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Oh mountains so tall

Old poems

Oh mountains so tall

Maria S. Mendes

 

      Down with this mountain,

      my shore I’ll encounter

 

Oh mountains so tall,

let yourselves vanish,

let yourselves fall

and be banished,

for such aching pain

has started a war

to see my shore.

 

Tides of the sea,

Which change with time,

let my remembrances

have thoroughfare free.

Let them return,

bring news of the shore,

which causes such war.

 

The sun is darkened,

night is coming in;

my eyes, my love

will not come to thee.

Early comes nightfall

in this mountain so tall

not so in my shore

Francisco de Sousa, “Oh mountains so tall”, Florilégio do Cancioneiro de Resende, translation Rita Faria.  

This poem should not have been forgotten because it is not only about the love between two people, or about unrequited love, or about physical or neo-Platonic love – it is also, or even mainly, about the love and the yearning one can feel about “land”, about “a shore”.

The poem follows the fast-paced, musical five-syllable metrics of redondilha menor and begins with a motto introducing  a determining rhyming triptych – “mountain” and “shore”, to which “war” will be added (and which the English translation could not accurately render). On the surface, the language of the poem is denotative and heavily referential, based on the physical materiality of the tall mountains, the shore, the sea. However, just as the poet’s gaze attempts to see beyond the tall mountain, so does language follow this gaze and extrapolates from referential to non-referential meaning – each stanza begins with a vocative which introduces progressively abstract and psychological elements. The poet invokes “mountains so tall” and then “tides of the sea” and asks the latter not to prevent his remembrances from returning to him; he then proceeds to describe the physical event of the sunset and addresses his own gaze (“my eyes”) so as to delve into complete introspection and say to himself that waiting is to no avail – “my love/will not come to thee”. Finally, nightfall is also the darkening of the soul.Tarracha Ferreira (Antologia do CancioneiroGeral, EdiçõesUlisseia) states that “war” means “yearning”, “anxiety”, perhaps. Both the notes on the latter edition and Rodrigues Lapa render the poem as a love composition in which the poet complains of the absence of his lady and the consequent yearning he feels. I believe the poem lends itself not only to the latter reading but also to an interpretation close to the referent, in which “war” actually means “war” (there are many ways to be at war), and the yearning of the poet is due to the physical distance that separates him from his country. His anxiety derives from the knowledge of the terrible situation inflicted on his homeland. Considering that Portugal has rarely been in any other situation than critical, and further considering that this poem was written by a Portuguese, I tend to construe the poem as a confession of anguish and love that is not merely about his lady, it is also for the land (for the shore) one originates from, that is, the country is the poet’s “love” whose destiny is uncertain and therefore causes anxiety and yearning.

Even if vast swathes of literature on Portuguese Culture had never broached the subject, any Portuguese has felt and known the frailty of Portugal as a national project. The Portuguese carry a constant burden of stress inherited from History (for once, it’s not our fault – it’s History’s) and it is this burden which this musical, anxious, beautiful poem speaks of – “down with this mountain,/my shore I’ll encounter” and until that moment we must learn to live in a state of constant insecurity, or anxiety, or yearning. “É fado nosso/é nacional/não há portugueses/há Portugal” (Almada Negreiros) – “It is our fate/and it is national/there are no Portuguese/there is only Portugal”.

Rita Faria

Francisco de Sousa was a navigator who went to Goa with Afonso de Albuquerque in 1509. He hastily returned to Portugal in 1511, which caused him to lose the position of captain. What Afonso de Albuquerque probably did not know was that Francisco de Sousa had returned to the homeland for the greater good – in fact, to kidnap and then marry D. Antónia de Meneses, with whom he had fallen in love, and who was a nun in a convent. Francisco’s nickname was thus “Macias”, in honour of a Galician poet who had become the symbol of lovers. He died in 1559. 

 


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.