Wilde’s “Conjectures and Researches”

By Margaret Fuller

Conjectures and Researches concerning the Love, Madness, and Imprisonment of Torquato Tasso. By R. H. WILDE. New York: Alexander V. Blake, 59, Gold Street. 1842.

  BESIDE the riddles which the historians have only seemed to solve, there are a few over which no veil of plausible explanation had been cast. These themes, if not more pregnant with meaning, and productive of scenes ad figures, than the passages of romance presented us by daily life, derive a value from the accumulated interest of generations, as well as from the historic importance of the names which furnish them. Even as the great classic subject, taken from the annals of Greece never tire, because we are always more and more interested to see what gloss a new mind will put on the old text, so are we never weary of the argument as to the innocence of the Queen of Scots, conjectures as to the Iron Mask, or the imprisonment of Tasso.
  Chiefly on account of this mystery Tasso is to us a personage more living than the other great poets, of as beautiful and romantic aspect, but whose loves and lives we know better than our own, inasmuch as they have been more minutely painted, expressed with a more ardent eloquence, and present a whole more rounded and compact to the imagination. The pretensions of the work before us are very modest, and the promise set forth by its author is more than redeemed. His aim has been to arrange materials in a graceful order, and furnish us with good translations of the less known poems and letters of Tasso, rather than to show his ingenuity and critical adroitness by defending some theory of his own. Wherever he is clear in his own mind, he says so, but without attempting to enforce upon the reader his opinion. Thus can we look at the evidence he has brought forward with a quite undisturbed pleasure.
  The papers produced in these volumes alone must convince any mind, that ever doubted on the subject, that Tasso was not insane, yet that those around him may sometimes have doubted, we cannot wonder.
  There are natures who must always know, before they can act or feel. Is a thought presented to them? — let it become flesh! The intellect leads the way; turning its dark lantern carefully from side to side to show the difficult path; performance comes lagging, oftentimes halting, after. Truth is their desire; if not too cold, they attain it; but slowly, and their light, though pure, is faint.
  There are other natures who must always act and feel before they can know. Does an impulse come to them? — they act out and inquire its meaning through which to enlarge it and purify their lives. Flame-like the soul shoots up from amid such fuel as existence offers; it sinks as suddenly as it rose; it kindles afresh in its dull bed, and bursts forth more vehement than ever; it retires into reflection only when all is burned that was there to be burned; glimmering more calmly amid the ashes.
  There is a nature nobler, wider, from its earliest existence better balanced than either. Of this I need not now speak, for Tasso belonged to the second class.
  Of no speculative force of wing to sustain himself by the great ideas which alone can steer and harmonize those ardent and unequal natures, so that while writing the Jerusalem even, he doubted not only as to Christ, but the immortality of the soul, and yet, (oh lamentable weakness of human nature!) dared not confess these doubts to a priest, lest he might not receive absolution, absolution, and afterwards laid aside his doubts with the same haste and superficial examination as he had taken them up; of an imagination that required to be kindled by the passions, then burning with a beauty more intense than radiant, gave heat rather than light ; and finding no security in the bosom where it was brought forth, required some outward influence to help it to an altar; seizing the object before him with a vigor unknown to those of wider ken and steadier pulse, always over or underrating the moment, through the very splendor of his powers of conception and illustration; how could Tasso fail to be admired by all, loved much by many, despised by those who admired when his flights suddenly baffled them, loved with constancy only by a nature large-enough to understand, larger if not so deep as his own. Whether he found such an one in doubtful; doubtful whether the idol of his muse, even, had force to trust him through his wild moods and alternation of misery and splendor. Petrarch and Dante suffered, yet felt themselves recognised upon the earth at least by one fair soul; but Tasso writes thus from his imprisonment.

  “Miserable is it, truly, to be deprived of country and despoiled of fortune; to wander about in poverty and peril; to suffer the treachery of friends, the injustice of kinsmen, and the mockery of patrons, to be at once infirm in body, and afflicted in mind, harassed by the melancholy recollection of things past, the pains of the present, and the fears of the future. And miserable is it, that benevolence is repaid with hatred, simplicity with craft, sincerity with fraud, and generosity with baseness; most miserable, that I should be hated, because I have been wronged, and even after the injury hated not the offenders; that I should pardon acts, while others will not pardon words; that I should forget injuries received, and others not forget injuries inflicted; that I should desire the honor of another, even with my own ill, while they desire my shame without their benefit. But still more miserable is it, that I have fallen into this wretchedness not from malice, but simplicity; not from fickleness, but constancy; not from being too eager for my own advantage, but too neglectful of it; and most miserable is it, that in all my misery, I have found no sympathy, neither in the beginning of my misfortunes, when they affected me deeply, nor since, when more accustomed to suffering, I endured it with fortitude.”

  In the full and florid eloquence of this passage, written from the damp cell of Santa Anna, we see distinctly how this born brother of Rousseau loved to dwell upon his pain, and deck the deepest wounds of Earth with the richest verdure. Seizing upon a passage of sorrow, or a petty and hard character, his fervid genius so transfused them, that in proportion to the darkness of the substance was the depth of the glow seen within it.
  But the subject is inexhaustible, and I must stop here for the present. Let me add as the best criticism, for the hearing of those that will hear, one of those matchless scenes in which Goethe represents the sudden blazes of eloquence, the fitful shadings of mood, and the exquisite sensitiveness to all influences, that made the weakness and power of Tasso. — It also presents the relation that probably existed between the princess and the poet, with more truth than their confessors could discern it, for the poet is the only priest in the secrets of the heart.

A Hall.
The Princess. Tasso.

Tasso. — As with uncertain steps I follow thee,
  Wild and disordered thoughts oppress my mind,
  And ask some hours of solitude, to still
  Their feverish tumult. Yet to gaze on thee
  Is like the dawning of another day,
  And must unloose my bonds. Yes, I must tell thee,
  With most ungentle touch from my sweet dream,
  His words, his presence, have with sudden force
  Roused up new feelings to confuse my soul.
Princess. — It is impossible that an old friend,
  After an absence passed in scenes unlike
  Those which we knew together, should appear,
  In the first moment of reunion, near
  And dear as when we parted. Yet we should not
  Impatient deem that we have lost him. Soon
  The strings respond again to their concordance,
  And harmony makes glad the waiting heart.
  He is unchanged within; the jars arise
  But from a change of atmosphere. Antonio,
  When he has learned to know thee and thy works,
  Will hold forth eloquently in thy praise,
  As late in Aristo’s. —
Tasso. — Ah, believe me,
  Those praises were delightful to my ear,
  My heart soft whispered as he spoke, “and thou
  Mayst thus enkindle in some soul of honor
  These incense-breathing fires. Though lowlier-gifted,
  Sincere has been thy striving, great thy love.” —
  What pained me was the picture of his world,
  With all these glowing, grand, and restless shapes,
  Which such a man can charm into his circle,
  Submissive to the spells his wisdom frames,
  For as I gazed, my world sank in the distance
  Behind steep rocks, — on which I seemed to fade ——
  To Echo —— to poor shadow of a sound, —
  Bodiless, — powerless.
Princess. — And but now, how dear
  Thou felt the ties which bind the bard and hero,
  Born to adorn the day with noble rivalry,
  By envy unprofaned. The heroic deed,
  Which fires the bard, is beautiful; nor less so
  The generous ardor which embalms the deed,
  The lays whose fragrance breathes o’er far off ages;
  Thou must live tranquil, — or thy song is marred.
Tasso. — Here first I saw how valor is rewarded.
  I came here at a time when feast on feast
  Give to celebrate Ferrera’s glory,
  Dazzled my boyish eye. — As in the lists
  Knighthood displayed its prowess, the first men,
  The fairest women of our day looked on,
  Flowers of our Fatherland, — bound in one garland.
  When the lists opened — when the trumpet sounded,
  Helm and shield glittered, courses pawed the ground;
  Pages ran to and fro, — the lances shivered,
  And rising clouds of dust hid for a moment
  The victor’s triumph, and the vanquished’s shame.
  Oh what a spectacle of worldly splendor!
  I felt my littleness, and shrank abashed.
Princess. — How differently did I pass those moments!
  Which sowed ambition in thy heart. The lore
  Of sufferance I was painfully receiving;
  That feast which hundreds since have vaunted to me,
  I could not see. In a far dim apartment,
  Where not an echo of this gayety
  Could penetrate, I lay. Refore my eyes
  Death waved his broad black pinions. When the light
  Of motley-raying life returned upon them,
  It showed as through a dusky veil obscured;
  In those first days of unhoped convalescence,
  I left my chamber leaning on my women, —
  I met Lucretia full of joy and health
  And guiding thee, their harbinger, to me.
  Thou wert the first who welcomed me to this
  New lease of life, — I hailed it as an omen,
  And hoped much for and from thee, — nor have I
  Been by my hope deceived.
Tasso. — And I
  Who had been deafened by the tumult, dazzled
  By the excess of light — as with thy sister
  I met thee in that long, still gallery,
  Was like one much harassed by magic spells,
  Beneath the influence of celestial spirits.
  And since, when wild desires distracting pant
  After their thousand objects, has the memory
  Of that hour bridled them, — and turned aside
  My thoughts from their unworthy course. But some
  Wildly and vainly search on ocean’s sands
  To find the pearl, which lies fast locked the while
  In its still, secret shell. —
Princess. — Those were fair days, —
  And had not Duke d’Urbino wed my sister,
  Our happiness were still unclouded. But
  We want her life and courage, her gay spirit,
  And various wit. —
Tasso. — I know that thou
  Canst ne’er forget her loss. Oh I have felt it
  Often and keenly —— often have complained
  In solitude, that I could not supply
  What thou hast lost in her, could nothing be
  Where I desired so much. Oh that I might be something,
  And not in words but deeds, express to thee
  How my heart worships thee! In vain, alas!
  I cannot gladden thee, and often vex thee.
  In my bewilderment have injured those
  Thou wouldst protect, — have marred and frustrated
  Thy cherished schemes, — and still go farthest from thee
  When most I sigh to approach.
Princess. — I have never
  Doubted thy wished towards me; and grieve
  Only that thou shouldst hurt thyself. My sister
  Can live with every one in his own way,
  Mightst thou but find thyself in such a friend!
Tasso. — In whom except thyself can I confide?
Princess. — My Brother
Tasso. — He is my sovereign.
  Not the wild dreams of freedom bar the way, —
  I know, I feel, a man was not born to freedom,
  And to a worthy heart, ’tis happiness
  To serve a worthy prince. But I cannot
  Serve him, and trust him as an equal friend,
  But must in silcence learn his will and do it,
  E’en should mine own rebel. —
Princess. — Antonio
  Would be a prudent friend. —
Tasso. — And once I hoped
  To have him for a friend — but now despair. —
  I know his converse and his counsel both
  Are what I need. But when the assembled gods
  Showered in his cradle rich and various gifts,
  The Graces held back theirs; and whom they slight,
  (However favored by all other Powers)
  Can never build their palaces in hearts.
Princess. — Oh, but he is a man worthy of faith. —
  Ask not so much —— he will redeem all pledges
  His words and manner give. Should he once promise
  To be thy friend, he would do all for thee.
  Oh I will have it so. It will be easy,
  Unless thou art perverse. But Leonora,
  Whom thou so long hast known, and who is surely
  Refines and elegant to the degree
  Of thy fastidious taste’s exaction, why
  Hast thou not answered to her proffered friendship?
Tasso. — I had declined it wholly but for thee;
  I know not why —— I cannot frankly meet her,
  And oft when she would benefit a friend,
  Design is felt, and her intent repulsed.
Princess. — This path, Tasso,
  Leads through dark valleys and still, lonely woods,
  Hope no companion if thou wilt pursue it.
  There canst thou only strive that golden time,
  Which thine eye vainly weeks within thy mind
  To form and animate, — even tha I fear
  Thou vainly wilt essay.
Tasso. — Ah, my Princess,
  Do all hearts vainly sigh? That golden time,
  Is it quite gone, that age of blissful freedom,
  When on the bosom of their Mother Earth
  Her children dreamed in fond security?
  The ancient trees sheltered from noonday heat,
  The happy shepherds with their shepherdesses,
  The streams could boast their nymphs. Fawns were familiar,
  Snakes had no venom, and the fearless birds,
  And unmolested rangers of the forest,
  Every gay creature in its frolic play
  Taught man the truth, — all which can bless is lawful.
Princess. — My friend, the golden age indeed is past,
  Only the good have power to bring it back;
  And (shall I frankly tell thee what I think?)
  The Poets feign in all their pretty tales
  Of that same age. Most like’t was then as now.
  United noble hearts make golden days,
  Interpret to each other the world’s beauty;
  Change in thy maxim but one single word,
  All is explained. All which is meet, is lawful.
Tasso. — Might then a synod of the wise and good
  Decide on what is meet. For now each one
  Says that is meet which to himself is pleasing, —
  And to the crafty and the powerful
  All is permitted, whether just or not. —
Princess. — A synod of good women should decide,
  It is their province. Like a wall, decorum
  Surrounds and guards the frailer sex. Propriety,
  Morality are their defence and fortress,
  Their tower of strength, — and lawlessness their fow.
  And as man loved bold trial of his strength,
  So woman, graceful bonds, worn with composure.
Tasso. — Thou thinkest us rude, impetuous, and unfeeling?
Princess. — Not so —— your striving if for distant good,
  And must be eager to effect its end.
  But ours for single, limited possessions,
  Which we would firmly grasp and constant hold.
  We have slight hold upon your hearts. — That beauty
  Which wins them is so frail — and when ’tis gone
  Those qualities to which it lent a charm
  Are worthless in your eyes — but were there men
  Could know a woman’s heart — could feel what treasure
  Of truth and tenderness is hoarded there,
  Could keep the memory of by-gone bliss,
  And by its aid could penetrate the veil
  That age or sickness o’er her casts; and did not
  The gaining of one gem, instead of quieting,
  Excite desire for others, then to us
  A beauteous day would dawn, and we should know
  Our golden age.
Tasso. — Thy words call up
  Sharp pains that long have slept within my heart.
Princess. — What meanst thou, Tasso? Frankly tell it me.
Tasso. — I hear that noble princes ask thy hand,
  I always knew it must be so, yet have not
  These trembling apprehensions taught my heart
  To encounter such misfortune. Though ’tis natural
  That thou shouldst leave us, how shall we endure it?
  I know not. —
Princess. — Free thy mind
  From all such fears, I dare to say, forever,
  I do not wish to go, nor shall, unless
  My friends disturb my home with vain dissensions.
Tasso. — Oh teach me but what I shall do for thee,
  My life is thing, — my heart beats but to praise,
  To adore thy excellence, — my all of bliss
  To realize the Beautiful in thee.
  The gods are separate and elevate
  Far above man, as destiny o’er prudence,
  And plans formed by the foresight of us mortals;
  Waves which o’erwhelm us with destroying press,
  To their wide ken seem but as the brook’s ripple;
  The wild tornados of our atmosphere
  Reach not those azure heights where thy are thrones;
  They hear our wailings with as light regard
  As we do children’s for their shattered toys;
  But thou, serene as they, art not removed
  From sympathy, — but oft, sunlike, dost pour
  Down from thy heights, floods of consoling light
  Upon these eyelids, wet with dew of earth.
Princess. — All women ought to love the bard whose lay
  Like thin can praise them. Soft and yet heroic,
  Lovely and noble hast thou painted them,
  And e’en Armida’s faults are half redeemed
  By tenderness and beauty.
Tasso. — From one model
  I picture all, — if any shall be deemed
  Worthy of immortality, to that model
  They owe it. My Clorinda and Hermione,
  Her unheeded but undying faith, Olindo,
  His sorrow, and Sophronia’s magnanimity,
  Are not the children of my fancy;
  They exist, — and if profound reality
  Give interest to a picture, shall endure
  The story of a nobly-placed devotion
  Breathed into song.
Princess. — Thy poem’s highest praise
  Is that is leads us on and on; we listen,
  We think we understand, — nor can we blame
  That which we understand, — and thus become thy captives.
Tasso. — Thy words breathe heaven, Princess, — but I need
  The eagle’s eye to bear the new-born light.
Princess. — No more at present Tasso. If some things
  May suddenly be seized, — yet love and virtue
  (Nearly, I think, related to each other)
  Ask in their quest, patience and self-denial.
  Forget not this, — and now adieu, my friend.

Tasso alone.

Tasso. — Is it permitted thee to ope thine eyes,
  And look around, above thee? Did these pillars
  Here what she spake? They were the witnesses
  How a descending goddess lifted me
  Into a new incomparable day!
  What power, what wealth, lie in this new-traced circle!
  My happiness outruns my wildest dreams;
  Let the born blind think what they will of colors,
  To the cleared eye wakens a novel sense;
  What courage! what presentiment! Drunk with joy
  I scarce can tread the indicated path, —
  And how shall I deserve the choicesr gifts
  Of earth and heaven? Patience, self-denial,
  Must give me claim to confidence; they shall!
  Oh how did I deserve that she should choose me,
  What shall I do to justify her choice?
  Yet that choice speaks my worth; yes, I am worthy,
  Since she could think me so. My soul is consecrate,
  My Princess, to thy words, thy looks. Whate’er
  Thou wilt, ask of thy slave; in distant lands
  I’ll seek renown, with peril of my life,
  Or chant in every grove thy charms and virtues;
  Wholly possess the creature thou hast formed, —
  Each treasure of my soul is thine. Ne’er can
  Express my vast devotion with the pen
  In written words. Ah! could I but assist
  The Poet’s by the Painter’s art. — Did honey
  Fall from my lips! Now never more shall I
  Be lonely, sad, or weak. Thou wilt be with me!
  Has I a squadron of the noblest men
  To help me do thy bidding, — some great deed
  Should justify the boldness of a tongue
  Which dared to ask her grace. I meant it not,
  I mean not to speak now, — but it is well, —
  I take as a free gift what I could never
  Have claimed. This glorious future, this new youth!
  Rise, heart. Oh tree of Love! may genial showers
  Call out a thousand branches toward heaven,
  Unfold thy blossoms, — swell thy golden fruit
  Until the loved one’s hand be stretched to cull it.

  We recommend this book, and every book about Tasso, to the attention of all, who have time to think and feel, or scan the thought and feeling of others.

Source: The Dial (January 1842) pp. 399-407