The bicentenary of Gonçalves Dias

Tayseer Barakat, Sea without a coast #9, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 70 x 50 cm.


Commentary on the poet from Maranhão

On August 10th we celebrated the bicentenary of the birth of Gonçalves Dias. After the lively celebrations of Modern Art and Independence Week, the day of our first romantic poet who deserves to be remembered by future generations passed more or less without being noticed. Known for his two most cited poems, “Canção do Exílio” and “I-Juca Pirama”, Antônio Gonçalves Dias (1823-1834) was many other things and his figure, mixed with what was later called Indianism, will be forever remembered as that of the Indians' vate.[I]

The Indianist fashion passed relatively quickly, although it survived in an outdated form until the time when José de Alencar wrote his novels on the subject. If we are to take what textbooks and high school teachers tell us, these writers took the Indian as a national representative and made him wear the clothes of medieval European knights, demonstrating ignorance of the reality of indigenous peoples and making colonization sound like a idealized process.

Not entirely true, this view, I think, is more valid for José de Alencar de the guarani than for Gonçalves Dias. Note well: if I say more valid it is because, in some way, it is also valid (although less so) for our poet of the previous generation. The problems are more evident in Gonçalves Dias than in José de Alencar and gain more direct expression. I would like to go through, once again, the two best-known poems to see how this all happens.

The poet's generation from Maranhão was interested in composing a national epic poem. The logic, although flawed, is simple. Nations, this newly invented thing throughout the XNUMXth century, is a result of the natural world: the nature of each location generates the specific forms of cultural existence of men who, thus, form nations. Nations are the cultural and political expression of nature itself and poetry, the specific result of the type of nation that emerged from each specific form of nature, is the maximum expression of nationality.

Each type of nature corresponds to a nation and each nation corresponds to a specific form of poetry that manifests itself in popular creations, which will then be taken as the basis for the creation of the cultivated and erudite literature of cabinet men. Well, if we became independent in 1822, nothing was more necessary than the emergence of our own literature that defines us as a nation. It would be up to poets, therefore, looking in popular cultural manifestations (indigenous peoples) for the sources of their creations, to write something that could be The Lusiads of Brazil.

This need to search popular sources is the basis for the ethnographic research of Gonçalves Dias himself, who sought, in all his poetry, to introduce indigenous terms to the Portuguese language, which, according to the most radical of our romantics, should become the Brazilian language. , moving further and further away from the Portuguese language. The reader will find this logic, for example, in the theoretical texts of Ferdinand Denis and Gonçalves de Magalhães, who founded romanticism in Brazil.

The long-awaited epic poem never came. There were several attempts. Gonçalves de Magalhães wrote Confederation of Tamoios, which was widely criticized by José de Alencar, entirely in verse. Gonçalves Dias himself tried to write his Timbiras, never finished.[ii] To say simply the central point of failure, we have to note that the description I gave in the previous paragraph about the nation is not the complete story. This is the German version of the problem, which emerged in the complicated context of French influence and domination during the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century.

The most important ideologue of this version of the problem is, without a doubt, Herder, although it appears in other figures, such as Goethe (who wrote his most famous tragedy exactly on a popular medieval legend) and the Grimm brothers, whose research work on popular sources for fairy tales and linguistic research are almost paradigms of this entire movement. The other way of seeing the national problem is the one that arose in France itself, and it was far from the naivety I described above. This is the most radical consummation of something that had been maturing in Europe for centuries and that can already be felt in the Richard II from Shakespeare: the nation is the group of free and rational people who, in the exercise of their will, decide to unite to sign a social contract.

The nation, now, is the fruit of men and is not founded on nature; the structure of the State needs to reflect the “general will” of the citizens, who were previously subjects. The most radical ideologue of this trend is Rousseau and his influence on the French Revolution is one of the most important aspects of the entire movement, both in terms of victory and radicality and failure and achievement.[iii]

A very revealing fact of the class position of our romantics, they adhere to the German vision of the problem, ignoring the obvious fact that, from a social point of view, much more credible than Herder's cultural idealism, Brazil as a nation is a more complex challenge to resolve, since, although it was emancipated, it was still a monarchy with a monarch from the Portuguese royal family, who exercised much greater powers than those of the constitutional monarchy; he was still a slaveholder and was killing the Indians exactly as before.[iv]

From the French vision, from a literary point of view, the modern novel emerged: Stendhal and Balzac. Perhaps precisely from the perception of the weaknesses of the initial romantic attempt, which emerged in the 1820s and developed in the subsequent two decades, comes José de Alencar's perception that the novel, and not the epic poem, is the most appropriate literary form for the representation of the country.

But, if that were all, the high school teachers and textbook authors would be right and Gonçalves Dias would have no greater interest than that of a simple historical figure. Nothing more fake. It is precisely in the perception of this impossibility and the divisions it represents that the greatness of his poetry lies, based on the representation of a dual country whose unity can only be achieved through extermination.

Let’s start with his most famous and enduring poem: the “Song of Exile”. The poem is constructed through the opposition between a here and a there, subsumed under the poet's own subjectivity, as José Guilherme Merquior reminds us in his definitive reading of the text.[v] But let's read it first without Merquior, like high school teachers. The poem embodies the romantic ideal of extolling tropical nature (the Sabiá, the palm trees, the forests, the skies, etc.) as a symbol of nationality and expresses the poet's longing for his homeland during his exile in Portugal.

The homeland, superior to the Coimbra of his studies, is superior because of its nature and the entire poem is created based on the opposition between a devalued here in the name of an overvalued there. A more dedicated professor would perhaps go a little further, without even getting to José Guilherme Merquior, and would say that it is very symptomatic that this poem, so important for our self-image as a nation, is exactly about exile and that the country can only be sung from afar, where you miss him. It is the poetic expression of a curious fact: our attempt to develop a national literature always started from European parameters and metrics (like the ideas of Romanticism itself).

The anecdotal caricature of this is that the Niteroi Magazine, the movement's founding document, is launched in Paris talking about the importance of the Brazilian homeland. But we now have the same problem in Gonçalves Dias' poem itself and not just as a factor external to literature: the absolute there of the poem is defined from a distant here. It seems that we have finally arrived at José Guilherme Merquior, who, starting from the absence of qualifiers, comes to the conclusion that the entire poem is a qualifier expressed by a lyrical self who feels longing. The longing for the lyrical self, and not exactly tropical nature, is the true central element of the poem, according to the critic.

And his reading gains even more momentum when, in the last paragraph, he gives the key to his survival in lines that deserve to be quoted: “We will only understand, however, faithfully, this unique work of our lyric, if we recognize that its melancholy, although within the framework generic of romanticism, it expresses something deeply Brazilian. Profoundly Brazilian is the longing for one's homeland, in the form of a blind disregard for the country's objective reality. Good or bad, promising or distressing, this reality will never be able to deter the nostalgic from their obstinate love for the earth. The purity and vigor of this popular feeling, this is what Gonçalves Dias captured in the simple verses of “Canção do Exílio”. Today, as always, these verses shine with the vibration of the consoling certainty of knowing that we are irredeemable lovers of Brazil, even the Brazil that is so often wrong and disappointing, poor in fortune and projects, home to vices and easy things. That Brazilians will always be incapable of adopting “ubi bene, ibi homeland” of those who reduce their love for their land to the pleasure it can give them; because, for us, it will always be possible to forget the misery of our country, present in the sublime stubbornness with which we love it, good or bad, in the strength of those who make that love a firm will. When one day we create a kind Brazil, a definitive Brazil, woe to us if we lose faith in that love-will; Unfortunately for us, if we then justified the love of our land by its palpable greatness – because we would have lost the noblest feature of the meaning of our native land, which is this reserve, this power to love it, with no other justification than love itself.” (MERQUIOR, 2013, p. 69-70).

The excerpt, beautiful, captures the reason for the poem's survival among us, until it became an excerpt from the National Anthem at the beginning of the last century. But I would like to tease him, to draw attention to the duality of here and there, with the first person plural that the critic uses. He always tells us that the poem is based on the lyrical expression of the poet's absolute longing for his land, and this longing finds no objective reason to justify it in the land, but is based on the strength of the feeling itself. But the feeling of longing in the poem is absolutely individual. It does not indicate any type of collective.

In the final moment, José Guilherme Merquior collectivizes the feeling and says that the objective basis from which the poet draws his strength is the collective generality of absolute love for the country, without qualifications to support it. The story of our cultural life could be told by criticizing this first person plural that swarms in the most unexpected places as an instrument to mystify the social and class character of national formation. This first person, used by José Guilherme Merquior, is founded by romanticism itself in its mystifying task of national unification through poetry without this unification presupposing, in fact, social integration of Brazilians.

Put more anecdotally, there are few Brazilians who studied in Coimbra to feel this absolute longing for the land that the critic talks about and it is about these Brazilians, linked to the objective distance from the land itself, that the Europeanizing generalization of the image of Brazil is founded. that they bequeathed to us. Distance, in fact, is an indispensable condition for the country's romantic mystification; From a distance, the social abysses that characterize us can be blurred by the poor vision of our poets and make us see a country that, in fact, only exists as a country from a certain distance from our gaze. If the poet were closer to Brazil, he would be able to see that among the thrushes and the palm trees there is a lot of blood spilled.

But none of this should be seen as a depreciation of Gonçalves Dias's poem itself; quite the opposite, what it seems to me is that this movement is captured by the poet. The first poem in his first book, the poet's insistence on individuality, on “my land” and not “our land”, indicates that collectivization is wrong. Perhaps here is one of the most interesting points of Gonçalves Dias's poetry: eminently lyrical, it is not very malleable to accept the crude generalizations of high school teachers who want to see national symbols in it. This reading is imposed from outside on the poet as a whole, who does not take the Indian exactly as a national hero, but as a national sacrifice, as we will see later.

Nature is not, in his poetry, the tropical nature that defines the homeland. It is more individualized, in each case assuming a specific meaning, resistant to generalizations. In “Canção do Exílio”, the lyrical strength resides in the love that is based on distance and in the love of a specific figure who, from a distance, looks at the homeland. The survival of the poem is not based, as José Guilherme Merquior intends, on the ability to lyrically capture that unrestricted love for the country that would characterize all Brazilians, but on representing the distance necessary to praise the country, on insisting on a here, in relation to which there, the homeland, can be seen and greeted and praised.

The poem reveals in a complex way, since it is a lyrical piece, a constant and essential duality to the Brazilian national construction itself: only being able to define itself as a nation from afar, the country will be, forever, divided between the here of its interpreters and the there of its reality, which, seen from here, can never be qualified, since the qualification would dismantle it as an ideality clouded by the tired eyes that see it from a distance. This point is important and I insist on it: the feeling that the poet expresses due to the absence of qualifiers is exactly the need not to qualify them for the poetic operation as a whole to work. Any adjective that is added will make the poem stop working and become ridiculous, because it would imply the need for verisimilitude of the feeling.

Take an example: if the poet said that he misses the palm trees “of Maranhão”, the poem would lose all its evocative meaning because, by bringing the symbols of evocation closer to a real place, the ills that Merquior talks about would be implicated in the meaning, dismantling -O. Absolute love only works, therefore, at the distance necessary for mystification.

Duality resists as a formal substrate to reveal national idiosyncrasies. Intermingled in the plane of forms, in “I-Juca Pirama” this contradiction gains content: on the one hand, the heroic ethics of the Tupis who must die in the face of the ritual of anthropophagy and, on the other hand, the feeling of loyalty to the bourgeois family, disguised as of chivalric heroism and filial piety.

The poem, although narrative, has dramatic strength: its main character, the “unhappy Indian” (DIAS, 2000, p. 301), is faced with a crossroads where the paths are irreconcilable: on the one hand, he is faithful to traditional values of his tribe, the indigenous heroism that dictates courageous death, but, on the other hand, is also faithful to the feeling of loyalty and piety towards his father. His choices are dubious: at first, he asks the leader of the Timbiras to let him live due to the need to take care of his father. There is, between them, a very symptomatic communicative disagreement: Timbira reads as cowardice what the unhappy Indian reads as family piety.

In his promise to return to fulfill the duty of indigenous courage, he envisions a kind of reconciliation between the two universes, soon denied by the Timbira chief, who banishes him forever. In his incomprehension, the unfortunate Indian, who our high school students insist on calling Juca Pirama, as if the title referred to a proper name, is dubious: faced with the accusation of being a coward, he chooses to leave in search of his father, instead to stay and do, as he will later do, fight to prove his Tupi courage.

He will take care of his father who, son of a time when bourgeois filial sentiment had not yet entered the heart of indigenous societies, when faced with the unworthy attitude of a Tupi that his son would have taken, disowns him, forcing him, to maintain and reinforce his love as a son, to fight with the Timbiras until they decide that he is valuable enough to be subjected to anthropophagy.

And here is the reason why the dramatic character of the poem is not consummated tragically: the unhappy Indian is not, exactly, divided between two worlds, that of the bourgeois family to the European and that of traditional indigenous values: he always opts for the modern, although he dramatically feels the loss of his indigenous identity. This implies the fact that his final struggle is only apparent and serves as a way of reinforcing his filial respect for the figure of his father, with whom, in truth, he can no longer establish bonds of sociability.

The psychological spin of the poem is therefore false and superficial. He, from beginning to end, is the same bourgeois hero who is confronted with a traditional world that does not align with his values, but with which he maintains vague emotional relationships. And that is exactly why the great speeches, which are the gravitational center of the entire drama, deal with the end of Tupi society. The memorable verses deal not with the glorification of the Indian as a positive national hero, but with the complex plot of his subsumption into national society:

And the stalked fields,
And the broken bows,
And the poor bastards
No more maracas;
And the sweet singers,
Serving you,
That traitors came,
With shows of peace.

To the blows of the enemy,
My last friend,
No home, no shelter
It fell next to me!
With a placid face,
Serene and composed,
The bitter disgust
I suffered.

If in the son's speech we see the heroic lament of the last Tupi who intends to take care of his father and asks for his life, in the father's speech we see the curse that, in fact, at the time of Gonçalves Dias, was already a work of the past:

May you, isolated on earth,
Without a support and without a homeland wandering,
Rejected from death in war,
Rejected from men in peace,
Being the execrated specter of people;
Don't find love in women,
Your friends, if you have friends,
Have a fickle and deceitful soul!

“Do not find sweetness in the day,
Not even the colors of dawn soften you,
And among the larvae of the dark night
You can never rest, enjoy:
Don't find a log, a stone,
Placed in the sun, placed in the rain and winds,
Suffering the greatest torments,
Where you can land your forehead.

What is expressed verbally by the two is taken compositionally as the driving force of the drama itself, in which the crossroads of irreconcilable paths are, from the beginning, traced by the historicity of the disappearance of the Indians.

It is in the closing, however, in equally memorable verses, that the necessary distance is achieved so that the social abyss, so well characterized in its peculiar superficiality, becomes the driving force of the national foundation. The verses are famous, but it is important to remember them once again:

An old Timbira, covered in glory,
Saved the memory
From the young warrior, from the old Tupi!
And at night, in the tabas, if anyone doubted
From what he said,
He said prudently: — Boys, I saw it!

I saw the brave man in the large yard
Sing prisoner
His death song, which I never forgot:
Brave, as he was, cried without feeling embarrassed;
I seem to see it,
That I have in front of me right now.

I said to myself: What an infamy of a slave!
No, he was a brave man;
Brave and brave, like him, I didn't see!
And to the faith I tell you: it seems enchanting to me
That whoever cried so much,
If only Tupi had the courage!

Thus Timbira, covered in glory,
Kept the memory
From the young warrior, from the old Tupi.
And at night in the tabas, if anyone doubted
From what he said,
He made it prudent: “Boys, I saw it!”

The fundamental theme of this closure is the constitution of memory. Orally enjambed, she intends to dress the Indian's sacrifice as heroism, in a movement that both shocks the reader accustomed to European anti-anthropophagy values ​​and reveals the falsehood of the entrecho. The testimony value of the very strong “Boys, I saw it!” intends to give the authority of a narrator to an event that does not convince on its own, that is, it establishes the necessary distance so that the extermination, which is the true subject of the entire poem, appears with that same evocative force that José Guilherme Merquior tells us about about the “Song of exile”.

Let me be clear, due to teaching addiction. The entire poem is built on the opposition between the two fundamental values ​​embodied by anthropophagy as a symbolic axis of indigenous characterization and filial feeling as a symbolic axis of characterization of a new form of bourgeois sociability (from the XNUMXth century, and not from the time of colonization , understand correctly). This opposition, which appears to be the fundamental dramatic conflict, loses its force because it is falsified throughout the poem. There is no conflict because bourgeois sociability has already won and the indigenous populations have already been exterminated, so much so that the son's submission to anthropophagy does not mean his adherence to traditional values ​​to the detriment of filial feeling, but exactly the reaffirmation of this feeling.

The question is simple: how to make this a homeland? How can we build a feeling of nationality over an unfulfilled tragic conflict? Now, the answer is the same as before: due to the distance lyrically established at the end. The closure introduces to the poem a level of composition that was previously not well placed: the narrative poem, with dramatic force and tragic pretension, gains, in the end, its only form of possibility: the lyric that distances the event, discrediting it, but affirming the need for its qualifying truth. It is as if the poem itself were an evocation of a vague national feeling and not the realization of a specific nationality, since it is impossible.

Let's say it another way. The reader knows, when reading the final verses, that the “old Timbira”, precisely because he reaffirms so much that he saw, in fact, did not see. The insistence on the statement tells us exactly that he has not seen the story, but that he is inventing it from a distance as an artifice of national affirmation. The excerpt evokes the figure of the storyteller who, around campfires, invents stories. But if we know that he didn't see it, the fundamental question is what he claims so much to have seen, since the story told cannot be. Now, he sees, in the distance, the myth of the founding of the country, which is not untrue for that reason, but which becomes untrue in its specifically Brazilian literary consummation. Extermination is true, but it needs to be falsified so that it can be mythically elevated to the status of an original myth. Only distance can do this.

The fact of being a consummate lyricist is a failure from the point of view of his monument to nationality, or the pretension of building a national epic, but an essential gain for his poetry, because it introduces into it the contradictions necessary for the true representation of reality by the art. To conclude, see how the reading of Antonio Candido in Formation of Brazilian Literature it consecrates the elements that guided our analysis, without, however, giving it the somewhat agonal form that I intended to give it. Perhaps the central point of his analysis is the presence of neoclassical values ​​in a consummately romantic poet. Not because of his participation in an out-of-time Arcadian movement, but because of the truly universalist value of his poetry, manifested in the truly neoclassical mastery of verse and the search for perfect expression, the poet from Maranhão would be, for Antonio Candido, the most sensible romantic.

He tells us, regarding the accusation that our poet was too linked to Portugal: “his contemporaries were more astute than some later critics, in seeing without hesitation the national character of his lyricism. What they might not have seen (because it was, then, a matter of aspiring to the opposite) was the continuation, in him, of the Arcadian position of integrating the manifestations of our intelligence and sensitivity into the Western tradition. As we have seen, he enriched this tradition, by giving it new angles to look at its old aesthetic and psychological problems (CANDIDO, 2013, p. 409).

Antonio Candido is not commenting, at this moment, on his Indianist poetry, but our attention is drawn to the fact that he characterizes as national exactly the lyricism, which we take here as a starting point for the necessary distance that the poet establishes between the sung homeland and the I sing properly. This distance takes on a new meaning through the eyes of the old professor: it echoes exactly the poet's intention to include the national heritage in the Western tradition. What I am somehow adding to Antonio Candido's analysis is the fact that, if his lyricism is eminently national, his poetry with a national flavor is also essentially lyrical.

About Juca Pirama, he tells us: “the tamoio of the song or the prisoner of I-juca pirama, are empty of personality – but rich in symbolic meaning. For this reason, perhaps the most accomplished and certainly the most beautiful of his national lyre are poems like this last one, where he presents us with a quick vision of the Indian integrated into the tribe, into the customs, into that Westernized feeling of honor that, for the romantics, was its most beautiful characteristic” (ibidem, p. 404).

They are devoid of personality precisely because they need to be seen from afar, without which their properly national achievement cannot take place. What I said about the qualification of palm trees is also true about the case of the Indians: by characterizing them heroically and, at the same time, particularizing them beyond belief, the poem would lose its strength because it would imply an impossible verisimilitude. If, instead of dealing with an Indian in general, his lyric was interested in the particular Indian of a given place, it would completely lose its symbolic force, because it would imply not a situation reduced to a distance, but real determinations of real people in real situations. .

Distance, in Antonio Candido's analysis, takes the form of neoclassical conventions and the aesthetic element typical of exoticism and the picturesque: “Being an ideological and aesthetic resource elaborated within a Europeanized group, Indianism, far from being undeserved by ethnographic imprecision , is valid precisely because of its conventional character; for the possibility of enriching European literary processes with exotic themes and images, thus incorporated into our sensibility. Gonçalves Dias's Indian is not more authentic than Magalhães' or Norberto's because he is more Indian, but because he is more poetic, as is evident from the abnormal situation that underlies the masterpiece of Brazilian Indianist poetry — I -juca pirama (ibidem, p. 405).

What is not said, but I add to Antonio Candido's excerpt, is that authenticity actually depends on distance, that is, on not being close to the real Indian. Think about the case of José de Alencar: what is a gain in his work, the abandonment of the epic to the detriment of the novel, is perhaps a mistake, because, by intending to particularize, in the fashion of the novel, his indigenous characters, they gain a tone of ridicule that does not exist in the case of Gonçalves Dias' poetry. I do not want to imply that the Maranhão poet's solution is, therefore, more appropriate, because it is also historically limited and the path intended by José de Alencar, in fact, is more fruitful, but, for it to bear fruit, the theme indigenous people must be abandoned to the detriment of urban romance.

In the restricted period of Indianism, in fact, Gonçalves Dias' solution is the best, but Indianism itself has limits that have been historically overcome. The transition from what I characterized above as a German paradigm to a French paradigm is the literary and even ideological model of this historical overcoming.

I end with an ordeal: is not exactly this same distance, reworked in other terms, the secret of Macunaima by Mário de Andrade? And, in this sense, wouldn't this distance, necessary for the functioning of literary works, be the tragedy of indigenous peoples in this thing foreign to their sociability that is Brazil?[vi]

Filipe de Freitas Gonçalves it's dPhD student in Literary Studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).


ARENDT, Hannah. about the revolution🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011.

CANDID, Antonio. Formation of Brazilian Literature: decisive moments (1750-1880). Rio de Janeiro: Gold over Blue, 2013.

DIAS, Gonçalves. Last Songs. In: _____. Songs. Introduction, organization and fixation of the text by Cilaine Alves Cunha. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2000.

MAZZEO, Antonio Carlos. State and bourgeoisie in Brazil: origins of bourgeois autocracy. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2015. 140 p.

MERQUIOR, José Guilherme. The poem from there. In: _____. The reason for the poem: critical and aesthetic essays. São Paulo: É Realizações, 2013, p. 59-70. TREECE, David H.. Victims, Allies, Rebels: to

[I] I think the best study on the topic is still David H. Treece (1986).

[ii] Antonio Candido's comments on Formation of Brazilian Literature about these epic attempts are enlightening in their justice to texts that are almost completely forgotten today. About “Os Timbiras”, by Gonçalves Dias, by far the author most praised by the critic, he tells us: “Of harsh, uninspired poetry, they are an example The Timbiras” (CANDIDO, 2013, p. 413).

[iii] Hannah Arendt (2011) develops, in her comparison with the American revolution, the negative balance of the French Revolution, drawing attention precisely to Rousseau's influence. I don't think her assessment is correct, but it deserves to be taken into consideration.

[iv] See MAZZEO, 2015, p. 92-93.

[v] See MERQUIOR, 2013, p. 59-70. 

[vi] The result of reflections on the country over the last few years, this text is also the result of conversations I have had in the classroom with my high school students at Colégio Sagrado Coração de Jesus. I dedicate this text to them, in the hope that, one day, they will see, as I did, the beauty of the verses of the author of I-Juca-Pirama.

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