Luis de Camões wasn’t some poet scribbling down his musings from his ivory tower. He was a certified badass. He’s not winking at you; he lost his eye fighting the Moors in Ceuta! His military service also took him to Goa, and later he was offered a position in Macau. On his way back home to Portugal, he was shipwrecked near Cambodia. According to legend, Camões let his lover drown because he was using both hands to hold the only manuscript of Os Lusiadas, the Portuguese national epic, out of the water!
The name Os Lusiadas comes from Lusitania, the Roman province that more or less matches Portugal’s borders today. Portuguese still refer to themselves as Lusitanians. Luso- is the prefix used to denote a thing as being Portuguese, in the same way that Sino- is used for Chinese.
Check out the opening lines of Canto I:
As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.
Translation by me, more literal than lyrical:
The arms and Heroes marked
That the western Lusitanian shore
By seas never before navigated
Yet passed beyond Taprobana,
Through dangers and grueling wars
More that what was promised by human strength,
And amongst remote peoples they built
A New Kingdom, a sublimation of both.
If that doesn’t sound familiar, check out the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, translated from Latin by A.S. Kline:
I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?
The key difference between Os Lusiadas and the Aeneid is revealed in the opening line. Aeneas writes of “arms and the man” (emphasis mine). Os Lusiadas, on the other hand, speaks of “arms and heroes“. While the great Greek and Roman epics are about singular men, Os Lusiadas is the story of the Portuguese people as a whole. Their epic journey is the conquest of the seas and the founding of the Portuguese Empire, just as the Aeneid is the chronicle of Aeneas’s journey and his founding of the Roman Empire.
While Juno is Aeneas’s enemy and Venus is his patroness in the Aeneid, in Os Lusiadas the divine clash is between Neptune and Venus. She advocates for the Portuguese to Jupiter, while Neptune tries to defend his dominion over the seas. Considering that the Age of Discoveries is the only thing American school children learn about the Portuguese in school, I think we all know which side Jupiter chose.
The two epics are further paralleled by their structure. They both start in medias res. Aeneas arrives in Carthage and then tells Dido about how he got there. In Os Lusiadas, Vasco da Gama arrives on the east coast of Africa after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. There, the King of Mombas welcomes him and asks how da Gama and his crew arrived. Instead of telling his story, da Gama recounts Portugal’s history, and how it led to him and his historic voyage.
This democratization of the epic is why I think it’s a better example of a national epic than the Aeneid. Virgil makes his poem all about Aeneas because he’s trying to get in the good graces of Emperor Augustus. Camões, on the other hand, makes it about the Portuguese people who came before and after da Gama. It’s about the nation, not just one man.
The last canto of the poem describes da Gama and his men returning home, but not before a pit stop at Venus’ Isle of Love. Canto X is so steamy that it was censored out of the poem during the Estado Novo dictatorship! Okay, it’s really not that bad; dictators are just prudes. It’s a shame though, because the sea goddess Tethys (who also becomes da Gama’s lover) predicts the accomplishments of Portuguese explorers yet to come. Os Lusiadas was published about eighty years after da Gama’s journey, so Camões had the benefit of hindsight when writing those divine predictions.
He also had foresight. Portugal was reaching its peak as a world power when Camões finished Os Lusiadas, which ends with a warning to King Sebastian to maintain Portugal’s glory. Instead, the young, heirless, and allegedly mad king died fighting the Moors in Africa at the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, and Portugal fell into the hands of Sebastian’s closest relative, Phillip of Spain. Elizabethan scholars might know him as Bloody Mary Tudor’s husband. Portugal would remain a Spanish possession for eighty years, but would never return to her former glory.
The impact of Camões on the Portuguese language and psyche can’t be underestimated. He is to Portuguese what Shakespeare is to the English language. Portuguese is even called “a lingua de Camões” because it is his language. Every Portuguese author after him was inspired but him. His fingerprints are all over the Portuguese literature that came after him.He also wrote plays (they’re okay) and love poetry (surprisingly beautiful). I’ll leave you now with my favorite love poem of his:
Amor é fogo que arde sem se ver;
É ferida que dói e não se sente;
É um contentamento descontente
É dor que desatina sem doer;
É um não querer mais que bem querer;
É solitário andar por entre a gente;
É nunca contentar-se de contente;
É cuidar que se ganha em se perder;
É querer estar preso por vontade;
É servir a quem vence, o vencedor;
É ter com quem nos mata lealdade.
Mas como causar pode seu favor
Nos corações humanos amizade,
Se tão contrário a si é o mesmo amor?
Love is the fire that burns unseen;
The wound that aches unfelt;
It’s a discontent contentment
The pain that maddens painlessly;
It’s not wanting more than to be wanted;
It’s solitude surrounded by people;
It’s never settling for contentment;
It’s care that is gained in the losing;
It’s wanting to be willfully imprisoned;
It’s serving who conquers, the conqueror;
It’s what kills us loyally.
But how could your favor cause
Human friendship in our hearts,
If love is so contrary to itself?