June 10 – Most Sublime Figure of Portuguese Literature

June 8, 2015

Luis Vaz de Camões



Born in 1524 or 1525; died 10 June, 1580. The most sublime figure in the history of Portuguese literature, Camões owes his lasting fame to his epic poem “Os Lusiadas,” (The Lusiads); he is remarkable also for the degree of art attained in his lyrics, less noteworthy for his dramas. A wretched exile during a large part of his lifetime, he has, like Dante, enjoyed an abundance of fame since his death; his followers have been legion, and his memory has begot many fabulous legends. Actual facts regarding his career are not easily obtained. There are but few documentary sources of information regarding him, and these are concerned simply (1) with the trifling pension which King Sebastian bestowed upon him and which Philip II continued in favour of his mother, who survived him; (2) with his imprisonment as a result of an assault made by him upon a public official; and (3) with the publication of “The Lusiads”. Personal references contained in various letters and in his literary works, all of a certain autobiographical value, provide further data.

Camões came of a reduced noble family. The place of his birth has been the subject of contention, but in all probability he was born at Coimbra. He belonged to the same stock as the noted explorer, Vasco da Gama, who is so important in “The Lusiads”. His father was a sea-captain who died at Goa in India as the result of a shipwreck, soon after the birth of Luiz. It seems likely that the poet received his training at the University of Coimbra, where his uncle, Bento de Camões, was chancellor for several years. Some early love lyrics, Platonic of inspiration and Petrarchian in form, date back to his college days. Passing to the court at Lisbon, he there fell in love with Catherina de Athaide, a lady of the queen’s suite. Catherina, the Natercia (anagram of Caterina) of his lyrics, responded to his suit, but those in authority opposed it, and Camões, meeting their resistance with words of wrath and violent deeds, was ere long banished from the court. For two or three years, that is between 1546 and 1549, he fought in the campaign in Africa and there lost one of his eyes, which was struck by a splinter from a cannon. Back once again in Lisbon, he found himself utterly neglected, and in his despair he proceeded to lead a disorderly life.

Camões reading to D. Sebastião de Portugal.

Camões reading to D. Sebastião de Portugal.

Wounding an officer of the royal court, he was incarcerated for some months and was released in March of 1553 only on condition that he go to India as a soldier. Forthwith he departed, a private in the ranks, on his way to the region which his great kinsman had made known to the Occident. In the East his career was full of the greatest vicissitudes. At one time fighting valiantly against the natives, he was again languishing in jail on a charge of malfeasance in office while occupying a governmental post in Macao; he entered into a new love affair with a native, either before or soon after the death of Catherina (1556); now rolling in wealth, he was again overwhelmed with debt, and he was always gaining more enemies by his too ready pen and tongue; seldom stationary anywhere for long, he engaged in long journeys which took him as far as Malacca and the Moluccas, and upon one occasion he escaped death by shipwreck only through his powers as a swimmer. Finally, in 1567, he began the return trip to Portugal. Stopping at Mozambique in his course, he there spent two years, a prey to disease and dire poverty. With the help of generous friends he continued his journey and reached Lisbon in 1570, after an absence of sixteen years. there was no welcome for Portugal’s greatest bard in a capital that had just been visited by plague, and was governed by that visionary and heedless young monarch, Dom Sebastian; but Camões, publishing his epic, dedicated it to the king and was rewarded with a meagre royal pension. His last gloomy years were spent near his aged mother, and he died, heart-broken at the misfortune that had come to his beloved land with the great disaster of Alcacer-Kebir, where Sebastian and the flower of the Portuguese nobility went to their doom.

Camões in Macau

Camões in Macau

It is possible that Camões had conceived the purpose of writing an epic poem as early as his student days, and there are reasons for supposing that he had composed some passages of “The Lusiads” before 1544; but in all likelihood the idea of making Vasco da Gama’s voyage of discovery the central point of his work occurred first to him during the voyage to India in 1553. During that trip and on the return, with the delay at Mozambique, he could acquire that familiarity with the ocean and with the coast of Africa which is clear in some of his most striking octaves; but it was during the long sojourn in India that he gave shape to the major part of the epic. Adapting a metrical form-the octave-of which the Italian Ariosto had proved the pliancy, and modelling his epic style on that of Vergil, Camões set up as his hero the whole Lusitanian people, the sons of Lusus, whence the title, “Os Lusiadas”. His purpose was a serious one; he desired to abide by the sober reality of his country’s history, which, in poetic speech, is related in a long series of stanzas by Vasco da Gama himself. From first to last the ten cantos of the work glow with patriotic fervour inspired by the genuine achievements of the poet’s compatriots. But, side by side with chronicled fact, there appears also a somewhat complicated mythological machinery.

Camões reading "Os Lusíadas"

Camões reading “Os Lusíadas”

Venus, the friend of the wandering Portuguese; Bacchus, their enemy; Mars, Jupiter, deities of the sea, and a number of symbolical figures play a large part in the fortunes of Vasco da Gama’s nautical expedition, and at times the union of Christian belief and pagan fable is carried to absurd extremes, as when Bacchus is made to assume the form of a Christian priest and offer a feigned worship to the Christian God. For the introduction of pagan mythology into a Christian and historical epic Camões has been harshly censured by many; yet it must be admitted that much of the charm of the poem is to be found in just those parts in which the mythological elements abound. It is interesting, furthermore, to note that the ecclesiastical authorities, as represented by the Dominican Ferreira, who examined the manuscript and gave the necessary permission to print the book, found nothing contrary to faith or morals in it; the mythology was regarded as a mere poetic fiction. The action of the poem is not of great extent, yielding often to passages of narration and description; of course it is developed in accord with the events of Vasco da Gama’s voyage along the African coast to Mombaca and Melinde, on to Calicut in India, and back again over the ocean to Portugal. The chief edition of “The Lusiads” is that of 1572, prepared by the poet himself; the modern editions still leave much to be desired in the way of critical apparatus.

Tomb of Luís Vaz de Camões in Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal. He is buried near Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery

Tomb of Luís Vaz de Camões. He is buried near Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal.

It has been the lot of Camões, the epic bard, to be more talked of and written about by foreigners than he is read by them. Hence the uncertainty of opinion regarding his proper rank among modern poets. There is, however, no need of depreciating Ariosto, or Tasso, or any others who have essayed the epic, in order to render to Camões his just deserts. In artistic feeling and accomplishments he is doubtless not the equal of several among them; as the exponent of patriotic pride in national endeavour and sturdy enterprise, and as the greatest master of Portuguese poetic style and diction, he will ever command the admiration of his countrymen and of all who love what is best in literature. The mass of lyrics still attributed to Camões requires much deliberate sifting; fully a fifth part of it is probably not his work. The poems that may with certainty be ascribed to him follow, as has been said, the Petrarchian model. They comprise sonnets, odes, elegies, eclogues, canções, redondilhas, and the like, and in sentiment reflect the moods and passions of the poet’s mind and heart throughout the periods of his varied and ill-starred life. He produced three comedies in verse, which are of decided merit as compared with the pieces hitherto written in Portuguese, but yet show no transcendent powers as a dramatist on his part. One of them, the “Filodemo”, gives scenic setting to the plot of a medieval story of love and adventurous travel; another, the “Rei Seleuco”, takes up a love episode in the life of the Syrian King Seleucus and his son Antiochus, which had been narrated by Plutarch and treated by Petrarch and many other poets; the third and best of all, the “Enfatriões” (or “Amphitryões”), is a free and attractive rendering of the “Amphitruo” of Plautus.

J.D.M. FORD (Catholic Encyclopedia)



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