Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"When Despotism Kept Genius in Chains": Imagining Tasso's Madness and Imprisonment, 1748-1849

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"When Despotism Kept Genius in Chains": Imagining Tasso's Madness and Imprisonment, 1748-1849

Article excerpt

THE FIRST ENGLISH ACCOUNT OF TORQUATO TASSO'S LIFE, BY HENRY Layng, appeared a century and a half after his death in a miscellaneous collection with a strong focus on the Italian poet. Along with "The Life of Tasso" his Several Pieces in Verse and Prose (1748) also contains translations into couplets of cantos xv and XVI of Gerusalemme liberata, the celebrated episode in which one of the principal Christian heroes Rinaldo is rescued from his amorous languor in the beautiful garden of the pagan enchantress Armida, and a verse epistle from "Tancred to Clorinda," in which Layng imagines another prominent Christian hero addressing the pagan object of his unrequited love. Layng's brief account of Tasso's life is based on what "we are told from the best hands," both the poet's first Italian biographer, Giovan Battista Manso, and the French poet Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud in the Abrege de la Vie du Tasse printed with his translation of Gerusalemme liberata in 1724, rather than on original research, but the emphasis that he places on key events and personalities in the poet's story had a lasting impact on how later English writers, such as Byron in particular, engaged with Tasso's biography:

   There is something so entertaining, so noble, so piteous, so
   marvellous in the fortune of Torquato Tasso, that I know not any
   man's story more interesting or more instructive. Nature seems in
   every step she took relating to him, to have formed him for our
   admiration. (1)

In Layng's biography Tasso emerges above all as a victim of forces beyond his own control. Even the immediate and wide-ranging fame of his great epic poem and "the warmth of the glory that blazed around him" served only to awaken the envy and malice of "whole swarms of Dunciad writers," such as various members of the Florentine Accademia della Crusca, who repeatedly criticized the poem in minute detail in the late sixteenth century. This critical hostility towards the poem continued even after Tasso's death in I595, before "the attack was again furiously renewed by the Partizans for the ancients, under Mons. Boileau in France" in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Layng, however, cites Dryden in suggesting by way of response that Tasso "has long since been quietly in Possession of the third Place in the College of Poets" behind only Homer and Virgil. (2) For him, Tasso's literary immortality is in no doubt, even as interest in the poet starts to switch from his work towards the unhappy events of his life.

Layng is quietly convinced that Tasso's apparent attachment to Leonora d'Este, the unmarried sister of the poet's patron, Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, was reciprocated but remained chaste, fostered by a "mutual admiration for the most brilliant accomplishments [which] grew insensibly into a stronger passion." (3) In his opinion, though, it was the betrayal of this amorous secret at court that led directly to his subsequent misfortunes. In the first part of his Vita di Torquato Tasso (1621) Manso relates how Tasso was betrayed by an unnamed close friend, whom the enraged poet then struck on the face at court in front of the duke. The treacherous friend, later identified in Solerti's monumental biography of x 895 as Ercole Fucci, challenged Tasso to a duel outside the city gates, which the poet accepted. As the duel began, however, three brothers of the cowardly friend arrived as reinforcements, but Tasso succeeded in dispelling all four of them with his sword. Manso's account of the (probably fictional) duel was designed to demonstrate Tasso's skills as a courtier beyond his poetry, and indeed he cites an allegedly popular Ferrarese proverb referring specifically to the incident: "Con la penna e con la spada / Nessun val quanto Torquato" ["With the pen and with the sword / No-one is worthy of Torquato"]. After the duel, however, Tasso was confined briefly to his apartments by the duke "non gia per modo di castigamento, ma per custodirlo (com'egli diceva)" ["not as a form of punishment, but for his protection (as he said)"], and this action was to have devastating consequences. …

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