FROM the earliest ages, and in the most distant nations, palaces, forests and gardens, have been the favourite themes of poets. And though, as in Homer’s island of Rhadamanthus, the description is sometimes only cursory; at other times they have lavished all their powers, and have vied with each other in adorning their edifices and landscapes. The gardens of Alcinous in the Odyssey, and Elysium in the Æneid, have excited the ambition of many imitators. Many instances of these occur in the later writers. These subjects, however, it must be owned, are so natural to the genius of poetry, that it is scarcely fair to attribute to an imitation of the classics, the innumerable descriptions of this kind which abound in the old romances. In these, under different allegorical names, every passion, every virtue and vice, had its palace, its enchanted bower, or its dreary cave. Among the Italians, on the revival of letters, Pulci, Boiardo, and others, borrowed these fictions from the Gothic romancers; Ariosto borrowed from them, and Spenser has copied Ariosto and Tasso. In the sixth and seventh books of the Orlando Furioso, there is a fine description of the island and palace of Alcina, or Vice; and in the tenth book (but inferior to the other in poetical colouring), we have a view of the country of Logistilla, or Virtue. The passage, of this kind, however, where Ariosto has displayed the richest poetical painting, is in the xxxiv. book, in the description of Paradise, whither he sends Astolpho, the English duke, to ask the help of St. John to recover the wits of Orlando. The whole is most admirably fanciful. Astolpho mounts the clouds on the winged horse, sees Paradise, and, accompanied by the Evangelist, visits the moon; the adventures in which orb are almost literally translated in Milton’s Limbo. But the passage which may be said to bear the nearest resemblance to the descriptive part of the island of Venus, is the landscape of Paradise, of which the ingenious Mr. Hoole, to whose many acts of friendship I am proud to acknowledge myself indebted, has obliged me with this translation, though only ten books of his Ariosto are yet published.
"Amid the plain a palace dazzling bright,
Like living flame, emits a streamy light,
And, wrapp’d in splendour of refulgent day,
Outshines the strength of ev’ry mortal ray.
"Astolpho gently now directs his speed
To where the spacious pile enfolds the mead
In circuit wide, and views with eager eyes
Each nameless charm that happy soil supplies.
With this compar’d, he deems the world below
A dreary desert and a seat of woe!
By Heaven and Nature, in their wrath bestow’d,
In evil hour, for man’s unblest abode.
"Near and more near the stately walls he drew,
In steadfast gaze transported at the view:
They seem’d one gem entire, of purer red
Than deep’ning gleams transparent rubies shed.
Stupendous work! by art Dædalian rais’d,
Transcending all by feeble mortals prais’d!
No more henceforth let boasting tongues proclaim-
Those wonders of the world, so chronicled by fame!"
Camoëns read and admired Ariosto; but it by no means follows that he borrowed the hint of his island of Venus from that poet. The luxury of flowery description is as common in poetry as are the tales of love. The heroes of Ariosto meet beautiful women in the palace of Alcina:--
[paragraph continues] But these descriptions also, which bring the heroes of knight-errantry into the way of beautiful wantons, are as common in the old romances as the use of the alphabet; and indeed the greatest part of these love-adventures are evidently borrowed from the fable of Circe. Astolpho, who was transformed into a myrtle by Alcina, thus informs Rogero:--
When incidents, character, and conduct confess the resemblance, we may, with certainty, pronounce from whence the copy is taken. Where only a similar stroke of passion or description occurs, it belongs alone to the arrogance of dulness, to tell us on what passage the poet had his eye. Every great poet has been persecuted in this manner: Milton in particular. His commentators have not left him a flower of his own growth. Yet, like the creed of the atheist, their system is involved in the deepest absurdity. It is easy to suppose that men of poetical feelings, in describing the same thing, should give us the same picture. But, that the Paradise Lost, which forms one animated whole of the noblest poetry, is a mere cento, compiled from innumerable authors, ancient and modern, is a supposition which gives Milton a cast of talents infinitely more extraordinary and inexplicable than the greatest poetical genius. When Gaspar Poussin painted clouds and trees in his landscapes, he did not borrow the green and the blue of
the leaf and the sky from Claude Lorraine. Neither did Camoëns, when he painted his island of Venus, spend the half of his life in collecting his colours from all his predecessors who had described the beauties of the vernal year, or the stages of passion. Camoëns knew how others had painted the flowery bowers of love; these formed his taste, and corrected his judgment. He viewed the beauties of nature with poetical eyes, from thence he drew his landscapes; he had felt all the allurements of love, and from thence he describes the agitations of that passion.
Nor is the description of fairy bowers and palaces, though most favourite topics, peculiar to the romances of chivalry. The poetry of the orientals also abounds with them, yet, with some characteristic differences. Like the constitutions and dress of the Asiatics, the landscapes of the eastern muse are warm and feeble, brilliant and slight, and, like the manners of the people, wear an eternal sameness. The western muse, on the contrary, is nervous as her heroes, sometimes flowery as her Italian or English fields, sometimes majestically great as her Runic forests of oak and pine; and always various, as the character of her inhabitants. Yet, with all these differences of feature, several oriental fictions greatly resemble the island of Circe, and the flowery dominions of Alcina. In particular, the adventures of Prince Agib, or the third Calender, in the Arabian Tales, afford a striking likeness of painting and catastrophe.
If Ariosto’s, however, seem to resemble any eastern fiction, the island of Venus in Camoëns bears a more striking resemblance to a passage in Chaucer. The following beautiful piece of poetical painting occurs in the Assembly of the Fowles:--
On every bough the birdis herd I syng
With voice of angell, in ther harmonie
That busied ’hem, ther birdis forthe to bryng,
And little pretie conies to ther plaie gan hie;
And furthir all about I gan espie
The dredful roe, the buck, the hart and hind,
Squirils, and bestis smal of gentle kind.
The aire of the place so attempre was,
That ner was there grevaunce of hot ne cold--
* * * * * *
Under a tre beside a well I seye
Cupid our lorde his arrowes forge and file,
And at his fete his Bowe all redie laye,
And well his doughtir temprid all the while
The heddis in the well, and with her wile
She couchid ’hem aftir as thei should serve,
Some for to flea, and some to wound and carve.
* * * * * *
And upon pillirs grete of Jaspir long
I saw a temple of Brasse ifoundid strong.
And about the temple dauncid alwaie
Women inow, of which some there ywere
Faire of ’hemself, and some of ’hem were gaie,
In kirtils all disheveled went thei there,
That was ther office er from yere to yere,
And on the temple sawe I white and faire
Of dovis sittyng many a thousande paire."
Here we have Cupid forging his arrows, the woodland, the streams, the music of instruments and birds, the frolics of deer and other animals; and women enow. In a word, the island of Venus is here sketched out, yet Chaucer was never translated into Latin or any language of the continent, nor did Camoëns understand a line of English. The subject was common, and the same poetical feelings in Chaucer and Camoëns pointed out to each what were the beauties of landscapes and of bowers devoted to pleasure.
Yet, though the fiction of bowers, of islands, and palaces, was no novelty in poetry, much, however, remains to be attributed to the poetical powers and invention of Camoëns. The island of Venus contains, of all others, by much the completest gradation, and fullest assemblage of that species of luxuriant painting. Nothing in the older writers is equal to it in fulness. Nor can the island of Armida, in Tasso, be compared to it, in poetical embroidery or passionate expression; though Tasso as undoubtedly built upon the model of Camoëns, as Spenser appropriated the imagery of Tasso when he described the bower of Acrasia, part of which he has literally translated
from the Italian poet. The beautiful fictions of Armida and Acrasia, however, are much too long to be here inserted, and they are well known to every reader of taste.
But the chief praise of our poet is yet unmentioned. The introduction of so beautiful a fiction as an essential part of the conduct and machinery of an epic poem, does the greatest honour to the invention of Camoëns. The machinery of the former part of the poem not only acquires dignity, but is completed by it. And the conduct of Homer and Virgil has, in this, not only received a fine imitation, but a masterly contrast. In the finest allegory the heroes of the Lusiad receive their reward; and, by means of this allegory, our poet gives a noble imitation of the noblest part of the Æneid. In the tenth Lusiad, GAMA and his heroes hear the nymphs in the divine palace of Thetis sing the triumphs of their countrymen in the conquest of India: after this the goddess shows GAMA a view of the eastern world, from the Cape of Good Hope to the furthest islands of Japan. She poetically describes every region, and the principal islands, and concludes, "All these are given to the western world by you." It is impossible any poem can be summed up with greater sublimity. The Fall of Troy is nothing to this. Nor is this all: the most masterly fiction, finest compliment, and ultimate purpose of the Æneid is not only nobly imitated, but the conduct of Homer, in concluding the Iliad, as already observed, is paralleled, without one circumstance being borrowed. Poetical conduct cannot possibly bear a stronger resemblance, than the reward of the heroes of the Lusiad, the prophetic song, and the vision shown to GAMA bear to the games at the funeral of Patroclus and the redemption of the body of Hector, considered as the completion of the anger of Achilles, the subject of the Iliad. Nor is it a greater honour to resemble a Homer and a Virgil, than it is to be resembled by a Milton. Milton certainly heard of Fanshaw’s translation of the Lusiad, though he might never have seen the original, for it was published fourteen years before he gave his Paradise Lost to the world. But, whatever he knew of it, had the last book of the Lusiad been two thousand years known to the learned, every one would have owned that the two last books of the Paradise Lost were evidently formed upon it. But whether Milton borrowed any hint from Camoëns is of little consequence. That the genius of the great Milton suggested the conclusion of his immortal poem in the manner and with the machinery of the Lusiad, is enough. It is enough that the part of Michael and Adam in the two last books of the Paradise Lost are, in point of conduct, exactly the same with the part of Thetis and GAMA in the conclusion of the Lusiad. Yet, this difference must be observed; in the narrative of his last book, Milton has flagged, as Addison calls it, and fallen infinitely short of the untired spirit of the Portuguese poet.
END OF THE NINTH BOOK.