Now largely forgotten outside the Portuguese-speaking world, Luis Vaz de Camoens (1524-1580) was revered by many luminaries of nineteenth-century English literature. His sonnets, modeled after Petrarch’s, earned him a line in Wordsworth’s “Scorn not the Sonnet” (“Camoens soothed with it an exile’s grief”). The Victorian Elizabeth Barrett Browning titled her Sonnets from the Portuguese so as to allude to Camoens. Overseas, Herman Melville was an enthusiast. In White Jacket, the British sailor and gentleman Jack Chase is “an ardent admirer of Camoens. Parts of The Lusiads [Camoens’s great epic] he could recite in the original.”
Camoens—or Camões in his native Portuguese; his name has had several English renderings—was considered at the time to be on a par with Shakespeare and Dante. He was, and still is, perceived as decidedly early-modern, even a Romantic poet avant la lettre. Certainly, one would be hard-pressed to find a more romantic life.
Camoens was born in Portugal, apparently to some privilege, but his precocious lyrical advances on ladies of high station in the Portuguese court soon displeased the king. As a result, he enlisted overseas, where he lost sight in his right eye at the hands of the Moors. By 1551 he was back in Lisbon, where he got in trouble again by injuring a functionary of the royal stables. As punishment, he was sent to the East—the exile Wordsworth alludes to—where his exploits became legendary. A famous episode tells of a shipwrecked Camoens, forced to choose between saving the sole manuscript of The Lusiads and saving his lover, Dinamene. He chose the former, but he never forgot Dinamene, and memorialized her in verse—admittedly, a dubious consolation for the dead woman.
There is no record of his finishing his studies at the scholastic University of Coimbra. His passions were incompatible with monkish asceticism, and his devotion to Petrarch, himself no friend of the schoolmen, was unlikely to inspire scholastic speculation. No one, so the narrative goes, could be farther from the ossified scholasticism of sixteenth-century Iberian universities, where Aristotle was still revered despite the nascent Humanism farther east. How could Camoens’s Romantic yearnings be reconciled with the arid intellectualism of Renaissance scholasticism?
The unexpected answer lies in this sonnet (especially its ninth line):
The lover becomes [lit. “is transformed into”] the beloved
By virtue of much imagining;
Since what I long for is already in me,
The act of longing should be enough.
If my soul becomes the beloved,
What more can my body long for?
Only in itself will it find peace,
Since my body and soul are linked.
But this pure, fair quasi-idea,
Who with my soul is in accord [lit. “conformed”]
Like an accident with its subject,
Exists in my mind as an [mere] idea;
The pure and living love I’m made of
Seeks, like simple matter, form.
The sonnet is almost incomprehensible without some scholastic background, and it remains misunderstood by many Camoens scholars. Even Richard Zenith—a renowned scholar of Portuguese literature, whose translation of the sonnet (except for the modified ninth line) I present above—significantly misreads the poem.
The Portuguese original contains in the ninth line the perplexing term “semideia,” a term not found elsewhere in Camoens’s works. Since “semideia” is close to “semi-deusa,” Portuguese for “demigoddess,” Zenith translates it as “demigoddess.” After all, Camoens was not shy about invoking the Greco-Roman pantheon—following Virgil’s Aeneid, he does it abundantly in The Lusiads. But Zenith’s translation obscures the subsequent verses. What does it mean for a demigoddess to be “conformed with my soul,” “like an accident with its subject”? To understand what is going on here, we need some good old scholastic chops.
For Aristotle, any entity can be analyzed into matter and form. The form is whatever characterizes an entity, its attributes. Aristotelian form is therefore far more than the mere shape of an object. There are two kinds of Aristotelian form—substantial and accidental. Substantial form is whatever characterizes an entity such that, if it ceased to be that way, it would cease to be altogether. Camoens’s humanity was part of his substantial form—if he ceased to be human, he would cease to be Camoens. He would cease to be. By contrast, the loss of sight in one eye did not end his existence. Being sighted is an accidental form. Matter is what form characterizes, what underlies form. In itself, matter has no attributes.
According to Aristotle, when you perceive, say, a flower, your intellect takes in the flower’s form. But since the flower’s form is now “in you,” you are trans-formed—in a strange sense, you become the flower, since to be something just is to have its form. Aristotle is saved from absurdity once we note that the flower inheres in you merely as an accidental form in your intellect—after all, your existence is independent of your perception of the flower.
This is precisely the ambiguity Camoens is playing with in the sonnet. In a sense, he “becomes the beloved” by having her form in mind. But that is ultimately unsatisfying, for the beloved is in him only accidentally.
As to “semideia,” I read it as “semi-ideia”—translated into English as “quasi-idea.” Thomas Aquinas employs “quasi-idea” to distinguish between the imperfect idea in the mind of a human artisan and the perfect exemplar in the mind of God. The artisan’s intellect is limited; God’s is not. The quasi-idea is then the poet’s idea of the beloved, which, like any other perceived or conceived form, dwells in the subject only accidentally.
The sonnet betrays Camoens’s familiarity with scholastic thought and his ability to put it to good poetic use. Perhaps he was paying more attention in Coimbra than once thought.
The French Dominican Humbert Clérissac, O.P., once said: “For me, the true poet is the metaphysician.” That is almost certainly an exaggeration. But we ignore the metaphysician in the poet at our own peril—the peril of missing something of real value in the likes of Camoens.
Luís Pinto de Sá is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Saint Louis University.