Literary Criticism of Torquato Tasso

Torquato Tasso (1544–1595) has long enjoyed a reputation as both one of the finest poets of the Renaissance and an influential critic. He is best known for his epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (1581), whose topic was the First Crusade. This poem, initially completed in 1575, was revised into a longer version, Jerusalem Conquered. During the process of revision, Tasso undertook the writing of a long critical treatise, Discorsi del Poema Eroica (1594; Discourses on the Heroic Poem), which both defended the epic poem he had already written and anticipated some of the principles underlying its revision. The text of the Discourses itself represents a considerable amplification and revision of an earlier critical text, Discourses on the Poetic Art, which had appeared somewhat earlier, in 1587.

Tasso was born in Sorrento and spent some years at the court of Ferrara where his conduct obliged the duke, Alphonso II, to have him incarcerated on grounds of insanity. After his release in 1586 he wandered from court to court and died in Rome. “Paranoia” might be too strong a word; but certainly a great deal of insecurity and anxiety about adverse criticism of his epic informs Tasso’s Discourses, which – characteristic, to some extent, of Renaissance scholarship – parades its learning and takes great pains to assert its points of originality, especially as against recent influential writers such as Lodovico Castelvetro. Tasso’s own revised Discourses on the Heroic Poem had a considerable impact not only on Renaissance but also on subsequent literary theory in Italy, England, and France. Its influence stemmed no doubt partly from the fact that this theory of epic poetry was advanced by the first great epic poet in a European vernacular: it was effectively the theory behind his own epic composition, the theory that justified and explained his own epic.

Tasso well understood the important critical issues of his own day – such as the relative values of Homer and Vergil, ancients and moderns, as well as the issue of the usefulness of poetry as against its function of affording pleasure – and his text reflects his accommodation of the various demands on poetry and criticism. As the translators of Tasso’s text point out, apropos of these demands, “Tasso took them all into account, reconciling society’s demand that poetry should entertain, the Church’s demand that poetry should encourage the faith, the humanist’s veneration for Antiquity, the modernist’s self-applause – and managed not to degrade poetry into entertainment, confuse it with propaganda . . . disparage ancients, medievals, or moderns; he even managed not to be anti-Aristotelian or anti-Platonic.”1 Indeed, Aristotle is one of the main sources of Tasso’s text, the others being Horace and the canons of classical rhetoric. In a broad sense, Tasso might be said to adapt and extend Aristotle’s insights into the basis of his own theory of the heroic poem, with a view to justifying the content, style, and diction of his own epic.

In book I of his treatise, prior to his task of defining a heroic poem, Tasso offers a series of attempts to define poetry in general. He suggests that all of the species of poetry, including epic, tragedy, comedy, and song, are forms of “imitation in verse” (DHP, 7). What do they imitate? Tasso takes up the Stoic view that poetry imitates human and divine actions. He rejects the idea that any divine action can be imitated as such, and concludes that poetry “is an imitation of human actions, fashioned to teach us how to live. And since every action is performed with some reflection and choice, poetry will deal with moral habit and with thought” (DHP, 10).

In arriving at this definition, Tasso began by acknowledging Aristotle’s dictum that “in all things one must consider the end” or purpose; and in defining poetry, we must keep before our eyes its “excellent purpose” (DHP, 6, 10). However, he rejects the idea, derived from Horace’s Ars poetica, that the purpose of poetry is twofold, encompassing both pleasure and utility. A single art, says Tasso, cannot have two purposes which are somehow unrelated. Hence, either poetry should set aside any “useful” purpose such as instructing and content itself wholly with delighting, or “if it wishes to be useful, it should direct its pleasure to this end. It may be that pleasure directed to usefulness is the end of poetry” (DHP, 10). The intrinsic connection between pleasure and usefulness demanded by Tasso proves effectively to be a subordination of pleasure to usefulness, in the relation of means and end: the poet, he says, “is to set as his purpose not delight . . . but usefulness, because poetry . . . is a first philosophy which instructs us from our early years in moral habits and the principles of life.” At any rate, the pleasure produced by poetry should be circumscribed by its moral purpose: “We should at least grant that the end of poetry is not just any enjoyment but only that which is coupled with virtue” (DHP, 11). While this may seem a far cry from Romantic and postmodernist demands that pleasure should be unshackled and unrestricted, and allowed to indulge in free play, Tasso does point out that “to aim at pleasure is nobler than to aim at profit, since enjoyment is sought for itself, and other things for its sake . . . the useful is not sought for itself but for something else; this is why it is a less noble purpose than pleasure and has less resemblance to the final purpose” (DHP, 11). Tasso now expands his definition to the following: “poetry is an imitation of human actions with the purpose of being useful by pleasing, and the poet is an imitator who could, as many have, use his art to delight without profiting . . . the poet is both a good man and a good imitator of human actions and moral habits, whose purpose is profit with delight” (DHP, 12–13).

While Tasso does not entirely dismiss the opinion of Maximus of Tyre that “philosophy and poetry are two in name but of a single substance,” he suggests that what differentiates the two disciplines is their manner of considering things: “poetry considers them in as much as they are beautiful, and philosophy in as much as they are good” (DHP, 13). Poetry strives to reveal beauty in two ways, by narration and by representation, both of which fall under the heading of “imitation.” Tasso follows Aristotle in stating that narration is the mode proper to the epic or heroic poem. He suggests a further, un-Aristotelian, difference between epic poetry and tragedy, which is a difference in “the means or instruments employed to imitate; for tragedy, in order to purge the soul, uses rhythm and harmony in addition to verse.” Hence, in Tasso’s formulation, epic and tragedy agree in one element, the things imitated, since both represent the “actions of heroes.” They differ in the means they use to imitate, as well as in their mode of imitating (DHP, 14). Tasso also, however, suggests a further important difference, a difference in effect upon the audience or listener. He initially defines the heroic poem as “an imitation of an action noble, great, and perfect, narrated in the loftiest verse, with the aim of giving profit through delight.” But as he acknowledges, this definition does not differentiate between various kinds of poetry, since “the end of each ought to be peculiar to it” (DHP, 14–15). The effect of tragedy, he says (following Aristotle), is “to purge the soul by terror and compassion.” That of comedy is “to move laughter at base things.” Similarly, the epic poem ought to “afford its own delight with its own effect – which is perhaps to move wonder” (DHP, 15). While he acknowledges that tragedy and comedy may also produce a degree of wonder, this effect is peculiarly appropriate to epic poetry, since we will gladly accept in an epic “many wonders that might be unsuitable on stage . . . because the reader allows many liberties which the spectator forbids” (DHP, 16). The epic poet’s primary purpose, moreover, is to produce wonder, whereas this is merely an ancillary effect of other forms of poetry (DHP, 17). A further feature of an epic poem, according to Tasso, is that it is a “whole,” with four components: the fable, or imitation of the action; the moral habit of the persons in the fable; thought; and diction (DHP, 18–19).

This connection of poetry with truth is taken up in detail in book II, where Tasso says that the poet can either invent the matter or content of his poem or take it from history; the latter is more creditable in Tasso’s eyes, on the general ground that “truth [as opposed to fiction] provides a more suitable basis for the heroic poet,” who must “pursue the verisimilar” (DHP, 26). The poet delights the reader with the “semblance of truth,” and “seeks to persuade us that what he treats deserves belief and credit.” Citing the authority of Aristotle, Tasso urges that if poets are imitators, “it is fitting that they imitate truth” (DHP, 27). In contrast with Mazzoni, Tasso insists that poetry “belongs under dialectic along with rhetoric . . . its function being to consider not the false but the probable. It therefore deals with the false, not in so far as it is false, but in so far as it is probable. The probable in so far as it is verisimilar belongs to the poet” (DHP, 29). Following Aristotle, the principal subject of the poet, says Tasso, “is what is, or may be, or is believed, or is told; or all these together” (DHP, 30). Tasso thus attempts to rescue poetry from the province of sophistry and to bring it back under the realm of dialectic. The poet is a maker of idols or images not in the same sense as the sophist; rather, the poet “is a maker of images in the fashion of a speaking painter, and in that is like the divine theologian who forms images and commands them to be” (DHP, 31). Tasso associates poetry, however, not with the scholastic theologian but with the mystical theologian: “to lead to the contemplation of divine things and thus awaken the mind with images, as the mystical theologian and the poet do, is a far nobler work than to instruct by demonstration, the function of the scholastic theologian. The mystical theologian and the poet, then, are noble beyond all others” (DHP, 32). In summary, the poet, although a maker of images, “resembles the dialectician and the theologian rather than the sophist” (DHP, 33).

Moving to the other qualities of the epic, Tasso reminds us that he has hitherto cited two essential obligations of the epic poem: to be verisimilar and to express the marvelous. Tasso gives examples of how the same actions can be viewed from one perspective as verisimilar and from another as marvelous: the actions of God and of supernatural forces are marvelous when considered from a human and natural standpoint; they will be verisimilar, however, when regarded “in terms of their agent’s efficacy and power,” when viewed apart from human and natural limitations (DHP, 38).

In book VI Tasso takes up the question of the relative merits of epic and tragedy, and of course, for him, it is the epic poem that must be accorded the higher honor. He calls the epic poem “the most beautiful of all kinds,” as well as “the most magnificent”; as such, it provides its own distinctive delight, a delight produced through metaphor and the other figures of speech (DHP, 172, 177). Tasso sharply contrasts the ornate diction and figurativeness of the epic with the plain or low style of speech. His views are especially interesting if seen as an unwitting but prescient commentary on our own preference for plain speech and clarity, a preference embodied in our theories of composition and attributed by many thinkers to the predominating philosophies and requirements of the bourgeois world. Tasso names the “lowly form of speech” the “thin or spare” style: “This style suits slight matters; and the words should be common and ordinary, since whatever departs from common usage is magnificent. Words that are metaphorical, invented, foreign . . . are unsuitable . . . What the lowly style requires above all else is likelihood and what the Latins called evidentia, the Greeks energy, which we might no less properly call clarity or expressiveness. This is the power that makes us almost behold the things narrated; it comes from a minutely attentive narration that omits nothing” (DHP, 188–189). What these comments help us to see is that the linguistic dispositions that have sometimes been called bourgeois clarity and bourgeois realism – and even naturalism – did not arise in recent history. These modes have always been available, but only as elements of a “low” or “common” style which took its place as one level of approach to language, within a hierarchy of levels. Ascent on this hierarchy was measured precisely by departure from the “ordinary” and the mundanely likely or probable and expressiveness of detail. The approach to language, and hence the world view embodied in or enabled by language, that was integral to the later bourgeois revolutions was a reductive approach inasmuch as language was stripped of its figurative capacity, a capacity which enshrined the ability to express the present world as one element in a larger, providential, and ultimately mysterious order. The reduction to so-called “literal” language implied a world infinitely intelligible, intelligible to its very foundations on the basis of reason and experience and observation. What to Renaissance writers was the lowest common denominator in terms not just of style but of the world views implied in style became in recent history the predominant mode of expression and thought, as in the pervasiveness of realism, naturalism, and the expression of “ordinary” life.

In arguing the superiority of epic, Tasso is of course challenging the authority of Aristotle, who urged the superiority of tragedy given that it has all of the elements of epic but in greater concentration and unity. In fact, Tasso himself has recourse to the authority of Plato whom he cites as preferring epic because it relies less on extrinsic aids (such as actors). Tasso adds that inasmuch as tragedy has epic elements, it borrows these from the epic (DHP, 204). While Tasso concedes that tragedy is more concentrated because smaller, he urges that the epic, being larger, has greater power and gives greater pleasure, which is “true pleasure” as opposed to that offered by tragedy, which is “mingled with weeping and tears.” Tasso denies that tragedy achieves its end better; it achieves this by “an oblique and tortuous road, while epic takes the direct way. For if there are two ways of improving us through example, one inciting us to good works by showing the reward of excellence and an almost divine worth, the other frightening us from evil with penalties, the first is the way of epic, the second that of tragedy, which for this reason is less useful and gives less delight” (DHP, 205). What is interesting here is Tasso’s recognition that he is vying with the revered authority of Aristotle: he suggests that he is parting company with Aristotle in a few matters so that he “may not abandon him in things of greater moment, that is, in the desire to discover truth and in the love of philosophy” (DHP, 205). It is perhaps characteristic of his status as an important Renaissance theorist that Tasso builds his own theory of epic on the foundation of Aristotle’s poetics by refashioning that very foundation to serve his own purpose. Where later thinkers will reject Aristotle outright, Tasso’s relation to the ancient master is such that he must invoke the very authority he is called upon to subvert by his own actual poetic practice.


Introduction,” in Torquato Tasso, Discourses on the Heroic Poem, trans. Mariella Cavalchini and Irene Samuel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. xxii–xxiii. The translated text is hereafter cited as DHP.

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