Page images

poetry, like Homer, because he lived in a cultivated


Neither could he raise a fabric of illusion like Virgil, who founded his poem upon

historical traditions, known to be fables by his contemporaries. But he took the plot, and selected the personages of the Gerusalemme Liberata from authentic monuments, availing himself nevertheless of their sources with the licence which must always be allowed to a poet. The crusades have been described by contemporary writers who witnessed the events which they record. Modern historians have turned their works to good account; but in the time of Tasso they were unknown, or at least forgotten. Hence he drew all his details from the Gesta Dei per Francos: there he found the topography of his fields of battle, and the names and exploits of his heroes. These monkish records taught him the customs of the Turks, the policy of the Grecian emperors, and the military discipline of the Christian besiegers of Jerusalem. If we read the chronicles published by Muratori, we certainly gather more correct information than is furnished by the poem of Tasso, and we gain a truer, yet a more afflicting, knowledge of human nature. But Tasso is the first who dispelled the shades which covered the holy war. His tale is true in its essential parts; and if he deviated from the plain path of history, it was with the intent of exciting posterity to emulate the virtues which adorned their ancestors. Therefore he invokes the muse, who, crowned not with the perishable laurels of Helicon, but with eternal radiance, is throned above, and implores her pardon for the ornaments which he has woven into the web of truth.

O Musa, tu che di caduchi allori
Non circondi la fronte in Elicona
Ma lassù in cielo fra' beati cori
Hai di stelle immortali aurea corona,
Tu spira al petto mio celesti ardori,
Tu rischiara il mio canto, e tu perdona,

Se intesso fregi al ver. Homer displays the same attachment to historical tradition; and he extols the omnipotence and wisdom of the immortals by a comparison with the ignorance and weakness of mankind. His invocation is sublime. Pope has tamed it by his luxuriancy,

Say, virgins, seated round the throne divine,
All-knowing goddesses, immortal nine,
Since earth's wide regions, heaven's unmeasured height,
And hell's abyss, hide nothing from your sight,
We wretched mortals, lost in doubts below,

But guess by rumour, and but boast we know.' When such invocations were poured forth by Homer and Tasso, their verses were as sacred to their contemporaries as the orisons мм 3


of the priest at the altar. Homer and Tasso, like Dante and Milton, did not consider poetry as mere amusement, nor did they seek alone to entertain an idle reader; they wrote with heartfelt warmth and dignity on subjects which they considered to be sublime and beautiful in themselves, and important to the world.

Romantic poetry is separated from heroic poetry by a boundary so definite and so clearly marked, that it is strange the distinction should hitherto have escaped observation. Entertainment alone is the object of the poet of romance; he endeavours to inflame the imagination by an endless succession of diversified adventures and fairy visions. While the heroic poet strives to ennoble our intellect; he labours to afford instruction, by compelling us to listen with breathless attention to a narrative of which the substratum is historical truth; and in which he details events of such magnitude, that they must ever excite the curiosity of posterity. Though ages have rolled away, the topographer still studies the situation of the towns which fitted out the navy of Agamemnon. We plan the Grecian camp, and measure the site of Troy, and ascend the sepulchral mounds which cover the ashes of the besieging warriors. New nations may people the civilized world, new doctrines may be held, new languages may be spoken, and yet the pilgrim will be guided by Tasso to the rock from whence the very ruins of Jerusalem may have disappeared. Tasso did not err against poetical probability by introducing magic and enchantments, and sprites and demons; we have already made some observations on these subjects, which prove that he was justified in adopting the creed of popular superstition. We must not indeed judge of poetical machinery according to our present belief, but according to the opinions which prevailed when the poet was writing : he could not foretell either our credulity or our incredulity.

Whole academies have been leagued in conspiracy against Tasso. His laurels have been nibbled by critics, who, strange to say, united the discordant characters of pedants, poets, and courtiers: and foreigners of unquestionable talent, forgetting the respect which was due to their own celebrity, have sat in judgment on a poem which they could not read. This perhaps may be considered as a venial offence: but they have wantonly stigmatized the reputation of the author for the poor pleasure of saying* a good thing. Sometimes Tasso has been censured


A lucky word in a verse, which sounds well and every body gets by heart, goes farther than a volume of just criticism. The exact but cold Boileau happened to say something of the clinquant of Tasso, and the magic of this word, like the report of Astolfo's born in Ariosto, overturned at once the solid well-built reputation of Italian poetiy: It is not so amazirg that this potent word should do the business in France ; it put us into a fright on this side of the water. Mr. Addison, who gave the law in taste



because he copied fewer classical passages than Ariosto ; some-
times he has been blamed as loudly on account of his frequent
imitations. Perhaps he does occasionally appear to be too close
an imitator of detached passages from the ancients : his copies
preserve the severity of the originals; but if he cannot equal
Homer, he is often superior to Virgil. According to the just ob-
servation of Mr. Payne Knight, the simile of the nightingale lament-
ing her young ones, which Virgil introduced in the Georgics, and
which he borrowed from the Odyssey, is not borrowed from na-
ture. Tasso has graced it with an expression which comes homo
to the human heart.

Lei nel partir, lei nel tornar del sole
Chiama con voce mesta e prega e plora;
Come usignuol cui villan duro invole
Dal nido i figli non pennuti ancora ;
Che in miserabil canto afflitte e sole
Piange le notti, e n' empie i boschi e l'ora.
Alfin co' l nuovo di rinchiude alquanto

I lumi; e il sonno in lor serpe fra il pianto.
Tasso was fated to be exposed to contradictory censures.

was persecuted by the admirers of Ariosto, because the Gerusa-
lemme Liberata was unlike the Orlando Furioso. On the other
hand, the cold scholastic critics of Italy were equally anxious to
depreciate the merits of a poem, whose author had not chosen to
become a slavish imitator of the plan of classical epics, Homer
and Virgil, their exclusive standards. National prejudices also
came into play against him. He wrote at Ferrara, surrounded by
the friends and disciples of Ariosto, and there he was a stranger.
The Florentines were equally ungenerous; they tried to blast the
fame of Tasso, because his native soil was not on the banks of
Arno; and because he had committed another grievous sin in their
estimation: he would not submit to the rule of those far famed
trifiers, the Della Cruscan academicians. The authority of this
tyrannical oligarchy arose about thirty years after the death of
Ariosto. The Florentines, who could no longer occupy them-
selves with their political independence, which they had lost,
found serious employment in the discussion of grammatical ques-
tions. Even the noble-minded Galileo could not resist the con-
tagion, but shared in the petty illiberality of his countrymen, and
imbibed all the pedantry of the Tuscan sciolists. It had been long
known, from the correspondence of Galileo, that he had drawn a
parallel between Tasso and Ariosto; the work, however, was not
published till within the last twenty years, when Serassi discovered
here, took it up and sent it about the kingdom in his polite and popular essays. It
became a sort of watchword amongst his critics here; and on the sudden, nothing was
heard on all sides but the cliuquant of Tasso.'-Dr. Hurd's Remarks on the Fairy
MM 4


it in a Roman library. It is imperfect, and we suspect that parts have been suppressed by the editor, the enthusiastic biographer of Tasso. Galileo owed the richness, the purity, and the luminous evidence of his prose to his constant study of poetry; but he has anatomised the ornate diction of the Gerusalemme with sterpness and severity; and certainly, in style and language, the poem cannot be thought equal to the Orlando Furioso. Galileo conpares passages taken from Tasso and Ariosto, which describe the same objects, and where the heroes are placed in equivalent situations. This process ensures a triumph to Ariosto, for be never scrupled to sacrifice the harmony of his entire poem to its scattered beauties; whilst Tasso always endeavoured to keep the details in due subordination to his general plan. Tasso, according to Galileo, ekes out bis stanzas by dovetailing them with intarsiature (or inlaid work). This is true ; but it is a fault which Tasso shares in common, not only with Ariosto, but with all other writers of rhymem-shall we say in common with all other writers of poctry? The Greek and Latin poets were not condemned to write in rhyme. They were extremely anxious to preserve the simplex dumtaxat et unum in all their images and phrases ; yet they were frequently compelled to have recourse to mosaic. If many of the hexameters of Virgil come down to us as hemiştichs, he left them so on account of his dread of intarsiature. And Horace, in defiance of his own maxim, has only composed his odes by piecing them, though with infinițe skill and workmauship. Galileo forgets these examples.

His criticism is incontestable as an abstract truth; but he applies it to Tasso with dogmatical harshness. Frequently his criticisms are nothing but paltry sophisms uttered in abusive language. Galileo was the Jeast envious and the most benevolent of men; a genius to whom Sir Isaac Newton acknowledges many obligations, and who, both as a writer and a philosopher, is ranked by Hume above Lord Bacon: but he affords another proof that the human mind is elevated or degraded by the task on which it is employed, and by its passions and feelings.

Innumerable volumes of affected criticism have been produced by the literary factions, which in Italy are yet called by the names of Ariostisti, and Tassisti. The former, Jike Galileo, marshal phrases against phrases; the latter expound the precepts of Aristotle and Horace in favour of the Gerusalemme. Tasso intended to confine his career within a definite bound. He never allows himself to deviate from the main path, save only on those occasions when he can justify his deviations by their fitness. He measures his strength so as to reach the goal without fatigue, and he becomes more rapid whilst he advances. In the first cantos of his Gerusalemme, we are guided by the poet; in the next series



[ocr errors][merged small]

we are invited to proceed; and in the last we are absolutely hurried on with delight. When the Gerusalemme has been once perused

with attention, it is presented to the mind like a Grecian temple,
of which the entire can be contemplated in a single glance. Ad-
ditional study is not required to further our comprehension, but
it will convince us that the artist gave proportion to his details by
maturing his genius with thought and reflection. When the sub-
ject is luxuriant, and Tasso feels that bis imagination becomes too
exalted by the theme, he instantly restrains his fancy. We see him
in the car, the steeds have quenched their thirst with the fount of
Hippocrene, they are fed with flame and air, and their harness is the
gift of the sun ; but at the instant that they are dashing along the
skies he reins them in.?

Presente odi il nitrito
De' corsieri Dircei ; benchè Ippocrene
Li dissetasse, e li pascea dell' aure
Eolo, e prenunzia un' aquila volava,
E de' suoi freni gli adornava il Sole ;

Pur que' vaganti alipedi ci contenne.
Tasso is delicate and even scrupulous; he avoids all objects
but those which are intrinsically beautiful, and whose grandeur is
incontrovertible. The description of the gardens of Armida has
been successfully translated and amplified by Spenser; and the
English poet has shewn that an admirable effect may be produced
by freedom of fancy and unstudied irregularity. But in whatever
manner the descriptions of Tasso are imitated, they preserve their
primitive beauty. He had not only selected and arranged his mate-
rials, but he had settled the place which each was to occupy.
Before he wrote a line, he had the poem complete and finished in:
his mind, like Michael Angelo, who saw the statue in the block of
marble lying before him. Compare Rodomonte and Orlando
with Soliman and Tancred, and the heroes of romantic chivalry
appear gigantic; but they are beings whom other mortals cannot
emulate, and as soon as our astonishment ceases, our' admiration is
checked. But we think longer on the warriors of Tasso, because
their characters are more within compass. Argante is an undaunted
partisan: the love of glory and hatred of the Christian name are
his only passions ; his virtues are barbarian pride and candour.
But he does not attack an entire army single-handed, like a hero
of romance; on the contrary, he prepares himself for his enter-
prizes with the wary caution of an experienced leader. After the
conquest of Jerusalem, he enters a valley where he meets Tancredi,
to finish the mortal combat.

Quì si fermano entrambi : e pur sospeso
Volgeasi Argante a la cittade affitta.
Vede Tancredi che il pagan difeso


[ocr errors]


« PreviousContinue »