Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Portugal’s mercantile empire began to cede its primacy in world affairs to the Spanish and Dutch; and like Spain after her, she was unable to convert the rapidity of her material gains to sustained economic influence. Lisbon was choked with corrupt officials, living off royal patronage, while avaricious merchants stacked their reis against a backdrop of inequality and exploitation. Yet Portugal shared with Spain a passion of blood and creed, and her empire still commanded respect for its cartographic extent and majesty of conception. It was an age of overseas conquest, lusty adventures, and lives of intense florescence but short duration.
It was against this tapestry that Portugal’s greatest poet appeared. Luiz Vaz de Camões, much like Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes, illustrates the truth of the maxim that one cannot write unless one has first lived. And live he did. He was born in 1524 at either Lisbon or Coimbra (we are not certain) from a father who derived an uncertain income from seafaring. He died in a shipwreck off Goa, in India, soon after his son Luiz was born, leaving his progeny with little more than hope and ambition.
We do not know the scope of his education, but it must have been one rich in religion and the classical authors, for his great poem, Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads), rings with both Catholic solemnity and Virgilian grandeur. As so often happened to young men of that era who were rich in eloquence but poor in family connections and influence, he offended some petty official and was sent into exile, first in Tagus and then in Ceuta.
He seems to have joined, or to have been made to join, the army at this point; at Ceuta he lost one of his eyes in either a military engagement or a duel. He then appears back in Lisbon, where he was jailed for eight months for his participation in a brawl while protecting some friends. Like Cervantes, he must have been relieved finally to take to the open ocean and find an outlet for his ambition; at age twenty-nine (1553) he shipped as a soldier aboard a vessel bound for India. Resentful of his sufferings in his native land, he is reported to have quoted Scipio Africanus as he departed by saying, “Ingrata patria, non possidebis ossa mea!” (Ungrateful country, you will not have my bones). It was on this six month voyage, in his free moments, that he began the composition of one of the world’s greatest works of epic poetry.
Camões was a soldier was well as a poet; and in India, the East Indies, Macao, and off the African and South Arabian coasts, he took part in numerous pitched battles as a member of the flagship of Fernão Alvares Cabral. He was known by the sobriquet of “Trincafortes” (Swashbuckler), and one suspects that the epithet was well-deserved. Through all of the privation, adventure, combat, and suffering, he kept working steadily on his poem, a work that he hoped would “increase the glory of Portugal and make Smyrna envious despite her being the birthplace of Homer.” One sonnet written in Africa boasted that he wielded a pen in one hand and a sword in the other (“One hand the pen, and the other the sword employed”).
Many stories are told of his adventures in the eastern seas: one tradition has him swimming ashore after a shipwreck near Cambodia with his manuscript in his mouth, preferring to rescue it in preference to his Chinese mistress Dinamene. He was apparently imprisoned many times for debt and general misbehavior, freed every time by sympathetic friends or superiors; we even find him marooned in Mozambique for nearly two years, his pecuniary miseries forestalling any return to Europe.
His poem finally found print in 1572, and King Sebastian found fit to provide him a modest pension, probably more for his services in the Far East than for his literary efforts. He died in 1580 at the age of fifty six (some sources given conflicting dates), heartbroken at the 1578 defeat of the Portuguese in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir.
His poem shaped the language of his country as much as Dante did Italian or Shakespeare did English. Its general theme is the epic voyage of Vasco da Gama to India; but into this historical narrative, Camões grafts gods, auguries, portents, storms, and similar Homeric flourishes to produce something strangely original. Those of us familiar with the modern rhythms of Brazilian Portuguese will find the antiquated language nearly inaccessible without the help of a decent translation. But even through the medium of translation, the grandeur and passionate resonance is irrepressible. The opening of the first canto has echoes of Virgil:
ARMS and the Heroes, who from Lisbon’s shore,
Through seas where sail was never spread before,
Beyond where Ceylon lifts her spicy breast,
And waves her woods above the watery waste,
With prowess more than human forced their way
To the fair kingdoms of the rising day:
What wars they waged, what seas, what dangers passed,
What glorious empire crowned their toils at last,
Ventrous I sing, on soaring pinions borne,
And all my country’s wars the song adorn;
What kings, what heroes of my native land
Thundered on Asia’s and on Africa’s strand:
Illustrious shades, who levelled in the dust
The idol-temples and the shrines of lust.
The Lusiads, said Voltaire, has “a sort of epic poetry never heard before. No heroes are wounded in a thousand different ways, no woman enticed away, and the world overturned for her cause.” It is a poem unabashedly singing the glories of travel and adventure, of lands, nymphs, and maidens conquered; its pages are not darkened by tiresome theologies or rhetorical rants, by geographical digressions or lists of names and families. Camões, like Joseph Conrad three hundred years later, had lived these oriental adventures, and when he sang of them, he sang of himself. It is the most triumphant poem ever written.
As we recite his lines to ourselves, we are conscious of a mystic connection, reaching through the ages, which all great travelers somehow share. In the halls of this pantheon we will find Columbus, Ibn Battuta, Hanno the Carthaginian, Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and a hundred others. Their deeds made them great, and their writings conferred on them immortality.
He was granted a modest pension in his final years, content to settle down, after having lived enough for ten lives. His fame grew steadily, a reward after a lifetime of struggle. One of his last letters contained this line: Em fim accaberey à vida, e verràm todos que fuy afeiçoada a minho patria. (“I am ending the course of my life, and the world will see how I loved my country”). Another reported statement by him, just before his death, struck a philosophic tone: “Who has seen on so small a theatre as my poor bed, such a representation of the disappointments of Fortune! And I, as if she could not herself subdue me, I have yielded and become of her party; for it were wild audacity to hope to surmount such accumulated evils.”
The end came quietly. To Camões, Fortune had both granted and taken away. But in the balance, he had managed to tip the scales in his favor. For as long as the Portuguese language is spoken, and as long as there is a Portugal, Camões and his poem will endure forever.