Camões: The Portuguese Poet

Camões: The Portuguese Poet

Luís Vaz de Camões is considered the greatest poet of the Portuguese language. His mastery of language and unmatched influence over it has led some to call Portuguese “the language of Camões.”

The story of Camões’ life is rather sketchy and predominantly crafted from snippets written long after he was gone. It is believed that he was born around 1524 or 1525 in the city of Lisbon and lived a semi-privileged life as a member of the failing aristocracy (think Withnail and I).

Painting of Camões by José Malhoa

Camões may have studied at the University of Coimbra, but there is no official record of it. However, the broad knowledge shown in his literary works certainly supports the fact that he was learned, which could have come from unofficial lectures and tutoring. As a young man, Camões ended up in Portuguese territories in Northern Africa. Whether he was there in exile — possibly for slandering the King — or not is disputed, but he eventually found his way into the military where he served for several years before returning to Lisbon in 1551.

Not to lose his good name as a bohemian poet, Camões got into a street brawl with a royal officer two years after returning and was promptly arrested. Thanks to his hardworking mother, he was eventually released on the (supposed) condition that he go east in the King’s service. East he went, but much about the nearly two decades he spent there is unknown as there is no record of what he did or where he went, though it is known that he lost the sight in his right eye during a battle with the Moors, likely in Ceuta. Camões’ intimate knowledge of India (among other Eastern countries) can, however, be observed in his poetry. It was during this time that he began the work for which he is most famous, Os Lusíadas.

Camões eventually returned to Lisbon in 1570, and just two years later published his epic, commonly translated as The Lusiads. This work focuses on the age of Discovery when Portugal traveled the world in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is considered by many to be Portugal’s national epic — the word Lusiad is derived from the Roman name of Portugal and means Portuguese.

In the summer of 1572, Camões was awarded a royal pension (presumably for his time in India), and lived in Lisbon until his death in 1580, survived by his mother. His death did not stop his growing fame, however, with much of his work being published posthumously. Indeed, the majority of his lyrical poetry was “unearthed” and published long after his death.

While most of the facts of Camões’ life can be debated, it is without a doubt that he remains an important figure of Portugal, and more importantly, a pillar of the Portuguese language.

Amor é fogo que arde sem se ver;
É ferida que dói, e não se sente;
É um contentamento descontente;
É dor que desatina sem doer.
É um não querer mais que bem querer;
É um andar solitário entre a gente;
É nunca contentar-se de contente;
É um cuidar que se ganha em se perder.
É querer estar preso por vontade;
É servir a quem vence, o vencedor;
É ter com quem nos mata, lealdade.
Mas como causar pode seu favor
Nos corações humanos amizade,
Se tão contrário a si é o mesmo Amor?

Love is a fire that burns unseen,
a wound that aches yet isn’t felt,
an always discontent contentment,
a pain that rages without hurting,
a longing for nothing but to long,
a loneliness in the midst of people,
a never feeling pleased when pleased,
a passion that gains when lost in thought.

It’s being enslaved of your own free will;
it’s counting your defeat a victory;
it’s staying loyal to your killer.
But if it’s so self-contradictory,
how can Love, when Love chooses,
bring human hearts into sympathy?

This article was written in the beautiful Biblioteca Camões, Lisboa.

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