Chateaubriand's memoirs, XL, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XL- Chapter 2

Ferrara, the 18th of September 1833.

If there is one life that must make us despair of happiness where men of genius are concerned, it is that of Tasso. The lovely sky his eyes saw when first they opened to the light of day was a deceptive sky.

‘My troubles,’ he says, ‘began with my life. Cruel fortune snatched me from my mother’s arms. I remember her kisses mingled with tears, her prayers that the winds carried away. I could no longer press my face against hers. With tottering steps like Ascanius or the young Camilla, I followed my proscribed father’s wanderings. I grew up in poverty and exile.’

Torquato Tasso lost Bernardo Tasso at Ostiglia. Torquato eclipsed Bernardo as a poet; he gave him immortality as a father.

Emerging from obscurity with the publication of Rinaldo, Tasso was summoned to Ferrara. There he debuted in the midst of the celebrations of Alfonso II’s marriage with the Arch-Duchess Barbara, and there he met Leonora, Alfonso’s sister: love and misfortune contrived to endow his genius with all its beauty. ‘I saw,’ says the poet, describing in his Aminta the noble court of Ferrara, ‘I saw goddesses and charming nymphs, free of veils or mists: I felt myself inspired by a new power, by a new divinity, and I sang of war and heroes…!’

Tasso read the stanzas of his Gerusalemme to Alfonso’s two sisters, Lucrezia and Leonora, as he composed them. He was sent to Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, who was established at the court of France: he pawned his clothes and furniture to make the journey, while the Cardinal, whom he honoured by his presence, made the sumptuous gift of a hundred Barbary steeds with their superbly dressed Arab riders, to Charles IX. Despatched at first to the stables, Tasso was then presented to the poet-king, a friend of Ronsard. In a letter which we have, he judges the French harshly. He composed a few lines of his Gerusalemme in an Abbey in France which Cardinal Ippolito had established; it was at Châalis, near Ermenonville, that Jean-Jacques Rousseau dreamed and died: Dante also may have visited Paris.

Tasso returned to Italy in 1571, and so failed to witness the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He went straight to Rome and from there returned to Ferrara. His Aminta was given with great success. While rivalling Ariosto, the creator of Rinaldo admired the creator of Orlando to such an extent that he refused the homage to him of that poet’s nephew: ‘The laurels you offer me,’ he wrote, ‘have been placed on the head of him whose blood you share, through the judgement of scholars, gentlemen, and myself. Prostrating myself before his image, I grant him the noblest titles that affection and respect can dictate to me. I will proclaim him aloud as my father, my lord and my master.’

This modesty, though unknown in our age, did not forestall jealousy. Torquato watched the celebrations given by Venice to Henri III on his return from Poland, while a manuscript of the Gerusalemme was secretly printed: detailed criticisms by friends whose views Tasso consulted alarmed him. Perhaps he revealed himself as over-sensitive; but perhaps he had built hopes of success in love on hopes of glory. He believed himself surrounded by trickery and treason; he was obliged to defend his life. His stay at Belriguardo, where Goethe evokes his shade, did little to calm him: ‘Like the nightingale,’ (says the great German poet in a speech of the great Italian poet) ‘he exhaled from his love-sick breast a sorrowful harmony: his delightful singing, his sacred melancholy, captivated the ear and the heart…’

‘What has a greater right to cross the centuries mysteriously than the secret of a noble love, confided to the secrecy of a sublime poem? ...’

‘How delightful it is’ (Goethe again interprets Leonora’s feelings), ‘how delightful it is to see oneself reflected in this man’s fine genius, to have him beside one in the splendours of this life, to advance with him swiftly towards the future! Time cannot hurt you now, Leonora: living in the land of poetry, you will be forever young, forever happy, as the years carry you along in their course.’

The singer of Erminia conjures Leonora (again in the German poet’s lines) to let him stay in one of her most solitary villas: ‘Suffer me,’ he tells her, ‘to be your slave. How I shall nurse your trees! With what care, in autumn, will I cover the tender saplings of your lemon grove! I will raise beautiful beds of flowers beneath the glass.’

The tale of Tasso’s love was lost, Goethe recreated it.

The sorrows of the Muses and religious scruples began to disturb Tasso’s reason. He was made to endure a short period of detention. He escaped half-naked, wandered in the mountains, borrowed a shepherd’s rags and, disguised as one, arrived at his sister Cornelia’s house. His sister’s embrace, and the attractions of his native region, eased his sufferings for a while: ‘I wished,’ he says, ‘to retire to Sorrento as to a peaceful harbour: quasi in porto di quiete.’ But he could not rest where he was born! A spell drew him to Ferrara: love is our homeland.

Received coldly by Duke Alfonso, he withdrew once more; he entered the little courts of Mantua, Urbino, and Turin, singing for his supper. He addressed the Metauro, Raphael’s native stream: ‘Slight, but glorious child of the Apennines, restless traveller, to your shores I come, to find safety and rest.’ Armida had reached Raphael’s cradle; she was to preside over the enchantments of the Farnesina.

Surprised by a storm near Vercelli, Tasso celebrated the night there which he spent at a gentleman’s house in his fine dialogue The Father of the Family. At Turin he was refused entry, he was in so wretched a state. Told that Alfonso was about to marry again, he took the road to Ferrara once more. A divine spirit attached itself to the footsteps of this god hidden beneath the smock of a shepherd of Admetus; he thought he saw and heard that spirit: one day, seated by the fire and seeing the sunlight through a window: ‘Ecco l’amico spirito che cortesemente è venuto a favellarmi: Behold, the friendly spirit who comes courteously to speak with me.’ And Torquato talked to a ray of sunlight. He re-entered the fateful city as a bird, fascinated, hurls itself into a serpent’s jaws; misunderstood and repulsed by the courtiers, abused by the servants, he overflowed with complaint, and Alfonso shut him in a madhouse at the Sant’Anna hospital.

Then the poet wrote to one of his friends: ‘Beneath the weight of misfortune, I have renounced all thoughts of glory; I will call myself happy if I can only assuage the thirst that devours me…The idea of captivity without end and indignation at the mistreatment I endure adds to my despair. The state of my beard, my hair, and my clothes makes me an object of disgust even to myself.’

The prisoner begged mercy of all including his pitiless persecutor; from his lyre he drew tones that ought to have made the walls with which his misery was surrounded fall.

‘Piango il morir: non piango il morir solo.
Ma il modo……
Mi saria di conforto aver la tomba,
Ch’altre mole innalzar credea co’ carmi.
I weep at death: not only at death I weep.
But its manner......
It will comfort me to possess the tomb
Of one who thought to raise other monuments in verse.’

Lord Byron has composed a poem on The Lament of Tasso; but he cannot avoid substituting himself for the hero in the scene throughout; in as much as his genius lacks tenderness, his lament is merely an imprecation.

Tasso addressed this plea to the Council of Ancients at Bergamo:

‘Torquato Tasso, not only Bergamese by origin, but by affection, though having lost his father’s inheritance, and his mother’s dowry…yet (after many years serfdom and the weariness of long years) never having, in all his miseries, lost the faith he has in that city (Bergamo) dares to ask her for assistance. Let her beseech the Duke of Ferrara, once my protector and benefactor, to return me to my own place, my relatives and myself. The unfortunate Tasso thus begs your lordships (the magistrates of Bergamo) to send Messir Licino or some other to negotiate my deliverance. The memory of this good deed would end only with my life. Di VV.SS affezionatissimo servitore, Torquato Tasso, prigione e infermo nel ospedal di Sant’ Anna in Ferrara.’

They refused Tasso ink, pen, and paper. He had sung the magnanimous Alfonso, and the magnanimous Alfonso plunged into the depths of a madhouse the one who had shed an imperishable light over his brow. In a sonnet full of grace, the prisoner begs a cat to lend him the glow of her eyes to replace the light he has been deprived of: an inoffensive conceit that proves the poet’s docility and deep distress. ‘As on the ocean that the storm infests and darkens….the weary helmsman lifts his night-bound head towards the stars that gleam about the pole, so I, dear cat, in my wretched trouble. Your eyes seem twin stars that shine before me…O cat, lamp of my wakefulness, beloved cat! Since God keeps you from hurt, since Heaven feeds you on milk and meat, give me your light to write my verses: fatemi luce a scriver queste carmi.’

At night Tasso thought he heard strange noises, the chiming of funeral bells; spectres tormented him. ‘I can stand no more,’ he cried, ‘I succumb!’ Attacked by a grave illness, he thought he saw the Virgin descending miraculously to save him.

‘Egro io languiva, e d’alto sonno avvinto….
Giacea con guancia di pallor dipinta,
Quando di luce incoronata…………
Maria, pronta scendesti al mio dolore.
Ill, I languished conquered by deep sleep....
I lay there, pallor spreading o’er my cheeks,
When, crowned with light……………….
Mary, you flew swiftly to tend my sorrow.’

Montaigne visited Tasso reduced to this sad misfortune, and gave witness of his compassion. At the same period, Camoëns ended his life in a hospice in Lisbon. What consoled him as he lay dying on his pallet? It was the poems of the prisoner of Ferrara. The captive author of the Gerusalemme, admirer of the poverty-stricken author of the Lusiads, addressed Vasco da Gama: ‘Rejoice to have been sung by the poet, who so deploys his glorious flight that your swift vessels shall not sail so far: Tant’oltre stende il glorioso volo, Che i tuoi spalmati legni andar men lunge.’

So Eridanus’ voice rang out beside the Tagus; so, across the seas, two famous sufferers of like genius and like destiny celebrated each other from one hospice to the other, to the shame of the human race.

How many kings, great or foolish, drowned now in oblivion, believing themselves, at the end of the sixteenth century, persons worthy of remembrance were ignorant even of the names of Tasso and Camoëns! In 1754, one read, for the first time, ‘the name of Washington, in the tale of an obscure battle in the forest, between a crowd of Frenchmen, Englishmen and savages: where is the clerk at Versailles, or purveyor to the Deer Park, where is above all the courtier or academician who would have exchanged names at that time with that American planter?

Ferrara, the 18th of September 1833.

Envy hastened to spread its poison through the open wound. The Accademia della Crusca declared: ‘that Jerusalem Delivered was a cold and leaden compilation, in an obscure and uneven style, full of ridiculous lines, barbarous words, failing to compensate by any kind of beauty for its innumerable faults.’ Fanaticism in support of the works of Ariosto dictated the charge. But cries of popular approval stifled the academic curses: it was no longer possible for Duke Alfonso to prolong the captivity of a man who was guilty only of poetry. The Pope demanded the deliverance of the glory of Italy.

Emerging from prison, Tasso was no happier. Leonora was dead. He trailed his sorrows from city to city.

At Loretto, almost dead of hunger, he was on the point, as one of his biographers says, ‘of begging with the hand that had built Armida’s palace.’ At Naples, he experienced a few tender feelings for his native region. ‘Here, he said, ‘are places I left as a child…After many years, I return white-haired, and ill to my native shore: E donde partii fanciullo, or dopo tanti lustri torno ...canuto ed egro alle native spondo.’

He preferred a cell in the monastery of Montoliveto to more sumptuous residences. On a journey he made to Rome, fever seized him and a hospice was yet again his refuge.

From Rome and Florence he returned to Naples, and turning from illness to his immortal poem he re-wrote and spoiled it. He began his verses delle sette giornate del mondo creato: On the Seven Days of Creation, a subject treated by Du Bartas. Tasso had Eve emerging from Adam’s breast, while God ‘sprinkled sweet peace over the limbs of our first father as he slept: ed irrigò di placada quiete tutte le membra al sonnacchioso…’

The poet softens the Biblical scene, and in the tender creations of his lyre woman is simply man’s first dream. The disappointment of having to leave incomplete a pious work, which he considered his hymn of expiation, made the dying Tasso determine to condemn his profane poetry to extinction.

Regarded as lower than a thief by his society, the poet received the offer of an escort to accompany him to Rome, from Marco Sciarra, the famous leader of the condottieri. Presented at the Vatican, the Pope addressed these words to him: ‘Torquato, you will bring honour to this crown, which honours those who have worn it before you’: a eulogy which posterity has confirmed. Tasso replied to the praise by repeating this line of Seneca’s: Magnifica verba mors prope admota excutit: Death will soon carry off those magnificent words.’

Attacked by an illness which he sensed would cure all others, he retired to the monastery of Sant’Onofrio, on the 1st of April 1595. He reached his last refuge in a storm of wind and rain. The monks received him at the portal where Domenichino’s frescoes still wear away today. He saluted the holy fathers: ‘I come among you to die.’ Hospitable cloisters, sanctuaries of religion and poetry, you have lent your solitude to the exiled Dante and the dying Tasso!

All treatment was in vain. On the seventh morning of fever the Pope’s doctor declared that the illness gave little reason to hope. Tasso embraced him and thanked him for announcing such good news. Then he gazed heavenwards and, in a heartfelt manner, gave thanks to the God of Mercy.

His weakness increasing, he wished to receive the Eucharist in the monastery church: he dragged himself there leaning on the monks and returned borne in their arms. When he was once more lying on his bed, the Prior interrogated him regarding his last wishes.

‘I had little care for worldly goods during my life; I own still less in dying. I have no testament to make.’ ‘– In what place do you wish your grave to be?’ ‘– In your church, if you will deign to so honour my remains.’ ‘– Do you wish to dictate your own epitaph?’

Now, turning towards his confessor: ‘Father, write this “I render my soul to God who gave it to me and my body to the earth from which it came.” I bequeath to this monastery the sacred image of my Redeemer.’

He took a crucifix in his hands which he had received from the Pope and pressed it to his lips.

Seven days were yet to pass. The afflicted Christian having solicited the favour of holy oil, Cardinal Cinzio arrived bearing the Sovereign Pontiff’s benediction. The dying man displayed great joy. ‘Here, he cried, ‘is the crown that I came to Rome to seek; I hope to be in glory with it tomorrow.’

Virgil asked Augustus to throw the Aeneid into the flames; Tasso begged Cinzio to burn the Gerusalemme. Then he asked to be alone with the crucifix.

The Cardinal had not reached the door when his tears, forcibly repressed, flooded forth: the bell sounded the final agony, and the monks, chanting the prayer for the dying, wept and lamented in the cloister. At this sound, Tasso said to the charitable recluses (he seemed to see them moving round him like shades): ‘My friends, you think I am leaving you; I merely go before you.’

From then onwards he spoke only with his confessor and some learned fathers. Near his last breath, these words came from his mouth, the fruit of his life’s experience: ‘If there were no Death, there would be nothing more wretched in this world than Man.’ On the 25th of April 1595, towards noon, the poet cried out: ‘In manus tuas, Domine…….’

The remainder of the sentence could scarcely be heard, as if pronounced by a traveller in the distance.

The author of the Henriade died in the Hôtel de Villette, on the banks of the Seine, and rejected the aid of the Church; the poet of the Gerusalemme died a Christian at Sant’Onofrio: compare, and see how faith adds to the beauty of death.

All that is said of Tasso’s posthumous triumph seems suspect to me. His evil fortune was still more obstinate than is supposed. He did not die at the moment designated for his triumph: he survived that projected triumph by twenty-four hours. He was not wrong about his destiny; he was never crowned, not even after his death; his body was not displayed on the Capitol clothed as a senator in the midst of the crowd and the nation’s tears; he was buried, as he had requested, in the church of Sant’Onofrio. The stone above him (as he also wished) gave no date or name; ten years later, Manso, Marchese della Villa, Tasso’s last friend and Milton’s host, composed an admirable epitaph: ‘Hic jacet Torquatus Tasso: here lies Torquatus Tasso.’ Manso had difficulty in obtaining permission to have it carved: since the monks, religiously observing the testator’s last wishes, opposed any kind of inscription; and yet, without the hic jacet or the name Torquatus Tasso, his remains would have been lost within that monastery of the Janiculum, as those of Poussin were in San Lorenzo in Lucina.

Cardinal Cinzio formed the plan of erecting a mausoleum to the singer of the Holy Sepulchre; an abortive plan. Cardinal Bevilacqua wrote a pompous epitaph destined for the cornice of another future mausoleum, and the thing rested there. Two centuries later Napoleon’s brother occupied himself with a monument at Sorrento: Joseph soon exchanged the cradle of Tasso for the tomb of El Cid.

At last, in our own day, a great funeral monument was begun in memory of the Italian Homer, once a poverty-stricken wanderer like the Greek poet: has the work been completed? Personally, I prefer the little stone in the chapel, of which I have spoken in the Itinerary, to any marble tumulus: ‘I found (in Venice, in 1806) in an empty church, the tomb of the painter (Titian) and had some difficulty finding it: the same thing occurred in Rome (in 1803) regarding Tasso’s grave. After all though, the remains of a religious poet, a victim of misfortune, are not misplaced in being sited in a monastery. The poet of the Gerusalemme seems to have found sanctuary in an unknown sepulchre, as if escaping from the persecutions of men; he filled the world with his fame, and himself remains hidden beneath an orange-tree in Sant’Onofrio.’ (I was right about the orange tree; that is indeed what grows in the interior courtyard of Sant’Onofrio. Note: Paris, 1840)

The Italian commission charged with looking after funeral monuments asked me to take up a collection in France and distribute indulgences from the Muses to all the loyal donors who gave something towards the poet’s monument. July 1830 arrived; my wealth and my credit partook of the fate of Tasso’s remains. Those remains seem to possess a virtue that resists all opulence, rejects all notoriety, strips itself of all honours; great tombs are necessary for little men, little ones for the great.

The God who smiles at my dreams hurling me from the Janiculum along with the Senators of ancient Rome has led me back to Tasso by a different path. Here I can better judge the poet whose three daughters were born in Ferrara: Armida, Erminia and Clorinda.

What exists of the House of Este today? Who thinks now of Obizzo, Niccolò, or Ercole? What name remains: that of Leonora. What do visitors seek in Ferrara: Alfonso’s palace: no, Tasso’s prison. Where do people go in procession century after century: to the sepulchre of the persecutor: no to the dungeon of the persecuted.

Tasso won a memorable victory there: he rendered Ariosto forgotten; the visitor ignores the bones of the poet of Orlando in the Museum, and hastens to see the cell belonging to the poet of Rinaldo in Sant’Onofrio. Seriousness befits a tomb: the man who smiled is forgotten for the man who wept. During life happiness wins merit; after death it loses the prize: in the eyes of future generations, only tragic lives are viewed as beautiful. To those martyrs of intellect, pitilessly consumed on this earth, adversity is counted an accumulation of glory: they sleep with their immortal sufferings in the grave, like kings with their crowns. We other common wretches, we are too little for our troubles to become, for posterity, an adornment to our lives. Stripped of everything in completing my course, my grave will be no temple to me, but a place of renewal; I am no Tasso; I will elude those tender and harmonious predictions penned by the hand of friendship:

‘Tasso wandering from town to town,
And overcome by trouble, one fine day,
Beside a springing laurel bush sat down
That spread its greening boughs around
The tomb of Virgil, every way…etc.’

I hastened to bear my homage to that son of the Muses, so truly consoled by his brothers: a rich Ambassador, I had subscribed to his mausoleum in Rome; an indigent pilgrim on the path of exile, I went to kneel in his cell in Ferrara. I know doubts have been raised about the identity of the location; but, like all true believers, I mock such tales; that crypt, whatever they say, is the very place where the pazzo per amore: crazed by love lived seven whole years; you must pass through the cloisters to reach that gaol where light slips through the bars of iron in a tiny basement window, where the sloping vault that chills your brow drips saltpetre rot onto damp earth that paralyses your feet.

On the walls, outside the cell, and all around the wicket, you can read the names of the worshippers of the god: the statue of Memnon, trembling with harmonies at the touch of dawn, was covered with comments by witnesses of its marvels. I did not scribble my ex-voto there; I hid among the crowd, whose secret prayers would be, because of their very humility, more agreeable to Heaven.

The buildings which contain Tasso’s prison now belong to a hospital open to all sufferers; they are under the protection of the saints: Sancto Torquato sacrum: sacred to Torquato Tasso. At some distance from the holy cell is a dilapidated courtyard; in the midst of this courtyard, the concierge cultivates a flower bed surrounded by a hedge of mallows; the fence, of a pleasant green, supports large and beautiful flowers. I gathered one of its violet-coloured roses that seemed to me as if it was growing at the foot of Calvary. Genius is like Christ; misunderstood, persecuted, beaten with rods, crowned with thorns, hung on a cross by mankind and for mankind, it dies leaving them its light and rises again to be worshipped.