By Brazzil Magazine
És o secreto e místico templário
As almas, em silêncio, contemplando.1
In order to better visualize João Cruz e Sousa’s unusual experience, which led to his
important contribution to Brazilian literature, we might imagine a play on his life: in
the late 19th century, a boatload of white Americans (or Brazilians) are
kidnapped by the international slave trade, taken to the African Congo, and sold to work
for powerful black natives. Two of these unfortunates, "luckier" than the
others, are assigned to work in a royal mansion, where they are quartered together, in the
cellar. Their child is born, much to the joy of the childless African queen, who decides
she will not only give the infant her royal family name, but take a personal interest in
educating him as a noble African black would be, "free" of the strange white
Christian mythologies his superstitious parents would have him embrace. The boy would be
initiated into traditional African cults, learn to beat the drum, dance, hear the legends
and folktales of the Congo, speak Bantu or the local dialect. And he would be free. This
black-man’s soul in a white man’s body….
Meanwhile, in the south of Brazil, in the provincial capital Nossa Senhora do
Desterro, today Florianópolis, the island-capital of Santa Catarina state, in the
1860’s, the local population, who had limited access to world news and scandal, quite
naturally and avidly sought after stories worth repeating in the sun-filled salons of the
noble houses, in the exclusive restaurants of upper-class clubs, on the pristine beaches a
short walk from downtown. For a few seasons, the talk of the town was João Cruz e Sousa,
the "black poet."
With the unique orientation Cruz e Sousa got in life, he could hardly have missed being
something, somebody, quite unusual. His parents were shipped over from black Africa and
bought in auction by an aristocrat to work, rather than in the fields, at the family
mansion in what might be compared to pre-Civil War Atlanta, Georgia. They were, in that
sense, "luckier." His father became a semi-skilled workman, a bricklayer; his
mother washed clothes. They probably met at the stately home of the good Colonel and his
genteel wife, who may have subtly encouraged them to multiply in their basement slave
quarters. Or it may have been love at first sight, understandable under the circumstances.
(Deserters of all good, under your royal clothes
crocodile-like, you who flatter and squat,
living in the light of privilege sensuously bought,
as does the longneck turtle, in its beastly pose….)
(Oh! Trânsfugas do bem que sob o manto régio
manhosos, agachados _ bem como o crocodilo,
viveis sensualmente à luz dum privilégio
na pose bestial dum cágado tranqüilo….)
When baby João came along, Mme Colonel, the Lady Clarinda Fagundes de Sousa just
couldn’t get over how cute he was, and right then and there decided he would have her
name, she did, together with the name of the saint celebrated on his day of birth, San
Juan de la Cruz, the Spanish mystic, poet, and revolutionary monk. Had she had a vision of
love? had her maternal instincts taken over? was she expiating the sins of her
forefathers, who had built their fortunes on slave labor? Academic questions since, for
good measure, the fine woman decided that her sometime adopted son, João Cruz e Sousa,
would have the best education available in the entire province; he would be baptized; he
would be raised a virtuous Christian. And yes, he would be a free man, even while being
nursed, down in the basement.
Free! of slavish matter to be free and real,
rip off the shackles, cast away the pain
and free, penetrate those Gifts which seal
the soul, celestial lava and heavenly gain….
Livre! Ser livre da matéria escrava,
arrancar os grilhões que nos flagelam
e livre penetrar nos Dons que selam
a alma e lhe emprestam toda a etérea lava….
Yet early on, the tot was brought up to the sun-filled winter garden, amid the orchids
and the tropical hanging ferns, or onto the spacious verandas, in sight of the huge
jack-fruit and mango trees, in order to hear nursery rhymes and children’s songs from the
very mouth of the noble Lady of the House who, to the town’s slave and poor-white
population, lived the luxurious, leisurely life of royalty, of a queen. Portuguese rhythms
and meter mingled freely with the Bantu and its archetypes, pushing deep tendrils into the
fresh brain cells of the ancient African mind, now in a new world. Visions were being
impressed on an intelligence whose quality was as yet unsuspected. He responded well, and
the instruction, the indoctrination, continued. Madame de Sousa never recorded her deepest
intent behind her conscious motive behind her actions. Did she smile her work to see?
Meanwhile, back in the slave quarters, down in the cellar of the mansion, what were her
parents whispering (no fear of hidden microphones), hot in their bed at night? Their only
son, a favorite of the Queen! What would any black slaves whisper in each other’s ears?
What primitive spirit had descended into their home, into their bed? What fate was
overtaking their family? Would little Johnny not be Ogum, the warrior? Could
he not grow up to be wise, as Preto Velho? They would have to consult a Mãe-de-Santa,
a priestess of the transposed African cult-world. They would have to find an excuse to
get out of the house, to go upstream to the priestess’ hut, where she would throw the
shells, or go into a trance, fall to the floor in a tremulous state of altered
consciousness, her eyes rolled back in her head, be possessed of the spirit, receive a
They whispered, every night they whispered. Their son was reciting the white man’s
chants. He had the blessing, and the words, of the Queen as if, in England, Queen Victoria
had adopted the son of her West Indian gardener, would send him to Oxford to study under
Darwin. Others, too, were whispering. Wasn’t there danger? He might somehow displease, and
whites had the power over life and death, pain and pleasure, promotion or disgrace. What
could happen now? The boy needed to know what the boss man’s white skin meant; what the
black man’s place was. Caroline, John’s illiterate mother, would take her son aside, hold
his arm, and speak low to him, her eyes wide, her voice tense. Had she been in Alabama,
her words might have been "Yo be watchin’ out dem white peoples! Dey kin make yo
trubbles! I be seein dem whippin’ on us peoples terrabul. Yo don’ go say nothin’ back on
dem, yo hearin’ yo mammy?!"
From your soul in the tunnel’s deep end,
I sometimes feel, as I sometimes descend,
that as a fierce, hungry wolf in its pack,
your vile hatred spies behind my back.
("Imprisoned by Hate")
Da tu’alma na funda galeria
descendo às vezes, eu às vezes sinto
que como o mais feroz lobo faminto
teu ódio baixo de alcatéia espia.
("Presa do Ódio")
Neither his patroness nor his mother had as yet suspected that these and other counsels
and messages, folk-tales, verse, spirits, dreams, inconsistencies and terror, were already
gathering force in a prodigious intelligence, stimulating the creative energy deep in the
mind of João, who was hearing everything, dressed in white shirts and velvet-collar
jackets, wearing imported shoes, munching on pastries and chocolates from the town, being
rewarded with a noblesse-oblige pat on the head when he got the verse right, which
he usually did with unusual speed. By age seven, when brought into the presence of the
great man of the house, by then a Marechal, he could recite not only his lessons,
but verses of his own composition. His foster-parents nodded at each other with pride and
satisfaction; they would arrange for a public recital, before the cream of society.
Here, then, was the talk of the town, on-stage for Nossa Senhora do Desterro’s
anniversary, on the patron saint’s day, between acts at the city’s best theatre, speaking
in verse to the Governor, the General, the priests and the doctors. The Wealthy, the
Powerful, the Owners. To some he was a phenomenon, to others a curiosity, a simple
entertainment, or merely a clown. He was the only black so promoted, so commented, so
honored, for hundreds of miles, the only black child-prodigy poet on the Continent,
perhaps in the world, the only Brazilian black destined to create a literary movement, an
original style of symbolism. To some, of course, he was an uppity. They heard his
name too much, and didn’t like it. And they were jealous. A black poet! When was the first
slander? When the first intrigue set into motion against the young genius?
And the boy himself, named after a medieval Carmelite monk and a high society family?
When did he first see, on the way to the stage, men of his own color in chains? When did
he first use his liberty to sneak away from the mansion, go to town, and see, by accident,
a whipping at the pillory? What was Carolina, his mother, saying then to Guilherme, her
husband, and to her son, when her child, her little boy, one generation out of Africa, was
being applauded by white men, on the white man’s ceremony day? To what god was she
offering? Was it the same as her husband’s? Was the bricklayer dismayed, proud, fearful?
He never got much into symbolism. The bricks remained always just bricks.
Their son, the black poet, recognized, well-known, was awarded a scholarship to
the best prep school in the province; its large German population believed in education,
and had brought in a visiting professor (a correspondent of Darwin), several local
scholars including an orientalist-priest, a mathematician, and more, all in four
languages, counting Latin and Greek. A classical education, an atmosphere of learning,
illiterate slaves at home, men in chains on the street, his all-white class, his
black African blood, the legacy of abstract thought, Greek philosophy, and the horrors
against his people: João Cruz e Souza. He had it all.
He graduated at the top of his class, began working as a private teacher, published
poetry in the papers at sixteen, helped found a literary journal, was reported to have his
way with the town slave girls,
(Oh I have bloodily loved such flesh
voluptuous, lethal, full of pain,
essence of heliotrope and rose, mesh
of tropical essences, warm but profane…
Virgin, tepid flesh arising in the Orient
of Dream and of fabulous Stars,
bitter flesh, marvelous and opulent,
temptresses of the sun, intensest avatars…)
(Ó carnes que eu amei sangrentamente,
ó volúpias letais e dolorosas,
essências de heliotropos e de rosas
de essência morna, tropical, dolente…
Carnes virgens e tépidas do Oriente
do Sonho e das Estrelas fabulosas,
carnes acerbas e maravilhosas,
tentadoras do sol intensamente…)
which, together with his exclusive education and his white friends, distanced him from
the local black population. His mother Caroline had thrown him out of the house years ago.
Racist hatred, belatedly being denounced even now in Brazil, was at his back. Rescued from
a delicate situation by an itinerant group of actors and entertainers, he went on the road
for two years, reading his poetry. And organizing anti-slavery conferences.
Upon returning to Santa Catarina, more famous and controversial than ever, he was
introduced to the President of the province, a Dr. Gama Rosa, reportedly a sympathizer who
later went so far as to nominate the 23-year old poet and activist for the post of
District Attorney. What was the doctor thinking? At the time, there probably wasn’t a
black clerk, policeman, or high school teacher in the entire country; its slaves wouldn’t
be freed until years later. (Think about nominating a black with Cruz e Sousa’s
credentials for the same position in Mississippi, 1930’s.) It didn’t go down at all with
the slaveholding political establishment; the nomination was rejected outright. The young
man had already made enemies with the Brazilian version of the Klan; now it was official.
He left town shortly after. He had nothing.
Sad star, to reflect in mud and mire,
ray of light, to scintillate in dusty space,
you’ve sweetness of curves and rare fire,
the subtlety and fascination of grace….
Estrela triste a refletir na lama,
raio de luz a cintilar na poeira,
tem a graça sutil e feiticeira,
a doceira das curvas e da chama….
Caught between two cultures, well-received in neither, harassed by his country’s
notoriously repressive elite establishment, barred from any employment worthy of his
talents, Cruz e Sousa died in poverty at age thirty-six, in 1898. His best work went
unpublished until after his death. Today the poet is recognized as the pioneer of the
symbolist movement in Brazil. Like Poe,2 Rimbaud, and other masters of the
genre, his fundamental experience was that of a reality more mental than material, more
spiritual than physical, more Absolute than contingent; his metaphysic the relation of the
former, elements of the Eternal, to the latter, elements of time; his poetics based on the
presupposition that these ineffable intuitions can best be evoked indirectly and subtly;
that is, symbolically.
Nothing there is can me overpower and win
when silently awakened is my soul…
It bursts into flower and will overflow
as such immense emotion rushes in.
Defendant am I of celestial Sentence,
by Love condemned, one who remembers
that Love and in the Silence embroiders
skies of his thoughts and sins with stars immense….
Nada há que me domine e que me vença
quando a minh’alma mudamente acorda…
Ela rebenta em flor, ela transborda
nos alvoroços da emoção imensa.
Sou como um Réu de celestial Sentença,
condenado do Amor, que se recorda
do Amor e sempre no silêncio borda
d’estrelas todo e céu em que erra e pensa….
To propose a poem with the title "Ineffable" is to assume paradox at the
outset, in attempting to write about that which is impressed but which, by definition,
cannot be expressed. Indirectly, the poet is assuming mysticism as a way of knowing,
whereby the knower becomes that which is known; the whole mystic tradition proclaims such
knowledge can indeed only be experienced, and not demonstrated. Thus the need for symbolic
language by the religious visionary, who writes of miracles, fantastic spiritualizations,
visionary spectacles, paradoxes, reincarnations, epical confrontations. The historical
value of these images is not at all the point, which is rather the lifting of the mind to
other levels of reality. Evelyn Underhill, in Mysticism, makes a useful commentary
on the technique:
"Thanks to the special imagery inseparable from human thinking and human
expression, no direct description of spiritual experience is or can be possible to man. It
must always be symbolic, allusive, oblique, always suggest, but never tell, the
truth….The greater the suggestive quality of the symbol used, the more answering emotion
it evokes in those to whom it is addressed, the more truth it will convey. A good
symbolism, therefore, will be more than mere diagram or mere allegory: it will use to the
utmost the resources of beauty and of passion, will bring with it hints of mystery and
wonder, bewitch with dreamy periods the mind to which it is addressed. Its appeal will be
not to the clever brain, but to the desirous heart, the intuitive sense, of man."3
In Cruz e Sousa’s case, the poetic difficulties were exacerbated by his impossible
situation in society. Too much suffering can and has made many decide that there is no
overall, coherent meaning to be found in merely real-time experience, and search for their
meaning in the inner world of religion, philosophy, mysticism or other vehicles of the
spiritual life. It’s not difficult to suppose that a sensitive poet could fail to find
much meaning in a slaveholding society and, in contemplation, find evidence for belief in
an Absolute which might subsume even the evils surrounding him. The traditional key to
this vision is Faith:
See how Pain may transcendentalize your life!
So nobly believe, through deep Pain and strife.
Transfigure with the force of faith your being
that all become divine, that beauty be seeing….
Vê como a Dor te transcendentaliza!
Mas no fundo da dor crê nobremente.
Transfigura o teu ser na força crente
que tudo torna belo e diviniza….
Of course too much belief in spiritual values, if made public by a book of poetry, will
provoke repression from the materialistic side of the establishment and this in turn will
mean more suffering and the need for stronger belief, and then, more repression…. As a
matter of policy, those who have no ideals must attempt to destroy any stubborn
recrudescence of idealism which shows up. It makes them look bad.
The values found in these fleeting glimpses of reality are impossible to demonstrate
directly; the difficulty is extensively analyzed by the poet’s namesake, Saint John of the
Cross: "…mystical theology…secret wisdom… happens secretly and in darkness, so
as to be hidden from the work of the understanding and of other faculties…the soul
cannot speak of it and give it a name whereby it may be called…can find no suitable way
or manner or similitude by which it may be able to describe such lofty understanding and
such delicate spiritual feeling."4
In common with other works which use symbolism to express the artists’ deepest beliefs,
Cruz e Sousa’s poetry contains almost no references to historical, physical persons or
places, things or events. Even a cursory look at his titles indicates his interests were
far from any verifiable circumstance. Consider a selection of titles from his best work, Last
Sonnets, which indicate themes from the possible world of Absolutes, rather
than from the "real" world of material being: "Immortal Attitude,"
"Prison of Souls," "Supreme Verb," "God of Evil,"
"Indecisive Souls," "Celestial Refuge," "Buddhic Ecstasy."
"Prison of Souls" ("Cárcere das Almas") re-interprets a basic
metaphor for visualizing the good man’s dilemma:
Thus in this life imprisoned, every soul
sobs in the darkness, behind the bars
watching, from down in the dungeon’s hole,
the outer vastnesses, seas, noons, stars.
But all is dressed in celestial clothes
when the soul in its chains, as cure,
dreams of freedom, then will disclose
immortalities in the sublime Space of the Pure.
Oh speechless and incarcerated souls
held in colossal abandoned cells, seas
of Pain in deathly pitless gaols!
Which guard from Heaven holds the keys
in this lonely silence, without history,
to open you the doors of Mystery?!
Ah! Toda a alma num cárcere anda presa,
soluçando nas trevas, entre as grades
do calabouço olhando imensidades,
mares, estrelas, tardes, natureza.
Tudo se veste de uma igual grandeza
quando a alma entre grilhões as liberdades
sonha e, sonhando, as imortalidades
rasga no etéreo Espaço da Pureza.
Ó almas presas, mudas e fechadas
nas prisões colossais e abandonadas,
da Dor no calabouço, atroz, funéreo!
Nesses silêncios solitários, graves,
que chaveiro do Céu possui as chaves
para abrir-vos as portas do Mistério?!
The image of the body as prison to the soul is traditional. How much stronger it would
have been for a man like Cruz e Sousa, a noble mind wandering among unfeeling and corrupt
institutions, a sensitive soul made the butt of an insensitive, powerand
statushungry ruling class. But the dream of freedom, if believed in with enough
intensity, becomes a reality; belief in the Mystery of Creation, if firmly held to,
becomes the very presence of that Mystery. Milton said it: "The mind is its own
place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n."5
Last Sonnets contains 96 poems, some eighty percent of which include the word soul.
The highly personal language, the refined images and metaphors indirectly describe what is
everyman’s inexpressible interior reality; "From Soul to Soul" ("De Alma em
Alma") is typical:
You erringly wander from soul to soul;
one such sanctuary, then another, choose
A mystic secret templar, your role
is to contemplate, alone, the souls you use.
I know not what harps in you are vibrating,
what sounds a Stradivarian pilgrim is creating,
recalling sacristy-like veneration,
voices murmuring celestial adoration.
But I do know, that from soul to soul, you are lost,
seeking that beautiful world, as yet unglossed,
of Silence, of Love, and Fascination,
So go! Dreamer of noble veneration!
The soul of Faith flowers such bright design,
even from Death does resurrect and shine!
Tu andas de alma em alma errando, errando,
como de santuário em santuário.
És o secreto e místico templário
as almas, em silêncio, contemplando.
Não sei que de harpas há em ti vibrando,
que sons de peregrino estradivário,
que lembras reverências de sacrário
e de vozes celestes murmurando.
Mas sei que de alma em alma andas perdido,
atrás de um belo mundo indefinido
de Silêncio, de Amor, de Maravilha.
Vai! Sonhador das nobres reverências!
A alma da Fé tem dessas florescências,
mesmo da Morte ressuscita e brilha!
Obviously, there is no objective way to demonstrate the real-time existence of any of
the poet’s images. Even the violin is rare. The reader can only appeal to his own personal
experience of ideal values. Whether or not the poet was a full-blown mystic will probably
never be determined, but another clue to his inner life is his habitual speaking of his
own soul or being in the third person, as if his deepest consciousness were looking at the
life of Cruz e Sousa from afar. The practice of seeing one’s existential self as not the
"really real" or essential self is common advice in the literature from that
school known as the mystical, references to which appear often enough in the poetry to
hazard that the author was well acquainted with mystical science. "Mysticism"
has been defined as a method of search, a science of the Absolute; meditation and
contemplation are its basic tools. It is hard to imagine any poet who does not use
meditation, though the complete mystic seems to be rarer than the complete poet.
T.S.Eliot, for example, was obviously acquainted with much mystic literature, and
obviously not a mystic. What he knew, Cruz e Sousa saw.
1 "De Alma em Alma"("From Soul to Soul"), see
below. All quotations of the poetry are from Cruz e Sousa, Collected Works, ed.
Andrade Muricy (Rio de Janeiro: Editora José Aguilar Ltda., 1961.
2 Certain lines from the poet could easily be taken for Poe’s(and
vice-versa), i.e. from the former: "…mouth of Ophelia dead on the lake,/within the
vague dream’s halo of light…" ("…boca de Ofélia morta sobre o lago,/dentre
a auréola de luz do sonho vago….") "Boca."
3 (New York: New American Library, 1974), p. 126.
4 Dark Night of the Soul, tr. E. Allison Piers (New York:
Image Books, 1959), p. 159.
5 Paradise Lost, bk i, 1, l.254.
John Howard has published the translations of several Brazilian poets, and several
poems of his own. He has an MA in literature from California State University. Several of
his São Paulo graffitos can be seen on the Internet at "Art Crimes/The Writing on
the Wall." You can reach him at email@example.com