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the Complete Review
the complete review - epic

The Lusíads

Luís Vaz de Camões

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Title: The Lusíads
Author: Luís Vaz de Camões
Genre: Epic
Written: 1572 (Eng. 1997)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: The Lusíads - US
The Lusíads - UK
The Lusíads - Canada
Les Lusiades - France
Die Lusiaden - Deutschland
I Lusiadi - Italia
Los Lusiadas - España
  • Portuguese title: Os Lusíadas
  • Translated by Landeg White
  • Previously translated by Sir Richard Fanshawe (1655), William Julius Mickle (1776), Thomas Moore Musgrave (1826), Thomas Mitchell (1854), Richard F. Burton (1880), R.F. Duff (1880), J.J. Aubertin (1881), Leonard Bacon (1950), and William C. Atkinson (1952)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : this translation a solid introduction to a fascinating work, but more work needed on the part of the reader to fully appreciate/enjoy it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 18/2/1999 Basil Davidson
TLS* . 16/3/1951 Edmund Charles
TLS* . 7/3/1952 Maurice Bowra
TLS . 12/2/1999 Lachlan Mackinnon

[* review of a different translation]

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is admirably done, being neither rumbustious nor boastful but shrewdly suited to the spirit of a modern readership." - Basil Davidson, London Review of Books

  • "Mr. Bacon has achieved a difficult feat; he has made a translation of The Lusiads of which the effect is quietly Elizabethan without the uncertain benefit of imposed verbal archaisms in any profusion. (...) Geographical poetry can seldom have been finer." - Edmund Charles, Times Literary Supplement

  • "More masculine than Gerusalemme Liberata and more human than Paradise Lost, The Lusiads has a noble place in the Virgilian succession and deserves to be read again in a country which has known the intoxication of building empires and is now beginning to count the cost. (...) He argues that verse-translations are either too free, like Mickle's, or too faithful, like Burton's, and concludes that prose is best. His argument might be disputed, but the result is quite admirable. We can only be grateful for this accurate, straightforward and highly readable version. If it lacks Camoens's lyrical splendour, it reflects his vigour and delight in stirring events and reveals the essential clarity and simplicity of his mind." - Maurice Bowra, Times Literary Supplement

  • "As a poet, Camões is capable of setting up powerful echoing patterns which help to unify his material. (...) His version of The Lusíads, with its occasional anachronisms ("dreadlock", "anthropologist"), is none the less a fine example of rendering for our time as Fanshawe's was for his. A great European poem is at last available to us." - Lachlan Mackinnon, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Lusíads is the Portuguese epic -- essentially the story of Vasco de Gama's first voyage to India, a triumph of daring Portuguese colonialist ambition written, less than a century later, when its empire was already in decline. The ten-canto poem is influenced, above all, by Virgil's Aeneid, which it repeatedly invokes; just how much it is homage and modern variation is already evident from the opening lines, Camões': "As armas e os barões assinalados" ("Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes" here) obviously echoing the opening of the Aeneid ("Arma virumque cano" -- 'Arms, and the man I sing' (Dryden)) -- with, as translator Landeg White points out in his endnotes: "the difference that Camões's subject is the achievements not of one man but of 'the Portuguese'".
       The 1102 stanzas of The Lusíads are written in ottava rima -- an ABABABCC rhyme scheme. Richard Fanshawe's 1655 translation reproduced that scheme, as did Richard Burton's (1880); in this translation, White explains:

I have respected the eight-line units of the original tex with its formal closes. But, in ambition at least, I have adopted a diction and prosody free to reflect the subtle modernity of Camões's style.
       So White has only preserved a rhyme in the final two lines of each stanza -- suggesting some, if not all, of the feel of the original.
       (The other widely available modern translation of The Lusíads is the Penguin Classics edition, in William Atkinson's translation (1952), notable and entirely different in feel because it is in prose -- "an academic prose laced with Shakespearean echoes", as White describes it. White also suggests it obscures: "the architecture of The Lusíads, its shaping and pacing, substituting rhythms wholly alien to the original". I have not seen Atkinson's translation, but surely rendering the work in prose makes for a very different work; the original Times Literary Supplement review, by Maurice Bowra, did acknowledge that: "it lacks Camoens's lyrical splendour" but praised it as: "accurate, straightforward and highly readable" -- but it's perhaps worth pointing out that in his TLS review of White's translation Lachlan Mackinnon dismisses it as a: "devastatingly dull prose version".)
       From a contemporary perspective, this paean to colonial would-be expansionism -- more so even than simply discovery --, which The Lusíads can sometimes seem to be, lacks some of the grandeur of other epics (simple, more localized invasion and warfare being seen as more palatable); certainly, the enthusiastic description of the work, right at the outset (in the second canto already), can be a bit hard to take, that this is a poem extolling those:
Who magnified Christ and Empire,
Bringing ruin on the degenerate
Lands of Africa and Asia.
       The imposition of Christianity and Empire no longer seem quite as laudable, of course (and one does have to kind of wonder about the necessity of bringing ruin to places -- whole continents ! -- that were already considered degenerate ... (as also there's only limited talk of building on any ashes and the like; what de Gama is mainly interested in is in establishing commercial ties to enable trade, the Portuguese understanding that this was the value of opening up these new parts of the world). But 'A Fé, o Império' -- the spread of (their) faith and empire -- as guiding principles for this adventure are indeed central to the work -- even as, interestingly, The Lusíads is not simply or exactly a story of triumph; success, in fact, is limited.
       Camões also suggests that this story -- or rather the action and the actors -- are particularly admirable because it is true -- based on recent history -- and the characters real, and thus, for example:
Historic deeds such as theirs
Transcend fables, and would eclipse
Boiado's Orlando, and Ariosto's too,
Even if all they wrote of him were true.
       The epic begins with the travellers under de Gama already well under way, sailing around Africa. There are some encounters with the locals, but they do not go well; however, de Gama continues to make contact along the way -- not least because he is looking for someone who can guide him to India. There's no small amount of luck -- and/or divine intervention -- along the way that keeps the travellers from sailing into catastrophe -- at one point: "The goddess placed herself with others / Directly before the flagship's prow, / blocking the way" to prevent one disaster -- and after a while even de Gama gets the message: "'plainly, Providence has shown us / There is no safety in these ports".
       Venus tries to protect the travellers, while her father Jove complicates the task for her -- but he does, at some length, preview the successes the Portuguese will have, summing up early on already what the future holds. He, too, suggests big, big things are in store for the Portuguese -- telling Venus nothing less than:
I promise you, daughter, you will see
The Greeks and Romans far outshone
By what people of Portuguese descent
Will accomplish throughout the Orient.
       Yes, with: "Superhuman fortitude, never matched", the Portuguese will advance and make their presence felt throughout the 'Orient'. It sets the bar pretty high .....
       Meanwhile, Mercury appears to de Gama and gives him some advice, about which African king to flee -- and who to turn to instead. They find safe harbour in Malindi (present-day Kenya), where the local Sultan isn't antagonistic (unlike those they encountered at their two previous stops) -- though they still approach things fairly cautiously (de Gama not venturing on land himself, for example, and having the Sultan meet him on the open water).
       The encounter between Sultan and de Gama allows the Portuguese captain to properly explain where he is from, and then recount the earlier parts of the voyage, both of which he does in considerable detail. He offers a geographic tour of the countries of Europe (summing up, say, Greece as: "Touching the sublime in hexameters, / Not less inspired in war than in letters") and culminating of course with homeland Portugal, whose history he goes into and on about at greater length. (The long sections covering Portugal's history are, of course, a significant part of why this is the nation's/national epic.)
       While the account of Portuguese history is meant also to show the greatness of the land, it is not a simple whitewash job; indeed, Camões repeatedly points out when things went wrong, and acknowledges that there were some really rotten rulers along the way. So also, for example:
But warped by the hatreds of those days
The people of the kingdom committed
Absolute and outright cruelties,
Indiscriminately on all sides;
They killed the friends and family
Of the adulterous count, and of the queen
Who, when Fernando died, turned even more
Unashamedly and obviously a whore.
       He admits there were episodes that even: "put in history's long shadow / The savagery which Rome witnessed". Meanwhile, many of the larger conflicts were also horrible:
At this, the battle became massacre
With deaths, shrieks, blood, and stabbing;
Such a myriad of people perished
The very flowers changed color.
       Getting to the-contemporary times, de Gama recounts how King Manuel dreamed of the Ganges speaking to him -- yet another preview vision of what lay ahead, the river warning that: "We shall cost you unremitting war, / But persevering, you will become / Peerless in victory". Manuel then commissioned the voyage which is at the heart of the story, and de Gama describes it setting out and the voyage to that point, to when they reached Malindi.
       For all the huge ambition of the expedition, the description of the sending-off hardly sounds very hopeful:
The people considered us already lost
On so long and uncertain a journey,
The women with piteous wailing,
The men with agonizing sighs;
       Not only that, but 'an old man of venerable appearance' -- the Old Man of Belém -- gives a devastating parting speech. He asks: "To what new catastrophes do you plan / To drag this kingdom and these people ?" and points out: "You ignore the enemy at the gate / In the search for another so far away". It doesn't exactly bring the party to a crashing halt, but it's certainly food for thought, a cloud that hangs over the rest of the journey; it's also one of the poetically richest of the sections of the epic.
       Setting sail then, they first encounter the wonders of Africa -- leading de Gama to suggest:
If philosophers of old, who visited
So many lands to study their secrets,
Had witnessed the marvels I witnessed,
Spreading my sail to such different winds,
What great writings they would have left us !
What revelations about the heavens,
What marvellous testimonies to Nature's youth !
And all without hyperbole. Plain truth !
       Camões -- who himself traveled extensively -- expresses this sense of wonder quite well throughout, even as he limits himself in describing it: for all the places visited over the course of The Lusíads, few are described in much detail.
       The highpoint of the voyage around Africa is, of course, the turn around the Cape of Storms -- the Cape of Good Hope. Here, again, nature is also encountered personified -- or at least in some semi-physical form ("Who are you, whose / Outlandish shape utterly dumbfounds me ?" de Gama asks it) --, which then also tells its story. It is also somewhat impressed that de Gama has reached this point:
Which neither Ptolemy, Pompey, Strabo,
Pliny, nor any authors knew of.
Here Africa ends. Here its coast
Concludes in this, my vast inviolate
Plateau, extending southwards to the Pole
And, by your daring, struck to my very soul.
       The goal of the voyage is, of course, India, and, more than halfway through the epic, after finally leaving Malindi, they finally -- after more hardships at sea -- triumphantly reach it. De Gama hoped to establish trade relations, but sees that he will probably have to settle for lesss; nevertheless, he's sanguine that once he delivers to King Manuel proof of the existence of these lands of opportunity:
Arms, ships, and people would be sent
By King Manuel, as supreme commander,
To reduce to his yoke and to Christ's faith
The whole expanse of lands and ocean
       Among the hurdles he faces, however, is considerable conspiring against him -- including the spreading of the accusation that de Gama couldn't possibly be an emissary of a great power, and even that:
you have no king, nor loved homeland,
But live the life of a vagabond;
What king or lord so far away,
In the utmost west would commit such folly
As to venture not just a ship but a fleet
On a voyage so distant, so indiscreet ?
       If he can assuage these doubts, de Gama nevertheless has to return with emptier hands than hoped for. Yes, he has the essential: "proofs on board of the India he had found", but:
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
       The voyage was a success in expanding (European) knowledge of the known world, but the imperialist ambitions didn't work out quite so well. De Gama does, however, then, in the final canto, get a preview of the Portuguese successes and further adventures that would come after this voyage -- basically covering the time between it (1497-8) and when Camões penned his epic, allowing for descriptions of even more of Asia, further east, a quick tour of the nations and places there (which Camões again does nicely), so that Tethys (the helpful seeing-into-the future narrator here) can sum up:
Such are the new regions of the East
You Portuguese are adding to the world
Opening the gates to that vast ocean
Which you navigate with such courage.
       All in all, it makes for an unusual epic. It is in part an adventure tale, with several exciting episodes, including the wait in India, when the locals try to keep de Gama around until they can get greater numbers assembled -- those returning from Mecca -- to attack him. The attention to geo- and local-political conditions impress too; while Portugal-centric -- i.e. most everything is seen and considered in relation to either Portugal or de Gama's expedition -- it is, for the times (and long beyond), remarkably far-ranging (though of course the mythological mix that's thrown in throws some of this askew).
       The somewhat roundabout presentation -- the epic begins mid-voyage, with the expedition's beginnings only recounted later, while there are also several scenes of supernatural prediction, revealing what is to come (both on the voyage itself and then in the future) -- can be a bit awkward too; most translations come with chapter-summaries to give the gist of what happens in each canto, which can be helpful, but White does without any.
       If the potted Portuguese history is a bit uneven in its narrative force -- it's not quite biblical in its litany of rulers, but in its thoroughness not the most exciting part of the poem -- Camões is very good (if often somewhat superficial) in his extended short tours of both European and Asian countries (tellingly, both areas that de Gama more or less has no first-hand knowledge of). With various narrators coming to the fore -- including numerous supernatural ones -- the narrative does shift rather a lot, but many of these are inspired visions, from gods (notably but not only Tethys) to the Ganges to Adamastor -- the Cape of Good Hope personified; and the Old Man of Belém's rant is a particular stand-out.
       National pride is certainly much in evidence, but Camões is also able to suggest (if not truly cast) a somewhat critical eye. He celebrates the remarkable achievement of this voyage into the unknown, but also acknowledges how much luck and good fortune was involved -- in several cases the gods really working overtime to get the saving message across. And Portuguese history itself is also shown to have had its rough patches; indeed, Camões is realistic enough to understand the universal truth about rulers:
He saw throughout the world, not one
Ruler anxious for the public good;
Whatever love they felt was for
Themselves and for others like them;
He saw that instead of honest truth
The hangers-on at palaces peddle
Flattery, which serves no prince's need
To separate the growing wheat from weed.
       (Camões may have understood all this but arguably didn't take the lesson to heart, especially regarding who to suck up to; he died in poverty.)
       Landeg White's translation is ... fine. There's occasional real power to it, and while the very limited rhyme scheme still leads to the occasional forced and/or awkward bit, it's not the worst way to adapt the text. Still, obviously, the flow can't compare to the Portuguese ottava rima -- over-rhymed, to our ears, but obviously with a different, indeed tremendous effect. Translations like Fanshawe's and Burton's, which strive to reproduce it, (un)naturally sound completely over the top to contemporary readers -- as Burton has it, for example: "Oh ! lend me here a noble strain elate, a style grandiloquent that flows untiring" -- but there's something to be said for this as well, and honestly I think I prefer them. At the very least, any English translation of The Lusíads would do well to reproduce the Portuguese original facing the English rendering .....
       (I admit to a blind spot re. Burton, whose work I find near-endlessly fascinating. Regrettably there's no comfortably-sized edition of his Camões-work, but, even with the outdated and in many regards surely dubious scholarship, his translation plus the companion-volumes (yes, two), Camoens: His Life and His Lusiads, would seem essential reading for the fan (of either Burton or Camões).)
       Landeg White also offers a useful general Introduction, and provides fairly extensive endnotes ('Explanatory Notes'). The notes are useful, but, as endnotes, are somewhat disruptive to reading-pleasure -- more than many, the poem benefits from a second reading, once with attention to the supplementary material, once all on its own. (Indeed, while White's translation is a reasonable rendering, the work is probably appreciated considerably more if complemented with a reading of one of the older, more fanciful translations (and/or the Portuguese text itself, which, even if the reader can't outright comprehend it, gives a better sense of rhyme and sound and hence effect).)

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 July 2020

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The Lusíads: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões lived 1524/5 to 1580.

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