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Luís Vaz de Camões

Luís Vaz de Camões Essay - Critical Essays

Camões, Luís Vaz de

Introduction

Luís Vaz de Camões 1524?-1580

(Also transliterated as Camoens) Portuguese poet and playwright.

Author of the epic Os Lusíadas (1572; The Lusiads), Camões is considered the national poet of Portugal and its greatest lyricist. A glorification of the Portuguese voyages of discovery, The Lusiads portrays explorer Vasco da Gama's maritime journey to India using the forms of classical, heroic literature. Camões also wrote numerous pieces of posthumously published lyric poetry, which present his principal theme of the tension between sensual and spiritual love. Many of these are suffused with a deep melancholy rooted in Camões's sufferings while in exile, and are noted for their simplicity, formal excellence, and passionate intensity. In addition to Camões's enormous influence on Portuguese poetry, he also was a minor dramatist who composed three plays, comedies that combine classical and Portuguese dramatic forms.

Biographical Information

While the veracity of many events in Camões's life is uncertain, he is thought to have been born in Lisbon in 1524 or 1525 into an aristocratic but destitute Galician family. He likely attended the University of Coimbra, there acquiring some of his considerable knowledge of classical literature and philosophy. A member of King John III's court in Lisbon, he was by some accounts banished in 1547 upon discovery of his affair with Caterina de Ataíde, a lady-in-waiting to the queen. Camões then began his military career in North Africa, losing an eye during his tour of duty in Morocco. He returned to Lisbon in 1550, and was pardoned by the king in 1553 after assaulting a royal official in the streets. Camões soon after departed for India as a soldier for the crown. He was subsequently assigned to a post in Macao, serving as trustee of personal effects for the dead and absent. While returning to Goa in western India after being accused of misconduct, Camões was shipwrecked in the Mekong Delta, but managed to save himself and his manuscript of The Lusiads. The impoverished Camões then made his way to Mozambique where he was found by the Portuguese historian Diogo do Couto who assisted him in his return to Lisbon. Back in Portugal by 1570, Camões saw his epic published in 1572. That year he also was awarded a royal pension for his service, but was paid only haphazardly. He died June 10, 1580 in Lisbon.

Major Works

Camões's lyric poetry consists of numerous pieces in the classical verse forms of eclogue, ode, elegy, and sonnet, as well purely Portuguese cançoes, esparsas, motos, and redondilhas. Such works range from elegant love lyrics to melancholy expressions of anguish as they demonstrate Camões' theme of the discord between idealized and sensual love. The title of Camões's encyclopedic epic, The Lusiads, is taken from the Latin term for Portugal, Lusitania. Written in ten cantos of ottava rima, the work invokes the great fifteenth-century journey of Portuguese discovery undertaken by Vasco da Gama, celebrating the glorious deeds and triumphs over nature of this explorer. While it makes prophetic reference to Portuguese history, The Lusiads vilifies the commercial aspect of da Gama's venture and attacks the followers of Islam—a religion whose adherents Camões perceived as the principal threat to Christianity. While pursuing a Christian theme of universal love, Camões fills his epic with figures from pagan mythology, placing the fate of da Gama and his men in the hands of the Olympians. With assistance from Venus and the opposition of Bacchus, the sailors make their way around Africa. Impeded at the Cape of Good Hope by the giant Adamastor, who vows to destroy them upon their return, the Portuguese explorers face violent storms, shipwreck, and war before reaching the object of their quest—landfall in India.

Critical Reception

The appearance of The Lusiads in 1572 created something of a sensation, and after Camões's death the publication of his lyric works prompted increasing esteem for the poet. As Camões's poetry began to appear in print, many attempts were made to collect his shorter poems and to exclude those pieces that were apocryphal; a process that continued into the twentieth century. Judging from these works, critics have deemed Camões to be Portugal's finest lyric poet, praising the emotional intensity and virtuosity of his writing. Meanwhile, scholars have continued to view The Lusiads as the great epic poem of the Renaissance, perceiving in the work a harmonious balance between Camões's classical allusiveness and the sensual realism of his descriptive language. Still, despite its fame in Portugal, The Lusiads is less well-known elsewhere. More recently, critics have acknowledged that The Lusiads and other writings by Camões have made a significant impact on a number of English-speaking writers as they continue to exert a considerable influence on the literature of Portugal and Brazil.

Principal Works

Os Lusíadas [The Lusiads] 1572

Rhythmas de Luís de Camões [Camoens: The Lyricks] 1595

*Rimas 1645

Poems from the Portuguese of Luís de Camõens 1803

Obras completas. 5 vols. 1946-47

Collected Poems 1957

Auto dos Enfatriões (drama) 1587

Auto de Filodemo (drama) 1587

*Includes the drama Auto del-Reí Seleuco.

Criticism

George Edward Woodberry (essay date 1910)

SOURCE: “Camoens,” in The Inspiration of Poetry, The Macmillan Company, 1910, pp. 58-84.

[In the following essay, Woodberry describes Camões's personality and the degree to which his character and imagination inform The Lusiads and his lyric poetry.]

Camoens, the maker of the only truly modern epic, offers an illustration of poetic power which is to me one of the most interesting, although the foreignness of his subject-matter and the extraordinary lameness of its English translations make difficult obstacles to our appreciation; but for that very reason he has the happiest fortune that can fall to a poet in the fact that familiarity ever endears him the more. He is a less pure type of the flame of genius than Marlowe; poetic energy appears in him less a spiritual power dwelling in its own realm of imagination; but, on the other hand, his career admits us to a nearer view of a poet's human life, to what actually befalls the man so doubtfully endowed with that inward passion of life, in the days and weeks and years of his journey. Scarce any poet is so autobiographical in the strict sense. Others have made themselves the subject of their song; but usually, like Shelley, they exhibit an ideal self seen under imaginative lights and through the soul's atmosphere, and in these self-portraits half the lines are aspiration realized, the self they dream of; but Camoens shows in his verse as he was in life, with a naturalness and vigor, with an unconscious realism, a directness, an intensity and openness that give him to us as a comrade.

He was of the old blue blood of the Peninsula, the Gothic blood, the same that gave birth to Cervantes. He was blond, and bright-haired, with blue eyes, large and lively, the face oval and ruddy,—and in manhood the beard short and rounded, with long untrimmed mustachios,—the forehead high, the nose aquiline; in figure agile and robust; in action “quick to draw and slow to sheathe,” and when he was young, he writes that he had seen the heels of many, but none had seen his heels. Born about the year 1524, of a noble and well-connected family, educated at Coimbra, a university famous for the classics, and launched in life about the court at Lisbon, he was no sooner his own master than he fell into troubles. He was a lover born, and the name of his lady, Caterina, is the first that emerges in his life; for such Romeo-daring he was banished from court when he was about twenty, whether after a duel or a stolen interview is uncertain; and on his return, since he continued faithful to his lady, he was sent into Africa, and in an engagement with pirates in the Straits of Gibraltar he lost his right eye. He fought the Moors for three years until he was twenty-five, and returning to Lisbon, enlisted for the Indies; but in consequence of a street affair with swords in which he drew in defence of some masked ladies and unfortunately wounded a palace servant, he was held in prison three years. Eleven days after his release he sailed, and it is not unlikely that his sailing was a condition of his release. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and came to India, where he served in campaigns and garrison, and occasionally held official appointments, and from time to time fell into prison. He cleared himself from all charges of wrong-doing in office; but he was of the type that makes both enemies and friends. He was outspoken, and he indulged his mood in satire, a dangerous employment in the narrowness of colonial and army life. On the other hand, he was a brave and gentle comrade and delighted in manly traits; and so there was a round of companions in arms to whom he was dear. He served far and wide, fought on the coasts of the Red Sea, wintered in Ormuz in the Persian Gulf, spent some years in China, and seems to have visited the Malay islands; once he was shipwrecked on the Chinese coast. It is clear that he roamed the Orient on all the lines of travel and enterprise, of commerce and war, wherever the Portuguese ships could sail, and bore throughout the name and character of a gentleman-adventurer of that world, a daring, enterprising, hopeful, unfortunate, and often distressed man.

Sixteen years of his manhood passed in these toils,—

In one hand aye the Sword, in one the Pen,

—along the tropical seas and under the alien skies; for from the first, even before in his youth he planted a lance in Africa, he had held to his breast that little manuscript book where year by year, on the deck and the gun-breech, in his grotto at Macao, in prison, wherever he might be and under whatever aspect of fortune, he wrote down the growing lines of that poem which is now the chief glory of his native land. When he was shipwrecked in China, he lost the little store of gold that he had accumulated in the office which he was recalled from, but he held safe this book,—

In his embrace the song that swam to land
From sad and piteous shipwreck dripping wet
'Scaped from the reefs and rocks that fang the
                              strand.

Now, after sixteen years, nostalgia, not simple homesickness, but the nostalgia of him who fares forth into the world and voyages long in stranger-lands, had fallen on him, and was heavy in all his spirit. He had left Portugal, indignantly saying that his country should not possess his bones; but he had long changed this temper,—

Tagus yet pealeth with the passion caught
From the wild cry he flung across the sea;—

all his hopes had really rested on the honor of the song he had built up for the glory of Portugal, and while everything else that men name success faded away and escaped him, with this poem surely he would find welcome home. He stopped at Mozambique with the captain governor, and when he wished to continue his voyage, this officer, who was his host, consigned him to prison for a debt due himself, a small sum. Soon afterwards, however, a ship came by, with a dozen of Camoens' old messmates and friends, veterans, and they contributed the money for his release. So, says the old biographer, “were simultaneously sold the person of Camoens and the honor of Pedro Barreto” for £25. With these friends Camoens sailed homeward, and arrived safely, but not to find prosperity. It was three years before his book was published; and he received for reward only a pension of about one hundred dollars in our money at its present worth, and this was not often paid. The entire eight years of his life at Lisbon were filled with such poverty and distress as we remember of the last dying days of Spenser and Chatterton. He lived some part of this time in a religious house, that is, an alms-house; at other times his Javanese servant, who had stayed with him, begged food for him at night, but the faithful servant died before his wretched master. Even among the poets few have been so homeless and destitute as Camoens in his life's end, now going about on crutches and suffering the last sad effects of a hard-faring life. It was the moment just before his death when the power of Portugal was extinguished on the battle-field by Philip of Spain: “I die,” he wrote to a friend, “not only in my country, but with it.” The time of his death is uncertain, but he was about fifty-five years old. He died in a hospital. “I saw him die,” says an old Carmelite brother, “in the hospital of Lisbon, without a sheet where-with to cover himself.” Such in its external events was the life-story of Camoens.

If one throws upon this harsh narrative the light that flows from Camoens' poetry, the lines are softened in the retrospect; the hardship and misfortune are seen in that atmosphere of melancholy that pervades his strong verse and blends with it, as tenderness companions valor in the man himself. To see properly the phases of his genius, one should glance first at the lyrical works, and especially the sonnets, that preceded and accompanied the heroic verse of the epic. From his student days at the university, unlike Marlowe, he was the heir of a developed art, and in all his work is seen the fair background of the poetic tradition,—in the epic the forms of old mythology, and in the lyrics the Italian example of Petrarch. To him his lady Caterina was what Petrarch's Laura had been, an ideal of hopeless and pure passion. Her personality is not definitely known, but she married and died while still young. Though in his sonnets to her Camoens followed the poetic tradition, the reality of his devotion cannot be doubted in its inception; and in its continuance through the years of his youth, and especially of his long exile in the Orient, this ideal passion stood for him, at least, as the sign and certainty of his first failure—his failure in love. It became, perhaps, after long and hopeless years simply the cry of his imagination, but it had its original being in the call of the heart. Very sweet and noble, though conventional, is his early pleading:—

Beautiful eyes, whereof the sunny sphere
When most with cloudless clarity of light
The infinite expanse he maketh bright,
Doubting to be eclipsed, doth stand in fear:
If I am held in scorn who hold you dear,
Then, having of all things such perfect sight,
Consider this thing too, that mortal night
To cover up your beauty draweth near.
Gather, O gather with unstaying hand,
The fruits that must together gathered be,
Occasion ripe, and Passion's clasp divine.
And, since by you I live and die, command
Love, that he yield his tribute unto me,
Who unto you have freely yielded mine.

After years of vain castle-building during which he seemed his “own sorrow's architect,” and in that wide roaming which he describes,—

Now scattering my music as I pass,
The world I range,—

he still kept true to the lover's creed:—

All evils Love can wreak behold in me,
In whom the utmost of his power malign
He willed unto the world to manifest:
But I, like him, would have these things to be.
Lifted by woe to ecstasy divine,
I would not change for all the world possest.

When his lady died, he lifted his prayer in his loveliest and most famous sonnet:—

Soul of my soul, that didst so early wing
From our poor world thou heldest in disdain,
Bound be I ever to my mortal pain,
So thou hast peace before the Eternal King!
If to the realms where thou dost soar and sing
Remembrance of aught earthly may attain,
Forget not the deep love thou did'st so fain
Discover my fond eyes inhabiting.
And if my yearning heart unsatisfied,
And pang on earth incurable have might
To profit thee and me, pour multiplied
Thy meek entreaties to the Lord of Light,
That swiftly He would raise me to thy side,
As suddenly He rapt thee from my sight.

In these sonnets and other lyrical poems the poet is hardly more personal than in the heroic epic, but his personality is more exclusively felt, and the topics are not confined to his love. The most lasting impression made is of the passing of hope out of his life. Camoens was one of those souls who are great in hope; and he often bent upon the past reverted eyes, and drew the sum of his losses, ending in that refrain—

For Death and Disenchantment all was made—
Woe unto all that hope! to all that trust!

The vein of melancholy in the lyrical poems opens the tenderness of Camoens, and perhaps the softer note is somewhat overcharged in these admirable but rather Italianated versions of Dr. Garnett's that I have used; life-weariness and profound discouragement, indeed, there is in them; but they are not the simple outflow of a Petrarchan lover's complaint, but the sorrows of a much-toiling man; for Camoens was both sailor and soldier, and as natural to those ways of labor as to the handling of the lute. The voyage, the march, and the battle made up the larger part of his life.

This opens the second trait to be observed in the phases of his development, namely, his absorption of the patriotic vitality of his country. It is true that he inherited a developed and conventionalized art, and had always that fair background of classical figures and Italian atmosphere which were his portion of the Renaissance; but the Renaissance was rather like a little mountain city where he was born and drank his youth; he did not abide there, but came down into the great modern world that was then to be,—the world of the waste of waters and the spreading empires. Portugal played a great part in that age which broke the horizon bars and passed the western and the eastern limit of the sun alike, and made the fleets as free of the ocean as the sea-birds of every wandering wave. Camoens was to make this the great theme of his song,—the ocean fame of Portugal. But he was inducted into his passion of patriotism by natural ways, before the glory of the ocean discoveries was fully opened in his mind. Portugal, you remember, was the child of battle, born of the conflict of the...

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Sir Edmund Gosse (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: “Camoens,” in Silhouettes, William Heinemann, Ltd., 1925, pp. 33-9.

[In the following essay, Gosse summarizes the life of Camões: “Portugal's greatest national author.”]

Persistent industry of research has not enabled Portuguese scholarship to fix the exact date of the birth of Portugal's greatest national author, but there seems little doubt that the year was 1524. We were therefore at liberty to celebrate the fourth centenary whenever we pleased, so that it does not slip our memory until after last December. Mr. Aubrey Bell—whose admirable studies in Portuguese, or (as we used to say) in the Portingall, language cannot be too warmly...

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Leonard Bacon (review date 1946)

SOURCE: A review of Os Lusíadas, in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 29, No. 23, June 8, 1946, pp. 42-3.

[In the following review of The Lusiads, Bacon surveys Camões's life and highlights those elements of the poem that will appeal to modern tastes.]

This noble edition of the noble Portuguese epic [Os Lusíadas] in the original is the crowning work of one of the greatest of Romance language scholars. Professor [J. D. M.] Ford, who has already edited Sir Richard Fanshawe's fine seventeenth-century translation of the poem, must feel that he has done good service to literature and to mankind. And what more can a learned man desire? No doubt...

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Frank Pierce (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “The Place of Mythology in The Lusiads,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring, 1954, pp. 97-122.

[In the following essay, Pierce probes the complex scheme of Camões's supernatural machinery in The Lusiads, surveying the critical history of the poem in the process.]

It is a surprising fact that a poem of the stature of Camões' epic, which has for so long been the subject of much comment and criticism, should still present a major problem of interpretation.1 The problem may be put briefly: Camões envisages his theme from the comprehensive standpoint common to his age, that is, he sees human history as including and...

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Monica Letzring (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Strangford's Poems from the Portuguese of Luis de Camoens,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1971, pp. 289-311.

[In the following essay, Letzring comments on Perry Clinton Sidney Smythe's free translations of Camões's verse in Poems from the Portuguese of Luis de Camoens, the first collection of the poet's lyrics in English.]

Even in his own Portugal, the reputation of Luis de Camoens has always rested primarily on his epic The Lusiads. Despite the fact that he is in no sense inferior as a lyric poet, his numerous canzones, elegies, odes, sonnets, and other short poems have always taken second place to his epic. And...

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James H. Sims (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Christened Classicism in Paradise Lost and The Lusiads,” in Comparative Literature, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1972, pp. 338-56.

[In the following essay, Sims considers parallels in the supernatural machinery of The Lusiads and John Milton's Paradise Lost.]

Milton may well have known the Portuguese epic Os Lusíadas or Sir Richard Fanshawe's Englishing of it or both. Although this is a tentative declaration of faith that cannot at present be indisputably proved, the faith is not a blind one. Parallels between specific aspects of Luis de Camoëns's and Milton's supernatural machinery as well as between the theoretical...

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Ronald W. Sousa (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “A Poet and His Nation: The Foreground Myth of Os Lusíadas,” in Texas Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4, Winter, 1972, pp. 19-31.

[In the following essay, Sousa discusses Camões's role as a poet and a representative of the Portuguese nation in The Lusiads.]

My title, “a poet and his nation: the foreground myth of Os Lusíadas,” is quite accurately descriptive of what I have chosen to discuss. What I hope to share with you is a close look at one aspect in the overall structure of Os Lusíadas: Camões' treatment, within his poem, of himself in his role as the celebrator of Portuguese national glory, in his role, then, as the...

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Norwood Andrews, Jr. (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Toward an Understanding of Camões' Presence as a Lyric Poet in the Nineteenth-Century American Press,” in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 171-85.

[In the following essay, Andrews details the vogue of interest in Camões and his poetry in nineteenth-century America.]

Luís Vaz de Camões was highly visible on the American literary scene very early in the 1800s, thanks to his having become so even earlier on that of Great Britain. He was, insofar as the English language is concerned, a British discovery, as a lyricist and as an epicist. His American presence is a direct result of the avidity and rapidity with which American...

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Paul B. Dixon (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “History and Prophecy in Camões's Os Lusíadas,” in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 145-50.

[In the following essay, Dixon studies Camões's blending of prophesy and history in The Lusiads.]

Few would disagree with the assertion that Camões's Os Lusíadas,1 as history, is an extremely imaginative history, formed at least as much by the poet's mentality as it is by the events it records.2 Yet the difference between Os Lusíadas and other, more properly “historical” records is one of degree, and not of kind. If we define history as discourse about past events rather than as the...

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William Melczer (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Place of Camões in the European Cultural Conscience,” in Empire in Transition: The Portuguese World in the Time of Camões, edited by Alfred Hower and Richard A. Preto-Rodas, University Presses of Florida, 1985, pp. 194-203.

[In the following essay, Melczer focuses on the romantic, European discovery of Camões's work in the nineteenth century.]

The title of this paper, in which we will look at a few aspects of the European fortune of Camões and of the Lusíadas, requires some further clarification.1 What follows is intended primarily as a contribution to the study of the prodigious rise of Camões in the firmament of...

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Alexandrino Eusébio Severino (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Adamastor and the Spirit-Spout: Echoes of Camoens in Herman Melville's Moby Dick,” in From Dante to García Márquez: Studies in Romance Literatures and Linguistics, edited by Gene H. Bell-Villada, et al., Williams College, 1987, pp. 114-32.

[In the following essay, Severino traces the influence of The Lusiads on Herman Melville's Moby Dick.]

In the middle of the last century, an American man of letters who had gone to sea as a young man became acquainted with the work of a Portuguese poet of the sixteenth century, like him, a former sailor and a lover of the sea.1 Out of this encounter across the centuries sprung forth...

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Eduardo Lourenço (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Lusiads: From National Epic to Universal Myth,” in UNESCO Courier, No. 4, April, 1989, pp. 26-7.

[In the following essay, Lourenço emphasizes Camões's blending of the Portuguese voyages of discovery with the Petrarchan myth of universal love in The Lusiads.]

The Western maritime discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in which Portugal played a leading role, were the culmination of an odyssey which had begun in ancient times. They extended the bounds of the adventure embarked on long before by the Phoenicians and the Greeks to all the seas of the world. The cycle of modern discoveries was symbolically closed in 1520 by...

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Vasco Graça Moura (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Luís de Camões: The Eventful Life and Times of Portugal's Great Epic Poet,” in UNESCO Courier, No. 4, April, 1989, pp. 17-25.

[In the following essay, Moura characterizes Camões and his poem The Lusiads, highlighting contradictions and oppositions in the man, his age, and the epic.]

The little that is known about the life of Luís de Camões can be summed up in a few lines. He was probably born in Lisbon in 1525, but even this is not known for certain. Nothing is known about what he studied or where (possibly in Coimbra) and next to nothing about his life until he set sail for the Orient, where he spent seventeen equally obscure years. A few...

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David Quint (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Epic Curse and Camões' Adamastor,” in Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton, Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 99-130.

[In the following excerpt, Quint examines the figure of Adamastor in The Lusiads as “a demonic composite of the natural and human foes faced by the Portuguese imperial enterprise.”]

In the fifth canto of the Lusíadas, Vasco da Gama is the guest of the African king of Melinde on the east coast of Africa. He narrates the story up to this point of his voyage from Portugal: Camões' obvious models are Odysseus telling his adventures to Alcinous in Phaeacia and Aeneas recounting his...

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Marina Brownlee (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Dark Side of Myth in Camões' ‘Frail Bark’,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1995, pp. 176-90.

[In the following essay, Brownlee perceives a double transgression in The Lusiads—Vasco da Gama's violation of epic values and Camões's transgression against the epic voice in writing his poem.]

Transgression in epic—its normative role—is one of contrast. The transgressive character or impulse in question is ritualistically eliminated in favor of the cultural values celebrated by the text. Little, if any, space exists for deviation in the matter of epic or the voice that articulates it. In the case of Camões'...

(The entire section is 5220 words.)