No one would score many points in a game of Humiliation if they confessed they had not read Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata. As his translator John Hoole put it in 1763, ‘Of all Authors, so familiarly known by name to the generality of English readers as Tasso, perhaps there is none whose works have been so little read.’ Hoole did much to change that: his translation – staid, Drydenical, but always moving and sometimes a thing of beauty – was a blockbuster which went through ten editions. By the mid to late 19th century anyone in England who read, read Tasso. Scarcely a decade went by without either another edition of Hoole or a new verse translation. There were versions by parsons, librarians and retired sea captains; there were versions in blank verse, in couplets, in Spenserian stanzas. And then they dried up. Now the word is that Tasso is dull, that he is Ariosto in corsets, a slave to the Inquisition, a servile Neoclassicist, a beastly Papal imperialist swine, an obsessive madman who savaged the best bits of the liberata in order to make the tediously well regulated, sexless orthodoxy renamed Gerusalemme conquistata, and who recognised what was best in himself only for long enough to write it down and then cross it out.
There is some truth in some of this, but not much. Tasso’s poem is a Christian epic, and it is both Christian and epic in ways that make life particularly difficult for itself. It does not proceed on the assumption that worship of a Christian god means that fighting is no longer a suitable subject for a heroic poem, or that Christian epic heroes should display Milton’s ‘patience and heroic martyrdom’ rather than clouting each other. Nor does it mine the Bible for a fitting subject. Instead, Tasso set his poem during the First Crusade in 1099, when a Christian alliance led by Godfrey of Bouillon was attempting to take Jerusalem from a Muslim garrison. Tasso chose this as the ideal setting for a Christian epic because it belonged to the Christian era, but was at sufficient historical distance to permit him to embellish it with invented episodes. It also enabled him to write an epic which was simultaneously about fighting for God and about religious and political unity. The poem could in theory translate the imperial ambitions of Virgil’s Aeneid into an argument for Papal dominance in the Church, and draw on the martial heroism of Homer to add muscle to that idea of unity.
Only in theory. From the earliest stages of the extremely extended composition of the poem, there were fault-lines within it, which widened into cracks and gulfs as the project developed. Tasso probably began the first version in Venice in the late 1550s. His decision to set the poem during the siege of Jerusalem reflected the fear of an Ottoman invasion which was widespread in Italy before the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. This fear was given a personal edge in 1558 when a Turkish fleet landed in Sorrento, where Tasso was born and his sister lived. Resisting the threat from the East was one of the poem’s aims. But it had a number of other ambitions. While he was conceiving the Gerusalemme, Tasso was at work on a romance called Rinaldo (1562). He also read extensively in Neoclassical theory. This gave two additional – and incompatible – strands to his version of the epic. Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1532), Tasso’s main model of a romance, is principally about chivalrous heroes who do mad things because they are in love. At its climax Orlando goes mad with frustrated passion for the enchanting pagan Angelica, and the English knight Astolfo has to fly to the moon in order to bring back Orlando’s wits in a jar. This is gloriously irreconcilable with Aristotle’s insistence that fictions be verisimilar (or ‘the kinds of thing which could occur’). Butting together the free-wheeling I-can-do-anything-watch-me-while-I-fly-to-the-moon zeal of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso with a theory of unity which was both aesthetic (follow Aristotle) and politico-religious (serve the Pope) was enough to drive anyone mad. Throughout the composition of the liberata Tasso’s anxiety about whether he was pulling off this impossible project was reflected in his repeated requests to his friends to curb and censor what he had written, and in his own obsessive revisions.
Most of the liberata was composed in Ferrara between 1565 and 1575, under the patronage of Cardinal Luigi d’Este and his brother Alfonso, the Duke. In 1577, Tasso became convinced that his Ferrarese servants were conspiring against him. He drew a knife and attacked one of them, then fled the Ferrarese Court for two years. On his return he was enraged by what he saw as his patrons’ neglect of him, and by their refusal to give him access to his manuscripts. After a violent outburst he was incarcerated as a madman in the hospital of St Anna, where he remained until 1586. During his imprisonment he had religious dreams in the glorious technicolour of the Counter-Reformation: he heard the last trump summon him to hell, and had visions of the Virgin. He believed that he really was bound for hell as a result of his many, mostly imagined, heresies, but feared that the visions of the Virgin were only illusions brought on by his ‘infinite melancholy’. According to the engaging legends of Tasso’s madness, he was imprisoned because he was in love with Alfonso d’Este’s sister Leonora, and his patron had felt it would not do for his sister to be involved with a poet. This myth of Tasso as a genius imprisoned by malign political manoeuvrings led Byron to visit Tasso’s cell in 1817. His ‘Lament of Tasso’ presents a poet whose writing soared above the oppressive conspiracies to which he was subjected:
For I have battled with mine agony
And made me wings wherewith to overfly
The narrow circus of my dungeon wall,
And freed the Holy Sepulchre from thrall.
In fact, by the time Tasso was imprisoned most of the liberata had already been composed, and (as Byron almost certainly knew) Tasso was never in love with Leonora. But Byron’s poem built on the foundation of Goethe’s Torquato Tasso to make Tasso an imaginative freedom-fighter and the centre of a Romantic cult.
A new cult of Tasso – which I would happily found – would value him for the heroic way he wrestled with insoluble literary problems, and for the way those problems were registered in texts which were continually and anxiously revised. Tasso’s works sneaked into print during his imprisonment despite his obsessive sense that they needed still more castigation and refinement. In 1581 an authorised version of the liberata appeared (an edition in 1584 reproduced some of the many stanzas he had excised from earlier versions). In the later 1580s, moving between Naples, Mantua and Rome, Tasso revised the poem in response to criticisms – some real, some imagined – that it was too fantastical, too much in debt to Ariosto, too irreligious. The revised and renamed Gerusalemme conquistata emerged from these debates in 1593. The kindest thing that can be said about it is that it is the product of much effort and conscientious thought.
Tasso was probably mad; he was certainly a bad reviser. But he was not Ariosto in corsets. His response to writing a poem which really could not be written was to create scenes of visual and emotional perplexity which have no equal in Ariosto, and are probably without equal anywhere else. ‘Darkness visible’ is a phrase of Milton’s, but it was from Tasso that Milton learned the value of darkness and twilight as a setting in which to mingle pagan and Christian heroism. Milton’s hell, shadowed by ghosts of Achilles and Aeneas, would never have been created if he had not thought intensively about Tasso. For Tasso, darkness visible enables illicit fusions of pagan and Christian perspectives. In Canto 3 of the liberata the Christian forces march on Jerusalem. Tasso switches suddenly to the viewpoint of a pagan lookout at dawn, who sees the Christians as a glint through a dark cloud of dust (‘the cloud burned and glinted as if full/to bursting into newborn streaks of fire’). That moment, the shifting of perspective between pagan and Christian, the mingling of darkness and light, is purest Tasso. Night-time always shows him at his best. At night, the Christian warrior Tancred fights the pagan Clorinda, whom he loves, without recognising her. At night Erminia, who loves Tancred, ventures out from Jerusalem disguised as Clorinda. A flash of moonlight reveals her to the Christian forces. Twilight and moonlight are Tasso’s times.
The crepuscular is not just an excuse for chiaroscuro: it enables Tasso to explore fear, the kind that grows when the mind starts pulling in several directions at once, either because it desires things which it knows to be wrong, or because it sees things it knows not to be true but which it can’t help seeing. And in the middle of the poem is Tasso’s great place of darkling fear: the enchanted wood. The wood is creakily worked into the plot, and Voltaire for one thought it absurdly undignified that an epic hero should have to chop down trees. But the Christians need siege-engines, so Ismen the pagan enchanter fills the wood with demons to stop them cutting it down. Warrior after warrior is sent into the wood. Each sees a different horror, which undermines his passions and will, and makes him unfit for action. Tancred is sent to banish the demons of the wood shortly after he has killed the beautiful pagan Clorinda. He strikes at a cypress tree with his sword: it laments in the voice of Clorinda. He returns to the Christian commander Godfrey, and is unable to confess what he has seen. A blur, darkness, an incapacity not to love what one shouldn’t – these things run together in the enchanted wood.
And that makes it the core of Tasso’s poem, because the liberata is not just interested in twilight: it is drawn towards moments when oppositions blur and perceptions fail. A superficial aim of the poem, which is also the origin of the view that Tasso is a beastly imperialist, is to make firm distinctions between the Christian forces (who only kill people when they have to, and never threaten to tear out their enemies’ hearts or enslave them) and the violent and vengeful pagan forces (who are prone to stab corpses and to threaten to eviscerate or enslave their foes). This can issue in a crudish form of Orientalism, in which nasty pagan Others need to be invented and then killed in order to establish the dominance of Christianity. But this poem of twilight also likes to blend and double its two sides, making Christians and pagans fall in love with each other, and making pagan enchanters seem for a moment like angels, and making angels appear as sinister glowings in the dark. If the poem is flawed, it is because Tasso is himself too afraid of these moments of collapsing opposites to acknowledge their value. So, when the beautiful Christian Sophronia tries to prevent a massacre by claiming that she was the one who rescued an image of the Virgin from a mosque, Aladine, the pagan king, feels ‘un non so che di inusato e molle’ (‘an I don’t know what of unaccustomed softness’). Un non so che is the emotional and intellectual correlative of Tasso’s twilight. The phrase often occurs when he has allowed someone to display a set of emotional responses which the oppositional logic of his poem should not allow them to feel. But, having given his pagan a flash of tender emotion, Tasso makes him flinch from what he has felt. A pagan who is almost not a pagan, a Christian who has inside him emotions which might make him a pagan: these things Tasso can invent, but he then has to look away in fear. When the normally inactive leader of the Christian forces, ‘pio Goffredo’, at last enters the battle, Tasso the poet of fear and the poet who feels fear recognises that his superhero may be about to fall prey to anger and a mass of pagan frailties. He fades out the fight with: ‘I cannot speak of every fearsome thing/ then done, which darkness hid from human eyes.’
This is the reason Tasso is out of favour: he sets up an opposition, blurs it and then retreats from the consequences of his blurring. This habit of mind also explains why he tends to cut the best bits of his poem: he knows the points at which its design is most vulnerable, and simply cannot stay away from them. He makes half-light and twilight to hide them; if they fail to obscure his perplexities he cuts them.
He is decidedly not a beastly Papal imperialist, however. His conception of obedience and of what it is to serve is as shadowed by complexity as the rest of the liberata. In Canto 4 the pagan beauty and sorceress Armida enters the Christian camp and appeals for help, as dozens of damsels in romance had done before. Godfrey’s warriors flutter around her. The unity of the poem, the allegiance of the Christian forces to God and their obedience to Godfrey are all put under exquisite pressure. The result is an explosive argument, in the course of which Rinaldo irascibly kills Gernando, a fellow Christian. He then refuses to stand trial and leaves the camp to join Armida. Godfrey does not simply use his position to demand obedience in response to this rebellion. He says rather: ‘Let him come of his own volition, free./So much to his deservings I can yield.’ That moment is crucial. Tasso’s commitment to formal unity in the epic and service to God is unequivocal; but serving requires a will to serve, and to will requires the appetite to direct itself towards service. And the will to serve can be enabled by unlikely emotions: Rinaldo’s return from Armida is prompted by shame and rage at the reflection of his curled hair and effeminate self in a shield. The poem also tries heroically to weave passionate love, which had driven Ariosto’s Orlando mad, into an argument for voluntary servitude. Erminia, who was captured by Tancred, then freed by him, remains a slave to him in love, and ends the poem declaring that she is his willing handmaid. Less convincingly, the pagan sorceress Armida finally promises to be Rinaldo’s handmaid (and, presumably, the Lord’s) as a result of her loving subjection. As Thomist in its way as Dante, the poem tries to insist that passion is a precondition of the servitude which is founded on voluntary submission. And the most anguished moments in the poem derive from a recognition, hard and honest at once, that this form of service is all but impossible either to achieve or to represent. Ariosto and Aristotle and the Pope and the Estense were too many masters for Tasso. Only endemic poetic and emotional irresolution made it possible for him to serve all those lords at once. The liberata is great because of its recognition of, and response to, that irresolution.
It also makes it hard to translate. Tasso’s careful refusals to describe exactly what is being seen or felt can in clumsy hands be made to seem to be the failings of someone who can only approximate, rather than the achievement of someone who is consciously creating circumstances in which approximations are all that will serve. Edward Fairfax’s version of 1600 has come to be recognised as the best in English, and its dominance, as much as the decline in Tasso’s reputation, accounts for the sudden tailing off in translations of the liberata in the 20th century. Fairfax had Spenser in his bones, and often makes it seem as though Tasso was imitating Spenser where in fact it is the other way round. Spenser gave Fairfax phrases ranging from the brutally masculine (‘stubborn hart’) to the shimmeringly feminine (‘Few siluer drops her vermile cheekes depaint’); he also gave Fairfax a model for representing surprising convergences between adversaries, since the chief thing Spenser learnt from Tasso was that Christians (in his case Protestants) are barely distinguishable from pagans when they are angry. Fairfax, though, blurs Tasso’s blurs. Tasso’s carefully approximate descriptions usually prompt Fairfax to produce lists of adjectives and verbs which scatter around their target. He repeatedly succumbs to what is perhaps the chief linguistic and conceptual problem in rendering Tasso into English: that there is no English equivalent of un non so che except the French je ne sais quoi. I don’t know what it says about English or England that it is impossible to say ‘he felt an I don’t know what’ without sounding like Frankie Howerd. But it is a real problem for Tasso’s translators, since un non so che is his way out of most of the difficulties which he nobly insisted on making for himself.
Anthony Esolen’s new translation is good at I don’t know whats. And the illusions of the forest, the best of Tasso, elicit his best lines. When Alcasto enters the enchanted wood, ‘in his path a conflagration leapt/or seemed to leap.’ The semi-embodiment of the conflagration is just the kind of animated illusion that the wood produces in the warriors’ minds. And when Tancred starts to hack at the cypress tree,
That tall wood
oozed freshly from the blade cut in the bark
and dyed the earth about the colour of blood.
Is the wood itself oozing? From the blade-cut, or from the blade? And ‘about’ is both locational (around it) and approximative. That imprecision works well to create a scene in which the mind is not quite sure what it is seeing. When Rinaldo’s new armour glows distantly through the dark Esolen again almost pulls off the je ne sais quoi of it: it is a ‘who can tell what, glittering luminously,/with streaks of gold and rays of silvery light/flooding the night and making darkness flee.’
Esolen is also good at rendering metaphors, which, given that both metaphor and translation mean, and involve, ‘bringing across’, must be greatly to his credit. Tasso’s metaphors often make minor local events reflect their wider circumstances, which is one reason the Gerusalemme liberata appears so obsessively thought out. When a forest has been chopped down to make a war possible, it matters that ‘a forest thick with arrows’ comes hailing down on the pagans afterwards. Esolen carefully renders that little piece of poetic justice, along with a horde of others: Rinaldo really does ‘muster everything’ – he’s a fighter – when he leaves Armida. Most of these metaphors are made to seem almost natural in their translated form – although a residue of unnaturalness is an important element in both metaphors and translations, since without it a reader loses the sense of being taken across a divide which is one of the chief pleasures of both. Gentle pointers alert us to the fact that the poem has been translated into a language which already knows about Tasso, and which is ready to welcome him: there is the flicker of an allusion to Spenser’s imitation of the grove of Armida in Esolen’s version of Spenser’s source, and a sparing phrase or two reminds his readers that Tasso also meant much to Milton. When the apostate Emiren is made leader of the King of Egypt’s forces, he approaches his King to ‘assume his merits’; Milton’s God invites the Son to ‘assume/ Thy merits’ once he has volunteered to die for mankind. Esolen’s translation is attentive to both Milton and Tasso, and to the relationship between them. Tasso’s blending of pagan and Christian is a major source for Milton’s willingness to allow echoes to rebound between heaven and hell in Paradise Lost, and ‘merit’ is one of the words which Milton allows to reverberate most loudly between the two realms. It is used not just of the elevation of the Son, but also of the arch-apostate Satan, who is ‘by merit raised’ to the ‘bad eminence’ of the throne of hell. A word Milton used to create fearful symmetries between heaven and hell is just right for Tasso’s scene, which describes the elevation of an apostate who foregoes Christian ‘merit’ for pagan pre-eminence in war.
The volume is friendly to its readers, giving them a helpful list of characters, and brief accounts of Tasso’s major revisions, as well as a decent introduction, marred only by a tendency to reduce the poem to the Universal Verities which figure a little too large in courses on the Development of Western Civilisation. The notes show how far Tasso was himself a translator, as he laboured to transpose the pagan epic into a form which could describe a confrontation with the world beyond Christendom. Sometimes the notes fall short: when the Christian Argillan is inspired by Alecto to rebel against Godfrey it is a real shock to find his seething breast compared to a boiling cauldron, since, as all Tasso’s early readers would have known, that is a bad guy’s simile. It is Turnus in the Aeneid who is inspired by Alecto to boil with rebellious rage. That a Christian should catch the contagion of Aeneas’ enemy suggests the extent to which Tasso is a poet of the enemy within, and this deserves a note.
Where the translation fails to straddle the gulf is in rhyme, rhythm and register. Despite Esolen’s modest disclaimer in his preface (‘I am particularly sensitive to rhetoric and rhythm’) his translation can stumble and tumble over Tasso’s grandeur. Noble pagans should not complain that the Christians ‘eat their happy suppers unmolested’. There are moments, too, when a scene is absorbingly built up and then brought crashing down by a single misjudged phrase. Tasso liked things crashing down (siege engines, walls, the golden bridge which tumbles down behind Rinaldo as he ventures into the enchanted wood), but he would not like the idea that Clorinda’s violence could produce such a sub-Byronism as ‘For her part the reply is sharp and hostile:/a point that penetrates his intercostal.’ The rhyme does not translate well from US into UK English, but Tasso’s ‘tra costa e costa’ (‘between rib and rib’) sets hard bone against hard bone in a way that does not deserve Esolen’s anatomical bathos. Sometimes it seems almost as though Esolen’s words are embarrassed at their failure to be grand. The high point of pathos in the poem is when Clorinda fights Tancred in the dark and in disguise. When asked her name, she simply says she is one of those who destroyed the Christian siege engine. In Esolen’s version, Tancred replies: ‘Your words have come at a bad time.’ Translators are often too afraid to be flat, and correspondingly over-keen on the portentous, but what Tasso means here is the grand, portentous thing that Fairfax has him say: ‘That hast thou said (quoth he) in evill howre.’ It’s a ‘bad time’ if your mum asks you to wash up when you’re on the phone; it’s an ‘evil hour’ when you’re about to kill the woman you love.
Esolen’s work, though, comes at a good time. It rarely seems laboured, and yet it works hard to do its duty by its original. Mostly it is more fluent, and invariably less circumlocutory, than Fairfax. If it falls down at peaks of grandeur, that is because Esolen does not have a heroic register on which to draw, and that is not his fault. The translation does not often make you want to stop and think about it, rather than about Tasso, which is a big virtue in a version of a long narrative poem. And it leaves no doubt that Tasso should be read. It is not the last word: there is a real need for a cheap reprint of Fairfax’s translation with a good introduction (the Oxford edition of Fairfax is out of print and was in any case staggeringly expensive). But for those who haven’t read Tasso, this is the best way to read him in English at the moment. Do it.