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Tasso, Torquato (1544–1595) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

jerusalem delivered tasso’s poem

Torquato Tasso, whose life was as troubled as it was glorious, was born in Sorrento in 1544. His father, Bernardo, an important poet in his own right, was secretary to the prince of Salerno, a great baron and leader of the opposition to Spanish rule in the kingdom of Naples. When Salerno was exiled in 1551, Bernardo followed, taking his son with him, but his patron’s star was in decline, and Bernardo soon had to look elsewhere for support—first in Rome, then in Urbino, Venice, and finally in Mantua. The young Tasso went with him, acquiring an excellent education as well as the high literary and intellectual ambitions that were still fostered in those brilliant centers of Renaissance culture.

By 1560, when Tasso entered the University of Padua, he had already begun work on an epic about the first Crusade—a project that was ultimately to produce his masterpiece, Jerusalem Delivered —and in 1562 he published his first major poem: a chivalric romance, Rinaldo , which established him at the age of eighteen as a poet of promise. At Padua, Tasso first studied law, then changed to philosophy, a discipline for which he developed a taste that lasted the rest of his life, and it was probably at Padua that he wrote the Discourses on the Art of Poetry , his first effort to develop a coherent theory of literature, although the work was not published until 1587.

In 1565, Tasso left Padua without a degree and went to Ferrara to join the household of Cardinal Luigi d’Este, brother of Duke Alfonso. He had no regular duties except to bring honor to the Este by writing, and he did so copiously, producing numerous lyrics, orations for special occasions, a pastoral drama entitled Aminta , a prose account of a trip to France, the first two acts of a tragedy, and so forth. In 1575, moreover, he completed his great project, the Jerusalem Delivered , which was eagerly awaited by a large audience throughout Italy, especially by Duke Alfonso, whose service he had entered in 1572 and whose family the poem celebrated. Before he would publish, however, Tasso insisted on having the poem reviewed by five eminent critics, whose opinion he wanted not only about the poem’s literary qualities but also about its theological and political orthodoxy.

It was a backbiting and hypercritical age, its tensions exacerbated by currents of severe piety promoted by the Counter Reformation, and the critics provided little reassurance. Tasso soon found himself embroiled in exhausting debates over a multitude of details. He responded to the criticisms in long and carefully argued letters, agreeing to some changes but resisting others, and he produced a prose “Allegory” to be published with the poem emphasizing its edifying and orthodox purposes; but the debates continued, and in the end, Tasso seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown. The facts remain obscure. What we know or can reasonably surmise is that he grew quarrelsome and suspicious at court, on one occasion even coming to blows, that he sought to prevent or counter his enemies’ accusations by going to the Inquisition of his own accord to confess, and that in 1577 he tried to stab a servant whom he suspected of spying on him (an episode that gave rise to the legend, celebrated in Goethe’s Tasso , of his love affair with Alfonso’s sister, Lucrezia).

Diagnosed as suffering from melancholy after this last episode, Tasso was placed under guard, and although he managed to escape from Ferrara during the summer of 1577, he left the precious manuscript of Jerusalem Delivered behind. He spent the next two years wandering from one refuge to another, seeking in vain the return of his poem. In 1579 he visited Ferrara, hoping for a reconciliation with Alfonso, but the duke was preoccupied with the festivities surrounding his marriage to Margherita Gonzaga, and Tasso went neglected. Moreover, the manuscript was not forthcoming, and Tasso’s morbid fears and anger overwhelmed him. He burst out in denunciations of Alfonso in the palace itself and had to be removed by force. Taken to the nearby hospital of Sant’Anna, he was chained as a madman. Although the chains were soon removed, his imprisonment lasted seven years.

The extraordinary length of this imprisonment has never been satisfactorily explained. Tasso continued to suffer periods of emotional instability in Sant’Anna, but the testimony of his many visitors and the evidence of his literary activity indicate that he was no mere madman. Perhaps the old notion that Alfonso was motivated by some hidden fear or animosity is true; given the current state of our knowledge, it is impossible to say. In any case, from prison Tasso conducted a voluminous and learned correspondence on many subjects; he returned to revising the Jerusalem Delivered , which was restored to him and which he finally agreed to publish, together with the “Allegory,” in 1581; he continued to write prolifically in shorter, lyric forms; he contributed two seriously argued pamphlets to the great literary quarrel of the mid-1580s over the relative merits of his own epic and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso ; and he produced eighteen dialogues, many of them lengthy and complex, as well as a Discourse on the Art of the Dialogue . At last, in 1586, for reasons that remain as mysterious as the reasons for holding him, Alfonso released him into the custody of Vincenzo Gonzaga, heir apparent to the duchy of Mantua.

Tasso’s last years were ones of continued productivity and restless wandering. Mantua, Florence, Rome, and Naples were the centers to which he gravitated without ever stopping for long. He finished the tragedy Il Re Torrismondo (King Torrismondo), which he had begun before his imprisonment in Ferarra, and composed a major new religious poem, The Seven Days of the Created World , as well as other works in verse and prose, more dialogues, and another theoretical treatise, the Discourses on the Heroic Poem . His major project, however, was a revision of the Jerusalem Delivered along lines that would make it more consistent with Tridentine theology, with history and geography, and with the epic practice of Homer and Virgil. The result, published in 1593 with a new title, Jerusalem Conquered , and dedicated to a new patron, Cinzio Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII, has never supplanted the earlier version in critical favor or in popularity. In 1595, Tasso died in the Monastery of Sant’ Onofrio in Rome.


As early as the 1570s, as Rinaldo, Aminta , the early lyrics, and parts of Jerusalem Delivered circulating in manuscript become known, Tasso was recognized, not only in Italy but throughout Europe, as one of the foremost poets of the age. In the 1580s a fierce debate arose in Italy over the respective merits of Tasso’s epic and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso , the latter being praised for its inventiveness and variety, its liveliness, its innovation, its modernity, and the former for its clear and unified structure, its moral and religious seriousness, its respect for tradition, its conformity to ancient models.

Outside Italy, the debate was less important than its clear implication that Tasso had already, in his own lifetime, been elevated to the status of a classic. In England, recognition of this status was immediate. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth* committed passages of Jerusalem Delivered to memory and expressed envy for the Este because they had such a poet to glorify their dynasty. In Defense of Poetry , Sir Philip Sidney* makes use of Tasso’s Rinaldo to exemplify the way in which an epic poet teaches virtue. Tasso’s lyrics were well known and imitated by such poets as Edmund Spenser* and Samuel Daniel,* and Tasso is exalted to the company of Homer, Virgil, and Ariosto in the “Letter to Ralegh” that Spenser published with the first three books of The Faerie Queene in 1590. Richard Carew’s translation of the first five cantos of Jerusalem Delivered appeared in 1594. Edward Fairfax’s* complete version, a minor classic in its own right, appeared in 1600.

In the seventeenth century, the rise of neoclassicism, with its emphasis on rules and reason, produced a reaction against certain features of Jerusalem Delivered , for example, its use of the supernatural and its mingling of lyric and epic style. The poem’s general popularity, however, endured. Poets like Milton and Dryden expressed their admiration. Tasso’s fame, moreover, fortified in the late eighteenth century by romantic interest in him as a type of suffering genius, continued unshaken well into the nineteenth century.

Today, however, his reputation has diminished. Even in Italy, he is little read outside the universities, and there he has become primarily a subject for academic analysis, for erudite construction and deconstruction of various kinds, rather than a model of excellence and a source of inspiration. The ironic result is that while scholarship on him accumulates, serious interest in the things that he took seriously has been on the wane. His deepest theological, philosophical, moral, and artistic concerns—his celebration of Christian heroism, his subordination of eros to duty, the conservatism of his literary theory, and so on—are taken to be out-of-date. The modern and postmodern sensibility, with its skepticism and easy irony, finds Ariosto far more congenial than Tasso. In the late twentieth century, Tasso’s view of the world runs against the grain, and even scholars who have studied him deeply tend to shy away from serious engagement with his weltanshauung. This neglect is understandable, but unfortunate, because as we moderns and postmoderns imply when we proclaim our love of diversity, we are often most in need of the things we find least congenial. Perhaps it could be said that Tasso reminds the modern world of an “other” that it wishes to forget but knows it should not.

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about 6 years ago

In my book 'Queen Elizabeth her Bard and Hamlet', I provide the evidence that Torquato Tasso was the author of the works of Shakespeare that were translated by English writers the likes of Ben Jhonson and Kydd.

The book is in the process of printing and should be available at Amazon around Christmas.