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Cecília Benevides Meireles (1901-1964)


Brazilian journalist, teacher and poet, who focused often on the themes of the passing of time and meaningless of life. Meireles wrote in Portuguese. She is considered one of the most important poets of the second phase of the Brazilian Modernism. Meireles traveled a great deal and her traveling became an integral part of her literary production. As a teacher she did much to promote educational reforms. She also advocated the construction of children's libraries.

A shepherdess of clouds, with empty face
I follow after figures of deceit,
Keeping night watches on the eternal plains
Which turn and turn beneath my unshod feet.

(from 'Destiny,' translated by L.S. Downes)

Cecília Benevides Meireles was born in Rio de Janeiro, Guanabara. Her father, Carlos Alberto de Carvalho, died three months before her birth. Mathide Benevides, her mother, who was an elementary school teacher, died when Cecília was three. The three other children of this marriage died before Cecìlia was born. She was brought up by her Portugese grandmother in Rio, who came from Azores. She told her stories from her birth place, and these stories later found their way to her poetry. From her nanny, Pedrina, Cecília learned Brazilian folk songs and games.

Meireles started to compose poems at the age of nine. She attended normal school in Rio from 1913 to 1916 and after graduating, Meireles was educated as a teacher. However, she continued to study languages, literature, educational theory and method, music, and folklore. In 1921 she married the painter Fernando Correia Dias; they had three daughters. Her husband, who suffered from acute depression, committed suicide in 1936. Six years later Meireles married Heitor Grillo, who helped to raise her daughters, one of whom became a well-known actress.

In 1940 Meireles became a professor, teaching among other at the University of Texas. On her initiative the first children's library in Brazil was founded in 1934  she also wrote several children's books. That same years she lectured on Brazilian literature in Portugal. Two years later she was appointed lecturer at the new Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. In 1940 she was a visiting professor of Brazilian literature and culture at the University of Texas.

As a poet Meireles made her debut at the age of eighteen, with Espectros (1919). It has been described as "an airy and vague poetry, languid and fluid, set in an atmosphere of shadows and dreams." The collection of seventeen sonnets dealt with various historical personages. Although her next collections included lyrics in free verse, she still stick to traditional forms and French symbolism. Between 1919 and 1927 she contributed to the magazines Arvore Nova and Terra do Sol. The spiritual and transcendental magazine Festa ('festival') started to publish her poems from 1922. The Festa poets supported more traditional expression and universality than the futurists and avant-garde writers of São Paolo, whose Modern Art Week in 1922 caused much controversy. Meireles always retained symbolist traits  much modernist writing after World War I was symbolist in spirit. Especially Portuguese poetry started to interest her. She visited Portugal in 1934 and lectured there on Brazilian literature at the universities of Lisbon and Coimbra.

After 14 years of silence as a poet, Meireles published one of her major works, Viagém  (1939), which marked her poetic maturity. The book received the Poetry Prize from the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1939. The title refers to a spiritual journey where life and poetry join together  Meireles was a devout Catholic, but did not emphasize her religious or social stand. From the 1940s Meireles traveled widely and the sea became her an important image. Mar Absoluto (1942) was sea poetry with quality of "pure poetry." In 1953 she participated in a symposium on the work of Gandhi and India had a great influence on her work. She had taught herself both Hindu and Sanskrit. Romanceiro da Inconfidência (1953) was written in the style of the fifteenth-century Spanish romances. The work draws its subject from the first colonial attempt at Brazilian Independence, in Minas Gerais in 1789, and centers on the leader of the uprising, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, who was hailed as another Jesus Christ. Giroflê, Giroflá (1956) was based on the author's journeys to India and Italy

"Cecília Meireles was a Catholic Platonist whose poetry "sings," and John Nist has said that she is distinguished from other major figures of Brazilian modernism by the universality of her concerns." (from World Authors 1970-1975, edited by John Wakeman, 1980)

Meireles contributed prolifically to Brazilian periodicals and for a time she served as education editor of Rio's Diario de Noticías. She translated into Brazilian such diverse writers as Maeterlinck, Lorca, Anouilh, Ibsen, Tagore, Rilke, Virginia Woolf, and Pushkin. Her other works include plays and children's books. Cecília Meireles died of cancer in Rio de Janeiro on November 9, 1964. 'Cantar de Vero Amor,' which she wrote shortly before her death, expressed her love for her husband, who had provided emotional stability in her life. During her career Meireles was affected by many of the literary movements of her time. However, her poetry always remained intensely personal. She was counted among the modernists, but she did not break with the Portuguese lyrical tradition.

For further reading: An Introduction to Modern Brazilian Poetry by L.S. Downes (1954); Modern Brazilian Poetry, ed. by J. Nist (1962); Uma voz do Brazil by Amélia Vilar (1965); Uma voz do Brazil by A. Vilar (1965); The Modernist Movement in Brazil by John Nist (1967); An Introduction to Literature in Brazil by A. Coutinho (1969); The Modernist Idea by W. Martins (1970); World Authors 1970-1975, ed. by John Wakeman (1980); Imagery and Theme in the Poetry of Cecília Meireles: A Study of Mar Absoluto by Darlene Sadlier (1983); Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, ed. by Verity Smith (1997); The Facts on File Companion to World Poetry: 1900 to the Present, ed. R. Victoria Arana (2008)  

Selected works:

  • Espectros, 1919
  • Nunca mais... e Poema dos Poemas, 1923
  • Baladas para El- Rei, 1924
  • Batuque, samba e macumba, 1935
    - Batuque, Samba, and Macumba: Drawings of Gestures and Rhythm, 1926-1934 (tr. 1983)
  • Viagém: poesia, 1929-1937, 1939
  • Vaga música, 1942
  • Mar absoluto, e outros poemas, 1945
  • Retrato natural, 1949
  • Amor em Leonoreta, 1951
  • Problemas da literatura infantil, 1951
  • Doze Noturnos da Holanda e o Aeronauta, 1952
  • Romanceiro da Inconfidência, 1953
  • Pequeno oratório de Santa Clara, 1955
  • Pistóia, Cemitério Militar Brasileiro, 1955
  • Canções, 1956
  • Giroflê, Giroflá, 1956
  • Romance de Santa Cecília, 1957
  • A Rosa, 1957
  • Obra Poética, 1958
  • Metal Rosicler, 1960
  • Poemas Escritos na Índia, 1961
  • Quadrante 1-2, 1962-63
  • Antologia Poética, 1963
  • Solombra, 1963
  • Escolha o Seu Sonho: Crônicas, 1964
  • Ou Isto ou Aquilo, 1964
  • Crônica trovada da cidade de Sam Sebastiam: no quarto centenário da sua fundação pelo Capitam-mor Estácio de Saa, 1965
  • Vozes da cidade, 1965
  • Inéditos (crônicas), 1967
  • Poemas Italianos, 1968
  • Ou isto ou aquilo & Inéditos, 1969
  • Flor de Poemas, 1972
  • Seleta em prosa e verso de Cecília Meireles, 1973
  • Poesias Completas, 1973-74 (9 vols.)  
  • Cecília Meireles: poesia, 1974 (edited by Darcy Damasceno)
  • Ilusões do Mundo: Crônicas, 1976 (edited by  Darcy Damasceno)
  • Cecília Meireles. Poemas em tradução = Poems in translation, 1977 (edited by Henry Keith and Raymond Sayers)
  • Flores e Canções, 1979 (illustrated by Vieira da Silva)
  • Olhinhos de Gato, 1980
  • O que se diz e o que se entende, 1980
  • Cânticos e Poesias inéditas, 1981
  • Cecília Meireles, 1982 (selected by Norma Seltzer Goldstein, Rita de Cássia Barbosa)
  • Obra Poética, 1983 (3. ed., edited by Afrânio Coutinho et al.)
  • Os Melhores Poemas de Cecília Meireles, 1984 (selected by Maria Fernanda)
  • Crônicas em Geral, 1988 (ed. Leodegário A. de Azevedo Filho)
  • Crônicas de Educação, 2001 (5 vols., ed. Leodegário A. de Azevedo Filho)
  • Poesia Completa, 2001 (2 vols., ed. Antonio Carlos Secchin)
  • Episódio Humano: Prosa, 1929-1930, 2007

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