(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Vasco da Gama is the chief character in The Lusiads, but he is not its hero. The poem’s title derives from Lusitania, the Roman name for the province that roughly encompasses present-day Portugal. The nation of Portugal and all of its people are the true heroes of this patriotic epic.

The Lusiads is written in ottava rima, a rhyme scheme of Italian origin that was commonly used in Renaissance epic poetry. An ottava rima stanza has eight lines with three rhymes, following the rhyme scheme abababcc. It is a flowing meter that allows the narrative to move smoothly, and the long, assonant rhymes have a kind of lulling quality.

The Lusiads begins in medias res, or in the middle of the action. Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese crewmen are in the East African kingdom of Malindi, having survived rough weather and an ambush. The local king encourages Gama to recite the history of the Portuguese people, which he does, going back to ancient times.

Gama tells the story of the Roman general Quintus Sertorius, whose successful rebellion drove a repressive regime out of Hispania (now Portugal and Spain). Gama then describes the growth of Portugal from a small principality to a significant European state. The story culminates in book 4, with the 1385 Battle of Aljubarrota, in which the Portuguese defeated the Spanish kingdom of Castile and restored the Portuguese monarch to the throne....

(The entire section is 526 words.)