I am having a really hard time understanding the beginning of book 2 of Jerusalem Delivered (1581) by Torquato Tasso (in the English translation by Edward Fairfax, 1600).

Are there methods I need to follow to understand this poem?


Ismeno conjures, but his charms are vain:
Aladine will kill the Christians in his ire:
Sophronia and Olindo would be slain
To save the rest, the King grants their desire;
Clorinda hears their fact and fortunes plain.
Their pardon gets and keeps them from the fire:
Argantes, when Aletes' speeches are
Despised, defies the Duke to mortal war.


While thus the tyrant bends his thoughts to arms,
Ismeno gan tofore his sight appear,
Ismen dead bones laid in cold graves that warms
And makes them speak, smell, taste, touch, see, and hear;
Ismen with terror of his mighty charms.
That makes great Dis in deepest Hell to fear.
That binds and looses souls condemned to woe.
And sends the devils on errands to and fro.


A Christian once, Macon he now adores.
Nor could he quite his wonted faith forsake.
But in his wicked arts both oft implores
Help from the Lord, and aid from Pluto black;
He, from deep caves by Acheron's dark shores,
Where circles vain and spells he used to make.
To advise his king in these extremes is come,
Achitophel so counselled Absalom.


To read a poem like this you'll need:

  1. A comprehensive dictionary, so that you can look up words like ‘argument’, ‘will’, ‘would’, ‘fact’, ‘gan’, ‘tofore’, etc, and find out what they meant in 1600. I use the online Oxford English Dictionary since my local library has a subscription, but a large one-volume dictionary like Chambers would also work. A ‘learner’ or ‘collegiate’ dictionary probably won’t be big enough for a work as old as Jerusalem Delivered.

  2. Wikipedia, so you can look up allusions like Dis and Achitophel.

  3. Patience! As you learn the language and become familiar with the classical allusions, you’ll get faster.

Here are my notes for these three stanzas.

The argument

‘Argument’ means ‘summary or abstract of the subject matter of a book’ so the first stanza is a summary of what’s going to happen in the rest of the book, like a table of contents.


  • Ismeno is a sorceror. His name sometimes appears as ‘Ismen’ for the sake of the rhythm.
  • Aladine is the king of Jerusalem. The name ‘Aladine’ comes from the historical figure Saladin, though there is otherwise little resemblence. He is often referred to as a ‘tyrant’.
  • Sophronia and Olindo are two Christians of Jerusalem.
  • Clorinda is a Saracen warrior.
  • Argantes and Alestes are ambassadors from the king of Egypt.
  • The ‘Duke’ is Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the crusaders.


  • Dis and Pluto are names for the god of the underworld in Roman mythology.
  • Macon is a variant of Mahoun, a name used in medieval Europe for Muhammad, the founder of Islam.
  • Acheron is one of the rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology.
  • Absalom was the son, and Ahitophel the counsellor, of King David in the Bible. Absalom rebelled against his father, but ignored Ahitophel’s advice and was killed in battle. (In the allusion, Ahitophel represents Ismeno and Absalom represents Aladine. This is not very flattering to Aladine.)


  • will = intends to
  • would = wants to
  • fact = deed, action (especially a noble one)
  • Their pardon gets = a poetic inversion (anastrophe) for ‘gets their pardon’, making the line a chiasmus
  • mortal = implacable, unrelenting, deadly
  • gan = began (but in poetry it’s mostly used as a filler word when there’s a gap in the rhythm, like ‘did’)
  • tofore = before
  • Dead bones laid = a poetic inversion of ‘laid dead bones’
  • wonted = accustomed, usual
  • Pluto black = a poetic inversion of ‘black Pluto’
  • circles = figures of magic or necromancy

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