It is what it is. I suppose the fact that I wish it was something different is hardly Tasso's fault; nonetheless, I have mixed emotions regarding this poem.
First of all, let's be honest here: Jerusalem Delivered has a worldview which just about everyone reading today is going to find totally repulsive: Christians--good; Pagans--bad. Utterly and absolutely. True, Tasso's pagans (ie, Muslims) are occasionally praised, and his Christians sometimes stray, but really, let's not fool ourselves: this doesn't really amount to anything. Although Tasso's life was endlessly conflicted, here he is trying his hardest to write from a good, Christian viewpoint. I wasn't expecting the civilized urbanity of Ariosto or anything, but this is really a bit much. The climax of the poem, with Christians unapologetically slaughtering, pillaging, and raping (no, seriously--check book XIX, verse XXX)--all without a hint of disapprobation from Tasso--is pretty stomache-turning. You could *try* to argue that the scene is meant as some sort of subtle criticism in itself, but I really don't think you'll find any textual evidence for this. Contrast this with the sacking of Biserta in Orlando Furioso--surely that poem's darkest moment--and the difference becomes obvious. I realize that some people will dismiss my criticisms as nothing more than political correctness run amuck, and, ..., maybe it is, but I make no apologies. As a fairly serious reader, I'm accustomed to simply accepting things in literature that run totally counter to my own ideology, but being, alas, a mere human, there IS a limit. I want to stress that this only became irksome to me towards the poem's end, but it definitely affected my opinion of the work as a whole.
Even if one is capable of totally submerging one's own biased, twenty-first-century view, however, the fact remains that the poem is frequently...well, sort of boring. I think few would argue that, poetically, the best part of the poem, by quite some margin, is the account of Rinaldo's not-so-brutal imprisonment in Armida's bower. This is where Tasso really lets himself go, giving in, I think, to his real poetic instincts. Otherwhere, however, things get a bit less interesting. The battles, its true, have a certain icy, Homeric grandeur, but a little of that--even in Homer himself--goes a long way, and when the two teams aren't duking it out, we're made to deal with the characters, which can be trying. Like many writers, Tasso makes his villains much more interesting that his heroes: Argantes is surely one of the greatest epic villains ever, with his single-minded, unquenchable fury easily rivalling the Wrath of Achilles itself; Clorinda, in spite of a disheartening but inevitable last-minute change of heart, is one of your more badass woman warriors, if not quite up to the standards of Ariosto's Marfisa; and Armida is a femme fatale with few rivals. So that's all well and good, but the focus, unavoidably, is on the heroes. Let's cut to the chase: Godfrey is incredibly boring, in spite of a truly feeble effort by Anthony Esolen to defend him. And, while Rinaldo and Tancredie do have their own crises which elevate them a little above the pack, most of the Christian host is pretty faceless.
Still, all told, the poetry is enough to recommend Tasso. Because, occasional bouts of tedium notwithstanding, Tasso is a truly great poet. I'd even go so far as to say that--although I think I'd enjoy hanging out with Ariosto far more than with Tasso, and although Orlando Furioso is a far more enjoyable (and, let's face it, just plain BETTER) poem than Jerusalem Delivered--in terms of sheer poetical prowess, Tasso wins. Which is why it's so important to read his work in a good translation, which in turn is why it's essential to stay as far away from Anthony M. Esolen as possible. Your other, better, choice is Edward Fairfax's Elizabethan translation: Esolen may be more stricly faithful to the original, but he also has a tin ear, capturing only a middling portion of Tasso's sturm und drang. I suppose he would moderately acceptable if there was no other choice, but thankfully, there is: Fairfax's poetry is electifying, and well worth the time to search out. I'm a little baffled to see the high praise that Esolen is receiving from many (he should translate Ariosto? Please...as if there's a chance in hell he could do better than Barbara Reynolds). So, to put an end to this lunacy, I would like to end this review with a side-by-side comparison between the two. XVI, XIV.
Look at the chaste and modest little rose
sprung from the green in her virginity!
Half open and half hid; the less she shows,
the less she shows to men, the lovelier she.
Now she displays her bold and amorous
bosom, and now she wilts, and cannot be,
the same delight which was the longing of,
a thousand girls and a thousand lads in love.
The gently-budding rose (quoth she) behold,
The first scant peeping forth with virgin beams
Half ope, half shut, her beauties doth up-fold
In their dear leaves, and less seen fairer seems,
And after spreads them forth more broad and bold,
Then languisheth and dies in last extremes:
For seems the same that decked bed and bow'r
Of many a lady late and paramour.
I certainly hope that settles that.