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History of Portuguese Literature Origins of Portuguese Literature The Portuguese Language Oral Literature Fiction Lyricism
Travel Literature Cantigas de amigo Historiography Doctrinal Prose



Francis Smith
Oil on canvas - Untitled
Centro de Arte Moderna

Literature consists of a set of written texts (which are also often firmly rooted in the oral tradition), aesthetically composed from common language and expressing the cultural specificity of a community.

Portuguese literature was formed on the basis of a single, unified geographical space, namely the Portuguese territory,

The Lusitanian Kingdom, / Where the land ends and the sea begins                   Camões, The Lusiads - 1572

although it was later to spread to various parts of the world as a consequence of the Portuguese maritime discoveries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This great adventure resulted in an extremely rich travel literature and was responsible for the expansion of the national language.

The history of Portuguese literature accompanied the aesthetic evolution of western culture, emerging from a mediaeval Latin-based environment that served as the basis for the formation and perfection of literary language until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was also open to popular influences, particularly in the early days of historiography (whose most important figure was Fernão Lopes, with his remarkable capacity for describing mass social movements) and in the theatre (whose most notable figure was Gil Vicente, with his ability to communicate the traditional wisdom deriving from the spontaneity of the ordinary people):

All the glory in people’s life
comes from having money
and whoever wishes to have a great amount
must first be
as nasty as he can

                Gil Vicente, Auto da Feira - 1527

In its origins, Portuguese literature was to develop an intense lyricism with the poetry of troubadours, and particularly with the cantigas de amigo. Generally speaking, this tradition continued into classical lyrical poetry, as well as into the poetry of Camões in particular, and was taken up once again in a renewed fashion in the period of Romanticism, which had a number of important personalities: Garrett and the romantic nationalism of amorous expression; Cesário Verde and the simultaneously idealised and banal daily urban life; Antero de Quental and the dilaceration of thought involved in concrete existence; Camilo Pessanha and the dream of verbal perfection in the corrosion of human time - as well as in the work of a great number of contemporary poets.

Common People! In the torn cloth of your shirts
I think I see a shining flag!
With this you suffer, drink and agonise:
Large stains of wine draw stripes upon it,
And your braces form a cross!

Cesário Verde, Contrariedades - 1887

Luís de Camões (16C) and Fernando Pessoa (20C) are, however, considered to be the greatest writers in the history of Portuguese literature. In fact, Modernism found perhaps its most personalised and complex expression in the figure and writing of Pessoa (the founder of the Orpheu magazine), for the galaxy of his heteronyms (the names of distinct personalities with whom he composed his various works) represents a distinctive phenomenon in his literary composition and in the corresponding human experience, with quite surprising literary results, giving rise to genuine fiction in the art of writing:

The poet is a feigner.
So completely does he feign
that he even feigns that the pain
that he really feels is pain

Fernando Pessoa, Autospsicografia - 1932


Lisbon, Largo de Camões (beginning of 20C)

But fiction (especially the novel) has also enjoyed its own particular periods of splendour in Portuguese literature. Ever since Bernardim Ribeiro (16C), but particularly after the periods of Romanticism and Realism, the production of this literary genre has been steadily increasing, with an ever greater interest being shown by both the reading public and the critics. On the basis of the relationship between the individual and society, which was itself the central feature in the apogee of the novel in the nineteenth century, narrative prose has ceaselessly created a whole range of different aspects that are worthy of being studied: the construction of the plot, the development of the characters, relationships of social dominance, the problematics of existence, subjective conflicts, the passage of time, the activity of writing, the hybrid nature of genres, the rewriting of texts in the form of a parody and the deconstruction of discourse.

Writers such as Camilo Castelo Branco, Eça de Queirós, Raúl Brandão, Aquilino Ribeiro and, more recently, Vergílio Ferreira, Agustina Bessa-Luís, José Cardoso Pires, José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes are some of the most notable figures to have emerged in this particular area, in which one of the most remarkable features of contemporary authors is their sheer number and quality.

At nightfall, the commander came back from the shore and, his eyes clouded over with tears, began to contemplate the exile, who was himself contemplating the first stars, appearing high above the belvedere.
‘Are you looking for her in the sky?’ asked the sailor.
‘Am I looking for her in the sky?’ Simão repeated mechanically.
‘Yes!… The sky is where she must be.’
‘Who, sir?’
‘Teresa!… Is she dead?’
‘She died over there on the belvedere, from where she was waving.’
Simão bent over the ship’s rail and stared into the torrent below. The commander threw his arms around him and said:
‘Be brave, you poor wretch, be brave! Seafarers believe in God! Wait and the sky will open up for you through the prayers of that angel!’
Mariana was right behind Simão and had raised her hands.
‘It’s all over!… murmured Simão. ‘Now I’m free… to die…’

                                                                                                                                                Camilo Castelo Branco, Amor de Perdição - 1862

There is a world in each stone, time, with its human torrent, will be enveloped by a gloomy void, a void of all thwarted intentions. In enmity, in mistrust and desolation, footsteps go ever faster, God’s writings are followed; everything slips into eternity, in a fog of impotence and cold (…) Here my days go by, here you die and resuscitate for me. History comes of age through your streets, these fallen blinds, these locked doors that can only be broken open by a mental smile.
                                                                                                                                                                 Agustina Bessa-Luís, A Muralha - 1957

Amongst contemporary authors, there are a number of prominent figures whose vast literary output spreads across different genres, in particular poetry, the novel and the short story. But, in certain cases, plays, criticism, essays, autobiography and diary-writing are also to be found. Such writers include many who have since disappeared, although until quite recently they represented important influences on the Portuguese intellectual scene, with their manifold personalities and diversified talent, generally committed to forging an alliance, and sometimes a conflict, between poetic labours and concrete existence, and to reaffirming literature’s lucid (i.e. intelligent and radiant) capacity for understanding what is real: Miguel Torga, Vitorino Nemésio, Jorge de Sena, Carlos de Oliveira and David Mourão-Ferreira.

A poesia está na rua: 25 de Abril de 1974, a poster alluding to this famous date, created by 
Helena Vieira da Silva

The same direction was followed by the leading writers of contemporary poetry (themselves promoters, albeit of other forms of literary expression), amongst whom the most important are António Ramos Rosa, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Eugénio de Andrade and Herberto Helder.

Reader: I return
to you. A book that will quickly die.
Quickly before. The wave comes, the wave
floods: The night fallen on your fingers (…)
Eternal, the time. Of a wave that is bigger than our
time. Time the reader of one. Author.
Or a book and a God with waves of a sea
more patient. -
                                   Waves than a
leisurely reader.

Herberto Helder, Para um leitor ler de/vagar - 1962

In the field of prose, we find a number of central female figures beginning to emerge: Maria Judite de Carvalho, Maria Velho da Costa and Maria Gabriela Llansol. These dedicate themselves to a type of fiction that reworks the traditional novel and short story, bringing them closer to other genres (chronicles, poems in prose and other types of writing extraneous to normal literary conventions), experimenting with new forms for the expression of narrative discourse.

In a story, there is (or is not) a moment of revelation which is said to be sublime. Normally a brief one. As I believe that a skilled reader already knows all the plots, this moment is practically all that matters in writing.                 

Maria Gabriela Llansol, Um Beijo Dado Mais Tarde - 1990.


© Instituto Camões, 2001