Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: A Socially Conscious Poet

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen is the Portuguese author that has been part of my life for the longest time. She wrote poetry, essays and short stories, both for adults, younger readers and children. The first time I read one of her stories I was 10 or 11 years old and I will continue to read her poems for years to come. But her role in Portuguese society was more significant than ‘just’ being a phenomenal writer. She also played a part in the opposition to the dictatorial regime in the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s.

Her poetry attests to her strong civic involvement. Some of the poems featured in her collection O Nome das Coisas focus not only on the colonial war and the fascist dictatorship, but also on the Carnation Revolution, which took place in 1974, its outcome and the meaning of freedom. Other poems were inspired by the life and work of Fernando Pessoa, probably the most renowned Portuguese poet abroad.

The only other complete collection of poems I read by Sophia so far was Poesia, which features various references to the sea, the night and the moonlight. However, I’ve read and studied many other of her poems while at school. Her poetry revolves mainly around three themes. One of them is related to nature, which is always perceived in a positive light. It’s by being in contact with nature that mankind can achieve total plenitude. Nature is also used as a symbol for many abstract concepts, such as freedom.

The Ancient Greek civilisation is also an important topic explored in her poems. It is used as a symbol for perfection and harmony, and is seen as an example to be admired and taken into consideration when envisaging a reform of the current society.

Other important topic covered in her poetry is the oppression of the people and their socioeconomic conditions. She perceives the poet as a spokesperson for other people’s problems, having the responsibility to report injustices and to have a strong social and economic commitment. These themes are also present in some of her short stories. The collection Contos Exemplares (Exemplary Tales in the translation into English) focuses on poverty, suffering and the need to achieve a fairer society.

Sophia also wrote many short stories aimed at younger readers. Her collection Histórias da Terra e do Mar comprises suggestive descriptions and enchanting characters, and great importance is given to sounds. I’ve also read two of her other short stories, which were published separately. O Rapaz de Bronze takes place in a garden, whose king is a boy who during the day is a bronze statue. And O Cavaleiro da Dinamarca tells the story of a knight who lived with his family in a forest in Denmark until he decided to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. The reader follows him on his journey.

It’s interesting that she chose the main character of that short story to be from Denmark, since she had Danish ancestry. Sophia was born in 1919, in Porto, and died in 2004 in Lisbon. Her remains were moved to the Portuguese National Pantheon in 2014, after a unanimous decision by the members of parliament.

I have only read her work in Portuguese, but there are anthologies of her poetry available in other languages, including English and Spanish. If you like poetry, I truly recommend delving into Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen’s fantastic work.

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