This is something I do each year around this time: dig out a hefty epic poem and use the quiet spot after Christmas to take in some really old-fashioned literature. If you've never dipped into an epic poem, let me take a moment to explain. Before the invention of the novel in the 1700s or thereabouts, "poetry" was more or less synonymous with fiction. Poets, hoping for undying fame, would write some lavish fantasy spanning a gigantic cast of characters, usually mythologising the origin of a country or ruling family. Tasso's 1581 epic Jerusalem Delivered, a poem I'd heard many references to under the author's name without quite knowing what it was about, was something I knew I had to read when I realised it was about Godfrey of Bouillon and the liberation of Jerusalem in the First Crusade. An epic about the Crusades? How could I have missed this?
Reading Tasso I was struck by how similar epic poems are to the modern epic blockbuster movie. Think of the Ridley Scott-style oevre. You have blithe disregard for historical accuracy, unbelievable feats of arms, and completely apocryphal romance subplots, often starring hilariously waiflike action girls who mow down enemies by the score.
Believe it or not, when our forefathers sat down to write blockbuster poems, this was more or less the approach they took, and Tasso is as much fun as the rest of them. You will learn more about the medieval and Renaissance conception of the Crusades from this book than you will learn actual historical details: this is certainly the Hollywood blockbuster version of events. That said, one important distinction can be drawn between poems and films. The poets intended their stories to praise and preserve their cultural legacy. The producers today intend their stories to mock and deride their cultural legacy. Just compare Tasso's Jersualem Delivered, which commemorates the winning of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, with Ridley Scott's infuriating Kingdom of Heaven, which dances gleefully on its ruins.
Writing an epic gained you membership in a select club of famous authors, so the genre became more and more inbred as time went on: open any Renaissance or Reformation-era epic and tick off the by then must-have tropes, characters, and scenes. Boiardo's Orlando Inamorato influenced Ariosto and his Orlando Furioso, and that in turn influenced Tasso, and all three of those influenced Spenser. This year we're reviewing Tasso, so suffice it to say that he, like everyone else, dutifully strikes all the familiar notes. The first lines of the poem proper, for instance, are a familiar call out to Virgil's Aeneid, which started more tersely with "Arms and the man I sing."
The sacred armies, and the godly knight,After reading Ariosto and Spenser, reading Tasso feels like slipping into a well-worn, comfortable pair of shoes. It's hardly surprising to stumble across a sequence in the obligatory rescue-the-Christian-champion-from-the-clutches-of-the-beautiful-yet-evil-sorceress scene which was more or less reproduced in Book II of Spenser's Faerie Queene.
That the great sepulchre of Christ did free,
Spotting all the references and in-jokes is great fun. I was even reading Jerusalem Delivered in a classic 1609 translation by Edward Fairfax, which rendered the original into Spenserian stanza--a poetic form with many fond memories for me. But it's the things that make Tasso unique that make him particularly enjoyable to read.
Edit, Fri 31 January 2014: Oops! I assumed the translation is in Spenserian stanza. It's not--it's in the original ottava rima. Someone should revoke my license to read Renaissance poetry...
Plot and Characters
Godfrey of Bouillon, chosen by God and the election of the Christian army to lead the Crusade, marches on Jerusalem. Despite the aid of Heaven, enemies are not lacking: Hell sends help to the Saracens. Champion Rinaldo loses his temper and is expelled from the army; champion Tancred pines for the pagan warrior maiden Clorinda; sorceress Armida effortlessly beguiles and kidnaps a good half of the Christian knights; and while the short attention span of his army inhibits Godfrey's attempts to take Jerusalem, the king of Egypt summons all the armies of Africa and Asia to defend the city. How will they win now?
|"I think he said 'Get your knee off my chest', ma'am."|
Her springs of tears she looseth forth, and cries,It goes on ad infinitum, and is only cut short when they discover that Tancred is still alive, and his squire makes a suggestion:
"Hither why bring'st thou me, ah, Fortune blind?
Where dead, for whom I lived, my comfort lies,
Where war for peace, travail for rest I find;
Tancred, I have thee, see thee, yet thine eyes
Looked not upon thy love and handmaid kind,
Undo their doors, their lids fast closed sever,
Alas, I find thee for to lose thee ever."
Quoth Vafrine, "Cure him first, and then complain."A friend suggested that Jerusalem Delivered was Stoic in philosophy, and I failed to seize the opportunity to ask how. Certainly there are themes of conflict between love and duty, and characters who succumb to wild emotional excesses are quickly reproved by more practical characters--with an effect similar to that of "Basingstoke!" in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore. Those of you who've ever wished to reach inside a book to smack a hysterical character will find plenty to love in Jerusalem Delivered--from the comic passage cited above, to the place where Peter the Hermit rebukes a knight for excess emotion, in wonderfully scorching terms:
Oh wretch! Oh whither doth thy rage thee chase?Two characters take pride of place in this epic: Godfrey, the leader of the Christian army, and Rinaldo, its mightiest knight. Edmund Spenser points out, in his introductory letter to Sir Walter Raleigh on The Faerie Queene, that Tasso used Godfrey to depict the public virtues, and Rinaldo as an example of the private virtues.
Refrain thy grief, bridle thy fond desire,
At hell's wide gate vain sorrow doth thee place.
Spenser's own Faerie Queene works through six of twelve private virtues--in his list, Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy, and Constancy. Tasso is delightful, but in one short epic poem he spends little time developing any of these through Rinaldo. Like Ariosto's Ruggiero and Spenser's Redcrosse, Rinaldo is kidnapped and enchanted by a villainous witch. Like Redcrosse, though not like Ruggiero, Rinaldo is called to repentance upon being rescued--and it's delightfully unique to Tasso that the witch is a three-dimensional character who genuinely loves her victim, and gets a very unusual ending to her story, which I'd hate to spoil. Unlike Spenser, too, the episode is treated with relative levity. Redcrosse's interlude with Duessa is life-threatening, horrifying, and tragic. Rinaldo's with Armida is little more than a hiccup in his career.
No: read Tasso for Godfrey. What a man! Godfrey is all hero: wise, temperate, just, and devout. Here he explains the Crusaders' purpose in travelling to the Holy Land:
"But not for this our homes we first forsook,
And from our native soil have marched so far:
Nor us to dangerous seas have we betook,
Exposed to hazard of so far sought war,
Of glory vain to gain an idle smook,
And lands possess that wild and barbarous are:
That for our conquests were too mean a prey,
To shed our bloods, to work our souls' decay.
"But this the scope was of our former thought,—
Of Sion's fort to scale the noble wall,
The Christian folk from bondage to have brought,
Wherein, alas, they long have lived thrall,
In Palestine an empire to have wrought,
Where godliness might reign perpetual,
And none be left, that pilgrims might denay
To see Christ's tomb, and promised vows to pay."
Don't ask me what a smook is; I'm not sure if it's a typo or not--my Project Gutenberg ebook was riddled with them, and I'm not just talking about the cute Elizabethan spelling. But you get the idea. In the same speech Godfrey goes on to say that they didn't come simply to conquer territory, but to raise a kingdom--a more glorious effort, he says, for the fact that whatever the Crusaders build here, surrounded by enemies, is most likely to end up being their tomb.
Be glorious acts, and full of glorious praise,
By Heaven's mere grace, not by our prowess done:
Those conquests were achieved by wondrous ways,
If now from that directed course we run
The God of Battles thus before us lays,
His loving kindness shall we lose, I doubt,
And be a byword to the lands about.
Godfrey is, in brief, wonderful. He gets up early every morning "for praise and virtue lie/In toil and travel, sin and shame in bed." He vows to assault Jerusalem, not from a safe distance in heavy armour as a commander, but lightly armoured as a foot soldier with the rest of his men. He withstands Armida's seductions easily because he has "fulness of delight" in virtue. He's a man of constant prayer. And in leading and commanding the men who have voluntarily put themselves under his rule, he explains his vision:
"But be mine empire, as it ought of right,
Sweet, easy, pleasant, gentle, meek and light."
There is a wonderful parallel here to Matthew 11:30. But there is more to this passage than that. When was the last time your rulers stated that government should be light, let alone all those other words? If Christ's yoke is easy, and His burden is light, but He claims pre-eminent status as king above all earthly rulers, then what right have our rulers to impose any harder yokes and heavier burdens upon us than our King Christ? Godfrey's refusal to extend his power beyond its just limits is an important element of his depiction of the ideal ruler--and a troubling indictment of governments throughout history.
CS Lewis once described the Jerusalem Delivered with the adjective "edifying". The perfect word, as you'll agree if you've stayed with me this far. It is so extremely edifying, in fact, that dissonance arises between the edifying bits and the blockbuster-adventure bits. One minute, we are deep in lofty ideals of kingship. The next, we are reading about the warrior maiden Clorinda hacking off arms and limbs, while Tancred, who has not exchanged two words with her, pines with ardour. There's something fundamentally ridiculous about this, which occasionally jars with the really good parts--although the dissonance does add substantially to the fun of the thing!
|Another of Tasso's themes could be summarised as "Lady Knights in battle: Reality Ensues"|
In an essay in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Lewis points out one interesting aspect of the Jerusalem Delivered's structure. At the time in which Tasso and Spenser wrote, Humanists argued that a story should show "unity"--there should be one major plot dominated by one major hero whose efforts secured victory. This approach scorned the earlier medieval model, in which a story sprawled across multiple plots and characters, picking up the thread of one adventure for a while before dropping it in favour of another. Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur is an excellent example. Spenser's Faerie Queene is another; critics said he should have stuck with just one hero, and his Prince Arthur--who appears in all the Books of the Faerie Queene--is a possible placating gesture to the Humanists. Tasso, like Spenser, stops short of an absolute unity in his plot; but he goes further than Spenser did, in reducing his story to just two heroes with a large supporting cast.
I mention this partly as an example of how art is influenced by philosophy, and how we inherit modes of storytelling that cause us to take for granted a story structure which we have inherited from thinkers we may not necessarily agree with. Who said that a story must follow a single plot concerning a single character, to which supporting characters and subplots are subordinated? Joseph Campbell, of course, has popularised his "Hero's Journey", which I consider a cheap New-Age imitation of Tolkien's story theory of mythopoeia--and everyone considers that to be the last word on how stories are made. It's a shame that more folks don't read older, pre-Renaissance storytelling for a broader perspective.
It would be interesting to do some deeper reading on the Stoic philosophy--or otherwise--behind the Jerusalem Delivered. But if the poem seems to have one unified theme, it might be this:
O happy zeal! who trusts in help divine
The world's afflictions thus can drive away,
Can storms appease, and times and seasons change,
And conquer fortune, fate, and destiny strange.
Wikipedia tells me that Edward Fairfax's translation of the Jerusalem Delivered "is considered a masterpiece, one of the comparatively few translations which in themselves are literature." I certainly enjoyed it, though it would be interesting to get a copy of Anthony Esolen's translation one day. Fairfax, like all the Elizabethans, can turn a phrase neatly, and I relished phrases like "carpet knight" and "sleeveless errands", which even taken out of context should explain themselves. What Fairfax can't do is ottava rima--at least not strictly by the rules. He translates with a blind and endearing disregard for the rules of spelling and grammar. Even by Elizabethan standards, he's pretty lax--transmuting, for one small instance, the word "defiled" to "defoiled" for the mere purpose of rhyming it with "spoiled"!
Other Neat Things
As I mentioned, Tasso occasionally reminds me of a Hollywood action movie. There's one very funny Indiana Jones-style passage where a terrifying enchanter emerges in menacing slo-mo onto the scene of battle flanked by two lackeys, begins calling up Hell, and is immediately squashed by a passing boulder hurled from a catapult. And then there's one scene where a Christian spying out the Egyptian camp oozes up to one of the local damsels whispering sweet nothings in an attempt to get information--spy fiction hasn't changed much in 500 years, it seems!
I also enjoyed one fascinating aside: two knights, being conveyed by a damsel across the Atlantic to rescue Rinaldo from Armida's clutches, hear of an undiscovered land far beyond the ocean:
"But will our gracious God," the knight replied,Who will discover these lands and open them to the Gospel? Columbus, of course. Interestingly, this was indeed one of Columbus's main motivations in crossing the Atlantic, though his intentions were to reach the East Indies, which he believed were much closer. Ultimately Columbus meant to evangelise Asia and open up a second front in the war on Islam, attacking in the East. George Grant's book on Columbus is titled, fittingly, The Last Crusader. I wonder if Tasso knew of Columbus's vision, and included him in this story of the First Crusade for that reason.
"That with his blood all sinful men hath bought,
His truth forever and his gospel hide
From all those lands, as yet unknown, unsought?"
"Oh no," quoth she, "his name both far and wide
Shall there be known."
Another aside defended Tasso's use of fun epic poetry to teach doctrine--with the same reasoning used by Spenser and Bunyan, for just two examples.
O heavenly Muse, that not with fading baysNote, too, the identification of Tasso's Muse: he explicitly invokes the Holy Spirit to inspire his verse, not the nine sisters of Greek myth. I'd heard before that Christian artists of this period believed the Holy Spirit inspired their work in a Muse-like fashion, and this was fascinating confirmation of that claim.
Deckest thy brow by the Heliconian spring,
But sittest crowned with stars' immortal rays
In Heaven, where legions of bright angels sing;
Inspire life in my wit, my thoughts upraise,
My verse ennoble, and forgive the thing,
If fictions light I mix with truth divine,
And fill these lines with other praise than thine.
Thither thou know'st the world is best inclined
Where luring Parnass most his sweet imparts,
And truth conveyed in verse of gentle kind
To read perhaps will move the dullest hearts.
To conclude, I enjoyed the Jerusalem Delivered a great deal. It's shorter than Ariosto or Spenser, full of edifying fun, with lots of historical insight. Highly recommended.