Lesson 27--work in progress!



1. Clay & Skin

2. Gilgamesh

3. Acts of God

4. Genesis


5. Odysseus

6. Men like

7. Socrates

8. Alexander

9. Virgil

10. Paul


11. Krishna

12. Rama

13. Kalidasa

14. Buddha

15. Confucius

16. Lao Tse


17. Quran

18. Beowulf

19. Genji

20. Survival Itself


21. Dante 1

22. Dante 2

 23. Dante 3

 24. Chaucer

25. Journey to the West

26. New World

27. Indians

28. Don Quixote








Read from the Longman Anthology of World Literature, Luis de Camoes, Lusiads (Damrosch C287-C324):

Then skim the page below and journal for an hour.

Finally, if you are enrolled in the course, go to the Angel site, take the quiz and submit your journal to Dr. G


1271-1295. Marco Polo travels the silk road to China

1325-1355. Travels of Ibn Battuta overland through much of Asia and Africa.

1430's. Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator directs exploration of the west coast of Africa.

1453. Fall of Constantinople to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, blocking Europeans from eastern trade routes.

1492-1493. First voyage of Christopher Columbus. Second voyage 1493-1494. Third voyage 1498. Last voyage 1502-1504.

1494. Spain and Portugal divide the western world with the Pope's blessing at the Treaty of Tordesillas

1497. Giovanni Caboto "John Cabot" makes discovery of North America for England

1498-1499. The first voyage of Vasco da Gama to Calicut, city of spices in India. Second voyage 1504-1505.

1500-1501. Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral discovers Brazil.

1513. Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa crosses Panama to discover the Pacific Ocean.

1515. The Persian Gulf is seized by Portuguese under Afonso de Albuquerque.

1516-1517. The first known European voyage to China by Portuguese navigator Rafael Perestrello

1519-1522. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigates the globe for Spain.

1521. Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico.

1532. Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru.

1572. Luís Vaz de Camões publishes Os Lusíadas an epic on Vasco da Gama's First Voyage

1577-1580. Francis Drake circumnavigates the world

1588. English forces defeat the Spanish Armada




route of Vasco da Gama's first voyage to Calicut, subject of
Camões' Lusiads


World Literature Revisited

We began lesson 1 of this course with Goethe's definition of "world literature" as texts that are read with interest internationally. Goethe did not mean to include in this category any book that happens to be read outside of its native country. He meant only those books which have strong appeal outside of their homeland because they address fundamental human concerns. For instance, Dante's Inferno is not world literature simply because it has been read outside of Italy or because it reveals the author's life or nationalistic leanings. It is world literature because it is about human life in general, or at least the vices from which people in general suffer, and because the poem  has been found to be compelling by a vast international readership. 

To put it another way, we might say that Goethe's world literature includes all books with cultures that are international. [Recall the definition of culture from lesson 1.] At the head of this category are ancient scriptures of the world's largest still-surviving religions, and modern foundational texts in science having significant numbers of avid readers around the globe.  

The Age of Discovery gave a particular boost to western literature, as most of the planet at that time became accessible to European missionaries, warriors, pirates and traders.  Foundation myths followed the discoverers much as the Aeneid once followed Augustus or much as the Iliad once followed Alexander.

Luis Vaz de Camões' Lusiads (1572) illustrates the patriotic and righteous spin prevalent in its time. Although the poem concerns Portuguese military celebrities, the poet's announced intention is that "all men shall know of them." Camões invokes the Muses of Tagus (Portugal), but he asks them to give him "a song destined to known and sung throughout the world, if indeed a poet may achieve so much." At the end of the poem, Vasco da Gama is allowed to view a model of the whole universe, at the center of which lies the earth, at the center of which lie global trade routes destined to belong to Portugal.

The Lusiads rises to the level of Goethe's definition for world literature not because of the quality of its writing, but because da Gama and its many other Portuguese "heroes" are attempting to establish a world empire. The poem tries to tell the Portuguese who they are--the poet is afraid they have grown lazy and forgetful of their own expansionist tradition--but it also tells non-Portuguese people that Portugal is on a mission from God to subjugate them by force of arms. 

Obviously Portugal's threat to world peace has diminished in the last 400 years, and international interest in The Lusiads has declined simultaneously.  Perhaps this poem illustrates as well as any that world literature is not necessarily a static category, that over time particularly works can gain or lose international interest.

It was the hope of early modern Portugal, and most other Atlantic states of Europe, to control the oceans and so dominate the world. This largely had been accomplished before, not by Greece and Rome which were trapped in the Mediterranean, but by the Islamic states whose confederation extended from the Iberian peninsula through the Near East to Mogul India to southeast Asia. Early modern Muslims were by no means organized into a monolithic block of political states, but collectively members of Islam by land and by sea had succeeded in severing eastern and western Eurasia. It was the crusader project of Camões' Portugal to go beyond the Reconquista, which had been completed, to terrorize Islamic states and to seize control over the world's oceanic trade routes. This "fate" is prophesied both at the beginning and end of The Lusiads.



Columbus found Indians in the Caribbean, but Vasco da Gama discovered Christians on the Malibar coast near Calicut, India. These Christians turned out to be Hindus. Apparently their talk about Krishna was heard by wishful da Gama as talk about Christ. Mistakes of this sort highlight how we process new experiences through old ones, how our brains tend toward enthusiasm in their attempts to find consistency in our lives from one disorienting day to the next. When we get off the boat, we fail to fully appreciate how much different Calicut is from Lisbon. Because brain memory is limited, we  crave an easy storing small world that is reasonably uniform from place to place.

The Lusiads is an extended illustration of this phenomenon, as Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580) describes da Gama's voyage quaintly in terms of the Odyssey, Aeneid, Voyage of the Argo, Acts, and other classics. In the few instances where Camões makes express contrasts with his classical models, the Portuguese heroes are presented only as more heroic than their ancient predecessors: the Portuguese travelled so much farther and their adventures were real history! Once we have read The Lusiads, it becomes difficult to see da Gama without reference to Odysseus, Aeneas, Jason, and Paul. 

But were da Gama and his crew actually inspired directly or indirectly by Homer or Virgil? Or do the classical allusions in The Lusiads mean only that, on Camões' reflection, his readings in the classics and his readings in history were neatly aligned by his order-seeking brain?

Vasco da Gama's crew may have known very little about Homer or Virgil or ancient heroes of any kind; the mariners no doubt were  inspired by stories of navigators of the recent past, from Prince Henry to Bartolomeu Dias, by King Manuel who ordered the expedition (and by some combination of religious fervor and desire for wealth and glory). The king and the king's ministers in many instances were familiar with heroic literature, and Portuguese public policy was shaped by it. It is to the court's mythology that Camões appeals. 

The influence of the ancient heroes was felt primarily in the curriculum in the arts at the University of Coimbra where Camões studied. That the Portuguese empire might have become another under Jove, like the Hellenistic and Roman ones before the Dark Ages, probably did not occur to large numbers of Portuguese people until The Lusiads itself began to be taught generally in Portuguese schools. It occurred however in the Renaissance to the educated elite.

The early modern project to recover the classics did not result in renewal of ancient cultures. It resulted instead in classics-inspired outbursts of political and literary activity. Literature in early modern times rarely held the scriptural quality that it had possessed prior to the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of books, but it gained gifted new writers who had studied their predecessors and sought to produce writings that would compete to become famous for all time. This was a specialist culture of teachers, poets, propagandists and entertainers. Perhaps we should think of it as a subculture in an emerging world of vocational specialists, each group of which comprised a subculture.

da Gama did not cut his beard during the 4,000 mile voyage. On his return to Lisbon, he was declared by Manuel to be ‘Lord of Guinea , and of the Conquest, the Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia , Persia and India ,’ da Gama later wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella that India had Christians who were not strong of faith, but would be useful in ‘destroying the moors.’ He advised that the holy war should now be pursued with greater zeal.



Camões lost his right eye to a splinter from a deck board hit by a Moorish cannonball.







Recall how we read the Mahabharata and Ramayana in terms of Homer, and how we read Buddhist scriptures in terms of Christian ones. Were these readings appropriate?






Classics as models

The Lusiads is a most characteristic work of the early modern period in its strident nationalism, celebration of human achievement, and neo-classicism. This third characteristic is or should be of interest to students interested in creative writing, for the poem is an illustration of poetry made through imitation of ancient models.

In early modern schools where literary classics were taught, the students engaged not only in reading but in translating and imitating the great works of the past in their own creative pieces. Where today's literature students write prosaic essays to demonstrate their understanding of course materials, the early modern approach was apprenticeship-oriented. That is, the student demonstrated competence in or mastery of classic literature by producing literature modeled after the classics. This training had the effect of keeping the ancient texts up to date. It produced Shakespeare, Sidney, Milton and most of the great writers of Renaissance Europe.

Camões among others carried this method through to his writing after school, including The Lusiads. To produce a patriotic celebration of Portuguese heroics for King Dom Sebastian of Portugal, Camões recognized that even though the right story was Vasco da Gama's first voyage the right model for story-telling was Virgil's Aeneid. No doubt Camões had a copy of Virgil's book from which to produce his echoes; the availability of books to authors facilitated imitation and general knowledge of literary traditions.

One of the Virgilian echoes in Camões is the device of da Gama's narration of the first half of the voyage to the Sultan of Malindi. This is an imitation of Aeneas' narration of his story to Dido (lesson 9), which in turn is Virgil's echo of Odysseus' narration of his story to the Phaeacians (lesson 5). Modeling of this sort ties Camões literary fortunes to some extent to those of Homer and Virgil, to both of whom Camões claims superiority, at least in terms of subject matter. This swagger aligns the poet with the "heroes" of the da Gama voyage who sailed farther than anybody before their time. The progressive attitude here marks the arrival of modernity, with its view of past time as inferior to the present. 

In point of art, Camões claim of superiority to Virgil and Homer certainly can be questioned. For instance, the fantasy elements in Aeneas' and Odysseus' stories serve particularly purposes in helping to characterize the story-teller as irrational, but the incorporation of fantasy in da Gama's story--the monster Cape of Storms, for example--seems to work against his characterization of da Gama as a fearless and practical leader. Although Camões criticizes ancient epics for their fantasy elements, The Lusiads is full of gods and monsters and mythical places of the imagination. These features culminate in the closing scene which takes place on a mountain on the Isle of Love where da Gama has married a sea nymph who shows him a model of the universe including a detail globe showing distant lands and cities "reserved for you Portuguese."


Calicut from a German atlas published in 1572.

Lesson Summary: The Lusiads is one of the most characteristic poems of Early Modern Europe in its neo-classicism, its celebration of human achievement, and its strident nationalism.

Suggested journal topics
and optional readings

1. The call of the sea: why did Odysseus put to sea? Why did Aeneas go? What about da Gama? Do the motives of these characters seem to be the same or different? What claims about this does Camões make, and do you think his claims are true?

2. Other national epics: see national epics

Is there a national epic or national foundation myth of the United States (or the country where you live)?  If one already exists, explain what makes it so. If you cannot think of any particular literary work that serves as your national epic or foundation myth, explain what would make the most appropriate subject matter for such a work. 

3. Historicity: what is the effect of attempting to set an epic action in the recent past? Traditionally, epics were set in the distant or legendary past, beyond history's grasp, settings such as Troy or Thebes or Camelot.

As Damrosch notes, "Camões opens his poem with a resolute plural: unlike Virgil’s “I sing of arms and a man,” The Lusíads is launched with a paean to arms and “os barões assinalados”—the matchless heroes who journeyed on oceans not ventured on before. And the very name of the poem, of course, refers to “sons of Portugal” rather than, as in the Odyssey or Aeneid, a single man . . . Da Gama’s particular role is minimized even as Camões celebrates the uniqueness of what he has done, incorporated into a “historical sweep” that began before he was born and that will continue after his death. He may thus seem a mere instrument of “eternal Fate,” pawn of a conflict played out in the heavens above where Jupiter and Bacchus do battle." 

4.  Vasco da Gama:  History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese, between the years 1497 and 1505, from the original Portuguese of Hernan Lopez de Castaneda gives an early historical account (1582) of the voyages of Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese explorers.

The Lusiads is available in English translation online at Sacred Texts.

A recent history shows de Gama as a pivotal figure in Europe's crusades against Islam. See Nigel Cliff, Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations (HarperCollins: New York, 2011).

5. The once and future Dom Sebastian: the king to whom the Lusiads are dedicated, Dom Sebastian of Portugal (1554-1578?, image below), was last seen in north Africa charging into the Muslim forces at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir (Battle of the Three Kings) where the Portuguese and their Moorish allies were routed by Abd Al-Malik. A large number of the Portuguese aristocracy, including the king, was lost in this fight, preparing the way for Sebastian's uncle, Philip II of Spain, to take the crown of Portugal. Philip had promised aid to Sebastian at the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, but the aid was not delivered. Philip's rule was resented by those favoring Portuguese independence from Spain. 

Though it seems likely that Sebastian's body was never recovered, soon after ascending the throne Philip conducted a burial ceremony in which it was claimed that Sebastian's remains were entombed. Persons claiming to be Sebastian continued to seek the return of the crown until 1619, but none were successful.  Myths like those of King Arthur and Frederick Barbarossa accumulated around Sebastian, as the sleeping king who would awake one day and return to lead the Portuguese people one again. This development helped The Lusiads to become regarded as the national epic of Portugal.

6. On the web: find The Lusiads in English translation available online at Google Books (Landeg White, Oxford World Classics Library)

Biography of Camoes from the Catholic Encyclopedia

Discussion of Lusiads at LibraryThing

The Presence of Camoes: Influence on Literature at Google books

Timeline for Camoes at Google

World literature forum 

7. Political correctness: should we read and teach overtly militant and imperialistic texts? Or should educators avoid these materials so that historical conflicts are forgotten? If we present these materials, will we stir up old animosities? Can these issues be presented without bias? Is it right always to take a neutral stance? These are some of the hardest questions in world literature.

Christians and Muslims fought it out for a thousand years following the Dark Age. The Umayyad conquest of Hispania (711-718) included all of the Iberian peninsula with the exception of part of the impenetrable Basque region in the northwest corner. The Reconquista by the Spanish and Portuguese took 800 years and was completed only with the conquest of Grenada in 1492.

The Longman Anthology sanitizes cultural conflict by editing which distorts the meaning of texts and history, and this is particularly the case with conflicts among Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The editors avoid or gloss over the more militant passages in the Qur'an, as noted in Lesson 17. In The Lusiads, similarly, the editors have chosen to leave in the friendly Moorish Sultan of Malindi and to leave out all hostile Moors, who are the central adversaries of da Gama and thereby essential to the plot. 

Damrosch's headnote to The Lusiads then goes on to state that Camoes' "portrait of Islam is likely to strike the contemporary reader as offensive (The Sultan of Malindi laments that he's not European, and Muslims throughout are seen, like Sinon the Greek, as liars.")  There are three misstatements here: that The Lusiads presents a portrait of Islam (it does not), and that the Sultan laments that he's not European (he does not), and that Muslims throughout are seen as liars (they are not). But even supposing that Damrosch got the facts right, if it is ok for Virgil to label Greeks as liars, why is it "offensive" for Camões to make a similar charge against Moors? One can hardly imagine Damrosch apologizing for a literary attack on Greeks or any other group of Europeans (women accepted). The prejudices of his commentary may be noted in the following section.

from Damrosch
Teacher's Guide to the Longman Anthology

In Canto 8 of The Lusíads, after he has been greeted warily by the Hindu ruler of Calicut and proposed a treaty that will open up a new trade route for the Portuguese, the explorer Vasco da Gama is confronted with a plot devised by the leaders’ Muslim subjects: “That none should return home was the sole / Purpose of the Muslims’ strategy, / So Portugal’s king should never know / Where the lands of the east lay” . . .  But the Portuguese sailors do return happily to Lisbon, thwarting the plans of India’s conniving Muslims  . . .

[The Lusiads'] transparent praise for Portugal, along with the poem’s condemnation of Muslims and patronizing of the Africans, make The Lusíads very unpolitically correct in the current age, and it has been criticized for, among other things, trying to impose a classical framework on a Christian narrative. But both da Gama’s and Camões’s era (and regrettably, perhaps our own) were obsessed with an ongoing crusade against Islam. The apocalyptic rhetoric of Columbus in his later letters was not out of place in a fifteenth century still intent on regaining Jerusalem from the “infidel” and driven by the belief that finding easier routes to the East would undermine Muslim dominance. Closer to Camões’s day, October 1571 would see the famous Battle of Lepanto, in which the Christian Holy League won a decisive victory against Turks who had sought to expand into the rest of  the Mediterranean from their base in Cyprus. (Portugal was uninvolved in this particular battle but had other turf on which to fight, as it tried desperately to maintain its expansive overseas holdings and to regain Morocco.) An active Inquisition in Portugal increasingly suppressed much of the humanistic learning that had shaped Camões’s own career, and Dom Sebastião, the young, unstable king to whom Camões dedicated his poem, was nurtured in an environment marked by what Helder Macedo has called “hysterical religious fervor accompanied by an anachronistic revival of chivalrous ideals” (quoted in John de Oliveira e Silva, “Moving the Monarch: The Rhetoric of Persuasion in Camões’ Lusíads” in Renaissance Quarterly 53 [2000], p.743). This was a Sebastião, too, who had resolutely refused to consider marriage, despite the fact that he was the only member of what had once been the plentiful Avis royal line. (Camões’s praise at the end of his poem of the female body and chastisement of the hunter Actaeon who disdained women—“to pursue ugly, ferocious beasts, he shunned the lovely female form”—may be an implicit critique of his hunt-loving king, on whose generativity the future of Portugal rested.) . . .

In The English Epic and its Background (1954), the famous scholar E. M. W. Tillyard suggested that Camões had an extraordinary ability, like Homer, to see both sides at once; and it is worth pursuing with students what, exactly, those sides might be. Not all of Camões’s non-Christians are wicked. The Muslim king of Malindi offers assistance to the sailors, and the navigator Musayeed helps da Gama escape from Calicut (and in Canto 8, Camões alludes to Moors whose help was sought by the Portuguese to defeat the greatest enemy of all, Spain). But is it possible that Camões might have identified with what David Quint has called in Epic and Empire (1993) epic’s “losers,” those defeated by forces that have been chosen as history’s victors? One of them might be the old man who warns against the extension of Portugal’s greatness into the world; better to remain an isolationist at home than court danger abroad. While he sounds at the time like a spoilsport, given the decline of that empire during Camões’s lifetime, his words would not have come across as simply hollow.

Instructor: gutchess@englishare.net 
Copyright © 2009, 2011