During his lifetime, Luís de Camões never published his complete works. Many of his lyric poems were circulated as separata from admirer to admirer; many others were printed in the collective cancioneiros (songbooks), both during his day and posthumously. Those that the poet had collected in his personal Parnaso (Parnassus) were stolen from him. The first complete collection of Camões’s lyrics appeared under the editorship of Fernão Rodrigues Lobo Soropita in Lisbon in 1595; the first critical edition, prepared by José Maria Rodriques and Alfonso Lopes Vieira, did not appear until 1932.
Camões’s life was a continual via dolorosa, filled with love but also with sorrow and disaster. It was a life that taught him the entire gamut of tragic emotions, which his destiny called him to express in his lyrics. With very rare exceptions, Camões’s songs, odes, elegies, redondilhas, and sonnets are composed of the passion and anguish caused him by his misadventures throughout a considerable part of the then vast Portuguese Empire and transmitted by him directly and sincerely to his sensitive readers of all times. It is not surprising that such an unfortunate lyric poet should so ably and faithfully interpret the human heart. He does not move the reader with sensuous images or brilliant technique alone. Constantly transformed and vibrant in his pain, Camões pours the wealth of his own varied experiences and tormented soul into each well-constructed stanza. Seldom capable of stirring the reader with their cold, almost inert poetics, Sá de Miranda, António Ferreira, and other contemporary poets pale before Camões, whose language is clear, grave, profound, dramatic, moving, and always harmonious.
Many were the women loved by Camões. Chief among them were Isabel Tavares, or “Belisa,” the cousin whom he won in his youth in Coimbra; Catarina de Ataíde, or “Natércia,” a lady of the court on whose account he was banished; Dinamene, the Chinese slave girl lost at sea; and Barbara, another slave woman about whom little is known. Although he treats other themes, often combining those of Portuguese tradition and those of the Renaissance, Camões’s lyrics center on love—as do those of the great Petrarch, whom he emulated, cited, and sometimes paraphrased. Indeed, the Italian poet’s influence was keenly felt by virtually all European lyric poets in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—in the Platonic transformation of erotic love, beyond the grave as well as in life, and in the quality of his imagery and mellifluous rhythms. Not only does Camões represent the apotheosis of the angelic beloved—framing her in all the attributes of incorruptible grace and revering her with feelings of purest chastity—but also all nature shares in the poet’s joy or anguish. Further, Camões uses metric forms—sonnets, songs, tercets, sestinas, and decasyllables—identical to those of Petrarch. The latter, however, was conscious of having made Laura’s name famous through his work, whereas Camões’s convulsive passion and pain seem more genuinely felt, more dramatic, and more human.
Platonism transformed Camões’s emotion, tenderly sublimating it. Apart from Petrarch, Camões knew something of Plato’s idealism, as may be seen in the redondilhas maiores beginning “Sobolos os rios que vão” (“Over the Rivers That Flow”). Written in despair when the poet was still in Goa or Mozambique, this long poem quivers with his painful longing for home and inner peace: Suffering the evils of Babylon, Camões weeps and moans nostalgically for the joys of Zion and glimpses the Promised Land. It may be said that Camões was more comprehensive than Petrarch in the matter of form, for he excelled in the traditional redondilha of the cancioneiros and in the inventions of the Renaissance alike. Doubtless first influenced by the graceful verse of Sá de Miranda, as were all the contemporary practitioners of the Italian style in Portugal, Camões learned as well, not only directly from Petrarch and Jacopo Sannazzaro (not to mention Vergil) but also from the Spanish Italianate poets Juan de Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega. Ultimately, Camões rivaled Dante and Petrarch in the sonnet and song of Sicilian origin. Moreover, no lyric poet in Portuguese before or since has achieved Camões’s transparency, plasticity, harmony, and taste in language, whether in the expression of abstract thought, concrete nature, or personal feeling.
Although it is Camões’s lyric poetry that holds the greater interest for today’s reader, it is The Lusiads that made its author universally famous. The idea of creating an epic poem concerning Portuguese expansion had existed from the fifteenth century, both in and out of Portugal. The Italian Humanist Poliziano, whose work later inspired Camões to a degree, had offered his services to João II to sing of his deeds in Latin verse. In the prologue to the Cancioneiro general (1516; general songbook), Garcia de Resende laments that the accomplishments of the Portuguese have not been properly glorified. Despite his repeated aversion to the military life on land and sea, António Ferreira encouraged his colleagues to write such an epic, and he himself attempted the epic style in several odes. This aspiration on the part of the Humanists was related to their ambition to revive the classical genres, including the epic; the voyages of the Portuguese could easily be compared to those of Ulysses and Aeneas.
Camões, too, sought to meet the challenge of the Homeric model that so engaged other Humanists. The maritime setting of the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) and other ancient poems was indeed...
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