WHEN Voltaire was in England, previous to his publication of his Henriade, he published in English an essay on the epic poetry of the European nations. In this he both highly praised, and severely attacked, the Lusiad. In his French editions of this essay, he has made various alterations, at different times, in the article on Camoëns. It is not, however, improper to premise, that some most amazing falsities will be here detected; the gross misrepresentation of every objection refuted; and demonstration brought, that when Voltaire wrote his English essay, his knowledge of the Lusiad was entirely borrowed from the bold, harsh, unpoetical version of Fanshaw.
"While Trissino," says Voltaire, "was clearing away the rubbish in Italy, which barbarity and ignorance had heaped up for ten centuries in the way of the arts and sciences, Camoëns, in Portugal, steered a new course, and acquired a reputation which lasts still among his countrymen who pay as much respect to his memory as the English to Milton."
Among other passages of the Lusiad which he criticises is that where "Adamastor, the giant of the Cape of Storms, appears to them, walking in the depth of the sea; his head reaches to the clouds; the storms, the winds, the thunders, and the lightnings hang about him; his arms are extended over the waves. It is the guardian of that foreign ocean, unploughed before by any ship. He complains of being obliged to submit to fate, and to the audacious undertaking of the Portuguese, and foretells them all the misfortunes they must undergo in the Indies. I believe
that such a fiction would be thought noble and proper in all ages, and in all nations.
"There is another, which perhaps would have pleased the Italians as well as the Portuguese, but no other nation besides: it is the enchanted island, called the Island of Bliss, which the fleet finds in its way home, just rising from the sea, for their comfort, and for their reward. Camoëns describes that place, as Tasso some years after depicted his island of Armida. There a supernatural power brings in all the beauties, and presents all the pleasures which nature can afford, and the heart may wish for; a goddess, enamoured with Vasco de Gama, carries him to the top of a high mountain, from whence she shows him all the kingdoms of the earth, and foretells the fate of Portugal.
"After Camoëns hath given loose to his fancy, in the description of the pleasures which Gama and his crew enjoyed in the island, he takes care to inform the reader that he ought to understand by this fiction nothing but the satisfaction which the virtuous man feels, and the glory which accrues to him, by the practice of virtue; but the best excuse for such an invention is the charming style in which it is delivered (if we may believe the Portuguese), for the beauty of the elocution sometimes makes amends for the faults of the poet, as the colouring of Rubens makes some defects in his figures pass unregarded.
"There is another kind of machinery continued throughout all the poem, which nothing can excuse; that is, an injudicious mixture of the heathen gods with our religion. Gama in a storm addresses his prayers to Christ, but it is Venus who comes to his relief; the heroes are Christians, and the poet heathen. The main design which the Portuguese are supposed to have (next to promoting their trade) is to propagate Christianity; yet Jupiter, Bacchus, and Venus, have in their hands all the management of the voyage. So incongruous a machinery casts a blemish upon the whole poem; yet it shows at the same time how prevailing are its beauties since the Portuguese like it with all its faults."
The Lusiad, says Voltaire, contains "a sort of epic poetry unheard of before. No heroes are wounded a thousand different ways; no woman enticed away, and the world overturned for her cause." But the very want of these, in place of supporting the objection intended by Voltaire, points out the happy judgment and peculiar excellence of Camoëns. If Homer has given us all the fire and hurry of battles, he has also given us all the uninteresting, tiresome
detail. What reader but must be tired with the deaths of a thousand heroes, who are never mentioned before, nor afterwards, in the poem. Yet, in every battle we are wearied out with such Gazette-returns of the slain and wounded as--
[paragraph continues] And corresponding to it is Virgil’s Æneid, bk. x. line 747, et seq.:--
[paragraph continues] With such catalogues is every battle extended; and what can be more tiresome than such uninteresting descriptions, and their imitations! If the idea of the battle be raised by such enumeration, still the copy and original are so near each other that they can never please in two separate poems. Nor are the greater part of the battles of the Æneid much more distant than those of the Iliad. Though Virgil with great art has introduced a Camilla, a Pallas, and a Lausus, still, in many particulars, and in the action upon the whole, there is such a sameness with the Iliad, that the learned reader of the Æneid is deprived of the pleasure inspired by originality. If the man of taste, however, will be pleased to mark how the genius of a Virgil has managed a war after Homer, he will certainly be tired with a dozen epic poems in the same style. Where the siege of a town and battles are the subject of an epic, there will, of necessity, in the characters and circumstances, be a resemblance to Homer; and such poem must therefore want originality. Happily for Tasso, the variation of manners, and his
masterly superiority over Homer in describing his duels, has given to his Jerusalem an air of novelty. Yet, with all the difference between Christian and pagan heroes, we have a Priam, an Agamemnon, an Achilles, etc., armies slaughtered, and a city besieged. In a word, we have a handsome copy of the Iliad in the Jerusalem Delivered. If some imitations, however, have been successful, how many other epics of ancient and modern times have hurried down the stream of oblivion! Some of their authors had poetical merit, but the fault was in the choice of their subjects. So fully is the strife of war exhausted by Homer, that Virgil and Tasso could add to it but little novelty; no wonder, therefore, that so many epics on battles and sieges have been suffered to sink into utter neglect. Camoëns, perhaps, did not weigh these circumstances, but the strength of his poetical genius directed him. He could not but feel what it was to read Virgil after Homer; and the original turn and force of his mind led him from the beaten track of Helen’s and Lavinia’s, Achilles’s and Hector’s sieges and slaughters, where the hero hews down, and drives to flight, whole armies with his own sword. Camoëns was the first who wooed the modern Epic Muse, and she gave him the wreath of a first lover: a sort of epic poetry unheard of before; or, as Voltaire calls it, une nouvelle espèce d’epopée; and the grandest subject it is (of profane history) which the world has ever beheld. * A voyage esteemed too great for man to dare; the adventures of this voyage through unknown oceans deemed unnavigable; the eastern world happily discovered, and for ever indissolubly joined and given to the western; the grand Portuguese empire in the East founded; the humanization of mankind, and universal commerce the consequence! What are the adventures of an old, fabulous hero’s arrival in Britain, what are Greece and Latium in arms for a woman compared to this! Troy is in ashes, and even the Roman empire is no more. But
the effects of the voyage, adventures, and bravery of the hero of the Lusiad will be felt and beheld, and perhaps increase in importance, while the world shall remain.
Happy in his choice, happy also was the genius of Camoëns in the method of pursuing his subject. He has not, like Tasso, given it a total appearance of fiction; nor has he, like Lucan, excluded allegory and poetical machinery. Whether he intended it or not (for his genius was sufficient to suggest its propriety), the judicious precept of Petronius * is the model of the Lusiad. That elegant writer proposes a poem on the civil war, and no poem, ancient or modern, merits the character there sketched out in any degree comparative to the Lusiad. A truth of history is preserved; yet, what is improper for the historian, the ministry of Heaven is employed, and the free spirit of poetry throws itself into fictions which makes the whole appear as an effusion of prophetic fury, and not like a rigid detail of facts, given under the sanction of witnesses. Contrary to Lucan, who, in the above rules, drawn from the nature of poetry, is severely condemned by Petronius, Camoëns conducts his poem per ambages Deorumque ministeria. The apparition, which in the night hovers athwart the fleet near the Cape of Good Hope, is the grandest fiction in human composition; the invention his own! In the Island of Venus, the use of which fiction in an epic poem is also his own, he has given the completest assemblage of all the flowers which have ever adorned the bowers of love. And, never was the furentis animi vaticinatio more conspicuously displayed than in the prophetic song, the view of the spheres, and the globe of the earth. Tasso’s imitation of the Island of Venus is not equal to the original; and, though "Virgil’s myrtles † dropping blood are nothing to Tasso’s enchanted forest," what are all Ismeno’s enchantments to the grandeur and horror of the appearance, prophecy, and vanishment of the spectre of Camoëns! ‡ It has long been agreed among critics, that the solemnity of religious observances gives great dignity to the historical narrative of epic poetry. Camoëns, in the embarkation of the fleet, and in several other places, is peculiarly happy in the
dignity of religion’s allusions. Manners and character are also required in the epic poem. But all the epics which have appeared are, except two; mere copies of the Iliad in these respects. Every one has its Agamemnon, Achilles, Ajax, and Ulysses; its calm, furious, gross, and intelligent hero. Camoëns and Milton happily left this beaten track, this exhausted field, and have given us pictures of manners unknown in the Iliad, the Æneid, and all those poems which may be classed with the Thebaid. The Lusiad abounds with pictures of manners, from those of the highest chivalry to those of the rudest, fiercest, and most innocent barbarism. In the fifth, sixth, and ninth books, Leonardo and Veloso are painted in stronger colours than any of the inferior characters in Virgil. But character, indeed, is not the excellence of the Æneid. That of Monzaida, the friend of Gama, is much superior to that of Achates. The base, selfish, perfidious and cruel character of the Zamorim and the Moors, are painted in the strongest colours; and the character of Gama himself is that of the finished hero. His cool command of his passions, his deep sagacity, his fixed intrepidity, his tenderness of heart, his manly piety, and his high enthusiasm in the love of his country are all displayed in the superlative degree. Let him who objects the want of character to the Lusiad, beware lest he stumble upon its praise; lest he only say, it wants an Achilles, a Hector, and a Priam. And, to the novelty of the manners of the Lusiad let the novelty of fire-arms also be added. It has been said that the buckler, the bow, and the spear, must continue the arms of poetry. Yet, however unsuccessful others may have been, Camoëns has proved that firearms may be introduced with the greatest dignity, and the finest effect in the epic poem.
As the grand interest of commerce and of mankind forms the subject of the Lusiad, so, with great propriety, as necessary accompaniments to the voyage of his hero, the author has given poetical pictures of the four parts of the world--in the third book a view of Europe; in the fifth, a view of Africa; and in the tenth, a picture of Asia and America. Homer and Virgil have been highly praised for their judgment in the choice of subjects which interested their countrymen, and Statius has been as severely condemned for his uninteresting choice. But, though the subject of Camoëns be particularly interesting to his own countrymen, it has also the peculiar happiness to be the poem of every trading nation. It is the epic poem of the birth of commerce,
and, in a particular manner, the epic poem of whatever country has the control and possession of the commerce of India. *
An unexhausted fertility and variety of poetical description, an unexhausted elevation of sentiment, and a constant tenor of the grand simplicity of diction, complete the character of the Lusiad of Camoëns: a poem which, though it has hitherto received from the public most unmerited neglect, and from the critics most flagrant injustice, was yet better understood by the greatest poet of Italy. Tasso never did his judgment more credit than when he confessed that he dreaded Camoëns as a rival; or his generosity more honour than when he addressed the elegant sonnet to the hero of the Lusiad, commencing--
It only remains to give some account of the version of the Lusiad which is now offered to the public. Beside the translations mentioned in the life of Camoëns, M. Duperron De Castera, in 1735, gave, in French prose, a loose unpoetical paraphrase † of the Lusiad. Nor does Sir Richard Fanshaw’s English version, published during the usurpation of Cromwell, merit a better character. Though stanza be rendered for stanza, though at first view it has the appearance of being exceedingly literal, this version is nevertheless exceedingly unfaithful. Uncountenanced by his original, Fanshaw--
Nor had he the least idea of the dignity of the epic style, § or of
the true spirit of poetical translation. For this, indeed, no definite rule can be given. The translator’s feelings alone must direct him, for the spirit of poetry is sure to evaporate in literal translation.
Indeed, literal translation of poetry is a solecism. You may construe your author, indeed, but, if with some translators you boast that you have left your author to speak for himself, that you have neither added nor diminished, you have in reality grossly abused him, and deceived yourself. Your literal translation can have no claim to the original ’felicities of expression; the energy, elegance, and fire of the original poetry. It may bear, indeed, a resemblance; but such a one as a corpse in the sepulchre bears to the former man when he moved in the bloom and vigour of life.
was the taste of the Augustan age. None but a poet can translate a poet. The freedom which this precept gives, will, therefore, in a poet’s hands, not only infuse the energy, elegance, and fire of his author’s poetry into his own version, but will give it also the spirit of an original.
He who can construe may perform all that is claimed by the literal translator. He who attempts the manner of translation prescribed by Horace, ventures upon a task of genius. Yet, however daring the undertaking, and however he may have failed in it, the translator acknowledges, that in this spirit he has endeavoured to give the Lusiad in English. Even farther liberties, in one or two instances, seemed to him advantageous------But a minuteness * in
the mention of these will not appear with a good grace in this edition of his work; and besides, the original is in the hands of the world.
xxviii:* The drama and the epopœia are in nothing so different as in this--the subjects of the drama are inexhaustible, those of the epopœia are perhaps exhausted. He who chooses war, and warlike characters, cannot appear as an original. It was well for the memory of Pope that he did not write the epic poem he intended. It would have been only a copy of Virgil. Camoëns and Milton have been happy in the novelty of their subjects, and these they have exhausted. There cannot possibly be so important a voyage as that which gave the eastern world to the western. And, did even the story of Columbus afford materials equal to that of Gama, the adventures of the hero, and the view of the extent of his discoveries must now appear as servile copies of the Lusiad.
xxix:* See his Satyricon.--Ed.
xxix:† See letters on Chivalry and Romance.
xxix:‡ The Lusiad is also rendered poetical by other fictions. The elegant satire on King Sebastian, under the name of Acteon; and the prosopopœia of the populace of Portugal venting their murmurs upon the beach when Gama sets sail, display the richness of our author’s poetical genius, and are not inferior to anything of the kind in the classics.
xxxi:* Hence the great interest which we as Britons either do, or ought to, feel in this noble epic. We are the successors of the Portuguese in the possession and government of India; and therefore what interested them must have for us, as the actual possessors, a double interest.--Ed.
xxxi:† Castera was every way unequal to his task. He did not perceive his author’s beauties. He either suppresses or lowers the most poetical passages, and substitutes French tinsel and impertinence in their place.
xxxi:‡ Pope, Odyss. xx.
xxxi:§ Richard Fanshaw, Esq., afterwards Sir Richard, was English Ambassador both at Madrid and Lisbon. He had a taste for literature, and translated from the Italian several pieces which were of service in the refinement of our poetry. Though his Lusiad, by the dedication of it to William, Earl of Strafford, dated May 1, 1655, seems as if published by himself, we are told by the editor of his Letters, that "during the unsettled times of our anarchy, some of his MSS., falling by misfortune into unskilful p. xxxii hands, were printed and published without his knowledge or consent, and before he could give them his last finishing strokes: such was his translation of the Lusiad." He can never have enough of conceits, low allusions, and expressions. When gathering of flowers is simply mentioned (C. 9, st. 24) he gives it, "gather’d flowers by pecks;" and the Indian Regent is avaricious (C. 8, st. 95)--
[paragraph continues] But enough of these have already appeared in the notes. It may be necessary to add, that the version of Fanshaw, though the Lusiad very particularly requires them, was given to the public without one note.
xxxii:* Some liberties of a less poetical kind, however, require to be mentioned. In Homer and Virgil’s lists of slain warriors, Dryden and Pope have omitted several names which would have rendered English versification p. xxxiii dull and tiresome. Several allusions to ancient history and fable have for this reason been abridged; e.g. in the prayer of GAMA (Book 6) the mention of Paul, "thou who deliveredst Paul and defendest him from quicksands and wild waves--
is omitted. However excellent in the original, the prayer in English would lose both its dignity and ardour. Nor let the critic, if he find the meaning of Camoëns in some instances altered, imagine that he has found a blunder in the translator. He who chooses to see a slight alteration of this kind will find an instance, which will give him an idea of others, in Canto 8, st. 48, and another in Canto 7, st. 41. It was not to gratify the dull few, whose greatest pleasure in reading a translation is to see what the author exactly says; it was to give a poem that might live in the English language, which was the ambition of the translator. And, for the same reason, he has not confined himself to the Portuguese or Spanish pronunciation of proper names. Regardless, therefore, of Spanish pronunciation, the translator has accented Granáda, Evóra, etc. in the manner which seemed to him to give most dignity to English versification. In the word Sofala he has even rejected the authority of Milton, and followed the more sonorous usage of Fanshaw. Thus Sir Richard: "Against Sofála’s batter’d fort." Which is the more sonorous there can be no dispute.