Luís Vaz de Camões Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.