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Sophia de Mello Breyner: when art is not free, people are not free

Poetry is a form of resistance against indignity. The responsibility of the writer is not only to interpret life, but to shape how we understand and inhabit our societies. Português.

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
14 February 2019
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Courtesy of the author. Public domain.

“We worship perfection because we cannot have it; if we did, we would reject it. Perfection is non-human because humanity is imperfect.”

― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Sophia de Mello Breyner was a firm believer that poetry is a struggle against darkness. Her vast literary work, from short stories to children books, revolves around the notion that art cannot be understood without justice and human dignity.

As one of the greatest Portuguese writers of the 20th century, her calling was to unravel the hidden essence of the world. But despite her allegiance to her craft (“There’s no life without poetry, but poetry is not something that can be created, it’s something that happens”), she didn’t run away from her responsibilities as a citizen. And she never turned her back on light.

Poetry as a transformative value

Sophia was born in Porto in 1919 into a family descendant of liberal aristocrats. She found poetry when she was three years old, as she learned a famous poem by Almeida Garret. From that moment on Sophia and poetry would become inseparable, and the author would find it impossible to explain to people that poetry cannot be explained: the point of poetry, she often repeated, is the search.

Poetry was an avenue to make sense of the world – an attempt to order chaos and save ourselves from it.

Sophia’s first book “Poesia” was published in 1944. It’s difficult to tell if it was either the carnage of the Second World War or the dictatorship in Portugal that set the author in her search for understanding that she couldn’t find in her country. As it would often happen during her life, she found what she was looking for in nature.

Her style is unmistakable, because she spoke of herself through her poetry, about her life and her memories. Sophia was able to illuminate the world and verbalise her yearning for freedom and understanding like few writers ever could.

Her poems, rich in symbols and allegories, were immensely influenced by Greek culture, and they often portrayed the sea. Everything comes from it, and everything will return to it: a symbol of the dynamics of life.

It was not in her nature to use more words than the necessary. Words had to be there because they were indispensable. Poetry was an avenue to make sense of the world – an attempt to order chaos and save ourselves from it. Immersed in nature, she was able to reach the hearts of her readers, reminding them to look at the world more often. And to be surprised.

When art is not free, people are not free

Sophia de Mello Breyner was not a politician. She was, however, a concerned citizen, who believed in a political intervention steered by dignity and freedom.

Without a political agenda, her political involvement started in the fifties, as she joined Humberto Delgado’s campaign for the presidency in 1958, and continued with the publication of “Livro Sexto” in 1962.

The book was the recipient of the Great Poetry Award of the Portuguese Society of Writers in 1964 and included a poem describing António de Oliveira Salazar as gifted with the ability to diminish souls.

The society in question would be shut down by the regime’s police the following year, strengthening Sophia’s determination to oppose the regime, as intellectuals and artists became the targets of censorship and persecution.

The freedom of the artist is non-negotiable because creation is an act of freedom. As she often repeated, when artists are not free, citizens are not free.

In 1969, Sophia wrote a poem articulating the concerns of a broad opposition movement, the so-called progressive Catholics, who objected the colonial war in Africa and demanded a peaceful agreement for the conflict. Later in the same year, she was one of the founders of the National Relief Commission for Political Prisoners, an organisation created to protect the rights of those imprisoned by the regime, which often included her husband and close friends.

After the Revolution in 1974, Sophia was elected to the Constituent Assembly. However, her way of understanding the world didn’t change.

She believed that culture should be allowed to work independently, opposing the integration of the Secretariat of Culture in the Ministry of Social Communication. The freedom of the artist is non-negotiable because creation is an act of freedom. As she often repeated, when artists are not free, citizens are not free.

Sophia wouldn’t stay for long in politics. She disliked the rhetoric and knew all too well that poets, unlike politicians, don’t have an answer for every question. Despite being unable to build theories, she was able to capture the spirit of the revolution and the environment in the streets better than anyone else.

However, her support for democracy didn’t stop her from criticising politicians for their demagoguery, their longing for recognition and their unwillingness to place Portugal above themselves.   

The true poet is always a resistant

Sophia de Mello Breyner believed that the brave thing to do is to oppose power. And only that which is brave is worth doing.

Poetry is a form of resistance against indignity, and the responsibility of the writer is not only to reflect and interpret life, but also to provide guidance and shape how we understand and inhabit our societies.

She lived during a turbulent period, as Portugal went from dictatorship to democracy. The Portuguese became free to decide what they wanted (and what they didn’t) for their country. There were many victories. However, politicians were not able to create the just and resilient Portugal that many intellectuals envisaged, including Sophia de Mello Breyner.

Culture, Sophia once said, is expensive. But ignorance is more expensive. Poetry is not supposed to embellish life, but to live.

Sophia never pretended to have a theory for everything. She was aware that for you to be a poet, you have to be disorganised. But she did notice before everyone else that the struggle for freedom can take many forms. And that it should start early.

That’s what motivated her after the massacre of Santa Cruz in Timor, to promote local poets, underlining how language can defeat violence and hatred. And it was one of the reasons why she decided to write children books, contributing to shaping the political conscience of an audience often disregarded by writers and politicians alike

Sophia de Mello Breyner legacy lives on. And it will be revisited with several exhibitions, conferences and concerts throughout the year. Politicians will honour her. They will make her struggle their own. However, many of them will not equip students to discuss the implications of her work, and the work of so many other writers and artists that have been cast aside for the sake of more important things.

Culture, Sophia once said, is expensive. But ignorance is more expensive. Poetry is not supposed to embellish life, but to live.

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