Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Here, in this dark chaos of confusion: the lyrical poetry of Luís de Camões

The disposition of statues in Lisbon is quite a curious thing. If the tourist exits the Restauradores train station, turns right in the Carmo’s direction and climbs all the way up to Bairro Alto, first he walks past a bronze of Fernando Pessoa in front of the A Brasileira café and then he sees, up ahead, in a square named after him, the statue of Luís de Camões. The national bard, as it becomes him, is standing up, tireless and magnificent. Pessoa, the inert poet who seldom completed any of his projects, is seated. As it could only be, Camões, the pinnacle of Portuguese literature, is looking down on the only poet who in talent could be considered his rival. Pessoa, however, is looking away from him, not minding him. His grudge is notorious. He tried, but failed, to be the “Super-Camões” he predicted one day would be born in one of his essays.

Pessoa could never replace Camões not just because of his consecration in history but because of their radically opposing sensibilities. Camões sings the odyssey of a people, Pessoa chronicles the fleeting introspections of an individual. Camões fictionalises the multinational adventure of the Discoveries, Pessoa never abandons the familiar setting of Lisbon. Camões extols, Pessoa complains. But we’re talking of course about Luís de Camões the writer of epics. The same statue that looks in Pessoa’s direction is ignoring the Tejo River, down to his right, from where the caravels sailed on the voyage immortalised by The Lusiads. This is just one part of his rich oeuvre; Camões also left behind lyrical poetry, containing some of his best verses.

Camões, the son of poor aristocrats, was born in 1524 and died in 1580. In 1553, after a fight with a court servant, he was sentenced to prison, but his sentence was changed to conscription in the army. He sailed to the East, to places like Macao (where legend says he started The Lusiads), Goa (where he was arrested for debts) and current Cambodia. In this region of the world he saw warfare and experienced a shipwreck, a traumatic event that resurfaces many times in his poetry. Failing to make his fortune, he tried to return to Portugal. But he barely had money to pay the fare. Stranded in Mozambique, it was thanks to the help of friends who scrounged up money that the poet living in poverty managed to return home, in 1570. Seventeen years had passed. In Lisbon he completed his epic and presented it to the King D. Sebastião, who showed little interest in it but nevertheless awarded him a meagre pension. Even so, when Camões passed away in 1580, victim of the plague, it is said that he was again living in squalor. Fame didn’t come to him until after his death. And for centuries he was one of the most famous Portuguese writers. Torquato Tasso wrote a sonnet in his memory, William Blake painted his portrait, William Wordsworth mentioned him in "Scorn not the sonnet," Herman Melville, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Roy Campbell admired him. Ezra Pound, who was ambivalent about him, commented him in The Spirit of Romance. To say nothing of his place in the work of Portuguese poets like Cesário Verde, Jorge de Sena or Sophia de Mello Breyner. His popularity is on the wane, of course. He’s difficult and his themes are not as sexy as Pessoa’s. I think, however, that his lyrical poetry, far more diverse and lively than his epic, is a great entry point to new readers.

Sá de Miranda, as I explained in my last post, introduced several innovations in Renaissance Portuguese poetry. Luís de Camões not only improved them but defined them for future poets. For instance, whereas his predecessor made the decasyllable the de rigueur meter of the sonnet, Camões wasn’t content with just any decasyllable but with a variant known as ‘heroic,’ where stresses must obligatorily fall on the sixth and tenth syllables, with optional complementary stresses:

Cá nesta Babinia, donde mana
matéria a quanto mal o mundo cria;
cá onde o puro Amor não tem valia,
que a Mãe, que manda mais, tudo profana;

cá, onde o mal se afina, e o bem se dana,
e pode mais que a honra a tirania;
cá, onde a errada e cega Monarquia
cuida que um nome vão a desengana;

cá, neste labirinto, onde a nobreza
com esforço e saber pedindo vão
às portas da cobiça e da vileza;

cá neste escuro caos de confusão,
cumprindo o curso estou da natureza.
Vê se me esquecerei de ti, Sião!

Here in this Babylon, from where runs out
Matter produced by the world’s great evil;
Here where immaculate love has no worth,
Since our Mother, who wills most, all things soils.

Here, where evil is honed, and good reviled,
And tyranny has more force than honour;
Here, where mistaken and blind Monarchy
Thinks that a vain name will show it the truth;

Here, in this labyrinth, where noblemen
With effort and knowledge go begging at
The doors of covetousness and vileness;

Here, in this dark chaos of confusion,
I am fulfilling the course of nature.
See if I’ll ever forget you, Siam!

He used the ‘heroic’ verse in The Lusiads and in his sonnets, making it a popular metre in Portuguese poetry. This sonnet is curious for its autobiographical traces. The word Sião means both Zion and Siam. Siam was the name the Portuguese gave to Thailand when they arrived at it in the 16th century. Camões was a soldier and took part in a campaign in the Malabar coast. By invoking Babylon in the first verse, he plays with the word’s ambiguity: does he mean the biblical city or the city he visited in his long stay in the East? The tone of complaint is also characteristic of his poetry. Camões argued again and again that the world had been given to the wicked, who thrived, whereas he met only ruin and unhappiness, as if fate had singled him out for torture. But he was right in a way: considering that the East was an El Dorado to where many Portuguese were sailing in order to make their fortunes, Camões stayed there for seventeen years before coming not just empty-handed but a genuine pauper. Here’s another poem of complaint:

Em prisões baixas fui um tempo atado,
Vergonhoso castigo de meus erros;
Inda agora arrojando levo os ferros
Que a Morte, a meu pesar, tem já quebrado.

Sacrifiquei a vida a meu cuidado,
Que Amor não quer cordeiros nem bezerros;
Vi mágoas, vi misérias, vi desterros:
Parece-me que estava assi ordenado.

Contentei-me com pouco, conhecendo
Que era o contentamento vergonhoso,
Só por ver que cousa era viver ledo.

Mas minha estrela, que eu já agora entendo,
A Morte cega e o Caso duvidoso,
Me fizeram de gostos haver medo.

In base prisons I was for a time held,
Disgraceful punishment for my errors;
Even now crawling I bear my irons
Which Death, to my sorrow, already broke.

I sacrificed life under my own risk,
For Love wants neither lambs nor little sheep;
I saw grief, I saw pain, I saw exiles:
It seems it was ordained in this manner.

I took joy in paucity, knowing well
That it was a disgraceful form of joy,
Just from seeing what a happy life was.

But my star, which at last I understand,
The Blind Death and the doubtful Destiny,
Have made me feel afraid of appetites.

With his allusion to a prison and learning to live with little, he may be talking about the prison term he served in Goa, for debts. Another sonnet:

Que poderei do mundo já querer,
que naquilo em que pus tamanho amor,
não vi senão desgosto e desamor
e morte, enfim, que mais não pode ser?

Pois vida me não farta de viver,
pois já sei que não mata grande dor,
se cousa há que mágoa dê maior,
eu a verei, que tudo posso ver.

A morte, a meu pesar, me assegurou
de quanto mal me vinha; já perdi
o que perder o medo me ensinou.

Na vida desamor somente vi,
na morte a grande dor que me ficou:
parece que para isto só nasci!

What could I require from the world now, when
The thing in which I put plentiful love,
I saw nothing save heartsore and dislike
And death, alas, which can be nothing more?

Well then life doesn’t bore me with living,
For I know now that it can’t kill great woes,
If there’s a thing that gives a great woe,
I’ll see it, since I can see everything.

Death, to my sorrow, has reassured me
Of all the evil coming my way; I’ve
Lost what fear has disciplined me to lose.

In life I only ever saw hatred,
In dying the great pain that stayed in me:
It seems that I was born for this alone!

Moving away from his sonnets of persecution mania, we have the unavoidable Renaissance theme of Love, in Petrarch’s manner. I leave you with a sampling of his most famous ones:

Transforma-se o amador na cousa amada,
Por virtude do muito imaginar;
Não tenho, logo, mais que desejar,
Pois em mim tenho a parte desejada.

Se nela está minha alma transformada,
Que mais deseja o corpo de alcançar?
Em si somente pode descansar,
Pois consigo tal alma está ligada.

Mas esta linda e pura semidéia,
Que, como o acidente em seu sujeito,
Assim com a alma minha se conforma,

Está no pensamento como idéia;
E o vivo e puro amor de que sou feito,
Como a matéria simples, busca a forma.

The lover becomes the thing he loves
by virtue of much imagining;
since what I long for is already in me,
the act of longing should be enough.

If my soul becomes the beloved,
what more can my body long for?
Only in itself will it find peace,
since my body and soul are linked.

But this pure, fair demigoddess,
who with my soul is in accord
like an accident with its subject,

exists in my mind as a mere idea;
the pure and living love I’m made of
seeks, like simple matter, form.

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

Amor é fogo que arde sem se ver,
é ferida que dói, e não se sente;
é um contentamento descontente,
é dor que desatina sem doer.

É um não querer mais que bem querer;
é um andar solitário entre a gente;
é nunca contentar-se de contente;
é um cuidar que ganha em se perder.

É querer estar preso por vontade;
é servir a quem vence, o vencedor;
é ter com quem nos mata, lealdade.

Mas como causar pode seu favor
nos corações humanos amizade,
se tão contrário a si é o mesmo Amor?

Love is a fire that burns unseen,
a wound that aches yet isn’t felt,
an always discontent contentment,
a pain that rages without hurting,

a longing for nothing but to long,
a loneliness in the midst of people,
a never feeling pleased when pleased,
a passion that gains when lost in thought.

It’s being enslaved of your own free will;
it’s counting your defeat a victory;
it’s staying loyal to your killer.

But if it’s so self-contradictory,
how can Love, when Love chooses,
bring human hearts into sympathy?

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

Sempre, cruel Senhora, receei,
medindo vossa grã desconfiança,
que desse em desamor vossa tardança,
e que me perdesse eu, pois vos amei.

Perca-se, enfim, já tudo o que esperei,
pois noutro amor já tendes esperança.
Tão patente será vossa mudança,
quanto eu encobri sempre o que vos dei.
Dei-vos a alma, a vida e o sentido;
de tudo o que em mim há vos fiz senhora.
Prometeis e negais o mesmo Amor.
Agora tal estou que, de perdido,
não sei por onde vou, mas algũ’hora
vos dará tal lembrança grande dor.

Cruel Senhora, I’ve always been wary. I knew
I needed to watch you closely in case
your doubts would surge to disaffection and erase
our love. Then I’d be ruined, since I love only you.

And now, everything I’d hope to have is lost:
you’re pursuing another lover. So I detach
myself, believing your retribution will match
the sacrificial depths my love has cost:

I’ve given my soul, my senses, and my life to you;
I’ve given you everything I have within me,
and you promised love, but now, there’s only disdain.

Lost and hopeless, I don’t know what to do,
yet I know the day will come when this memory
will crush you down with terrifying pain.

(Translated by William Baer)

Although Camões is mainly known for his sonnets, as far as his lyrical poetry is concerned, he tried his hand at many genres, including vilancicos, songs, trovas in the ‘old measure’ and at least one sestina:


Foge-me pouco a pouco a curta vida
(se por caso é verdade que inda vivo);
vai-se-me o breve tempo d’ante os olhos;
choro pelo passado e quando falo,
se me passam os dias passo e passo,
vai-se-me, enfim, a idade e fica a pena.

Que maneira tão áspera de pena!
Que nunca ũa hora viu tão longa vida
em que possa do mal mover-se um passo.
Que mais me monta ser morto que vivo?
Para que choro, enfim? Para que falo,
se lograr-me não pude de meus olhos?

Ó fermosos, gentis e claros olhos,
cuja ausência me move a tanta pena
quanta se não comprende enquanto falo!
Se, no fim de tão longa e curta vida,
de vós m’inda inflamasse o raio vivo,
por bem teria tudo quanto passo.

Mas bem sei, que primeiro o extremo passo
me há-de vir a cerrar os tristes olhos
que Amor me mostre aqueles por que vivo.
Testemunhas serão a tinta e pena,
que escreveram de tão molesta vida
o menos que passei, e o mais que falo.

Oh! que não sei que escrevo, nem que falo!
Que se de um pensamento n’outro passo,
vejo tão triste género de vida
que, se lhe não valerem tantos olhos,
não posso imaginar qual seja a pena
que traslade esta pena com que vivo.

N’alma tenho contino um fogo vivo,
que, se não respirasse no que falo,
estaria já feita cinza a pena;
mas, sobre a maior dor que sofro e passo,
me temperam as lágrimas dos olhos
com que fugindo, não se acaba a vida.

Morrendo estou na vida,
               e em morte vivo;
vejo sem olhos,
               e sem língua falo;
e juntamente passo
               glória e pena.


Little by little it ebbs, this life
if by any chance I am still alive;
my brief time passes before my eyes;
I mourn the past in whatever I say,
as each day passes, step by step;
youth deserts me; what persists is pain.

And what a bitter variety of pain
that not for an hour in so long a life
could I give evil so much as a side step!
Surely, I’m better dead than alive?
Why complain, at last? What’s more to say,
having failed to be cheated by my own eyes?

Those lovely, gentle and lucid eyes
whose absence caused me as much pain
as her not understanding whatever I say!
If at the end of so long a short life
you should keep the burning ray alive
blessings will attend my every step.

But first I’m aware the ultimate step
must advance to close these sad eyes
love opened to those by which I live.
Pen and ink must witness to the pain
in writing of so troublesome a life
the little I lived through, and the more I say.

Oh, I know not why I write or what I say!
If contemplating yet another step
I envisage a sad version of life
that places no value on such eyes,
I cannot conceive how such pain
could find a pen to declare I’m alive.

In my heart, the embers are still alive;
if they found no relief in what I say
they would now have made ashes of my pain;
but beyond this grief I overstep,
I’m softened by the tears of those eyes
that, though life is fleeting, keep me alive.

I am dying alive;
             in death I live;
I see without eyes;
             tongue-less I speak;
they march in goose step,
             glory and pain.

(Translated by Landeg White)

Like in the sonnets, he uses decasyllabic verse here. In the traditional sestina, the last stanza is a tercet. Camões broke it down into a sextain. The funny thing is, if you put them together, you get a decasyllabic tercet:

Mor/ren/do^es/tou/na/vi/da^e^em/mor/te/vi (vo;)
ve/jo/sem/o/lhos,/e/sem/lín/gua/fa (lo;)
^a^e/pe (na.)

Here’s a vilancico in the ‘old measure,’ using seven syllables per verse:

De que me serve fugir
De morte, dor e perigo,
Se me eu levo comigo?

Tenho-me persuadido,
Por razão conveniente,
Que não posso ser contente,
Pois que pude ser nascido.
Anda sempre tão unido
O meu tormento comigo
Que eu mesmo sou meu perigo.

E se de mi me livrasse,
Nenhum gosto me seria;
que, não sendo eu, não teria
mal que esse bem me tirasse.
Força é logo que assi passe,
ou com desgosto comigo,
ou sem gosto e sem perigo.

What is the point of fleeing
From death, hurting and danger,
If I take myself with me?

I have convinced myself,
For a convenient motive,
That I cannot be happy,
Given that I could be born.
It is always so close to
This torment I call my own
Is always so close to me
That I am my own danger.

And if I could get rid of me,
It would bring no joy to me;
For, not being myself, it would
Matter not the good it took.
Perforce this thought quickly fades,
Either at odds with myself,
Or with no want and danger.

This poem, by the way, is thematically very similar to one by Sá de Miranda that I already posted.

Ao desconcerto do Mundo

Os bons vi sempre passar
No Mundo graves tormentos;
E pera mais me espantar,
Os maus vi sempre nadar
Em mar de contentamentos.
Cuidando alcançar assim
O bem tão mal ordenado,
Fui mau, mas fui castigado.
Assim que, só pera mim,
Anda o mundo desconcertado.

To the world out of joint

Good men I always saw in
The world feeling grave torments;
And to daunt me even more,
The wicked I always saw
Swimming in seas of pleasure.
Thus hoping to accomplish
The good so badly ordered,
I was bad, but was punished.
So that, only against me
does this world go out of joint.

Luís de Camões’ lyrical poetry is vast and certainly deserves more attention. What we have here is a small sampling to whet the reader’s appetite. Above all, it must be repeated that there’s more to him than The Lusiads. By the way, anyone interested about translating Luís de Camões into English should read this fine article by Richard Zenith:

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.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Orator, Publicist, Statesman, Legislator and Philosopher: the life and work of the Count of Abranhos, as told by his loyal secretary, Z. Zagalo.

In the very remote probability that my readers follow Portuguese politics, they may have heard that the government was on the brink of collapse last week. For two years now a right-wing coalition has been governing the country, encumbered with the main task of implementing an austerity package designed by the European Union, the IMF and the European Central Bank – sovietically nicknamed Troika - after the previous socialist party gave the death blow to the economy thanks to its incompetence. Now contrary to enthusiastic reports – more concerned with saving face than saving the real economy – the measures dictated by the Troika and executed by the coalition are, as they did before in Greece, wrecking the country. So far nothing extraordinary. But the first shock came when Vítor Gaspar, the Minister of Finances, resigned, and not only resigned but in a rare and dangerous display of political honesty, published an open letter admitting that the austerity measures had been a resounding failure. Then days later the Prime-Minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, appointed another person for the job without consulting his coalition partner, Paulo Portas, who until this week was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Indignant for having been left out, Portas announced his irrevocable resignation (key word is irrevocable) from the government, a decision that spelled the end of the coalition. The world shook in our little “garden brimmed by the sea,” to borrow Miguel Torga’s affectionate description of our “famous Republic of Illusitania,” to borrow Hipólito Raposo’s cynically punning description of our "Kingdom of Stupidity," to borrow from Jorge de Sena's damning name for our "Country of the Absurd," to borrow from Adolfo Casais Monteiro's own expression for our “irrelevant patch of land in a forgotten corner of Europe,” to borrow from my disenchanted self's preferred name for Portugal. The interest rates immediately increased (as if they hadn’t been increasing for over a month now, in spite of the official success history of the unsuccessful austerity measures) in anticipation of a political crisis, Passos Coelho immediately flew to Germany to conference with Angela Markel (giving credence to the conspiracy nutters’ belief that Portugal is nothing more than a German protectorate nowadays), two more ministers (of Portas’ party) resigned, pundits predicted that the government was going to fall, and a good segment of the population hoped it would. But never underestimate the thirst for power. There was a weekend emergency meeting between Passos Coelho, Portas and the President, Cavaco Silva (who, twenty years ago, was the Prime-Minister responsible for censuring José Saramago and forcing him into exile in the Canary Islands), and what came out of it this Saturday was this: Paulo Portas is now vice-prime-minister of Portugal (Portugal hasn’t had a vice-prime-minister since 1985, just to put things in their proper context), the ministry of economy has been handed over to a member of his party (meaning it now has more ministers in the government than before), the Minister of Finance continues to be the same person he objected to, and the unpopular government is not going to fall after all. In a masterful display of one-upmanship, Paulo Portas gambled with the Portuguese economy, so vulnerable to scares of this type, launched Europe into chaos for a week, lied to the public, and still managed to get a promotion. Move over, Machiavelli!

That Paulo Portas is currently the most despicable man on the face of the planet is of no relevance. This preamble, which I hope was not wholly uninteresting, serves merely to segue into the book we’ll be discussing today. A few months ago I re-read Eça de Queiroz’ genial and timely satire of Portuguese politics, O Conde Abranhos. Then I forgot about it because of other commitments. The timing, however, seems perfect to introduce a novella about a ruthless and power-hungry politician who rises to minister through a combination of guile, hypocrisy, and subservience.

As we all know, for we all of us here are studious admirers of Eça, he once planned (circa 1878) to write a cycle of novels, modelled after Balzac’s, to be named Scenes from Portuguese Life. The plan fell through but nevertheless he wrote several books, novellas and short-stories satirizing different aspects and situations of society and culture. O Conde de Abranhos was published posthumously in 1925, although the novella had been written, in France, in the year of 1879, one year before the publication of The Mandarin. Of all the books he wrote, this was his most impetuous foray into politics. Although he toyed with politics in The Maias and The Illustrious House of Ramires, none of his characters is so involved in the duplicitous backstage games of politics like the impressive Count of Abranhos.

Now the first thing to appreciate is that, although the book is named after the Count, minister of the kingdom, the novella is narrated by Z. Zagalo, his secretary, former Lisbon journalist, and sycophantic biographer. Before we advance any further, it’s important to bear in mind the warning that the great literary critic Jorge de Sena once gave: Portuguese literature was always an official literature, that is, it always depended on patronage for its existence and subsistence. It’s not accidental that Zagalo dedicates (even Luís de Camões had to dedicate The Lusiads to a King for a meagre stipend) the book to the Count’s second wife (his “balm,” by opposition to his first one, a shameless adulterer) with an accompaniment of compliments. Zagalo is what we today call an unreliable narrator. He’s really the great performer of the book, for although the Count only has to be, Zagalo has to transform, via revolting and over-the-top adulation, a ruthless, cowardly arriviste into a national hero. The virtues of this book are not so much in the events told, but in the voice they’re told in, making this mock-biography one of Eça’s highest achievements in style, wit and humour.

Zagalo doesn’t waste compliments in describing the merits of the late Count. Writing not so much a biography as a “biographical sketch” of his former master, an attempt to “recreate his moral being,” the text is nothing but hagiography under the guise of objectivity and historical fact, a panegyric to “glorify the memory of this eminent man, Orator, Publicist, Statesman, Legislator and Philosopher.”

Zagalo establishes the tone as soon as he laments his lack of talent as a writer to carry out the honour of penning the Count’s biography, an endeavour better suited to a “Plutarch, or, in more modern times, a Victor Cousin (whom he so admired), or even, contemporarily, an Herculano, a Rebelo, a Castilho – one of those stars that shine in our country’s firmament, with a light of eternal serenity.” To appreciate Eça’s sardonic enumeration of illustrious historians, it’s necessary to know a few details of Portuguese history and literature and his place in (or rather against) it. Rebelo da Silva (1822-1871) was a Romantic historian and author of historical novels. Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877) was Portugal’s first novelist, a major figure of Portuguese Romanticism, and one of his country’s greatest historians. António Feliciano de Castilho (1800-1875) was an Ultra-Romantic poet whom Eça and the younger writers of his generation, proponents of the new currents of realism and naturalism, considered a symbol of antiquated literature. Eça famously detested Romanticism. If Eça were a black hole, he’d swallow this bright firmament. To readers in tune with him, Zagalo’s role-models were worthless myth-makers without an ounce of credibility.

At the same time Zagalo praises his former master the events of the novella build up a monstrous psychological portrait of the Count. Fiercely reactionary, naturally cowardly, a hypocritical Christian, an unscrupulous arriviste, a treacherous liar. To be more precise, he hated the working class, neglected his poor father on his death bed, married for money, changed political convictions in order to remain aligned with power, contrived sinister systems to contain and erase the poor from society, at the University snitched on his colleagues and ingratiated himself with his teachers, and was appointed to a ministry for which he had no skills. His total lack of honour is so complete, and his instinct for self-preservation so developed, in one of the best episodes he informs the police of a duel in advance just to save his skin. And yet the tension of the text comes from these horrible traits that seep through the cracks of the gilded façade Zagalo tries to hide them under. The cognitive dissonance between the two levels of the story is, along with Zagalo’s voice, what makes this novella so fascinating. But going back to the Count.

Alípio Severo Abranhos is born into a humble family, even though Zagalo manages to discover a very distant, very tenuous connection to an old noble family, the Noronhas. This find, however, can’t erase the truth that the Count’s father is a poor country village tailor. The Count’s early years are spent in an intellectual desert, without tasting refinement and culture, “growing up in plain nature,” explains the narrator, who counterbalances this stain on his past with the popularity of Rousseau’s pedagogical methods. Thanks to the intercession of a rich aunt Alípio moves to her estate, where he gets the first glimpses of luxury and wealth. A priest takes care of his education, which means Alípio continues to grow up without any culture of sensibility. But this is hagiography, so Zagalo has to make his master look like a wunderkind. As such he finds traces of genius in everything he did, even in a simple adolescent quatrain:

God exists! All proves it,
Both you, proud Sun,
As you, humble twig
Where the nightingale sings!

   I couldn’t suppress a bravo, respectful but heartfelt.
   “The thought is nice, but don’t say it in Lisbon, Zagalinho. If the newspapers knew I once made verses… what a treat for the opposition…”
   I stated, laughing:  
   “What a treat for the opposition, but what glory for the government…”
   He added:
   “Ah, boys’ stuff. We all, more or less, in our boyhood, were poets and republicans… Rather that than going around sipping ginger rum in bars and patronizing prostitutes… But when you arrive at the true political life, you have to put aside these tender feelings…”

Although the Count is more realistic about his poetic talents, or lack of, Zagalo doesn’t avoid extravagant comparisons. “I’m certain that the contemporary poets, the epic Hugos, the delicate Tennysons, the Campoamores of humoristic melancholia, would be proud of this colleague which I reveal to them, and who, even if he only played the lyre once, did it with such originality, vigour and elevation, that this simple isolated verse soars higher in Art’s heaven than many majestic symphonies by debauched Mussets or hysterical Baudelaires (…)”

Another characteristic the book highlights is the Count’s concern with his public image. After he becomes minister, his father asks him to set him up a tailor’s shop in Lisbon. The minister scoffs at the idea of seeing his name associated with tailoring, predicting that his parliamentary opponents would use it to undermine his reputation. (This scene, by the way, prefigures one from The Maias, in which Carlos removes a newspaper ad for his medical office when he finds it published next to an ad for a washerwoman.) Essentially Alípio abandons his father to die in poverty and sickness because his low condition embarrassed him. Nevertheless Zagalo manages to twist the facts to make it look like the evil, envious father was trying to sabotage his successful son. From the treatment of his father it’s not surprising the disturbing ideas – nothing remarkable for the 19th century, though – he had about the poor.

As a conservative who believed in a strong upper-class dominating the lower-class, the Count defended in parliament a war on the poor. “Isolate the poor!” is one of his historic mottos. He conceived a grandiose plan to remove poor people from society’s sight, through a serious of tenebrous jails that would surpass even the English Work-House.

The state would provide huge mansions, with cells supplied with a cot, where the wretched would be taken in. To gain admission, they’d have to prove to be of legal age, having carried out their religious duties, not having been convicted by courts (this to avoid that workers with subversive ideas who, through strike and debauch, scheme the State’s destruction, would, during unfortunate times, ask that same State to shelter them). They’d also have to prove the sobriety of their manners, never having lived a dissolute life nor having the habit of cursing and blaspheming. Once these elevated qualities were recognized with documents by priests, magistrates, etc., each wretched would receive a cell and a ration of soup equal to the one the inmates receive.

In the Count’s infernal prison, the “poor remains prisoner of charity! He loses the right to be hungry.” Once admitted, he can never get out unless he can prove he has a job waiting for him outside. “They’d lose the right to leave,” Zagalo explains. “In no human legislation do I know so fair, so efficient, so profoundly Christian, so benevolently social an institution.” This is just a sample of what Zagalo considers the Count’s “almost super-human kindness.”

How the Count’s social-political ideas are formed is outlined in the passages dealing with his higher education.

The first advantage of University, as a social institution, is the separation that is naturally formed between students and toilers, between those who only live from turning ideas or theories and those who live from work. Thus, the student is forever aware of this great social ideal: that there are two classes – one that knows, another that produces. The first, naturally, being the brain, governs; the second, being the hand, maintains, dresses, feeds, pays and gives shoes to the first.

At the University, Alípio doesn’t learn to think but to accept authority, recognise dogmas and maintain order. “Free thinking is the principle of revolution,” he says. “What is order? – The acceptance of adopted ideas. If you get boys used not to accept any idea from their masters without verifying if it’s exact, you run the risk of seeing them, later, reject any institution in their country without confirming if it’s fair. We’d then have the spirit of the revolution, which ends in social catastrophes!” He’s a despicable student, known for snitching on his classmates and adulating his teachers. His academic career is impeccable.

After he finishes his higher education he joins the staff of a political newspaper, Bandeira Nacional, under the protection of a state counsellor, Gama Torres, although Zagalo insists the protection was merely platonic. “He didn’t give it money because, being a family man, he rightly understood that politics should not spend fortunes, but, on the contrary, produce them. And he gave no ideas either, for, in spite of his elevated education, which makes him one of our great contemporaries, his prudence, his reserve were such that rare was the time when one of his clear opinions was heard.” The newspaper was little more than a racketeering scheme, attacking or defending the government for money and whenever it best suited it. In it Alípio learns to write not out of conviction but in harmony with vested interests, going so far as to pen articles against governmental ideas he privately agrees with.

His career as a deputy soars thanks to the oratorical skills he demonstrates in parliament. Zagalo reveals, not without pride, that his elegant speeches become part of the school syllabus. However the Count’s political volatility gets him in trouble when he makes an about-face during a parliamentary session and abandons his party, in power but about to fall, to join the opposition, which has strong chances of gaining power. His betrayal doesn’t pass unnoticed to his former colleagues and a deputy challenges him to a duel. As the rules of duelling demand, Alípio appoints two seconds; but instead of finding a peaceful solution, as rules also demand seconds do, the two “pedants of the point of honour” set up a sword duel. Like the coward he is, he alerts the police in advance so that they interrupt the duel, thinking this will get him off the hook. Instead he offends his own seconds, who threaten to duel with him too if he does it again. Forced into a duel he doesn’t want to have, he receives a minor cut in the ear, which satisfies his opponent, but immediately his new party starts inflating his legend as a fearful swordsman.

Zagalo concludes his narrative with Alípio’s triumphant rise to Minister of the Navy, a job for which he has no talent, skills, or vocation (being afraid of water), but that’s not unusual in Portugal, where a minister can be in charge of defence in one administration and in a future one be in charge of foreign affairs, like it happened with Vice-Prime-Minister Paulo Portas, former journalist. (Former Zagalo?)

It’s a cliché to say that Eça’s books paint a timeless portrait of a Portugal that hasn’t changed since his death, but in the case of O Conde Abranhos that’s absolutely true. At the same time we could argue this is unlike any other book he has ever written. This is probably the most revolutionary book of his oeuvre, and manages to present a more tangible reality than all the crude and outdated neo-realist novels that dominated Portuguese letters for most of the 20th century. The problems criticised by this book regarding the objectivity of our newspapers, the quality of our educational system, the disgusting the careerism in the civil service, and our politicians’ obsessions with titles and honours, haven’t changed since 1879. First of all there’s present in it the very modern abysm between the ruling and working classes, as seen in the Count’s reactionary ideology:

The people are like one of those monstrous Indian elephants that I’ve heard of: of an indomitable strength and of a laughable simplicity, the whole world, through violence, can’t force it to walk against its will, and a child, through cleverness, makes it perform grotesque summersaults. The people have the force of an element and a regiment can’t impose upon them an idea that a simple crafty lawyer, speechifying, can make them accept without effort. These were already old truths in the ancient Hellenic world. The Polignacs, the Guizots, the Cabrais, are therefore guilty, not of lack of civilization, but of lack of cunning. Why will you fight an invincible monster, when it’s so simple to trick it?

The novella is set in the years after the Liberal Wars of the 1830s that changed Portugal’s Constitution to allow elections of deputies and to grant more power to the parliament. In effect, though, this only replaced parasitic courtiers with self-serving politicians. “I, who am the government,” the Count explains to Zagalo, “weak but cunning, apparently give Sovereignty to the people, which is strong and simple. But since the lack of education keeps them in imbecility, and the sleeping of consciousness dulls them into indifference, I make them exercise that sovereignty in my own benefit… As to their benefit… Goodbye, dear fellow!”

If the politicians in Portugal haven’t changed visibly since the time Eça wrote this, it’s unsurprising that education and the press have changed very little. Our schools still continue to produce submissive proles instead of free-thinking citizens. And our newspapers (but especially our TV channels) continue to swarm with modern Zagalos. Last week dozens of them invaded our TV screens, these skilful spin masters and Olympic-level mental gymnastics athletes, Portas’ Zagalos and Passos Coelho’s Zagalos, Zagalos for the left and Zagalos for the right, with their carefully-prepared speeches ready to use in airtime to praise their masters or inveigh against their masters’ enemies. After all the Count may be dead when Zagalo presents his biography to posterity, but Zagalo is not without a master. He effaces himself from the narrative’s events, but already he’s begging favours from the widow. A Zagalo is never finished looking for a master.