Sunday, 17 November 2013

I shrouded reason in my faith, and found peace in inertia and oblivion…now one thing remains: to know if God exists! - The sonnets of Antero de Quental

In the 1870s Portugal saw emerge a group of young writers and intellectuals who, animated by new literary trends coming from Europe and by political aspirations to turn the country into a republic, tried to revolutionize society, politics, and the arts. Members of this group, which history came to call the Generation of ’70, included, amongst others, Eça de Queiroz, Ramalho Ortigão, the historian J.P. Oliveira Martins and the poet Antero de Quental. A socialist, founder, with Oliveira Martins, of a republican newspaper aptly called A República, scourge of the defenders of Romantic aesthetics deeply entrenched in Portuguese literature, Antero de Quental renewed poetry by incorporating in his verses relentless psychology, metaphysical contemplations, and irony, and he maintained his poetry fresh for refusing to adhere to a single system or dogmas, and for constantly challenging himself with new pursuits of the truth. The collection of his sonnets shows very well the restlessness of his spirit and the many changes in his outlook over his year. In 1886 Os Sonetos Completos de Antero de Quental came out, with a preface by his friend Oliveira Martins. Antero didn’t publish more poems in life because in 1891, as Miguel de Unamuno dutifully informs us, he joined the time-honoured ranks of great suicidal Portuguese men. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Antero lived his last years in deep depression, not doubt disappointed his intentions to change Portuguese society failed, a frustration generally shared by the members of the Generation of ’70, who, in their twilight years, realized their lives had amounted to nothing save writing a handful of great books. Eça de Queiroz, who did not shot a bullet through his head, settled down, became a respectable family man and lived his final days writing turgid books like The Illustrious House of Ramires and The City and the Mountains. Political events of the time may also have precipitated Antero’s suicide, namely the infamous episode of the 1890 British Ultimatum to Portugal. At the time Portugal’s African lands claimed a stretch of horizontal land that crossed the continent, from Angola to Mozambique. This cut off Great Britain’s colonies in what we now call South Africa. The British did not like this because they had plans to build a railway that would connect Cairo to Cape Town, as envisioned by Cecil Rhodes, and so the British Prime-Minister Lord Salisbury promptly ordered the Portuguese to abandon the area in between, and the Portuguese government acquiesced. In Portugal many saw this as a national humiliation: a famous Portuguese explorer wrapped himself in the national flag and immolated himself in protest; university students wrote anti-monarchist pamphlets, the poet Guerra Junqueiro wrote the darkly-titled Finis Patriae (the end of the nation), the republican movement blamed this on the crown and used the incident as a rallying call for the Republic. For Antero, who had lived through the failure of socialism in Portugal, and whose final poetry showed an increasing amount of darkness and pessimism, this episode may have triggered his decision to kill himself.

Antero de Quental remains one of the most popular and studied Portuguese poets of our time, and his influence continued well into the 20th century. As the initiator of a new current of metaphysical poetry, he prefigured the poetry of another mystic, Teixeira de Pascoaes, and of Fernando Pessoa. After returning from Durban, in 1905, Pessoa discovered his sonnets, which inspired him to write his own sonnets. In 1908 he made plans to write “Mors Dei – some 20-40 sonnets as Anthero’s on God” (he uses the pre-1911 spelling of his name), and even undertook, before abandoning it, the project of translating his sonnets into English, to publish them in his short-lived publisher Olisipo. Fragments of a preface to this tentative book and incomplete translations of thirty-one poems currently exist, once again attesting to Pessoa’s remarkable ability to finish nothing he started. To his credit, he clearly laboured over them more than I did, he tried to respect the heroic decasyllabic verse (stresses on the sixth and tenth syllables) and the rhymes, whereas I just took a more prosaic approach that also eschews the sonnets’ musicality, alliteration and rhythm. The fragments of Pessoa’s preface do not say a lot about Antero. For information on Antero we should turn to a far more interesting preface, the one written by his friend Oliveira Martins, who calls the poet “perhaps the most characteristic figure of the Portuguese literary world.” Here we have three excerpts that give us a good idea of the poet:


I don’t know a more difficult physiognomy to sketch, because I never met a nature more complexly well gifted. If it were possible to uncoil a man’s soul, the way a cable is uncoiled, Antero de Quental would have enough soul for a whole family. He’s known to be a poet in the highest sense of the word; but at the same time his is the most critical intelligence, the most practical instinct, the most lucid wisdom known by me. He’s a poet who feels, but his reason thinks what it feels. He thinks what he feels; he feels what he thinks.


Afflicted by crises, “from which are born his verses, for Antero de Quental does not make verses the way literati do: they’re born from him, they spurt from his soul like sighs and agonies. But, that notwithstanding, he’s refined and demanding like an artist: his tears will have the contour of pearls, his moans will be music. The artistic faculties that generate statues and symphonies are the ones that vibrate in his aesthetic soul. The notion of forms, of lines and sounds, he possesses it to an extraordinary degree: not the same with colour and composition. He disdainfully calls pictures panels, and there he abhors description and the picturesque. He’s an artist, in what art contains of most subjective. His poetry is sculptural and hieratic, and therefore fantastic. It’s exclusively psychological and Dantesque: it can’t paint or describe: he finds that inferior and almost unworthy.


He’s above all a stoic, without ever ceasing to be quite sceptical; he’s a mystic, but with a strong dose of irony and humour; he’s a misanthrope, when he’s not the most affable of men; the most convivial and joyful; he’s a pessimist, who nevertheless thinks everything’s fine in general.

The collected sonnets follow a chronological scheme dividing them in five distinct periods. Guided by Oliveira Martins, we’ll sample each one:

1860-1862. This period, according to Oliveira Martins, is characterised by embryonic pessimism. While Portugal received from France a current of optimism, Antero wrote more in line with the worldview of Schopenhauer, whom he hadn’t yet read. In this period he expresses theological doubts and a metaphysical sadness born from his condition as man, a creature that can never satisfy itself.


What mortal beauty compares to thee,
O dream vision of this burning soul,
Reflecting upon me your immense glow,
The way sea mirrors the sun above it?

The world is large – and this urge enjoins me
To seek you on earth; and I, poor believer,
Throughout the world seek a merciful God,
But I only find his altar… naked and old…

What I worship in you is not mortal.
What are you here? Pitiful look,
Drop of honey in a poison cup…

Pure essence of the tears I cry,
And my dreaming dream! If true,
Unveil yourself, vision, to heaven at least!


A torrent of light falls from the mountain:
Lo the day! Lo the sun! O beloved husband!
Where is there in the world a single care
That will not dispel the world-bathing light?

Pain-spurted flower in a lonely crag,
Rebellious sea or congealed gulf,
Where is a godly being so forgotten
For whom heaven has neither peace nor relief?

God is father! Father to all creatures:
And to all beings his love he gives:
Evil is always remembered by his children…

Ah! If God to his children gives fortune
In this holy hour… and I can only be sad…
A son I shall be, but a shunted son!


‘Tis narrow life’s cup of pleasure:
Large, like the ocean is large and deep,
And like it infertile for fortunes,
The bitter calyx of disgrace.

And yet our soul, when it moves
Through the world, uncertain pilgrim,
Asks of life only pleasure, fertile love,
It is with that hope that it abides.

This immense wishing, it is God’s law…
And yet illusion overwhelms life,
And orders to seek light and returns darkness!

Ah! If God lighted an intense point
Of love and pain in us, in the burning fight,
Why create the mirage… or why take it away?


If it’s law, what rules the dark thought,
To make vain the seeking of truth,
Instead of light finding darkness,
Making each new invention a fall:

It’s law also, although raw torment,
To search, always search clarity,
And only having as authentic reality
What shows us bright understanding.

What choice the soul’s, amidst so much deceit?
If one hour it believes in faith, then doubts:
If it searches, and finds only… madness!

Only God can aid about so much mischief:
Let us wait for the light of another life,
Let earth be exile, heaven destination.


I search not in this life glory or fame:
What do I care about the crowd’s vain noise?
Today, god… and tomorrow, forgotten
Just like the extinguished flame’s glow!

Uncertain gleam, scarcely emitted,
Such is fortune: a lost echo,
The more called, the more hidden,
Motionless and mute to the calling voice.

Of that crown every flower is a mistake,
Just a mirage in illusory cloud,
Just vain words of a fabulous spell.

But crown me thee; on the inglorious brow
Fasten the sovereign laurel…
You’ll see, then you’ll see if I love glory!


In vain we struggle. Like an opaque mist,
The uncertainness of things envelopes us,
Our soul, while it creates, while it turns,
Ensnares itself in its own nets.

Thought, creator of a thousand plans,
Is vanishing, dissipating steam;
And problem-solving ambitious will,
Crashes like a wave caught between rocks.

Children of Love, our soul is like a hymn
To light, to liberty, to the fertile good,
Orison and outcry for a divine presence:

But in lonely, arid, deep deserts,
Our voices echo, that Destiny
Hovers mute and implacable above the world.

1862-1866. “Psychologically it’s the least original, artistically it’s the most brilliant,” writes Oliveira Martins. I particularly like this period for its recurring use of dream visions, which, I think, also contradict Oliveira Martins’ claims that the poet did not like description in his poems:


I dream myself sometimes king, on some very
Faraway island, in the Oriental seas,
Where night is balsamic and shiny
And the full moon gleams over the water…

The scent of magnolia and vanilla
Lingers in the diaphanous, sleepy air…
The sea, with fine waves of spume,
Slowly licks the edge of the woods…

And while in the ivory veranda I
I recline myself, lost in endless meditation,
You, my love, wander under moonlight,

In the long garden by the clearing,
Or you rest under the palm trees,
A familiar lion by your feet.


I dreamt – dreaming is not always vain –
That a wind took me in a frenzy,
Through that constellated space
Where an eternal gentle dawn laughs…

The stars, guardians of the morning,
On seeing me pass by sad and mute,
Looked at me and said carefully:
Where, my poor friend, is our sister?

But I cast down my eyes, fearful
They’d see my great deep sorrow,
And skulked furtive and silent.

Nor did I dare tell them, to the stars,
Tell your pure little sisters how you,
My love, are false, and unworthy of them!


I smoke and meditate. The horizon’s castles
Rise up, at night, and grow, a thousand colours,
And either spread in the sky vivid ardours,
Or smoke, strange-mountained volcanoes…

Then, what vague forms come ahead,
Which seem to dream mad loves?
Souls that go, through light and horrors,
Passing by the boat of that aerial Acheron…

I put out my cigar while you put out
Your light, o sun… we’re all left alone…
In this solitude do I consume myself!

Oh Western clouds, oh vain things,
How I understand your colour, for, like you,
I see beauty and height go up in smoke!


I don’t doubt the world in its axis
Spins suspended and moves in harmony;
That man ascends and goes from night to day,
And to man insect and rock ascend.

I don’t call God tyrant, nor do I complain,
Nor do I call life’s heaven cold night:
I don’t call existence a shadowy hour;
Order, chance; nor law, disorder.

Even now Nature remains my mother…
She’s my mother… Ah, if I at the pretty
Face can’t smile; if I’m desperate;

If there’s nothing to warm my coldness;
If I’m full of bitterness and sadness…
It is to be believed that I alone am guilty!


I dream that I’m a moving horse.
Through deserts, suns, and dark night,
Love’s paladin, longing I search
For the enchanted palace of fortune!

But already I faint, exhausted and hesitant,
Broken the sword already, the armour torn…
And lo suddenly I sight it, dazzling
In its pomp and airy gracefulness!

With heavy strikes I bang the door and cry:
I am the Vagabond, the Disinherited…
Open up, golden doors, before my woes!

The golden doors open up, strident…
But inside I find only, pain-filled,
Silence and darkness – and nothing else!

1864-1874. “In this period, Antero de Quental is nihilistic as a philosopher, anarchist as a politician; he’s everything that’s negative, he’s everything that’s excessive; and he is so in such a definitive, dogmatic and affirmative way, that we hesitate to believe in the conscience by him employed.” I’d just like to add that in this period we can find the sonnets where Antero most clearly defends his socialist and republican ideals:



So conquer your future by yourself,
Since your celestial guides have left you
Forsaken over an unknown land,
Man – outlaw king – dark beggar!

If you don’t wait upon heaven (so pure,
But so cruel!) and the grieved heart,
Already you feel free of delusions,
Of the delusions of the old lying love;

Rise up, then, in the stoic majesty
Of a lonely and haughty will,
In a heroic soul’s supreme effort!

Make a temple from the prison’s walls,
Harnessing the eternal and living immensity
In the circle of light of your Idea!


In the solemn woods there’s the cult
Of the eternal, intimate primitive force:
In the mountain, the bold cry of the captive soul,
From the heart, in its unrevenged struggle:

In the constellated space the passing
Figure of the sun-warming nameless Someone:
In the sea ‘tis heard the grave and distressed
Voice of a struggling God, powerful and ignorant.

But in the dark cities, where
Blood-drenched revolution rises freely,
Like a fire that a wild wind kindles,

There’s a higher mission, higher glory:
Fighting, at history’s great light,
The eternal fights of Justice!

                        Surge et ambula!

You, you serene, sleeping spirit,
Left at the shadow of the secular swines,
Like a Levite at the altar’s shadow,
Away from the battle and the earthly uproar,

Wake up! It’s time! The sun, high and plain,
Has scared away the maggots in the tombs…
To rise from the those seas’ bosom,
A new world waits a nod only…

Hark! It is the great voice of multitudes!
It is your brethren, rising up! They are songs…
But of war… and they are fighting voices…

Rise up, then, soldier of the Future,
And from the pure dream’s sun rays,
Dreamer, make a fighting sword!


Reason, sister of Love and Justice,
Once again listen to my prayer.
It is the voice of a heart that wants you,
Of a free soul, to you alone submissive.

It is for you that the moving dust
Of stars and suns and worlds remains;
And it is for you that virtue prevails,
And the heroism’s flower spurts and grows.

For you, in the tragic arena, nations
Search for freedom, between lightnings;
And those who see the future and think, mute,

For you they can suffer and don’t despair,
Mother of robust children, who fight
With your name written on their shields!

1874-1880. “His pessimism becomes systemic: it’s a whole philosophy, to which corresponds, as a sentimental expression, a transcendental irony.”

                                   Dixit insipiens in corde suo: non est Deus

Leave the clouds, raise your brow and hear
What your rebellious children say,
Old Jehovah of the long hirsute beard,
Alone in the fortifications of your Heaven:

“The empire of brute force has at last ceased!
Emancipated, we won’t suffer anymore
The clever and tenacious-handed tyrant
Who’s had us like sheep for a thousand years!

While you were sleeping undisturbed,
We sighted the road for freedom,
Which smiled at us with indefinable gestures…

We’ve tasted of the fruits of truth…
O great God, o strong God, o terrible God,
You are nothing but a vain banality!”


(To Dr. José Falcão)

Rising up their arms to the distant sky
And encompassing the invisible gods,
Men cry out: “Implacable gods,
Whom triumphant destiny serves,

Why did you create us? Ceaseless
Time flows and makes only endless
Pain, sin, illusion, horrible fights,
In a cruel and delirious whirlpool…

Now weren’t we better in the merciful
Peace of nothingness and what is not yet,
Left asleep for all eternity?

Why did you call upon us for pain?”
But the gods, with even sadder voice
Say: “Men, why did you create us?”



Like a wind of death and ruin,
So Doubt blew across the Universe.
Suddenly it was night, the world
Immersed in a dense and algid mist.

Not a star shines, not a bird trills,
Not a flower smiles in its airy cradle.
A subtle poison, vague, dissipated,
Has poisoned divine creation.

And, in the middle of the monstrous night,
Of the glacial silence, that hovers and stretches
Its shroud, from where death droops,

Only a humble flower, mysterious,
Like a vague protest from existence,
Blossoms at the bottom of consciousness.


(To Gonçalvo Crespo)

Amongst the children of a damned century
I too have taken the place at the impious table,
Where, under merriment, sadness moans
From an impotent desire for infinite.

Like others, I spat on the ancestor altar
A laughter made of bile and impurity…
But, one day, my firmness was shook,
My contrite heart gave me a blow!

Alone, full of tedium and weakness,
Tearing the levees of the constricted cry,
My sad soul turned to face God!

I shrouded reason in my faith,
And found peace in inertia and oblivion…
Now one thing remains: to know if God exists!

1880-1884. “When he wrote the first sonnet of [this series], Antero de Quental decided to destroy all his morbid poetries. He felt remorse for having ever been in an emotional mood that now horrified him. He thought that those dark verses could not console anyone, and would harm many people.” Oliveira Martins rescued some of the sonnets destined for destruction. In this period Antero has discovered peace, and also Buddhism, “the most philosophical and least phantasmatic religion invented by man.” Later he redefines Antero’s relationship with this oriental system: “‘Hellenism crowned by Buddhism,’ that’s that formula that Antero de Quental has used more than once to express his thought to me – his chimera!” In these poems Antero finally seems to have achieved his much-desired inner peace, but wrapped in inaction and a longing for self-obliteration non-existence, making them, in my view, his most terrifying sonnets:


(To J.P. Oliveira Martins)

It rests, after so much fighting,
My heart at last rests in peace.
I’ve realized, at last, how vain it is
To quarrel with Luck and the World over good.

Penetrating, not with a dry brow,
The temple of illusion’s tabernacle,
I only found, with pain and confusion,
Darkness and dust, some brute matter…

It is not in the vast world – as immense
As it may seem to us in our youth –
That the soul quenches its intense desire…

In the sphere of the invisible, of the intangible,
Over deserts, empty, solitary, the spirit
Flies and hovers implacable!


(To Santos Valente)

I was rock, in the past, and was, in the old world,
Bark or twig in the unknowable forest…
Wave, I spumed, breaking myself in the corner
Of granite, my so very ancient foe…

I roared, a beat maybe, seeking shelter
In the cavern that darkens heathers and broom;
Or, primitive monster, I raised my forehead
In the limey swamp, sea-green pasture…

Today I am man – and in the vast shadow
I see, by my feet, the multiform ladder,
Spiralling down in immensity…

I question the infinite and sometimes weep…
But, my hands reaching for the vacuum, I worship
And aspire only to freedom.

                               Eternal flux and reflux…
                               João de Deus

Night sleeps reclined against the hills.
Like a dream of peace and oblivion
The moon appears. The wind fell asleep,
Also asleep the valleys and fields…

But with me, night, full of divine
Attractions, wrestles with my thoughts.
I feel around myself a foggy crowd,
The Fates and the pilgrim Souls!

Unfathomable problem!... Terrified
Thought steps back!... And drooping
And stupid with the power of exhaustion,

I gaze unconscious the visionary shadows,
While through the solitary beaches
Your ancient voice, o sea, echoes.


(To D. Nicolas Salmeron)

You who I can’t see, and stand near me
And, furthermore, inside me – who encircle me
With a cloud of affections and ideas,
Which are my beginning, middle and end…

What a strange being you are (if being) who thus
Carry me with you and take me about
To unspeakable regions, redolent
With enchantment and dread… with no and yes…

You are a reflection only of my soul,
And instead of facing you with a calm brow
I startle myself on seeing you, and tremble and beseech you…

Mute when I speak… if mum, you dote upon me…
You are a father, a brother, and it is a torment
Having you by my side… you’re a tyrant, my love!


I told my heart: look in how many
Vain roads we walk! Now think
From this austere and cold height,
The wilderness our cries sprinkled…

Dust and ashes, where flower and charm!
And night, where Spring light was!
Look at your feet the world and despair,
Sower of shadows and morbidity!

Nevertheless the heart, made valiant
In the school of repeated torture,
And in the use of pain-turning believers,

Replied: From this height I see Love!
Living was not in vain, if this is life,
Nor were deceit and pain too much.


To live thus: without jealousy, or longing,
Without love, without lust, without caress,
Free from anguish and happiness,
Dropping about the ground roses and thorns,

To be able to live in all ages;
To be able to walk in all byways;
Indifferent to good and to deception,
Confusing jackals with little birds;

To promenade about earth, and finding sad
All things I see around me, spread over it;
To look at life as if through a dream;

To arrive where I arrived, to reach the heights
Where now I find myself – that is to have arrived
At the extremities of Peace and of Fortune!


  1. Thank you very much for these translations. I had not known abut this poet at all.

    It is impossible to reproduce the sonorities and rhythms of the original poem in translation: the best one can hope for is to create something that can be read as a a poem in English, and which conveys at least something of the original. I cannot of course answer for the second part of that, but these translations certainly are not lacking in the poetic.

    (I admit I haven't read all the poems yet: they're too much to take in all at one sitting. But I'll come back and read the others later. The voice I seem to hear in the ones I have read is unlike any I know.)

    1. It's a pleasure, I'm glad you've liked them so far, don't be in a rush to read them.

  2. Thanks for posting this verse. Like Himadri I have been slowly working my way through it. Perhaps it my predisposition to the slightly gloomy but I do prefer the earlier works.

    1. Interesting you say that, I find all his poems gloomy, especially the later ones, which propose a philosophy of self-annihilation and self-oblivion, a desire to stop existing; "Nirvana," for instance is utterly bleak to me, the mind of a man beyond the scope of any human concerns.