The Lusiads: Poets and Heroes
The Lusiads are Portugal’s national epic and an Aeneid of imperialism, which I picked up by chance from a “free books” table while still a grad student. I would not call it a canonical work, but it’s certainly of historical interest and weird enough to enjoy; after all, this is an epic with a scene in which Vasco da Gama’s men encounter an island they take for Christian after being deceived by a priest performing the mass who turns out to be secretly a Muslim acting, in turn, because his mind is clouded by the god Bacchus, who wants to sabotage Portugal’s expedition (around the Cape of Good Hope) to India!
The Portuguese, meanwhile, are beloved of Mars, Venus, and God himself, in the opinion of the author, Luis Vaz de Camõens, and why not? At the time the poem was published (1572), Portugal had long since thrown off the Muslim conquerors and sent its ships sailing around the world, from Brazil to Japan, launching the Age of Exploration and remaking ship-based imperialism. There was reason to overestimate the Portuguese destiny, even though Camõens realized that the high point had been reached and was receding and Spain had become the front-runner. Jacques Barzun compares this to this “epic pessimism”, comparing it to the other classic examples, all written looking back on a past high point. Epics are always nostalgic.
Camõens’s mind was the product of Renaissance classicism and Portuguese imperialism; having served and fought first in Cetua and then to India and elsewhere for sixteen years, he won little and lost an eye, was accused of embezzlement and jailed, freed and sailed home to Portugal. He was a red blooded patriot but a broken-hearted one as well because he thought his country had slid down into luxury and corruption and away from the qualities of valor, sacrifice, and bravery that he hoped to revive through the Lusiads. Like the Aeneid and Odyssey before it, the Lusiads tells of a hero sent far and sundry by storms and angry gods, while covering the history of the Portuguese- the race descended from Lusus, companion of Bacchus who discovered the land of Lusitania.
For me, the most interesting passage comes about halfway through, at the end of Canto V, when the poet reflection on Portugal’s lack of great poets:
“I say it without shame for the reason that none of us stands out as a great poet is our lack of esteem for poetry. He who is ignorant of art cannot value it. For this reason, and not for any lack of natural endowment, we have neither Virgils nor Homers; and soon, if we persist in such a course, we shall have neither pious Aeneases nor fierce Achilles either.”
To some degree, this is standard poetic self-marketing. Of course Camõens has to say this to the king- poetry is not yet about expressing some inner experience; it still has to serve some other purpose. However, he suggests the poet has a unique and special partnership with military leaders. In some sense, the poet creates the warrior both by immortalizing him in poetry and by giving him an impetus to wage war and thus be remembered. Without the poet, nations wouldn’t just lack war propaganda and memorials- they would lack warriors. The idea that a hero fights for lasting renown is an old one in epic poetry, but Camõens suggests that the imperial enterprise not only creates epic poetry and national glory with it, but that poetry produces imperialists. It’s as if gold, spices, and the rest of the gains are immaterial!
It is, at any rate, one of the clearest and most open expressions of the functionary role of the artist under imperialism that can be imagined. And perhaps Camõens’s view of his duty hamstrings his artistic effort a bit. His long digressions over entire cantos covering the history of Portugal before and after da Gama sideline his narrative and his need to portray the men of his nation as models of emulation leave them fairly dull and uninteresting. As if aware of this, however, his imagination soars when he creates an island paradise concocted by Venus and populated by the Nerieds, or sea nymphs, who soon fall in love with and give great pleasure to the men. This digression, which closes the poem, is pleasant and somewhat naively erotic. Maybe another way to encourage men to set to the sea in rickety ships in hopes of conquest is to foster a belief they will encounter orgiastic tropical goddesses! Who knows if it worked.