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

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.

Sophia’s calling was to unravel the
hidden essence of the world. 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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