Dionysius Lardner.

Eminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) online

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ami perfect intelligence of the whole in all its bearings
and meanings, such as the original author alone could
possess; for, as Dr. Johnson said, "no words can
convey sounds;" and both sounds and words were
requisite to do justice to such verse as his. Tasso
remained several months with the duchess.

All Italy soon echoed with the fame of this poetical
phenomenon^ which, though not the first of the kind,

TASSO. 143

(an indifferent model having been produced six years
before, by one Arienti,) it was the first that had power
to compel almost universal admiration, and establish a
precedent and authority for that fantastic species of
literary composition. Imitations, by the most gifted
of his contemporaries, sprang up in rapid succession,
and passed away as rapidly, with the exception of one,
the "Pastor Fido" of Guarini, which not only main-
tained its ground, but even disputed that on which its
forerunner stood, and from which no rivalry has ever
yet been able to remove it. The renown which Tasso
acquired by the " Aminta" naturally exasperated envy
in proportion as it commanded applause, and among
the multitude of competitors who could not soar to his
elevation, there were not wanting those who employed
every artifice to bring him down to their level, that
they might trample him under foot. Whatever were
the causes, Tasso to the end of his life was persecuted
as much by unmerciful critics as he was oppressed by
hard-hearted patrons.

But the "Aminta" was not the only episodal enter-
prise of Tasso, while he was slowly but unweariedly
proceeding with the " Gerusalemme." Flushed with
the success of his pastoral drama, he set earnestly about
the construction of a regular tragedy ; but he had not
advanced far in the second act, when the project was
suspended, and the fragment of fine promise which
remains, compared with the completed performance
long afterwards, when his faculties were on the decline,
exhibits a brilliant but melancholy contrast of " the
change" that had come " o'er the spirit of his dream"
his dream of life, love, and glory, blighting his " May
of youth," and causing him in the prime of manhood to
"fall into the sere and yellow leaf." His " Torindo, '
as this failure was styled, was less a failure than the
" Torrismondo," as the resumed and perfected task was

Towards the conclusion of his toils on his main
work (as he fondly hoped), but the beginning of a series


of miseries consequent upon it, from which he found
no end but in the grave, Tasso was seized with a
violent fever. This left him in such a state of bodily
exhaustion, that it was not till the following spring
(1575),, that from the last lines of his poem he could
look back upon all the intervening ones to the first, as
the links of a chain, more subtle than air, yet stronger
than adamant, which should deliver his thoughts as he
had bound them in his words, from generation to
generation, to delight millions of minds, so long as his
country's language should be understood. He had
already enjoyed such exhilarating foretastes of fame by
the circulation in manuscript of portions of the poem,
as they came completed from his hands, that he was
the less prepared to encounter the enmity and oppo-
sition, which rancorous and intriguing rivals, or fanatic
and supercilious ecclesiastical censors of the press, im-
mediately commenced, and inveterately continued to
manifest towards him to the close of life. There was
in Tasso conscious as he must have been of his
powers, and confident as he must have felt in the
exercise of his own judgment a readiness to submit
to learned and candid criticism, and a willingness to
concede to dissentient opinions on minor points of
taste, so far as was consistent with manly independ-
ence, which can rarely be found among men of first-
rate talents, but yet might be expected from a court
poet, accustomed in other matters to defer to superiors,
be compliant towards equals, and condescending to
inferiors. This disposition, however, which ought to
have conciliated envy herself, only provoked her the
more to assume every shape of candour or malignity,
as best suited her humour, to torment and distract him,
that she might revel over his wretchedness, if she
could not accomplish his fall. Years intervened while
the " Gerusalemme Liberata," in its finished form, was
undergoing as many ordeals almost as he had friends,
and its author suffering almost as many martyrdoms as
he had enemies. Into the particulars of these per-

TASSO. 145

seditions it is not necessary to enter here. The poet
was certainly induced by the force of arguments used
by some, and the terror of inquisitorial powers exer-
cised by others of his critics, to alter, expunge, and
amend many parts of the poem, which, after all, suf-
fered little from the processes to which it was thus
exposed before its publication. That publication, how-
ever, was long delayed by such vexatious hinderances,
and at last was effected surreptitiously, to the great
offence and injury of the author, then in confinement
as a lunatic.

Tasso's malady was grievously aggravated by these
excruciating criticisms, when he found himself, on the
one hand, charged with heresy against Aristotle and
good taste, and, on the other, with heresy against the
church and good morals. Fevers, headaches, strange
dreams, waking suspicions, restlessness, disappointment, 1
dissatisfaction with his patron, to whom he had dedi-
cated his poem, and in honour of whom he had created
his imaginary hero, Rinaldo, perhaps, too, the bitter-
ness of desponding passion, though that is questionable,
suggested to him the idea of absconding from Ferrara
and taking refuge at Rome, where he purposed to bring
out the " Gerusalemme," at his own pleasure, and
hoped to reap a considerable pecuniary benefit from the
sale. Alfonso, however, was not willing to lose the
glory of the dedication to himself, though he seems to
have wanted the generosity, the humanity, the justice
to deal with the author except as an impotent creature
in his power, who could do him much honour by flat-
tering his pride, but to whom he showed at best but
stinted kindness. To secure his selfish object, he made
the poet a prisoner near his own person, both at
Ferrara, and at his palace of Belriguardo in the
country, a prisoner at large, indeed, but uhder per-
petual observation. Of this the sufferer was aware;
and the very idea 4 of a human eye for ever upon him,
restraining his looks, words, and actions, poring over
him while he slept, haunting his dreams, and entering

VOL. n. L


into his very thoughts for so he must have felt as
though it did this alone was enough to madden a
man of iron heart and millstone brain, much more a
poor hypochondriac, as Tasso had already become.

Notwithstanding the jealousies of Alfonso, and the
fascinations of his sisters to detain him, the capricious
bard escaped from his splendid captivity to Rome,
and escaped even with the permission of the duke; who
gave him a letter of recommendation to the cardinal
Hippolyto, to befriend him as a stranger there, for the
avowed purpose of obtaining the accustomed indulgence
granted to visiters during the jubilee. Here he met
with the cardinal Ferdinand de' Medici, afterwards
grand duke of Tuscany, who renewed to him in person
the tender of an honourable asylum (formerly intimated
to him in private), should he be disposed to leave alto-
gether the service of Alfonso. The offer was gratefully
acknowledged, but not formally accepted ; and after six
weeks of holydays (as he felt them to be) spent in
the luxury of literary intercourse, and the renewal of
the impressions which the scene of Rome's posthumous
glory in her magnificent ruins, and her not less imposing
revival in her hierarchal pomp, had left on his mind in
youth, he returned by way of Sienna and Florence to
Ferrara. Here, while his poem was going through a se-
cond round of critical purgatory, and his soul was sinking
under the burden of censures laid upon him, like the
spirits of the proud in Dante, condemned to bear enor-
mous stones along the uneven uphill road, he received
the appointment of historiographer to the house of Este,
with a small stipend, which laid upon him another cob-
web obligation to remain at Ferrara. What were the
duties of this office it is of no consequence to inquire ;
he does not seem even to have performed any, nor per-
haps did he owe any ; his fable of the origin of that
family from his hero Rinaldo the Rinaldo of his
" Gerusalemme " had already conferred on it more of
that glory which princes covet, than the true history of
all its ancestors might have done. When the results of

TASSO. ] 47

the aforesaid second revisal of his poem were commu-
nicated to him, in despair of conciliating his critics, and
determined not to yield altogether to their incompetent
authority, on points where he felt himself strong in
poetical power to produce the very effects which they
deprecated, but which he had aimed at and achieved most
triumphantly, he composed an interpretation of the whole
as an extended allegory, spiritualising its heroes and
its scenes, with more perverse ingenuity than felicity of
success. Of this it may he fairly said, that if the original
were mainly fiction, the moral was wholly so. His cen-
sors, however, persisted in condemning the voluptuous
passages to which he himself was most attached, because
he knew them to be the most beautiful, and recked not
that they were the most seductive. In this respect the
poet himself was the Rinaldo of his sorceress muse,
who by her enchantments had wholly captivated his
heart, and carried him away to her " limbo of vanity;"
from which Sperone and Antoniano, his remorseless
critics, in vain endeavoured to deliver him ; as Carlo
and Ubaldo had rescued his hero from the thralls of
Armida in her island of sensual delights. He never
yielded all, though he conceded many things, and sacri-
ficed several extravagant inventions, by which the poem,
was rather mended than mutilated.

An incident occurred about this time, which exhibited
Tasso not less in the character of a hero than he had
hitherto figure-d in that of the laureate of heroes. Sus-
pecting one of his friends to have been guilty of opening
his trunks with false keys, to pry into his secrets among
his papers, he gently remonstrated with the offender,
who resented the charge by giving him the lie, and re-
ceived in return a blow upon the face. This rencontre
took place in the court of the palace, and was therefore
sufficiently notorious. The cowardly aggressor one
Maddalo, a notary walked away with the dishonour
on his brow, but meditating in his heart the most atro-
cious vengeance. Accordingly, having enlisted three of
his kindred in the quarrel, they sallied forth, armed, to

L 2


assail the poet ; and finding him abroad in the street,
they fell upon him from behind. Tasso promptly turned
round, drew his sword, and dealt so dexterously with it,
that the ruffians were soon put to flight ; though their
fears of being apprehended, no doubt, to their ll speed
lent wings," till they found refuge under the roofs of
various friends. The circumstance gained him no
small reputation, and gave rise to a couplet which was
often repeated:

" Con la penna e con la spada

Nessun val quanto Torquato."
" With the sword and with the pen,'

Tasso beats all other men."

It is not practicable, in this succinct memoir, to trace
the sufferer through all the details which have been re-
corded of his miseries from penury, pride, ambition,
and disappointment, the wrongs inflicted on him by
patrons and rivals, and above all, those growing symp-
toms of a mind diseased, occasioning suspicions, jea-
lousies, misunderstandings, and quarrels with his friends
and contemporaries ; while that insidious malady, which
no medicine can reach, was making its unchecked
ravages upon his constitution, and inveterately fixing
upon him its evil influences, so that, with brief and dis-
tant lucid intervals, his remaining days were passed in
horror and despondency, whether amidst the darkness
of the dungeons of Ferrara, or wandering amidrt the
broad sunshine on foot, and depending for bread and
shelter upon casual hospitality, from province to pro-
vince throughout Italy. Imagining that his enemies
enemies as imaginary, in this case, as were his fears
of them had accused him to Alfonso of treason, and
to the pope of heresy, he at length grew so outrageous,
that, one day, for some unaccountable provocation, he
drew a dagger upon a servant, and assaulted him in an
apartment of the duchess of Urbino. Being instantly
disarmed, he was confined, by order of the duke, within
the precincts of the palace. Here, when for the first
time he found himself a prisoner, he was overwhelmed
with anguish, and bitterly bewailed his fate. As soon

TASSO. 149

as he could again command his passion, he wrote a
very penitential letter to Alfonso,, suing for pardon
and release. Both were granted to him ; and he was
removed, under the eye of the duke himself, to the
palace of Belriguardo, in the country, that he might
recover his health and spirits, amidst scenes and with
the society in which he had formerly delighted to be
placed. With a delicate regard to one of his most
grievous temptations that he had been guilty of
heresy, Alfonso introduced to him the head of the
holy inquisition at Ferrara, who, after duly examining
him, fully absolved him from all imputations of the
kind, and assured him that he was yet a good catholic.
Not contented with this, he suddenly left Belriguardo,
and took refuge in a convent of St. Francis, from which
he sent word to his patron, that as soon as he should
be sufficiently restored he intended to enter himself
among the fraternity. But nothing could calm the
troubled waters of his mind ; he still conceived himself
under the displeasure of the duke, and that his acquittal
by the inquisitor was invalid. In this turmoil of doubts
and self-reproaches, he importuned Alfonso and the
duchess of Urbino with letters concerning his imaginary
offences, and imploring comfort and assurance which
they could not give, because he would not receive.
With Leonora he appears never to have had that free-
dom and frequency of correspondence which he had
hitherto been permitted to hold with her elder sister.
Whether this be in favour of his presumed passion or
not must be left to those who are skilled in the mys-
teries of love-making between unequal parties. On
this subject, as on the poet's strange melancholy, and
the severity with which it was visited by his patron,
whether for the punishment of the lover or the cure of
the maniac, it would be futile to argue here. After
all the explanation and mystification by Tasso's bio-
graphers, the general impression has been, is, and pro-
bably will remain, that his love for Leonora was real ;
that his imprisonment was vindictive on the part of her

L 3


brother., and that his frenzy was the effect of hopeless pas-
sion and impotent resentment against oppression. " His-
torians," says Ugo Foscolo, " will be ever embarrassed
to explain aright the reasons of Tasso's imprisonment :
it is involved in the same obscurity as the exile of Ovid.
Both were among those thunder-strokes that despotism
darts forth. In crushing their victims they terrified
them, and reduced spectators to silence. There are
incidents in courts, that, although known to many per-
sons, remain in eternal oblivion contemporaries dare
not reveal, and posterity can only divine them."

In the following summer, Tasso, bewildered and
desperate, and not knowing whither to turn, or in
whom to confide, at length fled secretly from Ferrara
to visit his sister at Torrento, whom he had not seen
since they were children together. She was now a
widow, the mother of two sons, and dependent upon
her uncles, who still withheld her mother's dowry, for
the means of subsistence. With that caution to do
every thing by stealth, which characterises the hallu-
cination of one who fancies ah 1 the world conspiring to do
him harm, he presented himself before her in the habit
of a shepherd, affecting to be the bearer of certain
letters from himself. He found her alone ; her chil-
dren being absent. The letters represented her brother
at Ferrara as surrounded by enemies, and in the most
imminent danger of his life, unless she interposed in
his behalf, and rescued him from their machinations.
When she had read the distressing intelligence, she
implored the supposed messenger to tell her all, the
worst, at once. He answered by a recital of miseries
so aggravated, in a tone so earnest and impassioned,
that, whether she suspected him or not, she fainted with
alarm. When she had been sufficiently recovered, the
cunning minstrel changed the hand that played upon
her, like Timotheus on his harp, and, from excess of
pity for her brother's sufferings, gently awoke all her
tenderness of affection, by old and beautiful recollec-
tions of former days, and hopes yet possible to be

TASSO. 151

realised in years to come. At length, when she was
well prepared, he discovered himself fully to her, and
they were brother and sister again" in a moment., and
thenceforth to the end of life. With her he remained
in comparative tranquillity for several months, being
all the while unacknowledged in the neighbourhood, ex-
cept as Cornelia's cousin from Bergamo, who, coming
to Rome, had availed himself of the opportunity to
visit her.

But, as might be expected, his self-tormenting mind
became unquiet amidst scenes of repose, which, from
day to day, delighted him at first, but, from day to
day, presenting little change of aspect or incident, he
sighed again for Ferrara, choosing rather the agony of
life to that rest which was no longer supportable.
Thither, then, he returned, on the assurance of pardon
from the duke, and the restoration of his papers. It was
soon after his arrival, that an act of indiscretion attributed
to him by some, and denied by others of his biogra-
phers, is said to have caused him to be put in ward as
a person of deranged intellect. Being in company with
Alfonso and his sisters, in the presence of the court, in
reply to a question from Leonora, Tasso gave her an
involuntary salute, their faces being so near together
that he felt attraction to be irresistible. The duke,
astonished and indignant, turned to his attendants and
exclaimed, fi See to what a lamentable condition this
great man has been brought by the loss of his reason ! "
But the date of this circumstance happens to be as
disputable as the fact ; for it is certain that the poet had
not long resided at Ferrara, when, still unsatisfied with
the duke's conduct towards him, he again withdrew
from the city, and successively sought temporary re-
fuge at Mantua, Urbino, Florence, Padua, Turin, and
Venice. Being ill at ease every where, by a fatality
of instinct, as it might be deemed, he returned to
Ferrara, and thence departed no more till after a con-
finement of seven years. For, imagining himself
coldly received at court, and unworthily repulsed when

L 4


he sought an audience, he vented his anguish of dis-
appointment in bitter invectives against the duke, who.,
amidst the festivities of his new nuptials with a young
bride, his third wife, a daughter of the duke of Mantua,
was little inclined to hearken to the complaints and
supplications of one whom he had long looked upon as
insane. On this ground he was committed to St. Anne's
hospital, as a lunatic, which in those days of medical
ignorance of the proper treatment of such patients was
to be punished as a criminal for his misfortune. The
following extract must stand in place of multifarious
details of the poet's feelings under this long restraint.
His imprisonment commenced in March, 1579. Soon
afterwards he thus expressed himself in a letter to his
friend Scipio Gonzaga :

" Ah me ! I had intended to compose two heroic
poems of noble argument, and four tragedies, of which
I had contrived the plots. Many works in prose also,
on the most exalted and useful subjects, I had con-
templated ; purposing so to unite philosophy and elo-
quence, that I might leave an eternal monument to my
memory in the w r orld. Alas ! I hoped to close my
life with glory and renown, but now, borne down under
the load of my misfortunes, I have lost all prospect of
fame and distinction. Indeed I should consider myself
abundantly happy, if, without suspicion, I could but
quench the thirst with which I am tormented ; and if,
as one of the multitude, I could lead a life of freedom
in some poor cottage, if not in health, which I can no
longer be, yet exempt from this anguish. If I were
not honoured, it would be enough for me not to be
abominated ; and if I could not live like men, I might
at least quench the thirst that consumes me, like the
brutes which freely drink from stream and fountain.
Nor do I fear so much the vastness as the duration of
this calamity ; and the thought of this is horrible to
me, especially as in this place I can neither write
nor study. The dread, too, of perpetual imprisonment
increases my melancholy, and the indignities which I

TASSO. 153

suffer exasperate it; while the squalor of my beard,
my hair, and my dress, the sordidness and the filth of
the place, exceedingly annoy me. But, above all, I
am afflicted by solitude, my cruel and natural enemy;
which, even in my best state, was sometimes so dis-
tressing, that often, at the most unseasonable hours,
I have gone in search of company. Sure I am, that
if she who so little has corresponded to my attachment,
if she saw me in such a condition, and in such
misery, she would have some compassion upon me."

Though such statements must be received with some
allowance for the power of self-torturing which he pos-
sessed in no small degree, and exercised with as little
forbearance as though he were his own most implacable
enemy, yet, according to Tasso's representation, the
treatment which he experienced under the hands of
his brother-poet, Agostirio Morti, formerly a dis-
ciple of Ariosto, the keeper of the hospital, was almost
as bad as that which he received at his own. He says
that by this man he was not allowed the necessaries of
life, the medicines which his bodily disease required,
nor the spiritual consolations which his heart-sickness
needed : moreover, that his meditations were disturbed
by the inmates of the house, so that he could not pro-
ceed with the preparation of his works for the press ;
but above all, that he was under the power of witch-
craft, Morti being in league with certain magicians to
destroy him by enchantments ; and as this was a capital
crime, he threatens to accuse the keeper to the duke.*

* Well might Collins, a kindred spirit, both in his powers of song and in
his "moody madness," thus celebrate the great Italian, whose " God-
frey of Bulloigne " he only knew through Fairfax's translation :

" In scenes, which, daring to depart

From sober truth, are still to nature true,
And call forth fresh delight to fancy's view,
The heroic muse employ'd her Tasso's art.
How have I trembled when, at Tancred's stroke,
Its gushing blood the gaping cypress pour'd ;
When each live plant with mortal accents spoke,
And the wild blast upheaved the vanish'd sword ;
How have I sat, when piped the pensive wind,
To hear his harp by British Fairfax strung !
Prevailing poet! whose undoubtingmind
Believed the magic iwnders ivhich he sung."

Ode on the Highland Superstitions,


His sonnets to the cats of the hospital, imploring them
to lend him the light of their eyes to write by, are
specimens of that kind of mirth which suits and sets
off melancholy, in a certain " humorous sadness."
Their genuineness, however, is not certain, and they
are hardly translatable.

Whatever were the actual circumstances of Tasso's
mental alienation and corporal sufferings from disease or
ill usage, his life, from the period of his first imprison-
ment, was to himself like one of the opium-eater's dreams
splendours and horrors, alternations of agony and
rapture, changes sudden, frequent, and strangely con-
trasted : he inhabited a world of unrealities, of which
the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, were the more
real in proportion as they were ideal, and therefore in-

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 13 of 34)