Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. He researches the life and work of Victorian novelists and journalists George W.M. Reynolds and Pierce Egan the Younger and has also published extensively on late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century antiquarianism.
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain was the age of antiquarianism. Amateur historians and literary critics such as Thomas Percy (1729–1811) and Joseph Ritson (1752–1803) were known throughout the British Isles as the men who ‘rediscovered’ the ‘ancient’ vernacular cultures of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
Ritson of course is familiar to readers of this website for having been the man who published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) which introduced modern audiences to the fifteenth-century Gest of Robyn Hode poem.
Ritson’s research focused purely on medieval and early modern English literature. But late eighteenth-century antiquaries did cast their nets further afield and several of them examined the literature of far-flung places. Percy, for example, published Miscellaneous Pieces Relating to the Chinese (1762), which introduced historical Chinese literature to English audiences. In 1785, Warren Hastings, de facto Governor-General of India, sponsored the first English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita.
Some antiquaries turned their attention to Portugal and began researching the historic literature of that nation. One was such man was John Adamson who, at his home in Newcastle, amassed an extensive library of ancient Portuguese-language books, manuscripts, and maps that dated from the 1400s to the 1800s. There were over a thousand items in Adamson’s collection and a catalogue of them was published as Bibliotheca Lusitana (1836).
Viscount Strangford: Aristocratic Antiquary
Many of the men listed above were of middling rank. Percy was a bishop. Ritson was a lawyer. An interest in literature and culture was a marker of good taste for those who aspired to be members of polite society. Unsurprisingly, however, amateur antiquarianism was the preserve of the British aristocracy who were especially interested in European history and heritage.
One man who fitted the above description was Percy Smythe, 6th Viscount Strangford (1780–1855). Educated, like many scions of the aristocracy, at a public school, he then went on to university. After this, Strangford became a diplomat for the British government and his first overseas appointment was as plenipotentiary to the Portuguese government in 1806.
Luis de Camões
At some point in the early 1800s, before he was appointed as ambassador to Portugal, Strangford became acquainted with the works of a man who might justifiably be called the ‘Portuguese Shakespeare’: the poet Luis de Camões (1524–80).
Camões had an interesting and varied life. As Strangford stated,
Its vicissitudes were so many and so various, as almost to encourage a belief, that in describing them, the deficiencies of fact were sometimes supplied by the pencil of romance.
Born in Lisbon c.1524, Camões’s father drowned in a shipwreck and he was raised by his mother. He was sent to the University of Coimbra where he was tutored in the classics. Fond of a good life and the odd brawl, in 1552 Camões challenged Gonçalo Borges to a duel. Borges was wounded in the duel, though not fatally, but unfortunately for Camões, Borges was Keeper of the King’s Harness.
Camões was subsequently imprisoned. He was later released on the condition that he serve the Portuguese Empire abroad. So off he went, and his travels took him to Africa and India, where the Portuguese had established a foothold.
It was Camões’s time spent at sea and in the Portuguese overseas territories that influenced his epic poem Os Lusiadas, or as it is called in English: The Lusiads (1572). Os Lusiadas is an account of Vasco da Gama’s voyages, written in the style of the Aeneid, and is meant to showcase Portugal’s contribution to world culture as the first global, seafaring empire.
By Strangford’s time, translations of Camões’s Os Lusiadas had been available for some time. Richard Fanshaw’s translation, titled The Lusiad; or, Portugals Historicall Poem [sic], was published in 1655 and several English translations have been published since, with one appearing in the Victorian era, and several in the twentieth century.
Yet Camões wrote much more than Os Lusiadas. What Strangford wanted to do was translate Camões’s little-known (in English at least) sonnets, and the result was Poems, from the Portuguese of Luis de Camoens, published in 1803 (presumably the change to ‘Camoens’ instead of Camões was Strangford’s decision, who probably decided that the change in spelling would have allowed English readers to pronounce it in a similar manner to how the Portuguese pronounced it).
A ‘Free’ Translation
Strangford’s book was not a scholarly translation of Camões’s sonnets, so in this respect Strangford differs from his fellow antiquary Ritson who produced painstakingly accurate transcriptions, for fellow scholars, of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poems.
Instead Strangford recommended his anthology for
‘the amusement of a young mind’.
For this reason, Strangford declared that his translations were
‘True to his sense—but truer to his fame’.
In other words, it was a ‘free’ translation, and in producing his volume Strangford sought the help of his fellow Irishman: the aforementioned Thomas Percy.
Strangford’s translation of Camões’s ‘Canzon’, for example, sounds wonderful to the English ear—a little too good, perhaps, as it rhymes perfectly and is very ‘smooth’. Below, then, we have Strangford’s voice as much as we have that of Camões:
Canst thou forget the silent tears
Which I have shed for thee?
And all the pangs, and doubts, and fears,
Which scatter’d o’er my bloom of years
The blights of misery?
I never close my languid eye
Unless to dream of thee;
My every breath is but the sigh,
My every sound the broken cry
Of lasting misery.
O, when in boyhood’s happier scene
I pledg’d my love to thee,
How very little did I ween
My recompense should now have been
So much of misery!
There may have been some issues between Strangford and the publisher. The book was initially advertised in newspapers in April 1803, when readers were told that the book, printed by J. Carpenter, would be ready for sale in May.
Yet the book did not appear for sale until November 1803. As to why there was such a long delay we can only speculate; authors and publishers were forever falling out, or perhaps there was a paper shortage.
Nevertheless, what appeared on booksellers’ stalls in November 1803 was a neat little octavo volume (my copy of Strangford’s volume measures L 17cm x W 10cm). It was small enough to be the type of book that one might take with them to pass the time on a long carriage ride. It was pricey, however, and retailed at seven shillings. At a time when a labourer might earn only nine shillings per week, a purchaser would have needed to be of at least lower middle-class status and income level to enjoy it.
Immediately after its publication an American weekly periodical named the Port Folio (which specialised in reprinting snippets of the latest foreign literary works) reprinted Strangford’s short biography of Camões from the beginning of the volume, as well as some of the sonnets.
The books seems to have earned Strangford respect in Portugal with the Portuguese general public and the royal family who admired Strangford’s translation, so the Morning Post reported in December 1807. The Morning Post was reporting on Strangford’s activities because it was Strangford who had helped to arrange to the flight of the Portuguese king, Dom João VI, to Brazil in November 1807 when Napoleon invaded.
The Morning Post had nothing but praise for Strangford’s literary labours, but Lord Byron took a different view. In 1824, Byron cynically remarked that Strangford only bothered to translate the poems because he wanted to prove he was competent in a foreign language and get an ambassadorial role. This may or may not be true, although it does not necessarily prevent modern readers from admiring Strangford’s work. Yet Byron also said, without any evidence it must be said, that most of the translations were probably not written by Strangford but by Strangford’s fellow Irishman Thomas Moore.
We leave Lord Byron in peace with his cynicism. Strangford’s translations were not scholarly but were intended as an introduction to Portugal’s brilliant national poet, and it was certainly admired by others. It was Strangford’s book that influenced Elizabeth Barret Browning to write the poem ‘Catarina to Camoens’ in 1843, and later, between 1845 and 1846, a collection of poems titled Sonnets from the Portuguese, which was later published in 1851.
 See my recent book: Stephen Basdeo, Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson—Gentleman, Scholar, and Revolutionary (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021), ch. 3.
 See Mary S. Millar, Disraeli’s Disciple: The Scandalous Life of George Smythe (University of Toronto Press, 2006), 192
 Percy Smythe, ‘Remarks on the Life and Writings of Camoens’, in Poems, from the Portuguese of Luis de Camoens; with Remarks on his Life and Writings. Notes, &c. &c., Trans. Percy Smythe (London: J. Carpenter, 1803), i.
 Landeg White, ‘Introduction’, in Luis Vas de Camões: The Lusiads, Trans. Landeg White, 3rd edn (Oxford University Press, 2008), i.
 See J.J. Aubertin, Trans. Os Lusiadas de Luis de Camões (London, 1884)
 See Leonard Bacon, Trans. The Lusiads of Luis de Camões (New York, 1950); William C. Atkinson, Trans. Luis Vaz de Camões (London, 1952); Keith Bosley, Trans. Luis de Camões: Epic and Lyric (Manchester University Press, 1990).
 Smythe, ‘Introduction’, 31.
 ‘Early in May will be Published’, Morning Post, 14 April 1803, 1.
 ‘This Day is Published’, Morning Post, 5 November 1803, 1.
 Norwood Andrews, Jr. ‘Toward an Understanding of Camões’ Presence as a Lyric Poet in the Nineteenth-Century American Press’, Luso-Brazilian Review, 17: 2 (1980), 171–85 (171).
 ‘Foreign Intelligence’, Morning Post, 1 December 1807, 3.
 ‘Lord Byron’s Conversatons’, Morning Post, 25 October 1824, 5.