Rethinking Romance: Erminia and Epic in the Gerusalemme liberata.
Keywords: Epic, romance, genre, Gerusalemme liberata, Torquato Tasso.
The narrator of Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (1581) explicitly allows for romance elements in the epic poem, comparing digressions and marvels to honey on the brim of a cup of medicine: a spoonful of romance delight helps the epic moral message go down. For Tasso, the marvelous and other romance elements can be incorporated into epic without challenging the genre of the poem; as long as these elements are unified, verisimilar, and in service of the epic telos, they are proper to the genre. Tasso's anxiety about justifying the role of romance in epic was likely influenced by contemporary debates about the balance, or lack thereof, of romance and epic in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. After the publication of the Liberata, the debate extends to Tasso, with some critics praising him for incorporating the right amount of romance and others condemning his poem as dry and overly historical. (1) Modern critics maintain this preoccupation with the genre of Tasso's poem, but rather than imposing a value judgment on the romance elements, we try to assess how they function. In his seminal reading of the Gerusalemme liberata, Sergio Zatti argues that romance elements like variety originate with the pagans or errant Christian knights and are associated with demonic presence, while unity is associated with the Christian cause; romance is aligned with Satan and must be conquered by epic/Christianity (1996: 20). Critics such as Ayesha Ramachandran, Jo Ann Cavallo, and Daniel Javitch likewise identify romance as distinct from epic but see romance as a more positive, sanctioned presence, adding pleasure and variety to the epic poem (Ramachandran 187-190; Cavallo 215; Javitch 515-517). In identifying Tasso's use of romance elements, critics frequently point to Erminia, the Muslim princess whose love for the Christian prince Tancredi leads the poem into episodes of pastoral delay and supernatural healing. Kristin Olsen Murtaugh presents Erminia as an instance of Tasso's purposeful and successful incorporation of romance into epic, arguing that Erminia's redemption at the end of the poem redeems the romance genre itself (12, 22-23). Marilyn Migiel agrees that Erminia is a figure for romance, but suggests that romance subverts epic rather than contributes to it; she presents Erminia as a figure who often works against the narrator and offers alternate interpretive codes that threaten epic (62-64). Moving from a focus on romance overall to its linguistic features, Jane Tylus analyzes Erminia's role as peregrina and speaker of parole peregrine, arguing that Erminia evidences the poet's excessive attachment to the pleasures of language over the requirements of heroic poetry (2012: 46-47). For these critics, romance offers a more pleasurable alternative to epic, and Tasso indulges in that pleasant alternative, either intentionally or begrudgingly, through the figure of Erminia.
Erminia's generic role is integrally linked to her relationship to the epic narrator. Proper epic narrators tend to assert control and impose unity (Cunningham 215). Robert Durling has interpreted Tasso's narrator as striving for control, working toward strict unity and verisimilitude while anxious about any appearance of heterodoxy (192-195, 200-210). Any character who escapes this control poses a threat to epic unity, and critics claim that Erminia is such a character (Migiel 64; Stephens 173-174). It is hard to deny Erminia's surrogate author function. She provides expository information at several points in the poem. She is a healer, a role made explicitly analogous to that of a poet by the narrator. Moreover, she actually becomes a poet during her Petrarchan interlude--and, as Migiel notes, she is the only character in the poem to engage in an act of writing (67). However, an author surrogate does not necessarily undermine the epic narrator. For instance, Merrilee Cunningham points to epic characters who link episodes and create order out of chaos, such as Odysseus and Aeneas, who narrate their own stories for extended periods of time (216). Sharing the narrative burden marks their integral importance as well as incites the reader's sympathy for the heroes. Although Erminia is not an epic hero, her narrative power serves epic ends, suggesting her allegiance to the narrator. In the few moments in which her speech is more affiliated with romance or lyric ends, the narrator talks over or removes that speech. Erminia's non-epic speech lets the narrator impose epic control, thereby demonstrating his power. Erminia's verbal power thus supports the narrator's control both when it serves narrative ends and when it is manifestly prevented from becoming a distraction.
Although critics have traditionally identified Erminia with the romance impulses of the poem, I will argue that Erminia is an epic figure who engages with elements traditionally associated with romance in pursuit of an epic goal. While Murtaugh reads Erminia as a symbol of romance ultimately redeemed through her happy incorporation in the epic ending, I argue that Erminia combines both romance and epic throughout the poem, embodying their compatibility. Her trappings of romance include a desire for personal erotic fulfillment, a connection to the marvelous, and a tendency to get caught up in digressions. These romance moments are consistently in service of the poem's epic telos, offering a microcosm of the ways in which romance contributes to epic. In addition, Erminia engages in more epic actions than she typically gets credit for, including facilitating unity, serving the narrator, and expressing a desire to serve the Christian cause. As a Muslim and an outsider, Erminia can never fully participate in the epic community. Because she maintains this distance from epic, close to it but never part of it, Erminia is in the unique position of being able to express a desire for epic. Erminia's distance from epic allows her to mark its value and allure, a function she serves throughout the poem.
Romance Means to Epic Ends
Epic and romance features often seem fundamentally dissimilar. Distinguishing features of epic include a telos toward which the poem aims; unity of action moving towards that telos; and a value of public good over individual prowess or personal fulfillment. (2) Distinguishing features of romance include digression and errancy; interlaced episodes associated primarily through coincidence or accident; and a value of personal wish-fulfillment. (3) While in principle there is an easy binary between the two genres, in practice, distinctions are often harder to make. Romance and epic share a tendency toward larger than life events and characters, and both can accommodate delay and personal, especially erotic, desire. Erminia's generic function is particularly ambiguous in that her motivating impulse is primarily personal, romance desire, but those desires are directly compatible with the public, epic good. This section examines how Erminia's romance moments and motivations play into the larger epic telos of the poem, arguing that Erminia's affinity with romance contributes to epic ends throughout the Gerusalemme liberata.
When we first encounter Erminia, we almost immediately learn of her love for the Christian knight Tancredi, a desire that plays an essential role in her function and trajectory in the poem. In a moment that evokes Helen in the Iliad, Erminia stands on a balcony with Aladino, identifying the Christian warriors at his prompting. Alessandro Martinelli points out that her view in this passage encompasses Christian, pagan, and intermediate space, and her gaze imposes unity on this diversity (44). This imposed unity gives her gaze an epic function, although its motivations are allied with romance, as we see when she spots her beloved:
Egli e il prence Tancredi: oh prigioniero mio fosse un giorno! e no '1 vorrei gia morto; vivo il vorrei, perch'in me desse al fero desio dolce vendetta alcun conforto (III.20.1-4).
Although Erminia's longing for Tancredi is clear to the reader, Aladino does not suspect her true passions. Erminia's desires may be erotic and personal, but she conceals those desires through dissimulation. Migiel argues that Erminia's control of ambiguity in speech relates to genre: the characters she deceives hear the epic, while the reader hears the romance. I agree, and would add that while her desire to have him captive is a romance wish that would remove Tancredi from his role in the Christian army, her desire to have him alive complements the overall Christian goal. Romance drives this moment, but epic is at play as well for both speaker and audience. As Martinelli writes,
Erminia e nello stesso tempo spettatore e attora, autore e personaggio, e questa duplicita di referenza ha il suo corrispettivo sul piano stilistico nell'ambiguita delia sua enunciazione, in direzione di una schermatura della superficie testuale e della sua leggibilita lineare e diretta (48).
She is in a constant mode of double signification, almost always speaking two messages to two audiences or playing multiple roles. This doubleness extends to her generic role: just as she often means two things at once, she often embodies or inhabits two genres simultaneously.
In Erminia's soliloquies, she explicitly expresses her desire for erotic wish-fulfillment, a drive associated with romance. These passages follow conventional romance and lyric patterns, both modes of speech concerned with the suspended moment of unfulfilled, delayed desire. Like many Petrarchan speakers, Erminia imagines scenarios that would move her story from suspended desire toward fulfillment. She wishes that she had imprisoned Tancredi before he ever had to fight Argante (VI.84). In this imagined captivity, she envisions him falling in love with her and finding the burden of imprisonment sweet (VI.84). This scenario removes him from epic progress and places him in stasis, suspending them both in imagined erotic fulfillment. Yet immediately after, her daydream frames him as a military victor, but with an added sentimental component: she imagines him killing her and shedding a few tears on her grave (VI.85). If she were a Muslim warrior, his victory over her would support the Christian army, advancing the poem's epic cause. At the same time, his mourning over her death puts him in a romance digression. She likewise imagines her own death in her pastoral interlude, as she wishes that, if she dies of love, he might see her poems and her grave and offer a few tears and sighs (VII.20-22). When her body moves out of a military context, her fancies likewise enter a more pastoral vein. These imagined scenarios are lyric and romantic, focused on her erotic fulfillment. But the epic context often finds a way in, particularly in the envisioned military scenarios. In wanting to protect him from Argante or to die at his hands, she desires to advance the Christian cause; her wish has a romance impetus as well as an epic effect, straddling both generic spaces.
At a few moments in the poem, Erminia's language holds the potential to distract from epic ends; however, the narrator exerts control whenever she presents a threat to epic decorum. For example, although we learn that Erminia writes lyric poetry during her pastoral interlude, we never hear the poetry itself:
ne la scorza de' faggi e de gli allori segno l'amato nome in mille guise, e de' suoi strani ed infelici amori gli aspri successi in mille piante incise, e in rileggendo poi le proprie note rigo di belle lagrime le gote (VII.19.3-8).
The reference to laurel strongly suggests a Petrarchan precedent for Erminia's love poetry, a move towards lyric and away from epic. Despite this allusion and the elaborate description of her own writing and reading, we do not hear the poems. Additionally, witnessing her poems silences her, as in reading them she loses the ability to speak through her tears. Lyric is presented as paralyzing, as speech that prevents movement--a stark contrast to epic, which conveys the forward movement of history as it progresses towards its telos. The poet glosses over Erminia's words and their representation of her internal struggle, and instead presents her fantasies about how Tancredi might witness her poems (VII.20-22). By focusing on Tancredi as a potential reader rather than on Erminia as a writer or on the poems themselves, the narrator privileges the male perspective rather than the text of female desire. As Jonathan CombsSchilling points out, Erminia's fantasy of Tancredi serves to transfer the narrative from her story to Tancredi's (18-19). Erminia's language does not take over the poem or threaten the narrator in this moment. Her poems remain unheard and move the focus back to Tancredi's story and the larger goals of the poem, moving us back to the war and, according to Martinelli, suggesting the inflexible narrative privileging of war in the poem (206). In Martinelli's reading of this episode in terms of space, he argues,
Quanto lo spazio utopico e lo spazio magico tendono a decentrarsi e a costituirsi autonomamente rispetto all'indirizzo orizzontale della favola, operando in netta antitesi ideologica a quello, tanto il testo ne delimita e ne circoscrivere strutturalmente la minacciosa proposta di autoseparazione (207).
As we see with Erminia, this delimiting is not only structural but also linguistic, as Tasso incorporates potential threats to the epic narrator in order to contain them, imposing order over disorder and firmly establishing the poem's priorities.
Erminia's last act in the poem is to heal Tancredi, an act that might be read as marvelous and therefore as romance. The marvelous, a common feature of romance texts, moves beyond reality and toward fantasy: W. T. H. Jackson writes," Unreality, in fact, is the first principle of the romance genre" (15). While aspects of the unreal or the larger-than-life regularly feature in epic texts as they do in romances, the distinction lies in how these marvelous moments are used and how, or whether, they are constrained by verisimilitude. Epic takes credible premises and extends them while romance removes itself from credibility entirely, emphasizing the marvelous or unreal. (4) Patrick Cook asserts that epic marvels are usually associated with divine intervention and serve a purpose, often to assist the hero in his journey (118). Douglas Biow elaborates specifically on the use of marvels in the Gerusalemme liberata: "Marvelous victories are the miracles of providential signs as long as they may be connected to the unifying purpose of liberating Jerusalem" (153). Marvels that distract from the Christian cause, such as Armida's magic, are romance, whereas marvels that contribute to the Christian cause, such as the healing of Goffredo, are epic. Somewhere between these two extremes, Erminia's healing of Tancredi is not necessarily aligned with providence, but certainly contributes to the Christian cause. There is a sense of the marvelous in Erminia's healing, as she bends over the dying Tancredi wearing a "peregrina gonna" (XIX. 113.8) and mutters "note /[...] potenti e maghe" (XIX. 113.3-4), wrapping him in her shorn hair. Cutting her hair can be read as a removal of her femininity, a disavowal of female sexuality and entrance into the asexual role of medic. Additionally, the act has an element of the ritualistic about it, suggesting the hair-shearing of the captive woman of Deuteronomy or of nuns before committing themselves to the convent. (5) If a reader inclines toward the monastic connotations, he could see in Erminia's making whole of Tancredi's Christian body a symbol for her own incorporation into the Christian body--as she transforms his body, so shall he transform her soul through a future conversion. But the text does not offer any definitive conclusions about Erminia's spiritual future. The moment is poised between scriptural connotations, suggesting God's grace, and supernatural connotations, suggesting the marvelous. Tasso leaves ambiguous whether Erminia's magic or God's grace heals Tancredi, suspending this moment in both epic and romance. Ultimately, this ambiguity was more than Tasso felt the poem could sustain, and his revised Gerusalemme conquistata removes Erminia's role in healing Tancredi, instead leaving her weeping over Argante's body, unequivocally aligned with the pagans.
Erminia's words accomplishing this healing are left unreported, with precedence given to the epic narrator's report rather than the marvelous words themselves. Walter Stephens reads her use of "note /[...] potenti e maghe" as evidence of her poetic power. Paired with the fact that this poetic power is used for healing--and healing has been aligned with poetry since the opening lines of the poem Stephens sees this moment as Erminia taking a command over language and authority that surpasses that of the Tassian narrator (173). While her words undeniably have a greater impact here than at any other point in the poem, her words are subordinated to narrative description. We are told that she speaks and to what purpose, but her speech act is not described in detail, leaving the reader unable to infer the content. This is particularly striking given the excessive direct speech from Erminia in this canto prior to the healing: her speech to Vafrino and her lamentation over Tancredi's body dominated the previous stanzas, yet in this moment, the narrator eschews direct speech in favor of an obtuse description of her use of magical words. After such effusive language, this moment seems to have a hush fall over it, even though we are told that she is speaking. Her marvelous words go unreported, shrouded in mystery and excluded from epic decorum. Rather than a moment of Erminia's power over the narrator or a victory of romance, this is a moment of return to the epic narrator's control, a diminishment of our access to Erminia's marvelous speech.
When Tancredi awakens, for a brief moment the reader wonders if Erminia will receive erotic fulfillment as recompense for her faithfulness throughout the poem:
Chiede: "O Vafrin, qui come giungi e quando? E tu chi sei, medica mia pietosa?" Ella, fra lieta e dubbia sospirando, tinse il bel volto di color di rosa: "Saprai" rispose"il tutto, or (te 'l comando come medica tua) taci e riposa. Salute avrai, prepara il guiderdone". Ed al suo capo il grembo indi suppone (XIX.114).
Tancredi does not recognize Erminia, despite the fact that she spent months as his captive. Instead, Tancredi identifies her as his medica, a role Erminia wholeheartedly accepts without answering his inquiry about who she is. While Tylus suggests that this moment portrays anonymity as the cost of Erminia's entrance into the Christian community (1993:104-5), it could also be seen as her willing acceptance of an identity related to her purpose, suggesting a recompense rather than a cost. Far from losing herself, she enters her role as healer and fulfills her stated goal: to be alongside Tancredi as his handmaid, no more and no less. One might object that Erminia tells Tancredi to prepare a "guiderdone", perhaps suggesting her intention to gain erotic fulfillment more in line with a happy romance ending than epic. Her lovesick sigh before her words, as well as her placement of his head in her lap--a pose reminiscent of Rinaldo's head in Armida's lap on the Fortunate Isles --could suggest that the implications of guiderdone are sexual. However, the context does not suggest the idleness and eroticism that corrupted the first instance of this physical pose. While Armida emasculated Rinaldo, making him less by association with her, Erminia has literally made Tancredi whole by making herself less, cutting her hair to bind his wounds. Her guiderdone is likely to be exactly what she has told Vafrino she desires: to be Tancredi's captive, to remain by his side and be of service. Her longing for romance fulfillment is present in the text--many readers hope she will receive reward or requital for her love here--, but she does not pursue that longing, instead accepting an ending aligned with epic pursuits that puts her in the role of helper rather than heroine.
In addition to this moment's ambiguous genre connotations, it suspends multiple possible religious associations. Weeping, holding a man's wounded body in her lap, Erminia evokes the pieta. Erminia's militant chastity, as well as her earlier self-identification as ancella (XIX.101.3), support this connection with the Virgin Mary Simultaneously, her use of her hair to bind Tancredi's wounds suggests the penitent Magdalene, who cleans Christ's feet with her tears and hair. Mary Magdalene is herself an ambiguous figure: strongly associated with sin, she is also a convert with a privileged role among the disciples (de Klerck 172-179). Mary Magdalene is the first to encounter the empty tomb and speak with the Risen Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John. Erminia similarly speaks with a man raised from the dead, or at least saved from the brink of death. Yet the imagery of her hair and her weeping, which tie her with the paradigm of the penitent sinner, temper this privilege. To be both Magdalene and Mary is to be simultaneously sinner and saint. Sensual yet maternal, pagan yet salvific, Erminia remains suspended between both potential identities. Moreover, she never fully adopts any Christian identity. Although Tasso contemplated adding stanzas in which Erminia converts and becomes a nun, this plan was abandoned (Tylus 2012: 59, Rhu 128). In fact, Erminia is the only Muslim woman in the poem who does not convert to Christianity, despite being the most committed to advancing the Christian cause. Romance, then, is not the only affiliation holding her back from participation in the epic telos. Erminia heals the Christian body without being incorporated into the Christian body making her central to the epic telos yet still excluded from it.
As Beatrice Corrigan points out, in healing Tancredi, Erminia fulfills her vow (331-2). Erminia achieves her purposed end, and that end helps fulfill the poem's epic telos as a whole. Murtaugh suggests that in this fulfillment--in making Erminia serve the Christian cause--Tasso makes romance serve epic (23). But Murtaugh's claim requires Erminia to have been a consistent figure of romance prior to this point, and to become redeemed through submission to the epic plot. On the contrary, Erminia consistently embodies elements of epic as well as romance, blending both genres throughout the poem. Countering Murtaugh, Migiel claims that Erminia remains unassimilated, unnamed, unsubmissive and ambiguous, and therefore removed from the Christian epic unity of the end (72). I would not go as far as Murtaugh in suggesting Erminia's redemption and incorporation, but I would go farther than Migiel. Erminia receives neither unequivocal erotic fulfillment nor conversion, precluding her from either a happy romance ending or a full incorporation into the Christian fold and its epic success. But she is essential to the epic success and she is an accepted outsider within the Christian fold, returning to a position in Tancredi's household. Integral to the epic telos, Erminia participates in the community's success despite failing to fully assimilate.
Epic from a Distance
As the previous section has demonstrated, Erminia's romance often serves epic. Additionally, her epic moments are more frequent and sustained than previous scholars have claimed, particularly in the ways she supports the epic narrator. Although she is never fully incorporated into the Christian cause, this lack enables her to desire that community and its epic goal. Erminia's epic impulses and desire to be epic effectively demonstrate the value of epic. If romance is the honey that lets epic medicine go down, Erminia is in some ways the honey, but she is moreover the desire to drink the medicine and be cured.
Erminia has moments of authorship and quasi-narration that work in concert with or in repetition of the epic narrator. When Erminia provides Aladino with military information about the Christian soldiers, she confirms the narrator's earlier description of them. Like the narrator, Erminia describes Dudone in terms of his advanced age, his bloodline, and his experience in battle (1.53, III.39); Guelfo in terms of deeds and rank (1.241, III.63); and Raimondo as far exceeding others in prowess and experience (1.61.5, III.62). In her introduction to Odoardo and Gildippe, she uses the exact same line as the narrator: "Gildippe ed Odoardo, amanti e sposi" (1.56, III.40). In a similar echo of the narrator, she refers to Rinaldo as a fanciullo (1.58, III.37) and describes his great promise and skill with the sword. Attesting to the few differences between Erminia's text and the narrator's, Migiel writes,"The most striking difference between Erminia's descriptions and those of the narrator lies in Erminia's attention to color and external decoration of armor, and in her tendency to read Rinaldo in a positive key by looking forward to his possible accomplishments rather than focusing on his youthful prepossessing arrogance" (64). While I agree that Erminia pays greater attention to color and armor, her description of Rinaldo's youth and skill corresponds with God's prophecy in 1.10 and the narrator's description in 1.58. Additionally, she does not focus on Rinaldo himself and his accomplishments, but instead offers a hypothetical scenario considering what would happen if there were more men such as Rinaldo (III.37). Consequently, she does not provide any substantial new information thus does not threaten the narrator's control. Erminia closely follows the precedent set by the epic narrator, making her knowledge and speech contingent upon his rather than competitive with it. Furthermore, in the act of providing exposition about the warriors, she imitates the model of Helen in the Iliad. Her speech introduces epic heroes, reproduces the text of the epic narrator, and imitates classical epic, all of which frames Erminia's text here as epic.
In addition to her public speech, Erminia's private soliloquies express desires that are in keeping with epic. After the first duel between Tancredi and Argante, she wishes that she could be Tancredi's nurse but is forced to heal Argante instead (VI.67-68). She longs to be of service, to provide healing military aid. In the debate between Honor and Love, Love urges her to heal him, and suggests that she can win his love as her reward (VI.76). That love, in this imagined outcome, results in a wedding and the envy of all the mothers of the Latin race. Erminia would thus become another Lavinia, marrying into a dynasty and helping create empire:
Parte ancor poi ne le sue lodi avresti, e ne l'opre ch'ei fesse alte e famose, ond'egli te d'abbracciamenti onesti faria lieta, e di nozze aventurose. Poi mostra a ditto ed onorata andresti fra le madri latine e fra le spose la ne la bella Italia, ov'e la sede del valor vero e de la vera fede (VI.77).
In this fantasy, Erminia shares in Tancredi's fame through healing him, and he rewards her with marriage. This marriage secures her honor "fra le madri latine e fra le spose", thus offering Erminia a new epic position as a wife and mother. The placement of this fantasy marriage in Italy is noteworthy, as it suggests the appeal of Tancredi's native kingdom rather than Erminia's own. Moreover, Italy is described as the seat "del valor vero e de la vera fede". In this fantasy, Erminia becomes an Italian Catholic queen, with the emphasis on Italy, on Catholicism, and on her reputation as a wife and mother. This imagined happy epic ending is the last word Love speaks, and it leads Erminia to decide she must take action; more than Tancredi's affections, the imagined end that most inspires Erminia entails a position within the Latin community as a wife, mother, and member of the true faith.
In addition to the desire for epic expressed in Erminia's text, we can see a privileging of epic in when and where she is allowed to speak. Throughout the poem, Erminia is allowed to speak mostly when she expresses epic ideas or desires, whereas her speech is most often indirect when it would communicate in romance terms. She speaks to Argante on the balcony, describing the Christian warriors in terms that imitate the narrator's terms while concealing her romance desires. This military description is a conventional topos of epic, directly imitating Helen's exposition in the Iliad. While alone, she contemplates healing Tancredi, both in Jersualem and outside the Christian camp. These soliloquies voice her personal desires, but they also establish her poetic trajectory, a trajectory that aligns with the crusade--she, too, will spend the poem trying to return to Jerusalem. Although she expresses personal desires, she frames them in an epic context, and her desires for her beloved lead to a larger desire to aid the Christian cause and join their camp. While Erminia's speech is often privileged and takes up textual space, it is moved into indirect discourse in two notable places. We are told she writes lyric poetry but do not get direct experience of it; we know that she speaks but not what she speaks. The same pattern appears when she heals Tancredi through marvelous words to which the narrator does not give the reader access. In these romance moments, the narrator moves her text into indirect discourse, excising non-epic speech from the poem. This obscuring of her text is twice followed by Erminia's physical removal from the narrative: after her healing of Tancredi, she speaks only a few more lines before exiting the poem entirely, and after her lyric interlude, we do not see Erminia again for twelve cantos. Her return to the poem is also a return to epic text, as she speaks to Vafrino in order to help the Christian army. The narrator highlights Erminia's epic text and frames her personal desires as contributing to the epic project while excising any text that runs too great a risk of romance. Erminia lets the epic narrator demonstrate the capacity of epic to contain non-epic, both when he channels her non-epic text toward an epic goal and when he restricts the amount of space allowed for non-epic text.
Just as Erminia's speech contributes to epic, her voiced desires convey the appeal of epic. Erminia describes the appeal of the Christian community as she waits outside the tents of the Christian camp:
O belle a gli occhi miei tende latine! Aura spira da voi che mi ricrea e mi conforta pur che m'avicine; cosi a mia vita combattuta e rea qualche onesto riposo il Ciel destine, come in voi solo il cerco, e solo parmi che trovar pace io possa in mezzo a l'armi. Raccogliete me dunque, e in voi si trove quella pieta che mi promise Amore e ch'io gia vidi, prigionera altrove, nel mansueto mio dolce signore. Ne gia desio di racquistar mi move co 'l favor vostro il mio regale onore; quando cio non avenga, assai felice io mi terro, se 'n voi server mi lice (VI.104.2-105.8).
She identifies the sweet sight as the tende latine, emphasizing not just Tancredi but the entire Latin camp. In addressing the camp, she uses the plural "voi", further suggesting that the Christian community as a whole offers her comfort and peace. In fact, the only specific reference to Tancredi here is to the past, to her time as his captive. The larger object of address, from which she seeks acceptance, pity, and the opportunity to serve, is the community in the camp. She does not identify this community as Christian, so Tasso stops short of presenting her longing for conversion, but the camp offers her a chance for peace and a chance to serve, both of which have religious as well as political connotations. Her love for Tancredi leads her to a greater object of desire: the Christian camp, the community that strives toward the poem's epic telos. After her failed attempt to enter the Christian camp in canto six, she will once more endeavor to join the community when she encounters Vafrino toward the end of the poem. In her speech to Vafrino, she imagines Tancredi welcoming her back to his household and calling her "errante ancella" (XIX. 101.3), a term that invokes both romance errancy and the Virgin Mary. While errancy is associated with romance, for Erminia to refer to her time spent in the Muslim camp as errancy suggests that she belongs with the Christians. Positioning herself as "ancella" likewise suggests belonging, as it frames her as a servant or handmaid to Tancredi and the Christian cause more generally. Moreover, the term "ancella" invokes Mary, who accepts the annunciation of the Angel Gabriel with the words "ecce ancilla Domini" (Luke 1:38). Given how central Erminia's virginity is throughout--and that it is again invoked in the stanza immediately prior to this statement--the subtle comparison is compelling. This is not to suggest that Erminia is a straightforward Marian figure; any association is immediately tempered by the adjective "errante". Nevertheless, Tasso allows the image of a Marian Erminia to coexist in the same breath as the image of Erminia the errant romance heroine, keeping her role ambiguous and ambivalent. Erminia's allegiance to the Christian faith is never stated, but her attraction to the Christian camp is clear, as is her desire for inclusion in the epic community.
Erminia's desire for the Christian community leads her to actively contribute to the army's epic success, prioritizing that success alongside her desire to reunite with Tancredi. When she confesses her love for Tancredi, she does so not to Tancredi himself, but to a military spy. She confesses in order to legitimize her devotion to the Christian cause and give Vafrino reason to trust her military information. Erminia acknowledges that voicing her desire now, to Vafrino, cannot lead to erotic fulfillment, and that if erotic fulfillment was her goal, the time to speak would have been while Tancredi held her captive. Instead, she voices her love as a military gesture of good faith while separated from Tancredi. One could argue that she engages in this exchange in order to help Tancredi rather than the Christian cause. However, she left Armida's camp because the pagan army had coerced her into revealing the Christian army's colors, a fraud she found intolerable: "schivo ed aborro in qual si voglia modo / contaminarmi in atto alcun di frodo" (XIX.89.6-8). Although abhorrence of fraud is not quite the same as explicit allegiance to the Christian cause, her rejection of the Muslim camp certainly moves her toward the Christian side. Moreover, the information she provides enables Goffredo's army to win the day and achieve their epic goal. She wants to rejoin Tancredi, suggesting erotic and romance motives, but she also wants to remove herself from the Muslim camp and to advance the Christian army, aligning her with the epic telos.
Erminia advances the Christian cause, but she also remains outside of it, enabling her to comment upon it. In a moment that evokes the Iliad and classical models of women in epic, when Vafrino and Erminia encounter Tancredi's wounded body, she believes he is dead and speaks an extended mourning lamentation. As Helene Foley has pointed out, women in epic traditionally function as mourners (112-114). In Greek epic, women mark the cost of war in lamenting the dead; for example, the Iliad ends with Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen grieving over Hector's corpse. Erminia's lamentation visually imitates this model and serves a similar function. Given that there are no women in the Christian camp (with the exception of Gildippe, the female warrior), it falls to Erminia to show the ravages of war. Indeed, her character is marked by loss and longing for return: her kingdom has been conquered, her mother has died, and she has lost a sense of kinship with her own community. In encountering Tancredi's seemingly dead body, Erminia laments and longs to fully lose herself as well. This conventional epic move places Erminia in a privileged, gendered position, as her feminine grief marks a military loss and the broader cost to the community. We as readers mourn Tancredi with and through Erminia. We see here the personal cost of the epic project, expressed in the voice of someone external to that epic project. Erminia, then, marks both the desirability of the Christian telos and the cost of the crusade, showing the attraction and repulsion of epic.
I have argued that the traditionally acknowledged romance element in Erminia's role serves epic ends throughout the poem, and that Erminia also serves an epic function in epic ways. Rather than being a romance problem for the poem to solve, she remains suspended between romance and epic, between pagan and Christian, able to serve the poem's ends without fully joining the Christian cause. Erminia serves epic by remaining somewhat outside of it; her ambivalent and ambiguous position lets her mark a desire for epic from the outside and makes her central to the project.
Women tend to serve particular functions in the epic genre. Helen is the inciting incident for the entire Trojan War, and Briseis as prize of war and an object of exchange is similarly the inciting incident for the events of the Iliad. Wives and mothers like Andromache, Hecuba, and Penelope show the impact of war on the personal and domestic sphere, marking the feminine counterpart to masculine military activity. Women warriors inhabit a small but privileged space in ancient epic that gets expanded in the dynastic epics of the Renaissance. And, of course, women pose problems, serving as distractions, temptresses, digressions--in other words, women introduce the elements of romance. Traditional epic women create opportunities for epic to happen, provide obstacles or temptations for the epic hero to overcome, or mark the cost of epic, but are less directly involved with moving the journey forward. To put it another way, women do not customarily contribute to the epic telos in epic ways, which Erminia often does. Erminia plays a supporting role--she is neither the epic goal nor a distraction from it, but she is a vital means to an end, a facilitator of epic. Tylus (1993: 104-105) sees her role as a representation of the cost of devotion to a larger goal, but could we not also see it as a triumph? Erminia marks what is lost in the epic project, but she also marks what is gained. By being somewhat outside epic, Erminia is able to depict a desire for epic, to model the appeal of the telos and of epic as a project in its entirety. Feminist critics often identify the female voice with resistance, with anti-epic and therefore romance. In this model, for the female voice to "win," it must be opposed to the dominant male voice. This is a compelling model of agency and empowerment, but there is also potential for value in a supporting role, in contributing to epic, in marking the very value of epic itself. Tasso's significant reduction of the role of Erminia in his revised Gerusalemme conquistata suggests that her integral function in the Gerusalemme liberata was subversive enough that he felt the need to purge it. In my reading, this reduction reflects a discomfort not with romance, but with the power granted to a female, Muslim figure in achieving the Christian epic end. Erminia is not a problem because she is a distraction; she is a problem because she is essential, both in advancing epic and in marking the epic community as valuable and desirable. In thinking about genre and gender, Erminia offers an informative case study, suggesting a new, complicated, and ambiguous way for a woman to function in and comment on epic narrative. More broadly, Erminia's function in the text broadens the possibilities for how women function in literature. She is not a progressive feminist hero, but she is also not a victim of misogyny and patriarchy. Female heroes in Renaissance epic often take on masculine roles, adopting knightly attire and engaging in conventionally masculine acts of heroism. Figures such as Clorinda, Bradamante, or Marfisa break down the boundaries of what a woman can be or do, moving confidently into the masculine sphere. Erminia remains conventionally feminine throughout --her soft body is unable to bear the weight of Clorinda's armor without suffering. Yet she is able to contribute to the masculine ethos of epic while maintaining this conventional femininity. As such, Erminia's function in the poem privileges not the capacity of women to succeed in masculine spaces, but instead of women to maintain their traditional roles while still advancing the epic text. This quiet contribution, this textual partnership that prioritizes her speech but also submits it to the male narrator's control, this distinctly and conventionally feminine model of support, seems to me to be a compelling middle ground, an expansion of the possibilities for femininity to contribute to and advance a masculine epic text.
University of California, Los Angeles
(1) For discussions of the critical debates on Ariosto and Tasso, see Weinberg 954-1073. The critics Weinberg examines who pay particular attention to romance elements in Tasso include Camillo Pellegrino, who favors strict Aristotelian unity and favors Tasso for this epic feature; Lionardo Salviati, who equates romance and epic as one genre and, having excluded genre from consideration, finds Tasso lacking in imagination; Orazio Lombardelli, who defends Tasso's work from claims that it is lacking in the marvelous and is so dedicated to epic unity that it proves boring; and Giulio Guastavini, who praises the epic unity of Tasso's plot.
(2) For more on how these features relate to the particular time and space structures of epic as opposed to romance, see Cook 116-118.
(3) On interlace and epic unity in Tasso, see Combs-Schilling 1-4. On wish fulfillment and personal desire as elements of romance, see Frye 186; Biow 137; Jackson 17-18.
(4) On the connection between the marvelous and the romance hero, see Di Cesare 62. On the contrast between the local or credible in epic and the exotic or incredible in romance, see Griffin 55-56. On the connection between the unreal and the moral value system of romance, see Jackson 15.
(5) For a reading of Erminia as captive woman and a further discussion of the references to Deuteronomy, see Melinda Gough, especially 525-526 and 544-545.
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|Title Annotation:||Torquato Tasso's epic poem|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
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