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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Jerusalem Delivered

Torquato Tasso
(Trans.: Anthony M. Esolen)

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about the author | about the translator

To purchase Jerusalem Delivered

Title: Jerusalem Delivered
Author: Torquato Tasso
Genre: Epic Poem
Translation: 2000
Length: 488 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Jerusalem Delivered - US
Jerusalem Delivered - UK
Jerusalem Delivered - Canada
  • 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.)
  • Edited and Translated by Anthony M. Esolen
  • The Italian version can also be found online, at Gerusalemme Liberata
  • See also the Edward Fairfax translation, available online in its entirety
  • See also our review of the translation of Jerusalem Delivered by Edward Fairfax

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very readable modern version of Tasso's classic, if not quite as spirited as Edward Fairfax's translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 22/2/2001 Colin Burrow
The New Republic B+ 2/10/2000 David Quint
The NY Rev. of Books A 17/5/2001 Bernard Knox

  From the Reviews:
  • "Occasionally Esolen slips in words of too colloquial and low a character for the decorum of this epic. (...) Still, when one puts these infrequent lapses and a few non-trivial mistranslations aside, Esolen's accomplishment is considerable. He rises to the challenge again and again at the epic's most memorable moments. (...) Esolen's verse rendering represents a decent compromise that many readers should now prefer." - David Quint, The New Republic

  • "(A) triumph, a translation in limpid, idiomatic English that preserves the charm of Tasso's rhymes and the headlong speed of his narrative. And what a tale it is ! (...) His notes are full of fascinating comment and helpful information." - Bernard Knox, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Torquato Tasso's 16th century epic is one of the classics of Italian literature. Its reputation has waned somewhat in recent centuries, but it was long a widely-read and influential work, inspiring poets, painters, and composers. Numerous translations have appeared in English, most notably Edward Fairfax's in 1600 (see our review -- or read it online), but in recent years it has been difficult to find any translation in English. Anthony Esolen's new version should now go some way to reclaiming an audience for this important work. Modern, accessible, and truer to Tasso's original than Fairfax's version, Esolen's Jerusalem Delivered should find broad appeal.
       A brief translator's note explains Esolen's approach. He feels there is no place for the "flagrant archaisms" and "syntactic gyrations" that reproducing Tasso's ottava rima in iambic pentameter in English would necessitate. Nevertheless, he preserves Tasso's eight-line stanzas, and while he can not follow the ABABABCC rhyme scheme (as Fairfax managed to do -- with many gyrations and archaisms) he follows a XAXAXABB rhyme scheme -- occasionally rhyming on the odd lines too. It's a worthwhile experiment, and for most of the epic it works quite well. Esolen's ear is not that of a poet, and the emphasis is decidedly on the literal rather than the poetic. Certainly, there is little of the reckless (and often exhilarating) abandon of Fairfax's translation, but on the whole Esolen's restraint is probably both prudent and laudatory.
       Rhyming is not easy (especially since English does not allow the same freedoms as Italian), and Esolen's efforts can seem forced. He is, for example, satisfied with the rhyming (?) words stars, was, and says (XII.91) or blood, reward, and good (VII.101). And, as David Quint notes in his review (in The New Republic): "To rhyme 'Christ' with 'heist' was not a good idea." Fortunately, however, Esolen has some good material to work with, and the story can support the occasional mangling of the poetry.
       The story is that of the First Crusade, concluding with the triumphal Christian liberation of Jerusalem in 1099. Tasso tells of Godfrey of Bouillon, the leader of the Christian armies, and his efforts to reach and then conquer Jerusalem. There are some difficult battles along the way, including the final horrific slaughter in Jerusalem, but the Christians do triumph relatively easily. Much of the drama comes along the way: the infighting among Godfrey's followers as well as the temptations that are encountered -- and the supernatural occurrences.
       Godfrey is a natural choice to lead the crusade:

"For truly he was born to rule; he knows
the art of how to govern and command,
yet is no less a knight than general.
His is a double valor. In all that grand
army before your eyes I cannot show
a greater warrior or a wiser man.
In counsel only Raymond is his peer,
only Tancred and Rinaldo with the spear."

       Everybody gets involved in this seminal contest: Christian success in Palestine even annoys none other than Satan -- "bellowing and groaning like a wounded bull" in fury in Canto IV. He inspires the "traitors of the Most High" to "begin to ply their art" on earth. Besides the mortals opposed to the Christians -- Saracens, Circassians, Egyptians, and others -- these more powerful forces are also arrayed against them. Notable among those that then seek to subvert the Christian cause is artful Armida, niece of the ruler of Damascus, Hydrotes. She, like her uncle, is a sorcerer, and she manages to wreak havoc among the Christians. She sets her sights on Godfrey, Tancred, and finally Rinaldo, and her successes and failures make for one of the more powerful storylines.
       Erminia, the daughter of the ruler of Antioch, is another who succumbs to the Christians, falling in love with Tancred. In affecting scenes she worries about Tancred, who battles Argante to a draw and vows to fight him again:
Her thoughts are rich with images, atrocious,
troubling and torturing her constantly,
and worse than death itself, sleep is ferocious,
presenting nightmares of strange fantasy,

       Combat is well-done throughout, as in this contest between Tancred and Argante:
Reason and art are conquered now by wrath.
Ministering fury makes their forces grow.
Wherever the blade falls, it cuts a path
through mail or breastplate, landing every blow.
Iron shards stained with blood litter the earth,
shards stained with blood, blood mingled with sweat. For now
their flashing and resounding swords are like
deafening bolts of lightning when they strike.

       The stakes are high -- "dominion of all Asia for the prize" -- though there is not that much suspense about the final outcome. There are moments of concern -- the pagan warrior Clorinda wounds Godfrey (with an arrow shot "through the tendons of the knee"), for example -- but most of the suspense is in the smaller stories, including sly Clorinda's who, unrecognized, eventually gets tangled in a fight with Tancred. There are other horrors (including "drunken feasts and devilish copulation") and dangers, and interference from on high and on low.
       As the fall of Jerusalem approaches the horrors quicken:
In tiniest bloody fragments were they strewn,
those skulls and brains full of iniquity;
not grains of corn under the great grindstone
would be ground to dust more thoroughly.
Learn piety, O mortals -- learn it well.

       Argante and Tancred have a terrible and messy final showdown ("the pagan's blood was gushing as from a spout"), but the Christians finally gain the upper hand completely. The plots and deceits against Godfrey are revealed and neutralized, the Egyptians beaten (a historical liberty Tasso takes -- the Egyptians only appeared on the scene months later), and finally Jerusalem is liberated.

       Esolen's brief introduction and explanation of the Allegory of the Poem are fairly helpful. The notes are of interest, but could be more extensive. The listing of the Cast of Characters, with references to all the scenes in which they play a part, is particularly helpful.
       Esolen's translation is fairly literally-minded -- certainly more so than Edward Fairfax's. Usefully, the text can easily be compared to the original, which can be found at this excellent site online. There are a few choices that appear particularly dubious, including this odd French slip where "Con tali scherni il saracin atroce ..." is translated as "With such bon mots the truculent Saracen ..."
       As a modern representation of Tasso Esolen does an admirable job -- but another point of comparison must be Edward Fairfax's English version, first published exactly four hundred years before Esolen's. Full of the archaisms and inversions that Esolen believes a modern audience will no longer stand for, Fairfax's version is an often tortured text (see our review -- or read it online). Nevertheless, Fairfax was a true poet and his text is consistently more effective (if often also considerably more arduous) than Esolen's.
       Esolen's clarity may be preferable:
Soon as the east shows signs of the new day
I want the army to decamp, and fast
so that we may, as far as in us lies,
come to the holy city by surprise.

       But there is something to be said for Fairfax's language, even at its most muddled:
I will, when day next clears the firmament,
    Our ready host in haste be all prepar'd,
Closely to march to Sion's noble wall,
Unseen, unheard, or undescried at all.

       Occasionally Esolen's modern and straightforward presentation is almost a relief -- but it still almost invariably misses some of the poetry Fairfax forces on his lines:
But when the heavens gleamed with the new dawn,
the watchman in that house of the unclean
suddenly noticed that the image was gone:

       (Esolen, II.8)

When Phoebus next unclos'd his wakeful eye,
    Uprose the sexton of that place prophane,
and miss'd the image where it us'd to lie;

       (Fairfax, II.8)
       Tasso's imagery is often vivid, and Esolen neatly captures some of the scenes and battles:
A black veil steals the sun and day away
from mortal vision, and it seems the sky
flames with black horror worse than the depths of hell,
so furiously the streaks of lightning fly.
The thunder roars and rain falls mixed with hail,
leaves pastures strewn, fields flooded; branches lie
aslant, askew in the tumult, whose great shocks
seem to shake not just oaks, but hills and rocks.

       Fairfax perhaps tries too much, but still manages a more convincing description:
Heav'n's glorious lamp, wrapp'd in an ugly veil
    Of shadows dark, was hid from mortal eye,
And hell's grim blackness did bright skies assail;
    On every side the fiery light'nings fly,
The thunders roar, the streaming rain and hail
    Pour down, and make that sea which erst was dry;
The tempests rend the oaks, and cedars brake,
And make not trees, but rocks and mountains shake.

       The simple choice of the two words -- "thunder roars" by Esolen, versus "thunders roar" by Fairfax -- perhaps best demonstrates their differently attuned ears. Or the fact that Esolen writes: "Darkness darker than night" (XVI.69) where Fairfax sees: "A shadow blacker than the mirkest night" (XVI.68).
       Certainly Esolen's version reads more smoothly and easily, and is in many respects (both literally and in spirit) closer to Tasso's original than Fairfax's. It is a fine read, and certainly can be recommended. Tasso's work should be known, and Esolen makes it accessible. But reader's shouldn't forget Fairfax's version .....

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Jerusalem Delivered: Reviews: Torquato Tasso: Anthony M. Esolen: 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:

       Anthony M. Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College.

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