Letters of Álvares de Azevedo

Manuel Antonio Álvares de Azevedo, the second son of Inácio Álvares de Azevedo and D. Maria Luisa Carlota Silveira da Mota, was born in the capital of São Paulo, in Rua de São Francisco, near the Faculty of Law, on 12 December 1831. Before Manuel Antonio was born the couple had a daughter, Maria Luísa, who, with the passage of years, would become Azevedo’s favourite sister.[1]

Álvares de Azevedo

At two years of age (1833), the Azevedos moved to Rio de Janeiro. In 1835, a misfortune occurred in the Azevedo household: a death, in Niterói, of one of the couple’s young sons. Already of feeble complexion, Álvares’s health was severely damaged by an illness contracted as a result of the emotional shock he suffered on losing his brother.

Modern edition of Lira dos Vinte Anos

From 1840 to 1844, the poet of Lira dos Vinte Anos attended classes at the Colegio Stoll, and proved himself to be a scholar of elevated, intellectual capacity, confirmed by the testimony of Professor Stoll, owner of the college, in a letter sent to his father:

“Your little Manuel enchants me ever more: it is without doubt a child of the best expectation in my college, except in gym, in which he is the last.”

And further:

“[he has] the greatest intellectual capacity that I met with in America in a boy of his age.”

In school, Azevedo cultivated a love for drawing, the French and English languages, and history and geography.

In 1844 he travelled to São Paulo in the company of his uncle, Dr José Inácio Silveira da Mota, professor in the Faculty of Law. He took French, English, and Latin exams for a course connected with the Faculty of Law, but, for want of age, did not conclude his preparations for matriculation in the law course.

He returned, in the following year, to Rio de Janeiro and matriculated in the Imperial Colegio Pedro II, where he remained until 1847, when, after examinations in all the materials in his seventh year, he acquired the degree of Bachelor of Letters. At this place of learning, he was the student of Domingo José Gonçalves de Magalhães (professor of philosophy), who, with his Suspiros Poeticas, was one of Brazil’s early Romantics. Azevedo was always a disciplined and exemplary student. However, he was possessed of a playful genius and lampooned the college’s masters and servants in a critical, scathing, and at times, irreverent, manner.

In 1848, Azevedo enrolled in São Paulo’s Faculty of Law. In the early part of his academic career he became the friend and colleague of Bernardo Guimarães, Aureliano Lessa, José de Alencar and José Bonifacio the younger. His time in São Paulo was spent living with Guimarães and Lessa in a large house situated in Chácara dos Ingleses.

In May 1848 Azevedo began his correspondence with his friend from Rio Grande do Sul, Luís Antonio da Silva Nunes, to whom he sent part of his narrative poem Conde Lopo and in whom he confessed his anxiety for not having met with a suitable lover or companion:

“Think not also that have I here some new love. No. I feel in my heart the necessity of loving, of giving one of God’s fair creatures this love that beats in my chest. But still I have not yet met here a woman—even one—with whom I could fall in love.”

Alvares stood out greatly among his peers in the course he took and, thanks to his dedication in the study of Roman law and his analysis of the Brazilian Commercial Code, was chosen to deliver the lecture on the anniversary of the foundation of Brazilian law courses, in August 1849. Hildon Rocha, in a critical-biographical study which pre-dates Azevedo’s Poesias Escolhidas, pointed out that the poet, in this speech, discussed the civilizing mission of universities, and pointed out that “the universities have exercised great influence on progress and civilization.” Azevedo, in this speech, further claimed that it will be the youth—“the representatives of the future”—who are agents of this progress. He spoke also of the “luminaries of the French Revolution” and

“the student bodies who raised in the streets and plazas of Paris the republican cry that today there flies thundering and shaking through the whole of Europe.”

Without a doubt, Azevedo held liberal ideas.

In December 1849, he went to pass the holidays in the company of his [family]. At this time he read, intensely, Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine, Musset, and others. In a letter dated 1 March 1850, sent to his friend Luís, he wrote:

“I haven’t spent idly these holidays, [but] before well-worked reading I have taken them. In this little space of 3 months I wrote a romance of 200 and more pages; two poems, one in 5 and another in 2 cantos; an analysis of Jacques Rolla, of Musset; and some literary studies of the simultaneous march of civilization and poetry in Portugal, quite voluminous; a fragment of a poem in very in very ancient language, more difficult to understand than those of Sexitalhas de Frei Antão, more in the way of The Rowley by Chatterton. On this my agitated spirit overcame me at times, an invincible stagnation, hours such as these, that the sailors have, in which the calm descends on the dead sea, and the sails fall along the masts. Everyone here finds me strange this year, the taciturnity of life and the weight of distraction that haunts me. My solitary living, shut up only in my bedroom, most of the time reading without reading, writing without knowing what to write, pensive without thought—maybe some furtive tear rolled down my mother’s cheek. Poor mother!”

In May 1850, Álvares de Azevedo returned to São Paulo to attend the third year of university and helped to found the Associação do Ensaio Filosófico Paulistano, speaking in its inauguration.

At the end of the year, going to spend the holidays with his parents, he returns to São Paulo in April 1851. Arriving here, he hurriedly wrote to his mother telling her of the omens that plague him:

“My blood is cold in my heart, with all the heat of life boiling in my head: my hands are trembling.”

As was usual, Álvares went to spend the end of year holidays in the company of his family in Rio de Janeiro. In December, heading towards Itaboraí, to spend the summer at his parents’ farm. At this time, already with tuberculosis, an accident occurred which complicated his health: in March 1852, during a season in the farm, in Itaboraí, Álvares de Azevedo fell from a horse, causing a tumour in the iliac fossa which kept him in bed until his death.

Like all Romantics, Álvares de Azevedo suffered from the “evil of the century,” sensing death and translating this presentiment into poetry: “already does death’s pallor cover my face.” Of such morbid tastes Rocha stated that

“the Romantic poets maintain, in relation to death, a most masochistic sentiment. They suffer and worry about funerary ideas, investing the theme with attractive and irresistible air, establishing with it an intimacy of thoughts and sentiments that almost always results in an imposing meeting.”

In Azevedo’s case this was true.

On 25 April 1852 Álvares de Azevedo expired, in Rio de Janeiro, being his last words: “What fatality! My father!” He was buried in the Pedro II Cemetery in the Praia Vermelha, then reinterred, in 1854, in the cemetery of São João Batista. On his tomb can be read the verse that he himself asked to go upon his epitaph:

“He was a poet, he dreamed and loved in life.”

The letters in this collection have been translated by Stephen Basdeo, from Homero Pires’s critical edition of Obras completas de Álvares de Azevedo (1942) and cover the years from 1840 until the poet’s death in 1851.

[1] This brief biography is translated from the preface contained in the following work: 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.

Obras Completas de Álvares de Azevedo edited by Homero Pires in 1942