George Edward Woodberry (essay date 1910)
SOURCE: “Camoens,” in The Inspiration of Poetry, The Macmillan Company, 1910, pp. 58-84.
[In the following essay, Woodberry describes Camões's personality and the degree to which his character and imagination inform The Lusiads and his lyric poetry.]
Camoens, the maker of the only truly modern epic, offers an illustration of poetic power which is to me one of the most interesting, although the foreignness of his subject-matter and the extraordinary lameness of its English translations make difficult obstacles to our appreciation; but for that very reason he has the happiest fortune that can fall to a poet in the fact that familiarity ever endears him the more. He is a less pure type of the flame of genius than Marlowe; poetic energy appears in him less a spiritual power dwelling in its own realm of imagination; but, on the other hand, his career admits us to a nearer view of a poet's human life, to what actually befalls the man so doubtfully endowed with that inward passion of life, in the days and weeks and years of his journey. Scarce any poet is so autobiographical in the strict sense. Others have made themselves the subject of their song; but usually, like Shelley, they exhibit an ideal self seen under imaginative lights and through the soul's atmosphere, and in these self-portraits half the lines are aspiration realized, the self they dream of; but Camoens shows in his verse as he was in life, with a naturalness and vigor, with an unconscious realism, a directness, an intensity and openness that give him to us as a comrade.
He was of the old blue blood of the Peninsula, the Gothic blood, the same that gave birth to Cervantes. He was blond, and bright-haired, with blue eyes, large and lively, the face oval and ruddy,—and in manhood the beard short and rounded, with long untrimmed mustachios,—the forehead high, the nose aquiline; in figure agile and robust; in action “quick to draw and slow to sheathe,” and when he was young, he writes that he had seen the heels of many, but none had seen his heels. Born about the year 1524, of a noble and well-connected family, educated at Coimbra, a university famous for the classics, and launched in life about the court at Lisbon, he was no sooner his own master than he fell into troubles. He was a lover born, and the name of his lady, Caterina, is the first that emerges in his life; for such Romeo-daring he was banished from court when he was about twenty, whether after a duel or a stolen interview is uncertain; and on his return, since he continued faithful to his lady, he was sent into Africa, and in an engagement with pirates in the Straits of Gibraltar he lost his right eye. He fought the Moors for three years until he was twenty-five, and returning to Lisbon, enlisted for the Indies; but in consequence of a street affair with swords in which he drew in defence of some masked ladies and unfortunately wounded a palace servant, he was held in prison three years. Eleven days after his release he sailed, and it is not unlikely that his sailing was a condition of his release. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and came to India, where he served in campaigns and garrison, and occasionally held official appointments, and from time to time fell into prison. He cleared himself from all charges of wrong-doing in office; but he was of the type that makes both enemies and friends. He was outspoken, and he indulged his mood in satire, a dangerous employment in the narrowness of colonial and army life. On the other hand, he was a brave and gentle comrade and delighted in manly traits; and so there was a round of companions in arms to whom he was dear. He served far and wide, fought on the coasts of the Red Sea, wintered in Ormuz in the Persian Gulf, spent some years in China, and seems to have visited the Malay islands; once he was shipwrecked on the Chinese coast. It is clear that he roamed the Orient on all the lines of travel and enterprise, of commerce and war, wherever the Portuguese ships could sail, and bore throughout the name and character of a gentleman-adventurer of that world, a daring, enterprising, hopeful, unfortunate, and often distressed man.
Sixteen years of his manhood passed in these toils,—
In one hand aye the Sword, in one the Pen,
—along the tropical seas and under the alien skies; for from the first, even before in his youth he planted a lance in Africa, he had held to his breast that little manuscript book where year by year, on the deck and the gun-breech, in his grotto at Macao, in prison, wherever he might be and under whatever aspect of fortune, he wrote down the growing lines of that poem which is now the chief glory of his native land. When he was shipwrecked in China, he lost the little store of gold that he had accumulated in the office which he was recalled from, but he held safe this book,—
In his embrace the song that swam to land From sad and piteous shipwreck dripping wet 'Scaped from the reefs and rocks that fang the strand.
Now, after sixteen years, nostalgia, not simple homesickness, but the nostalgia of him who fares forth into the world and voyages long in stranger-lands, had fallen on him, and was heavy in all his spirit. He had left Portugal, indignantly saying that his country should not possess his bones; but he had long changed this temper,—
Tagus yet pealeth with the passion caught From the wild cry he flung across the sea;—
all his hopes had really rested on the honor of the song he had built up for the glory of Portugal, and while everything else that men name success faded away and escaped him, with this poem surely he would find welcome home. He stopped at Mozambique with the captain governor, and when he wished to continue his voyage, this officer, who was his host, consigned him to prison for a debt due himself, a small sum. Soon afterwards, however, a ship came by, with a dozen of Camoens' old messmates and friends, veterans, and they contributed the money for his release. So, says the old biographer, “were simultaneously sold the person of Camoens and the honor of Pedro Barreto” for £25. With these friends Camoens sailed homeward, and arrived safely, but not to find prosperity. It was three years before his book was published; and he received for reward only a pension of about one hundred dollars in our money at its present worth, and this was not often paid. The entire eight years of his life at Lisbon were filled with such poverty and distress as we remember of the last dying days of Spenser and Chatterton. He lived some part of this time in a religious house, that is, an alms-house; at other times his Javanese servant, who had stayed with him, begged food for him at night, but the faithful servant died before his wretched master. Even among the poets few have been so homeless and destitute as Camoens in his life's end, now going about on crutches and suffering the last sad effects of a hard-faring life. It was the moment just before his death when the power of Portugal was extinguished on the battle-field by Philip of Spain: “I die,” he wrote to a friend, “not only in my country, but with it.” The time of his death is uncertain, but he was about fifty-five years old. He died in a hospital. “I saw him die,” says an old Carmelite brother, “in the hospital of Lisbon, without a sheet where-with to cover himself.” Such in its external events was the life-story of Camoens.
If one throws upon this harsh narrative the light that flows from Camoens' poetry, the lines are softened in the retrospect; the hardship and misfortune are seen in that atmosphere of melancholy that pervades his strong verse and blends with it, as tenderness companions valor in the man himself. To see properly the phases of his genius, one should glance first at the lyrical works, and especially the sonnets, that preceded and accompanied the heroic verse of the epic. From his student days at the university, unlike Marlowe, he was the heir of a developed art, and in all his work is seen the fair background of the poetic tradition,—in the epic the forms of old mythology, and in the lyrics the Italian example of Petrarch. To him his lady Caterina was what Petrarch's Laura had been, an ideal of hopeless and pure passion. Her personality is not definitely known, but she married and died while still young. Though in his sonnets to her Camoens followed the poetic tradition, the reality of his devotion cannot be doubted in its inception; and in its continuance through the years of his youth, and especially of his long exile in the Orient, this ideal passion stood for him, at least, as the sign and certainty of his first failure—his failure in love. It became, perhaps, after long and hopeless years simply the cry of his imagination, but it had its original being in the call of the heart. Very sweet and noble, though conventional, is his early pleading:—
Beautiful eyes, whereof the sunny sphere When most with cloudless clarity of light The infinite expanse he maketh bright, Doubting to be eclipsed, doth stand in fear: If I am held in scorn who hold you dear, Then, having of all things such perfect sight, Consider this thing too, that mortal night To cover up your beauty draweth near. Gather, O gather with unstaying hand, The fruits that must together gathered be, Occasion ripe, and Passion's clasp divine. And, since by you I live and die, command Love, that he yield his tribute unto me, Who unto you have freely yielded mine.
After years of vain castle-building during which he seemed his “own sorrow's architect,” and in that wide roaming which he describes,—
Now scattering my music as I pass, The world I range,—
he still kept true to the lover's creed:—
All evils Love can wreak behold in me, In whom the utmost of his power malign He willed unto the world to manifest: But I, like him, would have these things to be. Lifted by woe to ecstasy divine, I would not change for all the world possest.
When his lady died, he lifted his prayer in his loveliest and most famous sonnet:—
Soul of my soul, that didst so early wing From our poor world thou heldest in disdain, Bound be I ever to my mortal pain, So thou hast peace before the Eternal King! If to the realms where thou dost soar and sing Remembrance of aught earthly may attain, Forget not the deep love thou did'st so fain Discover my fond eyes inhabiting. And if my yearning heart unsatisfied, And pang on earth incurable have might To profit thee and me, pour multiplied Thy meek entreaties to the Lord of Light, That swiftly He would raise me to thy side, As suddenly He rapt thee from my sight.
In these sonnets and other lyrical poems the poet is hardly more personal than in the heroic epic, but his personality is more exclusively felt, and the topics are not confined to his love. The most lasting impression made is of the passing of hope out of his life. Camoens was one of those souls who are great in hope; and he often bent upon the past reverted eyes, and drew the sum of his losses, ending in that refrain—
For Death and Disenchantment all was made— Woe unto all that hope! to all that trust!
The vein of melancholy in the lyrical poems opens the tenderness of Camoens, and perhaps the softer note is somewhat overcharged in these admirable but rather Italianated versions of Dr. Garnett's that I have used; life-weariness and profound discouragement, indeed, there is in them; but they are not the simple outflow of a Petrarchan lover's complaint, but the sorrows of a much-toiling man; for Camoens was both sailor and soldier, and as natural to those ways of labor as to the handling of the lute. The voyage, the march, and the battle made up the larger part of his life.
This opens the second trait to be observed in the phases of his development, namely, his absorption of the patriotic vitality of his country. It is true that he inherited a developed and conventionalized art, and had always that fair background of classical figures and Italian atmosphere which were his portion of the Renaissance; but the Renaissance was rather like a little mountain city where he was born and drank his youth; he did not abide there, but came down into the great modern world that was then to be,—the world of the waste of waters and the spreading empires. Portugal played a great part in that age which broke the horizon bars and passed the western and the eastern limit of the sun alike, and made the fleets as free of the ocean as the sea-birds of every wandering wave. Camoens was to make this the great theme of his song,—the ocean fame of Portugal. But he was inducted into his passion of patriotism by natural ways, before the glory of the ocean discoveries was fully opened in his mind. Portugal, you remember, was the child of battle, born of the conflict of the...
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