The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 4/The Lament of Tasso



The MS. of the Lament of Tasso is dated April 20, 1817. It was despatched from Florence April 23, and reached England May 12 (see Memoir of John Murray, 1891, i. 384). Proofs reached Byron June 7, and the poem was published July 17, 1817.

"It was," he writes (April 26), "written in consequence of my having been lately in Ferrara." Again, writing from Rome (May 5, 1817), he asks if the MS. has arrived, and adds, "I look upon it as a 'These be good rhymes,' as Pope's papa said to him when he was a boy" (Letters, 1900, iv. 112-115). Two months later he reverted to the theme of Tasso's ill-treatment at the hands of Duke Alfonso, in the memorable stanzas xxxv.-xxxix. of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold (Poetical Works, 1899, ii. 354-359; and for examination of the circumstances of Tasso's imprisonment in the Hospital of Sant' Anna, vide ibid., pp. 355, 356, note 1).

Notices of the Lament of Tasso appeared in the Gentleman's Magagine, August, 1817, vol. 87, pp. 150, 151; in The Scot's Magazine, August, 1817, N.S., vol. i. pp. 48, 49; and a eulogistic but uncritical review in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, November, 1817, vol. ii. pp. 142-144.


At Ferrara, in the Library, are preserved the original MSS. of Tasso's Gierusalemme[1] and of Guarini's Pastor Fido, with letters of Tasso, one from Titian to Ariosto, and the inkstand and chair, the tomb and the house, of the latter. But, as misfortune has a greater interest for posterity, and little or none for the cotemporary, the cell where Tasso was confined in the hospital of St. Anna attracts a more fixed attention than the residence or the monument of Ariosto—at least it had this effect on me. There are two inscriptions, one on the outer gate, the second over the cell itself, inviting, unnecessarily, the wonder and the indignation of the spectator. Ferrara is much decayed and depopulated: the castle still exists entire; and I saw the court where Parisina and Hugo were beheaded, according to the annal of Gibbon.[2]



Long years!—It tries the thrilling frame to bear
And eagle-spirit of a Child of Song—
Long years of outrage—calumny—and wrong;
Imputed madness, prisoned solitude,[4]
And the Mind's canker in its savage mood,
When the impatient thirst of light and air
Parches the heart; and the abhorred grate,
Marring the sunbeams with its hideous shade,
Works through the throbbing eyeball to the brain,
With a hot sense of heaviness and pain;10
And bare, at once, Captivity displayed
Stands scoffing through the never-opened gate,
Which nothing through its bars admits, save day,
And tasteless food, which I have eat alone
Till its unsocial bitterness is gone;
And I can banquet like a beast of prey,
Sullen and lonely, couching in the cave
Which is my lair, and—it may be—my grave.
All this hath somewhat worn me, and may wear,
But must be borne. I stoop not to despair;20
For I have battled with mine agony,
And made me wings wherewith to overfly
The narrow circus of my dungeon wall,
And freed the Holy Sepulchre from thrall;
And revelled among men and things divine,
And poured my spirit over Palestine,[5]
In honour of the sacred war for Him,
The God who was on earth and is in Heaven,
For He has strengthened me in heart and limb.
That through this sufferance I might be forgiven,30
I have employed my penance to record
How Salem's shrine was won, and how adored.


But this is o'er—my pleasant task is done:[6]
My long-sustaining Friend of many years!
If I do blot thy final page with tears,[7]
Know, that my sorrows have wrung from me none.
But Thou, my young creation! my Soul's child!
Which ever playing round me came and smiled,
And wooed me from myself with thy sweet sight,
Thou too art gone—and so is my delight:40
And therefore do I weep and inly bleed
With this last bruise upon a broken reed.
Thou too art ended—what is left me now?
For I have anguish yet to bear—and how?
I know not that—but in the innate force
Of my own spirit shall be found resource.
I have not sunk, for I had no remorse,
Nor cause for such: they called me mad—and why?
Oh Leonora! wilt not thou reply?[8]
I was indeed delirious in my heart50
To lift my love so lofty as thou art;
But still my frenzy was not of the mind:
I knew my fault, and feel my punishment
Not less because I suffer it unbent.
That thou wert beautiful, and I not blind,
Hath been the sin which shuts me from mankind;
But let them go, or torture as they will,
My heart can multiply thine image still;
Successful Love may sate itself away;
The wretchéd are the faithful; 't is their fate60
To have all feeling, save the one, decay,
And every passion into one dilate,
As rapid rivers into Ocean pour;
But ours is fathomless, and hath no shore.


Above me, hark! the long and maniac cry
Of minds and bodies in captivity.
And hark! the lash and the increasing howl,
And the half-inarticulate blasphemy!
There be some here with worse than frenzy foul,
Some who do still goad on the o'er-laboured mind,70
And dim the little light that's left behind
With needless torture, as their tyrant Will
Is wound up to the lust of doing ill:[9]
With these and with their victims am I classed,
'Mid sounds and sights like these long years have passed;
'Mid sights and sounds like these my life may close:
So let it be—for then I shall repose.


I have been patient, let me be so yet;
I had forgotten half I would forget,
But it revives—Oh! would it were my lot80
To be forgetful as I am forgot!—
Feel I not wroth with those who bade me dwell
In this vast Lazar-house of many woes?
Where laughter is not mirth, nor thought the mind,
Nor words a language, nor ev'n men mankind;
Where cries reply to curses, shrieks to blows.
And each is tortured in his separate hell—
For we are crowded in our solitudes—
Many, but each divided by the wall,
Which echoes Madness in her babbling moods;90
While all can hear, none heed his neighbour's call—
None! save that One, the veriest wretch of all,
Who was not made to be the mate of these,
Nor bound between Distraction and Disease.
Feel I not wroth with those who placed me here?
Who have debased me in the minds of men,
Debarring me the usage of my own,
Blighting my life in best of its career,
Branding my thoughts as things to shun and fear?
Would I not pay them back these pangs again,100
And teach them inward Sorrow's stifled groan?
The struggle to be calm, and cold distress,
Which undermines our Stoical success?
No!—still too proud to be vindictive—I
Have pardoned Princes' insults, and would die.
Yes, Sister of my Sovereign! for thy sake
I weed all bitterness from out my breast,
It hath no business where thou art a guest:
Thy brother hates—but I can not detest;
Thou pitiest not—but I can not forsake.110


Look on a love which knows not to despair,
But all unquenched is still my better part,
Dwelling deep in my shut and silent heart,
As dwells the gathered lightning in its cloud,
Encompassed with its dark and rolling shroud,
Till struck,—forth flies the all-ethereal dart!
And thus at the collision of thy name
The vivid thought still flashes through my frame,
And for a moment all things as they were
Flit by me;—they are gone—I am the same.120
And yet my love without ambition grew;
I knew thy state—my station—and I knew
A Princess was no love-mate for a bard;[10]
I told it not—I breathed it not[11]—it was
Sufficient to itself, its own reward;
And if my eyes revealed it, they, alas!
Were punished by the silentness of thine,
And yet I did not venture to repine.
Thou wert to me a crystal-girded shrine,
Worshipped at holy distance, and around130
Hallowed and meekly kissed the saintly ground;
Not for thou wert a Princess, but that Love
Had robed thee with a glory, and arrayed
Thy lineaments in beauty that dismayed—
Oh! not dismayed—but awed, like One above!
And in that sweet severity[12] there was
A something which all softness did surpass—
I know not how—thy Genius mastered mine—
My Star stood still before thee:—if it were
Presumptuous thus to love without design,140
That sad fatality hath cost me dear;
But thou art dearest still, and I should be
Fit for this cell, which wrongs me—but for thee.
The very love which locked me to my chain
Hath lightened half its weight; and for the rest,
Though heavy, lent me vigour to sustain,
And look to thee with undivided breast,
And foil the ingenuity of Pain.


It is no marvel—from my very birth
My soul was drunk with Love,—which did pervade150
And mingle with whate'er I saw on earth:
Of objects all inanimate I made
Idols, and out of wild and lonely flowers,
And rocks, whereby they grew, a Paradise,
Where I did lay me down within the shade
Of waving trees, and dreamed uncounted hours,
Though I was chid for wandering; and the Wise
Shook their white agéd heads o'er me, and said
Of such materials wretched men were made,
And such a truant boy would end in woe,160
And that the only lesson was a blow;[13]
And then they smote me, and I did not weep,
But cursed them in my heart, and to my haunt
Returned and wept alone, and dreamed again
The visions which arise without a sleep.
And with my years my soul began to pant
With feelings of strange tumult and soft pain;
And the whole heart exhaled into One Want,
But undefined and wandering, till the day
I found the thing I sought—and that was thee;170
And then I lost my being, all to be
Absorbed in thine;—the world was past away;—
Thou didst annihilate the earth to me!


I loved all Solitude—but little thought
To spend I know not what of life, remote
From all communion with existence, save
The maniac and his tyrant;—had I been
Their fellow, many years ere this had seen
My mind like theirs corrupted to its grave.[14]
But who hath seen me writhe, or heard me rave?180
Perchance in such a cell we suffer more
Than the wrecked sailor on his desert shore;
The world is all before him—mine is here,
Scarce twice the space they must accord my bier.
What though he perish, he may lift his eye,
And with a dying glance upbraid the sky;
I will not raise my own in such reproof,
Although 'tis clouded by my dungeon roof.


Yet do I feel at times my mind decline,[15]
But with a sense of its decay: I see190
Unwonted lights along my prison shine,
And a strange Demon,[16] who is vexing me
With pilfering pranks and petty pains, below
The feeling of the healthful and the free;
But much to One, who long hath suffered so,
Sickness of heart, and narrowness of place,
And all that may be borne, or can debase.
I thought mine enemies had been but Man,
But Spirits may be leagued with them—all Earth
Abandons—Heaven forgets me; in the dearth200
Of such defence the Powers of Evil can—
It may be—tempt me further,—and prevail
Against the outworn creature they assail.
Why in this furnace is my spirit proved,
Like steel in tempering fire? because I loved?
Because I loved what not to love, and see,
Was more or less than mortal, and than me.


I once was quick in feeling—that is o'er;—
My scars are callous, or I should have dashed
My brain against these bars, as the sun flashed210
In mockery through them;—If I bear and bore
The much I have recounted, and the more
Which hath no words,—'t is that I would not die
And sanction with self-slaughter the dull lie
Which snared me here, and with the brand of shame
Stamp Madness deep into my memory,
And woo Compassion to a blighted name,
Sealing the sentence which my foes proclaim.
No—it shall be immortal!—and I make
A future temple of my present cell,220
Which nations yet shall visit for my sake.[17]
While thou, Ferrara! when no longer dwell
The ducal chiefs within thee, shalt fall down,
And crumbling piecemeal view thy hearthless halls,
A Poet's wreath shall be thine only crown,—
A Poet's dungeon thy most far renown,
While strangers wonder o'er thy unpeopled walls!
And thou, Leonora!—thou—who wert ashamed
That such as I could love—who blushed to hear
To less than monarchs that thou couldst be dear,230
Go! tell thy brother, that my heart, untamed
By grief—years—weariness—and it may be
A taint of that he would impute to me—
From long infection of a den like this,
Where the mind rots congenial with the abyss,—
Adores thee still;—and add—that when the towers
And battlements which guard his joyous hours
Of banquet, dance, and revel, are forgot,
Or left untended in a dull repose,
This—this—shall be a consecrated spot!240
But Thou—when all that Birth and Beauty throws
Of magic round thee is extinct—shalt have
One half the laurel which o'ershades my grave.[18]
No power in death can tear our names apart,
As none in life could rend thee from my heart.[19]
Yes, Leonora! it shall be our fate
To be entwined[20] for ever—but too late![21]

  1. [A MS. of the Gerusalemme is preserved and exhibited at Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields.]
  2. [The original MS. of this poem is dated, "The Apennines, April 20, 1817."]
  3. [The MS. of the Lament of Tasso corresponds, save in three lines where alternate readings are superscribed, verbatim et literatim with the text. A letter dated August 21, 1817, from G. Polidori to John Murray, with reference to the translation of the Lament into Italian, and a dedicatory letter (in Polidori's handwriting) to the Earl of Guilford, dated August 3, 1817, form part of the same volume.]
  4. [In a letter written to his friend Scipio Gonzaga ("Di prizione in Sant' Anna, questo mese di mezzio l'anno 1579"), Tasso exclaims, "Ah, wretched me! I had designed to write, besides two epic poems of most noble argument, four tragedies, of which I had formed the plan. I had schemed, too, many works in prose, on subjects the most lofty, and most useful to human life; I had designed to unite philosophy with eloquence, in such a manner that there might remain of me an eternal memory in the world. Alas! I had expected to close my life with glory and renown; but now, oppressed by the burden of so many calamities, I have lost every prospect of reputation and of honour. The fear of perpetual imprisonment increases my melancholy; the indignities which I suffer augment it; and the squalor of my beard, my hair, and habit, the sordidness and filth, exceedingly annoy me. Sure am I, that, if she who so little has corresponded to my attachment—if she saw me in such a state, and in such affliction—she would have some compassion on me."—Lettere di Torquato Tasso, 1853, ii. 60.]
  5. [Compare—

    "The second of a tenderer sadder mood,
    Shall pour his soul out o'er Jerusalem."

    Prophecy of Dante, Canto IV. lines 136, 137.]

  6. [Tasso's imprisonment in the Hospital of Sant' Anna lasted from March, 1579, to July, 1586. The Gerusalemme had been finished many years before. He sent the first four cantos to his friend Scipio Gonzaga, February 17, and the last three on October 4, 1575 (Lettere di Torquato Tasso, 1852, i. 55-117). A mutilated first edition was published in 1580 by "Orazio alias Celio de' Malespini, avventuriere intrigante " (Solerti's Vita, etc., 1895, i. 329).]
  7. [So, too. Gibbon was overtaken by a "sober melancholy" when he had finished the last line of the last page of the Decline and Fall on the night of June 27, 1787.]
  8. [Not long after his imprisonment, Tasso appealed to the mercy of Alfonso, in a canzone of great beauty,... and ... in another ode to the princesses, whose pity he invoked in the name of their own mother, who had herself known, if not the like horrors, the like solitude of imprisonment, and bitterness of soul, made a similar appeal. (See Life of Tasso, by John Black. 1810, ii. 64, 408.) Black prints the canzone in full; Solerti (Vita, etc., i. 316-318) gives selections.]
  9. ["For nearly the first year of his confinement Tasso endured all the horrors of a solitary sordid cell, and was under the care of a gaoler whose chief virtue, although he was a poet and a man of letters, was a cruel obedience to the commands of his prince.... His name was Agostino Mosti.... Tasso says of him, in a letter to his sister, 'ed usa meco ogni sorte di rigore ed inumanità'"—Hobhouse, Historical Illustrations, etc., 1818, pp. 20, 21, note 1.

    Tasso, in a letter to Angelo Grillo, dated June 16, 1584 (Letter 288, Le Lettere, etc., ii. 276). complains that Mosti did not interfere to prevent him being molested by the other inmates, disturbed in his studies, and treated disrespectfully by the governor's subordinates. In the letter to his sister Cornelia, from which Hobhouse quotes, the allusion is not to Mosti, but, according to Solerti, to the Cardinal Luigi d'Este. Elsewhere (Letter 133, Lettere, ii. 88, 89) Tasso describes Agostino Mosti as a rigorous and zealous Churchman, but far too cultivated and courteous a gentleman to have exercised any severity towards him pro-prio motu, or otherwise than in obedience to orders.]

  10. [It is highly improbable that Tasso openly indulged, or secretly nourished, a consuming passion for Leonora d'Este, and it is certain that the "Sister of his Sovereign" had nothing to do with his being shut up in the Hospital of Sant' Anna. That poet and princess had known each other for over thirteen years, that the princess was seven years older than the poet, and, in March 1579, close upon forty-two years of age, are points to be considered; but the fact that she died in February, 1581, and that Tasso remained in confinement for five years longer, is a stronger argument against the truth of the legend. She was a beautiful woman, his patroness and benefactress, and the theme of sonnets and canzoni; but it was not for her "sweet sake" that Tasso lost either his wits or his liberty.]
  11. [Compare—

    "I speak not, I trace not, I breathe not thy name."

    "Stanzas for Music," line 1, Poetical Works, 1900, iii. 413.]

  12. [Compare the following lines from the canzone entitled, "La Prima di Tre Sorelle Scritte a Madama Leonora d'Este... 1567:"—

    "E certo il primo dl che'l bel sereno
    Della tua fronte agli occhi miei s'offerse
    E vidi armato spaziarvi Amore,
    Se non che riverenza allor converse,
    E Meraviglia in fredda selce il seno,
    Ivi pería con doppia morte il core;
    Ma parte degli strali, e dell' ardore
    Sentii pur anco entro 'l gelato marmo."]

  13. [Ariosto (Sat. 7, Terz. 53) complains that his father chased him "not with spurs only, but with darts and lances, to turn over old texts," etc.; but Tasso was a studious and dutiful boy, and, though he finally deserted the law for poetry, and "crossed" his father's wishes and intentions, he took his own course reluctantly, and without any breach of decorum. But, perhaps, the following translations from the Rinaldo, which Black supplies in his footnotes (i. 41. 97), suggested this picture of a "poetic child" at variance with the authorities:—

    "Now hasting thence a verdant mead he found,
    Where flowers of fragrant smell adorned the ground;
    Sweet was the scene, and here from human eyes
    Apart he sits, and thus he speaks mid sighs.

    Canto I. stanxa xviii.

    "Thus have I sung in youth's aspiring days
    Rinaldo's pleasing plains and martial praise:
    While other studies slowly I pursued
    Ere twice revolved nine annual suns I viewed;
    Ungrateful studies, whence oppressed I groaned,
    A burden to myself and to the world unknown.


    But this first-fruit of new awakened powers!
    Dear offspring of a few short studious hours!
    Thou infant volume child of fancy born
    Where Brenta's waves the sunny meads adorn."

    Canto XII. stanza xc.]

  14. My mind like theirs adapted to its grave.—[MS.]
  15. ["Nor do I lament," wrote Tasso, shortly after his confinement, "that my heart is deluged with almost constant misery. that my head is always heavy and often painful, that my sight and hearing are much impaired, and that all my frame is become spare and meagre; but, passing all this with a short sigh, what I would bewail is the infirmity of my mind.... My mind sleeps, not thinks; my fancy is chill, and forms no pictures; my negligent senses will no longer furnish the images of things; my hand is sluggish in writing, and my pen seems as if it shrunk from the office. I feel as if I were chained in all my operations, and as if I were overcome by an unwonted numbness and oppressive stupor.—Opere, Venice, 1738, viii. 258, 263.]
  16. [In a letter to Maurizio Cataneo, dated December 25, 1585, Tasso gives an account of his sprite (folletto): "The little thief has stolen from me many crowns.... He puts all my books topsy-turvy (mi mette tutti i libri sottosopra), opens my chest and steals my keys, so that I can keep nothing." Again, December 30, with regard to his hallucinations he says, "Know then that in addition to the wonders of the Folletto ... I have many nocturnal alarms. For even when awake I have seemed to behold small flames in the air, and sometimes my eyes sparkle in such a manner, that I dread the loss of sight, and I have ... seen sparks issue from them."—Letters 454,456, Le Lettere, 1853. ii. 475, 479.]
  17. Which

    nations yet
    after days

    shall visit for my sake.—[MS.]
  18. ["Tasso, notwithstanding the criticisms of the Cruscanti, would have been crowned in the Capitol, but for his death." Reply to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (Ravenna, March 15, 1820), Letters, 1900, iv. Appendix IX. p. 487.]
  19. As none in life could


    thee from my heart.—[MS.].
  20. [Compare—

    "From Life's commencement to its slow decline
    We are entwined."

    Epistle to Augusta, stanza xvi. lines 6, 7, vide ante, p. 62.]

  21. [The Apennines, April 20, 1817.]