on The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões, tr. by Landeg White (Princeton University Press)

In “Scorn Not the Sonnet,” William Wordsworth honored the great practitioners of the form: “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody / Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound; / a thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound; / with it Camöens soothed an exile’s grief …” Then he added Dante, Spenser and Milton. Luís Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580) is “generally regarded as the greatest poet of the Portuguese language” according to Richard Zenith, the accomplished translator of Portugal’s other poet icon, Fernando Pessoa. Camões wrote at least 250 sonnets, all published posthumously. His masterwork is Os Lusíades (Sons of Lusas, meaning Sons of Portugal) or The Lusiads, an epic inspired by Vasco de Gama's voyage to India and influenced by Virgil and Ariosto. There have been eighteen translations of The Lusiads in English since 1655, including Landeg White’s version (University of Chicago, 1997). But the sonnets and about 225 other poems have received less attention. The last significant grouping in English is William Baer’s Selected Sonnets (University of Chicago, 2005). Now, Landeg White returns with The Collected Lyric Poems.


Everyone considers me a lost cause,
seeing me so addicted to grief,
cutting myself off from life,
overlooked in humanity’s affairs.

But I who have criss-crossed the globe
being, as it were, doubly cognizant,
remain at bottom a deluded peasant,
whom my sufferings have not ennobled.

Land, sea, and the winds revolve;
other men seek riches and honor,
conquering iron, fire, cold, and calm.

I alone in my beggary contrive
to be happy to bear, engraved forever
on my heart’s core, your beautiful form.

camoes2.jpgCamões lived during the final heights of the Portuguese empire, a time when three-fifths of the world’s land mass fell into the hands of western European kingdoms. We know that he initially held the rank of squire or shield-bearer, an indication that perhaps his father was a member of the lower nobility. But Camões was jailed for wounding the keeper of the King’s harness, and after a hefty fine was paid, he shipped out to India as a common soldier. As White notes, “Of all Renaissance poets, Luís de Camões was the most widely traveled.” He served in expeditions to the Red Sea, the Malabar Coast and North Africa (where he lost an eye in Morocco), and for a brief period he held an administrative post in Macau, just then taken by Portugal. Half of his sonnets and songs were written during his travels which he regarded as a form of exile, an alternative to prison in Lisbon, imposed on him by cruel fate. No wonder he so loved and borrowed from Ovid’s Tristia, and identified with the image of the poet banished from the heart of the empire.


Ovid, born in Sulmo and banished
to remote, uncultured Tomis, imagined
he could see his scattered flesh,

His dear wife left abandoned,
his sweet children, his minions,
his eyes parted from his fatherland;

and unable to contain his passion,
he complained to the mountains and the rivers
of the sad, dark day he was born.

He reflected on the curse of the stars
and how, from where he stood, the sky,
air, and earth moved on in their order.

The fish swimming in the Black Sea
saw him, and ferocious beasts, following
their instinct, treated him with equanimity.

His witnessed from his own ducts flowing
homesick rivers of crystal sorrow,
the true mark of his inner being.

He soon shifts to consider his own plight in mid-poem, and though the language encircles the conventional topic of worldly grief, the phrasing is direct, uncluttered by literary convention, and personal. Surely, Wordsworth must have marveled at Camões’ bold use of the first person, the emphasis on deeply registered sentiment, and the unusually broad scope of his subject matter, from often savage commentary on the peoples and lands he visited, to poems retelling Biblical or mythic stories in inventive scenarios, to poems on love, faith, doubt, disappointment and death. In addition to sonnets in the Petrarchan manner, he wrote sestinas and in ottava rima, and adapted the forms of Italian canzones. Some pressure in his experience – something wayward and unique in his character -- injected a new force into his inherited forms. One can sense this special apprehension of reality throughout these remarkable translations. White says, “It is hard to feel that anyone traveled so far as Camões in taking Petrarch apart.”


A soul that’s merely wounded
shows a thousand signs of life:
the more it reveals its grief
the more it stays hidden.
If they’re blind to my burden
because they don’t wish to see it,
what must I do to have credit?

If only they could see
how I dissemble what I feel,
after such an ordeal
I suppose I should be happy.
But if those eyes that injure me
don’t wish to see their remit,
what must I do to have credit?

camoes.jpgHaving lost his sinecure in Macau, he was recalled. On the way back to India, he was shipwrecked in the Mekong Delta where it is possible that his Chinese mistress drowned (the woman he calls "Dinamene" in a cycle of love sonnets). He was jailed in Goa for failure to pay debts, but managed to ship out as far as Mozambique where, penniless, he was stranded. An unnamed benefactor provided return passage to Portugal in the 1570s (the poet had first sailed to India in 1553) where Camões lived on a meager pension. He died indigent and ignored in 1580.

“Camões is a poet of questioning, reinterpreting the poetic idioms of the day in terms of those new lands and unprecedented encounters,” White says. “Each poem, no matter how brief, has a point to make, in the metaphysical manner … He brings to his travels a creative literal-mindedness, so that all inherited metaphor is tested against his own ‘truths,’ a word he invariably employs in the plural.” White’s skill at devising relaxed end-rhymes and shaping the poet’s lines often into iambic tetrameter allows him to express the compact tensions of Camões’ work, and the searing self-indictments that sound so modern.


My errors, ill fortune, and ardent love
all connived together in my loss:
but errors and fortune were superfluous
in that love alone for me did quite enough.

I survived all. But I still have present
the great torment of things in the past,
and those desperate passions impressed
me I should never hope to be content.

In all my life’s discourse, I was wrong.
I gave Fortune good cause to castigate
hopes that in the end had little purchase.

Love had always a deceitful tongue.
O, who could ever do enough to satiate
this, my iron-willed, avenging genius!

[Published September 3, 2008, 367 pp., $19.95 paper]