Monday, 25 August 2014

A true fan's guide to Jorge de Sena

After drawing up lists for Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes, I felt like doing the same for Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, and as far as Portuguese poetry is concerned only a notch below Pessoa and Luiz de Camões, and also Portugal’s greatest literary critic. This time I’m sticking just to books by him; the truth is, if I added what exists about him, the list would implode. Sena was such a prolific writer – in fact my theory, after reading his letters to Sophia de Mello Breyner, is that he died, at the age of 58, from hard work – that he has an ever-growing bibliography. Although he passed away in 1978, his wife, Mécia, now aged 94, has carried out a strenuous battle of decades to publish a vast collection of posthumous documents that threatens to surpass in size Pessoa’s famous chest. By the way, I say strenuous because Sena, after he went Thomas Bernhard on his country and people, became a persona non grata in Portugal, for which reason a lot of his work disappeared from bookstores without publishers showing interest in rescuing them from oblivion. 2013 was the annus mirabilis: all his poetry written in life, after staying out of print for decades, was finally collected in a single volume. Together with what’s currently available and what can be found, after some searching, in used bookstores, it’s a great time to be a fan. But to be a true fan you need to read the following:


Poesia 1

Published last year, this collection supplants the anthology I used a few years ago to write about Sena’s poetry. It collects only the poetry he published in life, which still amounts to about 800 pages. Fortunately there are plans to publish a second volume collecting all his posthumous poems. I’m not sure they contain the prefaces he wrote for his individual books, but I hope so, he was an excellent reader of his own work.


Hopefully this little volume of poetry will become unnecessary once the second volume comes out. But as far as his single volumes of poetry are concerned, this is one of his most popular. Published after his life, it owes its longevity to its polemical nature: this is a series of poems he wrote vituperating and satirizing Portuguese intelligentsia, society, mythology, and politics.

Signs of Fire

Remarkably this novel, the only one he wrote, was translated into English. It’s a long novel and quasi-autobiographical. It’s a bildungsroman about a young poet who reaches maturity in 1936, during Salazar’s dictatorship and with the Spanish Civil War in the background.

The Wondrous Physician

Also translated into English, this erotic-fantastic novella is inspired by classic Portuguese literature and is a variation on the Faust theme: a young man sells his soul to the Devil, acquires magical powers and uses them to seduce ailing women. Because wouldn’t you?

Os Grão-Capitães
Antigas e Novas Andanças do Demónio

Collections of short-stories.


A posthumous collection of short-stories, left unfinished if I’m not mistaken.

Mater Imperialis

A collection of one-act plays.

O Indesejado

A play about the myth of D. Sebastião, our version of the Arthurian legend.

Monte Cativo

A hodgepodge of literary texts and projects that the author never completed.


Uma Canção de Camões
Os Sonetos de Camões e o Soneto Quinhentista Peninsular
A Estrutura de Os Lusíadas e Outros Estudos Camonianos e de Poesia Peninsular do Século XVI
Trinta Anos de Camões

These four books attest to Sena’s fascination with Luiz de Camões. He studied him for more than 30 years and it can be easily said that he was one of the greatest experts on Camões that ever lived. On top of that he also made valuable contributions to studies of 16th century Portuguese poetry.

Fernando Pessoa & Cª Heterónima

Published in two volumes, this book collects several texts Sena wrote about Pessoa throughout his life. His arrival in poetry is concomitant with his interest in Pessoa’s life and work; he corresponded with the Holy Trinity of Pessoa scholars – José Régio, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, José Gaspar Simões – still in his twenties and gained access to his world through them. The result was a series of interesting and nowadays curious texts: for instance, Sena was one of the first critics to write about the poet’s connection to Aleister Crowley, at a time in Portugal when many still thought the infamous magician did not exist.

Estudos de Literatura Portuguesa (3 volumes)
Do Teatro em Portugal
Sobre a Poesia Portuguesa

He also made more general contributions to the study of Portuguese literature. He wrote about poetry, theatre, novels and even foreign books about Portuguese literature. In a country that culturally formed itself around France, Sena was also unusual in that he paid attention to how Portuguese literature was received in the UK.

Estudos de Cultura e Literatura Brasileira

Like many Portuguese writers, he was deeply interested in what was going on in Brazil. Furthermore he lived there, in exile, for a couple of years: the result was a book fully devoted to Brazilian literature.

A Literatura Inglesa
Sobre Literatura e Cultura Britânicas
Inglaterra Revisitada

These three books demonstrate his interest in English literature. Unlike most of his countrymen, whose attention was turned mainly to France, Sena followed the British too. Nowadays some of these books serve as lucid primers for Portuguese college students.

Dialécticas Aplicadas da Literatura
Dialécticas Teóricas da Literatura
Sobre Teoria e Crítica Literária

Sena didn’t just apply literary criticism, he reflected about it. I don’t know many Portuguese critics, save Casais Monteiro, who took the time to meditate on the art and science of literary criticism. In these three books, however, Sena showed a long preoccupation with understanding just what criticism was, what it was for and how it should be performed.

Maquiavel, Marx e Outros Estudos
Sobre Cinema
Sobre o Romance
Amor e outros verbetes

These are four heterogeneous books about divers matters: cinema, the modern novel (at the time, anyway), studies on Machiavelli and Karl Marx. For an unconditional fan of Sena, they’re not redundant.


In the last decade there’s been a boom on the publication of Sena’s correspondence. It turns out that, besides writing lots of poetry and essays, he had the time to correspond with many important people in Portugal and abroad. I continue to pine for the fabled correspondence between Sena and José Saramago, but so far we have:

Jorge de Sena/Eduardo Lourenço: Correspondência

Eduardo Lourenço is one of Portugal’s best essayists and philosophers, particularly interested in literary studies and especially in the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. So as you can see, there are lots of reasons for them to hang out together.

Jorge de Sena/Vergílio Ferreira: Correspondência

Vergílio Ferreira is considered one of Portugal’s finest novelists. An existentialist at heart, influenced by Malraux and Sartre, he passed away in 1996. He’s virtually unknown outside Portugal, save in France, overshadowed by the likes of Lobo Antunes and Saramago.

Jorge de Sena/Guilherme de Castilho: Correspondência

I honestly didn’t have the faintest idea who this gentleman was before learning that Sena had exchanged letters with him. An internet search tells me that he was a diplomat, essayist and literary critic. It’s a lot clearer now.

Jorge de Sena/José-Augusto França: Correspondência

José-Augusto França is another critic: he’s the author of one of my favourite books on Eça de Queiroz, although his real love lies in the history of Portuguese visual arts and has countless books on painting. He’s also the author of a fine anatomy of the year 1936, essential reading for fans of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

Jorge de Sena/Mécia de Sena: Correspondência 1959-1965

And amidst all those letters, he found the time to write to his wife too.

Jorge de Sena/Delfim Santos: Correspondência 1943-1959

Delfim Santos was a philosopher with specific interest in German philosophy. The internet tells me that he was classmate of Casais Monteiro in high school, and later was teacher of famous writers like Luiz Pacheco and José Cardoso Pires. It’s worth noticing that Sena started corresponding with him when he was in his early twenties.

Jorge de Sena/António Ramos Rosa: Correspondência 1952-1978

António Ramos Rosa, who passed away in 2013, was a literary critic and poet, with a vast work spread across dozens of books. Alas many of them are out of print and I’m anxious for the inevitable edition of his complete poems. He was considered a great poet but I practically know nothing about him and if it hadn’t been for Sena I wouldn’t know him at all.

Jorge de Sena/Raul Leal: Correspondência 1957-1960

Raul Leal was a friend of Pessoa and allegedly insane. I keep promising to write one day about the sex scandal that involved the two, a graphically homosexual book and the upheaval it caused amongst society’s reactionary forces, including a young student who one day would become a dictator.

Jorge de Sena/Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Correspondência 1959-1978

I’ve written about this one before.

Jorge de Sena/Carlo Vittorio Cattaneo: Correspondência 1969-1978

Published last year, I think, here we have Sena corresponding with an Italian critic who specialised in Portuguese literature and who translated some of his poetry, thanks to which Sena received the 1977 Etna-Taormina International Prize. 



It collects several small diaries Sena wrote during the 1940s and 1970s; most of the pages are devoted to his years of exile.

Entrevistas 1958-1978

Two decades’ worth of interviews.

Rever Portugal

Although Sena was a poet and literary critic, he was also interested in politics. He never joined a party, too individualistic for that, and unlike his countrymen he wasn’t crazy about the communists. But his poetry shows preoccupations with ethics, truth, human dignity and the abuse of power. This book collects his political writings and concern the political situation in Portugal: the dictatorship, the Colonial War and the hopes and failures of the Carnation Revolution.

América, América

Texts about his life in America. I’ve written about it before.

O Reino da Estupidez

This was my latest acquisition. Split in two volumes, it’s a collection of satirical texts, much like Dedicácias, only in prose format, that makes mince meat of the stupidity, illusions and backward mentalities of his countrymen. The title says everything: the kingdom of stupidity, keeping alive Portuguese writers’ time-honoured tradition of inventing vicious epithets for the Portugal they love to hate; no, really, I could write a whole post on that. The second volume, published posthumously in 1978 and never reprinted since then, has become a costly rarity. A rarity I now happen to own. I was so happy I felt like writing this post.

And this is basically what you need to read to become a Jorge de Sena true fan. I hasten to add that I’m a few dozen books away from being a true fan. But with perseverance, hard work and God on my side I’ll earn that title yet.


  1. Welcome back. I hope it was a good vacation.

    I don't know de Sena at all except from your blog, but these compendiums you offer from time to time are great resources (maybe especially this one, given what you write above about de Sena's having been persona non grata in Portugal). Plus, there's a bonus here in some of the (hitherto unknown to me) peripheral figures around de Sena whom you mention.

    1. Thanks, Scott, the vacations were wonderful, albeit short: lots of swimming in rivers.

      I'm fully aware of the limit appeal of these lists and their inaccessability, but I love writing them since they're ways of organizing my own resources about writers that interest.

      Sena's case is sad; he risked his life in a botched revolution, fled the country to Brazil, where he joined other ex-pats' struggle against the dictatorship, wrote some of the best poetry in the Portuguese language of the 20th century, made valuable contributions to our knowledge of our greatest poets and writers, pined for a democratic Portugal, and when democracy arrived he was forgotten amidst the petty political opportunism that drew irate criticism from him that ostracized him even more. He made extraordinary demands for a new, better, more rigorous, more excellent, more brotherly Portugal, but his dreams always hit walls of indifference, herd mentality, arrivism and contempt. He died a very bitter man, but at least his bitterness produced great writing. He was relentlessly critical and his aggressive, non-romantic putting downs of Portugal, a country that entertains too many delusions about itself, were bound to cause a schism that has led him to be forgotten in official circles. But his fans persevere.

      Regarding the peripheral figures, I'm always discovering more; just today I bought two volumes of correspondence in a used book store - it has the reputation of being the world's smallest bookstore, with less than 4 square meters - then started chatting with the owner and he introduced me to a correspondence with José Régio, another poet, critic and Pessoa scholar, and a collection of love letters to Mécia.

      Hopefully soon I'll write more about Sena.