Jerusalem Delivered/Gerusalemme Liberata
by Torquato Tasso
Edited and translated by Anthony M. Esolen
John Hopkins Press
Why on earth would Ink 19 review a book of epic poetry that was originally written in the late sixteenth century and which focuses on a group of Christian Crusaders attempting to recover Jerusalem? Why would a magazine devoted primarily to indie and heavy metal music consider such a topic? The answer is twofold. First, many of our readers are familiar with the writings of Chaucer or Shakespeare, and I dare say, a few even like these writers. For them, Esolen’s translation of this epic would appeal to them. It is beautifully written epic poem that would appeal to our (sniff) sensitive and creative types. Second, and most importantly, large portions of our readers (and contributors) are fans of metal. Unlike indie rock, metal addresses the larger themes of life. Themes like honor, vengeance, war, and death. Metal has no time for sissy emotions. Like Iron Maiden says, “If you’re gonna die, die with your boots on.” It is to this second group of readers that this work might appeal to.
A blend of Christian symbolism and allegory with a copious mixture of Greco/Roman mythology, the poem (in 20 cantos) centers on the hero and leader, Godfrey attempting to maintain his troops and recapture the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslim invaders. Throughout this process, Godfrey sets siege, sees some of his best soldiers killed or lost, routes the enemy and ultimately emerges triumphant. Along the way, we meet a host of great warriors and lovers.
There is Tancred, the warrior who falls in love with the female warrior Clorinda. Clorinda, one of the fiercest warriors that the Muslims have remains unaware of Tancred’s true feelings and one day they meet on the battlefield. Both wearing their full armor and with faces covered, they engage in battle. Just as Clorinda has pierced Tancred’s heart with desire, Tancred delivers the fatal blow ending Clorinda’s life. Oh cruel fate!
Jerusalem Delivered is full of these plot twists and more. There is Rinaldo, hot headed and full of honor who slays a fellow crusader for a slighting remark. He is driven from the camp rather than face his punishment and gradually falls under the spell of the enchantress Armida. It is only later that he is recalled by Godfrey to rescue the men from an enchanted forest. That’s right, an enchanted forest full of demons!
There is much more to the plot than what I have briefly sketched out here. But the themes of honor and obedience, fate and predestination figure prominently throughout the plot and subplots of this epic. An epic it truly is. There are battles and blood spilt, arms torn asunder. Men are hacked in two and trampled under galloping horses. Eyes are torn from sockets and swords split helmet and heads in two. In one of the finer episodes, the death of the evil sorcerer, Ismen, and his witch minions arises when they get between the besieged town and the battering ram:
When from the hulking tower was slung a stone/That once formed part of a mountain, and this plowed/Into the three with one shot making good/And powdered the three together, bone and blood./In tiniest bloody fragments were they strewn,/ Those skulls and brains full of iniquity (88-89)
So comes to an end the evil and cowardly Ismen.
I reviewed this book primarily because I wanted to read something fun and interesting this summer. Although it takes a little time to adjust to the narrative style of epic poetry, once this is accomplished, the narrative becomes effortless. This is an excellent book to spend the summer reading. Oh, and for you arty types, you just might learn something. For the rest of us, UP THE IRONS.