ST. ONOFRIO AND TASSO

But whatever changes may have taken place in the human habitation, the scenes of Nature around, from which he drew the inspirations of his youthful genius, remain unchanged. Every feature of landscape loveliness is focussed in that matchless panorama. Behind is a range of wild mountains, whose many-shaped peaks and crags, clad with pine and olive, assume, as the day wears on, the golden and purple hues of the sky—sloping down into the midst of vineyards and groves of orange, myrtle, and all the luxuriant verdure which the warm sun of the South calls forth, out of which gleam at frequent intervals picturesque villages and farms, which seem more the creation of Nature than of Art. In front is a glorious view of the Bay of Naples, with the enchanted isles of Capri and Ischia sleeping on its bosom, and the reflected images of domes and palaces all along its curving shores "charming its blue waters;" while dominating the whole horizon are the snowy mountains of Campania, broken by the dark purple mass of Vesuvius, rising up with gradual slope to its rounded cone, over which rests continually a column of flame or smoke, "stimulating the imagination by its mystery and terror." Apart from its associations, that landscape would have been one to gaze on entranced, and to dream of for years afterwards. But with its countless memories of all that is greatest and saddest in human history clinging to almost every object, it is indeed one of the most impressive in the world. The land is the land of Magna Græcia. The sea is the sea of Homer and Pindar. Near at hand are the Isles of the Sirens, who allured Ulysses with their magic song; away in the dim distance are the wonderful Doric temples of Pæstum, which go back to the mythical times of Jason and the Argonauts. On the opposite shore is the tomb of Virgil, on the threshold of the scenes which he loved to describe,—the Holy Land of Paganism, the Phlegræan Fields, with the terrible Avernus and the Cave of the Sibyl, and all the spots associated with the Pagan heaven and hell; and in the near neighbourhood Baiæ, with its awful memories of Roman luxury and cruelty, and Puteoli, with its inspiring associations of the Apostle Paul's visit, and the introduction of Christianity into Italy. Meet nurse for any poetic child, the place of his birth was peculiarly so for such a child as Tasso; and we can detect in the subjects of his Muse in after years, the very themes which such a region would naturally have suggested and inspired.

The age in which he was born was also eminently favourable for the development of the poetic faculty. By the wonderful discoveries of the starry Galileo, man's intellectual vision was infinitely extended, and the great fundamental idea of modern astronomy—infinite space peopled with worlds like our own—was for the first time realised. It was an era of maritime enterprise; the world was circumnavigated, and new ideas streamed in from each newly-visited region. It was pre-eminently the period of art. Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael had just passed away, but Michael Angelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese were still living, freeing men's spirits by the productions of their pencil from formal fancies and conventional fetters, and sending them back to the fresh teaching of Nature. The art of printing was giving a new birth to letters, and the reformation of religion a new growth to human thought. A new power had descended into the stagnant waters of European life, and imparted to them a wonderful energy. Along with the revival of classical learning and the general quickening of men's minds, there was blended in the South of Europe a lingering love of romance and chivalry, and a strong religious feeling, which had arisen out of the vigorous reaction of Roman Catholicism. Italy was at this time the acknowledged parent both of the poetry and the general literature of Europe; and the immortal works of Dante, Petrarch, and Ariosto had formed an almost perfect vernacular language in which the creations of genius could find fittest expression.

But Tasso was not only born in a poetic region and in a poetic age: he was also the son of a poet. He inherited the divine faculty; he was cradled in poetry. His father, Bernardo, though he has been put into the shade by his more gifted son, has claims of his own to be remembered by posterity. He occupies a high place in the well-defined group of the chivalric poets of Italy. His principal poem, the Amadigi, which was composed about the time of his son's birth, though not published for sixteen years afterwards, treats in a hundred cantos the romantic history of Amadis of Gaul, and deals in giants, enchanted swords, prodigious wounds, and miraculous cures. Various estimates of this long poem have been formed by critics from the favourable analysis of Ginguéné to the severe censure of Sismondi. But in spite of its lack of dramatic power, and the monotony of its imagery, the heat of his genius crystallising only a part of the substance of his work, there can be no question that the poem is distinguished by a certain gravity and elevation of sentiment, which places it high above the romances of the older school, and brings it near to the dignity of epic poetry. In this respect the Amadigi may be said to form an interesting transition from the irregular romance of Ariosto to the symmetrical epic of his own son. The son's poetic path was thus prepared, and the mould in which his immortal work was cast was formed by his father. The fortunes of the two poets read remarkably alike. They are marked by the same extraordinary vicissitudes, and the same general sadness and gloom.