Lush volume tracks Drake's voyages
By Thomas D'Evelyn, Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's books editor. We will be kinder to Keats's memory henceforth: Even the contributors to this lovely volume, scholars all, can't agree on who, even among the English, first saw the Pacific. Keats's Balboa is not, of course, in the running, the poetry of his ''On First Looking into Chapman's Homer'' notwithstanding. But his language is echoed by one of the essayists who writes of Drake gazing on the Pacific from a peak in Darien. Drake's expert seamanship and vigorous piracy combined with an international sense of competition regarding sea routes to produce a policy of secrecy that has created problems for historians ever since. Part of the interest of this volume springs from the complexity of the problems and the precision of the historical methods employed. Drake, furthermore, did not beget a poem worthy of his accomplishments, although several minor poets attempted to commemorate the circumnavigation and the defeat of the Armada. As discussed here, it is likely that the Protestant culture that produced Drake, still in its youth, did not have the self-knowledge required for such a poem. Portugal, on the other hand, had Camoens, whose ''Lusiads'' do penetrate the passions and ''crazed dreams'' that characterize the moment of expansion. In 1575, three years after his countryman Oxenham had been hung in Lima by Spaniards for plundering their ships, Drake sailed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific. Thus began his circumnavigation of the globe, an accomplishment most adequately symbolized by the Drake-Mellon map, beautifully reproduced in a color foldout in this book, and discussed at length in a fascinating contribution by Helen Wallis, librarian at the British Library in London. The map includes vignettes from the eventful voyage and indicates by a red border the boundary of New Spain and the territory open to English imperial designs. Helen Wallis believes this map to be closely derived from the map presented by Drake to Queen Elizabeth and thereafter consigned to oblivion. Drake had lived on ships since he was about six years old, when his impecunious father moved his young family onto a hulk at the mouth of the Thames. By the age of 10 Drake was a sailor. His intimate knowledge of the ways of the waters was the basis of his success. When he got the message about the approach of the Armada, he was in the middle of a game of bowls. The notice, alarming in the extreme to many, did not distract him from his game. He knew he had half an hour before the turn of the tide. It was Drake's professionalism at sea that most recommends him to posterity. In what had before been the private province of the aristocracy, this son of a poor man with an undistinguished name became a knight and mayor of Plymouth. Like one of the energetic and sometimes Machiavellian arrivistes in the plays of Ben Jonson, Francis Drake had made it. Contemplating this book and its fascinating subject, one wonders whether posterity will honor our own heroes, the astronauts, in such fashion. One gathers not. ''The Right Stuff'' will have to do. And one reaches a fresh interpretation of Bruegel's great picture and Auden's poem upon it. Remember Daedalus falling from the sky, the plowman in the foreground bent to his work, the little ship sailing calmly on? Well, what else should it do? What are myths when you're on a roll? / September 5, 1984
Sir Francis Drake and the Famous Voyage, 1577-1580: Essays Commemorating the Quadricentennial of Drake's Circumnavigation of the Earth, edited by Norman J. W. Thrower. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: The University of California Press. 214 pp. $34.50.