The serpent closes its ear
The serpent closes its ear
to the voice of the enchanter;
I didn’t, and now in fear,
I wish I would lose my senses.
Those who know of the sea
from the Mermaids’ cry flee;
I could not guard my defences:
I went to hear your word,
My life and soul I spurned.
Francisco Sá de Miranda, “Cerra a serpente os ouvidos”, Florilégio do Cancioneiro de Resende, 4ª edição, selecção, prefácio e notas de Rodrigues Lapa. Lisboa: Textos Literários, 1973.
Translation for this website by Rita Faria.
This poem should not have been forgotten because it summarises an intense sensory experience in a few lines. The poem’s originality comes from its initial, exotic referent, the “serpent”, who resists the enchanter’s voice, namely his voice. The serpent opposes the poet because it is courageous and independent and knows how to resist the attractive, seductive sound. Not so the poet; he wants to lose his senses because the latter, specifically sound, have caused fear, pain, and made him fall in love with an enchanter. There are two lines which by referencing the sea and the Mermaids establish intertextuality with the clever Ulysses from the Odyssey; Ulysses, knowing of the sea, tied himself and his men to their ship so as to resist the Mermaids’ cry. Both Ulysses and the serpent knew how to “guard their defences”, but once again the poet is found wanting. He ponders upon his mistake as if it were mere coincidence, almost as if he’s saying “it just happened, I went to hear your word and before I knew it…”. And perhaps this is indeed what passionate love is, a mistake that just happens, and before we know it, the Mermaids are upon us to have us drowned. The poet enunciates his mistake, which he tries to pass off as tragic, in the following way: “fui-vos ouvir nomear” (“I went to hear your word”). No wonder Sá de Miranda was addressed as “Doctor”, let us just look at his writing.
Although the tone of the poem is not actually tragic nor sad, the poet does describe his mistake as if it were indeed a tragic one, in the sense that there is nothing the poet can do to correct it when he becomes aware of the mistake – all is lost, “my life and soul I spurned”. One should note that the subject of the last three lines is the poet, who therefore accepts responsibility for his actions. The result was that he fell in love by the serpent enchanter. One could probably do a lot worse.
The poem is unforgettable due to its referents (the serpent, the sea, the Mermaids), by its intertextuality with The Odyssey and Ulysses and by the sensory power of sound – the poet falls in love not because he is struck by the vision of the Lady’s beauty, but because of the beauty of her word. The poem’s originality lies also in how it configures the attraction to the Lady, which seems to run along more intellectual lines than those we usually encounter.
Love is therefore an intellectual mistake. It makes us viler than the intelligent serpent, and wounded by the Mermaids’ cry. The advantage is that it also allows for great poetry, which somehow pays off.
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.