The Laureate of Hard Luck: ‘The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões’

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In its great century, Portugal commanded an empire extending from Brazil to India. Vasco da Gama reached the coast of India in 1498, and in 1500 Pedro Cabral first sighted Brazil. But the imperial glory was short-lived. In 1580, Philip II of Spain invaded and added Portugal to his kingdom, where it remained unhappily for another 60 years.

But Portugal lost more than its independence in that year. For in 1580, Luís de Camões, later acclaimed as the national poet, died in Lisbon and was cast along with other victims of the plague into a common grave. In “The Lusiads,” his great epic of a new world, Camões immortalized the exploits of da Gama, to whom he was distantly related, while in hundreds of shorter poems, he griped — and griped beautifully — about his own disastrous life. To be the national poet of Portugal, the country where the melancholy “fado” was born, is perhaps inevitably to be a laureate of hard luck.

In the introduction to “The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões” (Princeton, 367 pages, $19.95), translator Landeg White sums up the calamities this ill-starred poet endured. He lost his left eye during combat in Morocco. A few years later, he stabbed a courtier in a brawl; for this he was jailed, fined, and then shipped out as a common soldier to India. Later, posted to Macau, he became the official imperial “Trustee for the Dead and Absent,” an ideal job for a specialist in lament. He was soon fired for embezzlement and booted out, only to have his ship sink at the mouth of the Mekong River; he swam ashore clutching the manuscript of his epic poem in progress. Jailed again, this time in Goa, he finally made it to Mozambique, stranded and penniless. When at long last he returned to Lisbon, in 1570, plague was ravaging the city.

In his many sonnets, songs, elegies, and odes, Camões turned his miseries into music. He was a swashbuckler with a penchant for kvetching; he was “ever restless, restless, craving rest,” as Herman Melville, who loved his work, said in a tribute. And the worse the disaster, the more glittering the verse he drew from it. In one sonnet, echoing Job, he curses the day of his birth as (in Mr. White’s translation), “that black, terminal day I was born” and says, “let it be expunged from the almanac.” If the curse rings a bit hollow, that isn’t only because the poet revels so boisterously in anathema, but because in such poems there’s a fierce tension between the rawness of the sentiment and the elegance of the form. This may strike a modern reader as insincere. But for a contemporary reader, that very tension — the deft collision of passion and artifice — gave the poem its charm.

To translate such poetry well is difficult, if not impossible. Mr. White has raised the stakes by taking on all of Camões’s lyric poems and attempting to render them into credible English verse. Though “The Lusiads” has been translated into English several times, from the 16th century onward, no translator has been ambitious — or foolhardy — enough to tackle the entire huge body of shorter poems, beautiful as they are. In 1997, Mr. White published his brilliant version of “The Lusiads” (available in Oxford’s World Classics series), and it is easily the best modern translation of the epic. Here, sad to say, his ambition has exceeded his grasp.

In one sonnet, Camões speaks of his “deranged, harmonious verses,” an apt description. In Mr. White’s translations, the derangement is much in evidence, but not the harmony. This comes largely from his decision to use what he calls “a relatively relaxed rhyme scheme.” In practice, this means that pretty much anything goes; Mr. White believes that “the merest echo of a vowel or a consonant” will do for a rhyme. This causes him to snatch at such echoes stubbornly, no matter how thuddingly they fall on the ear: “manacles” doesn’t really rhyme with “mechanical” for all their “echoes.” Sometimes the effect is unintentionally comical:

The sun itself is dazzled

when you shake loose your tresses;

but there’s some are unimpressed,

reckoning they look frizzy.

But in faith it seems crazy…

Mr. White’s pursuit of echoes skews his diction and leads him to break his lines in odd ways, as when he begins one eclogue with “The sweet ballads, sung by the half- / goats that live in the mountains / and are the lovers of the wood nymphs.” When “half” and “nymphs” can be considered a rhyme, or even an echo, you begin to wonder which half of the goat is doing the singing.

Two earlier translations, though more limited in scope, give a better sense of Camões’s true distinction. In William Baer’s superb “Luís de Camões: Selected Sonnets” of 2005 (University of Chicago Press) and in Keith Bosley’s lively “Luís de Camões: Epic and Lyric,” published by Carcanet in 1990 (and still in print), the peculiar accents — at once sad and swaggering — of this most individual of poets come across.

Camões has been admired by writers as different as Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and Jorge Luis Borges. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was inspired by his example to compose her “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” but Melville caught his elusive genius best. Sounding a mischievous echo all his own, Melville wrote that Camões’s poems moved “in ordered ardor.”

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