The auto - context
Setting – important
Hybrid texts – developed from the auto and the Brazilian tradition of oral storytelling
Both stories set in the North East of Brazil
- NE: point of first contact between Europeans and indigenous people: berço (bulge)
- Seen as the start of Brazil
- First Portuguese settlement was built in Salvador
- Port through which the majority of slaves were imported into the country
- Interior of region prone to desertification – difficult to sustain agriculture
- Main agriculture is cattle-rearing and sugar plantation
- Impressive and picturesque landscape – difficult to live and work there
- Sertão: developed from desertão - a huge deserted area
- Caatinga – white forest
- Agreste – the more hilly and less arid zone
- Ends up in zona da mata – much more fertile, crops can grow
- Sertanejo – someone from the sertão
- Brazil was run as a slaveocracy – white landowners at the top, Afro-Brazilian slaves at the bottom, different variations of races in the middle
- Abolition was enshrined in the law, but racial differences were still contested
- North-East is still the poorest area, disputes over land still common
- Coronéis – land-owners
- Solution for many was economic migration to the cities: Recife/Salvador/João Pessoa
- Migrated in search of work and a better life
- Went to developing industrial cities of the SE
- Less developed transport networks and less access to education and health services
- There is still pride in regional culture
- Literature grew out of popular forms of story-telling
- Long folk songs, duel, travelling singers, folk poets
- News, legends and lessons
- Cabral was influenced by Portuguese and Spanish traditions
João Cabral de Melo Neto
- calls it a poema para voces (meant to be read out loud)
- 1954-55 after being commissioned by a theatre group to perform a play in verse
- Cabral was born into a privileged family in the state of Recife
- Grew up among the mills and sugar canes that often appear in his poetry
- Related to Manuel Bandeira (cousin) and Gilberto Freyre
- First book: Pedra de Sono (stone of sleep)
- Trained as a diplomat – posted to Barcelona
- Condemnation of the suffering endured by the inhabitants of the region, who appeared to have been forgotten
- Described his poetry using words taken from art
- Not just art for art’s sake – it should say something
- From the title we know that “Morte” figures heavily in the poem, as it precedes vida – unusual ordering of the two nouns
- Death is going to be inherent in the protagonist’s search for life
- Severina death and life
- Adjective which derives from the noun “Severino” – severo
- Physical geographical journey from interior to the coast – following along the river which starts as a trickle and then becomes a fully-fledged river when it reaches the coast
- A series of beads on a rosary – progress
- Imagine the text as linear
- Some things don’t progress – many of his hopes and wishes are not fulfilled
- He finds death again and again and again
- Poem is divided into 18 sections
- Each one is introduced by minimal stage directions
- Speaks directly and politely to the audience
The text (2)
- Paradoxically, he finds it very difficult to tell us who he is
- His name doesn’t define him
- All the Severinos look the same
- Repeats “mesmo” and “iguais”
- Even their death will be the same
- Melo Neto started to write about NE Brazil after he learnt some stats on life expectancy in Recife – was 28 for men (lower than in India)
- Severine death – old age before you’re 30, murder, famine
- Land is given human attributes – blending of human and nature
- S is determined to stand out as an individual – speaks directly to the audience and makes us complicit
- Starts out on his journey and immediately encounters a Severino at the end of his journey (he is being buried)
- Morte morrida – natural death
- Morte matada – murder
- Was shot by an “ave-bala” blending of natural and man-made – bullet bird
- Metaphor: burying bodies as if they were seeds
The text (3)
- Severino tells us about his journey, tells us about the rosary
- Each village is like a bead
- Comes across a funeral – another Severino has died
- Bitter man suggests that religion helps neither the living nor the dead
- All he has are “coisas de não: fome, seje, privacão”
- Woman’s job – prayer singer
- In death he becomes part of the land and the agricultural process
- Poem about perseverance: overcoming suffering, dealing with difficulty
- Invites us to make Biblical comparisons
- Story of Job – was tested
- Ambiguity of the poem continues right until the end, even in the idea of the gypsies who give two possible outcomes for the baby’s life
- 18 sections, each one introduced by short subheadings
- Last six sections are based around the birth of Christ – focus switches to life, affirmation, possibility, action
- Severino can envisage the idea of a vida Severina as something positive
- Life has conquered death, at least temporarily
Life vs death
Dryness vs liquid
Sertão vs sea
Rich vs poor
Irony resulting from these oppositions
Death is more alive than life
Journey in search of life becomes a funeral procession
Fertility, growth, cultivation, abundance
Morte e Vida Severina (literally Severine Life and Death and translated by Elizabeth Bishop as The Death and Life of a Severino) is a long poem by Brazilian author João Cabral de Melo Neto, his most famous and often read work. Published in 1955 and written between 1954 and 1955, it is written in heptasyllabic meter, recalling the popular poetry of the culture of the northeastern Brazil, where he was born and lived, and divided in 18 parts.
Morte e Vida Severina is subtitled Auto of Pernambucan Life, which, notwithstanding evokes theatrical characterizations, but already introduces its theme: the poem is a narrative of the journey of what is known in Brazil as a retirante, a person who, in the northeastern areas of the country, flees from the drought – rather common in that region – either to the city or to livable lands.
Style and structure
Properly, Morte e Vida Severina recounts the journey of a retirante and his life style, both which truly resembles more of death than of life, a paradox Melo Neto would deal with several times within poem.
The poem is formally divided in 18 named parts; however, the poem can be split between a first period, the retirante before reaching the city, and a second, from when he has. These parts are strictly constructed in seven syllable metric and create a strong sense of singing rhythm. In fact, "Morte e Vida Severina" made use of the regional style of writing cordel.
It is written in first-person, thus narrated by Severin himself – and therefore alike an object and a subject in the work –, but it is cut several times in monologues and dialogues of third parties.
- Morte e Vida Severina begins describing its object of narration: Severino, a retirante from Pernambuco wandering to Recife, the state's capital.
- Melo Neto introduces a character, Severino, whose name comes from the Portuguese word for "severe", but who can not be defined by this: as him there are several others named Severino; as well, he can not be identified by his mother and father whereby they are as any other father and mother of any other Severino.
- Thus, such character doesn't stand for a person; rather, its represents the whole of the people who live under the miserable and arid conditions of Brazil's northeast – "we are many Severinos, equal in everything and in their evil".
- As such, Melo Neto briefly defines the characteristics of such a life: "And being us all Severinos/ equal in everything in life/ we shall die of equal death/ same severin death:/ the death that one dies/ of old-age before the thirties/ of ambushes before the twenties/ of famine a bit a day" (freely-translated).
- Later, Melo Neto, describing the burial of another Severino, criticizes the latifundiary style of the economy, which take from man his strength, youth and labor – "This grave in which you are/ (...) It's of good size/ nor deep no large/ it is the part that for you fits/ from this latifund.'
- Much further in the poem, the retirante actually reaches the city, yet, where he expected to find work, food, clothes and a better life in general, he finds the belief that he has just been pursuing his own death.
- There, he, most likely, metaphorically finds Joseph and with him converses upon life and even cogitates suicide, by asking: "what difference would it make/ if in spite of going on/ I took the best exit:/ jumping, at night,/ to outside of the bridge and the life?"
- This conversation, however, is interrupted by the birth of the interlocutor's child, therefore Jesus Christ, and to him the place and the river - itself a metaphor - sing.
- Persons bring gift to the boy, but all of these are simpleton and relate to the misery of their givers: crabs that will keep their life from the mud; newspapers to use as cover; a mud doll
- Two Egyptian fortunetellers predict the boy's life, both of which announce he will never leave that life.
- Melo Neto closes the poem when the man, Joseph, than answers him by saying that he doesn't known if living is worth, but that life itself has manifested: "And there is no better answer/ than the spectacle of living:/ See it unravels its line, also called life/ see the factory that it/ stubbornly fabrics/ see it sprout as it now did/ in a new exploded life;/ even when is small/ the explosion, as this happened;/ even when it’s an explosion/ as this one, flimsy;/ even when it’s the explosion/ of a severine life”.