The Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoëns (1524-1580), or Camões, is best known for "The Lusiads," which is among the best modern epics. He was a lyricist of rare perfection and is considered the greatest poet of the Portuguese language.
Luis de Camoëns was the son of Simão Vaz, from Coimbra, and Ana de Sá e Macedo. The date of his birth is fairly well established; however, such is not the case with his place of birth. Of the various cities which claim the honor, Lisbon has the best claim, with Coimbra a second possibility. He was a cavalleiro fidalgo (untitled nobleman) and was descended from a noble and wealthy family of Galician origin which had settled in Portugal in the late 14th century, as a result of the civil wars that raged in Castile. He was also related to the explorer Vasco da Gama, of whose heroic voyage to India he would sing in The Lusiads.
Camoëns spent his early years in Coimbra, where he studied at the university. He fondly remembered his life there in his poetry, and in later years he rightfully boasted of his studies. Chronological reasons make it doubtful that he studied with his uncle, the Augustinian friar Bento de Camoëns.
About 1543, with his studies completed, Camoëns went to Lisbon, where he entered the court circles as the protégé of the great noble Don Francisco de Noronha, Count of Linhares. Camoëns became a friend of the count's son, Don Antonio, and according to tradition acted as his tutor. A thick web of legends obscures these years of Camoëns's life, but it is certain that he chose a military career (a most fitting vocation for an impoverished nobleman) and that he was in North Africa by 1547. It has been deduced from his poetry that he joined for a time the garrison of Ceuta, the most important Portuguese trading center and military post in North Africa, and that he lost his right eye in a skirmish with the Moors. The legendary explanation for this North African interlude has it that Camoëns was banished there from the court because of a love affair. The name that tradition has most frequently linked with Camoëns is that of Donha Caterina de Ataide, presumably the "Natercia" of his poems.
Camoëns returned to Portugal, and it is from this period that the first document directly concerned with the poet survives—the Carta de perdão a Luis de Camões, issued by the King and dated Lisbon, March 7, 1553. According to this document, Camoëns, although very poor, was a gentleman in the royal household. The document further relates that in 1552 on the feast of Corpus Christi (June 16) Camoëns inflicted a sword wound on a royal servant and was arrested. The servant, however, eventually pardoned him, and the Carta represents royal ratification of the pardon.
The Carta also states that Camoëns was about to leave for India. In the last of four extant letters written from India, Camoëns wrote that he left his homeland without regret; once aboard ship he quoted the Roman general Scipio Africanus: "Ingrata patria, non possidebis ossa mea" (Ungrateful fatherland, you will not possess my bones). He described his life in Lisbon as "três mil [dias] de más linguas, peores tenções, danadas vontades, nascidas de pura inveja" (three thousand days of evil tongues, worse intentions, rampant ill-will, all born of sheer envy).
Camoëns sailed on the São Bento, and in September 1553, after a 6-month voyage, reached Goa, the commercial and military capital of Portuguese India. But he did not stay there long; in November he joined the viceroy Menezes in a punitive expedition against the Rei da Pimenta in Malabar. The viceroy led his forces to success, and Camoëns later wrote in his Elegia VI, "Com morte, com incêndios os punimos" (We punished them with death and fire). In February 1554 he set out on a new expedition, this time under the command of the viceroy's son, Don Fernando de Menezes. The armada sailed to the gates of the Red Sea and thence up the Arabian coast. Camoëns commemorated this journey in his Canção VIII. The expedition returned to Goa in November. When the new viceroy, Francisco Barreto, was invested in Goa in June 1555, Camoëns contributed to the festivities with his Auto de Filodemo and Satyra do Torneio.
At this point facts concerning Camoëns's life again become scarce. Three years later, in 1558, however, he was in Macao, where he was in charge of the property in China of his dead or absent countrymen. There he started, or continued, to write The Lusiads (it is impossible to give an exact date for the poem's inception). Tradition has it that he wrote in a grotto that bears his name to this day. But he was soon accused of maladministration and was placed on board a ship for Goa.
On his return to Goa in 1561, Camoëns was jailed. After many vicissitudes he accompanied his friend Pedro Barreto to the latter's new post as governor of Mozambique.
This was the beginning of Camoëns's long journey back to Portugal, which was started in 1567 and ended in 1570. His fortunes in Mozambique went from bad to worse, and in the course of the 2 years he spent there he was left almost destitute. The historian Diogo de Couto, who visited him there, relates that his friends had to give him food. With the help of Couto and others, however, Camoëns was able to embark on the Sánta Clara in November 1569, at long last homeward bound. He reached Portugal on April 7, 1570, after an absence of 17 years.
Camoëns brought back no fortune; all he had was the manuscript of his epic poem, which he was intent on publishing. Unfortunately, since Lisbon was still in the grips of the plague, the circumstances in Portugal were not propitious. But he forged ahead, and on Sept. 24, 1571, he obtained a royal license to print the poem. Published the following year, the poem met with immediate success. Sebastian, the young king of Portugal, tacitly recognized it as the national epic by awarding the poet an annual pension. By 1580 two different Spanish translations of the poem had been printed. The pension was renewed, and after the poet's death it was transferred to his mother. Camoëns died on June 10, 1580, on the eve of his country's annexation to Spain. He was buried in the church of St. Anna, but his tomb was destroyed by the famous earthquake of 1755.
The works of Camoëns fall into the three categories of classical poetics: dramatic, lyric, and epic. His three extant dramatic works are his least important compositions. Amfitrões is a youthful work of little value; it does, however, show his thorough grounding in classical literature, since it is derived directly from Amphitruoby the Roman dramatist Plautus. El rei Seleuco (ca. 1545) is derived from the Greek author Plutarch; it has been traditionally believed that this play brought Camoëns the disfavor of King John III, who supposedly thought that the plot too closely paralleled his own life. The Auto de Filodemo (1555) is based upon a series of fantastic chivalresque adventures. Although Camoëns contributed to the development of Portuguese drama by giving restraint and depth to the auto (a short medieval play on a sacred or biblical subject) of Gil Vicente, he had little lasting influence.
As a lyric poet, however, Camoëns had a great number of imitators and disciples. He is one of the great European poets of love. He excels in his use of both the traditional Peninsular meters and of the recently imported Italian forms; he writes as well in Spanish as in Portuguese. Thematically and ideologically his place falls in the middle of that wide avenue of love poetry that extends from Petrarch through Neoplatonism well into the 17th century. Camoëns's inspiration was eclectic—he was influenced by the Latin poet Horace and the Italian poet Pietro Bembo, among others—but his sonnets have a texture and temperament completely his own.
Although the first edition of Camoëns's Rimas was not published until 1595 in Lisbon by Fernão Rodrigues Lobo Soropita, his poems had previously had wide circulation in various manuscript forms. Since Rodrigues Lobo was not working with an autograph copy, his edition contains alien material. Later collections of Camoëns's poetry, most notably the grossly inflated edition of the Viscount of Juromenha (1860-1869), contain a large number of inauthentic works. But the meticulous work of Wilhelm Stork and Carolina Michaëlis de Vasconcellos led to accurate attributions, and the text of the best modern editions (Rodrigues-Lopes Vieira, Cidade) is reliable.
Camoëns's masterpiece is, however, his epic poem Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads or Sons of Lusus). Cervantes called it "the treasure of Portugal." This work is in the manner of the Renaissance epic, as perfected by the Italian poets Matteo Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto, and it is therefore written in ottava rima, with 1102 stanzas divided into 10 cantos. Since Lusus is the mythical and eponymous hero of Lusitania (the Latin name for Portugal), the poem's title indicates that Camoëns is concerned with Portuguese history and achievements. Unlike his Italian models, Camoëns did not choose a remote and legendary subject; but following the manner of the Spanish epics, from the anonymous Cantar de Mio Cid (ca. 1140) to Don Alonso de Ercilla's La Araucana (1569), he wrote of contemporary events or of those well documented by historical sources. Throughout The Lusiads Camoëns praises the courage and enterprise of the Portuguese explorers, and Vasco da Gama, the discoverer of the sea route to India, is the central figure of the epic. Camoëns sees Vasco da Gama and his Portuguese force as defenders of the Faith, martial evangelizers who triumph over man and nature. In a manner typical of the Renaissance epic, this heroic poem, which has a most Christian and historical subject matter, frequently uses elements taken from pagan mythology in order to enhance the epic stature of the Portuguese nation.
The standard modern study in English of Camoëns's life and works is the thoroughly researched, although sometimes outdated, book of Aubrey F. G. Bell, Luis de Camões (1923). More recent is Henry H. Hart, Luis de Camoëns and the Epic of the Lusiads (1962). Excellent approaches to the reading of Os Lusiadas from different perspectives are in C. M. Bowra, From Virgil to Milton (1945), and Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949).