The Spirit of the Portuguese in 1102 Stanzas

Tomb of Camoes

On June 10, 1580, at the age of 56, Luís Vaz de Camões died, shunned by the nation he loved and penniless despite the acclaimed publication of his epic poem, Os Lusíadas, just a few years earlier. His death, on the eve of his country’s annexation to Spain, marked the end of a fated period in Portugal’s cultural history.

A monk, sitting by his side during his last hours, looked upon him with pity. “How miserable a thing,” he writes, “to see so great a genius so ill rewarded! I saw him die in a hospital at Lisbon, without possessing a shroud to cover his remains, after having borne arms victoriously in India, and having sailed 5500 leagues: — a warning for those who weary themselves by studying night and day without profit, as the spider who spins his web to catch flies.”

It’s true that Camões did not reap the rewards of his talent during his lifetime but his masterpiece survived four centuries and is studied by Portuguese schoolchildren to this day. His long lyric poem, consisting of 1102 stanzas, is considered to be one of the most important works in Portuguese literature. More than any other writer, Camões extolled the spirit of the Portuguese nation in this fantastical interpretation of Portugal’s epic history and maritime exploration during the middle ages. His descriptions of Vasco da Gama’s mythic adventure toward unknown lands and the musicality of the Portuguese language form the basis of Os Lusíadas but underlying the heroic narrative there sounds a note of heartbreak and regret. Camões conveyed that profound sense of psychological and social anguish which dominates Portuguese culture to this day — but he also captured the passion and beauty of his nation like none other.

According to poet and politician Manuel Alegre, in order to understand the origin of their cultural identity the Portuguese people must listen to Camões’s voice, Camões’s expressions of saudade captured so beautifully in stanzas ‘that rise to sublimity, touch the heart by their pathos, or charm it by descriptive beauties’. “There wasn’t anyone superior to Camões,” says Alegre. “The language we speak and write today is the language that Camões founded and wrote.”

Camões was buried in a borrowed shroud in the church of St. Anna in Lisbon, but his tomb was destroyed by the famous earthquake of 1755. Three hundred years after his death, what were assumed to be his remains were entombed in the magestic Jerónimos Monastery in Belem. It is fitting that he should be laid to rest across the aisle from the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the hero of his epic poem. Fitting, too, that Camões is entombed on the site of the very chapel he mentions in stanza 87.  But we can not help but be reminded of the anguish and circumstances of the poet’s last months of life as we read his description of Vasco de Gama’s farewell to Lisbon:

In this my tottering old age, now
Doomed to end in grief and pain,
Why do you leave me wretched and indigent?

Today, millions of people of Portuguese descent will celebrate Portugal National Day or Dia de Camões as it is known in Portugal. The Portuguese are currently experiencing a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about their future but I believe the adventurous spirit of the people — embodied so beautifully in Os Lusíadas — will help them overcome their country’s current economic hardships.

Canto IV: 86-93

Having done everything practical
To make ready for so long a voyage,
We prepared our souls to meet death
Which is always on a sailor’s horizon.
To God on high who alone sustains
The heavens with his beloved presence,
We asked His favour that He should endorse
Our every enterprise and steer our course.

The holy chapel from which we parted
Is built there on the very beach,
And takes its name, Belem, from the town
Where God was given to the world as flesh.
O King, I tell you, when I reflect
On how I parted from that shore,
Tormented by so many doubts and fears,
Even now it is hard to restrain my tears.

That day, a vast throng from the city
(As friends, as family, others
only to watch), crowded the shore,
Their faces anxious and dismayed
Looking on, as in the holy company
Of a thousand zealous monks
With heartfelt intercessions on our lips
We marched in solemn file towards the ships.

The people considered us already lost
On so long and uncertain of a journey,
The women with piteous wailing
The men with agonizing sighs;
Mothers, sweethearts, and sisters, made
Fretful by their love, heightened
The desolation and the arctic fear
We should not return for many a long year.

One such was saying: “O my dear son,
My only comfort and sweet support
In this my tottering old age, now
Doomed to end in grief and pain,
Why do you leave me wretched and indigent?
Why do you travel so far away,
To be lost at sea as your memorial,
And bloated fish as your only burial?”

Or one bareheaded: “O dearest husband,
But for whose love I could not exist,
Why do you risk on the angry seas
That which belongs to me, not you?
Why, for so dubious a voyage, do you
Forget our sweet affection?
Is our passion, our happiness so frail
As to scatter in the wind swelling the sail?”

As these piteous, loving speeches
Poured from gentle, human hearts,
The old and the children took them up
In the different manner of their years.
The nearest mountains echoed them,
As if stirred by nearest sympathy,
While tears as many as the grains of sand
Rained without ceasing on the white strand.

As for us, we dared not lit our faces
To our mothers and our wives, fearing
To be harrowed, or discouraged
From the enterprise so firmly begun,
And I decided we should all embark
Without the customary farewells,
For, though they may be love’s proper course,
They make the pain of separation worse.

(English translation by Landeg-White)

2 thoughts on “The Spirit of the Portuguese in 1102 Stanzas

  1. I’ve visted the tomb of Camoes twice now and never knew about this aspect (dying poor and alone) of his life. I’ve always wanted to read The Lusiades but I’ve heard it’s a difficult book to read unless you know your Portuguese history.

  2. You don’t need to know Portuguese history in order to enjoy or understand The Lusiads. I’d highly recommend the Landeg-White translation published by Oxford University Press. It includes an introduction and extensive notes.

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