Portuguese Poetry: Sailing along with Sophia de Melo Breyner Andresen:


Lecture given by Sandra Boto on 7 September 2015 in Tavira and 9 September in Lagoa

Review by Peter Kingdon Booker

Sandra researches into the works of Almeida Garrett and lectures at the University of the Algarve in Faro. She also teaches Portuguese to foreign language speakers and recently spent six months working in the Portuguese language centre in Barcelona.

Sandra began by referring to Andresen as one of Portugal´s greatest ever poets, and certainly her greatest female poet. In her recent lecture to AHA, Sandra had described her five favourite Portuguese writers, and the fifth and most modern of these was Andresen.

The first illustration of Andresen´s work is short and uncomplicated. It is called simply: 25 April

Esta é a madrugada que eu esperava
O dia inicial inteiro e limpo
Onde emergimos da noite e do silêncio
E livres habitamos a substância do tempo

This is the dawn that I was waiting for
The first, whole and clear day
Where we emerged from the night and the silence
And free, we live in the substance of time

There is only one stanza, and the poem is brief. But it is filled with important concepts: day and night; initial, entire, clear.

Andresen is famous and revered for her oppositional attitude to the Salazar régime, and in the aftermath of the revolution, this poem sealed her position and her reputation. Within Portugal, she was widely respected for this opposition to Salazar, and ten years after she died, she received the ultimate accolade of interment in the National Pantheon of Santa Engrácia in Lisbon, where she joined other famous Portuguese. In Santa Engrácia are the cenotaphs of D Nuno Álvares Pereira, Infante D Henrique, Pedro Álvares Cabral and Afonso de Albuquerque; and the tombs of Almeida Garrett, Amália Rodrigues, Aquilino Ribeiro, Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, Guerra Junqueiro, Humberto Delgado, João de Deus, Manuel de Arriaga, Óscar Carmona, Sidónio Pais and Teófilo Braga.

Andresen was born in Porto on 6 November 1919, and died in Lisbon on 2 July 2004. Her funeral took place in Lisbon on the same day that the European Championship football final between Portugal and Greece was played. She would have been pleased, since she had a special regard for both her home country Portugal and for the home of classical antiquity, Greece.

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen was her maiden name, and her grandfather was Danish, which explains her un-Portuguese sounding surname. Her mother´s father was a great friend and medical adviser to D Carlos I, and Sophia was also the granddaughter of Henrique de Burnay, one of the richest men in nineteenth century Portugal. She had a very privileged background, and yet managed to identify herself with the causes of the people of Portugal.

Between 1936 and 1939, she studied classical philology at the University of Lisbon, but she left without taking her degree, because she preferred to make her own reading lists and schedules. But these three years gave her a love of classical Greek poets such as Homer that remained with her for the rest of her life, and certainly influenced her work. In 1946, she married Francisco Sousa Tavares, a journalist who became a politician with monarchist leanings. Their son, Miguel Sousa Tavares is the author of the best seller Equator, the novel about slavery in São Tomé.

The Tavares home was visited often by the PIDE, and Francisco found himself imprisoned on more than one occasion. But Sophia was from an important and rich family, and although her poetry harboured oppositional thoughts, it was not so dangerous, since poetry is not universally accessible. Yet in a way, poetry is in code and her meanings were plain to the people who read her work. Amazingly, the régime did not censor her poetry, and so her voice continued to be heard. After the Revolution, she was elected to the Constituent Assembly for the Socialist Party, while husband Francisco was a representative of the Social Democratic Party.

The first of the many prizes she received followed the publication of her book Livro Sexto in 1964. The poetry in this book is both beautiful and political, and the Grand Poetry Prize (Grande Prémio de Poesia) was awarded by the Sociedade Portuguesa de Escritores. Many of the poems in Livro Sexto comment on the living conditions of poor people, and this book also served to cement her relationship with the people of Portugal. Andresen was also awarded in 2003 the Spanish Prémio Rainha Sofia, and she was the first Portuguese writer to be honoured in this way.

Andresen published twenty books of poetry and the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal has a webpage devoted to her and her work. It is still possible to hear her reciting her own poems on this website. Her first two books were Poesia (1944) and Dia do Mar (1947), and they may be regarded as youthful efforts. Her next book was Coral in 1950, and in it she abandons the idea of rhyme. The poetry is consequently much better because it is less forced. Already it was obvious that Andresen had some obsession with the sea, and that she looked for inspiration to the ancients, as in the poems Orpheus and Eurydice and Muse. It became clear in her books of the 60s and 70s that Fernando Pessoa was also a source of inspiration, and the poetry collection Dual published in 1972 is dedicated to one of Pessoa´s homonyms, Ricardo Reis. Nature is also a major theme in Andresen´s poetry. Her unpublished poems were gathered and published in May of this year (2015).

Frequent topics for her poems are: the sea, the art of being, Greece, the Algarve, time, politics and other poets (Byron, Homer, Horace, Pessoa, Camões etc). Andresen´s poetry stresses the simple things in life, and above all concrete concepts. She once remarked, A poet is someone who lives among things, who pays attention to real things. She was concerned with the art of being, and of describing the relationship of the poet with the universe, and she felt at one with the universe.

She rejected abstract poetry, and wrote of what she was doing using concrete terms. Fact is what makes her work so special, and she does not write of feelings. Sandra asserted that Andresen never used exclamation marks. Her concept of reality is happiness, objects and the concrete. Her first memory is of being in a house by the sea, and of a big red apple. She said that to be is to express reality through poetry; that to be is to see; that to be is to write. The sea was for her a thing, and places where the sea had a major influence are the Algarve and Greece, which for her were very important. She wrote about Cacela in the Algarve:

A Conquista de Cacela

The Conquest of Cacela

As praças fortes foram conquistadas

Fortified towns were conquered

por seu poder e foram sitiadas

for their power and cities by the sea

as cidades do mar pela riqueza

were besieged for their riches

Porém Cacela foi desejada só pela beleza

Yet Cacela was desired only for its beauty

She spent her summer holidays at Ponta da Piedade in the Algarve and the following passage in Portuguese (Morning walk) describes her view of the Algarve:

Caminho da manhã

Vais pela estrada que é de terra amarela e quase sem nenhuma sombra. As cigarras cantarão o silêncio de bronze. À tua direita irá primeiro um muro caiado que desenha a curva da estrada. Depois encontrarás as figueiras transparentes e enroladas; mas os seus ramos não dão nenhuma sombra. E assim irás sempre em frente com a pesada mão do Sol pousada nos teus ombros, mas conduzida por uma luz levíssima e fresca.

Livro sexto 1962

The following poem shows the importance of time and its effects on a woman´s body. Instead of purity, we have nausea from corruption, and the idea that time destroys beauty and the order of things. Time is movement, and movement is destruction.

Meditação por o Duc de Gandía: Sobre a morte da Isabel de Portugal


Meditation by the Duke of Gandía: On the death of Isabel of Portugal

Nunca mais, a tua face será pura limpa e viva,

Never more, will your face be pure and alive,

nem teu andar como onda fugitiva nor will the way you walk like a fleeting wave
se poderá nos passos do tempo tecer. be able to weave our steps in time

E nunca mais darei ao tempo a minha vida

And never more shall I give my life to time


Nunca mais servirei senhor que possa morrer


Never more shall I serve a master who  who may die

A luz da tarde mostra-me os destroços do teu ser.  The afternoon light shows me the destruction of your being. 
Em breve a podridão beberá os teus olhos e os teus ossos, tomando a tua mão na sua mão. Shortly, corruption will drink your eyes and your bones, taking your hand in his hand


Nunca mais amarei quem não possa viver sempre,


Never more shall I love her that cannot live for ever

porque eu amei como se fossem eternos a glória, a luz e o brilho do teu ser, because I loved as if the glory, the the brilliance of you were eternal 
amei-te em verdade e transparência e nem sequer me resta a tua ausência, I loved you in truth and openly and I cannot even keep your absence
és um rosto de nojo e negação e eu fecho os olhos para não te ver you are a repulsive face of denial and I close my eyes so as not to see you.


Nunca mais servirei senhor que possa morrer.


Never more shall I serve a master who may die.

Isabel of Portugal (1503 – 1539) was the daughter of D Manuel I and she married Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. She was the mother of Philip II of Spain (who became the King-consort of England, and whom she taught the Portuguese language) and she died of complications following childbirth. She was extremely beautiful, and her marriage was a love match. The Duke of Gandía was her most fervent platonic admirer, and he was charged with bringing her coffin to Granada, where Charles V was at that time. He had to open the coffin when they arrived in order to identify the corpse, and the decomposition was already far advanced.

Andresen was also a prose writer. Contos Exemplares appeared in 1962 and was very critical of Portuguese society and the Salazar régime. It was a wonder that she was not arrested. Histórias da Terra e do Mar appeared in 1984. When her own children were young, she found that published children´s stories were not interesting to her own children, and so she wrote and published her own. The first, A Menina do Mar appeared in 1958 and the seventh O Tesouro in 1970. These children´s books are still best sellers and are required reading for today´s school children.

On the BNP website there is a film by João César Monteiro, which is a homage to Andresen. It is cinema portraying poetry, and is in Portuguese, but without English subtitles.

The last published poem by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen was:

Quem me roubou o tempo
Quem me roubou o tempo que era um
Quem me roubou o tempo que era meu
O tempo todo inteiro que sorria
Onde o meu eu foi mais limpo e verdadeiro
E onde por si mesmo o poema se escrevia

Who robbed me of the time
Who robbed me of the time which was one
Who robbed me of the time which was mine
The altogether whole time which smiled
Where my I was cleaner and truer
And where by itself the poem wrote itself

Andresen´s poetry sounds left wing and her ideals are democratic. But her life was not normal. She was rich and lived always in a big house, with people starving around about but outside the gates. She herself was always surrounded by very important people. In a sense, she pulled two amazing tricks. She opposed Salazar, but got away with it and she was immensely rich, and yet became a heroine to the poorer people of Portugal;

There are translations into English of Andresen´s work:
Marine Rose (1987 Black Swan) translated by Ruth Fainlight
Ilhas translated by Richard Zenith
Log Book (1997 Carcanet) translated by Richard Zenith
The Perfect Hour (2015 Cold Hub Press) translated by Colin Rorrison with Margaret Jull Costa

Link to Article in the Portugal Resident