Born on the Azorean island of São Miguel, Antero de Quental followed a path often taken by young Portuguese men from well-heeled families: he went to the University of Coimbra to study law. There he became leader of the student movement that struggled to shake Portuguese institutions out of their stagnant complacency and to incite the country’s citizens to embrace European modernity. One of his early essays, “Good Sense and Good Taste” (1865), sparked a national debate between the conservative literary establishment and the iconoclasts of the younger generation, and Antero was likewise a thorn in the side of the political body, being one of the founders of Portugal’s socialist movement.
Antero de Quental’s most ardent ambition was to be a philosopher, and his essays frequently deal with philosophical themes, but he did not have much talent for organizing his ideas into an original system of thought. Or perhaps it was his mental instability that prevented him. Clinical treatments in Paris did little to stave off the hysteria that periodically afflicted Antero, much less his chronic pessimism, which only worsened over time. At 49 years of age, back in the Azores after many years spent in mainland Portugal and abroad, Antero shot himself on a park bench, thus ending his life.
Antero’s psychological and philosophical life is detectable in his poetry, which seems to have thrived on his rather dark vision of the world. His sonnets, the most achieved part of his poetic oeuvre, are often marked by skepticism, and some are militantly antireligious (‘Words of a Certain Dead Man’, ‘Divine Comedy’). But the poet had a change of heart in his last years, which he recounts in an autobiographical letter written in 1887. Initially a defender of Naturalism – the notion that the laws of science can account for all phenomena – he came to recognize that it “affords no real solution, for it leaves the conscience in suspense, and the mind unsatisfied, as regards everything in which it is most deeply interested”. Though he could not quell his doubts, he experienced a kind of conversion (as recorded in ‘The Convert’).
In his student days, Antero had fervently embraced Hegel, but later on he read the German philosopher’s forerunners, especially Leibniz and Kant, as well as mystical writers and Buddhist literature. “I found that mysticism, as the last word of psychological development, must naturally correspond with the deepest essence of things, unless the human conscience be an incongruity in the system of the universe.” He went so far as to affirm that “the spirit is the type of reality; nature is no more than a distant imitation, a vague mimicry, a dim and imperfect symbol of the spirit”. The late diptych of sonnets titled ‘Redemption’ seems to reflect his ultimate understanding of the relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds, and between himself and other things.
Antero began writing poetry while at university. His Odes Modernas, published in 1865, were well received, but it was his sonnets, which he began publishing already in 1861, that attracted the most attention. Translated into German and Italian in his own lifetime, Antero’s sonnets were hugely popular at the turn of the century, partly for their technical skill but probably more so for the ideas that inspired them and the gloomy light that illuminated them and made them somehow enchanting. They can enchant us still, with their sad music and dramatic tone, though we may find them wanting in images and earthbound detail.
To Alberto Telles
The Palace of Fortune
Words of a Certain Dead Man
Sonetos de Antero,1861.
Odes Modernas,1865; revised, 1875.
Primaveras Românticas: Versos dos Vinte Anos (1861-1864).
Os Sonetos Completos de Antero de Quental,1886.
Raios de Extinta Luz,1892.
Ausgewächlte Sonette aus dem Portugiesischen, tr. Wilhelm Storck, Paderborn,1887.
Sixty-four Sonnets, tr. Edgar Prestage, London, 1894.
Sonnets and Poems of Anthero de Quental, tr. S. Griswold Morley, Berkeley, 1822.
Sonetti Completi, tr. Tommaso Cannizzaro and Giuseppe Zuppone Strani, Messina, 1898.
Sonetti, tr. Brunello De Cusatis, Palermo, 1991.
Sonetos, tr. Virgil Rossel,Lausanne, 1910.
Mors Amor, Divine Comédie, A la sainte vierge pleine de grâce, mère de miséricorde, tr. Jorge Verde, Paris, 1920.
20 Sonnets, tr. Anne-Marie Quint, Paris, 1991.
Tourment de l’idéal, tr. Claire Benedetti, Bordeaux, 1998.
Los Sonetos Completos de Anthero de Quental, tr. Emilia Bernal, Madrid, 1926.
Anthero do Quental: Poesía, tr. José Pardo, Barcelona, 1940.
Poesías y Prosas Selectas, tr. Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Madrid, 1986.
Sonetos Selectos, tr. José Antonio Llardent, Madrid, 1998.
Sonetos, tr. José Antonio Llardent, Madrid, 2003.
Bom Senso e Bom Gosto,1865.
A Dignidade das Letras e as Literaturas Oficiais,1865.
Causas da Decadência dos Povos Peninsulares nos Últimos Três Séculos,1871.
Tendências Gerais da Filosofia na Segunda Metade do Século XIX,1890.
Essays in Translation
Tendences générales de la philosophie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle, tr. Simone Biberfeld, Paris, 1991.
The Feeling of Immortality, tr. Richard Zenith, Dublin, 1998.
Biographical note and links
La Gioia di Leggere
Biography, bilingual poetry selections, articles
Page with links to Quental’s complete poetry on-line, a biographical note and critical articles.