Luís de Camões Camões, Luís de - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Luís de Camões 1524?-1580

(Also Camoëns) Portuguese poet and playwright.

Camões is the author of Os Lusíadas (1572; The Lusiads), which has been hailed as the Portuguese national epic. Modeled on classical epics such as the Odyssey and, especially, the Aeneid, both in structure and in the presentation of its themes, The Lusiads relates the events of explorer Vasco da Gama's 1497-99 voyage to India. Camões' incorporation of Greek gods into this tale of nautical adventure accords da Gama an heroic stature and imbues his journey, which is presented as the culmination of Portuguese history, with an aura of the mythic and legendary. Although Camões met with mixed fortunes during his life, after his death he was elevated to the status of a national hero.

Biographical Information

Many details of Camões' life are unknown. His place of birth is uncertain; he may have been born in Lisbon, or in Coimbra, where he spent his early years. Although he was born into an aristocratic family, the family's fortunes were in decline, and his father, a sea captain, died in a shipwreck shortly after Camões was born. He attended the University of Coimbra, where he began writing poetry. As a young man Camões apparently traveled in elite circles in Lisbon. Tradition has it that he began a romance with Caterina de Ataide, a lady of the Queen's suite, to whom he addressed some of his early poems. Influential members of the royal court, however, opposed the affair and forced Camões from the court. It is known that by 1547 Camões had entered the military and was stationed in Ceuta in North Africa. He returned to Portugal and was arrested in 1552 for attacking an officer of the court. He was pardoned the following year, just prior to his departure for India. From Goa, the center of Portugese activity in India, Camões embarked on further journeys to Arabia, Macao—where he held a government post—and other distant ports. During this period, it is believed, he initiated work on The Lusiads. He did not return to Lisbon until 1570, after a lengthy three-year journey which included a two-year stay in Mozambique to recover from illness. Shortly after his return, penniless after his extended travels, Camões received royal permission to print his epic. In 1572 the poem, with a dedication to the young King Sebastian, was published. It was an immediate success, and Camões was granted a small royal pension. Financial security eluded him, however, and he died poor and disillusioned in 1580.

Major Works

Camões' early works include several verse plays, which while acknowledged for their contribution to the development of Portugese drama, are generally regarded as inconsequential. His lyric poetry, however, was highly influential, and Camões has been long celebrated as a preeminent love poet. Fusing elements of several traditions, including Petrarchan love poetry and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian and Spanish verse, Camões wrote redondilhas, canções, oitavas, sextinas, eclogues, odes, sonnets, and elegies that combine traditional materials with intensely personal experiences.

It is, of course, The Lusiads that is regarded as Camões' greatest achievement. The epic takes as its theme the heroism and patriotism of the Portuguese (or Lusitanian) people, embodied in the exploits of the explorer Vasco da Gama, the discoverer of a sea route to India and the first European to sail around the Cape of Good Hope at Africa's southern tip. The Lusiads is divided into ten sections, or cantos, comprised of 1102 ottava rima (eight-line) stanzas. The use of this form reflects the influence of such Renaissance epics as Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. However, as Camões repeatedly acknowledges throughout the poem, his direct models were the Greek and Roman epics—Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and particularly Virgil's Aeneid. The classical influence is also apparent in Camões' introduction of elements of mythology into the events of Portuguese history. His inclusion of Greek gods, who become directly involved in the progress of da Gama's voyage, invests his tale with a heroic dimension. Camões subsumes the pagan elements, however, within the poem's overall Christian ethos, in which the hand of God guides the destiny of the Portuguese people. Camões also departs from his classical models by introducing several striking innovations into the epic form, most notably the use of actual historical events as the basis of his story.

Critical Reception

The initial reception for The Lusiads was generally positive, first in his own country, then throughout Europe. According to Aubrey F. G. Bell, great Spanish authors including Lope de Vega, Calderón, and Tirso de Molina admired his work; Miguel Cervantes, called him “the most excellent Camões.” By the eighteenth century Camões became a critical favorite in France and England; he was praised by both Voltaire and Montesquieu and was admired by English Romantic poets, including William Blake. Modern critics of The Lusiads have generally focused on Camões' use of the epic genre and his classical influences, often viewing his innovations as reflective of the preoccupations of his time. Norwood H. Andrews, for example, has argued that Camões turned the epic form and classical mythology to his own nationalistic purposes. In a similar vein, Paul B. Dixon and Helder Macado have both suggested that The Lusiads adapts the epic genre to mix myth and history, allowing the poet to shape history to his own ends. Alexander A. Parker and W. C. Atkinson have examined the poem's relation to Renaissance political thought; and Gerald M. Moser, in his survey of interpretations of The Lusiads, has stressed the epic's continued influence on nationalist politics. Balachandra Rajan, examining the poem from the perspective of the Asian reader, has analyzed its eurocentric and imperialist bias. Other critical examinations of The Lusiads include Clementine C. Rabassa's study of women in the poem and Kenneth David Jackson's discussion of dialectical oppositions in the work.

Although Camões' shorter poems are greatly admired, and in the nineteenth century experienced a rise in popular acclaim, his lyric poetry has generally received less critical attention than The Lusiads. In his 1976 analysis of Égloga dos Faunos, Thomas R. Hart noted that his was the first study of the poem since that of the seventeenth-century critic Manuel de Faria y Sousa. Hart focused on the influence of Neoplatonism on the poem and the work's relation to the eclogue genre. Paul B. Dixon took a formalist approach to “Descalça vai pera a fonte,” examining the connections between the redondilha form and the “quality of insecurity” that pervades the piece.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

El rei Seleuco (play) c. 1545

Auto de Filodemo (play) 1555

Os Lusíadas [The Lusiads] (epic poem) 1572

Rimas (poetry) 1595

Obras completas. 5 vols. (collected works) 1946-47

Joaquim Nabuco (lecture date 1908)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: The Place of Camoens in Literature, n.p., 1908, 26 p.

[In this lecture, Nabuco outlines several major themes and motifs in The Lusiads: nationalism, seafaring life, imperialism, imagination, Renaissance culture, and the pursuit of greatness.]


When I had read the Lusiads for the first time, I at once wrote a book to tell of my wonder, offering for it the only apology that a tribute of love is always acceptable to a poet. I do not repent of having recorded in print that early impression, which has developed into years of faithful admiration and has kept company with my mind throughout life. Still I...

(The entire section is 7293 words.)

Aubrey F. G. Bell (essay date 1923)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Lusiads” and “Camões as Lyric and Dramatic Poet,” in Luis de Camões, Oxford University Press, 1923, pp. 75-105.

[In the first excerpt below, Bell examines the importance of The Lusiads to Portuguese history and notes Camões' classical and contemporary influences. In the second excerpt, Bell argues that Camões' true greatness is not as an epic poet, but as a lyric poet.]


Portuguese history, rich in heroic and romantic episodes, did not, during its first five centuries, inspire great epic poems. Yet in the sixteenth century, in Portugal's new glory, a great national epic had become an...

(The entire section is 5819 words.)

Frank Pierce (essay date 1954)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

[In this essay, Pierce offers an overview of past critical analyses of Camões' incorporation of pagan mythology into The Lusiads. The critic suggests that Camões was able to include references to pagan gods in his Christian epic by presenting them as merely allegorical figures.]

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...

(The entire section is 12760 words.)

Henry H. Hart (essay date 1962)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Epic of the Lusiads,” in Luis de Camöens and the Epic of the Lusiads, University of Oklahoma Press, 1962, pp. 189-202.

[In this excerpt, Hart considers the political and financial pressures that influenced Camões while writing The Lusiads. He also briefly discusses Camões career and reputation immediately following the publication of the epic, in addition to the changing political situation in Portugal.]

To serve thee with arm well trained in war,
Mind devoted to the Muse.

—Camoëns, Lusiads, X, 155

Evidently, as soon as possible after his return to Portugal Camoëns turned his energies to the...

(The entire section is 4573 words.)

Alexander A. Parker (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Age of Camões,” in The Texas Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4, Winter 1972, pp. 7-18.

[In the following essay, Parker outlines the historical events narrated in The Lusiads, providing the cultural and political contexts of the poem while suggesting that the epic transcends those particular events to reflect the spirit of the Renaissance.]

Camões was born in 1524 and died in 1580: his age is therefore the sixteenth century in transition from the High Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation. It would be pointless to attempt a survey of European history and culture in this period, for much. indeed most, of this would not be relevant to the poem we...

(The entire section is 5779 words.)

W. C. Atkinson (lecture date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Camoens and the Sons of Lusus, The Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council, 1973, 18 p.

[In this lecture, delivered in 1972 to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Lusiads,Atkinson praises Camões as the last great epic poet, offering a brief biography and a broad explication of his most famous poem. Atkinson focuses largely on Camões' neoclassical poetics, but also addresses his presentation of colonialism and his dedication of the epic to the young King Sebastian.]

“Never ask a poet,” Socrates counselled long ago, “the meaning of his poem. He will be the last person who can tell you.” Socrates subscribed, beyond...

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Gerald M. Moser (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Camões' Shipwreck,” in Hispania, Vol. 57, 1974, pp. 213-19.

[In this essay, Moser analyzes the shipwreck episodes of The Lusiads, including Camões' references to his own experiences in surviving a sea disaster. The critic argues that Camões uses these episodes to symbolically demonstrate the rewards as well as the dangers associated with human striving.]

While exiled in England as a young man, Portugal's foremost Romantic João Baptista de Almeida Garrett wrote his long poem about Camões. To Garrett, Camões seemed another example of how badly society treats the man of genius. Garrett accorded him the poetic justice that he did not experience in...

(The entire section is 4517 words.)

Thomas R. Hart (essay date 1976)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Camões' Égloga dos Faunos,” in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LIII, No. 3, July 1976, pp. 225-31.

[In this essay, Hart discusses the influences on Camões' Seventh Eclogue, including the impact of Neoplatonism on the poet's thought. He also focuses on Camões' atypical, ambiguous use of the satyr figure.]

Camões' Seventh Eclogue, traditionally known as the Égloga dos Faunos, is perhaps the one in which he moves farthest from the models provided by his immediate predecessors, Garcilaso and Sannazaro. There are, I believe, good reasons for considering it the finest of the eight eclogues generally accepted as authentic by...

(The entire section is 4938 words.)

Kenneth David Jackson (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Alabaster and Gold: A Study of Dialectics in Os Lusíadas,” in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 1980, pp. 199-206.

[In this essay, Jackson maintains that in The Lusiads, Camões establishes “dialetics” between such oppositions as Occident/Orient, sacred/profane and history/prophecy. Rather than creating ambiguity, he argues, these dualities express the power of myth and metaphor to create unity.]

Dialectics, in the sense of the nature of logical argumentation, although conveyed through poetic metonym or metaphor, has been perceived as having a central role in the poetic art of Camões. In an approach to Camões' lyric poetry...

(The entire section is 3543 words.)

Gerald M. Moser (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “What Did the Old Man of Restelo Mean?” in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 1980, pp. 139-51.

[In this essay, Moser outlines the variety of interpretations of the speech of the old man of Restelo at the close of Canto IV of The Lusiads, observing: “Every intellectual who has reflected on the episode of the Old Man has seen it in the light of his own times and circumstances.”]


In his Lusiads, Camões took great care to enhance the historical truth—as verdades—which he chose as his subject. By superimposing a plot of apparently pagan gods upon real events, he elevated as well as...

(The entire section is 5732 words.)

Clementine C. Rabassa (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Political Significance of Women in Canto III of the Lusiads,” in Luso-Brazilian Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 1980, pp. 187-97.

[In this essay, Rabassa examines Camões' treatment of the major female characters of Canto III of the Lusiads,—Teresa, mother of Afonso Henriques; Maria, daughter of Afonso IV; Inês; and Leonor, wife of Fernando. According to Rabassa, Camões “lifts his poem to sublimer heights by raising these women to the level of immortality, where they share the artistic and inspirational strength of classical and biblical figures with whom they are constantly cross-referenced.”]

Despite the fact that Camões writes...

(The entire section is 4804 words.)

Paul B. Dixon (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Poetics of Insecurity in Camões' ‘Descalça vai pera a fonte,’” in Revista de Estudios Hispanicos, Vol. 17, No.3, 1983, pp. 419-27.

[In this essay, Dixon offers a formalist explication of one of Camões' redondilhas. Examining the connections between poetic form and meaning, Dixon demonstrates the sense of uncertainty created in this poem by Camões' use of defamiliarization.]

Descalça vai pera a fonte
Lianor pela verdura;
Vai fermosa, e não segura.
Leva na cabeça o pote,
O testo nas mãos de...

(The entire section is 3163 words.)

Paul B. Dixon (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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

[In this essay, Dixon argues that Camões' shaping of events in The Lusiads places da Gama's expedition at the pinnacle of Portugese history, and in so doing makes the poem itself the high point of the country's literary history.]

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...

(The entire section is 2634 words.)

Helder Macedo (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Lusiads: Epic Celebration and Pastoral Regret,” in Portuguese Studies, Vol. 6, 1990, pp. 32-7.

[In this essay, Macedo evaluates the effect of Camões' “integration of pastoral values into the epic discourse” of The Lusiads. According to Macedo, the message of the poem is that “pastoral peace is the result of properly directed heroism.”]

The epic and the pastoral reflect contrasting historical perceptions. From the viewpoint of the pastoral, associated with the myth of the Golden Age, the very subject matter of epic celebration—voyages and quests, wars and conquests—reveals the degeneration and decadence that characterizes the...

(The entire section is 3131 words.)

Balachandra Rajan (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Lusiads and the Asian Reader,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 23, No. 1, March 1997, pp. 1-19.

[In this essay, Rajan examines The Lusiads in the context of European exploitation of Asian economies and peoples.]

In March 1553 four ships set sail from Lisbon along the route that Vasco da Gama had pioneered for Western commerce. Three were lost on the way. The fourth ship, the Sao Bento, dropped anchor in Goa only to be lost on the way back. Among those disembarking from the Sao Bento was a common soldier, Luis Vaz de Camoens, the author-to-be of The Lusiads.

Goa had been seized by Albuquerque in 1510, an...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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

Examines the sources of Camões' popularity as a lyric, rather than epic, poet in America in the 1800s.

Moutinho, Isabel. “From Eden on His Solitary Way: The Travels of Luis de Camões.” In Travellers' Tales, Real and Imaginary, In the Hispanic World and Its Literature, ed. Alun Kenwood, pp. 67-74. Madrid: Colección Voz Hispánica, 1992.

Examines Camões' use of historical travels to mirror spiritual journeys in his...

(The entire section is 168 words.)