When we arrived in the Algarve 17 years ago, Peter and I had ideas about Portuguese history and culture, yet many of our Portuguese novels and poetry books lie on the bookshelves unread. A recent Algarve History Association lecture given by Sandra Boto of the University of the Algarve on Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen has spurred me to look at Portuguese poetry and to begin with Sophia.
Andresen was born in Porto on November 6, 1919, and died in Lisbon July 2, 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. 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 19th 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 that remained with her for the rest of her life, and Homer 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 bestseller Equator, the novel about slavery in São Tomé.
Andresen is famous and revered for her oppositional attitude to the Salazar regime, and in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution, the following short and simple poem sealed her position and her reputation. It captured the mood and feeling of the nation.
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
Last year, 10 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 writers Almeida Garrett, Aquilino Ribeiro, Guerra Junqueiro and João de Deus, Presidents of the Republic Manuel de Arriaga, Óscar Carmona, Sidónio Pais and Teófilo Braga, the footballer Eusébio da Silva Ferreira, opposition martyr Humberto Delgado and ‘fadista’ Amália Rodrigues.
The first of Sophia’s many prizes 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 the poor, and this book served as the foundation of 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.
Frequent topics for her poems are: the sea, the art of being, Greece, the Algarve and her 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. Many of her poems about the sea are a feature of the Lisbon Oceanarium and in the entrance she shows her longing for the sea:
When I die I shall come back to look for those moments
In my life which were not spent next to the sea
She spent her summer holidays at Ponta da Piedade in the Algarve and the following poem describes her view of a beauty spot in the eastern Algarve:
The Conquest of Cacela
Fortified towns were conquered
for their power and cities by the sea
were besieged for their riches
was desired only for its beauty
Andresen was also a prose writer. Contos Exemplares appeared in 1962 and was very critical of Portuguese society and the Salazar regime and it was a wonder that she was not arrested.
When her own children were young, she found that her own children did not like published children’s stories, 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 bestsellers and are required reading for today’s schoolchildren.
Andresen’s poetry sounds left wing and her ideals are democratic and today she is one of the most highly honoured poets in Portuguese letters. Her life was not normal because she was rich and lived always in big houses, and she herself was always surrounded by very important people.
In a sense, she pulled two amazing tricks. First, she opposed Salazar in her writing and got away with it; and second, although she was immensely rich and privileged, she became an icon for the poorer people of Portugal.
By Lynne Booker