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The humanistic imagination: Jorge de Sena's poetry of exile and enlightenment

Kenneth David Jackson presents in this essay an outstanding overview of the poetry of Jorge de Sena and, very kindly, at authorizing its reproduction in our site, reviewed the text (published in 1983), making corrections and updates that he thought necessary.

E, em segredo, saudosos,
falareis de nós, – de nós! –
/ como de um sonho

«Ode para o Futuro»

Jorge de Sena, the Portuguese intellectual and writer who began a life of exile in Brazil in 1959, is well-known in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian circles in the U.S. for his work and teaching among us from 1965 to 1978. As a Professor at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison, and later at the U. of California-Santa Barbara, Sena produced many of the current Ph.D.s and scholars in Portuguese and Brazilian literature in the U.S., a generation responsible for the vitality of the field in the American academy into the twenty-first century. Those of us who were fortunate to study with Jorge de Sena were never properly made aware that in addition to his formidable intellect and scholarship he already ranked as one of Portugal's foremost poets. It could even come as a surprise to us to hear Sena declare in a videotape made in May, 1978 that not only had poetry been his principal interest but that his scholarship as well had always been motivated by poetic principles and ideas [1]. Such was his dedication to pedagogical activities and world literature that his own creative works were not placed before us for literary study. At the same time, the corollary to our neglect of his poetry can be found in its unenthusiastic reception in Salazar's Portugal, from which Jorge de Sena had exiled himself in Brazil at age 40 especially in order to take up literature as a profession. It is not surprising, then, that until after 1974 there were few studies or reviews of his poetry in Portugal, only the neglect or calumny mentioned by Eugénio Lisboa in his preface to an anthology of verse and prose published in 1979. Jorge de Sena's works, above all his poetry, have found fertile ground in post-revolutionary Portugal as the growing number of editions of his works testifies, and his intellectual influence, evidenced especially by the honored public address on Camoes on June 10, 1977, has had major projection, together with the issues of the emigrant and exile, so crucial for modern Portugal, which he represented and brilliantly defended [2]. His position as one of the country’s supreme poets and intellectuals, a favorite son returned in glory, was confirmed in 2009 with the official return of his remains to Portugal.

Jorge de Sena's poetry is naturally far from being only a poetry of exile. From his first published volume, Perseguição (1942), Sena's poems evidence a synthesis of his broad culture and literary interests, above all in the Portuguese symbolists, the English imagists, and the French surrealists. Yet with Sena poetry ranged far from stylistic exercises or moods; it was shaped by his own particular intellectual philosophy as well as a monumental learning and sense of history, particularly the Portuguese. Many of the poems are accompanied by extensive notes derived precisely from such intellectual enthusiasm. Over the course of its development, Jorge de Sena's poetry traces his intellectual and personal fortunes, adding the psychological and existential drama of the life of exile, his themes always grounded in the culture and learning that had given him life and poetry.

In subsequent books of poetry published after leaving Portugal, Post-Scriptum (1960), Peregrinatio ad loca infecta (1969), Exorcismos (1972), Conheço o Sal… (1974), and Sôbre Esta Praia (1977), Sena developed the lines of criticism, provocation, and attack against reactionary or conventional positions that caused him to be neglected, hated and perhaps feared by Portuguese literary officials. Eugénio Lisboa pens the following portrait of Jorge de Sena in the earlier Portuguese context:

…Inteligente num terreno de plantas sensitivas, trabalhador numa corporação onde abundam os madraços com ambições, estudioso num contexto de preguiçosos intelectuais, poeta mas também crítico e erudito, professor mas convivente brilhante e caloroso, acadêmico mas salutarmente malcriado, literato em tempo quase inteiro mas de formação científica e filosófica, o que incomoda sempre mais gente do que aquela que gosta de ser incomodada, Jorge de Sena foi criando, ajudado ainda pelo tom de pedagogo meio complacente, meio insolente, que frequentemente adoptava, entre si e o seu público crítico, «uma atmosfera de cortar à faca», para utilizar uma expressão de Eduardo Lourenço [3].

The aesthetics of provocation and criticism would also cast an important personal approach to poetic techniques of experimentation, including de-formation, and even the destruction of traditional devices of poetic composition, seen in his four “incomprehensible” sonnets to Afrodite Anadiómena (in Metamorfoses, 1963). While it could be said that such literary nonconformity dates from the Portuguese and Brazilian modernists and early European vanguard movements, in Sena's poetry the manipulation and subversion of poetic tradition is more subtle, behind the scenes, adding less a technical than an aesthetic and philosophical tone to his poems.

Beyond intelligence and talent, Jorge de Sena's polemical stance instilled his poetry with integrity, with a purity and forcefulness refined by the constancy of his dedication to Luso-Brazilian literature and culture. It is in the sense of this constancy, as an «obcecado», that the progression of Sena's books of poetry can be seen to form a kind of intellectual biography characterized essentially as the work of a humanistic imagination. The progression of books of poetry shows a marked continuity in terms of poetic consciousness and theme, the purposefully fresh and unorthodox perspective given to the poetic object or idea which is often carried into the poetic technique of experimentation with language or syntax. Sena's is a poetry of ideas, an acerbic criticism of culture and philosophy, which develops in unity with his learning and fortunes, and always with a strong undercurrent against the general flow. An early poem, «Fidelidade» (1956), addresses the topic of unity of poetic consciousness:

Diz-me devagar coisa nenhuma, assim
como a só presença com que me perdoas
esta fidelidade ao meu destino…

The poet, in a preface to Poesia-III (1977), himself ties together the titles of his books of poetry into a philosophic chain, an unusual conception of his intellectual struggles and values:

…O homem corre em perseguição de si mesmo e do seu outro até à coroa da terra, aonde humildemente encontrará a pedra filosofal que lhe permite reconhecer as evidências. Ao longo disto e depois disto e sempre, nada é possível sem fidelidade a si mesmo, aos outros e ao que aprendeu/desaprendeu ou fez que assim acontecesse aos mais. Se pausa para coligir estas experiências, haverá algum Post-Scriptum ao que disse. Após o que a existência lhe são metamorfoses cuja estrutura íntima só uma arte de música regula. Mas, tendo atingido aquelas alturas rarefeitas, andou sempre na verdade, e continuará a andar, os passos sem fim (enquanto a vida é vida) de uma peregrinatio ad loca infecta, já que os «lugares santos» são poucos, raros, e ainda por cima altamente duvidosos quanto à autenticidade. Que fazer? Exorcismos. E depois vagar como Camões numa ilha perdida, meditar sobre esta praia aonde a humanidade se desnude, e declarar simplesmente que terminamos (e começamos) por ter de declarar: Conheço o sal…, o sal do amor que nos salva ou nos perde, o que é o mesmo. O mais que vier não poderá deixar de continuar esta linha de, sobretudo, fidelidade «à honra de estar vivo», por muito que às vezes doa [4].

In support of the validity of this chronological chain of poetry, one can at the same time observe that the titles of many of Jorge de Sena's books of poems are contained in the earliest publications as titles of individual poems. Such is the case of «Exorcismo» and «Metamorfose» which appear in Coroa da Terra, and perhaps applicable even to «Arte Nova» in Pedra Filosofal. In this way some later poetry can be seen to be an expansion of an idea or theme at the core of poetic consciousness, giving credence to the unity and organic development of Sena's poetry. In his 1977 preface, Jorge de Sena also stresses the importance of Pedra Filosofal (encountered after climbing to the earth's crown, an experience parallel to Vasco da Gama's view of the «máquina do mundo» in Os Lusíadas) almost in the sense of a poetry of education, or coming of age. It is perhaps significant to note that the three titled divisions of Pedra Filosofal could correspond to global divisions in terms of the complete poetry as a key to the thematic, technical, and philosophical depths: «Circunstância», «Poética», and «Amor». And given Pedra's special position in the long poetic series, it seems further significant that it ends with an «Ode ao Destino», an ultimate confrontation between the poetic consciousness and fate, in which the poet confesses his acceptance of unchangeable if undesirable integration into a capricious destiny, from which the theme of exile draws its high drama. Here Sena draws a parallel in his own poetics with the maritime baroque and Camonian mannerism.

The four books of poetry Jorge de Sena published before leaving Portugal, the earliest begun in 1938, show a thorough grounding in Portuguese symbolism to lie at the root of the poetry of humanistic values and criticism which characterizes Sena's works. There is a particular similarity with the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whom Jorge de Sena, along with Adolfo Casais Monteiro and others, was among the first to discover and study.

This affinity can be observed in regard to the separation of the poetic consciousness from the work or text itself – following Eliot's «objective correlative» – and in the theory of masks that disguise the poet and distance him from experience as if he were another, which in Pessoa's case meant the disintegration and creation of complete poetic personalities. Also, in Jorge de Sena's early poetry there is something of the epic spirit, achieved through expansion of consciousness, as found in Álvaro de Campos' classic, «Ode Marítima». The first instance is exemplified in the poem «Os Trabalhos e os Dias» in Coroa da Terra:

Sento-me à mesa como se a mesa fosse o mundo inteiro
e principio a escrever como se escrever fosse respirar
o amor que não se esvai enquanto os corpos sabem
de um caminho sem nada para o regresso da vida…

And the epic sense occupies the «Soneto a Muitas Vozes» in Perseguição:

Águas do largo ao Sol das velas altas!
… E tu?… Também me lembro e também faltas!…
Adeuses pelo cais… tudo se cala…
A terra teima ainda nos escolhos.
E se ela é de eu erguer de mais os olhos?
Se o Céu, depois, resulta de lembrá-la?

Again in his 1977 preface, Jorge de Sena underlines an approach to poetics that stems in part from the symbolist and avant-garde background, also prominent in his early poems, the idea of transfiguration of reality through poetry:

Reclusa a vida em poesia, não para tirá-la da Vida, mas para encerrá-la dentro
do mundo de transfiguração poética, o único capaz de abarcar inteiramente tudo,
compreendendo tudo, fitando tudo, aceitando tudo, menos aquilo que diminua a
liberdade da criação, que o mesmo é dizer a liberdade do ser humano…

The theme of transfiguration is given vivid treatment in «Metamorfose»:

Para a minha alma eu queria uma torre como esta,
assim alta,
assim de névoa acompanhando o rio…

que eu quero uma torre tão alta que as aves não passem
as nuvens não passem
tão alta tão alta
que a solidão possa tornar-se humana.

Another prominent current in Jorge de Sena's thought is linked to the nineteenth-century existentialists and expresses an anguish at precisely the lack of transcendence or purpose in existence, widely conceived. Above all in Perseguição are many references to anguish and death to be found:

Cria-se da angústia uma cadeira para assistir a noite…

Eu sei que a conta está errada,
que falta, entre as parcelas, uma parcela de angústia…
Nao sei se está em mim, se está nas outras.

Thus a dialectic is established between destiny, reality, and poetry — expressed through an irony conscious of its mission of subversion. Eugénio Lisboa considers this poetry especially characteristic of Jorge de Sena «porque exprime, de forma aguda, uma radicada e profunda amargura que veste uma truculência lexical e orgânica sempre à beira da transgressão ou francamente dentro dela, mas distilando contudo, e por fim, uma especie de paz catártica e redentora, a que é difícil não ser-se sensível» [7].

It is out of this dynamic of a learned, philosophical poetry, expressive of its particular moment, that there emerges an important current of rationalism, dominated by a commitment to a range of human values drawn from an ideal of analysis, independence, and liberty. If there is a constant value to emerge, it is one of man's necessary and essential freedom and existence compromised only by one's individual integrity and consciousness. Such is the affirmation of «Quem a Tem»:

Não hei-de morrer sem saber qual a cor da liberdade…

Trocaram tudo em maldade,
é quase um crime viver.
Mas, embora escondam tudo
e me queiram cego e mudo,
Nao hei-de morrer sem saber qual a cor da liberdade.

This is also a poetry of criticism or protest against Portuguese politics and society, and examples stem from Jorge de Sena's earliest verses: «Para a verdade caminham corpos que a não conhecem/ ou a conhecem apenas com nome trocado…» Or the sonnet «Independência»: «Recuso-me a aceitar o que me derem./ Recuso-me às verdades acabadas…/ Recuso-me às espadas que não ferem/ e às que ferem por não serem dadas…». Yet the poet's sense of struggle is never cast in ideologically simplistic terms, since the rationality and intelligent common sense which gives us hope is constantly balanced by the certainty of the absurd, the Camonian «sem-razão» that is our destiny, «Lei universal que a sem-razão constrói». It is exactly such a dialectic of rational doubt and even paradox that makes the humanistic imagination of Jorge de Sena complete. To be sure, the voice of protest continues strong, but with the wide cultural scope found in «L'Eté au Portugal», whose tone can be compared to the frightening stroll through Lisbon in Cesário Verde's «Sentimento dum Ocidental»:

Que esperar d'aqui?…
Chicote? Bomba? Creolina? A liberdade?
É tarde, e estão contentes de tristeza,
sentados em seu mijo, alimentados
dos ossos e do sangue de quern não se vende…»

Throughout his poetry, and especially in such a tour de force as «Camões dirige-se aos seus contemporâneos», Jorge de Sena revealed best his analytical grounding in enlightened values applied to a contemporary context, if not those of the Enlightenment itself– reason, justice, equality. And at the same time his poetry could explode with the outrage, profound dissatisfaction, and rebellion of an intellect in exile, trapped by incomprehension and circumstances. His commitment to rational analysis, particularly including social analysis as well as literary, and notwithstanding the universality of his concerns, is well shown in satirical essays published under a title borrowed from Francisco de Melo Franco, O Reino da Estupidez, a title representing the period of Enlightenment in Portugal. This particular union of form and content suggests that the fundamental values of Jorge de Sena's literary creativity point toward the definition of a momentary enlightenment giving rise to a sustaining glimmer of humanistic faith, which Jorge de Sena expresses throughout his poetry, perhaps most strongly in the inspired «Uma pequenina luz»:

Uma pequenina luz bruxuleante… brilhando indefectível…
aqui no meio de nós.


1. «Jorge de Sena Reads His Poetry», a video-tape interview in color by Frederick G. Williams, 4 May 1978, U. of California at Santa Barbara.
2. «Discurso do Prof. Jorge de Sena», Dia de Camões e das Comunidades Portuguesas. Secretaria de Estado da Comunicação Social (Lisboa, 1977), pp. 41-54.
3. Eugénio Lisboa, «Breve Perfil de Jorge de Sena», Versos e Alguma Prosa de Jorge de Sena. Secretaria do Estado da Cultura (Arcádia & Moraes, Lisboa, 1979), pp. 10-11.
4. «Prefácio», Poesia-III. Moraes: Círculo de Poesia (Lisboa, 1978), pp. 16-17.
5. «Prefácio», p. 10.
6. Eugénio Lisboa, p. 11.
7. Frederick G. Williams surveys the major themes in Jorge de Sena's poetry in his article «Prodigious Exorcist: An Introduction to the Poetry of Jorge de Sena», World Literature Today (Vol. 53, N. 1, Winter 1979), pp. 9-15. Prof. William's headings are «Culture», «Political Satire and Portugal», «Social Satire and the Dignity of Man», «Love and Sex», and «Death, God and Religion».



In : Quaderni Portoghesi, n.° 13-14 (Pisa, 1983), p. 89-98