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Crystal Clear: The Sub-Objective Poetry of Cesário Verde

Figure 1: José Joaquim Cesário Verde. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Portal da Literatura.

The poet was born in Lisbon in 1855. Since his father was a wealthy hardware dealer and farmer, José Joaquim Cesário Verde became familiar early on with the city and the countryside. He published his first verses at the age of eighteen and died at the age of thirty-one, in Caneças, where he lived for a while in search of a treatment for tuberculosis – the disease that took his life.

Cesario was born at a time when Realism was prominent in Europe. The main characteristic of this movement is that "the realists reacted violently and hostilely against everything that was identified with Romanticism (...); [consequently, they were] supporters of objectivism." (MOISÉS, 1973, p. 204). To focus on the object (and not on the individual), the Realists had to be guided by Reason, or intelligence: therefore, they were Rationalists. They also followed the Positivist line - "only what can be observed, documented, analyzed, experimented, that is, what presupposes a scientific behavior matters" (MOISÉS, 1973, p. 204-205) - and Determinism, believing that the work of art is influenced by the environment, inheritance (genetics), and circumstances. It is also worth noting that those belonging to the realist movement were anti-monarchist, anti-bourgeois, and anti-clerical.

Literary works now came to play a role as a weapon of combat, reform, and social action; it was now a compromised (engagée) art. Novelists were doing thesis work: to prove the effect of Determinism on the life and behavior of men; they would portray the problem in their characters who, living in a certain environment, being exposed to certain circumstances and endowed with a certain genetic load, would come to behave in a certain way.

The poetry of this movement brings to the fore again the lyricism of Bocage and Camões. The authors of that time believed that the poem was the ideal mold to unite the revolutionary ideas of the Realist generation to an easier communication of its explosive content. Several strands started from the same root: "realist" poetry, represented by Guerra Junqueiro, Gomes Leal, Antero de Quental, Teófilo Braga, and others; everyday poetry, grounded by Cesário Verde; metaphysical poetry, with Antero de Quental as its representative; and poetry of Parnassian vehemence, written by João Penha, Antônio Joaquim de Castro Feijó, and the Brazilian Antônio Cândido Gonçalves Crespo, who was born in Rio de Janeiro but moved to Lisbon when he was still a teenager.

Although the Realists prized mainly for pure objectivity, Cesário Verde stood out for his distinctive style: he poetized the prosaic, the everyday life, taking into account the impression that the outside leaves on the inside. He seeks to capture the moment when the objects, seen from a certain perspective, gain their entire individuality - and this occurs in a tiny fraction of time. Objective reality merges, then, with subjective reality, and a third reality arises: the objective-subjective, or vice-versa; this mentalization of the object is what true "realism" would be. According to Massaud Moisés, the unique classification for Cesario Verde's poetry "serves as a transit between Romanticism and Realism, on one hand, and as a bridge for some of the attitudes that will be in vogue in the Symbolist and Modernist aesthetics" (MOISÉS, 1973, p. 217). He inherited from Baudelaire the lyrical attitude towards external reality (which, we must admit, is not a factor in common with realist ideals) and his poetic conduct guided by his root drama - tuberculosis - which made him have a vision of life different from the others, making him pursue his inner chaos without worrying about literary movements.

Cesario had four phases in his short poetic career. In the first one, he is concerned with the accuracy of form. In addition, he maintains a "façade cynicism" transformed into humourism, which hides a sensitivity that the poet perhaps did not yet know existed.

In the second one, the author already matures and begins to observe daily reality and to portray it antilirically.

In the third one, the Portuguese writer starts to observe the city and the thousand mysteries it hides in its "natural" everyday life. Writing to his friend Silva Pinto, in 1879, he confessed, "I am not like many who are in the middle of a large gathering of completely isolated and abstract people. To me what surrounds me is what concerns me." (VERDE, 1879)

In the fourth phase, his love for the city then changes into love for the country, a place where, in the poet's own words, "(…) there are still primitive, sincere things and a good regular peace (…)" (VERDE, 1879). According to his own words, he now deplorably neglects his surroundings (in the city). Taking refuge in the countryside for the improvement of his health, he remains there until his death.

Figure 2: [Photograph of a Crystal]. Landot & Associés (Avocats à La Cour) (2020)

The poem Cristalizações (Crystallizations, in English) belongs to the second phase. Referring to it, Cesario wrote to his friend Silva Pinto, in 1879: "They are some sharp verses, frozen, that the past winter helped me build; they resemble a crystal polyhedron and therefore suggest almost no psychological and intimate emotion. But at least I know it well."

Taking into consideration Cesario's definition of the poem, we observe the portrait of a cold, clear winter morning that left a superficial impression, not so psychologically or emotionally elaborated, but that is his perception. The question remains in the air: does he know this poem well because he wrote it himself? Is it because he has lived through the experience described in the verses?

Another hypothesis to be raised is related to the title, which can be interpreted as a general view of society. As dawn breaks and the day passes, the opinions and views of society become clearer and clearer, like crystal.

The poet has not yet nurtured a horror for the city, and therefore there is not such a firm presence of bucolicism in this poem - as it happens in the fourth phase - nor has he started to analyze more deeply the social problems existing in that environment - a situation that occurs in the third phase. His eyes are opening to the mysteries that the city hides in its daily and trivial life. To do this, he will use the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Another function that the expression of these sensations and certain synesthesia pointed out by the lyric subject is to bring the reader closer to that reality: to the most attentive, they will be able to feel the cold of that morning, visualize its raw clarity - of a clear and cloudy day, for example -, see the reflection of the wet houses in the water puddles, hear the cry of the disseminated fishmongers and, further on, the sound of iron and stone colliding, see the sheds of poor people lighting up with the appearance of the sun, attentively analyze the manners of the workers (cobblers and bricklayers) and the actress, besides their appearances, among many other things that are described in detail throughout the poem.

The objectivity is given by this very detailed description of the street and the elements that compose it on a given morning - the workers and their tools, the fishmongers, the actress, and so many other physical aspects, as well as the houses, the sheds, the puddles, the trees, the yards, the sky. Along with this act of describing, comes subjectivity - the poet's opinion accompanies everything, he comments on everything. Using adjectives, metaphors, comparisons, and exclamations, he gives his impression of everything he sees. This continuously brings the reader closer: the reader, if well absorbed in the poem, will visualize a sequence of activities in his thought - an extension of the objective vision: the third reality mentioned above, the true one.

Figure 3: [Cesário Verde Letter Stamp]. (n.d.). HipStamp

The conception of city life does not yet assume the role of "hell": the city region is calm, except for the activity of the fishmongers, the service of the workers in the streets, and the movement of other people. There is, however, a distinction of two social classes in this poem: that of the workers and the fishmongers, and that of the actress. The class of the former can still be divided into two: the fishmongers, who are poor laborers, and the laborers - cobblers, masons, and diggers/valuers, who do the heavier work. According to the current standard, we could classify their class as equivalent to the lower-middle class and their class as equivalent to the upper-middle class. In certain passages, we can see that the lyrical subject is closer to the lower-middle class, who suffered from the heavy work, and treats with a certain irony the behavior of those who belong to the wealthier class.

The relationship between man and animal can be observed in the poem in the realm of the workers who, by the progressive historical context, were still exploited. As seen in the passage from the poem, Cesario compares an animal historically used to carry loads, the donkey, to a man performing the same service. Another possible allusion is the relationship between the beard of the human being and the goat's goatee used for details in clothing.

During the reading of the poem, clear differences between classes can be observed. In the text, the author uses the character of the actress to represent the aristocratic class, and, on the other hand, to characterize the opposite class, he presents the workers. As an example, one can cite the passage where Cesario characterizes the worker's hands as "calloused and chapped hands". And to define the actress he uses words with a more delicate meaning consistent with the class to which she belongs.

From all the relationships cited and exemplified in the text, it is possible to conclude an intention of social criticism presented in the poem. The text illustrates, through the characters, striking characteristics of each social class and elements that differentiate them, making clear Cesario's vision of the population.

Bibliographic References

MOISES, M. (1973). Portuguese literature (11th ed.). Cultrix.

NEVES, J. A. das (1992). Portugal's literary relations with Brazil (1st ed.). Institute of Culture and Portuguese Language; Ministry of Education and Culture.

VERDE, J. J. C. (1879) [Letter sent to his friend]. Addressee: António José da Silva Pinto. Lisbon. 1 letter.


Author Photo

Simone Carlesso

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