This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 5. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 1-7.

Torquato Tasso and Giordano Bruno, though usually included among the authors of the later Renaissance, may perhaps be better classed with the moderns. In their day the spirit of the Renaissance was worn out, and was replaced by the nervous fear which is visible all through the life of Tasso. The church authorities were endeavoring to make Rome moral by methods which might have commended themselves to the English Puritans, and commendable as was this attempt to restrain the license of the earlier Renaissance, it was still an example of the attempt to repress which was being made everywhere in Italy, and which succeeded because it had only to deal with men of a weak generation.

The life of Tasso is of itself enough to show under what a gloomy cloud literature had to work in Italy all through the later sixteenth century. It was a life of dependence dominated by fear--fear of rivals, of accusations of heresy, and even of murder. He was born in 1544, the third son of Bernardo Tasso, who was secretary to the prince of Palermo, later becoming a dependent at the court of Urbino, where Torquato, who developed into a handsome and brilliant lad, became the companion in sports and studies of the heir to the dukedom. Here the boy read much, but nothing of the law, for which profession he was intended, and wrote his epic poem, the Rinaldo, much to the displeasure of his father, who wished him to qualify for a lucrative calling.


But Torquato had resolved to be a poet, and as it was necessary to find a patron for him, he was introduced to the court of Ferrara. He was now in his twenty-first year, tall, handsome, graceful, and somewhat of an athlete. He had already begun his great epic, Jerusalem Delivered, and his tragedy of Torrismondo, and had written his Discourses on Epic Poetry. The duke of Ferrara, Alphonso II d'Este, received him graciously, and appears to have treated him, in the main, with, great kindness. The lyrical drama Aminta was composed and performed during the earlier years of the poet's stay at this typical Italian court.


When Tasso accompanied Cardinal Luigi d'Este to Paris he imagined that some treason was being plotted against him at home. Later he thought he had been accused of heresy, and refused to be pacified by the assurance of the duke and the head of the Inquisition, to whom he submitted his writings. He fled twice from Ferrara, and twice came back. He began to accuse the duke of intending to have him murdered, and finally drew his dagger in the palace on a servant whom he suspected of trying to poison him.

In other respects Tasso behaved so much like a lunatic that finally the duke's long sufferance gave way, and the poet was sent without ceremony to the madhouse at Santa Anna, where he was kept for more than seven years, but was not harshly treated. After a few months he obtained spacious apartments, received the visits of friends, went abroad attended by responsible acquaintances, and corresponded freely with whomsoever he pleased. In his epistles he always spoke respectfully and even affectionately of the duke; but what appears in them most clearly is that he labored under a serious mental disease and was conscious of it. He complains that his disorder at times amounted to frenzy, after which his memory was weakened and his intellectual faculties enfeebled. He saw visions and heard phantom voices. Spirits made away with his books and papers. The old dread of poison returned. His bodily condition grew gradually worse, and though he does not seem to have suffered from acute attacks of illness, the physical and intellectual constitution of the man was out of gear.

Yet everything that came from the insane poet's pen this period was carefully preserved by the Italians. In the year 1580, he heard that part of his Gerusalemme was being published without his permission and without his corrections. Next year the whole poem was given to the world, and in the following six months seven editions issued from the press. The prisoner at Santa Anna had no control over his editors, and from the masterpiece which placed him on a level with Petrarch and Ariosto be never received one penny of pecuniary profit. Battista Guarini, then a rival poet at the court of Ferrara, undertook to revise and reëdit his poems in 1582, and Tasso, in his cell, had to allow odes and sonnets, poems of personal feeling, occasional pieces of compliment, to be collected and amended, without lifting a voice in the matter.


In 1586 Tasso left Santa Anna at the solicitation of Vincenzo Gonzaga, prince of Mantua. He followed his young deliverer to that city, basked a while in liberty and courtly pleasures, enjoyed a splendid reception at his paternal town of Bergamo, and produced his tragedy of Torrismondo. But within a few months the poet grew discontented. Gonzaga, succeeding to his father's dukedom, had scanty leisure to bestow upon him, and Tasso felt neglected. In the autumn of 1587 we find him journeying through Bologna and Loreto to Rome, and taking up his quarters there with an old friend, Scipione Gonzaga, then patriarch of Jerusalem. Next year he wandered off to Naples, where he wrote a dull poem entitled Monte Oliveto, returning to Rome in 1589 and again taking up his quarters with the patriarch. But the servants found him insufferable and turned him out of doors, after which he fell ill and went to a hospital. In 1590 the patriarch again received him; but Tasso's restless spirit drove him forth to Florence; yet soon to Rome once more, then Mantua, then Florence, then Rome, then Naples, then Rome again. Such is the weary record for the years 1590-4 of a man who "wandered like the world's rejected guest," and yet was always met with the honor due to his illustrious name. At this time everything came amiss to Tasso, even though the palaces of princes, patriarchs, cardinals, nay even of popes, were open to him. But he could rest in none; he was out of joint with the world, and no sensuous comforts, no tranquility of living soothed his vexed soul.


But just when mental disorder, physical weakness and decay of inspiration seemed dooming Tasso to oblivion, his old age was cheered with a ray of hope. Clement VIII, who ascended the papal chair in 1592, and his nephew, Cardinal Aldobrandino, determined to befriend the poet. Two years later they invited him to Rome, where he was to assume the crown of bays, as Petrarch had assumed it, on the Capitol. Lean and worn with sickness, and ready to totter into the tomb, where at length rest might be found, he reached Rome in November. The ceremony was deferred because the cardinal had fallen ill, but the pope assigned the poet a pension and induced Prince Avellino, who held Tasso's maternal estate, to discharge a portion of his claims by the payment of a yearly rent charge. At no time since he left Santa Anna had the heavens so smiled upon him; money and Capitolian honors were now at his disposal; but his good fortune came too late. Before the crown was worn or the pension paid, came his last illness, while ascending to the convent of St. Onofrio on a stormy April day in 1595. Seeing a cardinal's coach toiling up the steep Travertine hill, the good monks came to the door to meet it. From the carriage stepped forth the Odysseus of many wanderings and miseries, the singer of sweetest strains still vocal, and told the prior he had come to die among them.

Some three weeks later Tasso passed away, aged fifty-one, of which the twenty last years had added nothing to his fame. When he was thirty-one the Gerusalemmo in its original form was finished, and the world was already ringing with the music of his Aminta, the influence of whose honeyed melodies was felt in opera and cantata for two successive generations. More than these Tasso had not to give to literature; but it is rather the succeeding years of derangement, exile, imprisonment, poverty and hope deferred that have endeared the man to us. Querulous and unreasonable as he must always appear, we love Tasso the better because he suffered through nearly a quarter of a century of slow decline, with misfortune an ever-present guest. Goethe, in his celebrated drama, Torquato Tasso, has from his own experience depicted vividly the struggle between the actual and the ideal, the alternate happiness and misery of a passionate poet in the artificial environment of a court. No experience on the part of a poet could have been larger. No observer could have been more acute and accurate, nor could have employed his descriptive energy with greater vivacity and fidelity.



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