In the Name of Things



A personal view on Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, by her translator Richard Zenith. “Poetry,” she says, “is something inexhaustible, something vital. It begins with our relationship to things, to daily living, and this relationship is mythic. Without mythic thought, man is unable to inhabit the world.”

The Greek world, or spirit, begins in her name: Sophia. Her wisdom seems, in fact, to be an innate quality, an identity, more than an acquired knowledge. A natural intuition, rather than a cultivated analytical skill. If her name was a happy accident, so was her precocious discovery of Homer, whose world she compares to her early experience of the Portuguese seashore: “My mother was an avid reader and had lots of books at home, so I started reading at a young age. What my mother liked most of all were French novels, so it was quite by chance that I discovered Homer. In a bookshop I found a French translation of The Odyssey, which is a story that a child can easily understand. I read the epic when I was twelve years old and it was a revelation. I remember how, although I read it in winter, the days felt to me like summer, and there was nothing I liked better than summer, when I would spend three months at the beach, in a house next to the ocean. We lived rather simply in that house. The ocean was a deep blue, and shone brilliantly. For me this world represented happiness, and I found the same world in Homer, in The Odyssey and then in The Iliad”.

Born in Oporto in 1919, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen came to Lisbon as a young woman to attend university. She did not finish her course but stayed in the capital, and was soon a vital part of its literary life. Her first book of poems, published in 1944, was already marked by a classical, ‘pure’ style that employed little punctuation. Her succeeding books became thematically broader and intellectually richer, but the pure style remained, and was even accentuated, with punctuation all but disappearing. This elemental, distilled diction is reminiscent of the so-called plain style that characterizes some of the Portuguese national architecture, regarded by Sophia as a crucial influence on her poetry. “The whitewashed stone houses, the palaces and simpler structures, the façades with their glazed tiles, which are a legacy from the Moors, full of reflections, like mirrors, full of imagination, our imaginations interacting with the tiles – I think that all of this enters into my poetry.”

With so much whiteness and clarity in her verses, we often forget that darkness also lurks in Sophia’s work – in the guise of the Minotaur, Elsinore, the Furies, and other historical figures. But ‘lurk’ is not quite the right word. Her poems bring evil out into the open, in order to denounce and exorcise it. Sophia (she is only known by her first name in Portugal) has addressed pain and injustice not only in her writing but in her personal life, through her involvement in social causes and politics. A staunch critic of the Salazar regime, she continued to speak out after the 1974 Revolution, and served in the government formed by the Socialists in 1975. She was never a politician by vocation, however, and resigned from her official duties after little more than a year.

In addition to thirteen titles of poetry, Sophia has also published two volumes of exquisite short stories that read, at times, like prose poems. She has translated various French poets, several plays by Shakespeare, and Dante’s Purgatorio. She claims that poetry, because it has rhythm, is easier to translate than prose. As if all of this activity were not enough, she also raised five children and – in a typical expression of her holistic approach to life – produced half a dozen books of children’s literature. She created stories when they were little, encouraging them to modify and expand the tales themselves, which she then wrote down and published. These are still, decades later, among the best-selling children’s books in Portugal.

A visitor to Sophia’s flat, near St. George’s Castle in Lisbon, may be surprised by the lack of books. There is perhaps a room at the end of the hall that serves as a library, but in the living room there is just one smallish bookcase, tucked away in a discreet corner. Much more noticeable is the art work – drawings by the Portuguese Modernist Almada Negreiros, prints and paintings by Vieira da Silva, and panels of ceramic tiles by several artists, including her younger son, Xavier. There is a sculpture or two, also contemporary, and some much older pieces of Indo-Portuguese pottery. The furniture reveals discriminating taste without fussiness. It is sturdy, elegant, simple – nothing special. But one soon realizes that each chair and table, along with each art object, each photo, each plant and each book, inhabits this flat, almost like a living being. For in the world that is her home, and of which her flat is just one instance, there is a numen in every object, demanding her attention. “Poetry,” she says, “is something inexhaustible, something vital. It begins with our relationship to things, to daily living, and this relationship is mythic. Without mythic thought, man is unable to inhabit the world.”

This essay is adapted from the Foreword to Log Book: Selected Poems by Sophia de Mello Breyner, by Richard Zenith. Manchester, Carcanet Press 1997.

© Richard Zenith  
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