Francisco Sanches (c. 1550–1623) could be considered the first Portuguese essayist, despite the fact that he moved to France while still a youth. Sanches was a contemporary of Montaigne (who incidentally was his cousin), and his Quod nihil scitur (That Nothing Is Known) was published in Lyons in 1581. In this book-length essay he defends a form of skepticism which provoked strong reactions from 17th-century German theologians, who considered him the most (potentially) destructive of the skeptics.
Carta de guia de casados (1651; The Government of a Wife, or, Wholesome and Pleasant Advice for Married Men) by Francisco Manuel de Mello (1608–66) can also be read as a volume of essays. Written in colloquial style, though tempered with a baroque spirit and humor, it is a collection of considerations about aspects of married life. Father Manuel Bernardes’ (1644–1710) five-volume Nova floresta (1706–28; New forest) includes, among his serene, short prose writings, authentic essays. Father António Vieira (1608–97), a Jesuit who spent most of his life in Bahia, Brazil, is a master of Portuguese prose. His baroque style is more temperate than the exuberant expressions commonly associated with baroque art. Vieira is a master of language and rhythm, playing with the emotions of his audience, and combining great clarity with an often sinuous, even cunning, logic. Many of his Sermões (Sermons), 15 volumes published between 1679 and
1699, together with some of his letters—particularly those in which he emerges as a staunch defender of the Brazilian Indians—as well as some of his reports could easily take their place in a collection of classic essays.
Francis Bacon had his admirers in Portugal. The physician Jacob de Castro Sarmento suggested to King John V that Novum organum (1620) be translated into Portuguese.
Another admirer, Luís António Verney (1713–92), became, in the words of Silvio Lima, author of a book-length essay on the nature of the essay, “a propagandizer of the critical essayism of modernity” by virtue of his Verdadeiro método de estudar (1746; True method of studying). The same can be said of the physician Ribeiro Sanches (1699–1783) and his Cartas sobre a educaçaão da mocidade (1746; Letters on the education of youth).
Both Verney and Sanches were considered “estrangeirados” (literally, “foreignized”) by their Portuguese contemporaries for their “un-Portuguese” views. Verney in particular was a harsh critic of a culture he felt was immersed in an excessive baroque taste, with its nefarious impact on letters, thought, and education. He chastised baroque writing for being hollow, obscure, and illogical, and advocated the introduction of modern ideas in Portugal.
The state of the nation vis-á-vis Central and Northern Europe became a fertile ground for national reflections in the first half of the 19th century. Alexandre Herculano (1810– 77) wrote pieces on political, historical, educational, literary, and moral topics which easily qualify as essays. Collected in his Opuúsculos (1873–1908; Minor works), they provide a good window from which to observe Portugal’s battles in the process of adjusting its institutions to the times. In the second half of the century, Causas da decadência dos povos peninsulares (1871; Causes of the decline of the Iberian people), a long essay by Antero de Quental (1841–91), mentor of the formidable “1870 generation,” stands out. It sketches the history of the Iberian peoples after the Counter-Reformation, and identifies the moral, political, and economic causes of the Iberian Peninsula’s backwardness compared with the rest of Europe. Quental wrote other remarkable essays,
such as Tendências gerais da filosofia na segunda metade do século XIX (1890; General trends in philosophy in the second half of the 19th century), as well as others on literary and philosophical themes. Oliveira Martins (1845–94) wrote extensively with the same concerns as Herculano and Antero. His collection of essays A Inglaterra de hoje (1893;
England today) is a telling document of the cultural differences between the Portuguese and the English, and how he envisioned a modernization of Portugal that could avoid what he considered to be the pitfalls of British civilization.
Eça de Queiroz (1845–1900), the most admired of Portuguese fiction writers, was a member of Quental’s group. Several volumes of his collected works—A correspondência de Fradique Mendes (1900; The correspondence of Fradique Mendes), Cartas de Inglaterra (1905; Letters from England), Notas contemporâneas (1909; Contemporary notes), and Crónicas de Londres (1945; London chronicles)—are precious collections of social commentary by a master of irony, wit, and elegant prose. Fialho de Almeida
(1857–1911) is another example of a prolific writer with many pieces in his five-volume Os gatos (1889–94; The cats) fitting the essay genre; its topics range from theater and literature to social commentary.
Leonardo Coimbra (1883–1936), a philosopher with his own grand conception of life known as creationism, independently conceived but with significant links to Henri Bergson’s philosophy, wrote about love and death, joy, pain, and grace; the liberal and the reactionary spirit; experimental reason; man and destiny; the spirit and war. A synthesis of his view can be found in O criacionismo: Esboço de um sistema filosófico (1912,; Creationism: a synthesis of a philosophical system). The mind of this original essayist can also be appreciated in his A alegria, a dor e a graça (1916; Joy, pain, and grace). The poet Teixeira de Pascoaies (1877–1952,), in part under Coimbra’s influence, wrote numerous short essays attempting to depict the traits of the collective Portuguese soul, which he thought was best captured by the concept of saudade, a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia for a lost, or a not-yet-found world, a longing for an absent love. Some of his
collected essays on the topic were collected in the volume A Saudade e o saudosismo (1988; Saudade and saudosism).
The essay was also cultivated by members of the Modernist group Orpheu, with Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) as its greatest representative. Known above all as a poet and creator of a constellation of heteronyms, Pessoa also wrote short essays, most of them unfinished or briefly sketched. His Livro do desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), written under the name Bernardo Soares, appeared for the first time only in 1982,, almost 50 years after the author’s death. The work is a collection of prose manuscripts resembling Nietzsche’s work; its many entries are condensed essays, outlines of ideas to be developed, although the overall structure and style of the book make it most like an intimate diary. Its contents, though, point to reflections on the broken self, the absence of meaning—“Today I suddenly experienced an absurd but quite valid sensation. I realized, in an intimate lightning flash, that I am no one. No one, absolutely no one… And I, truly, I am the center that doesn’t exist except as a convention in the geometry of the abyss; I am the nothingness around which this movement spins…”
In the first half of the 20th century, António Sérgio (1883–1969) stands out as the great cultivator of the genre. The title of his eight volumes of Ensaios (1920–58) is a conscious affiliation with Montaigne and Bacon. A rationalist who wanted to use reason to change the Portuguese mentality from obscurantism to rationalism, he revisited historical myths in order to extricate what he felt were the hard realities his countrymen had to confront.
After Sérgio, the genre proliferated, multiplied in a rich and diversified variety of themes and styles. In this century most major Portuguese writers have written essays, mostly in the literary field. In this respect, the best tradition of the genre as practiced by T.S.Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe, E.M.Forster, Aldous Huxley, Charles Baudelaire, George Bernard Shaw, Edmund Wilson, and Paul Valéry, to name a few, has plenty of cultivators among Portuguese literary figures. Sílvio Lima (1904–93) was the author of the remarkable and influential Ensaio sobre a essência do ensaio (1944; Essay on the essence of the essay). For Lima, an essay is an exercise in personal critical thinking about universal realities. During his times and in subsequent years, names like Vitorino Nemésio (1901–78), Jorge de Sena (1919–78), Vergílio Ferreira (1916–), David Mourão-Ferreira (1927–), and Jose Regio (1901–69) became associated with the genre, together with others whose work privileged the essay format—Joaquim de Carvalho (1892–1958), Eduardo Lourenço (1923–), António José Saraiva (1917–93), Joel Serrão (1919–), Manuel Antunes (1918–85), Jacinto do Prado Coelho (1920–84), Oscar Lopes (1917–), José Marinho (1904–75), and Vitorino Magalhães Godinho (1918–).
In the last years of the Salazar-Caetano dictatorship, which ended in 1974, the essay became heavily politicized. Cinema joined literature as a main topic, but both were simply a pretext for social and political commentary. During the years immediately following the so-called “April 25th Revolution,” literature was somewhat abandoned and the essay became doctrinal, with prose heavily weighted with Marxist jargon. Little by little, however, the voices of the established writers re-emerged. Reviewing for the journal Colóquio-Letras a decade of the Portuguese essay (1974–84), Eduardo Prado Coelho recognizes that a narrow definition of essayism would certainly include Eduardo Lourenço—without a doubt the great essayistic presence of the post-April 25th period— Vergílio Ferreira, some works by Jorge de Sena, two or three books by António José Saraiva, the dispersed reflections of Father Manuel Antunes, or Nuno Teixeira Neves, some of the cultural interventions of Miguel Serras Pereira, but little else. Most of these authors had established their reputations before the arrival of the democratic state in 1974.
It was only in the early 1980s that literature recovered its importance in Portugal, and Portuguese authors actually began to receive in their own country attention unmatched in any previous period. An assessment of the last decade leaves us with most of the same names at the top of the list, if we are to consider the essay in the strict sense. An important shift occurred in the Portuguese literary scene, however: the academicization of the essay. The proliferation of conferences, national as well as international, standardized Portuguese writing according to the international norms of the academic paper. In effect, only the old generation continued cultivating the old-fashioned essay: Lourenço, Ferreira, Saraiva, and de Sena.
The cultural and literary historian António José Saraiva had a creative mind which did not allow him to remain within the straitjacket of professional scholarship. He wrote freely and loved toying with the ideas of great thinkers and writers. A good example of his essay writing was published in 1990, three years before his death. A tertúlia oddental (Western literary group) is a pleasant excursion into the lives and thought of renowned figures of the “1870 generation.” Other studies, both old and more recent, such as Poesia e drama (1990; Poetry and drama) and the two volumes of A cultura em Portugal (1981– 83; Culture in Portugal), a series of essays on late medieval and early modern Portuguese cultural and literary themes, or Ser ou não ser arte (1973; To be or not to be art), and Filhos de Saturno (1980; Children of Saturn), on political topics, confirm his brilliance as an essayist.
Jorge de Sena, a superb poet of the generation of Ferreira and Lourenço, wrote in every genre (close to 100 books published despite his premature death at 58), including numerous essays, which reflect his desire to write about everything. In spite of his death, he is alive and well in his works, which continue to be published thanks to the energy of his wife, Mécia de Sena. In 1992, another volume appeared for the first time: Amor e outros verbetes (Love and other words), a collection of entries written upon request for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and other reference works. In the introduction, Mécia de Sena explains that the volume contains the Portuguese version of the pieces rather than the cut and edited versions which appeared in English. She refers to incidents with the editors and criticizes the peculiar demands of English writing, which she calls “nonstyle” and which Jorge de Sena had classified as “mono-style.” The pieces in this volume are excellent examples of his particular style—an outpouring of facts, woven with comments, asides, and tangents which sometimes last for pages, but always with a fascinating force conducting the reader through the labyrinths of a great mind.
Among the recent volumes of Sena’s posthumously published works is the impressive collection of essays O dogma da Trindade poética (Rimbaud) e outros ensaios (1994;
The dogma of poetic trinity (Rimbaud) and other essays). The sheer range of topics is impressive—Rimbaud, Cavafy, Antonio Machado, T.S.Eliot, Sartre, Rilke, Ungaretti, expressionism, Modernism, Don Juan, and Garcilaso, among others. Sena’s torrential style is both refreshing and overwhelming.
An original, hard-to-classify essayist, with a paradoxically modern classical prose and a penchant for venturing into uncommon territory in Portuguese letters (e.g. virtue, tolerance, God, Latin comedy) is Agostinho da Silva (1906–94). Two good collections of his writings—essays in the strictest sense—are Dispersos (1988; Dispersals) and Considerações e outros textos (1988; Considerations and other texts).
Of the younger generation, Eduardo Prado Coelho (1944–), Arnaldo Saraiva (1939–), and José Augusto Seabra (1937–), also academics and scholars, are three excellent cultivators of the genre, publishing their pieces in the literary and cultural supplements of major newspapers. Prado Coelho has published two volumes of a journal which is really a reader’s response to books—Tudo o que não escrevi (1992–94; Everything that I did not write), a title taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Most of the entries, though, are essays on a variety of contemporary debates ranging from literature to philosophy and the arts.
Saraiva is a heterodoxical writer who writes in an engaging style about topics from national anthems and graffiti to advertisements, epigraphs, and polemics, as can be found in his Literatura marginal/izada—Novos ensaios (1980; Marginalized literature—new essays), a delightful collection in the best tradition of the forefathers of the genre.
Seabra’s subjects are more conventional, and his style more academic.
The list of essayists could be longer, particularly as the boundary between the essay and the scholarly study further breaks down. Other important writers of essays include Luís de Sousa Rebelo (1922–), Natália Correia (1923–), José Enes (1924–), Eugénio Lisboa (1930–), Fernando Cristóvão (1929–), Maria Alzira Seixo (1941–), Vasco Graça Moura (1942–), JoséAugusto França (1922–), João Medina (1939–), Alexandre Pinheiro
Torres (1923–), Isabel Allegro de Magalhães (1942–), Boaventura de Sousa Santos (1941–), Silvina Rodrigues Lopes (1950–), Fernando Guimarães (1928–), Antonio Ramos Rosa (1924–), João Barrento (1940–), and Diogo Pires Aurélio (1946–).
Those familiar with the contemporary Portuguese literary scene may find this survey rather conservative, keeping to established figures of the older generations, and short on women writers. While this is indeed the case, the reason may be that the essay seems to be an offspring of maturity. Presently, the members of the younger generation of men and women (there has been a considerable increase in the female presence in Portuguese literature since 1974) are either in the process of establishing academic careers (and thus
writing scholarly papers) or writing excellent newspaper articles and crónicas (a favorite genre in Portugal, lighter than the essay) for such dailies as Diário de Notícias, and O Público, and the weeklies Expresso and Jornal de Letras, and have not yet published books collecting their best pieces.
Coelho, Eduardo Prado, “Ensaio,” Cóloquio-Letras 78 (March 1984):43–54
Coelho, Jacinto do Prado, editor, Dicionário de literatura, 5 vols., Porto: Figueirinhas, 1981 (original edition, 1956–60)
Lima, Sílvio, Ensaio sobre a essência do ensaio, Coimbra: Arménio Amado, 1944
Logos: Enciclopédia Luso-Brasileira de filosofia., Lisboa and São Paulo: Verbo, 1989
Saraiva, António José, and Oscar Lopes, História da literatura Portuguesa, Porto: Porto Editora, 1996 (original edition, 1949)
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