Dionysius Lardner.

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which a comedy of his was represented with great
splendour. Chiabrera wrote the interludes, and the ar-
chitect Viamini arranged the scenery and decorations.

The last years of his life were taken up by the law-
suits, which so strangely chequered his career. He hired
a lodging at Venice, where many of his causes were
decided, as near as possible to the courts, and frequently
visited that city to attend the proceedings ; and he made
a last journey to Rome at the time that two suits were
decided in his favour. On his return to Venice he was
seized by a fever, of which he died, after an illness of
seventeen days, on the 7th of October, l6l2, at the
age of seventy-five.


" Tu che ne vai in Pindo,
Ivi pende mia cetra ad un cipresso,
Salutala in inio nome, e dille j>oi
Ch' io son dagl' anni e da fortuna oppresso."

" Thou, who to Pindus tak'st thy way,

Where hangs my harp upon the cypress tree,
Salute it in my name, and say,
I am bow'd down with years and misery."

THESE few lines, which, in the simple and beautiful
original, show what a burthen of thought and power of
feeling may be compressed within the smallest compass
that language will allow, were written by Torquato
Tasso, during his second confinement as a lunatic in
the hospital of St. Anne, at Ferrara, by the duke of
Alfonso, his patron and his oppressor. They were
written when all Europe was listening to the voice of
his song, but heard not that of his complaint ; in the
meridian of his glory as a poet, and in the depth of his
humiliation as a man. A spectacle more deplorable and
repulsive could hardly be presented to the eye of hu-
manity ; nor a fame more enviable and attractive be
contemplated by young " spirits of finer mould," to
tempt them to hazard all perils of such suffering for the
acquisition of such renown. This fragment a specimen
of thousands of fancies, no doubt, equally exquisite and
affecting, which were continually passing through the
darkened chamber of his mind, more dreary than the
gloom of his prison-house has been quoted at the com-
mencement of this memoir, as letting the reader at once
into the whole mystery of the poet's life, by a single flash
of his genius affording a glance at his afflictions. What
these were, a long and melancholy tale must unfold ;
what their effect was may be painfully conceived, when
we recollect that he was scarcely turned upon forty, at


the time that he sends the message to his forlorn harp
in the woods of Pindus, that he is "oppressed with
years and ill fortune," " dagl' anni e da fortuna op-

If ever man was born a poet, it might be said so of
Tasso; while his whole manner of life, not less than its
remarkable vicissitudes, exemplified the poetic character,
as it has been idealised in our minds from infancy, by
the impressions left upon them, both from fabling tra-
ditions and authentic records, concerning these privi-
leged, but on the whole (perhaps) unhappy, beings.
The price of greatness must be paid, in labour or suf-
fering, by every man who would distinguish himself in
any way above his fellow- creatures ; and the poet (no
more, it may be, though apparently much more, than
the prince, the warrior, the statesman, or the philo-
sopher,) must endure hardships, mental and personal,
in proportion to his enjoyments, and be humbled in the
same degree that he is exalted above the common lot.
Among any ten names, which might be mentioned as
having secured an imperishable pre-eminence beyond
the Probability of revolution, in the same walk of polite
literature, Tasso's undoubtedly would be one. At what
an expense it was acquired, we proceed to show in a
train of events, almost as romantic, and a thousand times
more touching, than any thing in his own diversified
fictions. He was a poet in every thing and at all times,
from infancy (if we may believe his biographers) till he
died in extreme old age (if we measure his life by his
own testimony above quoted), in his fifty-second year !
Smiles and tears, rapture and agony, hope and despond-
ency, a palace and a dungeon,, were the alternations 1
frequently crossing in the course of one who was the
companion of princes, the delight of ladies, the admira-
tion of the world, an outcast, a wanderer, clothed in
rags and asking bread, or the lonely tenant of a maniac's
cell. Such was he, and such were the changes of his

Torquato was the son of Bernardo Tasso, himself a



poet of first rank in his generation, and who has left
works, both in prose and verse, to which posterity is
yet willing to give honour ; but which suffer more
eclipse by proximity to the surpassing splendour of his
son's, than might have been their lot had he appeared
by himself, the single one of his race, who had proved
how hard, and yet how possible, it is to climb

" The steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar."

Bernardo was the descendant of an honourable line of
ancestors, one of whom, nearly two centuries before
him, had been a benefactor to the public, by first intro-
ducing the method of epistolary intercourse through the
medium of posts ; and, leaving to his children the repu-
tation which he had acquired in the conduct of these,
they became his successors, not only in establishments
for that purpose in their own country, but some of them
in lands beyond the Alps. It is said that noble al-
liances were formed by various branches of the Tasso
family, in Spain and in Flanders, while others became
sovereign princes in Germany, that menagerie for po-
tentates of all genera and species, from the two-headed
eagle of Austria to the wren of * * * *. It would be
invidious to set down one out of a hundred who might
contend for the honour of filling up the blank, as the least
of the little among the great. But, whatever were the
hereditary glories of a name, drawn like a golden chain
out of the darkness of the past, and connected, as that
of the obscurest peasant in a civilised country may be
presumed to have been, with all the varieties of rank,
all the gradations of intellect, and all the changes of
good and evil fortune, of all the links which formed
that chain, those of Bernardo and Torquato were and
have remained the most illustrious, though the consecu-
tive or collateral series has been continued to the present
day, when the representatives are still found at Bergamo.
Bernardo, who was born in 14Q3, being left an
orphan in early youth, with two dependent sisters to
provide for out of a very slender patrimony, was com-


pelled to quarter himself on the patronage of sundry
princes and prelates, who, according to the fashion of
the times some from parade, and others from attach-
ment to the noble arts, loved to have men of genius
and letters in their train. Many of these, indeed, were
kept, not only to adorn their courts and swell their
pomp, but were employed as secretaries and counsellors,
as well as occasionally entrusted with important em-
bassies, which, both in war and peace, were frequent
between the commonwealths and principalities into
which Italy was divided, and by whose conflicting in-
terests, or under the malignant influence of whose petty
intrigues (the rank growth of such a state of society),
it was continually more or less distracted. Bernardo
was, therefore, from the pressure of circumstances, a
restless and homeless man through the principal part of
his life, serving the great without serving himself, for
precarious bread j and at once pursuing fortune and
fame, in the vain hope of being at length - - and at
length and at length rewarded for his fidelity to his
masters with the former, and leaving an inheritance of
the latter, which should as much exalt his family by
distinction in literature, as others had aggrandised it by
the acquirement of riches and alliances with rank, at
home and abroad.

At the age of forty-one, after a youth of liberal study,
sanguine anticipation, and cherished but ill-directed
love for a lady of great beauty and no less celebrity,
having been praised by Ariosto in the unsuccessful
pursuit of which he compensated himself and delighted
his countrymen with the blandishments of poetry, he
was at length appointed secretary to Ferrante Sanseve-
rino, prince of Salerno. Him Bernardo accompanied
through many strange vicissitudes of prosperity and
misfortune, in the court and in the battle-field ; till, at
the end of a few years, he shared so grievously, yet so
magnanimously, in the ruin of his patron, that, the
latter being involved in a conspiracy against the vice-
regal government of Naples, and compelled to flee int<

H 2


France, the poet followed him thither at the sacrifice of
his small estate, and an income which had just raised
him above want. Before this ebbing in the tide of his
affairs, which,, " taken at the flood " (had that not been
arrested in its advance), he might reasonably have ex-
pected would have led on to fortune, he had married a
lady of Naples, named Portia Rossi, an heiress in ex-
pectance, and of great personal and mental accomplish-
ments. This was the golden age of Bernardo's life.
After the revelry of fancy and romance which had
carried him away during his former passion, wherein
his heart had little share, the love of affection endeared
him to his home, and he felt the transition like one who
exclaims, ' f How sweet is daylight and fresh air!"
after the midnight splendour of the ball-room, with the
dream-like fascinations of music, dancing, and spectacle,
which vanish as effectually as fairy palaces conjured up
in the wilderness, and leave the heart desolate.

While Bernardo was at Naples, he commenced a poem
of the romantic class on the adventures of Amadis de
Gaul, or " Amadigi," as the work is entitled. This he
projected upon the regular plan of a fable, having a
beginning, middle, and end ; but he was not of sufficient
authority to establish, by his example, a classical form
of epic, though his more successful and more gifted son
seems to have borrowed the idea of doing that from
him. When he read the first cantos of this perform-
ance, as originally constructed, he observed, that though
the presence chamber of the court of Salerno was well
filled at first with eager and expecting auditors, before
he had done nearly all of them had disappeared. From
this he concluded (not suspecting any deficiency of
power in himself), that the unity of action prescribed
by the severer critics was, in its very nature, not agree-
ble to nature in art, knowing that he had punctiliously
observed all the rules of the latter. This failure, en-
forced by the persuasions of his friends, and the com-
mands of the prince, induced him to remodel what he
had written, and elaborate the remainder after the

TASSO. 101

precedents of Pulci, Boiardo, and Ariosto. The work
was extended to a hundred cantos, and, when published,
was so well received, that the author had cause to
congratulate himself on having met the public taste
and gratified it ; but it was the public taste of the day
only, for his poem passed away with the fashion of it,
and is now remembered among et things that were/'
while the three productions of his afore-named prede-
cessors still keep their graduated rank of ascent, and
find readers in every age, notwithstanding all the de-
fects and excesses that may be charged upon them.
Bernardo's failed ; less, perhaps, because of its infe-
riority, than because it did not display the proportionate
superiority which the others had each in turn mani-
fested over all its respective forerunners.

It was while Bernardo resided at Sorrento, a city in
the vicinity of Naples, where he occupied a palace over-
looking the sea, happy in his home, and prosperous, or
rather promising himself prosperity in his fortune, the
prince of Salerno having released him from all burden-
some duties in his service, that his son Torquato, the
second of that name (the first having died young), was
born, on the llth of March, 1544. Sorrento is here
put down as the birth-place of the poet, among other
cities contending for that honour, like those seven

" that strove for Homer dead,

Through which the living Homer begg'd his bread."

Ath. I. 384.

For of Tasso, in the sequel, a sarcasm as bitter might
be recorded. A daughter, elder than either of the boys,
was at this time growing up under the eyes of their
parents. A letter of the father's (previous to our
Torquato's birth) to his sister Afra, who had retired
into a convent, gives a lively glimpse of Bernardo's
affectionate and domestic character.* " My young
daughter is very beautiful, and affords me great hopes

* The translation is from Dr. Black's valuable Life of Tasso, from whic'i
other occasional quotations may be hereafter made, with this brief but
g ratefu\ acknowledgment.

H 3


that she will lead a virtuous and honourable life. My
infant son" - Torquato the first- - " is before God our
Creator., and prays for your salvation. My Portia is
seven months gone with child ; whether a son or a
daughter, it shall be supremely dear to me ; only may
God, who gives it me, grant that it may be born with
his fear ; pray together with the holy nuns that the
Almighty may preserve the mother, who in this world
is my highest joy." It is ludicrous, yet affecting, to
observe what little circumstances are eagerly laid hold
upon after death, respecting the personal history of men
who, during their lives, were neglected in their hardest
trials, or oppressed in their helplessness by those who
were bound to protect and foster them. The very hour
of Tasso's birth, as well as the place, has been contested
against his own authority : he says that it was four
o'clock in the morning ; Serassi, that it was mid-day.
" He ought to have been born at Naples," says Manso,
et though he happened first to appear at Sorrento." It
may be settled that he was a native of Italy rather than
of any place where he may first have seen the light, in
a country throughout which he was a stranger and a
pilgrim all his days. Indeed, he ought to have been
born on the sea; so little claim, on the ground of
paternal kindness shown to him, had any city in the
peninsula to the glory of his birth.

Scarcely had he been welcomed into the world under
auspices so cheering as those recently mentioned, than
the fortunes of his family took an adverse turn. Ber-
nardo was summoned away from the delightful retire-
ment of Sorrento, to join his patron in the war which
had just broken out between the emperor Charles V.
and Francis L, and in which the prince brilliantly dis-
tinguished himself. Meanwhile, if we are to believe
his nursery traditions, the little Torquato was giving,
even from his cradle, proofs of the spirit that was in
him, scarcely less extraordinary than if, like Hercules,
he had strangled serpents, or like another poet of old,
attracted bees to his lips, whether to gather or to de-

TASSO. 103

posit sweetness there we need not stay to enquire.
Manso, his latest and most munificent patron, his first
and most encomiastic biographer, (whose memoir, like
Boccaccio's of Dante, reads more like romance than
reality in many passages, and no where more than in
this instance,) says, that the child, even during his first
year, gave evidence of the divinity of his genius. For
scarcely had he attained his sixth month, when, con-
trary to the usage of children, he began not only to
let loose his tongue (or to prattle a snodar la lingua),
but even to speak outright, and that in such a manner
that he was never known to lisp (or clip) his syllables,
as all other infants do, but formed his words complete,
and gave them perfect utterance. If this be true,
his marvellous faculty of speech, like the produce of a
premature spring, must have suffered an early blight :
for he himself records that, in speaking, he was little
favoured by nature, having an unconquerable impedi-
ment of tongue ; whence he preferred to communicate
his thoughts rather in writing than by the audible
voice, when he meant to win attention or produce im-
pression. His own testimony is so far at variance with
the assertion of his friend Manso respecting his early
fluency, that he appeals for confirmation of the fact
that he is a stammerer (probably to no very inconvenient
degree) to some of his correspondents. But we are
told, on the same authority, that the infant was equally
precocious in the faculties of the mind ; that he could
reason, explain his thoughts, and answer questions with
surprising intelligence. Moreover, to crown the climax,
it is said that he seldom cried, and never laughed j the
only exception, it may be presumed, of a healthy child
since the world began ; but that he was grave, dignified,
and sage, and announced by his behaviour that he was
destined for some great design.

On the return of Bernardo from the army, he en-
joyed a brief prolongation of his domestic quiet at Sor-
rento, during which all that a romantic father and a
passionately tender mother could do to awaken, cherish,

H 4


and confirm the early intimations of transcendent in-
tellect in their darling son, was employed ; and such
discipline, by its natural effect, no doubt, coloured and
characterised their son's mind, in the sequel, to the end
of life. In one of Bernardo's letters to Portia, during
his late absence, he says, that, while he leaves to her
the delicate task to adorn their daughter Cornelia with
every virtue and accomplishment which becomes a
maiden, he intends himself to train up their young Tor-
quato for his more arduous station in society, when he
should be of proper age. This purpose was never re-

In 1552, the prince of Salerno and his adherents
being declared rebels, Bernardo, as one of the most
attached of his friends, was included in the proscrip-
tion : his estate was confiscated, and an income of $00
scudi lost ; leaving him utterly destitute of resources,
with the exception of a few valuable trinkets, and the
hope of some time recovering his wife's dowry a
hope which outlived himself, and which he bequeathed
as a perpetual plague of expectation and disappointment
to his son, who, as will be seen, obtained a decree to
have it, against his mother's brothers, nearly at his own
last hour. Bernardo being thus driven into exile, his
wife remained with the children at Naples, in very
narrow circumstances, though amongst wealthy relatives,
who seem always to have treated her and her offspring
with unnatural hard-heartedness. Torquato, mean-
while, under her superintendence, was making progress
in the general rudiments of knowledge ; but especially
in the acquisition of languages, in rhetoric, and in poetry,
proportioned to the promise of his earlier years. His
principal tutor was one Angeluzzo, at a college of the
Jesuits, recently established in that city. So eager
and intent was he in quest of knowledge (such as lay
within his reach), that his mother, so far from having
to urge or bribe him onward, was obliged, for his
health's sake, to restrain him. Early and late he was
at his books ; and on the winter's mornings he was sent

TASSO. 105

from his home to the school with a lantern and servant
to conduct him. At seven years of age he was already
a considerable proficient in the Greek and Latin tongues,
and had begun to exercise himself in oral eloquence and
written composition ; but no genuine specimens of
either of these have been preserved.

The following beautiful and touching lines, in which
he alludes to the worst period of his life, his separ-
ation from his mother, when called away from Naples to
join his father at Rome, have been absurdly attributed
to him as actually penned at this date. Hoole, and
even Hunt, two of his modern translators, have fallen
into this error whereas a moment's consideration would
convince any man, who understood the difference
between adult poetry and puerile attempts at rhyming,
that such verses, at such an age, (nine years !) would
have been sufficiently remarkable to justify belief in the
fables of his babyhood, when he sat talking pretty un-
broken Italian on his mother's knee, before he was
twelve months old.

The passage occurs in a figurative canzonet on the
river Metauso, but addressed to the duke of Urbino,
imploring refuge and protection in his adversity.
Though left unfinished, the fragment is acknowledged
to be one of the most exquisitely wrought of all the
author's lyrics :

" Me dal sen della madre empia Fortuna
Pargoletto divelse : ah ! di que' baci,
Ch' ella bagno di lagrime dolenti,
Con sospir mi rimembra, e degli ardenti
Preghi, che sen portar 1' aure fugaci,
Ch' io giunger non dovea piii volto a. volto -
Fra quelle braccia accolto
Con nodi cosi stretti, e si tenaci.
Lasso ! e seguii con mal sicure piante,
Qual Ascanio, o Cammilla, il padre errante."

" Me, from a tender mother's breast,

Stern Fortune, while an infant, tore ;
Ah ! I remember how she press'd,

Press'd me, and kiss'd me, o'er and o'er,
Bathed with her tears, with doleful sighs,

Breathed for me many a fervent prayer,
Which, ere itreach'd the skies,

Was scatter'd by the passing air.


" For I was nevermore to meet
That parent face to face,
Clasp' d in her dear embrace,

\\ith folds so strait, so binding and so sweet.
Alas ! 't was mine thenceforth to roam

\Vith ill-supporting feet,
And, like Ascanius o'er the trackless floods,
Or young Camilla, cast on wilds and woods,

Follow a wandering father without home."

These lines breathing forth such grateful recollec-
tions of maternal tenderness, watching, weeping, pray-
ing, over a most beloved and affectionate child, from
whom she was parting for ever, and who was destined
to be far greater than even she, in her fondest entrance-
ment, could have hoped remind us of our own Cow-
per's filial reminiscences, in " words that weep," trans-
lating " tears that speak," on receiving, at a more
distant period of a suffering life, his mother's picture :
at sight of which, for a while, he lived over again, with a
thousand times more intense delight, the scenes of infancy,
renewed, like a vision of pre-existence in some happier
state than that which had intervened since he had borne
the burthen and heat of a long day of life consumed in
anguish of spirit, for which, on this side of the grave,
he found no solace, and beyond it, no hope for his be-
wildered mind ; dark as Egypt under the ninth plague
in that quarter, though, in every other, light as the
land of Goshen. Between Tasso and Cowper there
were many traits of sad as well as noble resemblance
kindred genius, a kindred malady, and kindred
misfortunes ; but not kindred alleviations : the advan-
tage here was on our countryman's side ; but his dis-
ease lay deeper than that of the former, and the
symptoms, if not so violent after the first terrible attack,
were more inveterate ; so that, contemplating the fate
of the glorious Italian under eclipse, and pitying him
with a sympathy which no man living but himself
could feel, Cowper might have drawn the same com-
parison between Tasso's case and his own, as he has
done in those heart-wringing verses (the last which
he is recorded to have composed) under the title of
" The Castaway." These were founded upon a cir-

TASSO. 107

cumstance mentioned in Anson's Voyage, of a sailor
who fell overboard in a storm, when the ship could
not be stayed to rescue him, but who followed in its
wake, crying after it, and being heard by his com-
panions,, while he

" lived an hour

In ocean, self-upheld ;

And ever, as the minutes flew,

Entreated help, or cried 'adieu.' "

* * * *

" At length he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank."]

The melancholy poet adds, in reference to himself,

" Misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in another's case.

* * * *

No voice divine the storm allay'd,

No light propitious shone,
When snatch'd from all effectual aid,

We perish'd, each alone ;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And 'whelm'd in deeper gulfs than he."

Both of Tasso's parents had early and deeply im-
pressed upon his mind and his affections veneration
and love to God. In his tenth year the Jesuit fathers,
following up the religious instructions of this child
of promise according to their views of the Gospel, ad-
mitted him to the sacrament ; on which occasion,
though he acknowledges, in one of his epistles, that he

Online LibraryDionysius LardnerEminent literary and scientific men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal .. (Volume 2) → online text (page 9 of 34)