You will witness a love of country, not
Driven by greed but true and enduring,
For it is no unworthy reward to be famed
Writing in praise of my native land.
Observe: you will see names exalted
Of those of whom you are supreme lord,
And you can judge which is the better case,
King of the world or king of such a race.
Any guesses what poet? Or what king he is addressing? Or even what country is home to this incredible race of people?
I was ignorant of it myself before I began reading a history of Portugal. Perhaps it is unfair of me to assume you too are unfamiliar with this poem, but I am writing to praise Luiz Vaz de Camoes and his epic poem of Portugal titled “Os Lusiadas” or, in English, “The Lusiads,” referring to the people of Lusitania. (Also, I come to praise the translator, Landeg White, for his enthusiasm, extensive endnotes, and excellent rhyming couplets.)
de Camoes had an interesting life; he lived in the 16th century and published “Os Lusiadas” in 1572. (White points out that the poem was approved by the Holy Office as containing “nothing scandalous nor contrary to faith and morals.) de Camoes sailed for India as a young man, was shipwrecked in Cambodia (Cambodia!) losing all but the first three cantos of the poem, and was forced to borrow money to purchase passage back home.
I was hoping for a tour-de-force of West meets East, of lush descriptions of what India, Africa, and Cambodia looked like to a 16th-century Portuguese man. Not quite. de Camoes was writing at the end of the golden age of Portuguese naval superiority; he was interested in looking back on the great deeds of his people, such as Vasco da Gama “discovering” India in 1497, not in painting the places da Gama went.
Either way, I was surprised by the opening phrase—“Arms are my theme”—because White’s endnote says this is a reference to the “Aenead”. de Camoes’ poem is rife with Greek/Roman gods; in fact, one of the major plot points of the story is a war between Venus and Bacchus over the success of the da Gama’s fleet reaching India.
Furthermore—back to that offhand comment about the holy censor offering no censure—it is explained in great detail that Venus and Bacchus and Jupiter and Tethys and the nymphs and naiads are just expressions of the greater, Christian god. Again, my ignorance; I had no idea that these two, separate beliefs had been reconciled in this way.
At the time of its writing, I’m sure that the Greek/Roman gods lent a grandeur to the poem, made it clearly epic, but today those were the points I found most disappointing. de Camoes sings when he is describing the hardships and actions and pride of his countrymen, even, for example, the strange life and fate of Inez de Castro.
Like other great Iberian epic poems, “Os Lusiadas” was written in a monorhyming stanza, meaning that all lines in the 8-line stanza rhymed with each other. White, as translator, has kept only a final rhyming couplet in the octets. I realize English is a horrid language in which to attempt extensive monorhyme but I had hoped. However, the couplets were both impressive and effectual. First, White had some excellent rhymes (Aeneas and genius); second, they were sufficient to make each stanza feel like its own bit, not too much to take in at once, in the long poem, and also offered propulsion, since no tidy end was ever the end.
Yet what man could for long avoid
The gentle web which love spins,
Between human roses and driven snow,
Gold hair and translucent alabaster?
Or who be unmoved by the pilgrim beauty
Of a face such as might be Medusa’s,
Transfiguring every heart she inspires
Not to stone but to volcanic desires?