Dionysius Lardner.

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curable ; acting upon the soul itself like that effect upon the
bodily senses, excruciatingly susceptible of impressions
of pain, so happily imagined, and not less felicitously
expressed by the most polished of our own poets :

" Say what their use, were finer optics given ?
To inspect a mite, not comprehend the heaven ;
Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o'er,
To smart and agonise at every pore ;
Or, quick effluvia darting through the brain,
Die of a rose in aromatic pain ;
If nature thunder'd in his opening ears,
And stunn'd him with the music of the spheres,
How would he wish that heaven had left him still
The whispering zephyr and the purling rill."

POPE'S Essay on Man, Epist. i.

And such a being, too exquisitely sensitive, is every
poet, whose imagination or whose passion overmasters
his reason and his judgment. Tasso was eminently
such a poet in every thing, and all life long.

Meanwhile editions of his " Gerusalemme" were
multiplying throughout Italy, and beyond the Alps and
the Pyrenees ; while the mind that conceived and pro-
duced it was wandering, like a lost star through the
infinity of space, unaccompanied by any kindred planet,
and unattracted by any parent sun ; and the poet him-
self he whom monarchs had delighted to honour,
the associate of sovereigns, who had been the favourite
of princesses, and the admiration or the envy of the

TASSO. 155

highest intellects of his age was treated as a brute,
out of \vhose living frame the rational soul had de-
parted^ and whose animal appetites were to be subdued
by severe abstinence, or controlled by harsh discipline.

Yet in his solitude, when the first rigours of his
imprisonment had been relaxed, and an apartment of
less discomfort was allotted to him, he pursued, with
unabated ardour and intensity, his studies, so far as he
had the means, and poured out, as he was ever wont,
his sorrows and his hopes, his remembrances and his
imaginations, in every form of verse. Indeed, many of
his most beautiful compositions are dated within the
term of his captivity. In course of time, as he grew
calmer, his friends, and illustrious strangers attracted
by his fame, were permitted to visit him. Occasionally,
too, a day of light and liberty was granted, and he was
brought out of his prison-house to those splendid man-
sions which he loved to inhabit, and which he was so
well qualified to adorn. Marfisa of Este, cousin to the
duke, especially befriended him in this manner, and en-
tertained him at her delightful villa, where, in company
with her distinguished household and visiters, he looked
abroad again in sunshine, with all a poet's transport
and all an invalid's delight, when mere existence, void
of suffering, is enjoyment.

" See the wretch, who long has tost

On the thorny bed of pain,
At length repair his vigour lost,

And breathe and walk again :
The meanest floweret of the vale,
The simplest note that swells the gale,
The common air, the earth, the skies,
To him are opening paradise.".

So sang Gray, and so felt Tasso for a few hours of
freedom, but soon remanded back to his lonely abode,
he relapsed into despondency ; and though one such
day, while it lasted, might seem to compensate for all
the past, yet when it was gone, its pleasures appeared
too dearly purchased by the misery of another day
rendered more bitter by the transient change.

Having collected a volume of his fugitive verses,,


principally composed in prison, he published it with
a dedication to the princesses, the duchess of Urbino
and Leonora ; but the latter lived not to receive this
mournful proof of the fidelity of his gratitude, if not of
his love. She died, after a long illness, in 1 581, aged 43
years. Tasso enquired earnestly after her during
her sickness, and offered to do any thing in the power
of his muse to beguile that part of her suffering which
song might soothe, while patiently bearing the rest, for
which there was no relief but from Heaven. After her
death he became mute on that theme, which most of
his biographers would fain prove to have been the real
though covert one of many an amorous effusion among
his sonnets and lyrics. " Great griefs are silent."

Among his wild imaginations, Tasso thought himself

haunted in his prison by a sprite something akin to

our old English Robin-good-fellow who (probably

in the very person of his knavish attendant) played

all manner of petty mischievous pranks to plague him.

One extract from a letter on this subject will show how

little command of his reason he had at this time. He says,

"The little thief has stolen from me many crowns, I know

not what number for I do not, like misers, keep an

account of them but perhaps they may amount to

twenty. He turns all my books topsy-turvy, opens

my chests_, and steals my keys, so that I can keep

nothing. I am unhappy at all times, especially during

the night, nor do I know if my disease be frenzy, or

what is its nature." Far more frightful visitations

he complains of during this dreadful interval, all which

seem to prove a lamentable derangement of intellect, of

which he was himself sometimes so conscious, that he

rouses all his powers of reasoning to convince himself

that he has not really lost his wits. To a friend he

writes " I cannot defend any thing from my enemies,

nor from the devil, except my will, with which I will never

consent to learn any thing from him or his followers,

or have wnj familiarity with him or with his magicians.

? * * Amidst so many terrors and pains, there ap-

TASSO. 157

peared to me in the air the image of the glorious Vir-
gin, with her Son in her arms, encircled with clouds of
many colours, so that I ought by no means to despair
of her grace. And though this might be an illusion, because
I am frenetic, troubled with various phantasms, and
full of infinite melancholy, yet, by the grace of God,
I can sometimes cohibere assensum (withhold my as-
sent), which, as Cicero says, being the act of a sound
mind, I am inclined to believe it was a miracle of the
Virgin." This vision he celebrates in one of his most
brilliant sonnets, and also in an elegant madrigal, as-
cribing to her grace the marvellous cure of his mental

In whatever way that cure may have been tempo-
rarily effected, Tasso, after more than seven years'
confinement, was liberated in 1586, at the special
intercession of the prince of Mantua. Alfonso refused
to allow him an audience, and he left Ferrara like a
transport released from prison, to go into perpetual
banishment ; for the duke remained inexorable, and,
indeed, implacable, to the end of his victim's life. For
a while Tasso enjoyed the sudden transition, again
being lodged in the palace of Mantua, faring sump-
tuously, and being admitted to the high, amiable, and
intellectual society of nobles, ladies, and scholars. This
pleasant season was not, however, without relapses of
his fearful disease : the evil spirit came upon him at
times, and all the enchantment of his harp could not
drive it away.

During several years afterwards, the poet wandered
about, as his father had done, from city to city, and
from court to court, experiencing all the vicissitudes of
what is called fortune, but which, in his case, appears
to have been the lot which he chose and cut out for
himself. Princes were ever ready to open their doors
to him, and wherever he was known, he was honoured
according to the reputation which he had so painfully
but unprofitably acquired ; his patrons having only
afforded him hospitality while he abode with them,,


and booksellers having been enriched at his expense
by the spoils of his genius, in a country where the
property of literary men in] their own works was little
acknowledged and less respected. His controversy
with the Delia Cruscan academy during his imprison-
ment, the members of which had invidiously pre-
judiced the public mind against him, the living, whom
their favour might have benefited, by exalting Ariosto,
the dead, whom their preference could not serve,
while it grievously galled him, rather tended to spread
the knowledge, and, necessarily with that knowledge,
the fame of his " Gerusalemme," than permanently to
injure his fair fame. But he himself, from scruples of
conscience and infirmity of mind, became dissatisfied
with it, and employed no small portion of his brief
remaining life in remodelling it, under the title of
" Gerusalemme Conquistata," a scheme in which he
utterly miscarried. His last great poetical attempt,
and worthy of him in his palmy state, was a work on
the creation, entitled the " Sette Giornate" (the Seven
Days), which he left unfinished. It was composed in
versi scidti, which nearly correspond to English blank
verse. There are many passages in this magnificent
fragment, which were evidently so familiar to Milton's
mind, that he fell into the same trains of thought, and
imitated them in the style peculiar to himself, repaying
as much as he borrowed, " stealing and giving odours."
Tasso, soon tiring of Mantua, and even languishing
for Ferrara, though never permitted to return thither,
wore away the residue of his desultory life, principally
at Bergamo, Florence, Rome, and Naples. In the
latter city (his sister being dead), when it \vas too late
for him to enjoy the possession of it, he recovered his
mother's long-disputed dowry, or such a portion of it
as, at an earlier period, might have rendered him inde-
pendent of those eleemosynary supplies from precarious
hands, on which he generally subsisted. About the
same time the pope also settled a pension upon him,
and consented to allow him the honour of a coronation,

TASSO. 159

such as had been granted to Petrarch, two centuries
before. But wealth and honour, such as mortal hands
could confer or withhold at pleasure, came too late for
him. In his latter years, too^ he became acquainted
with Manso, marquis of Villa, his last patron, and his
first biographer ; known in this country as, in his old
age, befriending our Milton, then a youth, on his
travels in Italy, as, in his own youth, he had be-
friended Tasso sinking to the grave under premature

One of the most remarkable circumstances of the
last days of Tasso was the imagination, that he was
occasionally visited by a spirit not the mischievous
Robin-good-fellow of his prison, but a being of far
higher dignity, with whom, alone or in company, he
could hold sublime and preternatural discourse, though
of the two interlocutors none present could see or hear
more than the poet himself, rapt into ecstasy, and
uttering language and sentiments worthy of one who,
with his bodily, yet marvellously enlightened eyes and
purged ears, could distinguish the presence and the
voice of his mysterious visitant. Manso gives a strange
account of such an interview, when he himself stood
by, yet perceived nothing but the half-part which the
poet acted in the scene.

" One day," says the marquis, <e as we were sitting
alone by the fire, he turned his eyes towards the
window, and held them a long time so intensely fixed,
that when I called him he did not answer. At last,
' Lo ! ' said he, f the courteous spirit, which has come
to talk with me ; lift up your eyes and you shall see
the truth/ I turned my eyes thither immediately ;
but though I looked as keenly as I could I beheld
nothing but the rays of the sun, which streamed
through the window-panes into the chamber. Mean-
while Torquato began to hold, with this unknown
being, a most lofty converse. I heard, indeed, and
saw nothing but himself; nevertheless his words, at
one time questioning, and at another replying, were


such as take place between those who reason closely on
some important subject. * * * * Their discourse
was marvellously conducted, both in the sublimity of
the topics, and a certain unwonted manner of talking,
that exalted myself into an ecstasy ; so that I did not
dare to interrupt Torquato about the spirit which he
had announced to me, but which I could not see. In
this way, while I listened between transport and stupe-
faction, a considerable time elapsed ; at length the
spirit departed, as I learned from the words of Tor-
quato, who, turning to me, said, ' From this day
forward, all your doubts will be removed.' ' Rather,'
I replied, f they are increased; for though I have
heard many wonderful things, I have seen nothing to
dispel my doubts.' He smiled, and said, ' You have
seen and heard more of him than perhaps ' here he
broke off, and I, unwilling to trouble him, forbore to
ask further questions; as it was more likely that his
visions and frenzies would disorder my own mind,
than that I should extirpate his true or imaginary

Throughout the year 1594 the poet was so mani-
festly breaking down, both in his bodily and mental
faculties, that his early dissolution was anticipated by
all his friends. He arrived at Rome on the 10th of
November ; when on being introduced to the pope, his
holiness, in the most condescending terms, told him
that he intended to bestow upon him " the crown of
laurel, that from him it might receive as much honour
as, in times past, it had conferred on others." The
winter proving very tempestuous, the ceremonial was
deferred till the succeeding spring. As the time ap-
proached when all his dreams of ambition were to be
thus consummated, Tasso drooped daily both in spirits
and in strength, so that from the 10th of April, when
he was seized with violent fever, no hope could be
entertained of preserving his life. Being informed of
his danger, he thanked the physician for communi-
cating tidings so welcome. Instead, then, of the vain

TASSO. 161

glories of coronation in this world, he set himself to
prepare, according to his religious views, for his last
change to that eternal state^ where nothing could avail
him but to have found that mercy, which is the only
hope of sinful man beyond the grave. On the ^5th of
April he quietly expired, with the words upon his lips
(of which the last were inaudible), " Into thy hands,
O Lord! I commend my spirit." He was aged fifty-
one years.

The personal and poetical character of Tasso are so
strikingly betokened in the incidents of his life, that,
in a memoir, necessarily so circumscribed as the pre-
sent, no further remark on either need be introduced
here. To enter into a critical examination of his
writings, which should at all do justice to their extent,
their diversity and their excellence, of various kinds
whether in prose or verse, w r ould require a distinct
essay, equal in length to the whole of this article.
This, however, is little to be regretted, for, of all the
Italian poets, Tasso is the best known in our country ;
indeed, he has been almost naturalised, for his greatest
work has been oftener translated than any other con-
tinental poem, so that the style, the story, the senti-
ments, the actors, the scenes, the whole fable, with all
its embellishments and adjuncts, are better known to
general readers than those of the " Faerie Queene,"
and, perhaps, it may be said, than those of " Para-
dise Lost" itself, except among that "fit audience,"
which, " though few," Spenser and Milton must for
ever "find," while English poetry holds its place
and that the highest, hitherto in the literature of

Besides several inferior versions, those of the " Jeru-
salem Delivered," by Fairfax, Hoole, Hunt, and Wiffin,
have each some peculiar merit, though it must be con-
fessed, that, in each, so far as regards the diction, that
peculiar merit belongs rather to the translation than to
the author, the grace and harmony of whose verse,
unsurpassed in his own language, is absolutely unap-



proachable in ours. Fairfax's version, in the original
stanza, is masculine and free ; Hoole's, in the heroic
couplet, is easy and commonplace, but as a mere en-
tertaining tale, the most readable of the four ; Hunt's,
in the same measure, may lay great claim to indulgence
for any defect in vigour, on the score of the classic
taste and learning which it displays. Wiffin's is un-
questionably the best ; and it is his own fault that it is
not as good as any reasonable judge could desire a
translation of Tasso to be : but, having chosen to
hamper himself, and to encumber his author, with the
intricate stanza of Spenser, containing an extra-Alex-
andrine line beyond the Italian octave, he has been
compelled to amplify his original one eighth, which
must deduct at least in the same proportion from the
compactness, precision, and symmetry of every corre-
sponding section. How could a master of versification
like Mr. Wiffin, himself a genuine poet, choose to run
such a race, carrying such a weight ? He has won
it, nevertheless, though not in the style that might
have been wished ; yet he that shall hereafter beat him
must be a rival, who, beyond the Alps, would have
been a worthy competitor with Tasso himself, had they
been countrymen and contemporaries.




GABBRIELLO CHIABRERA was born at Savona, a town
on the sea-shore, not far from Genoa, on the 8th of June,
1552. He was born fifteen days after his father's
death, and his mother, Gironima Murasana, being
young when she was left a widow, married again ;
which circumstance caused Chiabrera to be brought up
by an uncle and aunt, brother and sister to his father,
who were both unmarried. At the age of nine, his
uncle, who resided at Rome, took him thither, and gave
him a private tutor, who taught him Latin. He was
twice during childhood assailed by dangerous fevers,
which left him so weak and spiritless, that his uncle
placed him at the Jesuits' college, that he might regain
vigour and hilarity in the company of boys of his own
age. The experiment succeeded, and Chiabrera became
robust and healthy to the end of his long life, During
his juvenile years, his application, memory, and stu-
dious habits attracted the applause of his instructors;
and the Jesuits were desirous of inducing him to become
one of them. The youth showed no disinclination ; but
his uncle watched over him, and prevented that sacrifice
of liberty and independence, which would have ren-
dered him miserable through life. When he was
twenty this good uncle died ; but he had emancipated
himself from monkish influence, and after paying his
relations at Savona a short visit, he returned again to
Rome, where coming accidentally into contact with the
cardinal Comaro Camerlingo, he entered his service, in
which he remained some years.

M 2


His residence at Rome, however, came to a disastrous
termination : he was insulted by a Roman gentleman,
and being forced by the laws of honour to avenge
himself, the consequences obliged him to quit the city ;
nor was he permitted to return till eight years after.
He now took up his abode in his native town, and grew
to love the leisure and independence of his life. At one
time his tranquillity was disturbed by another quarrel,
in which he was wounded; but with his own hand, as
he tells us, took his revenge. He was forced, on this,
to absent himself from Savona ; and remained, as it
were, outlawed for several months, when at last a recon-
ciliation being brought about, he returned and enjoyed
many years of complete tranquillity.

Chiabrera had been born rich, but he was negligent
of his affairs, so that at last his fortune was reduced
to a mere competence ; and this was at one time even
endangered by a lawsuit at Rome, all his property
there being confiscated ; but it was returned to him,
through the intervention of cardinal Aldobrandini.
At the age of fifty he married, but had no children.
With the few interruptions above recorded, he passed a
life cf peaceful leisure, content with his fortunes,
honoured and esteemed by every body, and rendered
happy by the exercise of his talents and imagination.
While at Rome in his early life, he had cultivated the
friendship of literary men j and during his leisure, on
his return to Savona, he occupied himself by reading
poetry as a recreation. His own genius developed itself
as he studied the productions of others. The Greek
poets particularly delighted him ; and perceiving how
much they excelled all other writers, he made them his
study, till, his emulation being awakened, he wrote
some odes in imitation of Pindar : these being much
admired, he was encouraged to continue, still making
the Greek lyrical poets his models, though he did not
confine his admiration to them only. Homer he pre-
ferred to all other writers ; he was charmed by the
versification and imagery of Virgil ; and appreciated in


Dante and Ariosto. the power which they possessed of
felicitously describing and representing the objects which
they desire to bring before their readers.*

Chiabrera had the ambition of forming a new style ;
as he expressed it, he meant to follow the example of
his countryman, Columbus, and to find a new world, or
be wrecked in the attempt. His wish was, to transfuse the
spirit of the Greeks into the Italian language. He per-
ceived that the fault common to the poets of his day.
was a certain cowardice of style, and an obedience to
arbitrary laws, which limited and chilled the poetic
fervour. He shook off' these trammels, and adopted
every possible mode of versification, and even bent the
dialect of Petrarch and Tasso to new and unknown
forms of expression. He was no lover of rhyme, pre-
ferring to it a majestic harmony in the arrangement of
syllables and sound, which he found more musical and
expressive than the mere jingle of a concluding word.
His style thus became at once novel and exalted. He
adorned his verses with pompous epithets and majestic
turns of expression : he was harmonious and dignified,
fervent and spirited.t

As he dedicated nearly the whole of his long life to
the composition of poetry, he has left a vast quantity,
much of which has never been printed, narrative poems,
dramas, odes, canzoni , sonnets, &c.; but his canzoni,
or lyrics, far excel all the rest. This results from his
style being at once more original and beautiful than
his ideas. We are apt to> say, as we read, we have
seen this before, but never so well expressed. He does
not, like Petrarch, anatomise his own feelings, and spend
his heart in grief : even in his love poetry, while he
complains, he does not lament, and there is a sort of
laughing , and vivacious grace and a liquid softness
diffused over these poems in particular, which is in-

* Vita di se stesso. t Muratori.

J There is no English word that gives the exact idea of a canzone; we
call such 1 /rical poems ; yet in Italian they form a class apart.

M 3


finitely charming. One of his most celebrated, begin-

" Belle rose porporine,"

is in praise of his lady's smile. It is impossible for any
thing to be more airy and yet heartfelt he speaks of
how the earth is said to laugh, when, at the morning
hour, a rivulet or a breeze wanders murmuring amid
the grass, or a meadow adorns itself with flowers ;
how the sea laughs, when a light zephyr dips its airy
feet in the clear waters, so that the waves scarcely play
upon the sands ; and how the heavens smile when
morning comes forth, amidst roseate and white flowers,
adorned in a golden veil, and moving along on sapphire
wheels. " When the earth is happy," he says, " she
laughs ; and the heavens laugh when they are gay :
but neither can smile so sweetly and gracefully as you."
The flowing measure, the admirable selection and posi-
tion of the words render this and other similar poems
models of lyrical composition. A fairy-like colouring,
and a thrilling sweetness, like the scent of flowers, in-
vest them, and render them peculiar in their aerial
vivacity and spirited flow.

These lighter and more animated productions have
not been translated ; but, as a specimen of his more
serious style, we select one of the epitaphs or elegiac
poems among those which Mr. Wordsworth has trans-
lated, with his usual accuracy and force of diction :

There never breathed a man who, when his life

Was closing, might not of that life relate

Toils long and hard. The warrior will report

Of wounds, and bright swords flashing in the field,

And blast of trumpets. He, who hath been doom'd

To bow his forehead in the court of kings,

Will tell of fraud and never-ceasing hate,

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 14 of 34)