Luis de Camões, Portugal's greatest poet, (c.1524-1580), wrote near-perfect sonnets and canzones, but is best remembered for Os Lusíadas (sons of Lusas, i.e. Portugal), an epic of national identity. Amorous, quarrelsome and unsuccessful in any worldly sense, Camões lost an eye in Morocco, served in India and was deported from China, struggling back in 1570 to Lisbon, infirm and penniless.

Throughout misfortune, however, he worked on the manuscript that was to bring a meagre royal pension and the unreserved love of his countrymen. Partly modelled on Virgil and Ariosto, and glorifying the events in Vasco da Gama's voyages and Portugal's history, Os Lusíadas provided a vigorous and realistic narrative by someone who knew the countries at first hand.

Camões' achievement overshadowed other Portuguese literature, but Os Lusíadas was written in a century of European epics — e.g. La Araucana by the Spaniard Alonso de Ercilla (1569-90). Portugal's poetry had included Galician cantigas, canciones (often influenced by Italian models) and the work (religious and bucolic poems) of Diogo Bernardes (c. 1530-1605) and Frei Agostinho DA Cruz (1540-1619). Many epics followed Os Lusíadas, but the quality wasn't recaptured, and literature declined with Portugal's dwindling importance in European affairs.

Romanticism (João Batista DA Silva Leitão de Almeid Garret, António Feliciano de Castilho and Soares de Passos) and Modernismo (Engénio de Castro) brought fresh life; Brazilian writers widened literary content; and the influence of the extraordinary Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) continues to be felt.

Os Lusíadas is a a national epic in ten octava rima cantos. Vasco Da Gama's expedition to India forms its principal subject, but the heroes are the Portuguese people. Events real (Da Gama's voyages), historical (founding of the Portuguese kingdom, battle of Aljubarrota, death of Inès de Castro) and legendary (Twelve of England, Island of Love, Lusitanian prophecies) are interwoven, and the poem also uses classical mythology and Christian allusion. But the poem is made unforgettable by the grandeur of conception, the patriotism, the quotable lines, the erudition, and the author's own reflections on an eventful life.

Neither Camões nor Portuguese literature in general is very well-known to English readers, and the most popular translation of Os Lusíadas may still be Sir Richard Fanshaw's of 1655. More modern translations include those of Leonard Bacon (1950) and Landeg White (2001). Also worth reading are verse translations by W. C. Atkinson (1962) and Keith Bosley (1990), and literary studies by Alfred Hower and Richard Preto-Rodas (1985) and by Kurt Levy, Ricardo Sternberg and Laura Bulger (1987). Portuguese is the second language of Latin America, and can be learned from books, tapes, CDs and the Internet.

Suggestions: The Lusiads Translated by Landeg White. O.U.P. 2005. $8.76

This verse translation of The Lusiads, the first for almost 50 years, is brought to life by a good introduction and extensive notes.

And: Selected Sonnets : A Bilingual Edition Translated by William Baer. Univ. Chicago Press. 2005. $26.

Representative selection: rhymed, less concise than the original but often beauiful.

Learning Portuguese

Portuguese can be learnt from books, tapes, courses and CDs, available at multilingual, worldlanguage, arthur lynn, rosetta stone, language quest, pimsleur and unforgettable languages.

Free lessons and material are at ilovelanguages, and search language.

Other works, dictionaries, etc. can be ordered through grant and cutler, bestbookbuys, abebooks and alibris.

Portuguese-English-Portuguese online dictionaries are at multilingual books,, lexilogos .

Machine translation can be helpful, though you will need some grammar to correct the rendering: omnilang, free translation, google, babelfish, worldlingo and reverso.

Some useful language exchanges: friends abroad, xlingo, mylanguage exchange, polyglot learn language, and lingozone.

Portuguese Poetry

For other poets and Portuguese poetry generally see everything2know,

Translations include those of Fanshaw, Leonard Bacon and Landeg White. Also worth reading are verse translations by W. C. Atkinson and Keith Bosley, and literary studies by Alfred Hower and Richard Preto-Rodas (1985) and by Kurt Levy, Ricardo Sternberg and Laura Bulger (1987).

Students of Portuguese literature may find these sites useful: camões, lisbon national library and rio de janeiro national library.


Information on Camões can be found in the list immediately above and at epic and lyric os lusíadas and country studies.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.