The vast, ancient, solitary sea


Green-muscled ocean
Idol of many arms like an octopus
Convulsive incorruptible chaos
Ordered tumult
Contorted dancer
Surrounding the taut ships
We traversed row on row of horses
Shaking their manes in the trade winds

The sea turned suddenly very young and very old
Revealing beaches
And a people
Of just-created men still the colour of clay
Still naked still in awe

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Richard Zenith)

The Small Square

My life had taken the form of a small square
That autumn when your death was being meticulously organised
I clung to the square because you loved
The humble and nostalgic humanity of small shops
Where shopkeepers fold and unfold ribbons and cloth
I tried to become you because you were going to die
And all my life there would cease to be mine
I tried to smile as you smiled
At the newspaper seller at the tobacco seller
At the woman without legs who sold violets
I asked the woman without legs to pray for you
I lit candles at all the altars
Of the churches standing in the corner of that square
Hardly had I opened my eyes when I saw and read
The vocation for eternity written on your face
I summoned up the streets places people
Who were the witnesses of your face
So they would call you so they would unweave
The tissue that death was binding around you

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Ruth Fainlight)


Midday. A corner of the deserted beach.
The huge, deep, open sun on high
Has chased all the gods from the sky.
The harsh light falls like a punishment.
There are no ghosts and no souls,
And the vast, ancient, solitary sea
Loudly claps its hands.

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Richard Zenith)

This is the perfect hour

This is the perfect hour when a hush descends
On our muted human murmurings
And inside us finally there speaks
The grave voice of indolent dreams.

This is the hour when roses are the roses
That flowered in the Persian gardens
Where Saadi and Hafiz saw and loved them.
This is the hour of the mysterious voices

Chosen and summoned by my desires.
This is the hour of the long conversations
Held between leaf and leaf.
This is the hour when time is abolished
And I do not even know my own face.

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Margaret Jull Costa and Colin Rorrison)

Portrait of an unknown princess

For her to have such a slender neck
For her wrists to bend like flower stems
For her eyes to be so clear and direct
Her back so straight
Her head so high
With such a natural glow on her forehead
It took successive generations of slaves
With stooping bodies and patient rough hands
Serving successive generations of princes
Still a bit coarse still a bit crude
Cruel greedy and conniving
It took an enormous squandering of life
For her to be
That lonely exiled aimless perfection

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Richard Zenith)


The pines moan when the wind passes
The sun beats on the earth and the stones burn.

Fantastic sea gods stroll at the edge of the world
Crusted with salt and brilliant as fishes.

Sudden wild birds hurled
Against the light into the sky like stones
Mount and die vertically
Their bodies taken by space.

The waves butt as if to smash the light
Their brows ornate with columns.

And an ancient nostalgia of being a mast
Sways in the pines.

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Ruth Fairlight)


Sibyls inside adamantine caves,
Totally loveless and blind.
Feeding emptiness like a sacred fire
While shadow dissolves night and day
Into the same light of bodiless horror.
Bring out here that monstrous dew
Of interior nights, the sweat
Of powers tied to themselves
When words strike the walls
In blind swoops of trapped birds
And the horror of having wings
Screeches like a clock in the void.

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Richard Zenith)

The Greeks

To the gods we attributed a dazzling existence
Consubstantial with the sea the clouds trees and light
In them the waves’ glinting the foam’s long white frieze
The woods’ secret and soft green the wheat’s tall gold
The river’s meandering the mountain’s solemn fire
And the great dome of resonant weightless free air
Emerged as self-aware consciousness
With no loss of the first day’s marriage-and-feast oneness
Anxious to have this experience for ourselves
We humans repeated the ritual gestures that re-establish
The initial whole presence of things –
This made us attentive to all forms known by the light of day
As well as to the darkness which lives within us
And in which the ineffable shimmer travels

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Richard Zenith)

In the Poem

To bring the picture the wall the wind
The flower the glass the shine on wood
And the cold chaste severe world of water
To the clean severe world of the poem

To save from death decay and ruin
The actual moment of vision and surprise
And keep in the real world
The real gesture of a hand touching the table.

(Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, tr. Ruth Fairlight)

Emil Nolde, ‘The Sea’, 1930

2 thoughts on “The vast, ancient, solitary sea

  1. What gorgeous poetry, by a poet I’ve never heard of! This translates beautifully and I love the images. I know just what she means by the sun driving the gods away.


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