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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Jerusalem Delivered

Torquato Tasso
(Trans.: Edward Fairfax)

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about the author | about the translator

Title: Jerusalem Delivered
Author: Torquato Tasso
Genre: Epic Poem
Translation: 1600
Length: 464 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Out of print
  • Italian title: Gerusalemme liberata
  • Completed ca. 1576. No authorized version was published in the author's lifetime. (Unauthorized versions were published, and Tasso published a radically revised version as Gerusalemme conquistata in 1593.)
  • Translated by Edward Fairfax
  • Original title of Fairfax-translation: Godfrey of Bulloigne or The Recoverie of Jerusalem
  • Though the Fairfax translation is currently our of print, it can be found in its entirety online
  • The Italian version can also be found online, at Gerusalemme Liberata
  • See also our review of the translation of Jerusalem Delivered by Anthony M. Esolen

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive epic of the First Crusade in an energetic translation

See our review for fuller assessment.


  • "(T)he work is alive as poetry -- it is not merely a tool for the English reader of the Liberata. Indeed it has great individuality and a unity of tone remarkable in a work that follows the original so closely. But it is very different from the Liberata -- more sententious and at the same time more down-to-earth in tone, more florid in style, smoother in rhythm and less subtle in its psychology." - C.P.Brand, in Torquato Tasso (1965)

  • "Lamb gave it as his opinion that it was the very best, yet the very worst translation in English; and, being asked for an explanation of his apparent paradox, he stammered a little, and then went on, pretty flowingly, to say that it was the best for the air of originality and ease, which marked so many of the stanzas, and the worst, as far as he was able to judge (and he had been told the same by competent Italians) for literalness, and want of adherence to the text. Nothing could be more wanton than Fairfax's deviations, excepting some of those in Sir John Harrington's version of Ariosto." - John Payne Collier (1856)

  • "Oh, think in what sweet ways, how sweetly strong,
    Our Fairfax warbles Tasso's forceful song."
                 - William Collins (18th century)

  • "Fairfax's Tasso is no translation at all. It's better in some places, but it merely observes the number of stanzas; as far as images, similes, etc., he finds 'em himself, and never 'troubles Peter for the matter'. " - Charles Lamb, from a letter to H.F.Cary, 9 September 1833

  • "The reader without Italian can still turn to the great Elizabethan translation by Edward Fairfax, which is better poetry, if antiquated." - David Quint, The New Republic 2/10/2000 (in a review of Anthony M. Esolen's new translation -- see also our review)

  • "(C)ertainly the Godfrey of Bulloigne by Fairfax is a work which is never likely to vanish from English literature. There is a charm about the ancient structure of its language which can hardly fail to allure." - C.L.Smith (1851)

  • "(T)his version of Tasso often reads with all the ease and spirit of an original. Sometimes it must be confessed, at the expense of fidelity. May it not be said of Fairfax, that he is a solitary example of any one gaining as high and permanent reputation as a Poet, by metrical Translation alone ?" - T. Holt White (1819)

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The complete review's Review:

       Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered is one of the great Italian epics, an influential and immensely popular piece that was, eventually, easily eclipsed in reputation by Dante's earlier great work, the Divine Comedy. Jerusalem Delivered now seems to rank somewhere beside Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, a big bulky classic, known but largely unread.
       There have been many translations of Tasso's work, new ones continuing to appear at a steady rate (most recently, in 2000, by Anthony Esolen -- see our review), but to speak of Tasso in English has, for four hundred years, been to speak of Edward Fairfax's translation. (Tellingly it is essentially out of print, unavailable in any affordable paperback edition -- unlike Orlando Furioso or any of innumerable Dante-translations.) The Elizabethan poet Fairfax did not make a great mark with his own verse (little of which survives), but his translation is an acknowledged masterpiece -- of sorts.
       Fairfax's "translation" is a fairly free one, taking more liberties than most translators care or dare to. There is considerable embellishment of the text, specifically with the addition of nouns and adjectives as Fairfax uses two -- or three -- words to repeat what Tasso expressed in one. Fairfax remains true to the story, but his language is much more sprightly (and the effect more dramatic -- or at least melodramatic) than in Tasso's original. Usually such translatorial interference does little to enhance a text, but Fairfax was a real poet and his English version, though a stretch as a translation, is an impressive English epic. Fairfax's imprint was a strong and enduring one, and the reception of Tasso in the English-speaking world has been almost entirely through this rose-coloured version. There are few instances in English in which a single translation has taken so many liberties and yet been so influential: Edward FitzGerald's even more creative rendition of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (see our review) is among the few that are comparable.
       Tasso's epic tells the story of the First Crusade, leading to the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099. The central figure is Godfrey of Bouillon/Boulogne, who would become ruler of Jerusalem after it was "liberated" (only to promptly die the next year), but other figures also play prominent roles, including crusaders such as Tancred, Saracen and Circassian warriors, and various heathens, sorceresses and whatnot.
       The tale centers around Godfrey's exploits, from the beginning when he is chosen to lead the crusaders ( "To free Jerusalem from thrall and wrong" (I.xvi)) to his victorious end. Despite the fact that god and right are obviously on their side -- they are, after all, liberating Jerusalem from those unworthy Muslims -- the adventure is not a smooth and painless one. There are disagreements and disappointments, and various crusaders go their own ways -- before everyone, of course, triumphantly comes together. Diversions range from infighting among the crusaders to romantic entanglements with various temptresses -- and many of these are among the more entertaining parts of the epic: righteous Godfrey is a decent hero but not always the most entertaining of the characters.
       Fairfax follows Tasso's ottava rima, faithfully preserving the rhyme scheme of the original -- ABABABCC -- for each stanza. Occasionally it is forced, with some creative word-twisting and occasional -coining, but Fairfax proceeds vigorously and often lyrically. He has a poet's ear for language, and even when he can not comfortably twist the Italian into English the verses are often powerful:

Of double iron, brass, or adamant,
    Or, if this wall were built of flaming fire,
Yet should the pagan vile a fortress want,
    To shroud his coward head safe from mine ire:
Come follow then, and bid base fear avaunt,
    The harder work deserves the greater hire:
And with that word close to the walls he starts,
Nor fears he arrows, quarries, stones, or darts.

       Most of the poem is fairly easy to follow, despite its dated and occasionally obscure language. Fairfax's command of the language is not first-rate, but he proceeds with astonishing confidence (or reckless abandon, some might say), and on the whole the result is impressive and often enthralling. He has a sense for drama -- probably more than Tasso would have liked -- and his colourful embellishments add to both the romances and the battle-scenes.
       There are many vivid scenes, culminating in the final battles around and in Jerusalem:
But of the sacked town the image true
       Who can describe, or paint the woeful state;
Or with fit words this spectacle express
Who can, or tell the city's great distress ?

Blood, murder, death, each street, house, church defil'd,
       There heaps of slain appear, there mountains high;
There, underneath th' unburied hills up-pil'd
       Of bodies dead, the living buried lie;

       Tasso himself takes considerable liberties in his tale (so, for example, pushing up the battle between the Christians and the Egyptians several months, so that it all neatly coincided in one great Christian triumph in Jerusalem), as well as adding considerable fanciful invention, but it makes for a good story. Fairfax emphasizes the colour, glory, fantasy, and his tale sounds a little less Christian-sincere than Tasso's, reveling in language throughout (sometimes a bit too much ...). It is Fairfax's version that made an impression on English literature, and echoes of it still resound. It has a reassuring distant familiarity and a welcome Elizabethan tone that seems appropriate to the subject matter. A translation such as Anthony Esolen's may be truer to the original, as well as more modern in language and spirit, but Fairfax's version still seems the superior entertainment. (See also our review of Anthony Esolen's translation for a closer comparison of the two versions.)
       Early in the epic Tasso/Fairfax invoke the muse of memory:
My mind, time's enemy, oblivion's foe,
       Disposer true of each note-worthy thing,
O let thy virtuous might avail me so,
       That I each troop and captain great may sing,
That in this glorious war did famous grow,
       Forgot till now, by time's evil handling:
This work, derived from they treasures dear,
Let all times hearken, never age out-wear.

       Some four hundred years later age has not yet out-worn this marvelous telling and re-telling of the First Crusade. Not one of the all-time classics, but an impressive work, in an equally impressive (and literarily important) translation.

       Note that in this age when various groups again squabble and murder over the same holy piece of real estate as the characters in Jerusalem Delivered did 900 years ago this epic is perhaps an appropriate book to turn to. On the other hand, the self-righteous contenders to sovereignty are unlikely to take the subtle lessons from such a work of literature. Too bad.

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Jerusalem Delivered: Torquato Tasso: Other translations of Jerusalem Delivered under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Torquato Tasso was born March 11, 1544 and died April 25, 1595. He is considered among the foremost Italian poets after Dante, best known for his epic, Gerusalemme liberata.

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About the Translator:

       Edward Fairfax (ca. 1575-1635) was an Elizabethan poet, but remains best known for his translation of Tasso's epic.

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