Gerusalemme liberata

December 22, 2008

Gerusalemme liberata (1581)
Torquato Tasso (Johns Hopkins, 2000; trans. Esolen)
502 p. First reading.

I sing the reverent armies, and that Chief
who set the great tomb of our Savior free;
much he performed with might and judgement, much
he suffered in the glorious victory;
in vain hell rose athwart his path, in vain
two continents combined in mutiny.
Heaven graced him with its favor, and restored
his straying men to the banner of the Lord.

So begins this wonderful epic poem about the battle for Jerusalem during the First Crusade.  Although not well known nor widely read today, it was not always so.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Gerusalemme liberata was a touchstone of European culture, with numerous paintings and at least ten operas (including those by major league composers like Monteverdi, Handel, Haydn, and Rossini) being based on its story.  It is easy to see why they found it such fertile dramatic ground, for it is full of marvelous characters, dashing romance and bravery, and many splendours.  Consisting of 15328 lines spread over 1916 8-line stanzas, it is epic in size as well as scope.

Nowadays when the Crusades are mentioned it is considered proper form to look at the ground, shuffle one’s feet, and mutter an apology, but Tasso will have none of it.  His tone is one of cheerful enjoyment of the adventure, and joyful appreciation of the courage, strength, and beauty of the warriors — on both sides of the struggle.  Indeed, while he naturally takes time to sing the virtues of Rinaldo, Tancredi, Godfrey, and the other Christian warriors, he is surprisingly lavish in his praise for Argante, Soliman, Armida, Clorinda, and other great Muslim champions.  This passage, which describes the approach of the two armies, gives a good feeling for his wide-eyed wonder at it all:

What a grand, wondrous thing it was to see
when front to front these two great armies struck –
in ordered ranks each marching company –
their trumpets blaring, summoning to attack,
with banners spread to the wind and streaming free,
and the plumes on their helmets’ crests blown back!
Armor and arms, insignias, colors bold
flashed in the sun in streaks of steel and gold.

The armies are now like a tall, dense forest,
they so abound with bristling spears held high;
the bows are drawn, the lances couched in rest,
the javelins shaken, slings ready to let fly;
and the horses too grow eager for the test,
confirm their riders’ rage as the camps draw nigh,
snorting and stamping, neighing, bucking round,
flaring their nostrils with fire at the trumpet’s sound.

Amid this beauty even horror is
beautiful, and with fear comes a delight,
and to the ear the sound is glad and fierce
from the terrifying trumpets blaring bright;
yet the army of the faithful, though the lesser,
appears more marvelous in sound and sight:
with clear and warlike songs their trumpets ring,
and brighter is the flash their weapons fling.

Though he has chosen an historical subject, and peopled the poem with some real historical figures, there is nothing slavish about his adherence to the strict historical truth, and nothing sober about his interpolations and additions.  The fantastic and the supernatural are here in abundance.  We read in fascination as our heroes encounter enchanted woods, wise old men, secret passageways, magical castles, prophecies, and all the trappings of romance and legend.  Magicians command demonic hordes and angels fight alongside the Christian army.  The central military story-line is generously supplemented with private romances and personal vendettas that add colour to the central characters.

Tasso writes self-consciously in the epic tradition, and is plainly aware of, though not evidently anxious about, the proximity of Homer and Virgil.  The excellent notes that accompany the poem indicate many points at which Tasso’s poem parallels or alludes to those earlier epics.  Epic has traditionally had nationalist connections; for both Homer and Virgil the poem is a story that brings unity to a people.  The fact that Tasso chose this subject at a time when European Christianity was crippling itself with internal divisions is probably not a coincidence.

This translation is by Anthony Esolen, whose translation of The Divine Comedy I have praised before.  He has aimed to provide a readable and natural English rendering, with as few archaisms and grammatical gymnastics as possible.  This has come at the expense of strict adherence to Tasso’s rhyme scheme in the Italian.  A Tasso-ian 8-line stanza has the rhyme pattern ABABABCC, but Esolen has committed himself only to XAXAXABB, though where possible, as in the poem’s final stanza

So Godfrey has attained the victory;
and leads, in the last light glowing in the west,
the victors into the city now set free
and to the place where Christ was laid to rest.
To the temple with the other chiefs goes he,
nor does he set aside his blood-stained vest.
He hangs his arms here; with devoted brow
adores the great tomb, and fulfills his vow.

he brings in the full complement of rhymes, to good effect.

For my own benefit, let me briefly note my favourite passages: Clorinda rescues Sophronia and Olindo (Canto 2), Armida seduces the Christian army (Canto 4), St. Michael fights alongside (Canto 9), Clorinda and Tancred in combat (Canto 12), the Christian army in the terrible heat (Canto 13), Charles and Ubaldo ride a magical ship to the Pleasant Isles (Canto 15), the final battle (Canto 18).

Esolen has called Gerusalemme liberata the greatest literary work of the Counter-Reformation, and I see no reason to deny it.  It is an enchanting poem.

[Gather your rosebuds while you may]
Look at the chaste and modest little rose
sprung from the green in her virginity!
Half open and half hid; the less she shows,
the less she shows to men, the lovelier she.
Now she displays her bold and amorous
bosom, and now she wilts, and cannot be
the same delight which was the longing of
a thousand girls and a thousand lads in love.

So passes, in the passing of a day,
the life of man, the fruit, the leaf, the flower;
spring may return, but these will pass away;
the green will fade, and youth will lose its power.
Gather the rose in the fresh of dawn today,
for this sweet time will only last an hour;
gather the rose of love as lovers do,
and love while you yourself can be loved too.
[16.14-15]

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One Response to “Gerusalemme liberata”


  1. [...] time apparently had no appetite for anything but opera in Italian.)   Tasso’s epic, you will recall, recounts the conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, and this is the theme of the opera as [...]


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