Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Luiz de Camões and the making of Portugal Day






June 10 is Portugal Day and Camões Day. Legend has it that on this date Luiz de Camões (1524-1579/80) the author of the epic poem The Lusiads, the greatest poem of the Portuguese language, died. The fact that we celebrate Portugal and his death in the same event says a lot about our collective spirit. (I keep returning to Unamuno’s thesis that we are a suicidal people.) Today I’m going to sketch the long and difficult history of this national holiday.

Tradition, corroborated by facts, tells us that Camões was not popular in his lifetime. The epic poem was published in life, in 1572, two years after returning from a stay in Asia that lasted 17 years. But his plays and his lyrical poetry, the Rimas, were only published posthumously. We can surmise the lack of esteem he had in court from other factors. The poet Diogo Bernardes, and not him, was chosen to accompany King D. Sebastião in his disastrous North African campaign. His name was also not mentioned by contemporary poets, a common practice at the time. The Crown, it is true, awarded him a stipend in the value of 15,000 réis a year, a considerable sum for the time. The stipend, however, recognized his military services abroad and not necessarily his poem. After his death, and until the 19th century, the popularity of The Lusiads declined in the Iberian Peninsula whereas, paradoxically, it increased throughout Europe and the United States: between the 16th and the 18th centuries, there were 29 editions of the poem against some 100 in the 19th century alone. On the other hand, by 1814 there were translations in Spanish, Italian, French, English and even Latin. Camões’ admirers included Miguel de Cervantes (who mentions him in Don Quixote), Lope da Vega, Torquato Tasso, Voltaire and Herman Melville. He was the only Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa felt threatened by and his writings show a constant anxiety to supplant him.

Camões as depicted by William Blake
The immediate popularity of The Lusiads throughout Europe had a specific reason: the popular perception that the epic celebrated Vasco da Gama’s 1498 arrival in India by ship. The discovery of a maritime route to India, a monumental feat that we can’t begin to appreciate nowadays, was an event that left Europeans in shock and awe. The medieval superstition that assigned sea monsters at the extremities of the known world dissipated; men could at last overcome the natural elements. Suddenly there was more world, more civilizations, more knowledge, more of everything. Like Duarte Pacheco Pereira (1460-1533), sailor, geographer, cosmographer, and explorer of the Atlantic (first man to mention Brazil in a written document) and India, wrote in his Esmeraldo de Situs Orbis, with justified pride, “One knows more in one day thanks to the Portuguese than in one hundred years thanks to the Romans.” Europe accumulated a new wealth of information about tropical flora and fauna, geography, cartography and nautical science that would change the continent. Another factor that made these discoveries so astonishing was the fact that they had been carried out by a small nation at the south-western extremity of Europe, isolated from everyone, about which one knew very little. The journey to India and back, involving 170 seamen of whom only 55 returned, lasted 753 days, making it one of the longest sea journeys ever undertaken until then. By comparison, Columbus’ journey to America didn’t even take a full year. Finally, there was the allure of riches. The journey paid itself 60 times over, generating a craze for the East. There were only about 1,200,000 Portuguese in 1498 and it’s estimated that a quarter left to make their fortune in the new regions. Between 1497 and 1612 some 806 Portuguese ships sailed from Lisbon to the Indies and the city became one of the busiest and most international of Europe’s ports. The Lusiads accrued its initial popularity from this enthusiasm for all things oriental. And then it languished in semi-obscurity for centuries.

Luiz de Camões’s transformation into National Poet only begins in the 19th century, thanks to the Napoleon Invasions (1808-1814), the Liberal Wars (1828-1834) and the rise of Republican ideals in fin-de-siècle Portugal. After the Discoveries ceased to hold Europeans in thrall, the poem began coming under attack for what its detractors saw as its technical imperfections and flaws in imitating the canons Homer and Virgil established for the epic genre. Others sneered at its paganism, its mixture of Catholic heroes and Roman Gods in a bizarre hodgepodge of classic and modern references that left many clergymen queasy with its borderline sacrilegiousness. Still others mocked the author’s option to mix prosaic language with erudite rhetoric. In time, though, those would be considered the poem’s greatest strengths and what made it so original.

The fundamental moment for the enthronement of the poet arrived in 1880, during the commemorations of the third centennial of his death. For the first time in Portugal’s there was the intention of celebrating his genius on a national scale. In 1867 a statue had been raised in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, but with the understanding that Camões was a relic from the past and not a vital figure of Portuguese culture. The year of 1880 began with Teófilo Braga (poet, literary historian, and future republican president) writing a plea to the official institutions in the newspapers, urging them to honour the epic poet with the dignity he deserved. “In an apathetic country like ours, everything dies if it doesn’t receive the impulse of official life; without that impulse the Camões Centennial will be nothing but small local commemorations, at best with the value of a pretext.” In spite of his pleas, the government and the cultural institutions subordinated to it (the University of Coimbra, the Royal Lisbon Academy of Sciences) remained silent on the matter, which prompted Teófilo to upbraid the “indifference of the Portuguese government.” Taking the matter into his own hands, Teófilo convened with members of the press, writers, poets and scholars to create a group devoted to organizing the celebrations, called the Comité da Salvação Pública. Instead of seeking help from the government, they decided to make it a popular ceremony. As writer Ramalho Ortigão wrote at the time, “instead of being the celebration of the legally constituted nation, it was the celebration of the spontaneously organized people.”

Only months after Teófilo’s call to arms in the newspapers did the government and its subordinates show a reluctant interest in taking “its place in the party,” but only on its terms. It is important to understand the underlying ideological war behind this celebration. Teófilo was a Republican (and Portugal’s first republican president) who wanted to emphasized the patriotic and anti-authority aspect of Camões, the poet who sang about his people, excoriated kings and nobility and defended Freedom. The monarchy was seen as a reactionary, parasitical institution, feeding off the nation while the country deteriorated. Teófilo and his committee wanted to turn Camões into a precursor of republican ideals. The government, instead, wanted to use him to celebrate the pillars which sustained its power: monarchy, army, a conservative Parliament and a retrograde church. The committee wanted a popular celebration, with people on the streets throughout the country, to make it a genuine national party open to everyone; the government wanted private solemn celebrations, attended by the elite on their uniforms and badges and decorations pending from their chests.

The progressive newspapers, the students, the intellectuals, the recreational and cultural associations, the working classes had different ideas. The press was instrumental in galvanizing the population. One of the main events was a civilian procession (civilian in the sense that everyone went in civilian clothes), joining people from all social classes, without a hierarchical order, throughout a Lisbon that had been specifically adorned for this purpose, the logistic details being in the hands of citizens organized in order to take care of the lights and decoration in their neighbourhoods. Only grudgingly did the King accept to take part in it.

There were other events: several newspapers and banks sponsored prizes for the arts and culture (monetary awards to paintings and books, prizes for best teachers and even a prizes for the best women students, an extraordinary idea considering the precarious position of Portuguese women at the time); actors put on stage dramas about Camões; schools and theatres and even a ship were inaugurated with his name; a new neighbourhood in Lisbon was christened with his name also. There were of course conferences, literary meetings, critical editions of his work and the like. And his remains (or what is conventionally called his remains since no one knows for sure where he was buried) were moved to the Jerónimos Monastery. The main event, however, was this procession which culminated at the feet of Camões’ statue in Bairro Alto (nowadays glancing at Fernando Pessoa, just a few meters below). 57 wreaths were deposited there plus hundreds of flowers. The procession, which the government feared would turn into an uprising, and thus was heavily monitored by the police, was wholly peaceful, registering one single incident: King D. Luís attended it but turned his back to the crowd, in clear provocation, which caused him to be booed.

This petty act was the apogee of the government’s contempt for the ceremonies. There were others. An MP’s suggestion to turn the 10th of June into a national holiday led the reaction to declare that giving Camões his own day was “too noisy and immodest” a proposal. Also in Parliament, an MP for the government sneered at the epic poem by accusing Camões of having “translated almost verbatim many verses by Virgil.” On the eve of the celebration, in a private session attended by the king, Camões was celebrated in tandem with Adolphe Thiers, the man who crushed the Paris Commune in 1871, a clear affront against the Republicans and an insult to Camões, who was paired up with a man who was anathema to the ideals of freedom he espoused in his poem.

It was not the first time that the politics and anti-authoritarian stance of The Lusiads brought it problems. During the rule of the Spanish Filipes (1580-1640), Camões’ name took a fall because he was the epitome of patriotism, a poet who had not only sung the labours of his people but had even died on the same year Portugal lots its sovereignty. Thus the fate of the man and the country were forever connected. There’s no concrete evidence that he died in 1580, it is possible that he died in 1579. The year 1580 became a convention that gained momentum in the 19th century thanks to poet Almeida Garrett for reasons that will soon become clear. Since the 16th century Camões and his epic poem have resurfaced in times of crisis for Portugal as a beacon of hope and inspiration. In 1640, the conspirators who restored Portugal’s sovereignty claimed to have gotten their impetus from the poet. When Napoleon’s armies invaded Portugal in 1813, the Portuguese regiments went to war with flags ornamented with verses from The Lusiads. The invasion shook the traditional structures of power, and in 1820 a revolution imposed the first Constitution. A counter-revolt in 1823, led by D. Miguel, who wanted to reinstall an absolutist monarchy, forced many liberals to flee into exile. Amongst them was Almeida Garrett, who inaugurated Portuguese Romanticism with his poem Camões (1825), written in Paris. Other artists in exile saw Camões as a symbolic theme in their fight for a constitutional monarchy: the musician João Domingos Bontempo composed his Requiem in his honour; and the painter Domingos Sequeira painted A Morte de Camões that was exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1824. D. Miguel was defeated by his brother, D. Pedro, who oversaw a new Constitution. However the enthusiasm was short-lived and the change of regime did not bring the technological, cultural and material changes many hoped, anxious to see Portugal finally join modern Europe as a nation of equal standing amongst the others. This disillusionment, and later resentment, which blamed a conservative, indolent monarchy and church for the evils in Portugal, kindled the republican ideals in Portugal, which finally leads us to the celebrations of 1880. Once again Camões’s life and work would be used by those who perceived the nation to be under risk. The Republicans had an essentially romantic view of the poet and emphasized the squalid details that tradition assigns to his final days: Camões living in penury, subsisting on the alms a Javanese slave collected for him from begging in the streets of Lisbon; dying in a hospital without a piece of cloth to call his own; buried in a common grave, forgotten. For the Republicans, the monarchy that had slighted the poet in life was no worse than the incompetent monarchy that drove the nation to an abyss of mediocrity and obscurantism in 1880. The Crown, via its agents in the press, fought back by digging up numbers from the 16th century to show that 15,000 réis were a generous stipend. This did little to change tradition.

A sketch of Domingos Sequeira's painting
The Republicans, however, did the poet the favour of correcting many incorrect views about the poem. One of the motives Camões came under attack for centuries for his alleged inability to imitate Homer and Virgil, was that many assumed the poem’s main theme was the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India. For that reason his critics chastised him for filling the poem with needless digressions and excrescencies that stole attention away from the main plot. Others thought the title had to be a printing mistake and corrected it to The Lusiad, because it was universally known that an epic was about one hero – The Odyssey, The Aeneid – not several. The church, which saw other flaws, was upset at the rampaging paganism of the poem and the excessive importance the poem gave to men over God. In 1814, a clergyman connected to the Inquisition, deeply reactionary and in favour of absolutism, decided to correct The Lusiads by writing the real epic about Vasco da Gama. The priest also decided to correct Camões’ theology: instead of India being discovered thanks to the efforts and experience of ordinary seamen, it was God that willed it so, men being mere puppets in this endeavour. The problem is that Camões really wanted to celebrate ordinary men and all they had achieved, going so far as to have the gods in the Olympus worried that this feat would turn men into gods and gods into mortals. The church had reasons to be worried about Camões’ theology.  The Lusiads was the poem of human experience and truth; not a poem about a fabled city, not about a mythical hero, but a poem about a historical event that wasn’t event a century old. The poem was printed in 1572, after 17 years outside Portugal. Some scholars, contradicting that Camões left to Asia to serve a sentence, defend that he left deliberately to gain personal experience of what it was like to be a seaman and to visit the places that Vasco da Gama had passed through. Today the poem is admired for the vastness of its erudition; Camões created a sum of the knowledge of Astronomy, Botany, Nautics, Medicine, and Humanities of the time. The poem is also lauded for its realism and scientific rigour in the way it describes flora and fauna, natural phenomena, landscapes and customs. Like Carolina Michaëlis de Vasconcelos (1851-1925) wrote, Camões “owned the complete education of the most cultivated spirits of his time.”

Instead of being about a single hero, the poem is in fact about a whole nation, Portugal, from its origins to the present time. The title indeed comes from luso, a word meaning Portuguese, making this a celebration of his countrymen. Not the kings and noblemen, whom he frequently upbraids for greed, despotism and cruelty, but the ordinary men who serve them, the true engines of daily life, who achieve the impossible often without personal benefit. Garrett was the first to understand this intimate connection between the author and his people and popularized it. At the same time, Camões mixed his Catholic heroes with Pagan gods, not because of clumsiness, but because of his universal worldview; a true Renaissance man, his spirit could not be confined by national borders but took the entire world as its abode, from modern Italy to ancient Greece, from his beloved Portugal to the wondrous Asia he met on his own, making him perhaps the first cosmopolitan poet.

In 1880 the Republicans, at odds with a monarchy that had created an insurmountable rift with the population, exploited this reading of the life and work of the poet. Camões, scourge of kings, was the open-minded, generous man who wanted a free Portugal integrated in Europe, not a backward, illiterate cesspit that was ruled by the king and his cronies as their personal playground from where they extracted profits for their luxuries at the expense of a miserable and submissive population whose future had been stolen away from them. Thirty years later, the Republic, triumphant, would finally make June 10 the Day of Portugal and Camões. Since then his name had been used and abused for unfortunate ends. During Salazar’s dictatorship, this date was used to celebrate Race Day (did I ever mention that Salazar decreed three days of mourning after Adolf Hitler’s suicide?) and during the Colonial War (1961-1974) the government distributed medals to maimed and even dead soldiers on this day. With Camões strongly associated with the regime, it was inevitable that for a few years after 1974, when the country was heavily Marxist-Leninist, he was considered a proto-imperialist pig, chauvinist and apologist of capitalism. But good sense prevailed and the poet has returned to his rightful place as the greatest writer of the Portuguese language.

(I should add that I extracted all these facts from Alexandre Cabral's succinct but excellent book Notas Oitocentistas II. Cabral, an expert on the novelist Camilo Castelo Branco, wrote this book in 1980, when the celebrations were once again under attack from the government and its official institutions.)


I’ll conclude with one of my favourite poems by Luiz de Camões. It’s especially beautiful in the original because of the intricate repetition of words and sounds; sadly my literal translation leaves all those qualities out:

Labyrinth of the Author, complaining about the world.

With no sail and no helm
Disordered time runs,
By a great wind taken;
Whoever fears no danger
Has experienced too little.

Reins they carry in their hands
Those who no had no reins.
Seeing how much evil
Craving and ambition did,
They hide under disguises.

The ship about to be lost
Shatters a thousand hopes;
I see the evil to come;
I see dangers menacing
Those who pay no heed to change.

Those never atop a saddle
Are now riding one;
Evil they ceased not from working;
The habits of a demon they
Have who violated justice.

What can evil become
If never restrained?
He’s surely mistaken who
Thinks that he can fare
Taking the wrong path.

Confusing it is for the fair
To see the wicked prevailing;
Those who have lived
Through this simulation,
Always punishment received.

Because the helm governs not
In a turbulent and harsh sea,
Whoever changes his oar,
If worthy, screams and moans
In a time disordered.

Having fair honours
And pain from those worthy,
Always punishment received
With no redemption,
Save those who stopped.

In the storm, if it comes,
Despair in the fair weather
Whoever knows no crafty ways.
Without plaints coming in aid,
He’ll see the scales faulting.

Those who never worked,
Owning what isn’t theirs,
If the innocent they cheated,
The eternal good they’ll lose,
If from evil they don’t depart.

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