19th Century

Álvares de Azevedo and the Transformation of Romantic Literature | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo who here presents the text of a talk that will be given on Thursday 25 May 2023 at the Victorian Transformations Conference, held at Leeds Trinity University, Leeds, UK. As ever, my special thanks to fellow members of this website, Leandro Machado Pinheiro and Luiz F. A. Guerra, for all of their help in furthering my understanding of Brazilian literature and culture.

Signature of Álvares de Azevedo (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)


‘Brazil is founded on genius’,[1]

…. This was the boast of Dr Jacy Monteiro in 1853 who went on to declare that

‘this is neither the first nor the last time we say it’.[2]

The nation’s cultural achievements in the nineteenth century would indeed prove Monteiro to be correct; the country of Emperor Dom Pedro II, as one English-language contemporary commentator argued, asserted its will on the world stage in cultural, political, and economic terms and was an emerging great power.[3]

Dom Pedro II at the state opening of the Brazilian legislature (Wikimedia Commons)

It is of Brazil’s culture that I shall speak of in this paper. One of the nation’s greatest writers was Machado de Assis, familiar to many English-speaking readers as the author of the Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881). Machado de Assis went on to establish the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1897. Although Machado is now viewed as Brazil’s greatest writer, Machado himself looked back to another Brazilian writer whom he considered to be transformative in the nation’s literary and cultural history: Álvares de Azevedo.[4]

In this paper, I argue that in his two ‘Discursos’ of 1849 and 1850, and his ‘Literatura e civilização em Portugal’ (1850) Azevedo sought to transform his countrymen’s understanding of Brazilian romanticism and literary nationalism; it did not need to be the same as that of the ultra-Romantics—which celebrated Brazil and Brazil alone—but could be internationalist as well.

Álvares de Azevedo (Public Domain)

Álvares de Azevedo

Manuel Antonio Álvares de Azevedo, the second child of Inácio Álvares de Azevedo and D. Maria Silveira da Mota, was born in São Paulo on 12 December 1831. By 1840 he was learning English under the tutelage of one Professor Stoll, an Englishman resident in Brazil and, like most young men of his class in Brazil, went into one of the newly-established ‘faculties’ to learn a profession—in Alvares’s case this was the law.[5] To all intents and purposes these ‘faculties’ were universities. But they were not called universities; when Brazil was part of the Portuguese Empire—under its sway until 1822—the Portuguese Crown decreed that only Coimbra could have a university. Thus, faculties—such as the one attended by Álvares in São Paulo—arose to offer professional education and advanced schooling in the liberal arts.

A street in Rio de Janeiro during the early nineteenth century (From Debret’s Viagem)

Young Azevedo was attentive to his studies but his real passion lay in the study of history, philosophy, and poetry and literature. The authors to whom he turned in his literary discoveries were all European. For much of the nineteenth century, Europe—so many educated Brazilian families thought—represented ‘Progress’ (with a capital P).[6] Thus, when Álvares began writing literature himself, the presence of European authors such as Shakespeare, Chatterton,[7] Lord Byron[8]—and Azevedo attempted to ‘Byronize’ many of his works including Noite na Taverna and Macário[9]—as well as Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Chateubriand all can be felt. Even European statesmen such as Adolphe Thiers and Robert Peel were held in high esteem by Álvares because they represented what he thought was the embodiment of political genius.[10]

Transitional or Transformational

Luckily for young Azevedo, a thriving and rapidly-expanding print culture and literary scene in post-independence Brazil, centred upon the imperial capital of Rio de Janeiro, meant that the latest European poetry and literature was available to him.[11] It is because of Azevedo’s intellectual and artistic dependence on European literary modes that he has been relegated—in the little English-language scholarship that bothers to speak of him at all—to the status of a ‘transitional figure’ in Brazilian literature.[12] This is because Azevedo’s most famous literary works—Macário and Noite na Taverna—while overtly ‘romantic’, contain enough ‘realist’ influences and allegedly anticipate the works of Machado de Assis in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Poems of Álvares de Azevedo (1853 edition)

This argument, posited by C. Malcolm Batchelor in the 1950s,[13] is justified if one takes into account only Azevedo’s literary productions. Yet Batchelor completely neglects what we might call Azevedo’s speeches and pamphlets; it is, in fact, better to understand Azevedo’s idea of the growth of Brazilian civilization was transmitted to people by studying his speeches and essays. After all, his actual literary works were published posthumously while his speeches and essays were published while he was alive.[14]

However, all credit is due to Batchelor who, in 1956, appears to have been the last English-speaking person to produce anything of significance on Azevedo—this especially is surprising considering the often shallow attempts by some so-called decolonial scholars to supposedly widen the canon while not usually bothering to learn any foreign language. As a result, Romantic Studies remains firmly rooted in the English language. Thus, it is time to look at Azevedo’s works afresh and elevate him from being a mere ‘transitional’ figure conjured by Batchelor to the heights he once enjoyed in Machado de Assis’s mind: A figure of nationalist transformation.

The Problem of European Influence

Ihab Hassan, in a much enlightening essay published in 1955, stated that

‘Few problems can prove more vexing to the critic or historian of literature than the problem of influence’.[15]

This is because all writers draw from other writers to some degree, yet connections can often be overstated and oversimplified, and sometimes the use of the word when applied to literature can obscure an author’s intentions. Azevedo was, without a doubt, ‘influenced’ by European authors—Shakespeare and Byron especially. To get away from European influence, in cultural and literary terms, was impossible according to him. Brazil had been a Portuguese colony, then the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves. Europe’s influence was unavoidable.

The Portuguese Empire

Any discussion of Brazilian civilization would need to begin with the literature of Portugal and Spain, so Azevedo argued. Brazil, therefore, had just as much of a claim to those nations’ older literatures as did those nations themselves. This is because he thought that literature cannot be defined by so small a thing as ‘birth nationality’ when the polities in which they emerged were global colonialist powers whose people spread the world over.[16]

Besides, oftentimes the poets of the ‘mother countries’ did not confine themselves within their national borders. This was best illustrated for Azevedo in the example of the early modern poet Luís Vas de Camões. It was a Portuguese poem yet the Lusiads’ subject matter was international, covering India, Africa, and the Americas, as the following lines from Camões illustrate:

When fate resigns the hero to the skies,

A veteran, famed on Brazil’s shore, shall rise;

The wide Atlantic, and the Indian main,

By turns shall own the terrors of his main.[17]

Thus, Camões, in Azevedo’s estimation, was Brazil’s poet just as much as he was Portugal’s. The situation was the same even with English and French poets, some of whose poetry could be counted among the literary productions of their nations’ colonies. ‘Let the poet’, said Azevedo, ‘create Indian poems, like Southey’s Thalaba; let the bard glitter with Asiatic perfumes, as in Victor Hugo‘s Orientals; in Byron’s Bride of Abidos; in Thomas Moore’s Lallah-Rock, let him revere European or Chinese novels’.[18]

What Álvares is hinting at, of course, is the idea of a world literature which emerged as a result of imperialism and the growth of global capitalism. In fact, when Azevedo was writing in 1849, this same idea had also been elucidated, in less poetical terms, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who remarked that the

World market [has] given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country … as in material, so in intellectual production … from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.[19]

It stood to reason, then, that if Brazil could claim Camões and the literature of Portugal, so too could it have minor claims on Camões’s antecedents in Europe and the rest of the world. Thus, in his speeches and short essays Ázevedo gave assembled listeners and readers a glimpse of how he viewed the poetical and literary history of the world. It is a story which begins in India and the Mahabrata and Baghavad Gita and thence to Greece and Rome. The cultural output of these regions in ancient times marked out their nations as the custodians of civilisation. Afterwards, the Arab world and its cultural centre in the Ottoman Empire became the custodians of this civilization and culture. But from the early modern period it was Europe which held sway among the literary capitals of the world.

Luis Vaz de Camoes (Wikimedia Commons)

Brazilian literature could be world literature and vice-versa. However, this view did place him in opposition to the vision of national literary identity promoted by the emperor. The emperor was busy serving as patron of the recently-established Imperial Society of Arts and the Imperial Academy of the Arts; he was a regular attendee at meetings of the Historical and Geographical Institute and, as emperor of a continent-wide country, embraced a Romanticism that glorified Brazil’s natural landscape as well as the figure of the indigenous inhabitant.[20] Much of Brazilian Romanticism was (small ‘c’) conservative at this time, financed as it was by the monarch himself. But Azevedo’s Romanticism was of a different hue; his Romanticism was not conservative and his praise for the republican hero of the Praieira Revolution of 1848, named Pedro Ivo, illustrates that Azevedo was no monarchist.[21]

Poems of Dom Pedro II. The Emperor himself was a keen promoter of the arts and literature (Stephen Basdeo personal collection)

However, while Azevedo took an internationalist and cosmopolitan view of Brazilian and world literary, this did not mean that he was not a patriot; the chief post-independence task of Brazilian cultural leaders, which he alludes to in his 1849 ‘Discurso’, was

‘the literary regeneration of our land’.[22]

The indigenous people of Brazil (From Debret’s Viagem)

It was indeed fast becoming clear that a national body of culture has already emerged in Brazil and Azevedo was a literary patriot and radical who desired Brazilian culture to be on equal terms with that of Europe. The seeds of this had already been planted with the publishing of the first collection of Brazilian national poetry, titled Primeiros Cantos, by a man born in Brazil after independence: the poet in Azevedo’s mind was Antônio Gonçalves Dias (1823–64).[23] Dias’s poems celebrated the indigenous American inhabitants of Brazil, the independence guerreiros, and

‘the waves of the Atlantic and … virgin forests of the Americas’.[24]

The ‘virgin forests’ of Brazil; the landscape of the new empire was the focal point of many Romantics’ sense of national identity (From Debret’s Viagem)

The celebration of Brazil’s natural scenery was in fact central to the nation’s early Romantics and their idea of national independence; in 1826 one commentator, for example, stated that

In these beautiful countries, so favoured by nature, one’s thought must spread wings to match the spectacle offered to it; majestic […] it must remain independent […] In sum, America must be free as much in her poetry as in her government.[25]

Dias’s Pimeiros Cantos or ‘First Songs’ was—so Azevedo thought—Dias who gave inspiration to the first Brazilian poets in the nation’s fledgling literary societies which were established in various places around the country in the wake of independence. In addition, there was Gonçalves de Magalhães (1811–82), now considered the founder of Brazilian Romanticism, was, in Azevedo’s estimation, one of the ‘national talents’ of Brazilian literature and theatre.[26] In addition to this there was Joaquim Manuel de Macedo (1820–82), author of several novels and plays.


Thus there was only reason for optimism; the scene was exciting—a new nation had been born and it was making its way in the world and distinguishing itself politically, economically, and culturally. Much work needed to be done, of course; Brazilian culture still needed to come into its own but and it did not have to follow the ‘imperial’ and perhaps insular idea of romanticism which focused solely on the Brazilian indigenous peoples and landscapes. No—Brazil was heir to these things but also greater things still. It could celebrate these things but also extend it to include the whole world. Thus Azevedo sought to transform Brazilians’ understandings of romantic national identity by giving to the public another vision of how this would look: Brazilian Romanticism could accommodate both the nationalist idea of national culture as well as an internationalist one.


[1] Jacy Monteiro, ‘Discurso Biografico’, in Poesias de Manoel Antonio Álvares de Azevedo, ed. by Jacy Monteiro (Rio de Janeiro: Typografia Americana, 1853), 15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] M.G. Mulhall, ‘Brazil: Past and Future’, The Contemporary Review, January (1890), 103–11.

[4] Machado de Assis [online], ‘Álvares de Azevedo: Lira dos Vinte Anos’, Diário do Rio de Janeiro, 26 June 1866, accessed 28 February 2023, available at: https://horadopovo.com.br/alvares-de-azevedo-por-machado-de-assis-nelson-werneck-e-por-ele-mesmo/

[5] Anon. ‘A vida de Álvares de Azevedo’, in Noite na tavern e Macário, ed. by Domingo Alzugaray, Luiz Carta e Ignácio de Loyola (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Tres, 1973), pp. 1–16.

[6] John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 4th edn (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 163.

[7] Álvares de Azevedo, Macário (Belo Horizonte: Editora Itatiaia, 1984), 18.

[8] Álvares de Azevedo, ‘Hymnos do propheta’, in Obras de Álvares de Azevedo, ed. by Homero Pires, 2 vols (S. Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1942), I, 108.

[9] Maria Imaculada Cavalcante, ‘A presença do Byronismo na produção literaria de Àlvares de Azevedo’, RevLet – Revista Virtual de Letras 1: 1 (2009), 1–19 (1).

[10] Álvares de Azevedo, ‘Discurso recitada no dia 11 de Agosto de 1849’, in Obras de Álvares de Azevedo, ed. by Homero Pires, 2 vols (S. Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1942), II, 407.

[11] Anna Utsch, ‘Print Culture and Literature in 19th-Century Brazil’, in Oxford Research Encyclopedia: Literature (2021). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.1225 (accessed 3 January 2022)

[12] C. Malcolm Batchelor, ‘Álvares de Azevedo: A Transitional Figure in Brazilian Literature’, Hispania, 39: 2 (1956), 149–56.

[13] K. David Jackson, ‘Portuguese at Yale: An Historical Sketch’, e-Journal of Portuguese History, 2: 1 (2004), 1–4.

[14] Natália Gonçalves de Souza Santos, ‘Álvares de Azevedo e a Revue des deux mondes: a leitura como contestação’, Revue Étudiante des Expressions Lusophones, 1 (2017), 155–67

[15] Ihab H. Hassan, ‘The Problem of Influence in Literary History: Notes towards a Definition’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 14: 1 (1955), 66-76

[16] Álvares de Azevedo, ‘Literatura e civilização em Portugal’, in Obras de Álvares de Azevedo, ed. by Homero Pires, 2 vols (S. Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1942), II, 340.

[17] Luis Vaz de Camões, The Lusiad; or, The Discovery of India, Trans. William Junius Mickle (London: W. Suttaby, 1809), 254.

[18] Azevedo, ‘Literatura e civilização em Portugal’, 341.

[19] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm (London: Verso, 2012), 39.

[20] Lilia M. Schwarcz and Heloisa M. Starling, Brazil: A Biography (London: Penguin, 2019), 315.

[21] Álvares de Azevedo [online], ‘Pedro Ivo’, Reynolds’s News and Miscellany, 18 February 2023, Trans. Leandro Machado Pinheiro, accessed 20 May 2023, available at: https://reynolds-news.com/2023/02/18/alvares-azevedo-pedro-ivo-leandro-machado-stephen-basdeo/

[22] Azevedo, ‘Discurso’, 415.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Antônio Gonçalves Dias [online], Primeiros Cantos, 13 May 2023, available at: http://objdigital.bn.br

[25] Rafael Argenton Freire, ‘Byron and Álvares de Azevedo: Byronism in Brazil’ (Unpublished MPhil thesis, 2010), 27.

[26] Azevedo, ‘Discurso’, 414.