Liberating a Masterpiece

Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata)

Torquato Tasso, edited and translated from the Italian by Anthony M. Esolen
Johns Hopkins University Press, 491 pp., $65.00; $22.50 (paper)

A first taste of Tasso’s great poem, completed in 1575, suggests that it is an exotic literary cocktail composed in Italian of equal portions of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Homer’s Iliad, with a generous splash of Virgil’s Aeneid and a soupçon of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Partly an epic of the exploits of Godfrey of Bouillon, commander of the First Crusade, it does in fact draw heavily on the Iliad and the Aeneid: Erminia, on the walls of Jerusalem, identifies the enemy commanders as Helen did for Priam at Troy, and Tasso’s opening line—Canto l’arme pietose e ‘l capitano (I sing the reverent armies and their chief)—is a clear echo of Virgil’s Arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and the man), while pietose reminds us of Virgil’s pius Aeneas, the model for Tasso’s hero Godfrey, who is frequently described as pio. Spenser’s sorceresses, enchanted islands, and wandering knights are borrowed from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, published in 1516, which was Tasso’s source for the same material, and Milton, for his council of Satan and the fallen angels, drew on Tasso’s fifth Canto, in which Beelzebub and the devils of Hell plan an attack on the Crusaders.

Tasso’s epic, like Ariosto’s, uses the ottava rima which had been the classic form for narrative poems since Boccaccio had so used it in the preceding century: it consists of eight-line stanzas rhymed according to the pattern ABABABCC. Both poems feature evil (but beautiful) sorceresses, enchanted islands, handsome female warriors in armor, and Muslim and Christian knights. And both contain elaborate flattery of the ruling member of the Este family, the Dukes of Ferrara, where both poets, at different times, resided for long periods.

But Tasso’s poem is more deeply serious than the Orlando Furioso (the adjective in this case means “insane”). In Tasso there is no trace of the gently ironic tone that often sounds in Ariosto’s accounts of love and battle, and nothing as fantastic as the ride of Astolfo on his winged horse to Abyssinia, where, guided by St. John, he rides the chariot of Elijah to the moon to recover the wits of Orlando, who lost them when his love, Angelica, went off with a young Moorish warrior to Cathay. And in place of Ariosto’s imaginary battle between the knights of Charlemagne and Muslim warriors at Paris, Tasso sets his story in the context of the First Crusade, which in 1099 ended with the capture of Jerusalem by an army drawn from the Christian kingdoms of Western Europe.

This choice of a historic base for his epic gave it a contemporary resonance. For in 1575, when Tasso circulated copies of the just composed poem among fellow writers and critics, this vision of a Western Christianity united and victorious was a reproachful reminder of past greatness for nations now split into hostile Catholic and Protestant states, while the Muslim Turks moved steadily westward. They had occupied Greece and the Balkans, and their war galleys threatened Italian waters—in fact in 1558 Tasso’s married…

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