Dionysius Lardner.

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and through every part, will give him the most distinct
possible possession of the whole in its full proportion,
minutest details, and utmost effect.

But while thus the amanuensis of his father, Tor-
quato was not less assiduously cultivating his own ta-
lents, and meditating the composition already alluded
to, in which he was soon not only to rival the former,
but even while a boy, and upon the enchanted ground
of romance itself, to prove a greater magician than he.
This the sudden and passionate admiration with which
his " Rinaldo" was hailed throughout Italy, and beyond
the Alps and Pyrenees, irreversibly established. The
failure of Bernardo's hopes, in the neglect with which
both sovereign princes and the reading public, after the
first effervescence of applause, treated his " Amadigi,"
was nearly contemporaneous with the first triumph of
his more fortunate son, who, so far as fame could gra-
tify or reward his literary labours, may be said to have
succeeded in all that he attempted, either in prose and
verse, thenceforward, though some of his performances
had but an ephemeral popularity, being welcomed at
first, and afterwards formally honoured from the cour-
tesy due to their author, and the measure of kindred
excellence by which they were all allied to the happier
offspring of his too prolific mind. Bernardo, after he
found that the stupendous monument of labour in vain,
which he had spent so many years in accumulating,
was likely to be left to moulder away and fall of itself
into obli vion, having at its first appearance excited
neither enough of envy or admiration to render it ex-
tensively attractive to public curiosity, lay down in
despondency at its base, amidst his perished hopes ;

i 4


and though he made several attempts afterwards to rise,
these were all equally unavailing, and the latest solace
of his life was the contemplation of that glory descend-
ing upon his son which had departed from him.

In considering the fate, by a natural death (so to
express it), after a date somewhat longer than that of
a natural life, of those who have been renowned in their
own age, but have dwindled into insignificance, or be-
come utterly extinct in that which followed, it may be
said of the far greater number of those who flourish
among contemporaries, not, indeed, that they,

" are born to blush unseen,
And waste their sweetness on the desert air,"

but that they are flowers which bloom in their season,
and charm with their fragrance the passers by of one
generation, then disappear, and are remembered no
more. This is the order of Providence, and it
is wise and good ; for were the Almighty less liberal
of his gifts, though the possessors being " few and far
between" might be more admired and longer, the
world would be less benefited than by that perpetual
succession and supply (according to the demand for
literature) of minds worthy, perhaps, of any age, but
formed peculiarly to suit the taste, the manners, and
the society of their own. Among Chalmers' " English
Poets," for example, how many names, once illustrious,
now merely catalogued, are prefixed to works, unread
though unforgotten, on which talents as diversified and
as well cultivated as the circumstances of the times would
allow were painfully expended, to delight and im-
prove mankind ; each of whose possessors hoped, be-
sides serving his own generation, to leave something
behind which the world would not willingly let die. Yet
it may be questioned whether some of these, had they
lived in other periods, or under different orders of
things, might not have taken far higher rank among
the candidates for fame, and established permanent
claims to the veneration of posterity. Is not great
genius, as we call it, when fortunately developed, and

TASSO. 121

favoured by many contingencies, without which it never
would have heen so developed, more common than is
generally imagined ? Is there not at all times and
every where a class of intelligences which may be
trained up to become generals and captains in liter-
ature, in comparison with the rank and file out of
which they may be called by peculiar events in their
own or their nation's history, and without which they
could not have risen above the ordinary state of their
less distinguished, but, perhaps, equally capable com-
panions ; as the working bees in a hive, as some natu-
ralists tell us, when their queen is lost or taken away
from the little community, by a particular regimen.,
may be nourished up into queens, and from labourers
become perpetuators of the race ? There seems some
probability for this hypothesis, fanciful as it may be
deemed, because in all extraordinary emergencies,
whether in the world of politics or of literature, minds
of the first order are invariably brought into activity
from the motives, the means, and the opportunities
then afforded to them, though they could never have
risen above the depression, mediocrity, or neutral in-
difference to which they were born, in which they had
long lived, and must assuredly have died, had it not
been for those apparently accidental opportunities
which gave them distinction and pre-eminence, by a
change in themselves resembling a new creation, but
in reality only an awakening of latent powers.

While Torquato was thus continually giving new
pledges, and redeeming old ones of equal lustre, or
surpassing the proudest names in his country's liter-
ature, the old man, from bitter but unprofitable ex-
perience as regarded himself, having proved the pre-
cariousness of the favour of princes, and the vanity of
expecting fortune to follow fame in verse, determined
to indemnify his son for the loss of both his parents'
property by bringing him up to a profession in which
wealth and honour might more readily be acquired by
common industry than by idly looking for the golden


rewards of genius at the hands either of aristocratic
patrons, who bestow them as bounties, or of the mul-
titude that compose the public, and who care little about
the good or ill fare of those on whom their transient
applauses are lavished.

" So praisen babes the peacock's spotted trayne,
And wondren at bright Argus' golden eye :
But who rewardes him e'er the more for thy,
Or feedes him once the fuller by a graine ? "


In his seventeenth year, therefore, Bernardo placed
his son at Padua, to study jurisprudence, as Petrarch
and Ariosto had been condemned to do before him, by
prudent parents, and like each of those hopeful sons,
who were

" born a father's hopes to cross,
And pen a stanza when he should engross,"

Torquato (though it is said that he dutifully and

diligently applied with his head to the study of the

law) gave his heart and his hand in secret to the un-

portioned muse. The issue of this affiance, while he

was yet embroiled in the nets of legal precedents and

practice, was the " Rinaldo " already mentioned, a

romantic poem, in twelve cantos. The hero is not his

own champion of that name, the glory of his later

poems, but one of " the million " that figure in the

" Orlando Furioso " a work which so possessed the

mind of young Tasso, while he was at Venice, that he

tells us he could not sleep for the fame of Ariosto.

This juvenile performance is written more after the

manner of that inimitable master than the " Gerusa-

lemme ;"but, though deficient in the humour and vivacity

which constitute the all-binding and assimilating spell

of Ariosto's tissue of episodes, and by which the reader

is reconciled to wink at all the author's incongruities

and caprices, Tasso's poem, nevertheless, by a more

serious kind of magic, laid hold upon public feeling

and so happily hit the expiring taste of his countrymen

for the extravagances of chivalrous fiction, that where

TASSO. 123

his father., after years of hard toil in the same field,
had ^miscarried, the son, in ten months, achieved a
triumph, of which the trophies remain to this day ;
( ' Rinaldo" being yet one of the metrical romances which
are interwoven with the party coloured staple of Italian

Well might Bernardo be astonished and delighted,
yet humbled and chagrined (in some measure), when
the manuscript of his son's poem was presented to
him, seeing himself already eclipsed in his meridian
altitude (which he fondly imagined he had attained in
the ee Amadigi") by this morning-star of promise just
" flaming in the forehead of the orient sky;" and
perceiving, as he must have done, that his purpose was
forever thwarted, of placing the boy in that path where
fortune scatters her golden apples before the feet of
competitors in the race for her favour, rather than
indulging them with golden dreams under the shadows
of laurels planted by the wayside, the most precious
rewards which she bestows on the most successful
among poets. The father, however, was too great a
lover of song to ruin a good poet in making a bad
lawyer, as might have been the case had he persevered
in his former views with his son. Wherefore, after some
delay, he reluctantly, yet willingly, (a state of mind
perfectly possible, though hard to reconcile,) gave his
consent to the publication of the "Rinaldo." He who
in the letter to his daughter formerly quoted, so ten-
derly and beautifully anticipated the happiness of being
himself, with his very features, perpetuated in her in-
fant progeny, could not but be transported to see him-
self, with the features of his very soul, perpetuated in
the glorious offspring of his son's congenial yet sur-
passing mind. With a smile and a sigh, therefore, he
permitted the poem to appear, surrendering at the same
time his cherished expectation of seeing that son as
eminent in the law as he was now likely to be in that
which is remotest from law practice and law profits.
<f Let who will make the laws," said Fletcher of Sal-


toun, cc let me make the songs of a people, and by these I
will govern them." Tasso's songs have assuredly had
larger dominion,, and had deeper, wider, more enduring
influence in modifying the subsequent character of his
countrymen than any legislative enactments, in which
it may be imagined that he would never have been
concerned, could have exercised. But then he might
have enriched and ennobled himself; he might have
escaped most of the calamities which hunted him to
death in the midst of life ; and he might not only have
been happier himself, but a more useful member of
that society in which he was born, which he served in his
day, and in which he died without any monument ex-
cept some splendid sculpture to record his name. It
came otherwise to pass ; and whether the world has
been made better or worse by his labours, it must be
acknowledged that the fame which he sought, and for
which he sacrificed all beside, was dearly purchased to
himself by the sufferings which it cost him to win.
It is reported that when Bernardo remonstrated with
him on his indiscreet preference of philosophy (for
with him philosophy and poetry were identified) to
jurisprudence, and angrily demanded, " What has
your philosophy done for you ? " he replied, " It has
taught me to bear with meekness the reproofs of a

The appearance of Torquato's c< Rinaldo" was not
only the dawn of his own day of glory, but the dawn
of a new day in the literature of his country. The
age of absolute romance was succeeded by one of tran-
sition in public taste, during which what was most
truly wonderful and meritoriously captivating in the
wild fictions of knight-errantry was engrafted upon a
stock of classical invention, design, and execution.
This was in fact the nearest recurrence that could
be made in epic poetry to the models of the an-
cients, for the mythological machinery of Greece
and Rome could not again be revived in poetry any
more than in religion ; Jupiter could never again re-

TASSO. 125

sume his thunder and his throne ; Neptune his tri-
dent ; Pallas her aegis, or Venus her cestus ; nor
could, the supernatural interposition of the supreme
God., the agency of angels and sainted spirits, or of
Saturn and his legions, be extensively employed (with-
out constructive irreverence, not to say rank blasphemy)
as auxiliaries in heroic fable, disguised as true history,
or true history disguised as heroic fable. Tasso,
Marino, Camoens, and Milton have indeed presumed
upon the perilous experiment of enlisting the armies of
heaven and hell in conflict with each other, and inter-
fneddling with earthly affairs ; yet, with the exception
of Vi our countryman and he would be a bold critic who
should dare to arraign him for impiety in the use of
what nothing but the most signal, unexampled, and in-
imitable felicity of success could justify, it may be
added, that he would be a critic not less bold, who, as
a believer in the Christian faith, should venture to de-
fend even Milton to the extent in which he has exercised
this questionable, though hitherto unlitigated, license of
fiction; with the exception of our countryman, the
authors aforenamed have, for the most part, grievously
miscarried in the management of their agents of this
class, whether good or evil, these being among the
most indifferent and ineffective personages in their re-
spective poems. Epic poetry, indeed, either upon
classic or romantic precedent, may be said to have be-
come extinct from the time of Tasso. " Paradise
Lest " cannot be classed with either ; he having
achieved the only work of the kind, which, being
neither the one nor the other, but combining the
merits of each, touched the point beyond which im-
provement could not be carried. He may be said to
have lived in the last age in which supernatural agents
and miraculous interventions could be successfully in-
troduced into narrative verse, as being consistent with
popular credulity or superstitious belief an abso-
lutely indispensable requisite for the employment of
such means to illustrate human affairs. For example, a


poem equal to Homer's or Ariosto's, written now on
die plan, and with the gods of the one or the enchant-
ments of the other, would be insufferable : no power of
genius could create an interest in behalf of Apollo and
Venus, no longer believed in by the poet or by his
readers ; nor would the achievements of giants and
witches, if celebrated by one born in this (< age of
reason," find mercy from criticism, or indulgence
even from the vulgar students of our penny literature.
Monk Lewis's Tales of Wonder, and the monstrosities
of the German drama, have been long ago forgotten ;
the " Michael Scott" of the great minstrel " of that
ilk!" alone keeps his ground ; but all the other preter-
natural machines of the same creative hand would have
perished utterly, had they not been associated with re-
cords of the doings and sufferings of beings of flesh and
blood like ourselves, though existing in a state of semi-
barbarous society exceedingly different from our own.

The t( Rinaldo" was the first form of the abstract con-
ception of a regular poem, at once to rival Virgil and
Ariosto, which originated in the mind of Torquato while
yet a youth of seventeen, but was not wholly developed tiD,
at twice that age, he had produced the " Gerusalemme
Liberata." All the characteristics of his peculiar genius
are perceptible in the incidents, style, embellishments,
and conduct of this juvenile essay ; which, contrasted
with the matured form and perfect majesty of that later
offspring of his genius, is, as his own Gabriel, sent to
comfort Godfrey, at the opening of the siege of Jeru-
salem : take the image in Fairfax's version,

" A stripling seem'd he, thrice five winter's old,
And radiant beams a^orn'dhis locks of gold,"

compared with Milton's " Raphael," " in prime of man-
hood, where youth ended," alighting on the eastern cliff
of Paradise, where,

"like Maia's son he stood,

And shook his wings, that heavenly fragrance fill'd
The circuit wide." *

* 3Iilton, in the context, has manifestly imitated both Tasso and Fair-
fax ; Tasso in the description of the angel's descent, and Fairfax in the
lively circumstance here quoted, and which is not in the original :

TASSO. 127

This prodigy of youthful genius no sooner appeared
than it was hailed with acclamation throughout Italy,
and eager inquiries from every quarter were made
concerning the author that prodigality of praise
might be lavished upon him by the learned, and parsi-
mony of recompense, doled out to him by princes, am-
bitious of attaching so great a " natural curiosity" to
the collection of live rarities about their palaces. For
the great of those times coveted the glory, little as
they liked the expense, of retaining men of talents in
the train of their sycophants and dependents, even
when they regarded them only as remarkable among their
species, in the same manner as the lions, tigers, eagles,
peacocks, and other strange and beautiful animals in
their menageries were in comparison with the meaner
ranks of brutes. Ariosto, who had experienced all the
bitterness of such favour, and felt keenly the ignominy
of such distinction, plainly tells us, that the patrons of
his day loved those of their parasites who would mi-
nister to their personal necessities, pull off and on their
boots, share in their orgies, and pander to their vices,
rather than those, whose proud stomachs disdained to
allow them to be any thing less than themselves with-
in the precincts of courts, poets among princes, who
could give enduring lustre to the names of inglorious
patrons, which otherwise would have found no better
memorial than the registers of their births, marriages,
and deaths in their family genealogies.

After Torquato's emancipation from the trammels of
law by the hand of the parent who had so carefully
involved him in them, flushed with the new wine of
liberty, obtained at the surrender of every thing else in
prospect, and with nothing but itself in possession,
he repaired to Bologna, to pursue his philosophical studies

" On Libation at first his foot he set,
And shook his wings, with rory May dews wet."

The " fragrance " is Milton's own ; and here we have the process of one
thought, carried onward ,by three pcets, to consummate beauty and per-
fection in the last


and indulge in his poetical passion ; for poetry was
truly to him a passion, and the ruling one of his exist-
ence, honour, fortune, ease, pleasure, were all in
turns but ministers to this, while by this he aimed at the
acquisition of each of them, as the one or the other
were, for the moment, the object of desire or the sub-
ject of lamentation for having lost it. But from Bo-
logna he was expelled for a literary squib, the only
thing of the kind by which he has gained any cele-
brity, whether it were his own or not. Some anony-
mous censor had been amusing himself with publishing
pasquinades, ridiculing the principal people of the city, as
well as the students of the college, with " much malice
and a little wit." Those who were exposed to these sar-
casms were exceedingly galled by the firing from this am -
buscade of the pen, and the more so as they knew not on
whom to wreak their vengeance. Torquato, in the
reckless gaiety of a youth of twenty, on a certain occa-
sion making himself merry among his companions by
repeating one of these, was immediately pounced upon
as the author, not only of the unlucky lines, with
which he had been caught in his mouth, but he was
assailed as being the secret manufacturer of all the rest.
It was in vain that he denied the charge indignantly,
and challenged his accusers for the proofs, urging that
he himself had been the butt of the sharp-shooter's
shafts, flying out of darkness and hitting in broad day.
His papers were seized and examined before the criminal
magistrate ; but nothing being discovered to fix the
imputation upon him, he was nominally acquitted,
though the suspicion was not so easily effaced from the
minds of the offended individuals. He took the matter
himself in such dudgeon, that he precipitately left
Bologna, and removed to Padua, whither he had been
invited by his early friend Scipio Gonzaga. who had
lately established in the latter city the academy Degli
Eterei, of which Tasso certainly one of the most
congenial spirits of the age was worthily enrolled a
member., and, according to the pedantic fashion of

TASSO. 129

those pompous but puerile institutions, assumed the
name of Pentito for some fanciful reason not well
explained, though there has been no small wrangling
about it.

To enlarge his mind, to exalt his imagination, and to
enrich his eloquence, Torquato now devoted much of
his attention to the works of Aristotle and Plato ; but
while the former subjected his reason to the severest
discipline in the ascertainment of principles of truth,
he gave his whole soul to the guidance of the latter,
whose visionary splendour and profound speculations,
on subjects the highest that created intelligences can
conceive, and of which comparatively so little can be
learned without e{ light from heaven " to illumine the
" light of nature," while infinite space is afforded for
everlasting conjectures, showing at once the capabilities
and the limitations of the human intellect, these
peculiarly suited the young student's cast of thought
and intense delight in contemplating the things that are
invisible and eternal, as associated with things seen
and perishable. Nor was the philosophical poet an
unworthy disciple of the poetical philosopher, even upon
his own ground and in his own style. Many of Tasso's
sublimest compositions are in the form of dialogues, in
which he discourses with an elevation of sentiment and
a power of diction which might have gained admiration
in the school of his master himself.

Meanwhile the germ of his great poem, which had
been quickened, probably not later than the publication
of the ef Rinaldo," was growing up in his thought,
for Tasso, by the necessity of his nature, was ever
ruminating on some premeditated or progressive theme ;
and some mightier conception followed the disburden-
ment of every matured production of his inexhaustibly
inventive genius. While this new and magnificent
project was gradually assuming shape and character
before he entered upon the deliberate execution of it,
he prepared himself for the task by composing his



" Discourses on Heroic Poetry/' which place him
among critics in as high a rank as that which he holds
among poets. The merit of these essays, indeed, is so
remarkable, that his principal English biographer, Mr.
Black, is almost seduced by them to assert the univer-
sality of the author's genius, in the following plausible
remark and happy quotations from high authority con-
cerning another extraordinary poetic genius, which
seemed capable of excelling in whatever it undertook,
whether in prose or rhyme : f: Of the ' Discourses on
Heroic Poetry ' there appear to have been four, only
three of which have been printed. Though composed
at the age of twenty, and published without the know-
ledge and corrections of the author, they are exceedingly
valuable ; and while they display a most refined taste,
discover also much metaphysical acuteness and geome-
trical precision. Indeed, I am more and more of
opinion that what Mr. Stewart says of Burns is true
in general of every great poetical genius, ' All the
faculties of Burns's mind,' says he, ' were, as far as I
could judge, equally vigorous ; and his predilection for
poetry was rather the result of his own enthusiastic and
impassioned temper, than of a genius exclusively adapted
to that species of composition.' '

In this year, 1564, Torquato visited his venerable
father, now literally " dagl' anni e da fortuna oppresso,"
" borne down by years and evil fortune." The trans-
port of affection with which two of the greatest men of
their age, in the most seductive walk of human ambition,
met at Mantua, in the relationship of parent and off-
spring, must have been chastened, yet rendered more
exquisitely endearing, when the father, from his own
sad experience, must have foreseen, by " his prophetic
soul," the sorrows to come which his son would en-
counter in the course that he had chosen ; while the
son, with emotions not less painful, must have looked
upon his father, remembering the sorrows past, which
he had endured in the vain pursuit of fame from the

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 34)