Portugal’s most celebrated poet, Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524-1580), lived an extraordinarily eventful life by any stretch of the imagination. As a young man he fought in Morocco and paid with the loss of an eye, followed by a period of imprisonment in Lisbon for his part in a street fight. He was released on condition that he served the king’s militia in India, thus flinging him into a reckless and dangerous life of adventure.
The poet’s unconventional emphasis on personal experience encouraged a departure from the more structured work of his day by broadly depicting his early life in Portugal, a succession of intrepid voyages, the devastating loss by shipwreck of the woman he loved and his last unhappy years in Lisbon.
But his international reputation rests on his national epic – Os Lusíadas – the only work published during his lifetime.
It is most fitting that one of the world’s most literary masterpieces was written by a Portuguese. The achievement of Portugal with the first expeditions of Prince Henry the Navigator onwards marked a global transition from the repressiveness of the Middle Ages to a more modern outlook during the Age of Discovery.
This small country on the south-western edge of Europe, both limited in population and poor in natural resources, ruled the seas and commanded an empire round the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies and the China Sea. Of this far-flung dominion, traces can still be seen in forts and churches built along African, Indian and Chinese coastlines.
Luís de Camões was certainly a man of his times, a soldier in foreign lands and a scholar of wide and human learning. A person of charming sensibility and noble heart. He used most poem types of the Italian Renaissance and raised to equal status the Iberian folk lyric.
He was uniquely fitted to write Os Lusíadas. His aim was to write for his own country an epic to rival the Aeneid in artistic perfection and in national aim. His companion for some twenty years, the poem was intended to match the great works of antiquity in art and surpass them in truth and nobility.
The hero of the piece is the great navigator, Vasco da Gama, whose pioneering voyage to Calicut in 1497 opened up the first sea route to the East. With vivid imagery, Camões recounts the stark reality of this ground-breaking achievement through the lines of his poem;
‘Sudden and fearful storms the air that sweep;
Lightnings that with the air the fire do blend;
Black hurricanes, thick nights, thunders that keep
The world alarm’d, and threaten the last end.’
Camões himself possessed qualities of the epic hero. He was Galician and Celtic in ancestry and though orphaned he became an esteemed scholar, lover and soldier who bore deep injuries and long exile for empire and travelled the world for his king, returning to poverty, blindness and posthumous acclaim.
Despite the fact that he died in poverty, there’s a stately tomb in his name at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém (indicated on the map below), west Lisbon, in a prime location at the church’s entrance opposite the great explorer himself, Vasco da Gama, his principal source of inspiration.