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.
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.
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.
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.