Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

"When despotism kept genius in chains": imagining Tasso's madness and imprisonment, 1748-1849

Lawrence, Jason



This essay explores the European-wide fascination in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the legendary biography of the celebrated sixteenth-century Italian poet, Torquato Tasso. It focuses on English poetic responses to Tasso’s presumed madness and his seven-year imprisonment in Ferrara at the hands of Duke Alfonso II d’Este, apparently as a result of the discovery of the poet’s socially presumptuous love for his patron’s sister, Leonora. It seeks to demonstrate how the sustained interest of poets such as Byron, Shelley, Samuel Rogers, Thomas Wade, and Henrietta Prescott in the early decades of the nineteenth century develops from the earliest English prose accounts of Tasso’s life, and also in relation to contemporary Italian and French artistic responses to the poet, in works by Compagnoni and Leopardi for example. The essay examines in particular the widespread practice of ventriloquising empathetically Tasso’s words and thoughts in imaginary monologues and dialogues, which were frequently inspired by visits to the cell in Ferrara shown as Tasso’s own, an essential step on what became a literary pilgrimage in honour of the poet. The best known of these monologues is probably Byron’s The Lament of Tasso (1817), which is considered in detail, and then shown in conclusion to have had a lasting impact on later European responses to the figure of Tasso across a range of art forms.


Lawrence, J. (2011). "When despotism kept genius in chains": imagining Tasso's madness and imprisonment, 1748-1849. Studies in Romanticism, 50(3), 475-503.

Journal Article Type Review
Publication Date 2011
Deposit Date Nov 13, 2014
Journal Studies in Romanticism
Print ISSN 0039-3762
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 50
Issue 3
Pages 475-503
Keywords Love poetry; Narrative poetry; Holding cells; Laments; Romantic poetry; Pastoral poetry; Stanzas; Spiritual love
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Poor quality scan. Not listed on Sherpa. No information on No subscription, but available through JSTOR as image PDF.