Camoes: Opening of the Lusiadas (From Portuguese)

"Would you not like to be understood for what you were in your own time rather than what some will make of you? We live short lives, try to make our mark, hoping for some kind of afterlife in memories about us. We owe it to past people to try to understand them, just as we hope future people will respect us."

— Patricia Crone in The Qur'anic Pagans and Related Matters

Luíz Vaz de Camões was a scholar, courtier, sailor, colonial administrator and playwright of the Portuguese Renaissance. Oh, and a poet too. Here translated are the first 18 stanzas (constituting a proem) of the first canto of Os Lusíadas, the Portuguese national epic. The actual action of the poem starts immediately after the last stanza translated here. Camões is one of very few epic poets to write about historical events that he himself had participated in. (The only other that comes to mind is Alonso de Ercilla, author of La Araucana "The Araucaniad" a brilliant and horrifyingly disturbing epic about the Spanish conquest of Chile.) I may or may not do more from the Lusiadas. It's not a book from which it is easy to select manageable excerpts that hang together on their own. For some rambling thoughts on translating Camões see my post On Translating Camões on my other blog.

Landeg White said of his own translation  into English of the Lusiadas " retrospect, my translation has divested the poem of its imperialistic, nationalistic and colonial intention by playing down the multiple adjectives and finding alternative narratives for nouns and verbs in the poem."

One can hardly blame White for this.

Modern performances of medieval plays find various ways to deal with the antisemitism often pervasive in such plays. Dialogue can be recast, certain scenes may be removed, or the staging may be done in a way that plays to how a modern viewer would feel about what they're seeing. The aim is to make the play work better for a modern audience with modern sensibilities. But in doing this kind of thing to works that are "problematic" (last time I'll use the P-word I promise), there seems to be a point where you are essentially pretending that the original is something other than it is, that its creator was something other than what they really were, or even that history did not happen as really it did.

I don't feel the need to prettify this poem. Camões was a full believer in the colonial civilizing mission. With a certainty and a zeal that would not have disgraced an Umayyad Caliph or even Henry Kissinger, Camões believed in the superiority of what he believed to be his civilization, and its obligation to impose its order on the rest of the world for that world's own good. There is no handwaving away the bloodiness of European expansionism either. To translate Camões as the poet I wish he had been, instead of the poet that he was, simply does not sit right with me. The things that make the Lusiadas worth reading, and worth translating, are legion. But neither I nor my reader can have them without dealing with certain things.

We do not have to make Camões' mistake of thinking all things revolve around Christendom and its history. Camões' eructations about expanding "Faith and Empire" are not so different from those of medieval Muslim poets glorifying more or less the same thing in Arabic, where the word for it was jihād. Tariq ibn Ziyad didn't cross the straights that bear his name for the greater glory of cultural exchange anymore than the British colonized India to give it a railway system. Artistic exaltations of conquest and domination have existed in every empire for as long as empires have existed. If that were all that this poem was, there would be little to explain its appeal to centuries of readers, little to distinguish it either from its counterparts in other languages, or from its numerous imitations in Portuguese (which prompted one critic to describe Portuguese epic as a fungus growth.)

In the Lusiadas, we see a European poet confronted for the first time with questions of how to deal with many alien things. No other Renaissance European epic contains so many sprawling nationalities. No other is so propelled by the excitement of the first-hand experience of a "New World." Camões is — and Landeg White is right to dwell on this point — the first European poet to write about the tropics who had actually been there. He can be as fun a narrator as Dante, and some of his narrative tactics were unparalleled because they had to be, grappling as they did with both the geographic discoveries and the scientific revolutions of his time. His Vasco Da Gama is not an epic hero, but — just as Camões was during his time overseas — a human being with a job to do, and little patience for the likes of Aeneas who was such an incompetent seaman that he lost his helmsman on a clear night. 

The Portuguese empire had begun to unravel in Camões' day. The French and English, eventually joined by the Dutch, were gaining both territory and trade access at Portugal's expense, both in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. Portugal just didn't have the capital needed to sustain a large navy on a scale comparable to other European powers, and lacked the institutions needed to continually train large enough groups with the specialized skills needed for effective overseas colonial administration.
When we read the Lusiadas we are reading of things that had already happened, however recently.  The later books especially have strong whiff of elegy. As Ausiàs March put it: temps d'avenir en negun be·m pot caure, / aquell passat en mi és lo millor.

If in the proem Camões looks to King Sebastião with the optimistic hope of a reinvigorated age of expansion for doughty Portugal, he is also doing what is expected of him. His letter home from Goa strongly implies that he could sense the jig was basically up. Camões spares no spleen in attacking the world of government officialdom, greedy merchants, the commercial racketeering of the spice-trade either in the Lusiadas or in his letter home. It never seems to have fully sunk in for him that overseas exploration and colonization was largely an expression of commercial interests. Camões will have none of it.

For him — at least, in his poetry — Europe’s discovery of the world's water-routes is to be seen as a crusade against the partes infidelium, despite his recognition of the commercial venture that it increasingly was and in many ways had always been. The focus on overseas exploration as essential to missionary warfare gave him a more convenient way to think of it. Camões' hostility to Islam in particular should be understood in context both of this, and of the broader European background. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire was a rival super-power. Constantinople had fallen less than a hundred years earlier, Turkish armies were expanding in North Africa and the Balkans. The first siege of Vienna was still within living memory. The Battle of Lepanto occurred while Camões was writing this poem.

We do not need to forget history to remember that some of it was still yet to happen. In reading Camões, the modern notion of Muslims as the victims of history is an anachronism. It gains its force from global developments that would not take place until centuries after both Camões and Portugal's imperial ambitions had rotted to dust. The Lusiadas, as a poem, transcends them both "and is the lovelier because we know / it has gone beyond itself, as great things go."

Audio of me reciting the original text in a reconstruction of Renaissance Portuguese pronunciation

From The Lusiads
By Luís Vaz de Camões
Translated by A.Z. Foreman


These are the tales of arms and matchless men
Who put to sea from Portugal's west shore
And trekked to Taprobana and beyond
By oceans nobody had braved before,
And in combat and crises held their own, 
Drawing on more than human skill, in war
Among a distant people, to bring the name
Of a New Kingdom, and earn it deathless fame;


And glorious memory of that line of kings
Who through the ages magnified the expanse
Of the Faith and Empire, and kept havocking
Asia and Africa's degenerate lands; 
And fame of men who did immortal things
Whose names are now immune to death's commands. 
I'll spread their song wherever there are men
So long as Art and Invention helm my pen. 


Tell no more tales about the subtle Greek,
The Trojan refugee on epic seas,
The Roman Trajan or grand Alexander
With all their Asiatic victories. 
Look to the men who made Neptune and Mars
Obey: I sing the daring Portuguese.
Have done with all the Ancient Muses prize.
A higher code of honor's on the rise.


And you, nymphs of the Tagus, since you have
Birthed the new burning genius in me,
If ever I have paid your kindly river
The homage of my rustic poetry,
Return to me the tones of the sublime,
A style both grand-tongued and contemporary. 
Apollo: bless their stream as my lines run.
Make Portugal a Modern Helicon.


Fill me with mighty firing cadences. 
Not with a piping goatherd's rude flute bars,
But shouts of battle horns that flame the cheek
And stir the breast and steel the skin for wars.
Give me a new song equal to the feats
Of your people, proudly served by ruddy Mars,
To sing and spread their praise in space and time,
If verse can compass something so sublime. 

And you, Boy King, scion and guarantor
Of Lusitania's ancient liberty,  
No less a certain hope of increase for
Christendom's little empire on the sea, 
You who have put new terror in the Moor,
The marvel of our age, our destiny, 
Given the world by God's all-willing reign
To win much of that world for God's own name. 

You, green and tender sapling from the tree
More precious in the heart of Christ than all
The other lineages of the West, 
Be it the Kaisers' or the Kings of Gaul, 
(Witness your coat of arms that bears the sign
Of victory against the Infidel
When Christ bestowed, as emblem to emboss,
The five wounds that he suffered on the cross.) 

You, mighty king, whose global realm the sun
Sees as it first comes up an Indian hill,
Then shines — mid-hemisphere — above your throne
Until it casts a last beam at Brazil,
You whom we look upon to yoke and humble 
The scurvy horsemen spawned of Ishmael, 
The heathen Turk, and the Hindu believer
Drinking the waters of his hallowed river. 

Come set that majesty aside awhile
That in your youthful countenance I see
Already, and which in fullness of your years 
You'll bear to the temple of eternity;
Bend your magnanimous and kingly eyes
Earthward. Behold a loving eulogy
For my land's steel-willed feats in modern times
Given the world in good and cadenced rhymes. 


Here you will see a love of country, driven
Not by base greed, but everlasting worth.
It is no base reward to be renowned
For voicing praises for my land of birth.
Listen, and you will note the names extolled
Of men to whom you are the lord on earth.
Judge for yourself: would it be greater, then,  
To be king of the world, or of such men? 


Listen. You will not hear of counterfeit
Exploits. We do not need the fantasies
That other nations' Muses fabulate
To glorify themselves in lies. For these 
Historic deeds I sing to you transcend
Fables, and would outstrip the vagaries
Of France's Roland, and Ariosto's too, 
Even if every word of them were true. 


Instead I give you Nuno Álvarez
Grand servant of his kingdom and his king,
I give you Egas Moniz, Fuas Roupinho
Whose praise only Homer's lyre could rightly sing.
Arthur's knights yield to the twelve Portuguese
Of England, and Magriço's traveling.
And I will give you Lord da Gama's genius
Wresting the fame from wandering Aeneas.


My liege, if what you want is equal stature
To Julius Caesar or the Charlemagne
Look to Afonso the first whose lance eclipsed
All foreign reputations in his reign;
Or João the first who kept this kingdom free
In victory against the steel of Spain;
Or João the second, conquered by no sword,
Or the fourth or fifth Afonso, or the third.


Nor shall my verses fail to monument
Those heroes who in Kingdoms of the Dawn
By force of arms rose to such excellence
Your banner always triumphed in that sun: 
Peerless Pacheco, and fearsome Francisco
Whom the Tagus still mourns as it mourns his son,   
Albuquerque the fierce, Castro the brave,
And other men whose feats defeat the grave. 


And while I sing to you of these, of you
My liege, I would not dare presume a thing. 
Go, liege, take up the reins of your own reign, 
And give me even greater stuff to sing. 
Let the world groan and gape already, sensing
The weight of your feats and your forces, King
Of African lands and Oriental seas,
Where you fulfill your destined victories. 


On you the frightened Moor has fixed his eyes,
And sees his doom foretold in all you do. 
At a flash of you the rugged Indian
Will offer his cowed neck to yoke. For you
Lord Neptune's Thetys has prepared already
A dowry of her whole domain of blue. 
Your worth and beauty hold her in such awe
She wants to win you for a son-in-law.  


Today from Mount Olympus there gaze down
Your two grandfathers. Such renown they bore:
One for a golden angel-cherished Peace
The other for red works of bleeding War. 
In you they hope to witness resurrection
Of their heroic deeds and days once more,
Keeping a place, when all must cease to be
For you, in the temple of eternity. 


But as your long reign rolls on slowly over
Your people, as they dearly wish it to, 
Look favorably on my boldness so 
My epic can become your epic too. 
You will see the salt sliver ocean cut 
By Portuguese Argonauts who will see you 
Are watching over them on wrath-green sea. 
Prepare to be invoked in jeopardy. 


S1: Taprobana - the Greek, and later Latin, name for the island of Sri Lanka.

S3: The Greek is Odysseus, and the Trojan Aeneas.

S6: I.e. King Sebastião who had ascended to the throne at the age of 14.

S7: The victory is that won at the Battle of Ourique, south of the Tagus, where Afonso Henriques defeated the Almoravids. Legend had it that Christ appeared on the field promising the deliverance of Portugal. The five shields in the Portuguese coat of arms are said to represent the wounds of Christ.

S11: The final couplet in the original refers to different characters from Orlando Furioso and Orlando Inamorato.

S12: Egas Moniz and Fuas Roupinho were allies of Afonso I. Nuno Álvarez was a hero of the battle of Aljubarrota. The original references the myth of the Twelve Peers of France, and not Arthur's knights. But I felt that the Twelve Knights of the Roundtable did more in English with little consequence for the poem beyond.

S14: Description of renowned men from Portuguese India. Duarte Pacheco Pereira conquered the Malabar coast. Francisco and his son Lourenço de Almeida established a line of fortresses from Sofala to Cochin. Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Goa. 

The Original:

As armas e os barões assinalados,
Que da ocidental praia Lusitana,
Por mares nunca de antes navegados,
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados,
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram;

E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis, que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando;
E aqueles, que por obras valerosas
Se vão da lei da morte libertando;
Cantando espalharei por toda parte,
Se a tanto me ajudar o engenho e arte.

Cessem do sábio Grego e do Troiano
As navegações grandes que fizeram;
Cale-se de Alexandro e de Trajano
A fama das vitórias que tiveram;
Que eu canto o peito ilustre Lusitano,
A quem Neptuno e Marte obedeceram:
Cesse tudo o que a Musa antiga canta,
Que outro valor mais alto se alevanta.

E vós, Tágides minhas, pois criado
Tendes em mim um novo engenho ardente,
Se sempre em verso humilde celebrado
Foi de mim vosso rio alegremente,
Dai-me agora um som alto e sublimado,
Um estilo grandíloquo e corrente,
Porque de vossas águas, Febo ordene
Que não tenham inveja às de Hipocrene.

Dai-me uma fúria grande e sonorosa,
E não de agreste avena ou frauta ruda,
Mas de tuba canora e belicosa,
Que o peito acende e a cor ao gesto muda;
Dai-me igual canto aos feitos da famosa
Gente vossa, que a Marte tanto ajuda;
Que se espalhe e se cante no universo,
Se tão sublime preço cabe em verso.

E vós, ó bem nascida segurança
Da Lusitana antiga liberdade,
E não menos certíssima esperança
De aumento da pequena Cristandade;
Vós, ó novo temor da Maura lança,
Maravilha fatal da nossa idade,
Dada ao mundo por Deus, que todo o mande,
Para do mundo a Deus dar parte grande;

Vós, tenro e novo ramo florescente
De uma árvore de Cristo mais amada
Que nenhuma nascida no Ocidente,
Cesárea ou Cristianíssima chamada;
(Vede-o no vosso escudo, que presente
Vos amostra a vitória já passada,
Na qual vos deu por armas, e deixou
As que Ele para si na Cruz tomou)

Vós, poderoso Rei, cujo alto Império
O Sol, logo em nascendo, vê primeiro;
Vê-o também no meio do Hemisfério,
E quando desce o deixa derradeiro;
Vós, que esperamos jugo e vitupério
Do torpe Ismaelita cavaleiro,
Do Turco oriental, e do Gentio,
Que inda bebe o licor do santo rio;

Inclinai por um pouco a majestade,
Que nesse tenro gesto vos contemplo,
Que já se mostra qual na inteira idade,
Quando subindo ireis ao eterno templo;
Os olhos da real benignidade
Ponde no chão: vereis um novo exemplo
De amor dos pátrios feitos valerosos,
Em versos divulgado numerosos.

Vereis amor da pátria, não movido
De prémio vil, mas alto e quase eterno:
Que não é prémio vil ser conhecido
Por um pregão do ninho meu paterno.
Ouvi: vereis o nome engrandecido
Daqueles de quem sois senhor superno,
E julgareis qual é mais excelente,
Se ser do mundo Rei, se de tal gente.

Ouvi, que não vereis com vãs façanhas,
Fantásticas, fingidas, mentirosas,
Louvar os vossos, como nas estranhas
Musas, de engrandecer-se desejosas:
As verdadeiras vossas são tamanhas,
Que excedem as sonhadas, fabulosas;
Que excedem Rodamonte, e o vão Rugeiro,
E Orlando, inda que fora verdadeiro,

Por estes vos darei um Nuno fero,
Que fez ao Rei o ao Reino tal serviço,
Um Egas, e um D. Fuas, que de Homero
A cítara para eles só cobiço.
Pois pelos doze Pares dar-vos quero
Os doze de Inglaterra, e o seu Magriço;
Dou-vos também aquele ilustre Gama,
Que para si de Eneias toma a fama.

Pois se a troco de Carlos, Rei de França,
Ou de César, quereis igual memória,
Vede o primeiro Afonso, cuja lança
Escura faz qualquer estranha glória;
E aquele que a seu Reino a segurança
Deixou com a grande e próspera vitória;
Outro Joane, invicto cavaleiro,
O quarto e quinto Afonsos, e o terceiro.

Nem deixarão meus versos esquecidos
Aqueles que nos Reinos lá da Aurora
Fizeram, só por armas tão subidos,
Vossa bandeira sempre vencedora:
Um Pacheco fortíssimo, e os temidos
Almeidas, por quem sempre o Tejo chora;
Albuquerque terríbil, Castro forte,
E outros em quem poder não teve a morte.

E enquanto eu estes canto, e a vós não posso,
Sublime Rei, que não me atrevo a tanto,
Tomai as rédeas vós do Reino vosso:
Dareis matéria a nunca ouvido canto.
Comecem a sentir o peso grosso
(Que pelo mundo todo faça espanto)
De exércitos e feitos singulares,
De África as terras, e do Oriente os mares,

Em vós os olhos tem o Mouro frio,
Em quem vê seu exício afigurado;
Só com vos ver o bárbaro Gentio
Mostra o pescoço ao jugo já inclinado;
Tétis todo o cerúleo senhorio
Tem para vós por dote aparelhado;
Que afeiçoada ao gesto belo e tenro,
Deseja de comprar-vos para genro.

Em vós se vêm da olímpica morada
Dos dois avós as almas cá famosas,
Uma na paz angélica dourada,
Outra pelas batalhas sanguinosas;
Em vós esperam ver-se renovada
Sua memória e obras valerosas;
E lá vos tem lugar, no fim da idade,
No templo da suprema Eternidade.

Mas enquanto este tempo passa lento
De regerdes os povos, que o desejam,
Dai vós favor ao novo atrevimento,
Para que estes meus versos vossos sejam;
E vereis ir cortando o salso argento
Os vossos Argonautas, por que vejam
Que são vistos de vós no mar irado,
E costumai-vos já a ser invocado.

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