TASSO, Torquato

Torquato Tasso was the most accomplished man of letters in Italy during the late Renaissance. He composed the purest example of Renaissance pastoral drama, Aminta (1573), and the most influential narrative poem of his era, Gerusalemme liberata (1581). He was also a prolific literary theorist; his Discorsi del poema eroico (1594) constitutes a fundamental contribution to the emer­gence of neoclassical poetics, which dominated European letters for two cen­turies after Tasso's death.
Tasso was born in Sorrento, the son of a gifted courtier-poet, Bernardo Tasso, whom political allegiance forced into exile. When he was eight years old, Tor­quato was separated from the rest of his family to accompany his father. Tor­quato never saw his mother again, and his subsequent career entailed changes of court service and crises of religious conscience indicative of a restless spirit.
Tasso briefly studied law in Padua, but poetry proved an irresistible vocation. At the age of eighteen he published a chivalric romance, Rinaldo, and thereafter he continued working on the epic Gierusalemme [sic], of which he had com­pleted three cantos four years earlier. Innovative poetics enabled Tasso to merge this early project with romance traditions typical of his predecessors at the Este court in Ferrara, Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto,* to produce his greatest literary achievement, Gerusalemme liberata. He dedicated considerable intellectual energy to articulating the theory behind this feat of composition, and he continued to revise this epic romance, which he ultimately published as Gerusalemme conquistata (1593). Ironically, this final version of Tasso's master­piece, which he deemed authoritative, has never enjoyed the esteem of the Liberata. Although the earlier version was published without the author's ap­proval while he was in confinement in Ferrara, it has become canonical and widely influential.
Tasso's reputation as a melancholy genius victimized by a coercive system of court patronage became a romantic legend most famously represented in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's play of 1790, Torquato Tasso. The origins of this legend hark back to Michel de Montaigne's* account of his visit with Tasso during his confinement. In Montaigne's Apologie de Raimond Sebond Tasso's fate actually betokens the catastrophic results of intellectual overreaching that skepticism's prudent acceptance of the limits of human intelligence aims to avoid. But Goethe's sympathetic portrait of Tasso as a sensitive soul misunder­stood by worldlier sorts made a deep impact. Such poets as George Gordon, Lord Byron, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire produced moving lyrics that respond to the pathos of Tasso's legendary misfortunes, and Sigmund Freud briefly analyzed a passage from Gerusalemme liberata in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Although the romantic myth of Tasso's victimization dominates the modern reception of his legacy, his importance as a literary artist and theorist should not be underestimated. Only John Milton's Paradise Lost superseded Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata as an example of Christian epic fully informed by clas­sical precedents; and Tasso's poem, more than any other, sets the standard by which Milton's measure must be taken in this regard. In Of Education Milton recommends Tasso's literary theory to students, who can thereby come to understand the "true laws" of epic poetry, and during his Italian journey, Milton sought out Tasso's first biographer, Giovanni Battista Manso, to whom he sub­sequently addressed a poem in Latin.
Tasso's Aminta is the fountainhead of a dramatic tradition that made itself felt in English pastoral plays and interludes from William Shakespeare* and Ben Jonson* through Milton's Comus. Moreover, Tasso's lyrics, and especially his sonnets, provided models for such Elizabethan poets as Edmund Spenser* and Samuel Daniel* during the great sonnet "boom" of the 1590s. Tasso's dual legacy as both an exemplary neoclassicist and a romantic legend ensured the durability of his memory despite the shifting perspectives of literary culture in the centuries after his death.
C. P. Brand, Torquato Tasso: A Study ofthe Poet and ofHis Contribution to English Literature, 1965.
J. Kates, Tasso and Milton: The Problem ofChristian Epic, 1983.
L. F. Rhu, The Genesis of Tasso's Narrative Theory: English Translations of the Early Poetics and a Comparative Study of Their Significance, 1993.
Lawrence Rhu

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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