The Presence of Camoes: Influences on the Literature of England, America, and Southern Africa.
The opening epigraph from Fernando Pessoa could not have been better chosen to head this important new book by George Monteiro: "Valeu a pena? Tudo vale a pena / Sea alma nao e pequena." Indeed, The Presence of Carafes not only proves that "all is worthwhile if the spirit is not narrow," but in its great reach and scope it also attests to the author's own breadth of spirit and depth of knowledge. Monteiro ambitiously declares his subject to be "the literary history made in England, America, and Southern Africa by those poets and romancers who were at times influenced by Camoes's epic and lyrical poetry . . ." (4). Luis Vaz de Camoes (1524?-1580), Portugal's preeminent poet and one of the "great epic poets of the grand Western tradition" (1), even if not as well known as other great figures of world literature, "has always had the respect of poets and scholars" (1). Consequently, the number of authors who have at times been influenced by Cam_es's poetry is vast, and Monteiro focuses on a number of important writers: Tasso, William Hayley, Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Poe, Melville, Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Roy Campbell, among others. The dangers in such an enterprise are clear and multiple. Given the wide range of materials treated, from the sixteenth century to the present, across genre, linguistic, and national borders, one could easily have become lost or submerged in a plethora of minutiae. That this is never the case, as Monteiro skillfully weaves an immense array of details into essays that are as compelling to read as they are informative, is one of the book's strengths.
Not all of the writers considered had direct knowledge of Camoes or of his poetry, and thus the careful tracing of the ways by which individual writers come to be attracted by the figure of Camoes is crucial. In the first chapter, "Tasso's Legacy," Monteiro discusses the earliest English translations of Camoes's poetry, by Sir Richard Fanshawe (1655) and William Julius Mickle (1776), and how both already included in their volumes Tasso's poem on Camoes. Monteiro points out how in his sonnet Tasso separates the figure of Vasco da Gama - the hero of Camoes's epic, who led the first Portuguese fleet into India - from Camoes himself. Attention to this is important, since for many writers, especially the Romantics, it would be the figure of Camoes that would hold the greatest appeal (13). The second chapter, "William Hayley's Patronage," identifies Hayley's role in disseminating interest in both Camoes's epic and lyrical poetry, and as having commissioned Blake to execute a portrait of Camoes. Perhaps the weakest chapter in the book, it nonetheless includes details on how Blake went about his task and discusses Hayley's influence on Joel Barlow, drawing a parallel between the figure of Adamastor in Camoes's The Lusiad and the figure of Atlas in Barlow's Columbiad (23-25).
Adamastor, the giant who appears to sailors as they attempt to round the Cape of Good Hope, is an important element in Camoes's epic. As Monteiro notes, "[t]he symbolic figure of Adamastor has come to stand for many things. It begins as the symbol of African threat and danger to the European sailor, transforms itself into the symbol of the European menace to Africa itself, and finally into the symbol of Africa itself exploited by outsiders" (121). Thus, it comes as no surprise that it would have been Adamastor and not Gama, who would have held interest for South African writers. In the last chapter, "The Adamastor Story," Monteiro briefly comments on the uses made of Adamastor by Thomas Pringle and John Wheatley in the nineteenth century before focusing on the work of Roy Campbell and David Wright. That the importance of this figure for reassessments of literature centered on issues of colonialism and postcolonialism is inescapable. One pointed question is raised when Monteiro notes that Stephen Gray "opens his 1989 edition of the Penguin Book of South African Verse with the Adamastor episode (Canto V) of Camoes's Os Lus'adas" (125) and concludes that "it is the Adamastor myth's lasting influence on Southern African poetry - with its accrual of Euro-colonialist baggage on both sides of the African question - that justifies including Canto V of Os Lus'adas in this selection of Southern African verse and turning Camoes into a Southern African poet . . ." (128). Monteiro is clearly aware of the ideological ramifications of the Adamastor figure and its implications - some of which are explored in two recent articles: Quint 1933 and Lipking 1996. However, Monteiro's focus here remains on exposing the varied influence that Camoes exerted, rather than on analyzing in depth its transformations. As he asserts, in reference to the relationship between Melville and Camoes, a subject that has already received critical attention, "there is still much to be done" (53).
In "Melville's Figural Artist," Monteiro outlines five main points that attest to the influence of Camoes on Melville: Jack Chase's admonition in White Jacket, "'For the last time, hear Camoens, boys!'" (51); continuous references and allusions in Moby Dick; other references scattered through his works; copies of translations of Camoes's poetry among the works in Melville's personal library; and "as culminating evidence," Melville's "'Camoens,' a poem made up of paired sonnets entitled 'Camoens' and 'Camoens in the Hospital'" (51). Monteiro notes that just as Camoes's epic, inasmuch as it can be characterized as "an epic of commerce" (9), would appeal to Melville who "attempted, by focusing on whaling, to write the great American Epic Poem of Commerce" (53). But this is one of several leads that he decides not to pursue, in order to focus rather on the relationship between the two poets, asserting that Melville's difficulties made him identify with the sufferings of Camoes. This chapter also demonstrates Monteiro's extensive scholarship: the discussion of the poem in question (a facsimile of the manuscript is included), is both innovative and revealing, provoking a variety of questions on how one views Melville and Melville's own Romantic view of himself "as a member of the pantheon of the great epic writers who in their own time have not been decently treated or adequately appreciated" (69).
If there is a center to the book, it might well be the third chapter, on "Elizabeth Barrett's Central Poem." Here, too, Monteiro approaches the two poets through a perspective that focuses on their personal relationship, with fascinating results. The poem in question is "Catarina to Camoens," first published in 1843, admired throughout the nineteenth century, especially by poets, including Emily Dickinson (1996, 26). The way in which Monteiro traces the influence of one of its lines, "Sweetest eyes, were ever seen" (itself adapted from the English translation of one of Camoes's Spanish sonnets) on a number of other writers, from Emily Dickinson to Poe, Melville, and Elizabeth Bishop, is both a brilliant display of intertextual study as well as the book's own leitmotif. For this is also a book about poets, written by a poet, and one of the many gifts it brings to its readers is a collection of English versions of one of Camoes's celebrated poems, "Alma Minha Gentil," including one by George Monteiro himself, to whom one could well apply two lines from Rilke: "All the things to which I give myself / Grow rich and spend me."
Lipking Lawrence. 1996. The genius of the shore: Lycidas, Adamastor, and the poetics of nationalism. PMLA.
Quint, David. 1993. Voices of resistance: The epic curse and Camoes's Adamastor. In New World Encounters, ed. Stephen Greenblatt.
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|Author:||De Medeiros, Paulo|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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