1. The Portuguese Language.—2. Early Literature of Portugal.—3. Poets of the Fifteenth Century; Macias, Ribeyro.—4. Introduction of the Italian Style; San de Miranda, Montemayor, Ferreira.—5. Epic Poetry; Camoens; The Lusiad.—6. Dramatic Poetry; Gil Vicente.—7. Prose Writing; Rodriguez Lobo, Barros, Brito, Veira.—8. Portuguese Literature in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries; Antonio Jose, Manuel do Nascimento, Manuel de Bocage.
1. THE PORTUGUESE LANGUAGE.—Portugal was long considered only as an integral part of Spain; its inhabitants called themselves Spaniards, and conferred on their neighbors the distinctive appellation of Castilians. Their language was originally the same as the Galician; and had Portugal remained a province of Spain, its peculiar dialect would probably, like that of Aragon, have been driven from the fields of literature by the Castilian. But at the close of the eleventh century, Alphonso VI., celebrated in Spanish history for his triumphs over the Moors, gave Portugal as a dowry to his daughter on her marriage with Henry of Burgundy, with permission to call his own whatever accessions to it the young prince might be able to conquer from the Moorish territory. Alphonso Henriquez, the son of this pair, was saluted King of Portugal by his soldiers on the battle-field of Castro-Verd, in the year 1139, his kingdom comprising all the provinces we now call Portugal, except the province of Algarve. Thenceforward the Portuguese became a separate nation from the Spaniards, and their language asserted for itself an independent existence. Still, however, the Castilian was long considered the proper vehicle for literature; and while few Portuguese writers wholly disused it, there were many who employed no other.
Although the Portuguese language, founded on the Galician dialect, bears much similarity to the Spanish in its roots and structure, it differs widely from it in its grammatical combinations and derivations, so that it constitutes a language by itself. It has far more French, and fewer Basque and Arabic elements than the Spanish; it is softer, but it has, at the same time, a truncated and incomplete sound, compared with the sonorous beauty of the Castilian, and a predominance of nasal sounds stronger than those of the French. It is graceful and easy in its construction, but it is the least energetic of all the Romance tongues.
2. EARLY LITERATURE OF PORTUGAL.—The people, as well as the language, of Portugal possess a distinctive character. Early in the history of the country the extensive and fertile plains were abandoned to pasturage, and the number of shepherds in proportion to the rest of the population was so great, that the idea of rural life among them was always associated with the care of flocks. At the same time, their long extent of coast invited to the pursuits of commerce and navigation; and the nation, thus divided into hardy navigators, soldiers, and shepherds, was better calculated for the display of energy, valor, and enterprise than for laborious and persevering industry. Accustomed to active intercourse with society, rather than to the seclusion of castles, they were far less haughty and fanatical than the Castilians; and the greater number of Mocarabians that were incorporated among them, diffused over their feelings and manners a much stronger influence of orientalism. The passion of love seemed to occupy a larger share of their existence, and their poetry was more enthusiastic than that of any other people of Europe.
Although the literature of Portugal, like the character of its people, is marked by excessive softness, elegiac sentimentality, and an undefined melancholy, it affords little originality in the general tone of its productions. Henry of Burgundy and his knights early introduced Provencal poetry, and the native genius was nurtured in the succeeding age by Spanish and Italian taste, and afterwards modified by the influence of French and English civilization. National songs were not wanting in the early history of the country, yet no relics of them have been preserved. The earliest monuments of Portuguese literature relate to the age of the French knights who founded the political independence of the country, and must be sought in the “Cancioneros,” containing courtly ballads composed in the Galician dialect, after the Provencal fashion, and sung by wandering minstrels. The Cancionero of King Dionysius (1279-1325) is the most ancient of those collections, the king himself being considered by the Portuguese as the earliest poet. In fact, Galician poetry, modeled after the Provencal, was cultivated at that time all along the western portion of the Pyrenean peninsula. Alfonso the Wise, King of Castile, used this dialect in his poems; and as a poet and patron of the Spanish troubadours, he may be considered as belonging both to the Spanish and Portuguese literatures.
In the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century, Portuguese poetry preserved its Provencal character. The poets rallied around the court, and the kings and princes of the age sang to the Provencal lyre both in the Castilian and the Galician dialects; but only a few fragments of the poetry of the fourteenth century are extant.
3. POETS OF THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY.—Early in the fifteenth century, the same chivalrous spirit which had achieved the conquest of the country from the Moors, led the Portuguese to cross the Straits of Gibraltar, and plant their banner on the walls of Ceuta. Many other cities of Africa were afterwards taken; and in 1487, Bartolomeo Diaz doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and Vasco da Gama pointed out to Europe the hitherto unknown track to India. Within fifteen years after, a Portuguese kingdom was founded in Hindostan, and the treasures of the East flowed into Portugal. The enthusiasm of the people was thus awakened, and high views of national importance, and high hopes of national glory, arose in the public mind. The time was peculiarly favorable to the development of genius, and especially to the spirit of poetry. Indeed, the last part of the fifteenth century, and the beginning of the sixteenth, the age of King John (1481- 1495), and of Emanuel (1495-1521), may be called the golden age of the Portuguese poetry.
At the head of the poetical school of the fifteenth century, stands Macias, surnamed the Enamored (fl. 1420). He was distinguished as a hero in the wars against the Moors of Granada, and as a poet in the retinue of the Marquis of Villena. He became attached to a lady of the same princely household, who was forced to marry another. Macias continuing to express his love, though prohibited by the marquis from doing so, was thrown into prison; but even there, he still poured forth his songs on his ill-fated love, regarding the hardships of captivity as light, in comparison with the pangs of absence from his mistress. The husband of the lady, stung with jealousy, recognizing Macias through the bars of his prison, took deadly aim at him with his javelin, and killed him on the spot. The weapon was suspended over the poet's tomb, in the Church of St. Catherine, with the inscription, “Here lies Macias the Enamored.”
The death of Macias produced such a sensation as could only belong to an imaginative age. All those who desired to be thought cultivated mourned his fate. His few poems of moderate merit became generally known and admired, and his melancholy history continued to be the theme of songs and ballads, until, in the poetry of Lope de Vega and Calderon, the name of Macias passed into a proverb, and became synonymous with the highest and tenderest love.
Ribeyro (1495-1521), one of the earliest and best poets of Portugal, was attached to the court of King Emanuel. Here he indulged a passion for one of the ladies of the court, which gave rise to some of his most exquisite effusions. It is supposed that the lady, whose name he studiously conceals, was the Infanta Beatrice, the king's own daughter. He was so wholly devoted to the object of his love, that he is said to have passed whole nights wandering in the woods, or beside the banks of a solitary stream, pouring forth the tale of his woes in strains of mingled tenderness and despair. The most celebrated productions of Ribeyro are eclogues. The scene is invariably laid in his own country; his shepherds are all Portuguese, and his peasant girls have Christian names. But under the disguise of fictitious characters, he evidently sought to place before the eyes of his beloved mistress the feelings of his own breast; and the wretchedness of an impassioned lover is always his favorite theme.
The bucolic poets of Portugal may be regarded as the earliest in Europe, and their favorite creed, that pastoral life was the poetical model of human life, and the ideal point from which every sentiment and passion ought to be viewed, was first represented by Ribeyro. This idea threw an air of romantic sweetness and elegance over the poetry of the sixteenth century, but at the same time it gave to it a monotonous tone and an air of tedious affectation.
4. INTRODUCTION OF THE ITALIAN STYLE.—The poet who first introduced the Italian style into Portuguese poetry was so successful in seizing the delicate tone by which the blending of the two was to be effected that the innovation was accomplished without a struggle. Saa de Miranda (1495-1558) was one of the most pleasing and accomplished men of his age. He traveled extensively, and on his return was attached to the court of Lisbon. It is related of him that he would often sit silent and abstracted in company, and that tears, of which no one knew the cause, would flow from his eyes, while he seemed unconscious of the circumstance, and indifferent to the observation he was thus attracting. These emotions were of course attributed to poetic thought and romantic attachments. He insisted on marrying a lady who was neither young nor handsome, and whom he had never seen, having been captivated by her reputation for amiability and discretion. He became so attached to her, that when she died he renounced all his previous pursuits and purposes in life, remained inconsolable, and soon followed her to the grave. Miranda is chiefly celebrated for his lyric and pastoral poetry.
Montemayor was a contemporary of Miranda, and a native of Portugal, but he declined holding any literary position in his own country. The pastoral romance of “Diana,” written in the Castilian language, is his most celebrated work. It was received with great favor, and extensively imitated. With many faults, it possesses a high degree of poetic merit, and is entitled to the esteem of all ages.
Ferreira (1528-1569) has been called the Horace of Portugal. His works are correct and elegant, but they are wanting in those higher efforts of genius which strike the imagination and fire the spirit. The glory, advancement, and civilization of his country were his darling themes, and it was this enthusiasm of patriotism that made him great. In his tragedy of Inez de Castro, Ferreira raised himself far above his Italian contemporaries. Many similar writers shed a lustre on this, the brightest and indeed the only brilliant period of Portuguese literature; but they are all more remarkable for taste and elegance than for richness of invention.
5. EPIC POETRY.—The chief and only boast of his country, the sole poet whose celebrity has extended beyond the peninsula, and whose name appears in the list of those who have conferred honor upon Europe, is Luis de Camoens (1524-1579). He was descended from a noble, but by no means a wealthy family. After having completed his studies at the university, he conceived a passion for a lady of the court, so violent that for some time he renounced all literary and worldly pursuits. He entered the military service, and in an engagement before Ceuta, in which he greatly distinguished himself, he lost an eye. Neglected and contemned by his country, he embarked for the East Indies. After various vicissitudes there, he wrote a bitter satire on the government, which occasioned his banishment to the island of Macao, where he remained for five years, and where he completed the great work which was to hand down his name to posterity. There is still to be seen, on the most elevated point of the isthmus which unites the town of Macao to the Chinese continent, a sort of natural gallery formed out of the rocks, apparently almost suspended in the air, and commanding a magnificent prospect over both seas, and the lofty chain of mountains which rises above their shores. Here he is said to have invoked the genius of the epic muse, and tradition has conferred on this retreat the name of the Grotto of Camoens.
On his return to Goa, Camoens was shipwrecked, and of all his little property, he succeeded only in saving the manuscript of the Lusiad, which he bore in one hand above the water, while swimming to the shore. Soon after reaching Goa, he was thrown into prison upon some unjust accusation, and suffered for a long time to linger there. At length released, he took passage for his native country, which he reached after an absence of sixteen years. Portugal was at this time ravaged by the plague, and in the universal sorrow and alarm, the poet and his great work were alike neglected. The king at length consented to accept the dedication of this poem, and made to the author the wretched return of a pension, amounting to about twenty-five dollars. Camoens was not unfrequently in actual want of bread, for which he was in part indebted to a black servant who had accompanied him from India, and who was in the habit of stealing out at night to beg in the streets for what might support his master during the following day. But more aggravated evils were in store for the unfortunate poet. The young king perished in the disastrous expedition against Morocco, and with him expired the royal house of Portugal. The independence of the nation was lost, her glory eclipsed, and the future pregnant with calamity and disgrace. Camoens, who had so nobly supported his own misfortunes, sank under those of his country. He was seized with a violent fever, and expired in a public hospital without having a shroud to cover his remains.
The poem on which the reputation of Camoens depends, is entitled “Os Lusiadas;” that is, the Lusitanians (or Portuguese), and its design is to present a poetic and epic grouping of all the great and interesting events in the annals of Portugal. The discovery of the passage to India, the most brilliant point in Portuguese history, was selected as the groundwork of the epic unity of the poem. But with this, and the Portuguese conquests in India, the author combined all the illustrious actions performed by his countrymen in other quarters of the world, and whatever of splendid and heroic achievement history or tradition could supply. Vasco da Gama has been represented as the hero of the work, and those portions not immediately connected with his expedition, as episodes. But there is, in truth, no other leading subject than the country, and no episodes except such parts as are not immediately connected with her glory. Camoens was familiar with the works of his Italian contemporaries, but the circumstance that essentially distinguishes him from them, and which forms the everlasting monument of his own and his country's glory, is the national love and pride breathing through the whole work. His patriotic spirit, devoting a whole life to raise a monument worthy of his country, seems never to have indulged a thought which was not true to the glory of an ungrateful nation.
The Greek mythology forms the epic machinery of the Lusiad. Vasco da Gama, having doubled the Cape of Good Hope, is steering along the western coast of Africa, when the gods assemble on Mount Olympus to deliberate on the fate of India. Venus and Bacchus form two parties; the former in favor, the latter opposed to the Portuguese. The poet thus gratified his national pride, as Portugal was eminently the land of love, and moderation in the use of wine was one of its highest virtues. Bacchus lays many snares to entrap and ruin the adventurers, who are warned and protected by Venus. He visits the palace of the gods of the sea, who consent to let loose the Winds and Waves upon the daring adventurers, but she summons her nymphs, and adorning themselves with garlands of the sweetest flowers, they subdue the boisterous Winds, who, charmed by the blandishments of love, become calm. Vasco is hospitably received by the African king of Melinda, to whom he relates the most interesting parts of the history of his native country. On the homeward voyage, Venus prepares a magic festival for the adventurers, on an enchanted island, and the goddess Thetis becomes the bride of the admiral. Here the poet finds the opportunity to complete the narrative of his country's history, and a prophetic nymph is brought forward to describe the future achievements of the nation from that period to the time of Camoens.
The Lusiad is one of the noblest monuments ever raised to the national glory of any people, and it is difficult to conceive how so grand and beautiful a whole could be formed on a plan so trivial and irregular. The plan has been compared to a scaffolding surrounded and concealed by a majestic building, serving to connect its parts, but having no share in producing the unity of the effect. One of the most affecting and beautiful of all the passages of the Lusiad, is the narrative of the tragical fate of Inez de Castro, who, after her death, was proclaimed queen of Portugal, upon the accession of her lover to the throne.
In the poems of Camoens we find examples of every species of composition practiced in his age and country. Some of them bear the impress of his personal character, and of his sad and agitated career. A wild tone of sorrow runs through them, which strikes the ear like wailings heard through the gloom of midnight and darkness. We know not by what calamity they were called forth, but it is the voice of grief, and it awakens an answering throb within the breast.
6. DRAMATIC POETRY.—The drama is quite a barren field in Portuguese literature. The stage of Lisbon has been occupied almost exclusively by the Italian opera and Spanish comedy. Only one poet of any name has written in the Portuguese spirit. This was Gil Vicente (1490-1556). He resided constantly at the court, and was employed in providing occasional pieces for its civil and religious festivities. It is probable that he was an actor, and it is certain that he educated for the stage his daughter, Paula, who was equally celebrated as an actress, a poetess, and a musician. The dramas of Vicente consist of autos, comedies, tragi- comedies, and farces. The autos, or religious pieces, were written chiefly to furnish entertainment for the court on Christmas night. The shepherds had naturally an important part assigned to them, and the whole was pervaded by the pastoral feeling which distinguishes them remarkably from the Spanish autos. But the best productions of this author are his farces, which approach much nearer to the style of true comedy than the plays published under that name.
Saa de Miranda, desirous of conferring on his country a classical theatre, produced two erudite comedies, but he was born a pastoral poet, and made himself a dramatist only by imitation. Ferreira belonged to the same school, and the favor bestowed by the court on the dramas of these two poets, was one obstacle to the formation of a national drama. Another was, the pertinacious attachment of the Portuguese to pastoral poetry, and nothing could be more contrary to dramatic life than the languor, sentimentality, and monotony peculiar to the eclogue.
7. PROSE WRITING.—After Camoens, Saa de Miranda, and Ferreira, the language and the literature of Portugal are indebted to no other writer so much as to Rodriguez Lobo (b. 1558). The history of Portuguese eloquence may be said to commence with him, for he laid so good a foundation for the cultivation of a pure prose style that, in every effort to obtain classic perfection, subsequent writers have merely followed in his steps. His verse is nowise inferior to his prose. Among his poetic works appears a whole series of historic romances, written by way of ridiculing that species of composition.
Lobo stood alone, in the sixteenth century, in his efforts to improve the prose of his country. Gongorism had, meanwhile, introduced bombast and metaphorical obscurity, and no writer of eminence arose to attempt a more natural style, till the end of the seventeenth century.
Foremost among those who undertook to relate the history of their country, especially of her oriental discoveries, and who communicated to their records an ardent patriotic feeling, is Barros (1496-1571); he took Livy for his model, and his labors are worthy of honorable notice. India was the favorite topic of Portuguese historians; and several similar works, but inferior to that of Barros, appeared in the same age. Bernardo de Brito (d. 1617) undertook the task of compiling a history of Portugal. His narration begins with the creation of the world, and breaks off where the history of modern Portugal commences. It is eminently distinguished for style and descriptive talent. The biography of Juan de Castro, written by Jacinto de Andrade, is considered as a masterpiece of the Portuguese prose.
The conquered Indians found an eloquent defender in Veira (1608-1697), a Catholic missionary, who spent a great part of his life in the deserts of South America, and wrote catechisms in different languages for the use of the natives. Having returned to the court of John IV., he undertook to defend the natural rights of Indians against the rapacity of the conquerors. He undertook also the defense of the Jews in his native country, and showed so much interest in their cause that he was twice brought before the Inquisition. His sermons and letters are models of prose writings, full of the inspiration which springs from the boldness of his subjects.
8. PORTUGUESE LITERATURE IN THE SEVENTEENTH, EIGHTEENTH, AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES.—Portuguese literature during the seventeenth century would present an utter blank, but for the few literary productions to which we have alluded. Previous to that time, patriotic valor and romantic enterprise expanded the national genius; but before it could mature, the despotism of the monarchy, the horrors of the Inquisition, and the influence of wealth and luxury, had done their work of destruction, and the prostrate nation had in the seventeenth century reaped the bitter fruits. The most brilliant period of Portuguese poetry had passed away, and no new era commenced. The flame of patriotism was extinct, Brazil was the only colony that remained, the spirit of national enterprise was no more, and a general lethargy overspread the nation. Labor was reckoned a disgrace, commerce a degradation, and agriculture too fatiguing for even the lowest classes of the community. Both Spain and Portugal felt the paralyzing influence of their humbled position in the scale of nations, and civil and religious despotism had overthrown, in both countries, the intellectual power which had so long withstood its degrading influence.
Thousands of sonnets, chiefly of an amorous nature, filled up the seventeenth century in Portugal, while Spain was exhausting its expiring energies in dramas. Souza, the most eminent of the sonneteers, alone produced six hundred. In the first, he announces that the collection is designed to celebrate “the penetrating shafts of love, which were shot from a pair of heavenly eyes, and which, after inflicting immortal wounds, issued triumphant from the poet's breast.”
In the eighteenth century, the influence of French taste crept quietly into the literature as well as the manners of the Portuguese nation. Royal academies of history and language were founded, and an academy of sciences, which, since 1792, has exercised an influence over literary taste, and given birth to many excellent treatises on philosophy and criticism.
About the year 1735, the nation seemed on the eve of possessing a drama of its own. Antonio Jose, an obscure Jew, composed a number of comic operas, in the vernacular tongue, which had long been banished from the theatre of Lisbon. In spite of much coarseness, their genuine humor and familiar gayety excited the greatest enthusiasm, and for ten years the theatre was crowded with delighted audiences. But the Jew was seized and burnt, by order of the Inquisition, at the last auto da fe, which took place in 1745, and the theatre was closed.
Although French literature continued to exert its influence in the beginning of the nineteenth century, masterpieces of English literature at that time found their way into Portugal, and excited much admiration and imitation. Manuel do Nascimento (1734-1819) is the representative of the classic style, and his works, both in poetry and prose, are distinguished by purity of language. Manuel de Bocage (1766-1805) is one of the most celebrated modern poets, and though his poems are not examples of refined taste or elegance of style, they evince enthusiasm and poetical fire. Among the poets of the present day, there are some who have emancipated themselves from the imitation of foreign models, and have attempted to combine the earliest national elements of their literature with the characteristic tendencies of the present age.