The Lusiads is a literary epic that one approaches with certain expectations. The literary epic is a form created by the Roman poet Vergil in his Aeneid, based on Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) and similar works. Readers can expect the epic to include a statement of theme, an invocation of the muse, battles, a catalog of ships or some equivalent catalog, a trip to the underworld, a warrior-hero, and the “divine machinery,” that is, the Greek or Roman gods interfering in the action. Most of these elements, especially the gods, comprise The Lusiads, though their presence is a little disconcerting in a work so insistently Christian.
Luis de Camões, however, in his invocation, promises a new and loftier conception of valor than in the old epics whose day has passed. It is a rather bold move to transport the Vergilian epic wholesale into the modern world. He does leave out a few of the expected elements and supplies some genuinely original scenes. The Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), however, remains the primary model, though readers will notice also the influence of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) in the ottava rima stanza form and in the emphasis on love, sometimes bordering on the erotic. Even when the sailors are promised a story of heroism rather than of love in hearing the tale of The Twelve of England, the story turns out to be a rather romantic tale.
Camões does not “update” the element of interfering gods. The gods belong to the ancient world, and they always seem a little out of place in so alien a setting. Even in Homer and Vergil their interference in the action seems almost irrelevant, as a nearly omnipotent Zeus/Jupiter can always overrule them. However, adding a Christian God with power even beyond that of Jupiter makes the gods almost trivial. Their motives remain unconvincing. Bacchus is connected mythically with the founding of Portugal, but he opposes Portuguese adventure for the negligible reason that he does not want them to rival him as an explorer of Asia. Venus appears to have been chosen by Camões as the patron of the Portuguese for her sex appeal rather than for any symbolic or mythological reason.
What Vergil does subtly, Camões carries to the extreme. One of Vergil’s great triumphs as an epic poet is his artful incorporation of history, extending both back and forward from the story. All of canto 3 and most of canto 4 of The Lusiads are devoted to an account of Portuguese history—only one, though the longest, of such surveys. The poems also has a survey of the history of India.
Camões is not a dramatic writer in the sense that Homer is. Scenes are summarized rather than dramatized. When people do talk they often deliver long, rhetorical set-pieces that are more like essays than dialogue. He does slightly better with the gods than with the humans. Typical is the council of gods in canto 1, in which Jupiter gives a long speech favorable to the Portuguese, Bacchus speaks against them, and Venus for them. Both speeches, though, are merely summarized by Camões. Mars follows with an impassioned speech for the Portuguese, but the effect of this speech is blunted by the lack of any real interchange among the characters. This is, however, closer to drama than many others by the simple fact that there are two complete speeches.
The poem has a few truly memorable scenes. One is Venus’s...
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seductive appeal to Jupiter in canto 2. This scene faintly echoes Thetis’s appeal to Zeus in book 2 of theIliad, but the erotic undertone, along with the uncomfortable fact that she is Jupiter’s daughter, undercuts any sense of epic dignity. Similarly memorable and disconcerting is Venus stopping da Gama’s ship by pushing it back with her breasts. It is more difficult to recall any truly vivid scene involving only humans.
Camões does not seem to favor narration and dialogue. If one subtracts from the poem the historical and geographical surveys, the invocations to the muses, the passages addressed to King Sebastian, and the verse essays on various vices and virtues, only about half the poem remains as story; even this is made less by long essayistic speeches, other stories embedded in the narrative, and extended similes. Thus, the poem contains not much story, and what story there is leads to an anticlimax. Da Gama, after being in Calicut for some time, discovers that the local Muslims are plotting his destruction and so leaves India quickly and quietly without having achieved any clear agreement with the region’s ruler.
At this point the author faces a problem. The quest is over without a climax, and nothing remains but the return voyage. Camões’s solution is Venus’s island paradise, which does provide variety, color, and sex appeal; so large an intrusion of fantasy into a realistic voyage, however, is artistically questionable.
Considered in isolation, the most satisfactory part of The Lusiads is the historical survey in cantos 2 and 3. Despite its long digression, its energy and economy make it highly readable. A national epic is, by definition, a patriotic work, but no other epic so continuously celebrates its nation and its nation’s history.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the literary epic in the Vergilian manner was in favor with the educated reader, and when a detailed knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology was an essential part of literary language, The Lusiads was generally popular and admired throughout Europe. Modern readers, less disposed toward the form, are less likely to read The Lusiads, and if they do, they are less likely to overlook its structural weaknesses.