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 sister Cornelia had narrowly escaped capture by the crews of Turkish galleys that raided Sorrento, Tasso’s birthplace. In 1571 a fleet manned mainly by Italians and Spaniards (Cervantes among them) defeated and destroyed a large Turkish fleet at Lepanto, off the western coast of Greece. But the Turkish advance by land continued until the failure of their second attempt to capture Vienna in 1683 marked the turning of the tide.

Tasso’s nostalgic evocation of a united Christian West victorious over the infidel was in effect a call for a renewal of that unity and a victorious campaign against the Turks. But it is not the only evocation of a contemporary theme; there is also a prophetic vision of things to come. In the course of Tasso’s intricately complicated story the Christian hero Rinaldo, the most recklessly courageous of the heroic array, is enchanted by the Muslim sorceress Armida, who falls in love with him and takes him off to her magical island far off in the Atlantic, where she keeps him happily content in her arms. But the Crusaders send two knights to find him and bring him back to the battle line. They are given a boat by a mysterious old man known only as the Wise Man of Ascalon. At its helm is Fortune, a female emissary of Heaven. Far out in the Atlantic one of the envoys, Ubaldo, asks Fortune about the lands they are sailing to and is told of “lands…as rich and fertile as your own,/ready to bring forth crops….” But the man who will discover them is not yet born:

Liguria will produce this man so brave
to take the unknown trek for the first time,
no matter that the seas roar, the winds rave,
no matter the uncertain, changing clime,
no matter all things perilous and grave—
whatever dangers men consider prime—
nothing could keep that generous heart once gone
through the forbidden straits from sailing on.
Columbus, in a new, far hemisphere
you spread your happy banners to the skies!

These lines are cited from the translation of Anthony M. Esolen, who in 1995 published an excellent translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a poem that faces the translator with a formidable problem. Much of it is an exposition of the atomic theory that is the foundation of the philosophy of Epicurus, and the translator has to create a diction that will equal Lucretius’ great achievement—the presentation of a long scientific-philosophical argument that lives and breathes as poetry. On the other hand, it does not face the translator with the problem of rhyme. Which Tasso’s epic does, and in spades. Its ottava rima is even more daunting for the English-speaking translator than Dante’s terza rima and that may be the reason why up to now the standard English version of Tasso has remained that of Edward Fairfax (1600) in spite of its omissions, additions, and distortions.


The stanza about Columbus quoted above reproduces Tasso’s rhyme scheme to perfection. But such perfection, given the relative scarcity of rhyme in English when compared to Italian, could be maintained over the course of over 1,900 eight-line stanzas only by resort to “flagrant archaisms” and “syntactic gyrations.” These formulations are Esolen’s, who rightly rejects such expedients but thinks it “crucial that the eight-line stanza be preserved, for on it the very structure of Tasso’s imagery and rhetoric and narrative depends.” He offers a compromise. “The concluding couplet, so often used for terse summary or sudden reversal or aphoristic climax, must be preserved, and in full rhyme as often as possible.” For the preceding six lines he aims to rhyme “on the even lines at least,” producing a rhyme scheme XAXAXABB. He has also attempted to rhyme the odd lines too, “often with slant or consonantal rhymes,” which he sometimes uses for the even lines as well, “but often with full rhymes. The result is that anywhere from five to eight lines will rhyme….” The result is also a triumph, a translation in limpid, idiomatic English that preserves the charm of Tasso’s rhymes and the headlong speed of his narrative.

And what a tale it is! It maneu-vers deftly between two basic themes. One is the deeply serious matter of the Crusade and in particular Godfrey’s problems as commander of a heterogeneous collection of volunteers—French, German, Dutch, Flemish, English, Irish, Italian, Swiss, and even a small squadron of Greeks—an array of real (and wildly independent) heroes, unlike the mythic characters of Ariosto, as Tasso takes pains to point out:

Silence, you Argonauts, silence, you wandering knights
of Arthur’s table—whose tales contain no dearth
of empty dreams! Beside the glory of these
let every memory of old champions cease.

The other theme is the tangled love affairs of three women—Erminia, Clorinda, and Armida, all on the Muslim side—and two Christian champions, Tancred and Rinaldo. Erminia, princess of Antioch, falls in love with Tancred, when, after his capture of her city, he treats her respectfully and allows her to go free, with all her jewels, to Jerusalem. There she watches the battle from the walls and, when she sees him wounded, puts on the armor of her friend Clorinda, the maiden warrior, so that she can get out of the city and use her knowledge of medicinal herbs and spells to heal him. But she is attacked by Christian warriors and runs away. Eventually, after long wanderings, she finds a home as one of the ladies of the court of Armida, where she hears of a conspiracy against the lives of Tancred and Godfrey. Accompanied by Vafrine, Tancred’s servant, who is a spy at Armida’s court, she goes to the Christian camp and reveals the plot. Later, seeing Tancred lying badly wounded, she heals him and is given a house next to his in captured Jerusalem.

Even more wildly improbable is the story of Clorinda, one of the fiercest and bravest of the Muslim warriors—she kills Gardo, Ardelio, Rudolph, and many unnamed Christians in close combat and with her arrows she wounds Prince William, Robert, and Godfrey, and kills Stephen, Clothar, Ademar, and Palamedes. Shortly before her death at the hands of Tancred she is told by her loyal servant that she is the daughter of the Christian King and Queen of Abyssinia. During her pregnancy her mother prayed daily looking at a picture of St. George rescuing a maiden from a dragon; as a result the child was born white. Afraid of her husband’s reaction, the Queen sent a trusted servant off to Egypt with the baby and presented the King with a substitute black child. So Clorinda was raised in the Muslim faith and joined the defenders of Jerusalem.


One day Tancred happened to see her when she had taken her helmet off to drink from a stream; he fell instantly and deeply in love with her. Much later they met in combat and when his lance knocked her helmet off he threw down his arms and declared his love for her. Before she could reply they were separated in the chaos of battle. Sometime later they fought again and this time Tancred, who had not realized whom he was facing, dealt her a mortal wound. Once he recognized her he went to the stream for water to baptize her and as he did so she died and her soul went straight to heaven. Later, as Tancred, in despair, wished for death she appeared to him in a dream “in raiment of the stars,” declared her love, and told him she waited for him to join her in heaven.

Lastly, there is Armida, who raged against Rinaldo when he abandoned her and, seeking vengeance, returned home. In the final battle outside Jerusalem she is stationed at the center of the Muslim line, in command of a squadron of knights all sworn to kill Rinaldo. They all fall to his sword and she aims an arrow at him but suddenly prays that it will miss: she is torn by love and hate. As her troops are scattered she deserts the field and stops in a wood, where she takes off her armor and, still torn by conflicting passions, decides to kill herself. But Rinaldo has followed her and though she expects the worst, he offers to take her back to her kinsmen, but hopes she will convert to the true faith, in which case he will make her a queen. She submits to him, and to his declaration—“I am your servant, and your champion”—she replies,

I am your handmaid. What you think best, do,

and let my law be but a sign from you.
As Esolen points out in one of his invaluable notes, she is “merely repeating the words of the dying Clorinda, who echoes Mary’s words to the angel Gabriel.” (Luke 1:39. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.”) He adds: “At this point, I believe, Armida determines to become Christian.”

These labyrinthine fantastic subplots might well be thought out of place in an epic which celebrated a Christian army’s rescue from infidel hands of the site of its divine prophet’s death and glorious resurrection. Many critics did indeed attack the poem for what they considered frivolity, and Tasso in his final years of madness and poverty gave way to them and produced a second version—Gerusalemme conquistata—which omitted the offending episodes. But posterity ignored the critics and the second version is now just a literary curiosity. For though these bizarre love affairs seem to verge on the incredible, Tasso presents them in such psychological depth and insight—Esolen calls it “a stunning proto-Freudian analysis of human drives”—that the reader accepts their reality. Here, for example, is Armida’s address to her bow and arrow and her armor which she has just taken off in the wood where later Tancred will find her and prevent her from killing herself:

I forgive you the cowardice you’ve shown—
prove your strength and your sharpness now on me.
And so I hope for health from you alone.
Alas, my fortune and my misery!
Since only wounds will heal me of these wounds
for I can find no other remedy,
let the wound of love take the arrow’s wounding art,
and let death be the physic to my heart.
How happy I would be if when I die
I do not bear my illness too to hell!
Love, remain here; let Hate alone come with me,
perpetual companion for my soul.
Or return from the kingdom of the blind
to the ruthless man who scorned me, and expel
tranquility with horrifying sights,
shattering the repose of all his nights.

But Tasso’s principal theme is the furious battles that preceded the fall of the city. In his account of them Tasso does not vilify or even disparage the Muslim enemy. Aladine, the king of Jerusalem, is given his due as a brave and skillful commander and Argante, the fiercest warrior in the Muslim ranks, is given praise for his great courage in spite of his cruelty. Tasso even has the magician Ismen prophesy the eventual fall of the Latin kingdom and the recapture of Jerusalem by Saladin, which happened in 1187:

…not only will he shake the Christian host,

but in the final contest he will snatch
all of those lands they rule unrighteously,
leaving them but a narrow little patch,
a town or two defended by the sea.
On the Christian side Tasso’s focus is on the leader of the Crusade, Godfrey de Bouillon, who has to control a motley and unruly crew of warriors under their own commanders from all over Western Europe. At one point Peter the Hermit tells them what is wrong with them and what is to be done:

From what I gather of all your rivalry,

the taunts you hurl and suffer, purposes crossed,
your mulish holding back and sluggish help
and botching operations in mid-course,
the rise of every conflict and delay
I trace to one originating source:
authority balanced out among so many
that no one properly possesses any.
The remedy is simple:

Oh, make one body of members in accord,

one head, to give direction and restraint;
the power and scepter, then, to one man bring—
and let him be acknowledged as a king.

That “king” is Godfrey, who is, in perspective, the real hero of the epic. In his “Allegory of the Poem” (which Esolen includes in the volume) Tasso explains that “the army, composed of various Princes and Christian soldiers, signifies the virile man, composed of body and soul…. Godfrey…stands in the place of the intellect….” And Esolen, in his brilliant introduction, sees Godfrey, the leader elected by his peers and acclaimed by the troops, as the “king” who by his faith, diplomatic tact, force of will, and eloquence manages to “coordinate an army full of headstrong, sinful, wayward men and lead them to the recovery of the Holy Land, which is but a symbol for the attainment of the Heavenly Jerusalem itself.” As in the case of the death of Clorinda and the submission of Armida, Tasso’s deep understanding of human motives and dilemmas is inseparable from the devout Christian belief which informs every canto of his poem.

Godfrey captures the holy city at last and in the closing lines of the poem goes to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

He hangs his arms here; with devoted brow
adores the great tomb, and fulfills his vow.

But not until his crusaders have had their way with the conquered:

The town was now one general massacre,
heaps and mountains of corpses. Here were spread
the wounded over the lifeless men, and there
the sick were buried beneath unburied dead…

But as night falls, Godfrey calls for an end to the slaughter:

We have seen too much eagerness for plunder,
for slaughter—ah, far more, more than sufficed.
I ban more rapine and more cruelty.
Let the call of trumpets sound forth my decree.

If this decree was ever issued (and Tasso’s poem seems to be the only evidence for it), it was not obeyed. According to Steven Runciman’s classic History of the Crusades Volume I, the Crusaders,

maddened by so great a vic-tory after such suffering, rushed through the streets and into the houses and mosques killing all that they met, men, women and children alike…. The Jews of Jerusalem fled in a body to their chief synagogue. But they were believed to have aided the Moslems; and no mercy was shown to them. The building was set on fire and they were all burnt within…the massacre…emptied Jerusalem of its Moslem and Jewish inhabitants.
In his notes Esolen points out Tasso’s distortion of history in staging the battle with the Egyptian army immediately after the fall of Jerusalem instead of several months later; he does not, however, comment on Tasso’s account of Godfrey’s decree. But this is a minor lapse; his fifty pages of notes more than live up to the intention he announces: “to assist the reader encountering Tasso or Renaissance epic for the first time and to divulge the reasoning behind some of the choices I have made in the translation.” His notes are full of fascinating comment and helpful information. Any reader, for example, who wonders how on earth Tasso came up with the idea that a black queen could bear a white child just because she prayed in front of a painting of a white saint rescuing a white maiden from a dragon will find out from the notes that he was following the lead of Heliodorus, a Greek novelist of the third century CE, who in his Aethiopica tells how the Queen of Abyssinia, while coupling with her husband, happened to look at a picture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a dragon and eventually bore a white child.

In addition to the notes Esolen has provided a section called Cast of Characters, where they are listed with a summary of their careers, each item provided with exact reference to the text. If you have to interrupt your reading and can’t remember, when you take it up again, who Argante is or what Rinaldo has been up to lately, you can easily reorient yourself in the poem and proceed on your way. These notes, a thoughtful introduction, and above all a winning translation that catches the charms of Tasso’s verse should give Tasso the wide audience in the English-speaking world that he has so far never had, but richly deserves.

This Issue

May 17, 2001