Essay: Robert Frost, Vasco da Gama and Columbus – By George Monteiro

Posted on 20 January 2014.

By George Monteiro, Contributor (*)

The story of the poet Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) considerations on the subject of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama as great historical voyagers begins with a brief account of the relationship between Frost and the poet-translator Leonard Bacon (1887-1954), whose last major work was a fine translation of Camões’s Os Lusíadas in 1950.

Bacon is now largely forgotten. In his day, however, he was a highly-regarded and widely published writer. Frost himself considered him to be among the half-dozen or so leading American poets of his day. In an interview conducted during Frost’s attendance at the World Congress of Writers held in Brazil and published in the daily O Estado de São Paulo on August 18, 1954, Frost names the leading young poets of the United States. “Besides her [Elizabeth Bishop], I could mention other individuals of great worth in the younger generation, like Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Leonard Bacon.” Incidentally, apart from the recognition it confers, Bacon’s inclusion in this list is puzzling, especially so a half century later, for two principal reasons. First, Bacon was much older than any one of the other four poets mentioned (actually he was Frost’s junior by only thirteen years), and second, Frost appears not to know that Bacon had died at the start of the year at the age of sixty-six.

The respect and admiration that Bacon, still Camões’s best American translator, had for Frost was unabated and often expressed. He considered his fellow New Englander to be the best American poet of his time bar none. In 1936 Bacon dedicated his volume of satirical poetry Rhyme and Punishment to Frost. In reply Frost sent him a playful letter-poem, in expression, as he said, “[of the] moral satisfaction not to say pleasure I took in your punishing rhymes.” Frost continues:

I can see you feel pretty much as I do about these provocative times.
Neither of us would be driven to drink by them nor to suicide, but that we find them rather too diverting from our preferred pursuits cannot be denied.
Still we wouldn’t have missed them, would we, by any of the close calls we have ever had?
For my part I have got more out of the last four years perhaps than out of any previous Olympiad.

The Saturday Review of Literature of January 4, 1947

The Saturday Review of Literature
of January 4, 1947

The tone of the obvious reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first years of his Democratic Party’s New Deal administration is indicative of what Frost took to be his and Bacon’s “almost absolute unanimity” in politics and literature. Bacon was also responsible for two rave notices of Frost’s A Masque of Reason (1945) and of his Steeple Bush (1947), both reviews appearing in the widely read weekly journal The Saturday Review of Literature.

Bacon had first met Frost in Franconia, New Hampshire, through the agency of Frost’s summer neighbors, the Reverend and Mrs. J. Warner Fobes, who owned property behind the Frost farm and were related to the Bacons. What Frost came to mean to the younger poet can be put into perspective by adducing Bacon’s handsome tribute to Frost’s in Semi-Centennial, his sprightly expressed autobiographical volume covering his first fifty years and published in 1939:

BaconThere is something profoundly comic to me in my own sight that I sat on a Pulitzer jury which saw a book by Robert Frost and found it good. Robert Frost is the tree in our wood. He is the crag on our hill. He is there. We need not argue, though it appears that it ought to be done. Bernard De Voto and I do not dig with the same foot on many questions. But when he smote the heathen that had undertaken to tell Frost off, a combination of Beaumont and Fletcher and the Siamese Twins could not have been more of one mind than De Voto and I. Three scorpion sentences of De Voto’s made very one of those criticasters hunt his hole. Their mere existence is pretty good evidence that there is no design in nature. No conscious mind would have created them intentionally. Frost is not only the best poet in America. He is also the wisest man. This is not an unsupported statement, such as comes easily to the lips of admiration. Others, exercised in matters unconnected with literature, have made the observation. Ample proof could be adduced. I saw the effects, curiously enough, at a dinner given in Frost’s honor by the Poetry Society of America. Now that society, like other mutual insurance companies, isn’t too terribly attractive. It is full of envy, hatred, and all uncharitableness, of egotisms under imperfect control, of peacock vanities, of factitious humilities. To a mob of the disappointed and self-conscious, Frost made a speech every word of which was Dicthtung and Wahrheit. In the pretentious hotel ballroom that fancied it was in the manner of Versailles, there was such a silence as when an oration is pronounced at the funeral of a hero. All faces grew gentler, yet they were intent, too, and transfigured, as I have seen the faces of commonplace musicians at a great recital. Mr. Skylark’s countenance had lost its look of spiritual esurience. And Miss Nightingale for the moment had forgotten both her gift of song and her taste in dress, each of which leaves something to be desired. Whatever was real in persons, who have, by the conditions of modern life, been especially compelled to act artificially, came to the surface and most attractively. One saw that they could be liked. The spell that Merlin wove was like nothing I have ever experienced, except once in Zürich when Jung rose up in a chariot of fire beyond the excellence to which he has accustomed us. And as if the wisdom were not enough, there was something as wild as a brook about the performance. It was the first and only time that I have seen three hundred people visibly troubled, when they perceived that the speaker of the evening was about to make an end.I have praised the man. It is unnecessary to praise his poetry. I might as well praise Passaconaway and compliment Chocorua, ancient and noble hills, which are likely to remain, whatever may be said of them.

Given Bacon’s esteem and respect for Frost, then, it is not surprising that he was among the first recipients of a copy of Bacon’s translation of Os Lusíadas in 1950. Bacon’s work, published by the Hispanic Society of America in New York, was the final result of his having been immediately taken, while still in his early twenties, he confessed elsewhere, with eight lines of Camões’s poem quoted in the original in a footnote by John Fiske in a footnote in the first volume of his popular history The Discovery of America, first published in 1872. Here is Fiske’s footnote:

The greatest of Portuguese poets represents the Genius of the Cape as appearing to the storm-tossed mariners in cloudlike shape, like the Jinni that the fisherman of the Arabian tale released from a casket. He expresses indignation at their audacity in discovering his secret, hitherto hidden from mankind:—

Eu sou aquelle occulto e grande Cabo,
A quem chamais vós outros Tormentorio,
Que nunca á Ptolomeo, Pomponio, Estrabo,
Plinio, e quantos passaram, fui notorio:
Aqui toda a Africana costa acabo
Neste meu nunca vista promontorio,
Que para o polo Antarctico se estende,
A quem vossa ousadia tanto offende.
Camoens, Os Lusíadas, v. 50.

Although Bacon later claimed that he had decided then and there, when he first read Camões’s lines, that he would someday translate the whole of Camões’s poem, it was not until the mid-1940s that he had worked up his Portuguese well enough to embark on the daunting task he had set for himself. He then experienced “five years of monomania” in pursuit of Camões and his great poem. With his translation about to appear, Bacon wrote to Frost on June 24, 1950:

In a week or two I hope to be able to send you an enormous work on which I have spent in the neighborhood of six years. It is a translation of The Lusiads of Camões and has been brought out with more than oriental splendor by the Hispanic Society of America. I have added notes and a translation of what seems to me the most superb of all Camões’ lyrical poems as well. It is a religious poem and makes me think of a conflation of the ode on the morning of Christ’s nativity [“By the Rivers of Babylon”]. Lope de Vega called it “The Pearl of all poetry,” and I almost believe him.

Frost was slow to acknowledge Bacon’s gift of his translation of Camões’s poem. Only three years later, on Independence Day 1953, did he manage to do so. He incorporated it in his Christmas card for 1952. His card might be going out a half-year late, he apologized, but sending it off on such a noteworthy holiday might be considered compensatory. Dating it July 4, was “just my little jest,” he explained, “to cover my sin of procrastination.”

Dear Leonard Bacon: you may or may not have noticed that at about the time you were coming out with your great epic about Da Gama I was coming out with a small poem about him. Such was the case but it was purely a coincidence. I can claim without embarrassment I owe you nothing there, I am in your debt for so much elsewhere. I have had good nights reading at the Lusiad.

Frost refers to “For Columbus Day,” as he called his poem when he read it at Amherst College in December 1950, just a year after his lifetime appointment as Simpson Lecturer in Literature. When the poem appeared in the New England journal Atlantic Monthly in June 1951, Frost re-named it “And All We Call American.” And when he collected it in In the Clearing, his last book, published in 1962, he gave it its third and final title—“America Is Hard to See.”

Frost-2Dealing with Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the New World, Frost’s poem cannot be said to be “about” Vasco da Gama. But the Portuguese mariner’s introduction into “America Is Hard to See” supports the poet’s major point. In two references to Vasco da Gama, in successive
stanzas—four and five—Frost sets up the Portuguese mariner in ironic contrast to Columbus. Gama is the most successful mariner of the day, one who has brought back gold, while Columbus is by all appearances a failure. He has returned empty-handed. He has no material riches whatsoever to show for his dangerous and, for many, reckless and foolhardy voyages into unknown seas. Elsewhere Frost confessed that had he lived in those times, he would not have measured up to the challenge of sailing with Columbus in 1492. At Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, on July 2, 1962, he remarked to a gathering of students and faculty: “But let’s suppose we’re going to Mars right away. I can leave it to you. You can glory in it. Maybe I don’t do it right. I hesitate about it. If I were sure we were going to Mars and I wanted to glory in it, the way I would have gloried in Columbus’s voyage if I had been any good—I wouldn’t have been up to it; I know that.”

In “America Is Hard to See” Frost pictures Columbus’ situation, not as he is setting out on his voyage, but upon what awaits him on his return.

Columbus may have worked the wind
A new and better way to Ind
And also proved the world a ball,
But how about the wherewithal?
Not just for scientific news
Had the Queen backed him to a cruise.

Remember he had made the test
Finding the East by sailing West.
But had he found it? Here he was
Without one trinket from Ormuz
To save the Queen from family censure
For her investment in his venture.

There had been something strangely wrong
With every coast he tried along.
He could imagine nothing barrener.
The trouble was with him the mariner.
He wasn’t off a mere degree;
His reckoning was off a sea.

And to intensify the drama
Another mariner, Da Gama,
Came just then sailing into port
From the same general resort,
And with the gold in hand to show for
His claim it was another Ophir.

Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.

Columbus could not see that his apparent failure, given high relief by his rival Gama’s having returned from the original and “true” Indies with the riches and spices that had escaped him in what would come to be called the New World, might be first dwarfed and then negated by the far greater importance of his having discovered the future site of “a fresh start for the human race”—a far great accomplishment.

Vasco da Gama had made an earlier appearance in Frost’s poem “Across the Atlantic.” It appeared in The Independent, a weekly published in New York City, on March 26, 1908, a full five years before Frost managed to place his first book of poems, A Boy’s Will, with the London publisher David Nutt, but it was not reprinted until well after Frost’s death in 1963. Here, too, Frost refers to Columbus’ “empty” return to Spain. The poem is in the voice of an early twentieth-century traveler crossing the Atlantic in the age of the steamship, who marvels:

The ship, light-riding, came and went again,
Empty of India’s jewels, to its port
To find before it there da Gama’s fame
And nought to match against his prize in hand
But truth that lit the yards like Elmo’s fire.
And the old sea was less the sundering sea.
She has strewn wrecks since then and ships from port
She has hurled back ashore and banked with sand.
Too many have come with sails, to sink them all,
And now they trample flat the waves they run.
Ever the sea is less the sundering sea.

In the phrase, “truth that lit the yards like Elmo’s fire”—the “truth” Columbus delivers to Europe rather than the riches Gama has carried back from the Indies to Lisbon—lies the seed of the later poem about Columbus, “America Is Hard to See.” There the “truth” is identified as the human race’s new “trial place.” Had Columbus seen the deeper and more far-ranging implications of his voyage, he might have carried off the bluff that

He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.

Such a bluff would have turned out to be no bluff at all: a special case, perhaps, of what might happen when, as Frost speculated in a different context, “you believe the future in, believe it into being.” Unfortunately, Columbus had not seen the value of what he had done. Columbus’ failure in this regard is noted by God in Frost’s A Masque of Reason (1945), who, anachronistically, says to Job:

It would be too bad if Columbus-like
You failed to see the worth of your achievement.

It is noteworthy, I think—especially if one recalls that Bacon’s discovery of Camões’s Os Lusíadas came while reading John Fiske’s The Discovery of America—that Fiske, like Frost, contrasts Gama’s spectacular display of riches with Columbus’ unmitigated material failure.

The glory which Columbus had won by the first news of the discovery of the Indies had now to some extent faded away. The enterprise yielded as yet no revenue and entailed great expense . . . . [His sons] were greeted with hoots: “There go the sons of the Admiral of Mosquitoland, the man who has discovered a land of vanity and deceit, the grave of Spanish gentlemen!”

An added sting was given to such taunts by a great event that happened about this time. In the summer of 1497, Vasco da Gama started from Lisbon for the Cape of Good Hope, and in summer of 1499 he returned, after having doubled the cape and crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the Malabar coast of Hindustan . . . . There was nothing questionable or dubious about Gama’s triumph. He had seen splendid cities, talked with a powerful Rajah, and met with Arab vessels, their crews madly jealous at the unprecedented sight of Christian ships in those waters; and he brought back with him to Lisbon nutmegs and cloves, pepper and ginger, rubies and emeralds, damask robes with satin linings, bronze chairs with cushions, trumpets of carved ivory, a sunshade of crimson satin, a sword in a silver scabbard, and no end of such gear. An old civilization had been found and a route of commerce discovered, and a factory was to be set up at once on the Indian coast. What a contrast to the miserable performance of Columbus, who had started with the flower of Spain’s chivalry for rich Cipango, and had only led them to a land where they must either starve or do work fit for peasants, while he spent his time in cruising among wild islands! The king of Portugal could now snap his fingers at Ferdinand and Isabella, and if a doubt should have sometimes crossed the minds of those chagrined sovereigns, as to whether this plausible Genoese mariner might not, after all, be a humbug or a crazy enthusiast, we can hardly wonder at it.

When Columbus makes his third and most celebratory appearance in Frost’s poetry—as a favorable reference to “the new world Christopher Columbus found”—in “For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration,” lines composed to preface Frost’s recitation of “The Gift Outright” at the in-coming president’s ceremony in 1961, there is no reference to Gama, hitherto linked to Columbus in Frost’s historical imagination. Such a contrast would have been counter-productive. The Columbus Frost would adduce on that auspicious occasion was the one he had described in his notes kept while living in Derry, New Hampshire, in the years before emigrating to England in 1912. It “was not for crossing the Atlantic and suffering hardships and privation” that he is “immortal,” Frost decided. It is “because he had the faith that so few people are capable of; the faith of an idea.’” He could as readily have praised Gama for the same thing.

[From Estudos Anglo-Portugueses: Livro de Homenagem a Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa
(Lisboa: Colibri, 2003).]



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Recent Posts by Professor George Monteiro


George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…

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