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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

heroic tasso’s love tasso

Tasso’s work reflects in varying ways the two dominant elements of his artistic personality: intense, emotional sensuousness, on one hand, and equally intense moral and intellectual seriousness; on the other. The second of these elements has sometimes been neglected or underestimated, but his distinctive achievement cannot be grasped without due attention to both. In his greatest work, sensuousness, moral earnestness, and intellect combine in remarkable and interesting ways, often full of tension. On one hand, Tasso’s art is informed by an impulse to impose coherence and order on the world; on the other hand, his overall vision is never simple. Subtle irony often colors the earnestness and melancholy that are his characteristic tones.

Public opinion since the sixteenth century has been right in judging Jerusalem Delivered to be Tasso’s masterpiece. It is the work that gives fullest scope to his talent. In contrast—and in spite of what was apparently Tasso’s own view— Jerusalem Conquered is a diminished thing. Love and war are Jerusalem Delivered ‘s great themes, and the poem presents as rich and complex an account of both as Tasso deemed consistent with epic dignity. In practice, this meant greatly expanding the range of his classical models, Homer and Virgil, while eliminating the grotesque, comic, and supposedly morally dubious elements of his sixteenth-century rival Ariosto and subjecting everything to the test of a higher, specifically Christian vision. So for Rinaldo, the poem’s Achilles, love is not merely a brief prelude to heroic wrath but an extended escape from heroic virtue in the erotic paradise of the beautiful witch Armida, which is as beautifully and seductively described as any paradise in Ariosto. At the same time, Tasso firmly rejects the moral uncertainty that pervades the Orlando Furioso . Beautiful though it is, Armida’s garden is evil because it distracts Rinaldo from heroic duty, specifically the heroic duty of Christian warfare, which is a higher thing than merely human desire. Thus, the Christian hero Tancredi can never consummate his love for the pagan heroine Clorinda. Rather, he must kill her (albeit unwittingly) in heroic combat and baptize her as she dies.

Jerusalem Delivered celebrates a Crusade, and its battle scenes include some of Tasso’s finest writing. He is especially good at combining violent action with delicate psychological analysis. The combat between Tancredi and Clorinda with its profound mixture of eroticism, wrath, violence, and religion is famous, but there are many other heroic passages of comparable subtlety and force. The view expressed by some critics that Tasso’s heart is not in the specifically heroic action is simplistic. Like Virgil, Tasso expresses the melancholy of warfare, but his celebration of Christian heroism, while certainly complex, is also sincere and poetically convincing. The last three cantos, describing the final battle for Jerusalem, are among the most exciting and successful in the genre.

Tasso composed Jerusalem Delivered —all twenty books—in the ottava rima stanzas prescribed by tradition for the sixteenth-century Italian heroic poem. In the Aminta , written in the early 1570s while he was working on his epic, he employed a much freer verse to celebrate the freer love of the fictive, pastoral world or the golden age—a pure, creative force of nature untrammeled by heroic duty or any other civilized constraints. That this love is as impossible as it is beautiful Tasso makes clear through the irony that throughout the poem balances the lyric enthusiasm. Against the young lovers, Aminta and Silvia, Tasso plays off the older Tirsi and Dafne, who remind us of the real world and the fact that young love provides at best a fleeting refuge from its sorrows.

Combining the fatalism of classical tragedy with the elaborate plot of a medieval romance, Il Re Torrismondo , which Tasso began in the 1570s but did not complete until after his release from Sant’ Anna, offers a vision of love unre-deemed by either pastoral imagination or higher Christian vision. Torrismondo and Alvida’s incestuous love is an emblem of stark human misery, of a destructive fate that the lovers cannot understand and cannot resist. Although the play has never been popular, it contains some powerful poetry and, taken as a whole, constitutes a compellingly grim vision of a world with no exits, a world devoid of religious or heroic consolation.

By comparison with Jerusalem Delivered, Aminta , or Torrismondo , Tasso’s lyrics may seem slight and artificial. With the exception of a few short autobiographical and religious poems, the lyrics ring the changes on the well-worn erotic themes of the Renaissance, offering little of substance that is original.   What makes them stand out from the mass of sonnets, madrigals, and other rime of the period is the consummate skill of their versification—especially their much admired verbal inventiveness and their musicality, qualities that have made them inspirations to composers looking for texts to turn into song and also to poets not only in Italy but throughout Europe.

The most ambitious poem of Tasso’s final years, The Seven Days of the Created World , is a long meditation on God’s creation in both its pristine and its fallen states, on nature, man, and God, and on God’s ways to man and man’s need for grace. Designed as a kind of summa theologica organizing Tasso’s vast learning into a complex demonstration of piety, the poem impresses but fails to come to life except now and then in isolated passages of fanciful learning or religious feeling. The central themes of his great poetry—love and war—are absent, and the results seem more an intellectual exercise than an expression of his deepest imaginative impulses.

The works in which Tasso displays his strictly philosophical interests most impressively are his treatises on poetic theory and his dialogues. In the former— the Discourses on the Poetic Art , printed in 1587 but written much earlier, and the Discourses on the Heroic Poem , probably begun in the late 1580s and published in 1594—Tasso works out a theory of poetry that is both interesting in itself and a helpful guide to his own practice. The later treatise is essentially an expansion of the earlier, ampler in argument and illustration but also more qualified and more cautious, more questioning, evidence of his restless taste for philosophy in the root sense: pursuit of truth. The same questioning spirit informs the twenty-six dialogues, most of which were written in the sixteen years from his incarceration in Sant’ Anna (1579) to his death (1595). On a wide variety of subjects—beauty, the court, fathers, emblems—they give broader scope than any of Tasso’s other works to his capacity for intellectual play, humor, and irony.

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