Sunday, 21 July 2013

Francisco de Sá de Miranda, Renaissance Portuguese Poetry and Portuguese Meter 101

No one is more famous than Fernando Pessoa. No one is more majestic than Luís Vaz de Camões. But that is no reason to forget Francisco de Sá de Miranda. In his own time he was greatly admired by his poetic peers, namely António Ferreira, Pêro de Andrade Caminha Jorge de Montemor, Diogo Bernardes (all left poems praising him), and Camões himself, and had a close friendship with Bernardim Ribeiro, the author of the pastoral romance Maiden and Modest. In 1516 the poet Garcia de Resende included several of his early poems in the seminal Cancioneiro Geral, a florilegium of court poetry from the 15th and 16th centuries and the most important collection of poetry in the history of Portugal. His standing in the royal court was impeccable and he even corresponded with kings (his letters, curiously, were written in poetic form). It is said that after Camões he’s the most read writer of the 16th century.

And yet his popularity nowadays is dubious. When I was at school he was mentioned, along with the other Renaissance Portuguese poets, just in passing as a preamble to The Lusiads.  But although in his oeuvre that consists of sonnets, elegies, songs, eclogues and plays there’s nothing that rivals his contemporary’s epic poem, Sá de Miranda’s importance transcends his own talent as a poet. It is generally agreed that he introduced the Renaissance to Portuguese poets, causing a revolution in themes, genres and structures.

Sá de Miranda, the son of a canon in the See of Coimbra, was born in 1481. He distinguished himself in the studies of the Humanities and obtained a doctoral degree in Law. For a while he taught in Lisbon. His earliest poetry was composed in the tradition of the Iberian Peninsula. At the time there was a considerable cultural openness between Portugal and Spain – more than there is now – and Sá de Miranda even wrote poems in Castilian (for that matter, so did Camões) to be better known abroad. Many of the genres he practiced were in the manner of the old Iberian poets. This included canções (the word today means song, but it’s closer to the Italian genre known as canzone), esparsas (a poetic composition with hexasyllabic verses), vilancetes (known in English by its Spanish name, villancico), and trovas (from troubadour), a poem that used pentasyllabic verse (called redondilha menor) or heptasyllabic verse (redondilha maior). These are the poems found in the Cancioneiro Geral. Besides preserving an entire tradition of poetry, this book was also a watershed moment. A decade later everything was going to change.

In 1521 Sá de Miranda undertook a journey to Italy. Interested in learning about the new Renaissance innovations from the source itself, he visited Milan, Venice, and Rome. He met literary figures like Pietro Bembo, divulger of Petrarch in Italy, the poet Jacopo Sannazaro, and Ludovico Ariosto, author of Orlando Furioso. On his return to Portugal he briefly stopped in Spain, where he made the acquaintance of poets Juan Boscán and Garcilaso de la Vega, major figures that introduced Renaissance aesthetics in Spain. In 1927 he was back in Portugal. After a few years living in the royal court, Sá de Miranda, now married, purchased lands and spent the rest of his life living like a secluded intellectual farmer, devoting his time to agriculture, hunting, writing, cultural soirées and keeping a correspondence with many of the major figures of the Portuguese cultural scene. He died in 1558.

After his return from Italy Sá de Miranda became a promoter of the dolce stil nuovo, a poetic style coined by Dante in The Divine Comedy to denote a change in Italian poetry in the second half of the 13th century. This new style, for the sake of simplification, brought changes in three main areas. It changed the structure of poems, rescuing from obscurity several genres that had been used by the Greeks and Romans. It brought a considerable change to poetic themes, introducing themes from classical mythology, and changing the conception of love poetry, using the figure of the woman as a bridge to divine love. The meter also changed, allowing for longer verses, which in turn led to freedom to write more complex thoughts and feelings, resulting in a refinement of metaphors, symbolism and double meanings.

Sá de Miranda brought to Portuguese poetry new stanza structures like the tercet and the octave (widely used by Camões in The Lusiads), as well as genres like the Patrarchan sonnet, the elegy, and the eclogue. Concerning the meter, he introduced the decasyllable verse, which since then has become a mainstay of Portuguese poetry, and all the great sonneteers from Camões to Jorge de Sena used it. This came to be called the “new measure,” in contrast to the “old measure,” which consisted of verses with five or seven syllables.

As far as theatre was concerned, his main innovation was the introduction of comedy in prose. But his importance in this field is limited. His main rival was the playwright Gil Vicente, his contemporary and called the father of Portuguese theatre. Vicente was always the more popular of the two. I don’t think his plays are even staged nowadays.

It should be noted that even after his return from Italy, Sá de Miranda never stopped using the old measure. Both he and his followers continued to use both styles simultaneously. For the sake of comparison, here’s what a trova looks like:

Toda esperança é perdida,
tudo veo a falecer,
e o que fica da vida,
ficou para m’eu perder.

Aquela esperança minha,
assi falsa e vã como era,
co’s olhos que eu nela tinha
a todo mal me atrevera.

Ora, ela é toda perdida;
mas não m’hão-de fazer crer
que não há mais nesta vida
senão nascer e morrer!

Every hope is forfeited,
all things met termination,
and whatever life lasted,
lasted for my perdition.

Belonging to me this hope,
although full of pride and guile,
contained in my eyes’ scope
It drove me to all things vile.
Why, now it is forfeited;
But I will never admit
That this one life presented
Nothing but life and obit!

We immediately notice the variation of the stanzas – one quatrain followed by an octave. Also the verses follow a regular pattern: seven syllables per verse, what we call a redondilha maior. We can also use this poem to make some explanations about prosody. In English poetry the syllables are counted according to stresses. The Portuguese language uses a different process. First of all, we count up to the last tonic syllable; diphthongs constitute a single poetic syllable; and it’s a language that uses synalepha, or the blending of two or more vowels into one. The first verse is a good example of what I mean:

Toda esperança é perdida

Now if we were counting grammar syllables, it’d be:


This adds up to ten syllables. But these are poetic syllables, so we count them like this:

To/da es/pe/ran/ça é/per/di (da)

Since the last tonic stress falls on di, the last one doesn’t count. So we have seven.

The second verse shows an example of how a diphthong and a vowel don’t blend:

Tudo veo a falecer

Because of synalepha, there’s the risk of thinking every two vowels can blend. But if we don’t look out for diphtongs, we’ll get the wrong number of syllables:

Tu/do/veo a/fa/le/cer

We get only six. If we take into account the diphtong, we get seven:


The use of the synalepha is not even compulsory. For instance, the third verse doesn’t use it.

E o que fica da vida

The first instinct is to use it, but the final count is wrong again:

E o/que/fi/ca/da/vi/da

We do have seven syllables here, the problem is that the final stress falls on vi and not da, and as we now know we don’t count syllables after the last tonic one. So this is actually six. But if we ignore the synalepha:

E/o/que/fi/ca/da/vi (da)

The synalepha is a tool that the poet manipulates to adjust the meter of the verse to his needs. It can be used in a verse as many times as the poet wants.

Sá de Mirandas’ trovas are deeply pessimistic and concern themselves with the nature of evil and its inescapable presence in life. Living is watching misery, unavoidable because we can’t run away from our own senses:

Comigo me desavim,
sou posto em todo perigo;
não posso viver comigo
nem posso fugir de mim.

Com dor, de gente fugia,
antes que esta assi crecesse;
agora já fugiria
de mim, se de mim pudesse.
Que meo espero ou que fim
de vão trabalho que sigo,
pois que trago a mim comigo,
tamanho imigo de mim?

I had a spat with myself,
Put into all form of risk;
I cannot live with myself
Nor can I flee from myself.

In pain, I fled from people,
Before its very size increased;
But right now I’d rather flee
Myself, if I only could.
What gains or end do I wish
From the vain work I follow,
Since I bring myself with me,
Enormous foe of myself?

His bucolic poems, sadly too long to be translated, also deal with the triumph of evil, as well as the collapse of the old order (although he was enthusiastic about literary innovations, he was socially and politically conservative), and he uses them to criticise the moral bankruptcy of the city and to extol the innocence and peace of the countryside. As this excerpt shows:

E porém, sabes que digo?
pera que milhor me entendas,
fugi as grandes contendas
como ogano fez Rodrigo,
por que nele me comprendas;
porque este mundo é tal
que é milhor cá nos desertos
sofrer e calar o mal
que descobrir os secretos
deste nosso Portugal.

And yet, do you know what I say?
So you better follow me,
I ran from the great conflicts
Like Rodrigo did last year,
So you follow me through him;
Because this planet is such
That here in the deserts it’s
Better to hurt and hush evil
Than to find out the secrets
Of this Portugal of ours.

We also have the sonnets, fashioned after Petrarch’s, and dealing with the subject of Love:

Desarrezoado amor, dentro em meu peito,
tem guerra com a razão. Amor, que jaz
i já de muitos dias, manda e faz
tudo o que quer, a torto e a direito.

Não espera razões, tudo é despeito,
tudo soberba e força; faz, desfaz,
sem respeito nenhum; e quando em paz
cuidais que sois, então tudo é desfeito.

Doutra parte, a Razão tempos espia,
espia ocasiões de tarde em tarde,
que ajunta o tempo; enfim vem o seu dia:

Então não tem lugar certo onde aguarde
Amor; trata treições, que não confia
nem dos seus. Que farei quando tudo arde?

Unreasonable love, inside my rib cage,
It makes war with reason. Love, who for many
Days has been resting, it wills and achieves
Everything it wants, without any rule.

It expects no reasons, just knows contempt,
Just pride and strength; it makes, then unmakes,
Showing no respect at all; and when you
Think you are in peace, then everything breaks.

In some other part, Reason spies moments,
It spies bits from this to that afternoon,
Which makes up time; at last its day arrives:

Then there’s no proper place where to wait for
Love; it deals in treasons, not trusting his
own. What will I do when everything burns?

(The last verse, by the way, was used by António Lobo Antunes for the title of a novel, translated into English as What can I do when everything’s on fire?)

Metrically speaking, this is a strange sonnet because the first verse has eleven syllables and all the others have ten. I can’t tell if the author did it intentionally or if he slipped.

Here’s another sonnet, one of his best, about time and the cycle of life and death:

O sol é grande, caem co'a calma as aves,
do tempo em tal sazão, que sói ser fria;
esta água que d'alto cai acordar-m'-ia
do sono não, mas de cuidados graves.

Ó cousas, todas vãs todas mudaves,
qual é tal coração qu'em vós confia?
Passam os tempos vai dia trás dia,
incertos muito mais que ao vento as naves.

Eu vira já aqui sombras, vira flores,
vi tantas águas, vi tanta verdura,
as aves todas cantavam d'amores.

Tudo é seco e mudo; e, de mestura,
também mudando-m'eu fiz doutras cores:
e tudo o mais renova, isto é sem cura!

The Sun is big, birds fall from the stillness,
From the season’s weather, usually cold;
This water that falls from on high would wake me
Not from slumber, but from serious cares.

O things, all so pointless always changing,
Which is the heart that puts its trust in you?
Time keeps moving, days follow each other,
Far more uncertain than ships in the wind.

Here I already saw gloom, saw flowers,
Saw so many waters, saw so much green,
All the birds were descanting about love.

Everything is dry and still; and, by mixing,
It has changed into me from other hues:
And renews what’s left, this is without cure!

Sá de Miranda’s standing with later readers and poets changed according with the aesthetics of each era. In the 18th century, during the rise of Neoclassicism, his work was greatly appreciated. In the 19th century, on the other hand, the Romantics accused him of lack of originality, of valuing rationality over subjectivity, and of artificiality. He was, however, a poet of his time and back then a skilful poet was the one who showed command of the classic forms and imitated the Greco-Roman tradition. Nowadays I think there’s an added difficulty: it takes a considerable mental leap to bridge the gap between our worldview and his. His poetry, whether it be religious, amorous, or laudatory of kings, takes a while to get used to. His syntax could be very tortuous and his vocabulary very archaic. Even with all the difficulties, his poetry contains many beautiful verses and complex philosophical reflections, meaning any lover of poetry should at least be acquainted with him.

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