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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1950

Article abstract: Camões is the author of Os Lusíadas (1572; The Lusiads, 1655), the national epic of Portugal. Celebrating the voyage of Vasco da Gama, the poem recites the heroic history of the Portuguese nation.

Early Life

Luís de Camões (sometimes written Camoëns) was born in 1524, the year Vasco...

(The entire section contains 1950 words.)

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Article abstract: Camões is the author of Os Lusíadas (1572; The Lusiads, 1655), the national epic of Portugal. Celebrating the voyage of Vasco da Gama, the poem recites the heroic history of the Portuguese nation.

Early Life

Luís de Camões (sometimes written Camoëns) was born in 1524, the year Vasco da Gama died. He was probably born in Lisbon, although by 1527 his family was living with Luís’ grandparents in Coimbra; most likely they fled from Lisbon to escape the plague, which reached the capital in that year.

Luís’ father was Simão Vas de Camões, a gentleman of no great power or wealth. Little is known of Anna de Macedo or Sá, Luís’ mother, beyond her name. When his father returned to Lisbon to take a position in the king’s warehouse, Luís remained in Coimbra with his mother in the home of her family, who were influential people there.

As Luís grew into manhood, Coimbra was undergoing its own development into the educational center of Portugal. Under the guidance of John III, a great university was permanently established. In or near 1539, Luis entered the university and must have read Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, and Cicero in the original Latin. He learned to speak Spanish fluently and was also exposed to Italian, Greek, geography, history, music, and many other subjects. During this period, he developed many friendships with young aristocrats, from whom he learned courtly tastes and manners. He also suffered his first taste of love, leading to some of his earliest, most tragic lyrics. After the conclusion of his studies, he left Coimbra for Lisbon, never to return.

Life’s Work

When Camões traveled to Lisbon to make his fortune, in or near 1543, he began a life of adventure and accomplishment as exciting as any legendary hero’s. He started quietly enough: Camões took a position as a tutor to the young son of a count. During these years, he learned all he could of his country’s history and culture. Camões was considered charming and attractive. Surviving portraits from this time show a handsome man with reddish-gold hair and blue eyes. In 1544, in church, he saw a young girl, Catarina de Ataíde, and fell immediately and passionately in love with her. For the rest of his life, Camões would consider Catarina the great spiritual love of his life; many of his most beautiful lyrics are dedicated to her.

While still in Lisbon, Camões also wrote three well-received comedies: Auto del-Rei Seleuco, performed in 1542, Enfatriões, performed in 1540, and Filodemo, performed in 1555. As he became more widely known as a writer, Camões was drawn deeper into the inner circles of the court, where he found many who admired his talents and charms, and many who despised his smugness and sharp tongue. Never one to feign modesty, he dedicated impassioned poetry to a series of lovers, in spite of his devotion to Catarina. Finally, his brashness led to his disgrace at court, though the actual sins committed are uncertain. Because of the scandal, he enlisted, under duress, in the army in 1547, served two years in northern Africa, and lost the use of his right eye in a battle at Ceuta in Morocco.

Camões returned to Lisbon no wiser than he had left; his wild living soon earned for him the nickname Trincafortes, or Swashbuckler. His absence had done nothing to restore his favor with the court, but he found himself equally capable of carousing with a lower class of companion. For the next two years, the poet earned a meager living as a ghostwriter of poetry and did all he could to enhance his reputation as a scalawag. On June 16, 1552, the intoxicated poet was involved in a street fight with a member of the royal staff, whom he stabbed. Camões was promptly arrested and sent to prison, where he languished for eight months.

When the stabbed official recovered, Camões’ friends obtained the poet’s release, but under two conditions: He was to pay a large fine and to leave immediately on an expedition to India. On March 26, 1553, he set sail on the São Bento, playing out the dangerous existence of the warrior-adventurer described in his epic. The voyage to India took six months, and the seafaring life was not an easy one. Boredom, hunger, scurvy, cold, seasickness, and storms—Camões and his companions had suffered it all before the ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope.

In September, 1553, the ship reached the Indian city of Goa, the Portuguese seat of power and wealth. During his residence there, Camões observed the local people and their exotic costumes, manners, and traditions, and began writing The Lusiads. He took part in several expeditions up the Malabar Coast, along the shores of the Red Sea, and through the Persian Gulf.

Camões continued to write poetry and satire, and to work on his epic; his play Filodemo was performed for the governor. The success of his play nearly brought him advancement and a return home, but it was not to be. A satire mocking local officials was wrongfully attributed to him, and the officials concerned goaded him into an intemperate display of public indignation. To restore order, he was sent to a new position as trustee for the dead and absent in Macao, China.

In Macao, Camões was happy for a time. He enjoyed the company of a woman he loved, and he continued to write new poems and to polish his epic. The silks, jades, porcelains, and teas of China provided him with new material, and he spent much time alone dreaming and writing. After three years in Macao, he was accused, apparently falsely, of misappropriating funds. Camões was forced to sail again for Goa to stand trial.

On the voyage to Goa, fate intervened. A typhoon struck the ship off southern Indochina, and the ship was wrecked. Camões grabbed the box containing his manuscripts before he was swept off the ship; when he recovered his wits, he was floating on a scrap of wood, and the manuscripts were still in his hand. He struggled to shore and was taken to a fishing village on the Mekong River. In 1561, he somehow was able to return to Goa. Yet his troubles did not end there. He learned that Catarina, his great inspiration, had died, and a few days later he was again cast into prison to face the misappropriation charges. No evidence was produced against him, and he was released. Camões remained in India for several more years, living again a life of poverty.

In the spring of 1567, he arranged passage to Mozambique, and in 1569, after an absence of seventeen years, he set sail for home, arriving in Lisbon in 1570 with the completed manuscript of The Lusiads his only possession. He dedicated his time to finding a publisher for his greatest work. Finally, in 1572, the poem was published, and he was granted a small royal pension. Of the next several years of the poet’s life little is known, but he appears to have written almost nothing after his return to Lisbon. In 1580, he died of the plague, and his body was placed in an unmarked mass grave.

Summary

Had he written only the three comedies and his large variety of Rimas (1595; The Lyrides, 1803, 1884), Luís de Camões might be acknowledged as one of the finest European poets of the sixteenth century. With The Lusiads, however, Camões was able to capture the passion and nobility of a nation, and it is as the creator of the national epic of Portugal that he will always be remembered.

The Lusiads tells the dramatic story of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India, but in the process, da Gama as narrator relates virtually the entire history of “the sons of Lusus,” or the Portuguese. The Lusiads relies heavily on Camões’ classical learning, especially his reading of Vergil (for its structure and tone) and Ludovico Ariosto (for its ottava rima). Yet Camões brought much that was new to the epic. Of the epics written before his, none is grounded so heavily in actual events; Camões demonstrated how actual historical figures could be given the stature of mythical heroes. Unlike Homer or Dante or others, Camões described countries, peoples, and storms at sea that he had witnessed at first hand.

The Lusiads was immensely popular when it was published and has never been out of print since. Schoolchildren throughout the Portuguese-speaking world still memorize its opening stanzas, and the poem has been translated into English many times. English poets such as John Milton, George Gordon, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning have treasured and praised The Lusiads, which has been called “the first epic poem which in its grandeur and universality speaks for the modern world.”

Bibliography

Bell, Aubrey F. G. Luis de Camões. London: Oxford University Press, 1923. This is a brief treatment that includes a biography of the poet, a description of his moral character as revealed by the poetry, an analysis of The Lusiads, and a chapter entitled “Camões as Lyric and Dramatic Poet.” A difficult book, its approach assumes that the reader is familiar with previous biographies and with the major Romance languages.

Bowra, C. M. “Camões and the Epic of Portugal.” In From Virgil to Milton. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1945. An explication of The Lusiads as an epic poem, a poem of the ideal in manhood, demonstrating Camões’ indebtedness to classical tradition and especially to Homer, Vergil, and Ariosto. The discussion of how the poet reconciles his use of pagan divinities with his Christian message is particularly illuminating.

Burton, Richard Francis. Camoens: His Life and His Lusiads. 2 vols. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1881. This is a commentary on The Lusiads in five sections: biography; bibliography emphasizing English translations; history and chronology of Portugal through the death of the poet; geographical study of the world as it was understood by da Gama and Camões; and annotations of specific passages in the poem. Appendix includes a table of important episodes in the poem and a glossary.

Freitas, William. Camoens and His Epic: A Historic, Geographic, and Cultural Survey. Stanford, Calif.: Institute of Hispanic American and Luso-Brazilian Studies, Stanford University, 1963. A historic and geographical study using The Lusiads as a source for information on Portugal’s clashes with other nations. The final chapter traces the poem’s roots of nationalism through the next four centuries of Portuguese history. Includes a bibliography of biographical, critical, and historical works in several languages as well as twenty illustrations, including portraits and maps.

Hart, Henry H. Luis de Camoëns and the Epic of the Lusiads. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962. A comprehensive, readable biography, filled with colorful detail of the scenery, culture, and history through which the poet walked. Appendices provide several examples of Camões’ poems and a listing of books on the Orient which he may have read. Includes a generous bibliography and eight illustrations.

O’Halloran, Colin M. History and Heroes in the “Lusiads”: A Commemorative Essay on Camoëns. Lisbon: Commissão Executiva do IV Centenário da Publicação de “Os Lusíadas,” 1974. A short book examining the use Camões made of the history of Portugal in the creation of the heroes and kings in his poem. Discusses the poem as a record of and tribute to Portugal’s national drive to conquer new lands and convert the people there. It is interesting and accessible, but all quotes from the poem are in Portuguese.

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