The First Crusade

October 2001By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

Jerusalem Delivered — Gerusalemme liberata.  By Torquato TassoEdited and translated by Anthony M. Esolen. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 492 pages. $22.50.



This new translation of Gerusalemme liberata is a very fine, highly readable version of Tasso’s epic about the First Crusade. The Gerusalemme is an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature and a culmination of Italian Renaissance poetry. It is good to have a modern, affordable edition of Tasso in print again, in a fast-flowing English verse that is infinitely more accessible to the ordinary reader than the Elizabethan rendition of Edward Fairfax.

Called the “Homer of Italy,” Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) composed a grand and incomparable epic on the conquest of Jerusalem (1099). He had been tutored in childhood by one of the new order of Jesuits and had seen the conclusion of the Council of Trent in 1563. He was a poet of the early Counter-Reformation, one who embraced his faith in full earnest. In this book he deals with a great struggle that took place between the Cross and the Crescent five centuries earlier, but in doing so he illuminates a crisis in his own day. For while he was writing this epic, the Battle of Lepanto (1571) was won, a major turning point in the fortunes of Europe — the first naval defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the deliverance of 15,000 Christian galley slaves. Like the conquest of Jerusalem, this feat was accomplished by a league of previously divided Catholic states.

The artistic achievement of Tasso lay chiefly in the merging of the great martial virtues of pagan heroes with the Catholic chivalry of the Middle Ages. The hearty male comradeship of the Iliad is found in Tasso, but with a new gentility toward women, and the fatherliness of the Aeneid is also found, but without the deification of the state. Since he had conceived his great design at age 19 and finished it at 31, in 1575, Tasso’s work is charged with the fiery passion of youth. Esolen’s translation captures this fire. In the late 17th century, the Catholic poet John Dryden would rate Tasso’s Gerusalemme as the best epic after Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, placing it above Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). Surprisingly, Voltaire would later put Tasso at the same height — surprisingly, because Tasso glorifies the Catholic religion against which Voltaire had a violent animus. (This shows how a Catholic artist gets under the guard of the Church’s enemies.)

Most of Tasso’s heroes are historical — Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond of Toulouse, the Italian Tancred, Robert of Normandy, William of England, and various warriors from Bavaria, Lombardy, Denmark, and Norway. But the great hero Rinaldo, partly inspired by Achilles, springs from his imagination. Tasso also combines the historical with the supernatural to show the First Crusade in the light of eternity. While many critics have claimed that Homer and Virgil disbelieved in the gods they used in their epics, no critic has doubted that Tasso shared the simple, humble, and obedient faith of his crusaders. He shows them often encouraged by prophecies, Heaven-sent dreams, or miracles, and plagued by demonic temptations, sorcerers, or enchantments. Perhaps the most eerie instance of the supernatural occurs when the spirits of the crusaders who died earlier in the epic are seen on the ramparts of Jerusalem, encouraging their comrades to scale the walls.

Ironically, Tasso composed his epic not long after the first Protestants had branded the Catholic Church as the great Antichrist — i.e., the worst of all enemies of Christ — and had defamed medieval Catholics as damned for their idolatry. Against such demonizing, Tasso’s Catholic imagination provides a powerful response. In Canto XI, for example, he shows the Germans, Danes, and English marching with the others under the standard of the Cross (which in many northern cities has been thrown down as an “idol”) on the eve of the attack on Jerusalem, going in procession to Mount Olivet. (This procession is also memorably depicted in Hilaire Belloc’s The Crusades.) In Esolen’s translation, “the hosts as a harmonious choir,/ their song through deepest glens and valley sounding” invoked “the name of Mary, or of Christ the Lord,” while their enemies on the ramparts “jeered, blasphemed, and swore.” But the “men of Jesus” disregarded the noise and continued “their chaste and gentle melody” until they came to Gethsemane, where “the mysteries of the purest sacrifice” were offered by a bishop. Such a vivid and stirring passage surely helped kindle among Tasso’s Protestant admirers (who were many) a sympathy for the old religion.

Tellingly, it was only in the 19th century that the complaint was raised against Tasso that he had glorified crusaders — as if none of them, not even Godfrey of Bouillon or St. Louis of France, had ever deserved glory. Up to that point, the suitability of the crusades for an epic had not been questioned. But when there was no more probability of the Crescent driving the Cross from Europe, a new hindsight made earlier fears seem ridiculous. It was forgotten that as late as 1683, the Ottoman armies had stood at the gates of Vienna and needed to be repulsed by a multinational Catholic army. The attack on Vienna was led by an army of “slave soldiers” (about whom Daniel Pipes has written a major book in Slave Soldiers and Islam). Nowadays, of course, fashionable books about slavery almost never bring up these Christian children of eastern Europe torn from their families as “tribute,” obliged to renounce their faith, doomed to sterility, and forced to serve as eunuchs in harems or slave soldiers in the front lines against their kind. In the prevailing ideology of today, Christians were never victimized.

Tasso has an astonishing diversity of characters in his story, for both Christian and Muslim armies are multinational. In the battle on the plains of Ascalon (August 1099) in the final Canto XX, he describes warriors from Africa, the Near East, and India, all wearing their distinctive garb and weapons. Some Muslim heroes like Soliman and Argante are truly memorable, though neither of them a match for Rinaldo, Tancred, and Godfrey of Bouillon. The latter, who is the chief of the crusaders, is a perfect Counter-Reformation hero, prayerful yet resourceful, reliant on divine Providence yet extremely disciplined, so chaste that upon him alone Armida’s enchanting beauty has no hold, and so fearless he can face a mutinous army unguarded. In his Introduction, Esolen makes an intriguing suggestion about Godfrey, that he is modeled after St. Pius V (1504-1572), who was Pope when Tasso started composing his epic. Not only did Pius V begin implementing the reforms of the Council of Trent, but he worked tirelessly to unite the Catholic states against the Ottoman Empire, bringing Spain and Venice into the league that won the victory at Lepanto.

But if the hidden hero of Tasso’s epic is indeed a pope, there is another candidate who makes a brief appearance in Canto XI, namely Urban II (ca 1042-1099), who preached the First Crusade. This is the Pope who exhorted the multitudes gathered at Clermont, on November 27, 1095, to go forth and rescue the Holy Sepulchre and heard them shout in reply, “God wills it!” The Sepulchre and other holy places had been destroyed in 1009 and later that century the Crescent reached well into Europe, causing Byzantine emperors, though separated in communion, to seek papal assistance. In Canto XI, Godfrey reminisces about the moment

when the great Pope Urban
in Clermont
girded me with this sword,
and made me now
knight by the hand
of the Omnipotent….


Both the First Crusade and the league at Lepanto, then, were papal enterprises.

Besides his numerous male heroes, Tasso has three Muslim heroines who play larger roles than women ever did in ancient epics — Clorinda, Armida, and Erminia. They are not historical at all, but exquisitely conceived and unforgettable as they fight against, entrap, assist, or fall in love with Tancred and Rinaldo. These love stories later inspired music by Monteverdi, Gluck, and Dvorák. On the Christian side, there are a couple of heroines, too, Sophronia and Gildippe. Gildippe fights in armor alongside her husband and dies with him. All these women (none of whom is finally wicked, since even the sorceress comes round) are conceived in the light of the cor gentil, or Catholic chivalry toward women. It is this gentility of heart that caused Dante to exclude females from nine-tenths of his Inferno. By contrast, in the hadith (or authentic tradition) of Mohammed’s dream-vision of Hell, the place is positively stuffed with women from top to bottom — something anti-Catholic feminists might ponder.

In the 18th century Tasso was loved for retaining many of the beauties of classical epics, and in the 19th for retaining those of Gothic romance. Only in the 20th century, when creativity came to mean throwing off all ancient and medieval traditions in literature, was he criticized for lack of originality. A Renaissance artist, of course, would have embraced his heritage and made it his own. For him originality was not about the totally unheard-of, but rather turning the common inheritance to unique, exquisite use.

For many generations it was believed that the tragedy of Tasso’s life after he finished the Gerusalemme was due to star-crossed love. His first biographer, Giovanni Manso, who met him in 1588, claimed that the poet had courted a lady above his rank and that the Duke of Ferrara had imprisoned him for this, though nominally for madness, in 1577 and from 1579 to 1586. During this time, Tasso wrote Dialogues, to prove or maintain his sanity. After his release he spent the rest of his life as an indigent literary tramp, virtually alone in the world. The tragedy of his life inspired writings by Goethe, Goldoni, Byron, Lamartine, de Vigny, Chateaubriand, among others. Delacroix depicted Tasso in prison, and Shelley wrote a poem on that painting. The original draft of Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloise is believed to have been about Tasso’s life.

Around the start of the 20th century, however, Manso’s story of Tasso’s tragic love came to be debunked as a legend. His sufferings were now said to be the result of his Tridentine Catholicism. How odd that no one thought of it earlier! So now, a great Counter-Reformation poet was supposed to be the self-made victim of the Counter-Reformation. Esolen glances briefly at this new legend in his Introduction and unfortunately half-accepts it. While it is true that Tasso tormented himself with religious scruples in the last years of his life, these scruples were symptoms, not the cause, of his mysterious depression. The Church caused him no trouble but rather gave him comfort. For tellingly, he died in the arms of a cardinal the night before he was to be solemnly crowned with laurel, like Petrarch, by the Pope’s decree.

Despite his later scruples about his subplot, Tasso was inspired when he made those sensuous love stories an integral part of his epic, for they showed his Catholic appreciation of the body. His artistry is linked to a rich sensoriness beloved in the paintings and sculptures of the Italian Renaissance. As Esolen observes, Tasso saw the senses as needing “direction,” not “dampening.” His Gerusalemme is about the “romance of Christianity,” about “our longing for something beyond us to which we might joyfully surrender our pride, our lust, our earthly possessions, our very bodies and souls.”

From the first, Tasso’s epic found many admirers in England. Elizabeth I is said to have memorized passages from it, James I to have valued it above all other poetry, and Charles I to have found solace in it while in prison. It contributed to the serious moral tone of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1589, 1596), inspired the emphasis on Christian history in Dryden’s heroic plays (1667-1670), and made possible, in an increasingly secular age, another great epic that took Christianity utterly seriously — Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).

Tasso’s complete epic was first translated into English by Edward Fairfax in 1600. This translation, despite inaccuracies, remains a classic, though Fairfax inserted many pagan mythological figures into the work, undercutting its religious seriousness, and omitted passages. Esolen’s translation is a welcome alternative to Fairfax’s, the only English version perennially in print. Translations published in the 18th and 19th centuries are now forgotten. Ralph Nash published a prose version in 1987, but prose cannot convey Tasso’s passion. Another good translation in octave verse by Joseph Tusiani appeared in 1970, but is out of print. A very useful feature of Esolen’s edition, besides the notes and index, is a “Cast of Characters” at the end, where each personage is identified, with words and actions noted for each canto.



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