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Luís Vaz de Camões

Luís Vaz de Camões

Luís Vaz de Camões

(Portugal, 1524 - 1580)
Generally regarded as the greatest poet of the Portuguese language, at least until Fernando Pessoa came along, Camões led a rambunctious but uncertain life, much of his biography being based on conjecture and what we can extract, or extrapolate, from his poems. He was probably born in Lisbon, the son of minor, impoverished aristocrats, and definitely died there in 1580. In between, he lived or sojourned in many places: Coimbra, where he is assumed to have studied at the university; Morocco, where he lost an eye during combat as a soldier for the Portuguese army; India, where he served as a soldier for three years, after which he probably held administrative posts; Arabia and the East African coasts, on military expeditions launched from western, Portuguese-ruled India; Macao, in the employ of the Portuguese government; and Mozambique, without funds enough to continue the journey back home. Some friends came to his aid, sharing the cost of his passage to Lisbon, where he arrived in 1570, after 17 years abroad.
Two years later Camões published The Lusiads, one of the last great historical epics, in certain respects modeled after the Aeneid and taking Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India as its immediate theme. Although the poem was well received, earning its author a small pension from the crown, Camões died in poverty and was buried in a collective pit for plague victims. That same year – two years after a disastrous expedition to North Africa in which the heirless King Sebastião and thousands of Portugal’s most able-bodied men were slaughtered – the country fell under Spanish rule, which would last until 1640.
From public records and four surviving letters signed by Camões, we know he was a rowdy and lusty sort, who landed himself in a Lisbon jail for roughing up a court official during a religious feast, and in a Goan jail for failure to pay his debts. And his one and only eye was continually on the lookout for women, whether they belonged to nobility or to brothels.

It makes no sense to pit Camões against Pessoa in a contest to decide who was greater – they are too far apart in historical and poetic time for that. But it is interesting to note how Portugal’s two master poets had diametrically opposed sensibilities. The twentieth-century poet was the great negator, who divided himself into fictional ‘heteronyms’ capable, he claimed, of experiencing and feeling life better than he himself could. Pessoa wrote about politics, but his ideology was utterly utopian. He read hundreds of books and wrote hundreds of pages about assorted religions but committed himself to none. And love was for him such a thoroughly literary matter that he very probably died a virgin.

Camões was the opposite of all that. A Falstaffian lover of life, he never conceived of his writing as a substitute for living but as its literary embodiment. Camões is wholly, passionately present in most of what he wrote – if not literally so, then in the manner of his writing, probably comparable to the way he made love. And when, in his last years, he “got religion”, it wasn’t a scholarly inquiry; he embraced the Roman Catholic faith with ardor, repenting the carnal loves of his younger days. Pessoa, in contrast, could only repent (and did somewhat repent in his later poems) for not having ever loved except in theory. Which is not to say that the 16th-century poet was a ‘natural’ who simply wrote out of experience. He was an intellectual with an enormous capacity for synthesis, drawing on the philosophy and literature of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, Hesiod, Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch), on Neo-Platonist thought, on Petrarch and his followers (especially Garcilaso de la Vega and Juan Boscán), and on the Portuguese popular and formal poetic tradition that preceded him.

The Lusiads has been so widely read and translated that Camões’s vast and no less impressive body of lyric poetry has tended to be overlooked. Over the centuries, there have been at least ten complete translations of Os Lusíadas into English, but only several large-scale translations of his lyrical oeuvre, which includes about 200 short poems in popular verse forms, over 150 sonnets, a sestina, and poems of larger scope: odes, elegies, songs (or canzones), octaves and eclogues. Camões’s sonnets are comparatively well known (Wordsworth pays them homage in his ‘Scorn Not the Sonnet’, where he also mentions the sonneteers Shakespeare, Petrarch, Tasso, Dante, Spenser and Milton), but his full powers as a lyric poet are revealed by some of the longer poems, which succeed in sustaining a narrative across 150 or even 250 verses, interwoven with lessons from mythology, ancient history and philosophy. The excerpted octaves from ‘On the World’s Chaos and Confusion’, for instance, retell a story from antiquity which is perfectly integrated into the longer story (thirty octaves in all) announced by the poem’s title. 

Camões’s sonnets are thematically far more diverse than those of Petrarch or Shakespeare. Some are retellings of Biblical tales (‘Jacob’) or Greek myths, often with a new twist; or they present historical or mythological figures in new scenarios, as in the sonnet which has the goddesses Diana and Venus discussing the merits of trapping animals versus ensnaring human hearts (‘While Phoebus was lighting up the mountains’). Other sonnets take up the theme of the world’s disorderedness and the inevitability of change (‘Times change, desires change’), life’s brevity (‘Oh how long, year after year’), and the hardships imposed by exile (‘Epitaph for Pero Moniz’). But love, for Camões as for most Renaissance poets, is an ever-present hope and complaint, a source of pain alternating with ecstasy, a rich symbol and a chimera – an inexhaustible subject of poetic and existential exploration. Love, in the sonnets and sestina presented here, is not merely a hankering after an idealized and beatified ‘senhora’ (lady); it is a psychological territory for self-discovery. This is most blatantly the case in the celebrated ‘Transforma-se o amador na cousa amada’, a twentieth-century remake of which  ‘The Lover Transforms’ by Herberto Helder was produced by Herberto Helder (b. 1930).

Because the Renaissance world and its world-view are so far removed from our own, a reader of Camões needs to make an imaginary leap, for no translation can possibly bridge the gap in consciousness between 16th-century Portugal and the 21st century in whatever part of the world. In dealing with that wider-than-usual gap, the four translators into English of the poems presented here have remarkably different approaches. See ‘Translating Camões’ for a brief discussion of the problems they face and how they try to resolve them, or elude them!
© Richard Zenith

Epic Poetry in Portuguese
Os Lusíadas, Lisbon, 1572.
Os Lusíadas, ed. Álvaro Júlio da Costa Pimpão, Instituto Camões, 4th ed. 2000 (1st ed. 1972). One of various reliable modern editions available; with notes.

Lyric Poetry in Portuguese
Rhythmas, ed. Fernão Rodrigues Lobo Soropita, Lisbon, 1595. First edition of the lyric poetry.
Rimas, ed. Soropita, Lisbon, 1598. Expanded edition of the lyric poetry.
Segunda Parte das Rimas, ed. Domingos Fernandes, Lisbon, 1616. Part Two of the Rimas.
Terceira Parte das Rimas, ed. D. António Álvares da Cunha, Lisbon, 1668. Part Three.
Rimas várias, in 2 vols., ed. Manuel de Faria e Sousa, Lisbon, 1685-89. Greatly enlarged, and accompanied by a commentary.
Rimas, ed. Álvaro Júlio da Costa Pimpão, Livraria Almedina, Coimbra, 1994 (first published 1953, revised 1973). Generally regarded as the most trustworthy edition of the lyric poetry so far produced.

Plays in Portuguese
Anfitriões. Staged in Goa, in 1555. First published, in an anthology including Camões’s other dramatic works, as well as plays by other Portuguese playwrights, in Primeira Parte dos Autos e Comédias Portuguesas, Lisbon, 1587.
Filodemo, ibid, 1587.
El-Rei Seleuco, included in Rimas de Luís Camões. Primeira Parte, Lisbon, 1645.
All three plays available in Luís de Camões, Obras Completas, ed. Hernani Cidade, Livraria Sá da Costa Editora, Lisbon, 5th ed. 1985 (1st ed. 1946-47).

Lyric Poetry in French (modern editions only)
La lyrique de Camões, tr. Roger Bismut, Centro Cultural Português de Paris, Paris, 1970.
Sonnets, tr. Anne-Marie Quint, Michel Chandeigne, Paris, 1989.
Sonnets, tr. Maryvonne Boudoy and Anne-Marie Quint, L’Escampette, Bordeaux, 2001.

Lyric Poetry in English

Epic & Lyric, tr. Keith Bosley, Carcanet, Manchester, 1990.
Selected Sonnets, tr. William Baer, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.

Lyric Poetry in Italian
I Sonetti, tr. C. Cannizzaro, Gius. Laterza e Figli, Baria, 1913.

Also on this site
Translating Camões, an essay by Richard Zenith


In English
Sonnet Central
Fourteen 19th-century translations of sonnets by Camões

In English
Poetry Portal
Biocritical info and useful links for understanding Camões and The Lusiads.

In English
Catholic Encyclopedia
Biographical information

In French
Biographical sketch

In Spanish
Biographical sketch

In Portuguese
Complete digital version of Os Lusíadas [The Lusiads]
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère