The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Lusiads, The

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Lusiads, The
Edition of 1920. See also Os Lusíadas on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

LUSIADS, The. ‘The Lusiads’ (‘Os Lusiadas’) by Camoens (Luis de Camões, 1524 or 1525-1580), published in 1572, is the great Portuguese national epic and is by far the outstanding masterpiece of Portuguese literature, as also one of the great epics of the modern world. More than possibly any other epic it may be called national in that the poet's attempt is to picture the great glory of his people, the pleasantness and beauty of his native land and the generous deeds of her princes on land and sea. It is an epic in 10 cantos containing altogether 1,102 eight-line stanzas of the same verse form as Ariosto's ‘Orlando Furioso.’ Even more striking than the Italian model is the influence of Virgil in the celestial machinery of the poem and the frequent reference to classical mythology. The poem is, however, by no means imitative; for the fundamental conception and its working out are vigorous and original. Unlike the ‘Æneid,’ it deals not with the exploits of one hero, but with the Portuguese nation.

The story is told, however, through the person of an immediate hero, Vasco da Gama, and it deals with his great voyage of 1497-98 to India. After a spirited and serious invocation of 18 stanzas, the expedition is described as well on its way. Meanwhile the gods and goddesses of Olympus are holding conclave to determine the fate of the adventurers. The chief disputants are Venus, who was much affected toward the Portuguese, and Bacchus, who feared that, should the Portuguese succeed in reaching India, his renowned name would be “buried in the dark vase of the water of oblivion.” Venus prevails, and the Portuguese are hospitably received at Mozambique and Mombasa and other towns on the east coast of Africa. At Melinde, Vasco da Gama, in the third and fourth cantos of the epic, relates the story of the Portuguese nation from the time of the hero, Viriatus, and the Lusitanian shepherds, who fought against the power of Rome, through the stirring days of Aljubarotta, down to the voyage to India. Most of the deeds are martial, as the account of the heroism of Alfonso Henriques, the sacrifice of Egas Moniz and the chastising of the Saracens by Sancho. The loveliest and best-known episode is the tale of Inez de Castro. The famous story shows the gentle, more pathetic side of the poem, the tenderness of the poet for his native land. The stanzas in which da Gama relates the leavetaking at Lisbon show with impressive dignity the sadness of such a scene, and the old man who addresses his warning from the sea-shore typifies the spirit of the Portuguese people who, like other unambitious folk, are unable to see good of such lust for fame and glory.

In the fifth canto, da Gama continues his narrative, confining himself to the story of the voyage. Escaping from various snares of the natives, they double the Cape of Storms (now the Cape of Good Hope). The tempestuousness of the sea and the savage aspect of the land is personified to the mariners by the giant Adamastor. This derelict Titan, incorporated forever in the rocky headland, rails at them as they pass and foretells the unending series of disasters which shall follow them and other mariners from their audacious voyage. The sultan of Melinde, pleased with the story and the martial aspect of the Portuguese, dismisses them with pilots to show the way to India. Bacchus, however, has not done with them. He succeeded in persuading Æolus and Neptune to harry them between Melinde and Calicut. Their journey is beguiled by half-legendary tales of Portuguese honor or of Portuguese adventure, and they reach Calicut in safety.

The seventh and eighth cantos tell what happened in India. The ruler of Calicut gives them leave to trade and visit, and his wonder at the armament of the Portuguese, and his curiosity with regard to their banners and ensigns, gives Paulo da Gama an opportunity to recount the warlike deeds of his countrymen. This he does in spirited language and with no repetitions of the story told by his brother at Melinde. The nabob, however, is corrupted by Bacchus, with the result that the Portuguese have a narrow escape from treachery. Then the fleet, well laden with merchandise, explores the coast further to the east and finally turns back toward Lisbon.

In the last cantos Venus, well pleased with the success of her beloved race, places in their path the Isle of Love, where the ships anchor and where the crews receive joyous welcome. The song of a siren foretells the future of a glorious nation, and the goddess Tethys, leading Vasco da Gama to the top of a high mountain, points out the lands of the earth and prophesies the share that the Portuguese shall have in them, naming to him the great men who shall follow and make worthy his discovery. There follows the closing address to the unfortunate king, Dom Sebastian, in a passage of great dignity, earnestness and patriotism, a fitting close of a great poem.

The management of the poem evidently rests on an anachronism: the constant use of pagan and classical gods furnishes the movement of the epic, while at the same time the facts are those which the poet has observed for himself or taken from history, and the morality and religion are contemporary. The episodes, however, are combined with unusual skill, and serve to show a complete and general picture of the spirit which animated the nation. Altogether the poem is, as Hallam said, the first successful attempt in modern Europe to construct an epic poem on the ancient model and it is also the work of a man in whom the love of the fatherland was unfailing.

In style, the epic is regarded by native critics as the best model in the language. At its best, it is direct, reserved, swinging, sometimes brilliantly emphatic; at its worst, prolix and without humor. Like the Portuguese style, it is accumulative, — that is, it works by massings and repetitions, rather than by swift epigram, terseness, spontaneity and the single phrase.

The influence of ‘The Lusiads’ has been great in Portugal and elsewhere. In Portugal it was followed by many epics dealing with the deeds of the Portuguese, of which the ‘Lisboa Edificada’ of Gabriel Pereira de Castro and the ‘Naufragio da Sepulveda’ by Jeronymo de Cortereal are good examples. The epic period lasted for 30 or 40 years in Portugal, and the form has had several recurrences both in Portugal and Brazil in the 18th and the 19th centuries. Outside of Portugal, ‘The Lusiads’ has been translated over 80 times into as many as 15 different languages. There are at least nine published versions in English, ranging from that of Sir Richard Fanshaw in 1665, to that of Sir Richard Burton in 1880, the most ambitious and sympathetic of all. The most accurate translation in almost all respects, the best for the reader who wishes to follow the Portuguese with an almost line for line English version, is that of J. J. Aubertin. The reader should refer to the Visconde de Juromenha's ‘Vida de Luis de Camões’ (in Vol. I of the authorized edition of the ‘Obras’); to Theophilo Braga's ‘Historia de Camões’; to Oliveira Martin's ‘Camões, Os Lusiadas e a Renascença em Portugal’; and, in English, to Sir R. F. Burton's ‘Camoens: his Life and his Lusiads.’

William T. Brewster.