By Kate Milner Rabb
Public Domain Books
“The discovery of Mozambique, of Melinda, and of Calcutta has been sung by Camoens, whose poem has something of the charm of the Odyssey and of the magnificence of the Aeneid.”
The Portuguese epic, the Lusiad, so-called from Lusitania, the Latin name for Portugal, was written by Luis de Camoens.
He was born in Lisbon in 1524, lost his father by shipwreck in infancy, and was educated by his mother at the University of Coimbra. On leaving the university he appeared at court, where his graces of person and mind soon rendered him a favorite. Here a love affair with the Donna Catarina de Atayde, whom the king also loved, caused his banishment to Santarem. At this place he began the Lusiad, and continued it on the expedition against the Moors in Africa sent out by John III., an expedition on which he displayed much valor and lost an eye. He was recalled to court, but jealousies soon drove him thence to India, whither he sailed in 1553, exclaiming, “Ungrateful country, thou shall not possess my bones.” In India his bravery and accomplishments won him friends, but his imprudences soon caused his exile to China, where he accumulated a small fortune and finished his poem. Happier circumstances permitted him to return to Goa; but on the way the ship laden with his fortune sank, and he escaped, saving only his poem. After sixteen years of misfortune abroad, Camoens returned to Lisbon in 1569. The pestilence that was then raging delayed the publication of the Lusiad until 1572. The poem received little attention; a small pension was bestowed on the poet, but was soon withdrawn, and the unfortunate Camoens was left to die in an almshouse. On his death-bed he deplored the impending fate of his country, which he alone could see. “I have loved my country. I have returned not only to die on her bosom, but to die with her.”
The Lusiad tells the story of the voyage of Vasco da Gama. The sailors of Prince Henry of Portugal, commander of the Portuguese forces in Africa, had passed Cape Nam and discovered the Cape of Storms, which the prince renamed the Cape of Good Hope. His successor Emmanuel, determined to carry out the work of his predecessor by sending out da Gama to undertake the discovery of the southern passage to India. The Portuguese were generally hostile to the undertaking, but da Gama, his brother, and his friend Coello gathered a company, part of which consisted of malefactors whose sentence of death was reversed on condition that they undertake the voyage, and reached India.
The Lusiad is divided into ten cantos, containing one thousand one hundred and two stanzas. Its metre is the heroic iambic, in rhymed octave stanzas.
The Lusiad is marred by its mythological allusions in imitation of Homer and Virgil, but these are forgotten when the poet sings in impassioned strains of his country’s past glory.
The Lusiad is simple in style; its subject is prosaic; it is a constant wonder that out of such unpromising materials Camoens could construct a poem of such interest. He could not have done so had he not been so great a poet, so impassioned a patriot.
Camoens was in one sense of the word a practical man, like Ariosto; he had governed a province, and governed it successfully. But he had also taken up arms for his country, and after suffering all the slights that could be put upon him by an ungrateful and forgetful monarch, still loved his native land, loved it the more, perhaps, that he had suffered for it and was by it neglected. He foresaw, also, as did no one else, the future ruin of his country, and loved it the more intensely, as a parent lavishes the fondest, most despairing affection on a child he knows doomed to early death.
The Lusiad is sometimes called the epic of commerce; it could be called far more appropriately the epic of patriotism.
Bibliography and Criticism, the Lusiad.
J. Adamson’s Memoirs of Life and Writing of Camoens, 2 vols., 1820 (vol. 2, account of works of Camoens in Portuguese and other languages, and of the works founded on his life or suggested by his writings);
R. F. Burton’s Camoens, his Life and his Lusiad, 2 vols., 1881;
M. W. Shelley’s Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, vol. 3;
F. Bouterwek’s History of Spanish and Portuguese Literature, 1823 (Tr. by T. Ross);
Chambers’s Repository, no. 32, Spirit of Camoens’s Lusiad; W. T. Dobson’s Classic Poets, pp. 240-278;
Montgomery’s Men of Italy, iii., 295;
Sismondi’s Literature of the South of Europe, ii., 475-528;
Southey’s Sketch of Portuguese Literature in vol. i. of Quarterly Review, 1809;
Fortnightly Review, i., 184;
Quarterly, i., 235;
Monthly Review, clx., 505;
Edinburgh Review, 1805, vi., 43;
New England Magazine, liii., 542;
Revue de Deux Mondes, 1832, vi., 145.
STANDARD ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS, THE LUSIAD. The Lusiad, Tr. by J. J.
Aubertin, 2 vols., 1881 (Portuguese text and English Tr., in verse);
The Lusiad, Englished by R. F. Burton, 2 vols., 1881;
The Lusiad, Tr. into Spenserian verse by R. F. Duff, 1880;
The Lusiad, Tr. by Sir Richard Fanshawe, 1655;
The Lusiad, Tr. by W. J. Mickle, 3 vols., Ed. 5, 1807;
The Lusiad, Tr. by T. M. Musgrave (blank verse), 1826;
The Lusiad, Tr. by Edward Quillinan, with notes by John Adamson, 1853.