Sunday, 17 June 2012

A Pursuit of the real: The poetry of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

Half my soul is made of sea scent.
- Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, “Atlantic”

Most Portuguese kids will probably discover Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen through one of her children’s books, in elementary school. My first was A Floresta (The Forrest, 1968), the story of a little girl who befriends a magical dwarf living underneath a tree. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered Sophia was also a poet, one of the best ones of the 20th century, heir to the greatness of Fernando Pessoa and Miguel Torga. A poet of vast emotional complexity and an enchanting worldview; a wordsmith who relied on clear and simple words and castigated the abuses of language. Prophet of a mystical union between Man and Nature, lover of the sea and the ancient pagan gods, defender of truth and dignity, Sophia’s poetry was the synthesis of a life-long fascination with Hellenic culture and Christian humanism, and she was a poet of many facets; but whatever mask or voice she used to express herself, she always wrote for the individual. From her maternal grandfather, royal physician and lover of poetry, she learned that “not all intellectuals are intelligent” and that it’s important to ‘reject exaggerations, pedantry and showing off.” Her poetry, deeply refined and erudite, rather than keeping readers at bay involves them in its apparent simplicity. And yet she never ceased to criticise the depreciated value of high culture in our consumerist society:


They look embarrassed
Petrified they read on the wall the centuries’ number
Their gaze turns opaque
Sometimes – as if by mistake –
They cross paths with statues

(Where is the journey’s old brooding lingering?)

Outside they hurriedly take snapshots
Like someone unburdening himself of all that
They walk in herds like animals

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen was born in 1919, in Porto, in the North. Her paternal great-grandfather was Danish, and on her mother’s side she belonged to Portuguese aristocracy: her mother was the daughter of the Count of Mafra, a nobleman of liberal traditions. Sophia spent her childhood in two places that shaped her poetic imagination: her grandfather’s farm, called Quinta do Campo Alegre, which today is Porto’s Botanical Garden; and the summer house on Granja Beach, where Sophia and her family spent their Summers, a place which for the young child was magical and made her fall in love with the sea and the oceans for the rest of her life. Her cousin, the writer Ruben A. (1920-1975), wrote in his memories that in Campo Alegre there was a Christmas tradition of the family’s children putting on shows. In order not to be left out, Sophia, at the age of three, before she could even read, was taught by a housemaid to recite the poem “A Nau Catrineta” (The Catrineta Ship), a legend which narrated a disastrous sea journey to Brazil in the year 1565, and which the novelist Almeida Garret had recorded in Romanceiro, a 1843 collection of Portuguese folklore and oral stories. Poetry and the sea were connected in her mind since childhood. “I found poetry before even knowing there was literature,” she wrote one day. Her maternal grandfather also introduced her to the poetry of Luís de Camões and Antero de Quental. This grandfather was a fascinating person too: Tomás de Melo Breyner was the royal physician of D. Carlos I, and was responsible for embalming him and his son, the prince D. Luís Filipe, after their assassination in the 1908 Regicide that paved the way to the Republic.

Sophia studied in Porto until she was seventeen and then left for Lisbon to pursue higher education, but after a few years studying Classic Philology she left the course; however the Hellenic world found a permanent place in her poetic oeuvre, offering her symbols, themes, myths and historical events to work upon. Her love for antiquity also caused her to visit Greece several times as well as the Mediterranean civilizations. But the ancient world was already a childhood fascination. At the age of twelve she read The Odyssey in a French translation, urged by her mother, a compulsive reader. “In Homer I recognized that naked and integral happiness, that splendour of the presence of things.” The presence of things is one of the main themes of her poetry. “Poetry was always for me a pursuit of the real.” Poetic language, she argued, wasn’t a mirror to reality, as 19th century realists conceived literature, but a scalpel operating on reality, cutting away the accumulated lies and misconceptions, restoring to things and concepts their truth and substance. At the age of twelve she started writing poetry.

In 1940, persuaded by a friend, she published her first poems in the magazine Cadernos de Poesia, founded by the poet Ruy Cinatti (1915-1986), where she met other poets, including Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), whose friendship laster even after he left Portugal thanks to the letters they continued to write each other. She also contributed to other historical magazines in Portuguese poetry: Távola Redonda (1950), also founded by Cinatti, and Árvore (1951), created by the poet Albano Martins (b. 1930), one of the great names in contemporary Portuguese poetry. In 1944 her father paid for the publication of 300 copies of her first book of poems, simply titled Poesia (Poetry). This collection included poems she had written at the age of fourteen, but it was a powerful debut that showed considerable maturity. Sophia described her creative process in this way: “Fernando Pessoa used to say: ‘A poem happened to me.’ My fundamental way of writing is very close to this ‘happening.’ The poem shows up made, it emerges, given (or as if it were given). Like listening to and writing down a composition.” In her first collection many of her themes are already present: history, the sea, the gods, the poets she admired, her memories of Granja Beach, and the harmony between Man and Nature:


Moonlight fills the earth with mirages
And things today have a virgin soul,
The wind stirred amidst the foliage
A secret and fugitive life,
Made of shadow and light, terror and stillness,
Which is my soul’s perfect chord.



Of all the corners of the world
I love with a stronger and deeper love
That ecstatic and naked beach,
Where I joined the sea, the wind and the moon.


I smell the earth the trees and the wind
That spring fills with perfumes
But of them I only want and search
The waves’ savage excitement
Rising towards the stars like a pure scream.

And in the poem “The Garden and the Night” she already reflects about her conception of poetry as simple and pure language, when she notes that she writes

Words I undressed of their literature,
To give them their primitive and pure form,
Of formulas and magic.

She also pays homage to the pagan gods:


Evohé god who gave us
Life and wine
And in it men found
The taste of sun and resin
And a multiple and divine consciousness.

And to the heroes of antiquity:


Perfection, eternity, plenitude
Trickled from the sacred youth
Of your limbs.

Light danced in all your steps
And the ardent pallor of your divinity
Rose in the purity of spaces.

Tightly your fingers
Beyond vague anxieties, uncertainties and secrets
Gripped luck’s fingers.

And the fate that in us is chaos and mourning,
In you was truth and harmony
A pure and absolute path.

Her conception of Nature also changed, from the subjectivity of the poetic “I” seen in this excerpt from the poem “In All the Gardens”

One day I’ll be sea and sand,
Everything that exists I’ll join,
And my blood drags in each vein
That embrace that one day will open itself

to a cosmic vision of Mankind historically integrated in the natural world, as we can see in “The First Man:”

He was like a tree of the born earth
Confusing his life with the ardour of earth,
And in the vast singing of the full tides
His veins continued to beat.

Created in the measure of the elements
The soul and feeling
In him weren’t torments
But grave, great, vague,
Reflecting the world,
And the bottomless echo
Of earth’s ascension in spaces
Were the impulses of his chest
Flourishing in a perfect rhythm
In his arms’ gestures.

Here man isn’t created in God’s image, but in the measure of the elements, establishing a link with Nature – man isn’t something external, an afterthought creation that can be imposed on her, but grew organically alongside her. And poetry was a means of restoring this connection. “Poetry doesn’t necessarily ask me a specialization since its art is an art of being. It’s also neither time nor labour what poetry asks of me. Nor does it ask of me a science or an aesthetic or a theory. Rather it asks for the entirety of my being, a consciousness deeper than my intelligence, a loyalty purer than the one I can control.”

In 1946 she married the lawyer and journalist Francisco Sousa Tavares, a monarchist and anti-fascist activist. Sophia moved to Lisbon definitely and joined the anti-Salazar resistance, attacking him and his regime through her poetry and joining several causes, namely the defence of political prisoners. Right up to the 1970s her poems were another weapon against fascism, but in a country ruled by propaganda this was just the natural development of a poetry that strived to reveal and preserve the truth of things. “For poetry is my explanation with the universe, my intimacy with things, my role in the real, my meeting with voices and images. Thus poems don’t talk of an ideal life but of a concrete life: the angle of a window, the noise in the streets, the cities and the rooms, the shadows of walls, the apparition of faces, silence, distance and the glow of stars, the night’s breathing, the scent of limes and oreganos.” So in order to stand up for the concrete life she became a fierce opponent of Salazar.

Her book Livro Sexto (The Sixth Book) received in 1964 the Great Poetry Prize from the Portuguese Society of Authors. It was the last time the SPE gave this award before being closed down by the political police after the Luandino Vieira incident. This book is a milestone in her oeuvre because it shows her poetry becoming more political. For her politics and poetry were not incompatible. “He who sees the wondrous splendour of the world is logically made to see the amazing suffering of the world. He who sees the phenomenon wants to see the whole phenomenon.” At times her resistance took the form of a plea to be purified of the vanity and deception that hovers over Portugal, like when she asks the Lord to

Erase the empty and vain mask
Of mankind,
Erase the vanity,
That I may lose and dissolve myself
In morning’s perfection.

She sees man as deeply corrupted for turning away from nature. Although she was a Christian, she had a complex and contradictory relationship with God. For instance she recognizes the imperfection in the world God created, which leads her to rebuke her:

Lord if from your pure justice
The monsters I see around me are born
It’s because someone beat you or led astray
Your ways in I know not what darkness

Maybe it was the rebellious angels.
A long time before I arrived
Your work had already been split

And vainly I seek your ancient face
You’re always a god who doesn’t have a face

No matter how much I pursue you.

It’s important to note that she speaks with God as her equal here; although the English language can’t show it, she’s using the 2nd personal singular here instead of the more reverential 2nd personal plural. And see how in the second verse counting from the end she writes god with a small g, as if he were just one god amongst the many pagan ones she also believed in.

However if she sometimes feels despair she also has hope that Portugal will survive the Estado Novo dictatorship:


We will rise again beneath the walls of Knossos
And in Delphi the centre of the world
We will rise again in the harsh light of Crete

We will rise where words
Are the names of things
Where outlines are clear and vivid
There in the sharp light of Crete

We will rise where stone the stars and time
Are the kingdom of man
We will rise to stare straight at the earth
In the clean light of Crete

For it is good to clarify the heart of man
And to lift the black exactness of the cross
In the white light of Crete

This poem speaks of the spiritual regeneration of Portugal, when it becomes again a place when words mean again the names of things, instead of tools the state uses to manipulate the people. It’s a poem of hope, where Crete’s light becomes a metaphor for the truth that needs to resurface in a country of lies. Many of her poems of this time were about the moral degradation of Portugal, of ideals and values bought and sold cheaply for personal profit or simply for fear. Other poems were more direct in their anti-fascist struggle, like “Catarina Eufémia,” an elegy of a famous martyr murdered by the army during a protest, It begins with the verse: “The first theme of Greek reflection is justice,” a theme she constantly returns to. Being a poet of the natural world, it’s also inevitable that the city becomes a metaphor for the decadence of Portuguese society, as this brief poem shows:


The almost visible threats appear
Dead moons
Are born in the exhausted horizon
And I’m strangled by giant octopuses
In the streets’ sadness.

However her most direct attack on Salazar is the short poem, “Old Vulture:”

The old vulture is wise and smoothes his feathers
Rottenness pleases him and his speeches
Have the gift of making souls smaller

Political speeches, or propaganda, are the opposite of poetry, which amplifies the human spirit. “Even if it speaks merely of stones or wind, the artist’s work always tells us this: That we’re not just tormented beasts in their struggle for survival but we’re, by natural right, heirs of freedom and the dignity of being” – words spoken in 1964 when she received the SPE’s award. Obviously her poetry was heavily censured. The state once even forbid love poems she had written for her husband from being read on a TV show. So when democracy was restored in 1974, she celebrated with this little poem:


This is the dawn I was waiting for
The primal day whole and clean
Where we rise from night and silence
And free we inhabit the substance of time.

I think it’s fascinating how the last verse implies that Portugal was living cut off from history, existing in a bubble of fantasy time. In 1975 she was elected for a deputy seat in parliament. In 1976 she abandoned political life and devoted the next thirty years to poetry. Politics was really just a small part of her career and she spent most of her time writing of pagan gods, myths and heroes, writing poems to her friends, like Cinatti, Sena and Ruben A, and celebrating the great poets, like Camões, Dante, Lord Byron, and Fernando Pessoa, one of her fixations. Her ability to emulate other styles was so perfect she wrote a series of poems in homage to Ricardo Reis (collected in Dual, 1972) adopting the pagan heteronym's style:


Listen, Lydia, how the days run
            Falsely still,
And in the shadow of foliage and words
            The gods reveal themselves
As if to drink the occult blood
            That made us watchful.


Make your life in front of the light
A lucid terrace right and white,
            Sweetly cut
            By the river of nights.

The careless step in so lost a road
Live, without becoming it, your fate.
            Inflexibly watch
            Your own absence.

Another one of her great poems is “The Furies,” a modern reinterpretation of the Greek myth:

Banished from sin and the sacred
Now they inhabit the humble intimacy
Of daily life. They are
The leaky faucet the late bus
The soup that boils over
The lost pen the vacuum that doesn’t vacuum
The taxi that doesn’t come the mislaid receipt
Shoving pushing waiting
Bureaucratic madness

Without shouting or staring
Without bristly serpent hair
With the meticulous hands of the day-to-day
They undo us

They’re the peculiar wonder of the modern world
Faceless and maskless
Nameless and breathless
The thousand-headed hydras of efficiency gone haywire

They no longer pursue desecrators and parricides
They prefer innocent victims
Who did nothing to provoke them
Thanks to them the day loses its smooth expanses
Its juice of ripe fruits
Its fragrance of flowers
Its high-sea passion
And time is transformed
Into toil and the rush
Against time

She also mastered the epigram, a literary genre popular with the Greeks, and some of her best poems sometimes last one, two or three verses:


God during the day is a word
A breath of vastness and smoothness.

Between 1944 and 1997 she published fourteen poetry books, and in 2001 she published her final poems. In 1958 she branched out into children’s fiction, initially for her five children. She also wrote short-stories, plays and essays. She translated William Shakespeare, Euripides, Paul Claudel, and Dante Alighieri, whose translation of Purgatorio earned her a prize from the Italian government. In 1999 she received the Camões Prize for her oeuvre. She passed away in 2004. She has three books available in English: Shores, Horizons, Voyages…, Log Book, and Marine Rose.

NOTE: The translations of the poems “We Will Rise” and “The Furies” were done by Richard Zenith, because they were frankly better than mine. Everything else was translated by me to the best of my abilities. Also, check Tom’s posts about her over at Wuthering Heights.


  1. I have never read Sophia before. Thanks for posting the excerpts. Her work seems marvelous. I really like the connection established between man and nature in that piece from "The First Man". It seems to reflect the way that I like to look at life.

    1. Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is one of the best poets I've ever read, Brian; I wish everyone would read her one day. Thanks for taking the time to read my long-winded article on her.