Epopée, Recueil Ouvert : Section 2. L'épopée, problèmes de définition I - Traits et caractéristiques

Hélio J. S. Alves

Luís de Camões’ Os Lusiadas in uncharted waters


« Os Lusiadas de Luís de Camões en eaux inconnues »
Toute nouvelle approche critique de Os Lusiadas (1572) de Luís de Camões doit s’appuyer sur des preuves documentées. Cependant, les "lectures biaisées" (Balachandra Rajan) ont constitué une grande partie de la réception critique du poème, notamment au cours de ce siècle. Cet essai tente d’apporter un correctif à ces lectures. À cette fin, il fournit un résumé des conditions dans lesquelles Os Lusiadas a été publié pour la première fois, les principaux principes du discours historique de Camões, quelques spécificités du genre tel qu’il était pratiqué en Ibérie à l’époque et une brève description de l’utilisation extraordinaire mais problématique de la mythologie classique par Camões. Dans l’ensemble, cet essai se veut une synthèse de mes opinions actuelles sur le poète et le poème.


Any new critical approach to Luís de Camões’ Os Lusiadas (1572) must depend on documented evidence. However, “skewed readings” (Balachandra Rajan) have formed a large part of the poem’s critical reception, not least in this century. This essay attempts to provide a sobering corrective to these readings. For this purpose, it provides a summary of the conditions in which Os Lusiadas was first published, the main tenets of Camões’s historical discourse, some specifics of genre as it was practised in Iberia at the time and a brief description of Camões’s extraordinary but problematic use of Classical mythology. In all, this essay is intended as a synthesis of my present views on poet and poem.

Texte intégral

Camões as the Crown’s poet

1Os Lusiadas (1572) was designed as an artistic product favouring the kingship and policies of Manuel I (1495-1521) in order to reinforce compliance with the renewal, during the contemporary reign of king Sebastião (1557-1578), of the keystones of Manueline ideology. Camões’s poem follows closely the official chronicles of the Portuguese empire by Barros (1552, 1553, 1563), Castanheda (1552-1561) and Osório (1571) – the latter a rewriting in Latin of the official chronicle of Manuel’s reign, Damião de Góis’ Crónica de D. Manuel (1566). Paramount in this historical epic is the representation of the kingdom as ethnically cohesive and politically united around the objective of invading North Africa. We cannot know if this was Camões’s epic project from the start ; maybe it was not. But there is no doubt that, at least after his return to Portugal from India and Mozambique in April 1570, he wrote, or rewrote, substantial parts of the poem in unequivocal political and ideological terms.

  • 1 Camões was a cavaleiro-fidalgo of the king’s household at least since March...

2The king’s license for printing Os Lusiadas, dated 24th September 1571, was given in direct response to Camões’s own petition. As the license states, it was granted even before the Inquisition had a look at the poem. In accordance with this, the poem was printed as quickly as the poor technological means of the time made possible. Another license, conceding the poet an allowance, the famous tença of 15,000 reis to be paid annually from the 12th March 1572, specifically mentions Camões’ abilities as writer and his fairly high rank as the royal household’s cavaleiro-fidalgo.1 In both licenses, king Sebastião praises the poem and its subject in extraordinary terms, and says that he expects further services from Camões, including literary ones. It is clear from this unprecedented series of perquisites that Camões was treated by the Crown in an unusually favourable manner. This undoubtedly reflects the understanding of Os Lusiadas as a highly useful text in the circles of dominant political power in Portugal at the time. Camões became as close as there was to an official poet.

Os Lusiadas speaks for the renewal of military intervention in North Africa and against ‘foreigners’

  • 2 Eclogue I, Que grande variedade vão fazendo, ll. 369-372.

  • 3 Octaves/Eights beginning Mui alto Rei, a quem os Céus em sorte.

  • 4 On the other hand, continuing imperial efforts in Asia were not met with mu...

3The opening of Os Lusiadas (statement of facts and dedication), the description of Portugal itself (Canto III), the verse on the conquest of Ceuta (Cantos IV and VIII), the judgements passed on Afonso V’s wars in North Africa and Spain, king Manuel’s dream, the Old Man of Restelo’s speech (all in Canto IV), Vasco da Gama’s prayer during the storm (Canto VI), the narrator’s opening speech of Canto VII, Paulo da Gama’s description of Fuas Roupinho as captain in a « just and holy war » (Canto VIII), the close of Canto IX and much of Canto X, including the epilogue, are openly directed towards encouraging the Portuguese and their king to reinvest in a policy of military invasion and occupation of Muslim North Africa. This is consistent with other lines of poetry, in an eclogue, where Camões’ wish for a new Portuguese military intervention in Morocco is clear.2 Furthermore, after the publication of his epic, Camões wrote a short panegyric in the same stanzaic form of Os Lusiadas, praising king Sebastião and expressing again the hope that he would take his armies southwards.3 The characters and the voices in all these poems and episodes are different, but they say the same thing.4

  • 5 His trovas in traditional metre known as Disparates seus na Índia, ll. 71-80.

4Simultaneously, Camões builds an entire anti-Other narrative system, justifying, post facto, king Manuel’s expulsion of Jews and Moors, and his persecution of their religions. In the poem, Muslims are incapable of nobility, courage or wisdom, and the epithets Camões grants them are invariably smearing. They deserve merit only if they help the Portuguese (the ruler of Malindi ; II, 75ff.) and if they convert to Christianity (Monçaide ; IX, 15). Jews, on the other hand, are absent from the poem, even though the official chronicles of Góis and Osório vehemently criticized king Manuel for his decision to convert them to Christianity by force – there is only one known lyric poem by Camões that refers to Jews, and the tone is derogatory.5 Asians and southern Africans fare little better, to say the least.

The shaping of Portuguese history in Os Lusiadas

5In favouring a return by Sebastião to his great-grandfather’s conceptions, Portuguese history itself had to be reshaped.

  • 6 One of them, Diogo Bernardes, rejected implicitly Camões’s complaints (with...

  • 7 Francisco Sá de Miranda (1487-1558) admired the Prince Regent Pedro ; André...

6For this purpose, Camões chose to omit certain of its defining moments, such as the insurrections and civil wars in the times of king Sancho II, king Dinis and king Fernando, the disastrous defeat at Tangiers – substituted by the myth of the “Holy Prince” (Infante Santo) dying voluntarily for his country – and the years of Prince Pedro’s Regency, with his murder at Alfarrobeira. In addition, he had nothing to say about the construction of the walls around Lisbon (1373), about king Fernando’s famous land management code (Lei das Sesmarias), about the architectural masterpieces in Batalha and Belém, about Portuguese poets, artists or pioneering scientific endeavours. In fact, Camões complained that poetry, culture and knowledge were ignored and despised in Portugal (V, 97-98). This is all the more noticeable because contemporaries did not share these views and omissions.6 Other poets mentioned and praised Portuguese historical figures and cultural milestones that Camões ignored.7

  • 8 On the manipulation of historical causality in Portuguese 16th-century hist...

  • 9 In Os Lusiadas, King João II is a “knight” (I, 13 ; IV, 58-59) and a sender...

7As Castanheda had done between the first version (1551) and the second (1554) of Book I of his chronicle, Camões transferred the conception of the maritime voyages and the discovery of India to Prince Henry « the Navigator », who was Duke of Viseu (1394-1460), and Manuel I himself, who inherited the Dukedom.8 This happens in Canto IV, through the victory at Ceuta and king Manuel’s dream ; Canto V, via the description of Gama’s voyage from Lisbon to East Africa ; and Canto VIII, where Henry is praised again as the conqueror of Ceuta and discoverer of the seas. King João II (1455-1495), the true author of the Plano da Índia, according to Castanheda’s 1551 text, the sovereign under whose rule the Cape of Good Hope was named and sailed round, the monarch who prepared everything for the voyage to India later performed by Vasco da Gama, is exempted from commanding maritime expansion.9

  • 10 João de Barros, Segunda Década da Ásia (1553), Book V, chapter 7.

  • 11 Jorge Borges de Macedo, Os Lusíadas e a História, 1979, p. 248.

8It is true that Camões is openly critical of some figures and actions. He clearly felt personal resentment against the descendants of Vasco da Gama (V, 99) and possibly other aristocrats too (VII, 81-82 ; VIII, 39-42) for not supporting his poetic endeavours. The poet makes a braggart out of Gama and ridicules his ignorance and ineptitude, even though he uses him as a protagonist to a greater extent than he uses anyone else. But if his distaste for Vasco da Gama’s family must refer to something in Camões’s life that remains obscure, the poet’s other complaints are firmly grounded in predominant, if not official, contemporary discourse. Through metaphor, he admonishes king Sebastião himself for listening to toad-eaters and tartuffes, and preferring hunting rather than the company of women in preparation for marriage (IX, 26-28). This, though, is only one of innumerable instances of similar criticisms during the same period, as some critics have shown. Camões also raises his voice against king Manuel for letting Duarte Pacheco Pereira die without relevant compensation (X, 22-25), but there was official precedent : in the Crónica de D. Manuel, Góis had been, if anything, even harsher. In the case of Afonso de Albuquerque against Rui Dias for sleeping with a slave woman (X, 45-49), Camões angrily censures the vice-roy for condemning his captain to death. In this section, however, the poet imitates the official chronicle by Barros and takes the view of the vast majority, Albuquerque’s captains, as well as Barros’s own implicit opinions.10 Just before telling the story, the chronicler had described Albuquerque’s character as choleric to a point that he always needed someone to stand by his side to control his temper. Furthermore, Camões somewhat belittles his own protestations by excusing Rui Dias on the grounds that he was having an affair with a « vile, lecherous and dark slave » (X, 47). Camões writes for all the fidalgo captains, for the censorship of Albuquerque’s individual ireful conduct and for race and class divisions, more so and more vehemently than any of his sources. On the struggle between Pêro de Mascarenhas and Lopo Vaz de Sampaio for the legitimate title of vice-roy (X, 56-60), Camões openly takes the side of Mascarenhas and complains about unnamed powers treating him improperly. Again, the poet took no risks : Mascarenhas went back to Lisbon in full honours and was appointed member of the king’s council, while Sampaio was punished harshly and publicly, was forbidden to see his family and waited for trial, in one historian’s expression, under “extremely serious accusations”.11

  • 12 Diogo do Couto, O Primeiro Soldado Prático, 2001, pp. 559-562.

9When Camões praises rather than condemns, the terms and scale of the praise are no less committed to the predominant and official views. Nuno da Cunha (1487-1539), in spite of his honourable decade-long service as vice-roy in India, ended up strongly displeasing to the Crown and would have been put in chains on arrival in Lisbon if he had not died on board first. The fact that Cunha was a victim of calumny and of the king’s maltreatment was a familiar one in Camões’ lifetime. Barros, who died in 1570, openly says so in the remarkable last chapters of his fourth Década, printed only in 1615. Another historian and moral writer, Diogo do Couto, says so too, near the ending of his Soldado Prático (oldest version).12 Yet, Os Lusiadas allows Nuno da Cunha very little space and mentions no injustices (X, 61). On the other hand, the poem puffs up Martim Afonso de Sousa (X, 63-67), whose despicable campaign of slander against Cunha and atrocious behaviour during his three-year governorship were well-known. But Sousa was royally rewarded and invited into the king’s council many years before his death in November 1570 ; this must be why Camões applied to him the words “em conselho, sábio e bem cuidado”, “wise and judicious in council” (X, 67).

Camões’ personality as author is not what it has seemed

  • 13 “Camões fait au lyrisme une large part (...) Le lyrisme, c’est la présence...

  • 14 Instances of book-length studies which sustain these views, in chronologic...

  • 15 Amongst many, one example of an object of such speculative writing is the ...

10The dominant tendency of critics and historians of literature has been to consider Os Lusiadas a poem where its author’s independent personality, strong moral conscience and individual courage come through most vividly in his first-person critical pronouncements against corruption and other vices in Portugal and the East. Often enough, the poem has been seen as more lyric than epic because of this.13 Some have even written that the poem becomes more of an anti-epic, a tragedy or a comedy than an epic.14 There has also been much speculation about Camões as an outcast, a defector and/or a member of a secret society.15

11The text and its position within Portuguese sixteenth-century historical and moral discourse cannot confirm these views. In all, there is no moral intervention with a named target in Os Lusiadas that is not endorsed by a previous official chronicle or contemporary mainstream opinion. The one exception is Vasco da Gama and his descendants, accused in Canto V (97-100) of not favouring the arts and, in particular, of ignoring the poet himself. The framework for this censure, though, was not unpopular : the passage is soaked in the words and tone of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, the greatest best-seller of the time. Otherwise, Camões’ statement that he will not praise those who do not deserve praise (VII, 83-87) is probably well-intentioned but is simply false. From king Sancho II (III, 91-94), in the thirteenth century, to Martim Afonso de Sousa, whom he probably knew personally in India, Camões distributes emphatic praise and blame according to highly questionable moral criteria. Still, whatever one may think about the author’s personality, those criteria challenged neither the king’s nor the most widespread perceptions of history and of the current state of affairs. The privilege given by king Sebastião for the printed publication of Os Lusiadas and the reward, however meagre, he gave the poet show considerable awareness of how the poem served the Crown’s immediate interests.

Os Lusiadas is indeed an epic poem

  • 16 This should not distract the reader from noticing that the claims against ...

12Camões’s poem is indeed epic insofar as his time understood the features of the genre. Os Lusiadas follows his close Iberian predecessors (poems by Alonso de Ercilla or now little-known authors such as Garrido de Villena, Sempere, Zapata, and others) in adopting historical authority or credible witness accounts, including first-person ones, about a multiplicity of events deemed worthy of celebration in verse.16

13More specifically, Camões concurred with his countryman and epic predecessor Corte-Real in that this verse celebration should be organized around a number of high-ranking historical, or even living, Portuguese treated individually. Camões presents a portrait gallery of protagonists. This has been noticed at least since the first half of the seventeenth century (an unpublished critic by the name of Manuel Pires de Almeida) and by some twentieth century writers, but has been resisted fiercely by mainstream historiography and pedagogy. The latter’s point, of course, is that the epic represents Portugal and its people’s “imperial” or “universalist” (depending on the speaker’s ideological bias) “vocation”. And yet, contrary to customary statement, there is no collective hero in Os Lusiadas. The epic is not called the Lusiad (Lusiada, in Portuguese) as it should if it were to represent collective actions like the Iliad or the Aeneid. Rather, Camões’ title imitates Classical epic titles while transforming the one into the many, the singular or collective noun into the plural. The statement of facts and the dedication are very long (sixteen octaves : I, 1-3 and 6-18) partly because they include lists for a large number of heroes performing very different actions. The opening of the poem proposes to celebrate warriors but also kings, sea voyagers and empire builders who never fought. The poet goes as far as declaring he will sing of those who performed any kind of noteworthy deed (obra) :

E aqueles que por obras valerosas
Se vão da lei da Morte libertando,
Cantando espalharei por toda parte. (I, 2)

  • 17 The octaves/eights Como nos vossos ombros tão constantes, written in 1560-...

14Moreover, the text makes clear that all of these protagonists represent an élite, people “above the vulgar file” (assinalados ; I, 1). Os Lusiadas speaks loudly enough in favour of aristocratic pedigree, blaming monarchs for rewarding individuals of low ancestry (VIII, 41) while recommending cavaleiros like Camões himself as the empire’s mainstay (X, 151-155). Heroes can be as varied as Lady Inês de Castro (III, 119-135), a religious martyr from a patrician family like Gonçalo da Silveira (X, 93) or even the author of the epic itself (VII, 79 ; X, 128). But that is as far as it goes. For the common people, Camões has little more than contempt : it is nameless and vile (IV, 41), and its main virtue is to obey (V, 71-72 ; X, 148). This is equally true of his lyric poetry.17 Like Don Quixote, the poet feels an obligation, as cavaleiro, to protect the people (por salvar o povo miserando ; IV, 52), but it certainly would never occur to him to make a hero out of it. Rather than one main singular or collective hero, then, Os Lusiadas represents different illustrious individuals in action, a multiplicity of aristocratic heroes in several types of performance.

  • 18 On this subject, see especially Isabel Almeida, “Poesia, furor e melancoli...

  • 19 « The figure of the Poet in the Gerusalemme liberata is no longer Ariosto’...

15Specifically too, the oft-claimed exceptional character of Camões self-descriptions as poet and man, the intrusions of his dramatis persona in a genre that was, theoretically at least, almost void of lyricism in the quasi-autobiographical sense, derives from institutionalized practice at least since Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso became the most imitated of modern epics. Os Lusiadas owes most of what Robert Durling called the figure of the poet in Renaissance epic to the Furioso, including the accusations and lamentations interspersed within the narrative or placed at the end of Cantos, such as the long apostrophe at VII, 78-87.18 It is true that the tendency to exalt the author in first-person speech suffered a crisis once Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) took the place of Ariosto as the Western canonic masterwork of epic on a par with the poems of Homer and Virgil. Neoclassical epic following Tasso’s model almost completely removed the poet’s ‘I’ from the text.19 But Camões was writing a little earlier, under the heavy influence of the Italian romanzi and their Iberian imitators. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the author’s self-description within the fabric of Os Lusiadas shares a tendency with other Iberian epic poets who had Ariosto’s self-celebration as a model.

16Like Camões, then, other authors of the 1550s, 1560s and 1570s were writing historical epics about many different heroes and actions, including descriptions of their own pseudobiographical personae. All of these features belonged to the genre’s immediate context. In this sense, Os Lusiadas conformed to the current understanding of what constituted an epic poem.

Classical mythology and its problems

17Greek and Roman mythology had been included often in Italian and Iberian poems, from 15th and 16th-century humanistic epic in Latin to Alonso Hernández’ Historia Partenopea of 1516 in Spanish octaves of arte mayor and Francesco Bolognetti’s Costante (1565-66) in Italian ottava rima. Those poets often repeated structures found in the Aeneid and rewritten from Homer, like assemblies, interviews between gods, Jupiter commanding Mercury as his messenger etc. Camões had therefore good examples on which to lean, since the Aeneid was the unquestioned principal source for all thoughts about the epic – the beginning of Os Lusiadas deliberately imitates Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab orbis, the first line of Vergil’s poem.

18In poetic inception, though, Camões goes further than any Renaissance author before him, not because he employs Graeco-Roman gods and myths in abundance, but because he adopts Classical theological culture to lay the narrative foundations of his poem. The remarkable fictional Idea that presides over the main narrative is mostly Euhemeristic : Os Lusiadas tells the tale of how human beings, through heroic action, became gods. The narrative goes from promise – king Sebastião will marry the daughter of the Ocean’s goddess (I, 16) ; Gama’s ships will rise to the stars (IV, 85) etc. – to fulfilment in the Isle of Love (Cantos IX and X). To produce this narrative progression, Camões uses the Classical notion that navigation was a case of hubris, since the Ocean was the abode of gods, not men. The Old Man of Restelo issues a stark warning that the Portuguese are falling into the hubristic trap (IV, 94-104). The meeting with Adamastor, in mid-voyage and mid-poem (V, 37-60), is meant as an illustration of the disastrous consequences of overweening pride, both for the Portuguese, who will suffer many shipwrecks and tragic deaths, and Adamastor himself, who used to be a skipper, tried to defeat the sea gods and ended up, like his brothers in the Gigantomachy, transformed, as punishment, into rock (in his case, the Cape of Storms). Meanwhile, one of the gods, Bacchus, is unhappy with the inevitable outcome of Portuguese endeavours, since he senses that, because of them, the gods will fall from Olympus and become humans again (VI, 29). For some reason, none of the other gods seem concerned, but Bacchus does manage to convince Neptune about the seriousness of the threat. As opposed to the words of the Old Man, Adamastor and others, reminding the reader about mythological hubris, Camões shows how the Portuguese will carry the day, conquer the oceans, join the god(desse)s in marriage (IX, 84) and equal them in knowledge (X, 76-79).

  • 20 Thomas M. Greene, The Descent from Heaven. A study in epic continuity, New...

  • 21 Manuel Ferrer, “La Mitología en Os Lusiadas : una posible interpretación”,...

19This brilliantly conceived poetic structure, whose significance for our ideas about modernity cannot be overemphasized, raises, nevertheless, terrible problems. Camões takes imitation of Classical mythology to impossible limits. A poem that actively considers the formation of empire as part of the spreading of the Catholic faith, as king Manuel intended and the text confirms, should not create new and multiple gods, however modern. The result may well be clumsy – a « blunder », as Thomas Greene repeatedly called it.20 In any case, the high reputation of the text has, unsurprisingly, led to serious critical investment in attempts at untying its various Gordian knots. Manuel de Faria e Sousa provided in the seventeenth century the first full interpretation of the mythology by conceiving the whole poem as a theological allegory. The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were more sober in their evaluations, admitting, both in and out of Portugal, that the poem’s “marvellous” was inconsistent at best. Manuel Ferrer’s little-known essay of the 1960s deserves mention for the way it seriously tries to meet the challenge that the divine narrative of Os Lusiadas raises to rational thinking.21 More recently, arguments have oscillated between interpreting the poem as a denunciation of the false and heretical character of the pagan gods, or attributing to Camões a kind of secret belief in them. Alternatively, some authors have argued that the poem is essentially fiction and that its historical truth-telling is part of a fictional construct designed to be understood as an act of absolute poetry.

Narrative discrepancies and how to interpret them

20Despite my respect for, and occasional agreement with, those interpretations, my general view is that Os Lusiadas demonstrates considerable carelessness in the narrative inclusion of the Classical gods. It is not just the problem of conciliating Christian faith and Ancient religion ; it is not only the issue of harmonizing careful quotation of official historians with fantastic giants and islands ; nor is it the strange pairing of nationalist propaganda and lyric feeling that turns the reader into a kind of confidant of the poet’s. In my view, it is especially the basic problem of narrative, and therefore of epic-poetic construction itself, that is at stake.

21Character, motivation, and situation are often at odds with each other in Os Lusiadas. After accompanying and favouring them in the first two Cantos, the sea goddesses help raise a storm to destroy the Portuguese in Canto VI and, without visible explanation, change their minds and calm the storm down straight after. Yet, even as we thought these nymphs were back as amorous friends to the heroes, we are told in Canto IX that a rather complex mix of persuasion, fame, love and credulity is necessary for them to welcome the Portuguese on an island. The goddess of love controls singled-handedly the winds on the sails in Canto I but needs the help of the sea nymphs to control them in Cantos II and VI. Neptune raises the sea storm, but nothing is said about his reaction to his nymphs’ shocking disobedience as they calm it down. Witnessed by Venus during both occasions, Jupiter repeats in Canto II (stanza 56) the same decree he had made in Canto I (stanzas 40-41). Did he forget ? Did she ?

22The reader cannot know the answer to these and many other discrepancies because the text ignores them, making little effort at clarifying connections or articulating logical causalities. Camões was a great lyric poet, but he had no experience in organizing complex epic narrative. He must have also been subject to great pressure. The printing license and the evidence of the first edition strongly suggest that certain circles of political power were anxious to have the poem out in the market. There is no doubt that Camões did his best to update the content as much as he could. Several passages could only have been written very close to printing. Camões imitated at least one of the most recent Spanish epics, Zapata’s Carlo Famoso (1566), in Cantos I and VI ; took ideas and structures from Corte-Real’s Segundo Cerco de Diu (MS 1568) ; and possibly used phrases from Osório’s Latin chronicle of Manuel’s reign, printed almost at the same time as the poem. The publication of Os Lusiadas was an urgent affair. The king’s license even includes a proviso to guarantee advance authorization for Camões to add more Cantos later if he so wished. Haste presided not only over the actions of the typographers but also over the interventions of the author himself.

Os Lusiadas is poetry and ideology

23Os Lusiadas tried to follow an epic recipe that was consolidated in the Iberian Peninsula by the time Camões arrived in Lisbon. His strength as poet nevertheless allowed his book to be much more than an imitation of Classical and Ariostan epic and chivalric convention, mixed with contemporary historical discourse. On the one hand, laboured, even convoluted, verse abounds where Camões seems to make an enormous effort at satisfying thematic requirements ; distasteful punning and far-fetched word choices appear often in material devoid of narrative interest ; pretentious stockpiling of Classical references and abuse of Latinate words and expressions traverse many octaves. On the other hand, first-person invectives and lamentations, “Oceanic verse”, the portrait of Venus, the story of Inês de Castro, the ships’ farewell and the Old Man’s speech, the encounter with Adamastor and the Giant’s story, Bacchus’ visit to Neptune’s court, the report on India’s geography, peoples and cultures, the Isle of Love and the description of the Machina Mundi include marvellous octaves, vignettes or episodes, in some cases unmatched in fluency and power by any other world poet.

  • 22 On Adamastor as a cancelling out of southern African presence, the groundb...

  • 23 I wish to thank Florence Goyet, Dimitri Garncarzyk and David Quint for mak...

24The pragmatic object of it all, however, if not the poet’s own beliefs, turned Os Lusiadas into a propaganda machine where Classical mythology, from Adamastor to the sea nymphs in the Isle of Love, concealed local realities and peoples,22 while a spirit of hyperbolic individual and collective self-esteem justified Empire and a state of permanent war against generally despised Others. This differentiates Camões’ epic from the greatest Classical poems, from Italian chivalric epics and even from Iberian precedent, like Ercilla’s Araucana. Its closest rival, Corte-Real’s Segundo Cerco de Diu, printed eventually in 1574, avoided obscuring African, Arab, Indian or Turkish characters, while often raising them to central presence in the narrative, despite their ethnic, religious and moral difference with respect to the Portuguese. The reasons for Camões’ blatant ‘us and them’ stance, therefore, cannot be ascertained from the context of Renaissance epic as such. Regardless of the motives, the fact remains that ideology is clear enough in Os Lusiadas to have allowed for its royal welcome in 1571-72.23


1 Camões was a cavaleiro-fidalgo of the king’s household at least since March 1553, as the single verifiably authentic document of his younger life (a “letter of pardon”) shows. By comparison, the also poet and playwright Jorge Ferreira de Vasconcelos, who was employed full-time in the same year and month as the royal treasure’s registrar, was then only moço da câmara, i. e., significantly lower in peerage.

2 Eclogue I, Que grande variedade vão fazendo, ll. 369-372.

3 Octaves/Eights beginning Mui alto Rei, a quem os Céus em sorte.

4 On the other hand, continuing imperial efforts in Asia were not met with much enthusiasm. The Old Man in Canto IV speaks for an important cross-section of Portuguese society that thought there should be less investment in, if not downright abandonment of, military strength in the Eastern empire in exchange for war in North Africa. Arguments in favour of keeping the Asian empire rested mostly on financial criteria for which Camões shows notorious dislike in Os Lusiadas.

5 His trovas in traditional metre known as Disparates seus na Índia, ll. 71-80.

6 One of them, Diogo Bernardes, rejected implicitly Camões’s complaints (without mentioning him) in the same verse and rhyme-scheme of Os Lusiadas by referring to kings Dinis and João III as examples of the high favour the arts and sciences merited in the country.

7 Francisco Sá de Miranda (1487-1558) admired the Prince Regent Pedro ; André de Resende (1498-1573) praised Gil Vicente as playwright ; António Ferreira (1528-1569) regretted the civil wars in the time of king Dinis but praised him as poet ; Jerónimo Corte-Real ( ?-1588) evoked the Lei das Sesmarias, wrote about the tragic death of king João II’s son Afonso, praised António de Castro as teacher and Francisco de Moura as soldier and poet (a double role Camões claimed for himself). One could go on.

8 On the manipulation of historical causality in Portuguese 16th-century historians of empire, see Luís de Sousa Rebelo “As crónicas portuguesas do Século XVI”, 1998.

9 In Os Lusiadas, King João II is a “knight” (I, 13 ; IV, 58-59) and a sender of “messengers” by land to Egypt, Ethiopia and Asia (IV, 60-65).

10 João de Barros, Segunda Década da Ásia (1553), Book V, chapter 7.

11 Jorge Borges de Macedo, Os Lusíadas e a História, 1979, p. 248.

12 Diogo do Couto, O Primeiro Soldado Prático, 2001, pp. 559-562.

13 “Camões fait au lyrisme une large part (...) Le lyrisme, c’est la présence de l’auteur dans son oeuvre, soit qu’il manifeste son admiration, sa pitié ou sa haine envers les personnnages qu’il met en scène, en cherchant à communiquer ces sentiments au lecteur, soit que cettre oeuvre soit pour lui prétexte à se confier à ce lecteur, à lui faire connâitre ses goûts, à lui faire part de ses rancunes, à regler au passage une dette de reconnaissance par une flatterie bien amenée, ou à assouvir une vengeance en noircissant un ennemi discrètement, mais clairement designé.” (Roger Bismut, Les Lusiades de Camões, Confession d’Un Poète, 1974, p. 9).

14 Instances of book-length studies which sustain these views, in chronological order : José Madeira, Camões Contra a Expansão e o Império. Os Lusíadas Como Antiepopeia, 2000 ; Luiza Nóbrega, No Reino da Água o Rei do Vinho. Submersão Dionisíaca e Transfiguração Trágico-Lírica d’Os Lusíadas, 2013 ; Nuno Júdice, Camões por Cantos Nunca Dantes Navegados, 2019.

15 Amongst many, one example of an object of such speculative writing is the pelican in the frontispiece of the first edition, turned towards the right or towards the left, depending on the copies. It is a Christological symbol and it is also the emblem of king João II. Some writers say it means the Order of Christ (Ordem de Cristo), while it is known that the first time this pelican was included in a frontispiece was in the 1548 book of the rules of the rival Order of St. James (Ordem de Santiago). The inverted pelican has even suggested to some that Camões was a Freemason avant la lettre. There is, of course, no way of deciding, and we cannot know if the pelican in the edition actually means anything in particular.

16 This should not distract the reader from noticing that the claims against improbable and fantastic actions inserted in the poems are a rhetorical strategy of most of these poets, including Camões (I, 11 ; V, 89 ; VI, 42). There is absolutely no distinguishing trait in Os Lusiadas when it claims to reject Homer’s or Ariosto’s fictions. Most Iberian epics do the same, and for a further reason : they are imitating Ariosto’s own false claims ! On this subject, see Sergio Fernández López, “Ficción y realidad : dos caras de la misma épica”, 2013.

17 The octaves/eights Como nos vossos ombros tão constantes, written in 1560-61, are a particularly eloquent instance of this.

18 On this subject, see especially Isabel Almeida, “Poesia, furor e melancolia”, 2008. The ending of Canto VII is an « ironic apostrophe, inspired by Ariosto’s text » (p. 100).

19 « The figure of the Poet in the Gerusalemme liberata is no longer Ariosto’s discursive Narrator, but the traditionally anonymous Singer of classical epic, with his singing robes about him. There is only one reference, at the very beginning of the poem, to the concrete historical identity of the poet » (Durling, p. 183).

20 Thomas M. Greene, The Descent from Heaven. A study in epic continuity, New Haven and London : Yale U. P., 1963, p. 225.

21 Manuel Ferrer, “La Mitología en Os Lusiadas : una posible interpretación”, Revista Camoniana, vol. 3, 1971, pp. 11-55. The essay is signed : “University of Wisconsin, 1965”.

22 On Adamastor as a cancelling out of southern African presence, the groundbreaking work is David Quint’s “Voices of Resistance : the Epic Curse and Camões’ Adamastor”, Representations vol. 27, 1989, p. 111-141 ; republished in the same author’s book Epic and Empire, 1993. On the Isle of Love as an idealized substitute for the Portuguese policy of intermarriages with Indian women, see the chapter “The Erotic Politics of Os Lusíadas” in Carmen Nocentelli’s Empires of Love, 2013. For both Adamastor and the Isle of Love as showing the early modern colonizing process at work, one should now read the chapters on Os Lusiadas in Ayesha Ramachandran, The Worldmakers. Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe, 2015, and in Katharina Piechocki Cartographic Humanism. The Making of Early Modern Europe, 2019.

23 I wish to thank Florence Goyet, Dimitri Garncarzyk and David Quint for making this a much better essay than it would have been without their encouragement and help.


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Pour citer ce document

Hélio J. S. Alves, «Luís de Camões’ Os Lusiadas in uncharted waters», Le Recueil Ouvert [En ligne], mis à jour le : 12/10/2021, URL : http://ouvroir-litt-arts.univ-grenoble-alpes.fr/revues/projet-epopee/357-luis-de-camoes-os-lusiadas-in-uncharted-waters

Quelques mots à propos de :  Hélio J. S.  Alves

Faculdade de Letras, Universidade de Lisboa
Hélio J. S. Alves is Professor at the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Lisbon. He taught earlier at the University of Évora, Portugal, and at the University of Macau, China. His field of research is the literature of the European Renaissance, with special reference to Portuguese. His most recent work on the epic includes a critical edition, with introduction and line-by-line commentary, entitled Jerónimo Corte-Real, Sepúlveda e Lianor – Canto Primeiro (Coimbra, 2014), chapters to the books Milton in Translation (Oxford and New York, 2017) and The War Trumpet : Iberian Epic and Heroic Poetry 1550 – 1700 (Toronto, forthcoming 2021), as well as articles in Criticón (2018) and the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies (2019).