiritual struggle that would culminate in his later years in a complete revision of his famous epic, using orthodox religious teachings, and a dedication of the final years of his life to religious didactic works. Finally, it was at Padua that his love for Lucrezia Bendidio blossomed, and it was to her that many of his love poems would be dedicated.

Life’s Work

In 1565, Tasso entered the service of Cardinal Luigi d’Este at the court of Ferrara and began the happiest and most fruitful period of his career; for the next ten years, he lived the ideal life of the man of letters for which he had longed. In 1567, he was given a literary stipend by Duke Alfonso II, and in this serene and refined courtly environment he was able to cultivate his genius and produce his most important works. Ferrara had been the home of the famous Renaissance poet, Ludovico Ariosto, and this for Tasso was both a source of inspiration and a spur to competition. Although the court of Ferrara was flourishing only in appearance and in reality was following Italy toward its political downfall, Tasso saw in its pomp and false grandeur the last vestiges of the ideals of the Renaissance, and he felt compelled to sing its praises.

Even though he composed many of his most beautiful poems during this period, dedicated to the ladies of the court, it was with the Aminta (1573; English translation, 1591) that Tasso established his reputation as a poet and playwright. This pastoral drama in five acts was first represented in the presence of Alfonso II on the island of Belvedere, the lovely summer residence of the Estensi, and was an immediate success. In his depiction of the world of the classical shepherd-poets, so rich in literary tradition, Tasso projected his ideals of a genteel and serene existence devoid in its primordial innocence of the sense of evil and sin. It also becomes for the poet an allegory of courtly life seen as a point of encounter for poets, sensitive souls, and fervent lovers. Although there are elements of tragedy in Aminta, all negativism is dissolved in the atmosphere of myth in which the drama evolves, and Tasso arrives at a perfect Renaissance unity of tone, rhythm, and style.

Only two years later, Tasso completed his most famous work and the one that established his poetic immortality, Gerusalemme liberata (1581; Jerusalem Delivered, 1600). The poem is divided into twenty cantos, in octaves, and follows the traditional hendecasyllabic scheme. While the subject matter is the historical conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade and therefore conforms to the rules of the epic, which Tasso had intended to follow as he states in Discorsi del poema eroico (1594; Discourses on the Heroic Poem, 1973), within the narration there are numerous secondary episodes that betray the poet’s ambivalent feelings. It is in Jerusalem Delivered that the crisis of the Counter-Reformation is most strongly reflected. It is clear, especially in the love stories of Erminia, Clorinda, and Tancredi, that Tasso tries to recuperate the ideals of the Renaissance. Yet in the depiction of the struggle between good and evil, in the veiled sensuality and the sense of guilt found in the description of the garden of Armida, and in the tragic deaths of Solimano and Clorinda, a melancholy and pessimistic mood becomes apparent that reflects the crisis of the Baroque era.

Technically, Jerusalem Delivered tries to solve the debate concerning the relative merits of the chivalric and epic traditions. To the multiform variety of Ludovico Ariosto’s chivalric poem, Tasso opposes the Aristotelian unity of action, and to the use of classical mythology he opposes the Christian supernatural. Yet the true value of the work lies in its depiction of the human condition; the main characters appear to be victims of a cruel fate that places them in utter solitude and renders them incapable of appeasing their desires. Even the surroundings are arid and desolate and seem to symbolize mankind’s frailty and impotence.

This sense of tragic isolation was also felt in Tasso’s personal experiences. Immediately after the completion of the epic, Tasso was haunted by religious scruples and personal self-doubt. On a literary plane, he revised the work along orthodox lines, culminating in the appearance of Gerusalemme conquistata (1593; Jerusalem Conquered, 1907), and he dedicated the rest of his life to religious writings such as Le sette giornate del mondo creato (1607; Creation of the World, 1982), in which he was able to meditate on Christian mysteries. On a personal level, he began a life of roaming marked by bizarre behavior and psychic disequilibrium. Torn by religious doubts (on more than one occasion he asked to be examined by the Inquisition) and haunted by a sense of persecution, he traveled throughout Italy only to return to Ferrara in 1579 on the occasion of the duke’s marriage. Believing that he was slighted since little note was taken of his return, Tasso provoked a scandal by criticizing the duke, was declared mad, and was incarcerated in Sant’ Anna.

After seven years of incarceration (much has been written concerning his presumed madness during this period), Tasso was freed through the intercession of the Prince of Mantua, but he could not find peace and continued to wander throughout Italy until his death on April 25, 1595.

Summary

Torquato Tasso is a prime example of the man of genius caught up in a period of transition, of change and upheaval. His major works reflect the conflict of the age of the Counter-Reformation and betray a nostalgic homage to the splendid literary revival of the Renaissance. Critics disagree as to whether Tasso was the last major poet of the Renaissance or the first great poet of the Baroque. Many consider him to be a transitional figure between the two periods, and indeed characteristic elements of both can be found in his writings. There is no disagreement, however, that Tasso belongs on the list of the world’s greatest poets—from John Milton to Voltaire, from George Gordon, Lord Byron to T. S. Eliot, the poetry of Tasso has been praised and imitated, contemplated and enjoyed.

The melancholy and pessimistic mood that pervades much of his literary production can be attributed to the rapid changes that were taking place during his lifetime in the areas of religion, science, and politics. Amid such changes, Tasso attempted to reconcile the classical ideals that he cherished with contemporary reality. It is not surprising, therefore, that he was a favorite of the Romantic poets and still has much to offer to the contemporary reader.

Bibliography

Boulting, William. Tasso and His Times. London: Methuen, 1907. The classic biography of Tasso. Details the life of the author from both a factual and, at times, romantic point of view, with little critical analysis of his works. Although later scholarship has rejected its romanticized view of Tasso’s life, Boulting’s book is still fascinating reading and offers valuable insights into the author’s age and the courtly environment that influenced his writings. Includes illustrations.

Brand, C. P. Torquato Tasso. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965. The standard English biographical and critical work on Tasso. Discusses the author’s use of historical sources, gives a detailed account of his life, and analyzes his major works. Includes an interesting essay on the legend of Tasso’s life and presumed madness, and ends with a lengthy chapter on the poet’s contribution to English literature. Bibliographic references are included in the notes.

Cody, Richard. The Landscape of the Mind. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1969. The first half of the book discusses the pastoral and Platonic theories in Tasso’s Aminta. Also studies the play from the point of view of theater and makes references to it in the second half, where William Shakespeare’s early comedies are analyzed.

Giamatti, A. Bartlett. The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Contains an interesting chapter on Armida’s garden, with references to classical antecedents. Argues that Jerusalem Delivered was one of the most concentrated efforts of the sixteenth century to incorporate classical and chivalric materials into a Christian view of the world.

Greene, Thomas. The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963. Presents a concise introduction to the epic from Homer to Vergil to Ludovico Ariosto’s failed attempt. Proposes that Tasso does not produce a true epic since Jerusalem Delivered is too close to the romance tradition and much of the tragic potential is subordinated to the calls of the Counter-Reformation. Work includes a thorough bibliography.

Kates, Judith A. Tasso and Milton: The Problem of Christian Epic. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1983. Following a discussion of the critical content of Jerusalem Delivered, this work analyzes Discorsi dell’ arte poetica (1587), which is seen as a primer for the epic poem. The central chapter discusses Jerusalem Delivered in terms of the classical heroic and the modern romance. Concludes with Tasso’s influence on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and a lengthy bibliography.

Saez, Richard. Theodicy in Baroque Literature. New York: Garland, 1985. Places Tasso’s work within a Baroque framework and uses religion as a critical guide. Of major importance is the bibliography that follows.

Tasso, Torquato. Jerusalem Delivered. Translated and edited by Ralph Nash. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987. Easily the most readable translation in prose of Gerusalemme liberata. Includes a very useful glossary of names and places and an index of characters.

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