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If I obeyed reason

Old poems

If I obeyed reason

Sara Carvalho


If I obeyed reason

And if I resisted desire

I would live in freedom

And passion I would not require


But when I wished to see

if by any chance I had erred

I found it all to be deceit

to this call err if you prefer:


that to always follow reason

and not a thousand times desire

is to deny the sensuality,

in which the heart lives entire.

Duarte de Resende, “S’obedecera a rezam”, Florilégio do Cancioneiro de Resende. Lisboa: Textos Literários, 1994. Translation for this website Rita Faria. 

This poem should not have been forgotten because it is a brief, melodic ascertainment of the kind of truth which everyone has already experienced and probably experiences every day – the mind does not live without a body and the latter lays down its will often. Camões would honestly and openly sing about “expecting a body from the one whose soul you take”, and this poem seems to endorse such statement. Reason is not denied, neither is the soul, but it is also true that one cannot perpetually obey reason as that is against nature itself (“…is to deny the sensuality,/in which the heart lives entire.”). Where there’s reason, there’s a body. Where there’s soul, there’s a body. This is therefore a poem (the only in Cancioneiro Geral resorting to the word “sensuality”) which serves as a pleasant, natural opposition to the sorrows of love sung in abstract language and the idealisation of women which pervade the Cancioneiro.

The truth is that the body is a lot of work, either because it wants what the mind doesn’t want, or because it doesn’t want what the mind wants or simply because it doesn’t know what it wants. The opposition between reason and desire described in the poem is thus quite important. One should note the almost sententious rhetoric of the concluding lines as they offer an answer to the reason/desire dilemma – to deny sensuality is to deny the heart which lives in the aforementioned sensuality. I don’t usually appreciate sententious or judicial rhetoric, Agustina-style (full respect, by the way) but I do appreciate this particular rhetoric as it seems to derive from factual observations. The poet starts by an if-clause and consequent subjunctive (if by any chance he were to obey reason, which he didn’t and won’t – the English translation bears the second conditional in order to convey the highly hypothetical value of the proposition), and proceeds to explain both sides of the issue – the poet has indeed considered obeying reason in order to live in freedom, but he didn’t and tries to understand whether he has made a mistake in so doing. He concludes that he hasn’t made any mistakes as to not follow “a thousand times desire” is to deny sensuality; it is against nature and it is therefore deceit. The end. Nothing else to be said. The poet is so firm in his conviction that his brief sentence is conveyed by brevity of form – a cantiga of three stanzas following the very popular seven-syllable redondilha. Whilst brevity is not uncommon amongst the many compositions of the Cancioneiro, this particular poem by Duarte de Resende is especially incisive.   

The English translation has drawn from Rodrigues Lapa’s indispensable notes concerning the syntax of the poem and it is furthermore important to note that Rodrigues Lapa is one of the first to redeem the Poets of Cancioneiro from the oblivion in which they almost fell after decades of literary criticism which insisted in demeaning and/or ignoring them. Rodrigues Lapa thus sheds light on the eighth verse – “call this to err, if you wish” –, and paraphrases the last two lines, which may sound cryptic to the modern ear, much less used to delicate syntax – “it is to ignore the right of senses, under which the heart is subsumed”. These paraphrases are responsible for the preservation of a certain Portuguese flavour in the rhyme scheme of the translation-betrayal. Furthermore, the solution found to convey the opposing pair reason/desire should be explained. Whilst “reason” is not particularly problematic in English, the translation of “vontade” closer to its etymology (“will”, “volition”) seemed closer to the semantic field of whims than to the desires of the body which must be respected. The choice fell on “desire” as it doesn’t allow room for much doubt, such as the body usually doesn’t. It is reason which is usually more deceitful.

Rita Faria

Duarte de Resende was first cousin of Garcia de Resende, hence the shared surname and place of origin, Évora. He travelled and was supervisor (feitor) of the Island of Ternate, on the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. Upon his return to Portugal, Duarte became a prolific translator of Cicero. 

Rita Faria is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. She doesn’t know how to do anything else apart from reading and writing and wants to do nothing else apart from reading and writing. Besides this, she enjoys horror films, vampires, ghosts and zombies in general and thinks the Portuguese language is the most fun in the whole world.