Jorge de Sena’s Biography

Gilda Santos

Critics and biographers himself generally emphasize the importance of biography, the concept of metamorphosis, and the experience of “double exile” when they write about Jorge de Sena. Although he spent much of his life in Brazil and the United States, Sena stated more than once: “I have always been in exile, even before I left Portugal.” The statement reflects the feelings of an intellectual who was born in a Portugal on the brink of the longest running European dictatorship of the twentieth century, and who grew up surrounded by all sorts of abuse of power and censorship.

Even family circumstances did little to attenuate the declared feeling of displacement that Sena kept for most of his life. Born in Lisbon on 2 November 1919, he was the only and late-coming child of a Merchant Marine Commander, Augusto Raposo de Sena, who was away from home for long periods of time and of a gifted, submissive woman of fine education, Maria da Luz Teles Grilo. Sena learned to read at the age of three, with his mother’s en-couragement and, at age ten, he could read French fluently. He found refuge from his solitude in books. His domestic environment appears to have been less than harmonious, judging from the short story “Homenagem ao papagaio verde” (Homage to the Green Parrot), which Sena always characterized as autobiographical. The situation became even worse when, in 1933, his father suffered an accident at sea and had to have a leg amputated. The family was forced to live on a small monthly allowance that the Companhia Nacional de Navegação gave the officer who had served them for over 40 years. The family was almost always in debt; this was the beginning of financial difficulties that Sena would face continuously throughout his life. From this less than happy childhood, only his grandmother on his mother’s side, Isabel, stands out. Sena was her favorite grandson, and it was she and his mother who gave the boy, who had shown an early artistic sensitivity, the greatest intellectual incentive. At age ten, he began piano lessons and continued to develop his musical taste for the rest of his life.

Sena studied in the best schools in Lisbon of the time. He finished high school in 1936, and that same year, took the preparatory course for the Escola Naval. With his family’s support, Sena entered the school with the highest grades of his class in the preparatory course. He earned first cadet in the “Curso do Condestável.” In February 1937, he set out on his first journey, on the teaching ship Sagres, visiting Cape Verde, São Tomé, Brazil, Angola, Sene-gal, and the Canaries, places that impressed him and were later pictured in his work.

For reasons still not exactly known, Sena was discharged from the Navy in March 1938. A naval career had been his major dream, so the discharge caused him enormous personal trauma, noted later in his work in the recurring theme of exclusion. Feeling sad, wronged, and humiliated, he shut himself up at home, until the beginning of the new academic year in October. When he finished his courses in 1940, he moved to Oporto, where he enrolled in the school of engineering.

The period between 1936 and 1940 was a formative one in Sena’s life. He started his career as a writer in the same year that the Spanish Civil War began, a fact noted in his novel Sinais de fogo (Signs of Fire). Influenced by Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, at age sixteen he began to write poetry, as reflected in the prologue-poem of Arte de música. He wrote the short stories “Paraíso perdido” (Paradise Lost) and “Caim” (Cain) during that period. Both stories contain autobiographical elements and, although written by a seventeen-year old, they reveal great narrative strength. The year 1938 was a particularly fertile one for the author. He started a novel, wrote a one-act comedy, a Lied inspired by the poem “Pobre velha música” (Poor Old Music) by Fernando Pessoa, and no less than 256 poems. His poetry pro-vided a catharsis during the anguished months of enclosure after his discharge from the Navy. The following year, 1939, he wrote 168 poems and published his first work: his poem “Nevoeiro” (Mist) appeared in a student’s review under the name of Teles de Abreu (which Sena used until 1942). In the following issue of the same review, he published the essay “Em prol da poesia chamada moderna” (In Favor of the So-called Modern Poetry). In 1940, he published a letter on Fernando Pessoa’s poem “Apostila” (Apostil) in the last issue of Pre-sença, and he began to collaborate on the journal Cadernos de Poesia. He later became co-director of the journal. During these early years, Sena was a voracious reader, focusing his attention on the established names in the literature and philosophy.

From October 1940 to November 1944 Sena lived in Oporto while attending the Uni-versity. He left the city only to go on vacation, for health reasons, and to fulfill his military duty, for which he was called in the summers of 1942 and 1943. The new military experi-ences, which lasted until 1945, are described in less than flattering terms in the short stories of Os Grão-Capitães (The Grand Captains). Sena’s years at the University of Oporto were extremely active ones. In 1941, he gave his first public lecture, “Rimbaud, ou o dogma da trindade poética” (Rimbaud or the Dogma of the Poetic Trinity), which initiated a long and bril-liant career as a lecturer. The following year, he published his lecture in a Lisbon magazine, and, under the aegis of the Cadernos de Poesia, his first poetry book, Perseguição (Persecution). In 1943, he started writing for the Lisbon paper Diário Popular, as a literary critic (later extended to film, music and theater), thus starting a career as essayist-journalist that he would pursue throughout his entire life. 1944 was his final year in engineering program, which with-out the financial help of his friends would not have been possible.

Sena finished his verse tragedy O indesejado (The Unwanted King), which he frequently read at gatherings of friends and other artists, in 1943. That same year, despite his status in the military, he signed one of the public lists that circulated in the country demand-ing free elections. He escaped prison by direct intervention of his Brazilian friend Ribeiro Couto, who was then in Portugal working at the Brazilian Embassy. The following year, Couto convinced editor Lello, from Oporto, to publish Sena’s second volume of poetry, Coroa da terra (Crown of the Earth), dedicated to that city.

In 1946 Sena started to work professionally as an engineer, first as an apprentice in some public organizations. He later took a permanent position with the Junta Autónoma das Estradas, where he stayed from 1948 to 1959, the year in which he moved to Brazil. The job assured him a regular though modest income, and it allowed him many trips around the coun-try, from which many of his historical and literary studies later benefited. He went to England in 1952 and 1957 for further professional training in engineering. During the first visit, he read a series of six chronicles entitled “Cartas de Londres” (Letters from London) for the BBC.

Sena met Maria Mécia de Freitas Lopes in 1940, and in 1949 they were married. Over the years they would have nine children, and she would become his greatest collaborator in life and work. With this new support by his side, Sena was very productive throughout the following ten years (the last ones he would live in Portugal) and defined his position in Portuguese literary and intellectual life. He published his third book of poetry, Pedra filosofal (Philosopher’s Stone) in 1950, followed by As evidências (The Evidences, 1955) and Fidelidade (Fidelity, 1958). In 1951 both O indesejado and A poesia de Camões. Ensaio de revelação da dialética camoniana (The Poetry of Camões. An Essay on the Camonian Dialectics) appeared in print. The latter, reproducing a lecture given at Oporto on 10 June 1948, is the starting point for his many critical studies on the sixteenth-century poet Luís de Camões. He published the book of essays Da poesia portuguesa (On Portuguese Poetry) in 1959, and as an anthologist, he produced the volume Líricas portuguesas (Portuguese Lyric Poetry). He started working as a literary consultant for the publishing house Livros do Brasil, and as a translator, he published the following: poems by Cavafy; Porgy and Bess, by DuBose Heyward; and Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. Sena’s contact with literature in English was a novelty on the Portuguese cultural scene of the time, which was still heavily influenced by the French. Diversity of tasks and interests became a permanent aspect of Sena’s life, as seen in the volume and variety of his publications.

One activity about which Sena rarely spoke, perhaps owing to excessive caution, was that of a politically active citizen. He was always associated with those individuals who opposed the Salazar regime. After 1953, when he moved to the house in Restelo (which belongs to his family to this day), he was always willing to facilitate contacts or meetings of different groups. Special mention should be made of the failed attempt to overthrow the regime, known as the “Golpe da Sé”, which was to take place on 12 March 1959. Deeply involved in this, and witnessing the imprisonment and disappearance of companions who were as en-gaged as he was, Sena left for exile in Brazil.

The author arrived in Brazil on the 7 August 1959 (his family arrived a few months later). He had been invited to participate in the 4o Colóquio Internacional de Estudos Luso-Brasileiros, organized by the Universidade da Bahia, where his friends Adolfo Casais Monteiro and Eduardo Lourenço were lecturers. They had a decisive role in planning the event, which took place in Salvador from August 10 to 21. This was the first international confer-ence in literary and cultural studies in which Sena participated. Facing an audience of various specialists, he chose Fernando Pessoa as the theme of his lecture. Sena attended many important international conferences throughout the rest of his life.
The most important consequence of his Brazilian exile was the advancement of his academic career. Soon after his arrival, Antônio Soares Amora invited him to teach in the new Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras of Assis, São Paulo State. He stayed in Assis until July 1961, and then moved to Araraquara, where he taught Portuguese literature and literary theory until moving to the United States in 1965. In 1962 he taught a course on English literature, on which he published a book the following year. At that time, Assis and Araraquara had prestigious teaching staffs that contributed to the high quality of the intellec-tual atmosphere of both institutions at the time.

Sena always said he was born to teach, and in Brazil was always overbooked with classes, which, although he was not very well paid, still greatly satisfied him. Deeply involved in his new career, in 1964 he decided to take examinations, in Araraquara, to obtain his doctorate and professorship. He received the maximum grades from all examiners, as well as mention of “praise and distinction” for his thesis O soneto de Camões e o soneto quinhentista peninsular (The Sonnets of Camões and the Peninsular Sonnets of the Sixteenth Century). His was the first doctorate awarded by the Faculdade de Araraquara.

Sena always had a keen interest in research. In Brazil he had managed to obtain institutional support to develop his studies on Camões. His work led to volumes that are today fundamental references, such as Uma canção de Camões (A Song of Camões), A estrutura de Os Lusíadas (The Structure of Os Lusíadas) and Trinta anos de Camões (Thirty Years of Camões). These volumes comprise texts based on a thorough study of the photocopies of all editions and manuscripts of Camões’ works. Sena evaluates the state of Camonian studies and questions the work of established authorities, while proposing new ideas and notions on Camões’s dialectics and Mannerism.

In Brazil, Sena performed many functions at the same time. He lectured and did research; he gave seminars and conferences; he collaborated on literary and non-literary journals, did translations and editorial work, and travelled extensively. At the same time, for years he wrote the section “Letras Portuguesas” (Portuguese Literature) for the famous news-paper O Estado de São Paulo.

Sena’s literary production is truly astonishing. He took advantage of the freedom of the intellectual climate in Brazil, but he always insisted on being considered a Portuguese writer. And he published almost all his works in Portugal. He wrote around 120 poems, mostly found in the books Peregrinatio ad loca infecta, Arte de música (Art of Music), and Metamorfoses (Metamorphoses). At this stage, Sena wrote his first text in which Camões appears as the protagonist – “Camões dirige-se a seus contemporâneos,” (Camões Addresses his Contemporaries) from Metamorfoses – inaugurating one of the most fertile veins in his poetry: that in which the sixteenth-century poet is transformed into persona or alter-ego of the poetic “I”.

It was in Brazil between late 1964 and June 1965 that Sena wrote the first and most substantial segment of his only novel, which remained unfinished, Sinais de fogo. Although he returned to the text later in the United States, he never managed to complete it. The novel was intended to portray life in Portugal from 1936 to 1959. Sena only completed the part that takes place during some months in 1936, when the protagonist Jorge discovers love, poetry, and war. Although unfinished, the work is frequently included in the list of the best Portu-guese novels of the 20th century.

Sena’s only novella, O físico prodigioso (The Wondrous Physician) is dated Araraquara, May 1964. Praised by the critics, it represents an important moment if work. The allegorical atmosphere, with medieval and fantastic elements, created in the narrative accen-tuates the political reading allowed by the text in which it is easy to detect the Brazilian military dictatorship that had just come to power.

Of the eight short stories that constitute the book Andanças do Demônio (The Devil’s Doings), published in 1960, all but two (“Razão de o Pai Natal ter barbas brancas” [The Reason Why Santa Claus Has a White Beard] and “A Comemoração” [Commemoration]), written in the 1940’s, were kept unaltered. The others were either written or revised in Brazil. The seventeen short stories that make up Novas andanças do Demônio (New Devil’s Doings, 1966) and Os Grão-Capitães (The Grand-Captains, 1976) were written in either Assis or Araraquara. Some of these, such as “Super Flumina Babylonis”, “A Grã-Canária” and “Os amantes” (The Lovers), are true masterpieces of short fiction. Sena was fully aware of the difficulties of publishing this last collection. Extremely critical of the military life, they could not be distributed in Por-tugal before the Revolution.

While in Brazil, Sena wrote two one-act plays in March 1964: A morte do Papa (The Death of the Pope) and O império do oriente (The Empire of the Orient). The author himself pointed out the relation between the texts and the military assuming power in Brazil that year, attesting to how much the political situation had affected him. Rather than dedicating a lot of time to writing plays, Sena became involved with the people working in the Brazilian theater.

During the 1960s Sena also maintained close contacts with the Brazilian intelligentsia, some of whom he had known through reading or correspondence. His exchanges with poet Manuel Banderia deserve special attention, as does his encounter with the Concretist poets Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, and Décio Pignatari. He published his asemic poems that evoke Afrodite Anadiômena, of the final part of Metamorfoses, in their journal Invenção.

In Brazil, Sena was involved in his most intense political activity. He could never have done this openly in Portugal without running risks he could not afford with such a large family. Soon after his arrival in São Paulo, he joined the board of editors of the opposition newspaper Portugal Democrático, where he published thirty seven texts between November 1959 and October 1962. Most of these were signed, but some are anonymous or written un-der a pseudonym. Sena’s collaboration on Portugal Democrático, published by a group of intellectuals who shared anti-Salazarist ideas, lent prestige and respectability to the paper. Fighting against Salazar from a distance, quixotic as it may seem to some, was still a form of connection with his native land. The Portuguese political police (PIDE) maintained a dossier on Sena, with copies of his articles, and, in January 1962, issued an order of arrest against him. In July of the same year, he was banned from entering Portuguese national territory. This ban was only lifted in 1968. In addition to this intense participation in Portugal Democrático, Sena was also involved in other similar political activities, such as the Portuguese Republican Center in São Paulo, where he often lectured.

In spite of the physical distance between Sena and Portugal, his attention and activities remained focused on that country. Nonetheless, he also took an interest in the politics of his country of exile, of which he became a citizen in 1963. He followed Brazilian politics quite closely, but he did not take any conspicuous political stand. Many of his texts, however, reveal his close connection with events he witnessed in that country. He had arrived in Brazil under Juscelino Kubitschek; he followed the rise and resignation of Jânio Quadros, and the rise of João Goulart; and he witnessed the military coup of 1964. This last event, for many reasons, including the threat to his own survival, disquieted him. The evolution of the dictato-rial process only enhanced the anguish and sadness that he knew so well, and that was further increased by the wave of imprisonment and expulsion of many intellectuals and artists. As an inevitable consequence of this panorama of insecurity, Sena decided to leave Brazil. He ac-cepted an invitation as Visiting Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the United States. He moved there, in October 1965, with Mécia and their children, two of whom had been born in Brazil.

The following year, Sena was promoted to the rank of Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian Literature and granted tenure. Sena plunged with characteristic intensity into the life of professor, scholar, and lecturer. He attended many conferences and meetings of professional societies and organizations. He also became a member of well-known American associations, such as the Hispanic Society and the Modern Languages Association. In 1968, he returned to Portugal for the first time after having left his country. From that point on, he would regularly return there, as well as visit other European countries to attending confer-ences and give lectures. It was his travels undertaken during his years in the United States that brought him the international renown as a writer and scholar.

Sena moved to the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1970 where he served as the Chair of Portuguese and Brazilian Literature and of Comparative Literature. Two years later, he had the opportunity to travel to Angola, South Africa, and Mozambique. His wife affirmed that the visit to the Isle of Mozambique, where Camões had lived in misery, was “one of the most touching moments in his whole life.” In 1974 Sena was named Chairman of the Spanish and Portuguese Department and of the Interdepartmental Program Comparative Literature, posts he held until his death. For his efforts in the diffusion of Portuguese culture, he was awarded the Order of Infante D. Henrique in Portugal in 1977. That same year, he received the Italian Etna-Taormina Poetry International Prize, and, invited by the President of Portugal, Ramalho Eanes, delivered the famous “Discurso da Guarda,” on June 10, Camões’s Day.

Sena died 4 June 1978, a victim of lung cancer. He posthumously received the Order of Santiago de Espada, the awarding of which was announced to him three days prior to his death, over the phone by the President of Portugal.

The multifaceted work of Sena is characterized by a profound internal coherence, based on an amazing network of intertextual sources. Sena considered himself to be, above all, a poet, and, indeed, it is easy to see that his poetry has repercussions in all the other genres he cultivated. Like other Potuguese poets of the post-Orpheu generation, Sena had to confront the awe-inspiring figure of Fernando Pessoa. He has been one of the few who, in his own innovative diction, has managed to respond to the challenges created by the polyphonic poetics of Pessoa. Sena is also one of the most recognized scholars of Pessoa’s work.

Associated since his early days as a writer with the Cadernos de Poesia, Sena, along with Eugénio de Andrade and Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, attempted to reconcile tendencies which competed on the Portuguese literary scene of the 1940s and 1950s. Backed by his theory of “testemunho” (witnessing), which he openly opposed to that of Fernando Pessoa’s “fingimento” (pretending), Sena proposed the creation in verse of what he called a “poetic diary.” The author explains: “um desejo de independência partidária da poesia social; um desejo de comprometimento humano da poesia pura; um desejo de expressão lapidar, clássica, da libertação surrealista; um desejo de destrurir pelo tumulto insólito das imagens, qualquer disciplina ultrapassada (e assim: a lógica hegeliana deve sobrepor-se à aristotélica; uma moral sociologicamente esclarecida à moral das proibições legalistas); e sobretudo um desejo de exprimir o que entende ser a dignidade humana—uma fidelidade integral à respon-sabilidade de esatarmos no mundo” (a desire for independence that favors social poetry; a desire for human engagement of pure poetry; a desire for lapidary, classic expression of the surrealist liberation; a desire to destroy, through the unusual rioting of images, any outdated discipline (and, thus: Hegelian logic must impose itself over the Aristotelian one; a moral which is sociologically aware over that of legalist prohibitions); and above all a desire to ex-press what it understands to be human dignity – a complete loyalty to the responsibility of us being in the world). One can see here Sena’s humanism, which echoes throughout much of his poetry, especially in the book Metamorfoses in poems such as the emblematic “Carta a meus filhos sobre os fuzilamentos de Goya” (Letter to My Children on the Executions of Goya).

Sena participated in many aesthetic trends during his forty years of writing poetry. His early books reveal an influence of Surrealism; he wrote a-semic creations in “Quatro sonetos a Afrodite Anadiómena (Four Sonnets to Afrodite Anadiómena); Sequências (Sequences) contains his private experimentalism; and he wrote excellent classical poems characterized by formal rigor and semantic depth. He was able, nonetheless, to establish his own style and build a solid oeuvre that has been (and will continue to be) influential to various generations. In fact, critics such as Eduardo Prado Coelho describe him as a “figura titular” (a guarding figure), who “condiciona, em níveis diversos, quase tudo o que a poesia portuguesa contemporânea considera e partilha” (conditions, in various levels, almost everything that contemporary Portuguese poetry considers and shares).

Love, homeland, and poetry, as seen in these verses, are the important themes that structure Sena’s work: “De amor e de poesia de ter pátria/aqui se trata” (Love and poetry and having a country/ are dealt within here). Love, often expressed through erotic and sexual metaphors and images, is a dominant concern of the poet. The language used to convey the poet’s feelings and ideas is often direct and daring, less to shock the reader than to celebrate a consecration of the body that is seen as a primordial, constructive, and cosmogonic force. The seizure of the book As Evidências (The Evidences, 1955), considered “subversive and pornographic” by the Salazar regime, confirmed the impact of Sena’s politico-erotic discourse on a strongly sexually repressed Portuguese nation. Later poems, such as some in Exorcismos (Exorcisms, 1972) continue the theme of “o sexo em tudo visto” (sex seen in everything) in Sena’s poetic universe.

The notion of homeland, closely linked to the concepts of pilgrimage, roots, and exclusion, constitutes an important aspect of Sena’s poeticization of his personal experiences. The poet’s relationship to his country is a complex, dichotomous one of love and hate; Portugal is often perceived as the mother that forced him out of his home into a life of wandering and into many exiles. The title of one his books of poetry captures well the result of the feeling: Peregrinatio ad loca infecta. A citizen of the world, images of Sena’s many travels appear in all of his works, which serve as witness to the chaotic historical moment of transformation in he which he lived.

Like his sixteenth-century predecessor Camões, Sena was torn between an acute sensitivity and the vicissitudes of his world. Sena’s work is characterized by an enormous capacity for indignation and ethical questions that he transforms into theological and metaphysical ones, as in the poem “A morte, o espaço, a eternidade’ (Death, Space, Eternity) in Metamorfoses. Sena’s numerous metalinguistic texts, in which he explores the notion of writing poetry, as well as the works in which he establishes harmonious dialogues between poetry and the other arts, especially the visual arts (Metamorfoses) and music (Arte de música), are numerous.

Most critics would agree that the single unifying link among the multifaceted body of works of Sena is the figure of Camões. In his dialogue with the sixteenth-century poet, Sena’s writings gain a dimension that is simultaneously one of deprivation and plenitude, one sought by all who use the word as an instrument of expression. Like the image of the Camões he created, Sena “era um grande poeta, transformava em poesia tudo o que tocava mesmo a miséria, mesmo a amargura, mesmo o abandono de poesia” (was a great poet, transformed everything he touched into poetry, even misery, even bitterness, even the abandonment of poetry).

Jorge de Sena in English:

* 1979Over this Shore… Eight Meditations on the Coast of the Pacific, translated by Jonathan Griffin.
* 1980The Poetry of Jorge de Sena, anthology by Frederick G. Williams.
* 1980In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems, translation and preface by George Monteiro.
* 1986The Wondrous Physician, translated from the portuguese by Mary Fitton.
* 1987 England Revisited, translated from the portuguese and with notes by Christopher Damien Auretta.
* 1988Art of Music. Translated by Francisco Cota Fagundes and James Houlihan.
* 1989By the Rivers of Babylon and Other Stories. Introduction by Daphne Patai.
* 1991Metamorphoses. Translated by Francisco Cota Fagundes and James Houlihan.
* 1991Genesis. Translated by Francisco Cota Fagundes, published in In the Beginning There Was Jorge de Sena’s Genesis: The Birth of a Writer .
* 1994The Evidences. Translation and introduction by Phyllis Sterling Smith. Preface by George Monteiro.
* 1999Signs of Fire. Translated by John Byrne.


About Jorge de Sena:

=> Studies on Jorge de Sena: Proceedings of the Colloquium in Memory of Jorge De Sena University of California, Santa Barbara April 6-7, 1979, by Harvey L. Sharrer and Frederick G. Williams, Santa Barbara, UCSB/Bandanna Books, 1981.

=> Francisco Cota Fagundes, A Poet’s Way With Music: Humanism in Jorge de Sena’s Poetry, Gavea-Brown, Providence, Rhode Island, 1988.

=> Francisco Cota Fagundes, In the Beginning There Was Jorge de Sena’s Genesis: The Birth of a Writer, Bandanna Books, Santa Barbara, 1991.

=> Maria José Azevedo Pereira de Oliveira, Art as a Mirror in the Poetry of Jorge de Sena: The Metamorfoses, King’s College, London, 1992.