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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

242. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [c. August 1797] ⁠* 

WHOEVER has read the Lusiad only in Mr. MICKLE’s poem, [1]  must conceive a pomp and luxuriance of description to be the characteristic excellence of Camoens: [2] 

Now from the Moorish town the sheets of fire,
Wide blaze succeeding blaze, to heaven aspire;
Black rise the clouds of smoke, and, by the gales
Borne down, in streams hang hovering o’er the vales,
And slowly floating round the mountain’s head,
Their pitchy mantle o’er the landscape spread.
Unnumber’d sea-fowl rising from the shore,
Beat round in whirls at every cannon’s roar;
Where o’er the smoke the masts’ tall heads appear,
Hovering they scream, then dart with sudden fear,
On trembling wings far round and round they fly,
And fill, with dismal clang, their native sky. [3] 

These lines are very beautiful, but not a single image contained in them is to be found in the Portuguese; there is scarcely a passage in the translation from which similar instances might not be produced. “He who can construe (says Mr. Mickle) 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 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, in these pages, appear with a good grace. He shall only add, in this new edition, that some of the most eminent of the Portuguese literati, both in England and on the continent, have approved of these freedoms, and the original is in the hands of the world.” In the note to this passage, he points out two of these farther liberties; one of them trifling, the other of importance; and adds, “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.” [4] 

And Mr. Mickle certainly has produced a poem that will live in the English language, and that well deserves to live. The Orlando Innamorato [5]  is better known as the poem of the reversifier than of the author, but Mr. Mickle has done more for Camoens than Berni did for Boardo. [6]  They who have read Sir Martyn, [7]  know what powers of description he possessed; I instance this poem, for Almada [8]  still is unworthy of his genius: those powers he has unsparingly employed to ornament the Lusiad. A single stanza* [9]  of Camoens is dilated in the translation into twenty lines; and to this dilation it is indebted for all its merit. The note says, “Camoens, in this passage, has imitated Homer, in the manner of Virgil: by diversifying the scene, he has made the description his own.” [10]  Thus has he contrived to praise himself, for no imitation can be traced in the original, yet he has, with implied censure, pointed out the interpolations of Castera, and where Fanshaw has altered a fact, though only to make it historically correct, he calls it “an unwarrantable liberty.” [11] 

However I may detract from Mr. Mickle’s merits as a faithful translator, I would give him all due praise as a poet; and a complete statement of what belongs to him, what to Camoens, would increase his reputation instead of impairing it. I never read a rhyme poem of any considerable length, that wearied me so little as the English Lusiad; the versification has the ease of Dryden without his negligence, and the harmony of Pope without his cloying sweetness.

The translator’s admiration of his author, has sometimes made him lavish commendations upon passages wholly undeserving of them. In the second book, a Moorish pilot is steering the Portuguese ships upon a ridge of rocks, from which they are saved by the sea nymphs. This, Mr. Mickle says, is in the spirit of Homer; but, whatever the allegory may be, the agency is disgustingly violent; the nymphs are represented as toiling and straining and panting to push off the vessels, and Venus, who leads them on, puts her breast against the prow of Gama’s ship, and thus thrusts it off. In the speech of Inez de Castro, he says, “the beautiful victim expresses the strong emotions of genuine nature;” [12]  now it is absurd to represent a women agitated with such agonizing terror as Inez, making a long speech: the poet, as well as the painter, should know where to draw the veil. It is the story only that has made this part of Camoens popular; when the reader pictures to himself the situation of Inez, he does not attend to the nonsense she talks about Romulus and Remus, the burning plains of Lybia, and the snow-clad rocks of Scythia’s frozen shore.

The “prince of the poets of Spain” cannot rank highly as an epic writer; but the faults of Camoens will be excused when we remember that his poems were written in difficulties, and dangers, and affliction, like our own Spencer.

“Poorly, poor man! he lived; poorly, poor man! he died,” [13] 

and, in the melancholy biography of men of letters, there is no life more melancholy than that of Camoens. Poor and persecuted in Portugal, after wasting his youth, and losing one eye, in the service of his country, he left it for the Indies, and exclaimed, as he looked back upon Lisbon from the vessel, “Ingrata patria, non possidebis ossa mea.” [14]  But though he had left Europe, he found its society and its evils at Goa, and in more than one poem he expresses his abhorrence for that Babylon, and remembers and laments the Sion he had left. The wisest of us often look back upon the days that are gone, with regret, because the little anxieties that imbittered them are forgotten; and, whilst we are alive to all the cares and disquietudes of the present, we remember only the enjoyments of the past: as the traveller looks back upon the vale that he has journeyed; its fertile extent and woods and waters are beautiful, and he remembers not with how many a weary step he traversed it.

The lines which Mr. Hastings [15]  inserted in the English Lusiad are not, I believe, generally known, and I will, therefore, conclude with them. Thetis has been prophesying the victories of Pacheco; suddenly

The lofty song, for paleness o’er her spread,
The nymph suspends, and bows the languid head;
Her falt’ring words are breath’d on plaintive sighs:
“Ah, Belisarius! injur’d chief,” she cries,
“Ah wipe thy tears; in war thy rival, see,
“Injur’d Pacheco falls despoil’d like thee;
“In him, in thee, dishonour’d Virtue bleeds,
“And Valour weeps to view her fairest deeds,
“Weeps o’er Pacheco, where forlorn he lies
“Low on an alms-house bed, and friendless lies.” [16] 

The lines of Mr. Hastings follow here:

Yet shrink not gallant Lusian, nor repine
That man’s eternal destiny is thine!
Whate’er success th’adventurous chief befriends
Fell Malice on his parting step attends:
On Britain’s candidates for Fame, await,
As now on thee, the stern decrees of Fate:
Thus are Ambition’s fondest hopes o’er-reach’d,
One dies imprison’d, and one lives impeach’d. [17] 

T. Y.


* MS: MS has not survived
Published: Monthly Magazine, 4 (August 1797), 98–100 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym‘T.Y.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 216. BACK

[1] William Julius Mickle’s (1734/5–1788; DNB) translation of The Lusiad, or, The Discovery of India was first published in 1776. The quotations that follow are from the second edition of 1778. BACK

[2] Luis Vaz de Camoëns (c. 1524–1580), author of The Lusiad (1572). BACK

[3] William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1778), p. 34. BACK

[4] William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1778), pp. ccxxiv–ccxxv. BACK

[5] Matteo Maria Boiardo (1434–1494), author of the epic Orlando Innamorato. BACK

[6] Francesco Berni (1497–1536) had completely recast Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato. BACK

[7] William Julius Mickle, Sir Martyn, a Poem, in the Manner of Spenser (1777). BACK

[8] William Julius Mickle, Almada Hill: An Epistle from Lisbon (1781). BACK

[9] *: Southey adds footnote: ‘Canto I, st. 58, of the second edition of the translation, p. 22. “Now shooting o’er the flood his fervid blaze.”’ BACK

[10] William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1778), p. 22n. BACK

[11] William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1778), p. 91n. BACK

[12] William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1778), p. 130n. BACK

[13] The description of Edmund Spenser (1552?–1599; DNB) is taken from Phineas Fletcher (1582–1650; DNB), The Purple Island, or the Isle of Man (1633), Canto 1, stanza 19, line 7. BACK

[14] The Latin translates as ‘Ungrateful fatherland, you will not possess my bones’. This was allegedly the epitaph of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236–183 BC). BACK

[15] Warren Hastings (1732–1818; DNB), Governor-General of Bengal. BACK

[16] These lines originally appeared in William Julius Mickle, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1778), p. 437, and were much admired by Warren Hastings, who republished them as the opening of his ‘Lines added by Mr. Hastings to Mickle’s Lusiad’, in An Asylum for Fugitive Pieces in Prose and Verse, 4 vols (London, 1793), IV, pp. 185–186. BACK

[17] An Asylum for Fugitive Pieces in Prose and Verse, 4 vols (London, 1797), IV, p. 186. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2009