To North American taste, Camoens, is probably the least readable among the schoolroom classics of Western literature. he seems to be more pertinent, however read as a product of his native Lisbon, the seat of the West’s first overseas empire. The tragic, beautiful city, scarred by so many disasters was where Camoens( 1524-1580 ) was born and where he lived out his years after a long, adventurous, unprofitable career as a colonial swashbuckler. The city is said to be haunted by the delusions and lucidities of his genius in almost the same way the passions and afflictions of a syphilic haunt his descendants.
There are echoes and reflections of his prophetic warning in the still curiously dispirited bustle of Lisbon; the deceptive prosperity of new construction contrasted with the evident, poverty, even squalor of the working class districts. Portugal’s until recent colonial past and its after effects are symptoms of an obsessive attachment to a dream of vanished grandeur that Camoens warned against yet was himself largely responsible for planting in the Portuguese national psyche. Indeed, it might be said, in a somewhat purely more metaphoric sense, that it was Camoens, some four plus centuries ago, who simultaneously enjoined on his nation the dogged rearguard action against history that Portugal waged below the equator and foretold the disasters it would inevitably lead to.
Undoubtedly, the enduring spell that Camoens appears to have cast over the minds, and even it would seem, the essential personality, of his countrymen is above all a tribute to his gifts as a poet. His masterwork, ”The Lusiads”, a neo-Virgilian epic celebrating the great Portuguese maritime explorations and colonial conquests of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, definitely has sweep, whatever else may be said of it.
There are occasional glimpses of warm human flesh underneath all the neo-classic rhetorical finery, flashes of moral insight along with the patriotic bombast and religious fanaticism. In terms of its thematic content the poem, is relevant, not only to Portuguese history but to the successes and failures of modern civilization generally, which goes some way toward justifying its conventional standing as a literary classic.
To the Portuguese themselves, ”The Lusiads” is more than great literature. It is sometimes regarded as the ”Lustian Bible”, well beyond the realm of National epic; a work in which the nation’s deepest cultural values have been preserved from generation to generation. it is also a political force, of some weight. When Portugal rediscovered its imperial vocation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the first cruiser commissioned was called the ”Adamastor”, after the mythologic giant who is a dramatic and symbolically important figure in the poem. Particularly under the Salazar regime, the anniversary of the poet,s death, June 10, 1580, was solemnly observed each year as a major public holiday.
Camoens himself is a sort of modern Portuguese culture hero, rather than simply a national poet in the sense that Shakespeare, for example, is the English national poet. His biography is a Portuguese folk myth, which has to be studied in its own right, along with the epic he wrote, to understand his role in molding the national character and in crystallizing the national self-image. The Camoens myth, based on the somewhat hazy, but undeniably romantic circumstances of his life has been enriched by novel, poems and studies.
A poet is expected to experience vicissitudes, but Camoens exceeded the normal quota. He fought; in the forefront slashing, slashing, th
ing, hacking his way through the barbaric hordes of Asia like a new Richard the Lion-Hearted. He was blinded in one eye in action against the heathen; he boarded enemy vessels and helped slaughter the crews to a man. He was a lover who wrote plays, sonnets and poems in Macao, for both Dinamene, his Chinese mistress and barbara, the slave girl he loved in Goa.
In 1572, ”The Lusiads” appeared in print. It brought Camoens a meager royal pension, the equivalent of something like $15,000 a year, a degree of recognition as a major poet that could not yet be called fame, and a shower of critical abuse for debasing the language with uncouth innovations. He tried to be an establishment poet, but during his lifetime could never quite make it, in part, because he was a real poet. Ideologically conformist, by temperament he belonged to the race of accursed poets, founded by Francois Villon and later rendered romantic by the likes of Poe, Baudelaire and Verlaine. He died during a new outbreak of the plague in 150, and was buried in a mass grave along with other victims.
It was during the sixty years of Portugal’s so-called Spanish Captivity ( 1580-1640 ) , when the nation lost its independence and came under the Spanish crown , that Camoens began to be recognized as a national poet. His alleged remains were dug up and he was reburied in the Church of Santa Ana and later, in 1880, on the tricentennial of his death, he was transferred to the monastery of Jeronimos, Portugal’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey, and placed in a tomb near that marking the equally conjectural remains of Vasco da Gama. All this paralleled Portugal’s renewed stirring to dreams of national grandeur.