Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Here, in this dark chaos of confusion: the lyrical poetry of Luís de Camões

The disposition of statues in Lisbon is quite a curious thing. If the tourist exits the Restauradores train station, turns right in the Carmo’s direction and climbs all the way up to Bairro Alto, first he walks past a bronze of Fernando Pessoa in front of the A Brasileira café and then he sees, up ahead, in a square named after him, the statue of Luís de Camões. The national bard, as it becomes him, is standing up, tireless and magnificent. Pessoa, the inert poet who seldom completed any of his projects, is seated. As it could only be, Camões, the pinnacle of Portuguese literature, is looking down on the only poet who in talent could be considered his rival. Pessoa, however, is looking away from him, not minding him. His grudge is notorious. He tried, but failed, to be the “Super-Camões” he predicted one day would be born in one of his essays.

Pessoa could never replace Camões not just because of his consecration in history but because of their radically opposing sensibilities. Camões sings the odyssey of a people, Pessoa chronicles the fleeting introspections of an individual. Camões fictionalises the multinational adventure of the Discoveries, Pessoa never abandons the familiar setting of Lisbon. Camões extols, Pessoa complains. But we’re talking of course about Luís de Camões the writer of epics. The same statue that looks in Pessoa’s direction is ignoring the Tejo River, down to his right, from where the caravels sailed on the voyage immortalised by The Lusiads. This is just one part of his rich oeuvre; Camões also left behind lyrical poetry, containing some of his best verses.

Camões, the son of poor aristocrats, was born in 1524 and died in 1580. In 1553, after a fight with a court servant, he was sentenced to prison, but his sentence was changed to conscription in the army. He sailed to the East, to places like Macao (where legend says he started The Lusiads), Goa (where he was arrested for debts) and current Cambodia. In this region of the world he saw warfare and experienced a shipwreck, a traumatic event that resurfaces many times in his poetry. Failing to make his fortune, he tried to return to Portugal. But he barely had money to pay the fare. Stranded in Mozambique, it was thanks to the help of friends who scrounged up money that the poet living in poverty managed to return home, in 1570. Seventeen years had passed. In Lisbon he completed his epic and presented it to the King D. Sebastião, who showed little interest in it but nevertheless awarded him a meagre pension. Even so, when Camões passed away in 1580, victim of the plague, it is said that he was again living in squalor. Fame didn’t come to him until after his death. And for centuries he was one of the most famous Portuguese writers. Torquato Tasso wrote a sonnet in his memory, William Blake painted his portrait, William Wordsworth mentioned him in "Scorn not the sonnet," Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Roy Campbell admired him. Ezra Pound, who was ambivalent about him, commented him in The Spirit of Romance. To say nothing of his place in the work of Portuguese poets like Cesário Verde, Jorge de Sena or Sophia de Mello Breyner. His popularity is on the wane, of course. He’s difficult and his themes are not as sexy as Pessoa’s. I think, however, that his lyrical poetry, far more diverse and lively than his epic, is a great entry point to new readers.

Sá de Miranda, as I explained in my last post, introduced several innovations in Renaissance Portuguese poetry. Luís de Camões not only improved them but defined them for future poets. For instance, whereas his predecessor made the decasyllable the de rigueur meter of the sonnet, Camões wasn’t content with just any decasyllable but with a variant known as ‘heroic,’ where stresses must obligatorily fall on the sixth and tenth syllables, with optional complementary stresses:

Cá nesta Babinia, donde mana
matéria a quanto mal o mundo cria;
cá onde o puro Amor não tem valia,
que a Mãe, que manda mais, tudo profana;

cá, onde o mal se afina, e o bem se dana,
e pode mais que a honra a tirania;
cá, onde a errada e cega Monarquia
cuida que um nome vão a desengana;

cá, neste labirinto, onde a nobreza
com esforço e saber pedindo vão
às portas da cobiça e da vileza;

cá neste escuro caos de confusão,
cumprindo o curso estou da natureza.
Vê se me esquecerei de ti, Sião!

Here in this Babylon, from where runs out
Matter produced by the world’s great evil;
Here where immaculate love has no worth,
Since our Mother, who wills most, all things soils.

Here, where evil is honed, and good reviled,
And tyranny has more force than honour;
Here, where mistaken and blind Monarchy
Thinks that a vain name will show it the truth;

Here, in this labyrinth, where noblemen
With effort and knowledge go begging at
The doors of covetousness and vileness;

Here, in this dark chaos of confusion,
I am fulfilling the course of nature.
See if I’ll ever forget you, Siam!

He used the ‘heroic’ verse in The Lusiads and in his sonnets, making it a popular metre in Portuguese poetry. This sonnet is curious for its autobiographical traces. The word Sião means both Zion and Siam. Siam was the name the Portuguese gave to Thailand when they arrived at it in the 16th century. Camões was a soldier and took part in a campaign in the Malabar coast. By invoking Babylon in the first verse, he plays with the word’s ambiguity: does he mean the biblical city or the city he visited in his long stay in the East? The tone of complaint is also characteristic of his poetry. Camões argued again and again that the world had been given to the wicked, who thrived, whereas he met only ruin and unhappiness, as if fate had singled him out for torture. But he was right in a way: considering that the East was an El Dorado to where many Portuguese were sailing in order to make their fortunes, Camões stayed there for seventeen years before coming not just empty-handed but a genuine pauper. Here’s another poem of complaint:

Em prisões baixas fui um tempo atado,
Vergonhoso castigo de meus erros;
Inda agora arrojando levo os ferros
Que a Morte, a meu pesar, tem já quebrado.

Sacrifiquei a vida a meu cuidado,
Que Amor não quer cordeiros nem bezerros;
Vi mágoas, vi misérias, vi desterros:
Parece-me que estava assi ordenado.

Contentei-me com pouco, conhecendo
Que era o contentamento vergonhoso,
Só por ver que cousa era viver ledo.

Mas minha estrela, que eu já agora entendo,
A Morte cega e o Caso duvidoso,
Me fizeram de gostos haver medo.

In base prisons I was for a time held,
Disgraceful punishment for my errors;
Even now crawling I bear my irons
Which Death, to my sorrow, already broke.

I sacrificed life under my own risk,
For Love wants neither lambs nor little sheep;
I saw grief, I saw pain, I saw exiles:
It seems it was ordained in this manner.

I took joy in paucity, knowing well
That it was a disgraceful form of joy,
Just from seeing what a happy life was.

But my star, which at last I understand,
The Blind Death and the doubtful Destiny,
Have made me feel afraid of appetites.

With his allusion to a prison and learning to live with little, he may be talking about the prison term he served in Goa, for debts. Another sonnet:

Que poderei do mundo já querer,
que naquilo em que pus tamanho amor,
não vi senão desgosto e desamor
e morte, enfim, que mais não pode ser?

Pois vida me não farta de viver,
pois já sei que não mata grande dor,
se cousa há que mágoa dê maior,
eu a verei, que tudo posso ver.

A morte, a meu pesar, me assegurou
de quanto mal me vinha; já perdi
o que perder o medo me ensinou.

Na vida desamor somente vi,
na morte a grande dor que me ficou:
parece que para isto só nasci!

What could I require from the world now, when
The thing in which I put plentiful love,
I saw nothing save heartsore and dislike
And death, alas, which can be nothing more?

Well then life doesn’t bore me with living,
For I know now that it can’t kill great woes,
If there’s a thing that gives a great woe,
I’ll see it, since I can see everything.

Death, to my sorrow, has reassured me
Of all the evil coming my way; I’ve
Lost what fear has disciplined me to lose.

In life I only ever saw hatred,
In dying the great pain that stayed in me:
It seems that I was born for this alone!

Moving away from his sonnets of persecution mania, we have the unavoidable Renaissance theme of Love, in Petrarch’s manner. I leave you with a sampling of his most famous ones:

Transforma-se o amador na cousa amada,
Por virtude do muito imaginar;
Não tenho, logo, mais que desejar,
Pois em mim tenho a parte desejada.

Se nela está minha alma transformada,
Que mais deseja o corpo de alcançar?
Em si somente pode descansar,
Pois consigo tal alma está ligada.

Mas esta linda e pura semidéia,
Que, como o acidente em seu sujeito,
Assim com a alma minha se conforma,

Está no pensamento como idéia;
E o vivo e puro amor de que sou feito,
Como a matéria simples, busca a forma.

The lover becomes the thing he loves
by virtue of much imagining;
since what I long for is already in me,
the act of longing should be enough.

If my soul becomes the beloved,
what more can my body long for?
Only in itself will it find peace,
since my body and soul are linked.

But this pure, fair demigoddess,
who with my soul is in accord
like an accident with its subject,

exists in my mind as a mere idea;
the pure and living love I’m made of
seeks, like simple matter, form.

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

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 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?

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

Sempre, cruel Senhora, receei,
medindo vossa grã desconfiança,
que desse em desamor vossa tardança,
e que me perdesse eu, pois vos amei.

Perca-se, enfim, já tudo o que esperei,
pois noutro amor já tendes esperança.
Tão patente será vossa mudança,
quanto eu encobri sempre o que vos dei.
Dei-vos a alma, a vida e o sentido;
de tudo o que em mim há vos fiz senhora.
Prometeis e negais o mesmo Amor.
Agora tal estou que, de perdido,
não sei por onde vou, mas algũ’hora
vos dará tal lembrança grande dor.

Cruel Senhora, I’ve always been wary. I knew
I needed to watch you closely in case
your doubts would surge to disaffection and erase
our love. Then I’d be ruined, since I love only you.

And now, everything I’d hope to have is lost:
you’re pursuing another lover. So I detach
myself, believing your retribution will match
the sacrificial depths my love has cost:

I’ve given my soul, my senses, and my life to you;
I’ve given you everything I have within me,
and you promised love, but now, there’s only disdain.

Lost and hopeless, I don’t know what to do,
yet I know the day will come when this memory
will crush you down with terrifying pain.

(Translated by William Baer)

Although Camões is mainly known for his sonnets, as far as his lyrical poetry is concerned, he tried his hand at many genres, including vilancicos, songs, trovas in the ‘old measure’ and at least one sestina:


Foge-me pouco a pouco a curta vida
(se por caso é verdade que inda vivo);
vai-se-me o breve tempo d’ante os olhos;
choro pelo passado e quando falo,
se me passam os dias passo e passo,
vai-se-me, enfim, a idade e fica a pena.

Que maneira tão áspera de pena!
Que nunca ũa hora viu tão longa vida
em que possa do mal mover-se um passo.
Que mais me monta ser morto que vivo?
Para que choro, enfim? Para que falo,
se lograr-me não pude de meus olhos?

Ó fermosos, gentis e claros olhos,
cuja ausência me move a tanta pena
quanta se não comprende enquanto falo!
Se, no fim de tão longa e curta vida,
de vós m’inda inflamasse o raio vivo,
por bem teria tudo quanto passo.

Mas bem sei, que primeiro o extremo passo
me há-de vir a cerrar os tristes olhos
que Amor me mostre aqueles por que vivo.
Testemunhas serão a tinta e pena,
que escreveram de tão molesta vida
o menos que passei, e o mais que falo.

Oh! que não sei que escrevo, nem que falo!
Que se de um pensamento n’outro passo,
vejo tão triste género de vida
que, se lhe não valerem tantos olhos,
não posso imaginar qual seja a pena
que traslade esta pena com que vivo.

N’alma tenho contino um fogo vivo,
que, se não respirasse no que falo,
estaria já feita cinza a pena;
mas, sobre a maior dor que sofro e passo,
me temperam as lágrimas dos olhos
com que fugindo, não se acaba a vida.

Morrendo estou na vida,
               e em morte vivo;
vejo sem olhos,
               e sem língua falo;
e juntamente passo
               glória e pena.


Little by little it ebbs, this life
if by any chance I am still alive;
my brief time passes before my eyes;
I mourn the past in whatever I say,
as each day passes, step by step;
youth deserts me; what persists is pain.

And what a bitter variety of pain
that not for an hour in so long a life
could I give evil so much as a side step!
Surely, I’m better dead than alive?
Why complain, at last? What’s more to say,
having failed to be cheated by my own eyes?

Those lovely, gentle and lucid eyes
whose absence caused me as much pain
as her not understanding whatever I say!
If at the end of so long a short life
you should keep the burning ray alive
blessings will attend my every step.

But first I’m aware the ultimate step
must advance to close these sad eyes
love opened to those by which I live.
Pen and ink must witness to the pain
in writing of so troublesome a life
the little I lived through, and the more I say.

Oh, I know not why I write or what I say!
If contemplating yet another step
I envisage a sad version of life
that places no value on such eyes,
I cannot conceive how such pain
could find a pen to declare I’m alive.

In my heart, the embers are still alive;
if they found no relief in what I say
they would now have made ashes of my pain;
but beyond this grief I overstep,
I’m softened by the tears of those eyes
that, though life is fleeting, keep me alive.

I am dying alive;
             in death I live;
I see without eyes;
             tongue-less I speak;
they march in goose step,
             glory and pain.

(Translated by Landeg White)

Like in the sonnets, he uses decasyllabic verse here. In the traditional sestina, the last stanza is a tercet. Camões broke it down into a sextain. The funny thing is, if you put them together, you get a decasyllabic tercet:

Mor/ren/do^es/tou/na/vi/da^e^em/mor/te/vi (vo;)
ve/jo/sem/o/lhos,/e/sem/lín/gua/fa (lo;)
^a^e/pe (na.)

Here’s a vilancico in the ‘old measure,’ using seven syllables per verse:

De que me serve fugir
De morte, dor e perigo,
Se me eu levo comigo?

Tenho-me persuadido,
Por razão conveniente,
Que não posso ser contente,
Pois que pude ser nascido.
Anda sempre tão unido
O meu tormento comigo
Que eu mesmo sou meu perigo.

E se de mi me livrasse,
Nenhum gosto me seria;
que, não sendo eu, não teria
mal que esse bem me tirasse.
Força é logo que assi passe,
ou com desgosto comigo,
ou sem gosto e sem perigo.

What is the point of fleeing
From death, hurting and danger,
If I take myself with me?

I have convinced myself,
For a convenient motive,
That I cannot be happy,
Given that I could be born.
It is always so close to
This torment I call my own
Is always so close to me
That I am my own danger.

And if I could get rid of me,
It would bring no joy to me;
For, not being myself, it would
Matter not the good it took.
Perforce this thought quickly fades,
Either at odds with myself,
Or with no want and danger.

This poem, by the way, is thematically very similar to one by Sá de Miranda that I already posted.

Ao desconcerto do Mundo

Os bons vi sempre passar
No Mundo graves tormentos;
E pera mais me espantar,
Os maus vi sempre nadar
Em mar de contentamentos.
Cuidando alcançar assim
O bem tão mal ordenado,
Fui mau, mas fui castigado.
Assim que, só pera mim,
Anda o mundo desconcertado.

To the world out of joint

Good men I always saw in
The world feeling grave torments;
And to daunt me even more,
The wicked I always saw
Swimming in seas of pleasure.
Thus hoping to accomplish
The good so badly ordered,
I was bad, but was punished.
So that, only against me
does this world go out of joint.

Luís de Camões’ lyrical poetry is vast and certainly deserves more attention. What we have here is a small sampling to whet the reader’s appetite. Above all, it must be repeated that there’s more to him than The Lusiads. By the way, anyone interested about translating Luís de Camões into English should read this fine article by Richard Zenith:


  1. This certainly has whetted my appetite.

    I found the lines about "Self" and it's implications worth pondering. Camões seems to tap into some of the dark things that are inherent in life.

    1. Brian, yes, I'd say those are the ones that struck a chord with me too.

  2. Thank you for this. Camões has been, so far, merely a name for me: I knew he had written The Lusiads, but otherwise, i know nothing of him. This is fascinating.

    I remain dubious about translations of poetry, since - as, indeed, your excerpts demonstrate - so much of the effect of poetry depends on the sounds and the rhythms of the language in which it is written. At best, a translator could write a fine poem in the target language based on the original, but to read and to take in Camões properly, one must, I think, learn Portuguese. But posts such as yours give an insight into what would, otherwise, be for me a completely closed book.

    1. Well, of course it's always better to read any writer in the original. But I think it's a very Anglo-American thing to say we need to learn [insert language]. In lieu of time and disposition to learn languages, readers should just trust translations and hope for the best. It's what I do most of the time since I'm hardly a polyglot myself.

      I'm glad to bring you a little bit closer to Camões; I think he's a writer or world status, and it makes me happy to know more people know he exists.