Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Many Shadows of Teixeira de Pascoaes

Teixeira de Pascoaes (1877-1952) exerted tremendous influence on Portuguese aesthetics, culture and society in the first half of the 20th century. His was a prolific career. His books of poetry spanned fifty years. With novelist Raul Brandão he co-wrote a very strange play about Jesus Christ. He was a deeply religious man, a Christian of course, as can be attested by his novelesque biographies of Catholic Saints: St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. On top of that he wrote biographies of Camilo Castelo Branco and Napoleon. On top of all that, he wrote A Arte de Ser Português, that is, The Art of Being Portuguese, a 1915 book that is right Miguel de Unamuno’s alley, what with his fascination with national identities and the true souls of nations. So it’s not surprising that Pascoaes features profusely in his book about Portugal. Their views differed on some points, perhaps, although they seemed to packaged in late Romanticism. Unamuno spoke of the Portuguese man’s cult of pain, sentimentalism, fatalism. Pascoaes in his own way was morbid, or rather, nocturnal and saturnine, to live up to his erudite vocabulary.

But Pascoaes also had saudade. For him, saudade, that allegedly unique Portuguese word that denotes the pain one feels in the absence of loved ones, and more generally means sadness for what is unreachable in the past, was the kernel of the Portuguese soul. I don’t know for certain, but the fetishization of the word saudade may have started here, although Pascoaes’ book lays out the thesis that the feeling itself runs through the whole of our literature. This awareness gave the name to Pascoaes’ aesthetic movement called Saudosismo, apparently the only truly genuine Portuguese aesthetic movement in the history of literature, which in turn informed a broader cultural movement, which had him as its guide and theoretician, called the Portuguese Renaissance, born in the aftermath of the fall of the monarchy and seeking to provide the 1st Republic with an intellectual framework that would help it renew and improve society. For that purpose, and in order to have a medium to divulge his thoughts, he founded the magazine A Águia, around which in is heyday coalesced illustrious historians like António Sérgio and Jaime Cortesão, the painter António Carneiro, and for a brief time Fernando Pessoa and his fried the poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro. The messianic characteristics of the movement, with a bit of Sebastianismo for good measure, interested the also mystical Pessoa, who in due time would write his own messianic poem.

Sebastianismo is so over the top it makes me proud of being Portuguese, just for its unapologetic quirkiness. It all starts with King D. Sebastião, the monarch to whom Luiz de Camões dedicates The Lusiads in the hopes of a lifelong pension. This king didn’t cotton much to the arts, he was no Pope Julius II that’s for sure, but he did have his mania for conquest. A religious fanatic, he decided to wage a holy crusade against North Africa and forcefully convert the heathens to the true faith. Things didn’t pan out the way he planned and his army was slaughtered at the Battle of Ksar El Kebir (1578), and the king’s body was never retrieved, which led to legends that he was alive and that he’d return to save the country. The Portuguese had good motives to hope for someone to save the country. With the king gone there was a crisis of royal heirs and, due to the tortuous cross-connections of royal family trees, the Spanish King Filipe II (Filipe I in Portugal; his son, Filipe III, is Filipe II; Filipe IV, Filipe III – Oh, what agonies this has caused to schoolchildren!) became the rightful Portuguese monarch. Although D. Sebastião was one of our worst kings, and although the reign of the Filipes constitutes, for some, the point when the sun started setting for Portugal, the messianic cult of Sebastianismo prophesized that he’d return to save the nation and to steer it in its path to glory again. In the end it was the Portuguese people who restored their autonomy in 1640, but the legends persisted and have become a staple of our culture and mentality, and have had extraordinary consequences, both good and bad. For instance, I hope everyone remembers that the Brazilian mystic who preached the end of the world in the backlands and started a bloody civil war, was a sebastianista himself. Less catastrophic, Fernando Pessoa’s epic poem, Message, rewrites the history of Portugal in light of the myth of D. Sebastião’s return and promises the coming of a saviour. When it was published, Portugal lived under a dictatorship and no doubt the dictator Salazar saw himself as that saviour, a reading which upset Pessoa, who had received a state-sponsored literary prize for it, and led him to distance himself from the regime in very definitive terms.

But let us return to Teixeira de Pascoaes. To me, his messianism resulted from his deeply religious beliefs. His poetry is at turns lyrical and apocalyptic (one thing isn’t at odds with the other, of course), prophetic and spiritual, yearning for answers for his doubts about the infinite, and seeking to renew and rescue Man. In the footsteps of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, and closer to home of Antero de Quental, his poetry was deeply mystical and philosophical, marvelling at the rich spectacle of the world, at nature, seeing the work of a deity in everything. His pantheism was a tolerant religion that embraced Jesus and Pan and Budha and whatever mystic who exalted the virtues of the soul, and his poems, with their grim lyricism, celebrated the awe of existence while reminding man of his frailty. He himself lived a monastic life; a descendant of rural aristocracy, he lived most of his secluded life in Amarante, a peaceful town in the Douro region, bathed by the waters of the Tâmega river, where he held soirees and entertained intellectuals and writers, amongst them his friend Miguel de Unamuno. When As Sombras came out in 1907 and Unamuno reviewed it, Pascoaes was one of Portugal’s most popular poets and remained so until the end of his life.

He’s certainly not as widely read as he used to be, but that’s alright, all writers have their shelf life, but he’s not been forgotten and he continued to have his admirers. Eugénio de Andrade got on with him and Mário Cesáriny, one of the introducers of surrealism in Portugal, considered him superior to Pessoa. I wouldn’t go so far. I think that, in a way, Pascoaes is the last vestige of what Portuguese poetry used to be before it was completely reinvented by Pessoa. It’s lyrical, bucolic, morbid, it adheres to metric forms and poetic structures, its vocabulary is vast and obscure, a trait I tried to retain in my translations. I confess that in general I don’t like this type of poetry very much, but in his hands I find it very delectable. The book As Sombras (The Shadows) illustrates everything I should detest about it, but it contains some of the best verses I’ve ever read. Like I wrote once, I like conceptual poetry books, books unified by a concept, and this book is held together by the recurring usage of the word shadow. I didn’t count it, but it may ascend to over 100 times. In fact, the titles of the poems are a giveaway: “The Shadow of the Past,” “Tâmega’s Shadow,” “The Shadow of the Wind,” “My Shadow,” “The Shadow of Life,” “Moonlight’s Shadow,” “The Shadow of Jesus,” “The Shadow of Pan,” “The Shadow of Pain,” “The Shadow of what I Used to Be,” “Shadows,” “The Shadow of the Night,” etcetera. Most of the poems are quite long, so I’ll be mostly translating excerpts. Let us begin with an excerpt from the opening poem, “To a Tree and my Sister Maria:”

You’ll know that this book is quite distant
From the hearts of men, and very close
To your resplendent dark shadow;
Gentle, inert vegetable penumbra,
Descendant from the rocks’ shadow
And mother of the vain shadow we spill;
And you are in it, here and true,
Like in your rude trunk and tame twigs.
You’ll know this book is your brother
And from the strength-giving humus,
And the mist suckling you, with delight,
Vigour, freshness, idyllic purity;
And the great silence that, in your lips,
Is a remote and chimerical elegy
Of confused sounds – and the night
That, in your haze eyes, is sunlight!

In a letter to the poet Jorge de Sena, the poet Sophia de Mello Breyner, wrote about one of his short-stories that she couldn’t understand the meaning of it. “In verse I don’t need to understand, in prose I do.” When I read Pascoaes I understand her so well; I don’t understand what he’s going on about, but something in the images and his way of expression moves me. We move to an excerpt from “The Shadow of the Past:”

I’m like you, o trees! Dreaming,
I drop from Night’s breasts, looking to find
Some vein of light where to kill
This infinite thirst I’m burning in!
You too search, with your roots,
In the entrails of fields, the virgin water…
And so fully does earth open up to your kisses,
That it shows you its ancient origin,
The ancient shadow mother that conceived it,
And infiltrates the stems and foliage…
And fluidic and sad falls from them,
In a spectral rain, over the landscapes.

Pascoaes’ pantheism, I think as I clumsy translate these verses, works better in Portuguese, since the language is more pantheistic, or rather, essentialist. Every noun is either a feminine or masculine noun and that changes the meaning. Earth, water, root, night and tree are feminine nouns, so the earth divulges the secrets of how the shadow mother conceived her, not it. In fact, most of the nouns in this excerpt are feminine: light, thirst, entrails, origin, foliage, rain, landscape, which may mean something, or not. I don’t need to understand in verse. The next excerpt, also from the same poem, about his dog Nilo, gets included because of its original contribution to the “barking dog” literary trope:

It was night. The winds clamoured,
And you barked. To what? Mystery…
The invisible shadows that passed
And the voices and noises only you
Were capable of hearing!
                                               O lunatic dog!
O Wizard, howling in the moonlight…
And moonlight infiltrated your soul;
And, inside you, it started howling, howling!
And, in an inner fascination,
You barked… you talked to the spirits,
Who dance, in the shadow, around
Your fearful and astonished eyes…
Spirits, whom the sun wraps in terrene,
Material forms; and the dark night,
The sybiline night, the magical night,
Releases, disembodies and transfigures.
And, drunk with souls, you barked… and talked…
(They wandered, in the air, Demons, whispers…)
And you barked, confusedly and vaguely,
Like the Wizards and Soothsayers talk.
And your barks opened in the silence
Large crevices of sound that closed up,
Burying murmurs and noises
And rumours and voices and whispers…

We’re still in the same poem, but ten pages later, in the final stanzas of the poem:

A tree is a phantom! The open lily
Smoke rising stem-shaped… the rock itself,
No matter how crude and real, seen up close,
Is an illusory cloud. And what are we?
Our profile is a mist of tenderness
That bleeds, suddenly! Our love,
The most beautiful thing in the creature,
Is misery and fatal imperfection!

Ah, each being or thing is a vain shadow,
Undulating in time and in space…
A sketch of life that’s put out,
As soon as it’s lighted; a voice, a cry, a gesture…
The sun is the fleeting expression of laughter;
Darkness a closing of eyes, instantaneous…
And an uncertain feeling, the human soul.
Day is night still, and our spirit
A gentle dawning twilight…
And the world dark chaos, formless matter,
And God himself is still an adolescent…

Moving on to “The Fall,” short enough for a full translation:

Look at the rain falling! O crushed,
            Dark, rebellious cloud!
O miserable cloud and doomed
            To fall, to fall!

Look a bird, falling and fleeing
            Far away… Who knows
If those wings, through the earth,
            Will fly higher!

Look at that ancient and poor wall,
            Almost crumbling…
And the sad stones mourn their future
            Of inevitable fall!

The fountains cry, yes, for being a fountain
            Is falling without rest!
And from the ethereal mist, in the horizon,
            Star dew falls too.

Old beggar lady, bending and drooping,
Under the weight of the sky!
And asks the grave for help, which stretches
Its dirt arms to her.

The whole body, on falling, leaves in space
A trace of agony!
Everything that falls down is a wing that folds,
Everything that falls is tears…

Next we have the first verses of the very long “The Shadow of Life:”

Speak, shadow of life! Come tell me
Your eternal secret.
                                   O cosmic shadow,
Illuminate me. I want tot surprise myself,
In your intimate, painful bosom.
I want to see and know you, o life!
I want to touch your divine essence.
I want to see you directly, and not
Through the lies and appearances.
Ah, tell me the ultimate word;
The magic word, that has been
A pale, imperceptible murmuring,
A voice reflection, indefinite,
Rather a living and awe silence
In the mouth of prophets and saints…
And a mechanical and heavy whisper
In the dry and arid mouth of wise men…
And perfume in the flower that blossoms,
And mist cry in water lips,
An arid and mute verb in crude rock,
And gentle light sound in gentle sand;
Dazzling song of seven colours,
In Iris, where divine love exists!
Febrile scream in the sun-burning mouth
And sepulchral pallor by the sad moon.

And another bit from not quite the end:

And the Nymphs didn’t die! How many times,
In moments of Grace, do I discover them,
In our lonely Portuguese valleys,
Between sombre hills, with pine trees.
I hear them singing in the clear living fountains!
Crying in the dried up fountains, mournfully…
Poor fountains that spurt, instead of water,
Dryness and dust and burning thirst!
And you, Saint of my devotion,
O martyr D. Quixote, you are eternal
As is your spear that tears darkness.
And in your comical and skinny Rocinante,
Amidst chaffing, scorn and wickedness,
Like a lonely light, you’ll walk,
Forever, over the earth, tall and divine
And sad, against Evil in holy war!
Victor Hugo was a man? Jean Valjean
Is an eternal man. Shakespeare
Was a man? Look at Ophelia: more sister
To your own soul and sentiment;
She’s more in your enamoured chest,
In your flesh and blood and in your eyes;
Far closer to you, a lot more next to you,
Than the actual woman you loved!

To show that not all the poems are lengthy, here are four sonnets:


Budha was going about his way, one day,
Under the sun rays that penetrated him,
When he spotted a very old dog, lying down,
With wounds, in which vermin pullulated.

And, with love and fraternal care,
He cleaned its rotting wounds, which smelled
Terribly! – thus ridding the wretched,
Beggar dog of the pains that were killing him.

But, concerned, he kept on walking…
And remembered the vermin that, left
Without any sustenance, were going to die.

And he returned to them; and a piece
Of meat from his arm he cut right there;
And, blessing them, he fed them.


One day, Marcus Aurelius was
Out walking in his garden; and meditated
On the mystery of Life; and his gaze
Questioned the sphinx of the Universe…

And so immersed was he in dreams,
That on walking he accidentally stepped on
A critter that, on the ground, crawled,
Without one of its wings, oh, to fly with!

And Marcus, sad and taciturn, stood there
(They say for a long time) and meditated
On the death he had just provoked;

On the fallible and chimerical goodness,
That, even in its eternal clarity,
Is so blind and kills without knowing!


St. Francis of Assisi in the past talked
To the animals, to the flowers, sad and alone…
If everything that lives, suffers and cries
Is the same eternal soul and the same dust!

And, therefore, he pitied and mourned
Everything sunlight cast its golden light on,
And he didn’t drink, at Jacob’s well,
That redeeming water of life.

O wolves, my brothers! My sister grass!
Brother rocks! O poor little fountains!
O wind, my brothers, in mad war!

How much I love you in God! And I do feel
That this earth, which I kiss, is our mother
And that God’s shadow walks upon the Earth!


When the whole of Life is extinguished;
When the waters freeze, and this world
Rolls, in the darkened Immensity,
Like an infertile and funereal desert;

When light, a gravely hurt little bird,
Falls lifeless in the deep Blue…
And bodies fuse in the pained,
Eternal Essence that animated the world;

When everything that exists returns
To the primordial confusion, dark sea,
Beachless and without the morning light;

Dreaming a new glorious Genesis,
It’ll appear, in the tenebrous space,
The enormous and tragic shadow of Pan!

The apocalyptic vision of this sonnet lets me do a smooth transition to the book’s final poem, “The Last Shadow:”

This infinite shadow in which I plummet
And to which I tried to give colour and living form,
Is the beginning of the world and end of the world;
The fantastic apparition of things…

Shadow that onto the Past is projected,
And is cooled ash… And, at the same time,
To the future is a Prophet’s dream,
Is limpid and amorous consciousness…

O shadow, darkness flower, cut out
Into fire petals! The sad night
Is a dark lily open in golden light,
Or golden perfume, which illumes...

Before terra mater reached
Its final spiritual phase,
God was just the Word; nothing more
Than inert universal penumbra…
But, at last, when the lonely earth,
In us, became perfect spirit,
– God, that ancient originating shadow,
Incarnated, took life and human body.
Yes: the Word of God is Matter;
And God’s incarnation is the Spirit!
And our immense and tragic misery,
Which created God, in God perishes.

O sacred moment of Destiny,
In which sad fleeting Matter,
In an ideal dream, in a divine impulse,
Sees itself pure, freed and redeemed!
Then, the poor suffering flesh,
Clay made of pains and bitterness,
In piety, tenderness and thought,
Rises its flight to mystical Heights!
And forever sublimed into soul,
The light of imperturbable Eternity
Will live in the holy blessed peace,
In holy and sweet never-ending awe…

O sacred moment, which is passed by,
There in the anaemic distance of the skies
And far from our eyes, the ethereal shadow,
Nothing but a mere Twilight of God!

Shadow that kissed me! Kiss of love!
Kiss of earth and sky! O cosmic kiss!
Genesiacal perturbation! Murmur
Of night, opening its bosom to moonlight…

Vague murmur of tears, trembling
At the dark flower of virginal eyes…
Turbid murmur of mist, silencing
The aurora’s canticle in golden verses…

Murmur of the blind, tumid seeds,
Which, placed on the stalks, rise…
And in their arms, the penitent winds
Mould gestures of benediction in the landscape.

Murmur of the Word, agonizing and anguished,
Which soon turns into heavy burden,
Into living blood and tenebrous body,
Shackled to liberating pain!

Bronze-like murmur of thundering cloud,
Hurling, in the distance over the hills,
A great torrent, bright and dazzling:
Glory of God appearing in the twilight!

White murmur, by moonlight, of white sail…
Silver murmur of the Spring sun;
And of the blossoming of the fruits and flowers…
And the opening of the earth, trespassed
By the stalks that rise, lustful,
Thirsty for air, famished for dawn,
In preview of the flower and the perfume!
High astral murmur of the sky’s blue
That sustains, pending from its teats,
The suns!
            Murmur of God’s ideal shadow!
Divine perturbation!
                                   High murmur,
You kissed me, right in the heart.
And from that moving, endless kiss
This prayer’s verses were born,
Prayed by the wind, at dead hours.

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