Amyntas, A Tale of the Woods/Preface

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In 1567, when Tasso was an aspiring young poet at the court of Ferrara, he was present at the representation of a pastoral drama, entitled Lo Sfortunato, the Unfortunate, which was written by Agostino degli Arienti, a gentleman of that city. To the sight of this drama, in which Verato, the Roscius of his time, was the principal actor, and which was performed with great splendour before princes and ladies, in the month of May, and perhaps in the Open air, is attributed, with great probability, the first conception of the Aminta. Tasso was passionately fond of glory: he had not long arrived in Ferraro, for the first time, in the train of the Duke's brother, Cardinal Luigi, to whom the piece was dedicated; his early epic poem, Rinaldo, had given him an additional grace of introduction, to a court that piqued itself on its taste; and though the trumpet of his greater epic, the Jerusalem, which he had already begun to fashion, has carried his name to the ears of after ages with so much gravity and loftiness, he was at that time, by his own confession, and as his Miscellaneous Poems abundantly testify, a great lover of the fair sex; sowing his panegyrics, and reaping his smiles, in all the sunny favour of southern vivacity.

It was not, however, till six years afterwards, that the Aminta was produced. Our young poet, in the mean time, seems to have been too much in request, to render any new recommendation of him necessary; and therefore, in the intervals of pleasure and business, he went on with the great work, which he knew would add lustre to his name, let it be as brilliant for a young man as it could. His attendance, too, was much demanded at court; and on all public occasions, where his accomplishments could be concerned, he appears either to have been called forward by others, or to have made his way by the united warmth of his genius and ambition. He wrote hymeneal odes; he delivered orations at the Opening of Academies; he was appointed, in his twenty-eighth year, Professor of Geometry and Astronomy; he sustained those alarming things called Amorous Conclusions[1], in the presence of brilliant assemblages; he visited several of the capital cities of Italy, delighting every one with portions of his manuscript epic; and he went in the Cardinal's train to Paris, where he was highly welcomed by that unhappy prince Charles the IXth, whom the horrible massacre, afterwards perpetrated, has hindered the impatient world from calling to mind as a nature ruined by bad education, a poet when poetry was undervalued by his countrymen, and a sufferer from an early and remorseful death.

At length, in 1573, and in the twenty-ninth year of his age, Tasso found leisure, during a visit of the Duke's to Rome, to produce his Aminta; which he is said to have written in the course of two months; an expedition that has been much admired. The poet, however, probably thought nothing of it; for if the impulse was upon him, he might as well have done it in two months as in twenty. He enjoyed his work; it was one of feeling, rather than thought; and love is a quick traveller. At the return of the Duke, it was performed by his orders, and obtained the greatest applause. It soon spread to the other theatres of Italy, and continued so long and so highly in fayour as a performance at court, that sixteen years after, Tasso is reported to have gone secretly to Florence, on purpose to thank Buontalenti the artist, for getting up his play in a beautiful manner. He saluted him, kissed him on the forehead, and then left the city without paying his respects to his admirer the Grand Duke; a piece of romance, by which perhaps he chose to indulge himself in confining his respects to intellectual power, and in venting a secret spleen on those assumptions of worldly greatness, which had long begun to resent and worry his own. The success of Aminta was the last sunshine of his life. His temper was naturally impatient: he had met with the success, of all others the most dangerous to it, that of pleasing men who, with all his panegyrics upon them, could honour him more in the eyes of others than his own; and envy soon completed that tendency to thwart and mortify him on the part of the court, and to be mistrustful and dissatisfied on his own, which is sufficient perhaps to account for all that he afterwards suffered, without either rejecting or believing the stories of his passion for the Duke's sister, Leonora. Nobody was more likely than Tasso to fancy himself in love with a person so situated, whether he actually was or not; but the same disposition which renders the fancy probable, renders fifty other causes of his adversity as much so.

But to return to the Aminta.—The Italians, among their other inventions, justly claim the merit of having originated this species of Drama. Eclogues, or detached pastoral scenes, are, it is true, as old as the Greeks; and these, or even dramas in ordinary, may have suggested the whole play. But when we come to consider what an infinite number of suggestions must have been lost upon the world, and that originality, in it's most creative sense, is nothing but combination, we shall not dispute the entireness of this pretension. Agostino Beccari, a Ferrarese, is the first person on record who produced a complete pastoral drama. It was brought forward in 1554, under the title of The Sacrifice, (Il Sacrifizio,) and obtained him, as might be expected, the greatest applause. It is remarkable, that it was dedicated to the two Princesses, Lucretia and Leonora, who were then very young, and who were thus destined to see a new species of drama begun and perfected under the auspices of their family. The next pastoral play, also by a Ferrarese, was produced by a writer of the name of Alberto Lollio. Of the third, still a production of Ferrara, we have already spoken. Tasso's, far surpassing all three, was the next, and has stood without a rival of Italian growth ever since, though it has had crowds of followers. In 1614, a collection had been made of them amounting to eighty; and in 1700, more than two hundred were to be seen in a person's possession at Rome. We speak rather from our own feelings, than from universal consent, when we say that the Aminta had no rival; for it soon met with one in the Pastor Fido of Battista Guarini, Tasso's contemporary and fellow-courtier. Without entering, however, into a critical examination of works not before the reader, the great majority of suffrages, both Italian and foreign, has always been in favour of Tasso's play; and for our parts, we really can see no comparison between the brief and touching simplicity of the Aminta, and the elaborate perplexity of it's ostentatious challenger. There are some beautiful passages in the Pastor Fido, but they are inlaid, not of a piece; and seem to have been pressed into the service from former compositions, in order to assist the weight of a weak blow. We are the less scrupulous in being summary upon this point, because Guarini, after plundering Tasso's work to swell out his own, openly challenged a comparison of his common-place Ode to Honour, with the divine one upon the Golden Age, of which he has ostentatiously repeated the rhymes. We are aware that this was not an uncommon practice in friendly answers of poets to each other; but Guarini's Ode, in subject as well as manner, was a direct provocation to a comparison; and when he quarrelled with Tasso, he re-echoed a sonnet of his in the same manner. Guarini, however, was really a clever man; and having been softened, as well as Tasso, by misfortune, afterwards took care of the publication of his miscellaneous poems during his mysterious imprisonment by the Duke; and recollected him with admiration after his death.—As to Tasso's precursors, we are not acquainted with the two intermediate ones; but to shew what an improvement either he or they had made, at so short a distance of time, upon the inventor of the Pastoral Drama, and at the same time to furnish another excuse for the mitigated conceits that he left remaining, it will be sufficient to lay before the reader the opening of Beccari's play. The speaker is a hopeless lover, "sighing like furnace."

Orrida selva, in cui piangendo spargo
Gli ardenti miei sospir, gli accesi lai,
Le focose fiammelle ond' io tutt' ardo;
Del dimmi, onde avvien mai, che arida essendo,

Ed atta a pigliar foco, che più tenghi
Alcuna fronde o ramo alcuno o sterpo
Ch' adusto in polve non si trovi ed arso?
Rispondi, e dì: "Mercè de gli occhi tuoi,
Che lagrimando ognor un fonte, un rio
Si fan sempre d'intorno, e non dan loco
A fiamma che m'incenda."

Thou dreary wood, in which I pour around me
These ardent sighs of mine, these hot complaints,
The fiery flames with which I burn all over;
Ah tell me, how it comes, that being dry,
And fitted to take fire, ye can retain
One leaf, or bough, or twig, that does not turn
To dust and ashes? Thou dost answer and say,
"Thanks to thine ever-weeping eyes, which shedding

A fount of tears, afford me such a stream
As will not let the burning fire prevail."

One is surprised how a man of talents could write in this way, only twenty-one years after the death of his countryman Ariosto.

But Ariosto had shewn himself above a servile adherence to a court, which seems to have been fond of dictating in every thing; and after his death, inferior poets became subservient to it's fashions. They cut their imaginations after the court pattern; which has always a tendency to be artificial. Natural and original genius frightens the instinctive sense of inferiority, that belongs to worldly power. For the same reason, the moment that ordinary patronage ceases to elevate the self love of the patron, and becomes a debt owed, rather than a gift obliging; or the moment it ceases, in any way, to bind the person patronized as a vassal to his liege lord, it has an inclination to declare war. An impartial and accurate biographer of Tasso, the Rev. Dr. Black, (Vol. I. p. 180.) cannot help thinking, merely from his investigation into the character of his author's patron, that "a considerable share of the obstinacy with which Alphonso persecuted Guarini, was owing to the dedication of the Pastor Fido to Charles Emanuel of Savoy, immediately on the poet's leaving the court of Ferrara." How much of Tasso's own adversity may not have resulted, in like manner, from his faithless odes to other reigning Dukes!

If the Aminta, however, so far surpasses it's Italian followers, we are bound to assert, on the other hand, and we can safely say we do it out of no national self-love, that in point of poetry it is as far surpassed by Comus and the Faithful Shepherdess. With the former, which is of a more supernatural kind, it does not so directly come under comparison; but compared with the latter, which is a complete sylvan work on the Italian model, it is as inferior, poetically speaking, as a lawn with a few trees on it is to the depths of a forest. It wants the crust of the old barks, the heaps of leaves, the tangled richness of exuberance, the squirrels, glades, and brooks, the ancient twilight, the reposing yet vital solitudes, the quaint and earthy population, the mid-way world between men and gods; the old overgrowth and beardiness of nature, fit for the shaggy satyrs to haunt, and for the flowers and the budding nymphs to supply with an under-look of youth and joy.

On the other hand, while it is still the work of no ordinary young poet, it may be pronounced as superior to those celebrated productions in a dramatic point of view, as it is inferior in richness of imagination. It possesses what no other pastoral drama but one can boast, true dramatic skill, and an absolute flesh-and-blood interest.[2] The Lady in Comus is beset by foes too symbolical, and is too safe and contented in her own virtue, to interest us for her fate: and the Faithful Shepherdess, with all the more sympathetic beauty of her virtue, appears to us, nevertheless, too much like a conscious and laboured contradiction to Fletcher's ordinary ideas respecting women and chastity. Beaumont and Fletcher both seem to think, that if they make a woman chaste, they make her every thing; which is the mistake of a gross habit of life, and after all not a very sincere one. The characters of these heroines enable us to anticipate the becoming conclusion of their stories, and thus help to dullen the dramatic interest, even if it were more artfully managed than it is. But poetry is the great beauty of both the works; more abstract and etherial in Comus; more natural to the scene, and of a rich rusticity without meanness, in the Faithful Shepherdess. The persons in the Aminta, though placed in a country famous for being misrepresented and frigidized in poetry,—Arcadia,—are all copies after humanity; the action is simple; the incidents necessary, and happily interwoven; the images, as Dryden has observed in contradistinction to those of Guarini, all rural and proper; the event at once new, unexpected, and natural. Lovers, and those who know lovers, will know how to account for what may seem exaggerations of feeling; and as to the language, which has sometimes shared the objection made against those pastorals cut in paper, which have been seen in latter times, the poet, with a happy artifice, makes Love account for the elegance of it in his Prologue:—

Queste selve oggi ragionar d'Amore
S'udranno in nuova guisa: e ben parassi,
Che la mia Deità sia qni presente

In se medesma, e non ne' suoi ministri.
Spirerò nobil sensi à rozzi petti;
Reddolcirò nelle lor lingue il suono:
Perchè, ovunque i' mi sia, io sono Amore,
Nè pastori non men che negli eroi;
E la disagguaglianza de' soggetti,
Come a me piace, agguaglio: e questa è pure
Suprema gloria, e gran miracol mio,
Render simili alle più dotte cetre
Le rustiche sampogne.

After new fashion shall these woods to-day
Hear love discoursed; and it shall well be seen,
That my divinity is present here
In it's own person, not it's ministers!
I will inbreathe high fancies in rude hearts:
I will refine, and render dulcet sweet,
Their tongues; because, wherever I may be,

Whether with rustic or heroic men,
There am I,—Love; and inequality,
As it may please me, do I equalize;
And 'tis my crowning glory and great miracle,
To make the rural pipe as eloquent,
Even as the subtlest harp.

It should be observed at the same time, that the language of the Aminta, though raised above rusticity into politeness, is looked upon in Italy as a model of natural and unconspired grace, amounting to the simple and naïve. The thoughts are sometimes too artificially contrasted, and this produces a similar look in the words; but the latter in themselves are always easy and natural; and both the language, and the interest, as a whole, are so much what they are said to be, that although in the earlier part of the translation I could not help feeling now and then a yearning out of the pale of the original for the more imaginative and sylvan wealth of Milton and Fletcher, my enthusiasm grew more and more absorbed in Tasso alone. The nature, as it always does when it is powerful, sufficed. Even the undoubted and ancient common-places, which are to be found here and there,—such as at the end, for instance, of the First Scene, Act the Third,—appeared nothing more than chalky pieces of baldness, over which you pass quickly upon the grass again, And it is to be said for those common-places, that they were not the school-boy things they are now. The pastorals of the ancients had not been thumbed as they have been since; the artificial taste of the court-critics, which could enjoy the exordium of Beccari's Sacrifizio, rendered some of the worst things in the Latin poets but too worthy of repetition; and Tasso was perhaps quite as much ingratiating himself with the learned and the polite in repeating them, as he was unwittingly leading them into a truer taste by the more natural and elder Greek cast of the rest of his poem. With all his epic leanings to Virgil, the Greeks were more in his thoughts when writing pastoral. His biographer Serassi possessed a copy of Theocritus which had belonged to him, and which he had scored over with marks and comments.

It is from Theocritus that our poet took the Flight of Love and the rewards offered by Venus in the Prologue, the comparison of Love with a bee at the beginning of the Second Act, and the complaints of the Satyr in that soliloquy. Minor touches of imitation are also scattered about from Theocritus, Moschus, and Anacreon. The Satyr's curse upon mercenary love is from Tibullus. Thyrsis going to the capital, and describing his patron as a god, is Virgil's Tityrus going to Rome and deifying Augustus. The torn veil of Sylvia is that of Thisbe in Ovid. The young and truly lover-like little story of the Bee and Sylvia in Act the First, Scene the Second, comes from the Greek romance of Clitophon and Leucippe. So does the pretty moral fiction of the viper's putting away her poison when she goes to her lover. The origin of the enamoured Satyr is Pan and his followers; but the rejected Polyphemic Satyr, unhappy in his love on account of the difference of his form, was first compounded by the inventor of the Sylvan Drama, Beccari; and it became such a favourite, that when Giraldi Cinthio, the novelist, contributed his quota of Bosky Fable to the general stock, he made it up entirely of Satyrs and Nymphs. It is called Egle, and is worth reading. There is a strong aboriginal taste of nature in it; as if it had been written when gods, nymphs, and sylvans, had all the world to themselves. The idea of the cave in hell, where women are punished for cruelty to their lovers, (Act I. Scene I.) is from Ariosto. In Ariosto also, though I cannot refer to the passage, I remember finding the original of the pleasant fiction of the scene following, respecting the gossiping chairs and walls at court. It is not in Tasso's style; and as if conscious of this, he introduces it with great felicity as a story told to perplex him by another.

In the former of these passages, Ariosto is personally alluded to, as "the Great One who sung of arms and love." Thyrsis is Tasso himself; Battus is Battista Guarini; and Elpino is Il Pigna, a courtier and court-poet of that time, now forgotten but for this mention of him. The Mopsus mentioned elsewhere, is understood to mean Speron Speroni, a harsh critic, who prophecied ill of the Jerusalem, and had too sullenly warned Tasso against going to court. I need not add, that his court prophecy was better than his critical one.

The Choruses at the end of the Acts, for the most part, have a lyric majesty that announces the epic poet. They do not appear however to we been originally intended for the work. Some of them unquestionably were not. The one, for instance, at the end of the Fourth Act, is the first stanza of a magnificent canzone, which Tasso Wrote thirteen years after, when he was in prison, on the nuptials of Don Cæsar of Este with Donna Virginia de' Medici. Nor is it easy to see how it got into it's present situation. The Chorus at the end of the Third Act, though a beautiful, brief piece of music in honour of love, has almost as little to do with it's place; and appears as a separate piece in the author's Miscellaneous Poems. No "exquisite reason" is to be seen for the apostrophe in honour of rustic love eloquence at the end of the Second Act. In fact, the first and last Chorusses are the only ones that are appropriate as well as beautiful. The former was destined to be without a fault of any sort. The latter is remarkably playful for Tasso's genius, and dismisses the audience smilingly like a modern epilogue.

  1. Propositions respecting Love, upon which the speaker expatiated as upon texts. Tasso, then a handsome as well as ardent young man of three and twenty, publicly supported fifty of these enamoured pieces of logic, for three days together. The twenty-first proposition, that "Man loves more intensely, and with greater stability, than Woman," was opposed with great ability by a lady of the name of Cavalletta, whose name Tasso has put at the head of one of his Dialogues on Tuscan Poetry. There was no pedantry in this, but what was very harmless and good-natured, The times had at least enough faith in love to render the question interesting; and the ladies were not absorbed in the reputation of their stockings.
  2. The piece we allude to is the Gentle Shepherd of Allan Ramsay, a truly pastoral work, which would be valuable for it's little sunny pictures of scenery, if it had not the merit of dramatic handling, united with a certain home cordiality. The soft Doric dialect of our sister country runs through it with a pleasant tone of mixed archness and inexperience. Ramsay had evidently seen and profited by the Aminta, the commencement of which he has very happily imitated; I should rather say, emulated.