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(Poet: 1894 – 1930)
by Rolando Galvão
Translated by John D. Godinho
FLOR BELA, BEAUTIFUL FLOWER, ROOTS AND BOUGHS
the end of 1894, the night of the 7th to the 8th of
December, in Vila Viçosa.
da Conceição Lobo begins to feel the first labor pains. Later that night, she gives birth to a girl.
The event is not greeted with much joy by the family, so there’s
no reason for the customary celebrations.
It seems the child was not wanted by any of the parties involved.
Her baptismal records indicate that the father was “unknown,”
as were her grandparents. She
is given the name of Flor Bela de Alma da Conceição.
In Portuguese literature, she will be known as Florbela Espanca.
She receives the name Espanca from her father, João Maria Espanca,
once his identity becomes known. Oddly
enough, the priest who baptizes her has the same last name, and so does
child’s mother dies sometime later.
is no lack of love and affection in Florbela’s early childhood.
Her life is not darkened by the needs that afflict many of the
children born in similar circumstances.
Her father doesn’t withhold any support.
She says so herself when, at the age of 10, she writes a birthday
poem dedicated to her “dearest
beloved Daddy,” saying that Mom takes good care of her and her brother,
but “if you die, Daddy, we’ll be three wretched souls.”
will be treated kindly by her two stepmothers, as indicated in her
starts high-school in Évora, at a time when very few girls had an
inclination to study. She’s
a pretty girl, even though she often rejects the description, and her good
looks had quite an effect on her male classmates.
birthday poem is not her first. She
has written others before, with words misspelled.
They are childish, as might be expected, but they are mature for
her age. In a way, they are a
sign of what there is to come.
precociousness contrasts with a certain maladjustment in the future, when
her writings diverge from the tenets of poetry followed by such groups as Orfeu
and Presença, as well as other tendencies of the so-called “Modernist Movement,” and which are the
most important literary references at the time.
Florbela seems to have strayed from such principles.
lets us know that she had started with no financial difficulties at all.
She becomes a tutor in French, English, and other subjects.
Later, at age 22, she enters the School of Law at the University of
publishes several poems in newspapers
and magazines not necessarily dedicated to poetry, such as Notícias de Évora and O Século,
as well as in local newspapers.
1919, she publishes her first book Livro
de Mágoas (Book of Sorrows), and, in 1923, Livro
de Soror Saudade (Book of Sister Saudade),in which she includes much
of her previous work.
makes references to Alentejo and other places related to her place of
origin; she glorifies her
motherland in some of the poems. But
her writing will, above all else, deal with human passion.
|THE FACES OF A PERSONALITY|
Florbela’s concerns: the soul, love, longing, kisses, verses...
emerges on the scene free from any social or humanist concerns.
That’s how she is described by several scholars who have studied
her personality and her work. She
is the product of her small bourgeois world, as evidenced by her
descriptions of herself throughout her writings.
shows no interest for politics or social problems.
She calls herself a conservative.
one of her short stories, À Margem
de um Soneto (On the Edge of a Sonnet), she gives what is almost a
listing of her different personalities.
The story is included in the book Dominó
Preto (The Black Domino).
begins by describing a poetess “wearing a black and white velvet dress,
who holds out her slender hand, whose nails cast the reflections of jewels...”
while informing her visitor that she had finished her “book of poems...with
a beautiful sonnet!”
poetess proceeds to give a reading of the sonnet, “with a look...drowned
in dreams” in “a soft and sad voice,” bringing it to a close by
describing the “evil of being alone...” and having to put up with
“the horrible and cruel misfortune of bearing so many laughing souls
within my own soul!...”
story continues, written in a tone and describing
scenes which Florbela frequently considers to be reflections of
herself, although here she attributes such characteristics to a fictitious
Brazilian female novelist: “she
is homely, not at all elegant; intelligent, but having the talent, the
graceful spirit and, above all, the charm, of an extraordinary imagination,
full of life, passionate and colorful, always changing and displaying
her own words in the mind of the character’s husband, Florbela goes on
describing “the several souls that belonged to her”
and which “she had hid within herself.”
the novelist, Florbela glimpses a character who is “immaculate, naive,
cold and detached, inaccessible and sacred,” of
“an unreal beauty,” and “dying, in a state of innocence, with
a smile on her face.”
to another imaginary novel, she presents herself as “ardent, sensual,
hot with passion, driving men crazy, losing her values...”
to a third imaginary book, she pictures herself as “skeptical and
disillusioned, ironic, disdainful of everything, walking, with
indifference, along every path, causing all beautiful things to wither.”
She lies “night and day, just for the pleasure of lying” and
“madly kisses a mad lover.”
reading Florbela’s poetry, her prose, her letters and other writings,
who doesn’t notice her use of similar characteristics being applied to
herself a thousand times, some going beyond such descriptions and
bringing the story to a close, she exalts the quality of being a poetess,
a constant element in her work:
soul of a poetess is all made of light, like that of the stars:
it doesn’t blind the onlooker, it illuminates...”
is, really, Florbela?
one can be defined in one dimension only, with a single set of qualities.
As I learned in my youth from my friend Diogo de Sousa, a student
of philosophy, every being is a combination of different, and sometimes
even opposing, characteristics.
case is particularly interesting because she provides her own definition,
constantly and without reservations.
To paraphrase António José Saraiva and Oscar Lopes in História da Literatura Portuguesa (History of Portuguese Literature):
she stimulates and precedes “the women’s literary emancipation
movement” that “will put an end to the frustration, both feminine and
masculine, imposed by our oppressive patriarchal traditions...”
stated by these two scholars, her writings present an impressive
“intensity that goes beyond feminine eroticism.” Up to that time, this
had been taboo in feminine statements and writings, as it continued to be
a chapter entitled From Simbolism to
Modernism, the same authors list a number of tendencies characterized
as “methods of pedagogic exposition” and include Florbela in a group
which they call “Other poets.” She
is classified as a writer of sonnets with traces of Parnassian aesthetics”
and “one of the most notable lyrical personalities.”
egocentricity, which does not diminish the beauty of her poetry, is much
too evident not to be mentioned by everyone.
thirsts for glory, says Henrique Lopes de Mendonça, cited by Carlos
incessantly insists on the use of a certain group of words in her writings.
Above them all is the word “I”, which, one might say, is
present in practically all of her poetic pieces.
And then there are the widely repeated terms which are reflections
of her passion: soul, love,
longing (saudade), kisses,
verses, poet, and several others, as well as derivatives of such terms.
aren’t many of her writings that go beyond the characterization of such
passion, particularly in her poetry.
The exception is found in those that refer to her Alentejo, where
she was born.
does not assume the position of a distant observer, even when she seems to
be exactly that, unconcerned with facts, ideas and events.
position regarding marriage is rather unexpected. She states several times that she is totally against that
institution, even though she married three times. The only excuse she
reluctantly gives for herself is that she married for love (!!!).
her favorite poets, one finds António Nobre, Augusto Gil, Guerra
Junqueiro, José Duro and others who find inspiration in similar fountains.
She is also interested in Antero de Quental.
to her lack of success in publishing her work, after having published two
books, she is either unhappy for not finding an editor or she pretends
that she is not interested and is, in fact, disdainful of the fact. But her sadness is noticeable.
seventy years after her death, some facets of her less than orthodox
behavior are still discussed considering the moral principles of her time
regarding sex. Some
suspicions are reinforced by several of her expressions of emotion that
were somewhat excessive, even though not exclusively used by her.
are reminded of her correspondence with and her references to her brother,
Apeles. Her verbal excesses
seem to be just that – an immoderate way of expressing her passion. Here,
we have an uncommon glorification of a fraternal love that is not out of
tune with the way she usually expressed her feelings.
same thing happens in her correspondence with a certain woman friend.
But then, she had never met this friend, in person, and had only
seen her picture.
going beyond the limits in her expressions of love, friendship and
affection is constantly present in her work.
written comments today in the possession of Carlos Sombrio, Fernanda de
Castro explains Florbela’s contradictions by saying that “she didn’t
know how to live without breaking prejudices, handcuffs, chains – and
she didn’t have the courage to break them all.”
the poet, cannot be separated from her condition as a woman, or from her
passions, her way of being, her life, her contradictions, humbleness and
pride, her prejudices, her simultaneous presence and absence, her love
affairs and unrequited loves, as explained to me by my young friend Clara
Santos, herself a militant Florbela follower.
sole concern is herself, her love, her passion...to want and not to want.
In addition to a rather uncommon life for the mores of her time –
three marriages and two divorces in about fifteen years – this
woman-passion relationship plus her enthusiasm in describing herself might
have contributed to the ideas that people have about her.
the beginning of one of her best known sonnets:
I want to love, to love
in the next quatrain,
He who loves someone and says
that love’s fire
FLORBELA, THE WRITER AND THE CULT
ask myself why Florbela has become so well-known and why she has been
accepted by a public far greater than that of other contemporary writers,
who came before and after her, the quality of whose work is, if not
superior, at least on the same level as hers and whose interests and
character are more universal, with concerns that are capable of appealing
to a broader range of sensibilities.
her work presents undeniable interest and beauty, it, nevertheless, has
surprised some critics by its impact on the reading public when compared
with the work of other writers of equal value who are little known or
totally unknown outside intellectual circles.
open the above-mentioned History of
Portuguese Literature, count the number of writers mentioned in the
same time period as Florbela’s, consider the impartial analysis of their
work made by the authors and check the number of such writers who continue
hidden in a mist. Even for
readers of wide reading experience, many of them are no more than unknown
his book Os anos vinte em Portugal (The
20s in Portugal), José Augusto França, after making an extensive
catalog of publications and referring to dozens of writers, describes
Florbela as “hidden from everyone’s view,” although he adds that
“hers was a case of the most profound creation among the women who
published their work in the 20s in Portugal.”
other critics she is not a star of the same magnitude as some of her
contemporaries. She is
not up to par, either as to form or as to her concerns.
How to explain it, then, that she is considered by many as one of
the outstanding figures of the century – and that she is so precisely
because of the importance attributed to her work?
Cidade will say that it’s due to “the violent contradiction between
the concepts of poetry in two periods that are distant from ou near each
their analysis of her behavior and work, some critics include comments in
which one can sense an effort to avoid a relatively harsh judgment.
her long preface to an edition of Diário
do último ano (Diary of the Last Year), Natália Correia speaks of a
“pathetic coquettishness” and describes Florbela’s poetry as
“poetry made up with languid touches like a silent screen movie star,
heavy on the face powder.” The critic proceeds, with a bit of
exaggeration, saying that the writer “stretches out on the chaise
longue of her magic spells worthy of a goddess of verses.”
Very much in keeping with the principles of
minor literary circles. She is an expensive puppy to be cuddled
during the five o’clock tea by the ladies who read Modas
e Bordados (Fashion and Embroidery) and Portugal
Feminino (Portugal for Women), a fact that explains her lack of
sensitivity to “the disruptions brought about by the logic of masculine
then, such a growth of her fame?
cult is begun by Florbela, herself.
the following poem, one of her most beautiful, as it was sung by a
well-known musical group.
To be a poet is to be taller, to
It is to have inside yourself a
To be hungry and thirsty for the
To condense the world into one
how often Florbela reminds us that she is a poet!
And she does it with such enthusiasm!
dream I am the chosen Poet,
dream a verse of mine has all the brightness
poets will be so insistent...
in no way, discard the beauty of her writings, her manner of expression,
and the subject matter of her work.
we intensify our reading of the work, and without prejudice to its
literary quality, we are not surprised by aspects which are, somehow,
alien to it. Among them are
the portrait the author draws of her life, somewhat distant from the
social structure and mores of her time, the several real or apparent
contradictions (as admitted by José Régio, editor of the literary
publication Presença), the
tragedy of her death, her continued efforts to have her work published,
the places where she lives, her incipient feminism which, even though
different from what followed later, was able to draw attention.
name of Guido Batelli, an Italian professor at the University of Coimbra,
must not be omitted from any account of her work.
It is Professor Batelli who, upon translating several of her poems
into Italian, brings about an uncommon occurrence.
Being a sincere admirer of Florbela’s, his efforts are crowned
with the posthumous publication of Charneca
em flor (The Flowering Heath), Reliquiae (Relics) and Juvenilia. And probably
his efforts also contributed to the republication of Livro de Mágoas (The
Book of Sorrows) and Livro
de Soror Saudade (The Book of Sister Saudade).
to the silent treatment by Presença
regarding Florbela’s work, Régio, the editor, confesses his
embarassment and explains that he only read it later.
He calls it “live poetry” which “springs to life, lives and
feeds itself upon...her much too real condition as a human being.” In 1950, he will write a long and elucidating preface
to the successive republications of part of her poems. In it, he makes a valuable analysis, praising the work and
highlighting some of Florbela’s most brilliant pieces...
POETRY, IDEAS AND POETRY ABOUT LOVE
Kiss my hands, Love, make them feel caressed
is what makes Florbela what she is today. It’s almost always in the form
of sonnets, with rare exceptions such as the quatrains included by Rui
Guedes in an important edition covering all or almost all of her poetry.
is one of such quatrains, with a certain air of a popular ditty:
The love I feel for you
What kind of magic potion
the place where she was born, she reserves special words of praise.
In a sonnet entitled No meu Alentejo (In My Alentejo), attached to a letter she writes to
the editor of Fashion and Embroidery,
she expresses her feelings in the final triplets:
is so calm and chaste, so like a dream.
profoundly wise as to unfurl
also writes poems in a patriotic vein.
One of them is an appeal to the mothers whose sons have died in the
service of the motherland, recommending that they silence their
manifestations of grief. There
are other poems running along the same line.
Florbela makes it clear that what concerns her is Love and those
ingredients which, from a romantic point of view, are inherent to it:
loneliness, sadness, longing, seduction, the evocation of death,
among many others...And, of course, desire.
Someone tells me that these elements are present even when she
deals with other themes. Let
us take a look at one of the quatrains of the sonnet she entitled Toledo:
Your hands tremble as they
caress and woo me...
the great paradox. Quite
often she refers to love as a feeling of which eroticism is a permanent
component. Love is highly praised in several of her poems, while in others
she attempts to make it “clean” of what were considered to be
impurities at the time.
several marriages, she declares that she wishes to die in a state of
of this is the result of a set of values that forbade women to express
sexual pleasure, or so I am told secretively by another female friend for
whom Florbela is the greatest exponent of writing in the feminine gender. She also tells me that the more audacious allusions to sex
were considered to be degrading or, more complacently, were taken as a
question, for which there is no easy answer, is whether Florbela’s
wrintings come so close to explicitness because she intends to disregard
the rules of behavior accepted as convenient and morally correct.
another sonnet, entitled A Ride in
the Country, she begins:
love! My lover! Beloved
after making mention of her “graceful and slender waist...” as well as
some of her other physical attributes, she continues:
upon returning, love...
you came to see me in the evening,
And my lips are like a flower
there is more to her eroticism. In
another poem she declares:
dreamt that I was your beloved lover
and burning with desire,
there are still others in a similar vein, such as the following triplets:
my hands, Love, make them feel caressed
Kiss them, Love!... The wildest fantasy is at my fingertips
their sensuality, such verses suggest a libertine attitude, and such
interpretation of Florbela’s body of work leads one to think that she
was a cultural dissenter.
that sensuality, which is always present, she says that she cannot think
of a sexual relationship without a feeling of immorality and
brutality. In some of
her work, where this feeling is more clearly suggested, women are immoral
or they are vixens ou are described with similar words.
prose writing is represented by her short stories, by a diary she kept
just before her death, and by her correspondence.
Some of her letters were of an intimate nature, others dealt with
questions related to her literary production, wondering about its literary
quality, or wondering about more pratical matters, such as publication.
In the contents of her correspondence, we see certain qualities
that are not always present in the rest of
her prose – naturalness and simplicity.
her short stories, organized in two volumes, Dominó
Preto (The Black Domino) and As
Máscaras do Destino (The Masks of Destiny), quite often we can sense
a certain autobiographical and intimate content.
À margem de um soneto (On the Edge
of a Sonnet), her intention seems to be
to paint a different picture of the characters in which she sees
herself mirrored, since they are contradictory and provoking for the
another short story, Amor de outrora
(A Past Love), the reader can detect the reminiscing of events in her
life, her mistakes and disappointments in love, from the first to the
third marriages. This
interpretation is strengthened by several letters addressed to her
husbands and to lovers whom she apparently wishes to get rid of, as well
as to her father, in which she tries to justify some of these situations.
Crime do Pinhal (Murder in
the Pine Grove), two mothers who love the same child stand by the
“avengers” who murdered the child’s seducer.
Could these be her stepmothers who showed such great and
simultaneous affection for Florbela and to whom she is now expressing her
at the beginning of As Máscaras do
Destino (The Masks of Destiny), we find a dedication to Apeles, her
“Deceased,” for whom, once again, she has words of great joy and
praise as well as pain, which she complements with O
Aviador (The Flier), where she gives a mythical interpretation of the
death of her beloved brother.
her short stories, one finds phrases of great beauty and strength, such as
in the expressions of desire, loaded with eroticism, attributed to the
main character of The Flier and
which, somehow, express her own contradictions as she makes her transition
toward women’s liberation. We
cannot, however, overlook the fact that sometimes they lack a certain
density of structure or content. There is an overabundance of words and
images which add little or nothing to what she intends to say and which,
as noted by Y. Centeno, contribute very little to a “profound analysis
of her sentiments and passions.” And,
as also noted by Centeno, Florbela is consistent in qualifying women as
being pure or impure, excellent people or shrews.
letters were not intended to be literary creations and, perhaps for that
reason plus the fact that she dwells on actual events, they present a less
embellished and artificial picture of
her life. They allow
us to know her better as they mirror the conditions of her soul and bring
us closer to her real human condition more than what we find in her formal
prose and even in some of her poetic moments.
her letters, the ones that stand out are those addressed to her friend Júlia
Alves, whom she never meets personally but with whom she exchanges
personal impressions on the most varied subjects
and to whom she opens up her soul, as the friendship becomes more
intense. In one of them she
says: “I’m so much in
need of being lulled to sleep, slowly...softly...like a little child,
dreaming, in a warm and tender lap!...”
Perhaps this will help us to better understand her life as well as
another letter, this one written after her first marriage, she declares,
and later both repeats and denies it:
“one of the best things in life...is love, that great and much
talked about love...”, and then adds “however, marriage is a cruel
state, as is the state of being owned...”
writes to her friend with surprising frequency.
On several days in a row. In
one day, she writes three letters. In
what supposedly is the last letter, not as warm as the ones that preceded
it and sent slightly less than a year after the first one, she thanks her
friend and declares that she will never forget her feeling of being
understood and esteemed.
correspondence addressed to other people she demonstrates her sadness for
all the difficulties she has had to face to publish her books.
to writer Raul Proença, she indicates her discouragement due his
declarations about her poems, and encloses new sonnets asking him for his
opinion of them. Eventually, he will make the arrangements for the
publication of her book Livro de Mágoas
(The Book of Sorrows).
|THE FINAL DAYS|
the last year of her life she writes a Diary,
in which she writes comments right up to a few days before her tragic end.
It is a preface to her demise.
begins by saying that she has no particular purpose in writing it.
But a little later she hopes that “when I die it’s possible
that someone” upon reading it “do so with a little compassion and
understanding” of what she had been or thought she had been.
“And be able to do what I couldn’t:
to know me.”
describes herself as “sincere without prejudices, loving without lust,
chaste without formalities, correct without principles, and always alive,”
all of which leads to some of the questions that have come up...
recalls the names of former companions and describes once again the love
she had for her brother, Apeles, the pilot whose death in a plane crash
makes her feel so much more lonely. She says that she doesn’t understand
the fear felt by the young author of another Diary,
from which she excerpts a few sentences.
examines her face in a mirror and finds herself as “vulgar and hideous-looking, grotesque and a wretch,”
and doubts whether she can make poetry.
And once again, she makes us consider the contradictions that
permanently torture her and which she expresses in one single sentence: “To live is not to realize that you are living.”
annotations become rarer and shorter as she nears the end.
states that the love letters she had written were only the result of her
need to make phrases. And, in
complete contradiction of what she had said only a couple of pages before,
she writes “...if other people don’t know me, I know myself.”
few days before her death, she wonders:
“...how important is what lies
hereafter?” And she answers her own question by repeating the
words from her sonnet To a Dying Man:
“Whatever it is, it will be better than this world and this life.”
death, which had been announced throughout her writings, occurs shortly
thereafter. She ends her life
on December 8, 1930, exactly on the day she turns thirty-six, in the town
of Matosinhos, where she is living. She
is buried there, but her remains are later removed to her birthplace.
might not have been the greatest poetess of her time, but she was one who
most sharply and fearlessly expressed the great contradictions in the
sensitiveness of a woman and her passions.
And she does it with a certain innocence, impregnated with simple
and complex truths about what it is to be a woman in the confluence of cultural mores and the act of simply being.
leads Florbela to her death?
answer is given by Fernanda de Castro, as quoted by Carlos Sombrio:
“Because she was never able to bring into harmony her body, her
spirit and her soul.”
newspapers hardly notice her death. They
will do it later.
the efforts of professor Guido Batelli, as we mentioned before, her two
books of poems, Charneca em Flor (The
Flowering Heath) and Reliquiae (Relics),
are published posthumously, as are her books of short stories Dominó Preto (Black Domino) and As
Máscara do Destino (The Mask of
Destiny) and the the poem Juvenilia.
is only the beginning of a succession of republications which,
particularly regarding her poems, in some cases have reached thirty-six,
or perhaps more, if we consider the scattering of publishing houses.