In a world where the art of poetry is dying of indifference, Eugénio de Andrade was one of its greatest representatives and defenders. In June 2004 the whole of the back page of "Babelia", the sumptuous literary supplement to El País, was devoted to a long essay-interview by one of the world's leading novelists, Andrade's fellow Portuguese Antonio Lobo Antunes. His first words about his friend were:
The poet Eugénio de Andrade is very ill, so I would not venture to go and disturb him. On my last visit to his house in the Passejo Alegre, facing the palm trees and the sea, he received my visit with fine wines, sponge fingers, books - all with attentive little gestures, whose delicacy and noble generosity I shall never forget. He had a marble table upon which he composed his poems . . . He asked to be photographed with me, his hand on my shoulder, in an attitude for Posterity.
Andrade was then 81. He had begun writing when he was very young, and his first poem, revealingly entitled "Narciso", was composed when he was 13. His first book had a similarly confessional title, Adolescente, and was published to no acclaim in 1942, but his next book, As mãos e os frutas ("Hands and Fruit", 1948), was given the critical welcome that was to greet the rest of his 30 or so volumes of immaculate verse.
The most widely translated of all contemporary Portuguese lyricists, Andrade was born José Fontinhas in the province of Beira Baixa in central Portugal, in the town of Póvoa da Atalaia, in 1923. In later years he moved with his mother to Lisbon and then to Oporto, where one of his great friends was the cinéaste Manoel Candido Pinto de Oliveira (born in 1908 and still going strong). But it was in Lisbon that his literary life really started.
In the 1940s, the capital was culturally still rather staid, but it became the centre of Surrealist innovations in art and literature. Andrade became part of the original movement along with other poets. But his inimitable style extends far beyond the restrictive boundaries of Surrealist dogmas, as did that of his close friends Paul de Carvalho and A. Ramos Rosa. Another friend was Sophia de Mello Breyner: her death last year greatly affected him, for he saw in it a presage of his own demise.
Through his lyric power, delicate yet technically sound in the originality of his verse forms, allied to a frank, fresh sensuality, Eugénio de Andrade was incontestably one of the world's finest contemporary poets. His best work was surely influenced by the haiku of Matsuo Basho and ecstatic fragments of ancient Greek erotic verse. Many of his poems are like collections of driftwood - utterance of just a few seemingly random ejaculations - "Autumn ripens in the mirrors" or "How slowly summer dies in the shadow of the elms!"
One of his great skills is in the weaving of concrete and ethereal images and sensations, brief ironic comments upon his almost intangible art:
What a strange occupation is mine
seeking upon bare earth
one leaf lost between dust and sleep,
still wet with the first sun . . .
That unexpected combination of opposites - "wet" and "sun" - is one of the evocative beauties of his work. They express that essentially Portuguese state of mind and soul they call saudade - a mingling of melancholy and nostalgia but also informed with eventually passionate desire resulting from their infinite variety of combinations in the mind and in the heart.
Andrade had a happy childhood and youth:
Ever since I was a child, I have known nothing but sun and water . . . I learnt that very few things are absolutely necessary. Those things are the ones my poetry loves and exalts. Earth and water, light and wind become mingled to give body to all the love that my poetry is capable of.
Such poetic craft, usually of an extreme concision, rises to peaks of perfect expression in the 1970s and 1980s in close successions of books whose richness of feeling and style give a sure indication of the essential abundance of emotion that is the mark of a true poet - for example the three major volumes from the Eighties Matéria solar ("Solar Matter", 1980), O peso da sombra ("The Weight of Shadow", 1982) and Branco no branco ("White on White", 1984).
As he grows older, it becomes clear that Andrade, though belonging initially to the noble Portuguese lyric tradition, is intent on inventing his own way of looking at the world and speaking about it. He finds in the depths of his saudade soul a vision of the familiar world that is intensely personal, troubled by an undercurrent of homosexual yearnings, and that made his many readers feel as if they were seeing the real world for the first time. "I work with the bitter and fragile matter that is air" captures the essence of his vision.
Yet this visionary was an Inspector of the Ministry of Health, a post he held for 35 years. In 2000, he gave one of his rare interviews, saying: "When I was young, I wanted to be a saint - but it was too difficult for me, so instead I chose to become a poet." The use of that verb "chose" would seem to indicate that poetry was for Andrade a real calling. His devotion to it was rewarded in 2001, when he was awarded the highest literary distinction in Portugal, the Camoens Prize, much coveted by Lusophone writers.
The best epitaph for Eugénio de Andrade might be in his own lines:
Death has no hold on the body
when one holds the sun
asleep in one's arms . . .