Cruz e Sousa: Mystic Secret Templar

    Cruz e Sousa: Mystic 
Secret Templar

    By Brazzil Magazine

    És o secreto e místico templário
    As almas, em silêncio, contemplando.1

    In order to better visualize João Cruz e Sousa’s unusual experience, which led to his
    important contribution to Brazilian literature, we might imagine a play on his life: in
    the late 19th century, a boatload of white Americans (or Brazilians) are
    kidnapped by the international slave trade, taken to the African Congo, and sold to work
    for powerful black natives. Two of these unfortunates, "luckier" than the
    others, are assigned to work in a royal mansion, where they are quartered together, in the
    cellar. Their child is born, much to the joy of the childless African queen, who decides
    she will not only give the infant her royal family name, but take a personal interest in
    educating him as a noble African black would be, "free" of the strange white
    Christian mythologies his superstitious parents would have him embrace. The boy would be
    initiated into traditional African cults, learn to beat the drum, dance, hear the legends
    and folktales of the Congo, speak Bantu or the local dialect. And he would be free. This
    black-man’s soul in a white man’s body….

    Meanwhile, in the south of Brazil, in the provincial capital Nossa Senhora do
    Desterro, today Florianópolis, the island-capital of Santa Catarina state, in the
    1860’s, the local population, who had limited access to world news and scandal, quite
    naturally and avidly sought after stories worth repeating in the sun-filled salons of the
    noble houses, in the exclusive restaurants of upper-class clubs, on the pristine beaches a
    short walk from downtown. For a few seasons, the talk of the town was João Cruz e Sousa,
    the "black poet."

    With the unique orientation Cruz e Sousa got in life, he could hardly have missed being
    something, somebody, quite unusual. His parents were shipped over from black Africa and
    bought in auction by an aristocrat to work, rather than in the fields, at the family
    mansion in what might be compared to pre-Civil War Atlanta, Georgia. They were, in that
    sense, "luckier." His father became a semi-skilled workman, a bricklayer; his
    mother washed clothes. They probably met at the stately home of the good Colonel and his
    genteel wife, who may have subtly encouraged them to multiply in their basement slave
    quarters. Or it may have been love at first sight, understandable under the circumstances.

    (Deserters of all good, under your royal clothes
    crocodile-like, you who flatter and squat,
    living in the light of privilege sensuously bought,
    as does the longneck turtle, in its beastly pose….)
    ("The Proslavers")

    (Oh! Trânsfugas do bem que sob o manto régio
    manhosos, agachados _ bem como o crocodilo,
    viveis sensualmente à luz dum privilégio
    na pose bestial dum cágado tranqüilo….)
    ("Os Escravagistas")

    When baby João came along, Mme Colonel, the Lady Clarinda Fagundes de Sousa just
    couldn’t get over how cute he was, and right then and there decided he would have her
    name, she did, together with the name of the saint celebrated on his day of birth, San
    Juan de la Cruz, the Spanish mystic, poet, and revolutionary monk. Had she had a vision of
    love? had her maternal instincts taken over? was she expiating the sins of her
    forefathers, who had built their fortunes on slave labor? Academic questions since, for
    good measure, the fine woman decided that her sometime adopted son, João Cruz e Sousa,
    would have the best education available in the entire province; he would be baptized; he
    would be raised a virtuous Christian. And yes, he would be a free man, even while being
    nursed, down in the basement.

    Free! of slavish matter to be free and real,
    rip off the shackles, cast away the pain
    and free, penetrate those Gifts which seal
    the soul, celestial lava and heavenly gain….

    Livre! Ser livre da matéria escrava,
    arrancar os grilhões que nos flagelam
    e livre penetrar nos Dons que selam
    a alma e lhe emprestam toda a etérea lava….

    Yet early on, the tot was brought up to the sun-filled winter garden, amid the orchids
    and the tropical hanging ferns, or onto the spacious verandas, in sight of the huge
    jack-fruit and mango trees, in order to hear nursery rhymes and children’s songs from the
    very mouth of the noble Lady of the House who, to the town’s slave and poor-white
    population, lived the luxurious, leisurely life of royalty, of a queen. Portuguese rhythms
    and meter mingled freely with the Bantu and its archetypes, pushing deep tendrils into the
    fresh brain cells of the ancient African mind, now in a new world. Visions were being
    impressed on an intelligence whose quality was as yet unsuspected. He responded well, and
    the instruction, the indoctrination, continued. Madame de Sousa never recorded her deepest
    intent behind her conscious motive behind her actions. Did she smile her work to see?

    Meanwhile, back in the slave quarters, down in the cellar of the mansion, what were her
    parents whispering (no fear of hidden microphones), hot in their bed at night? Their only
    son, a favorite of the Queen! What would any black slaves whisper in each other’s ears?
    What primitive spirit had descended into their home, into their bed? What fate was
    overtaking their family? Would little Johnny not be Ogum, the warrior? Could
    he not grow up to be wise, as Preto Velho? They would have to consult a Mãe-de-Santa,
    a priestess of the transposed African cult-world. They would have to find an excuse to
    get out of the house, to go upstream to the priestess’ hut, where she would throw the
    shells, or go into a trance, fall to the floor in a tremulous state of altered
    consciousness, her eyes rolled back in her head, be possessed of the spirit, receive a

    They whispered, every night they whispered. Their son was reciting the white man’s
    chants. He had the blessing, and the words, of the Queen as if, in England, Queen Victoria
    had adopted the son of her West Indian gardener, would send him to Oxford to study under
    Darwin. Others, too, were whispering. Wasn’t there danger? He might somehow displease, and
    whites had the power over life and death, pain and pleasure, promotion or disgrace. What
    could happen now? The boy needed to know what the boss man’s white skin meant; what the
    black man’s place was. Caroline, John’s illiterate mother, would take her son aside, hold
    his arm, and speak low to him, her eyes wide, her voice tense. Had she been in Alabama,
    her words might have been "Yo be watchin’ out dem white peoples! Dey kin make yo
    trubbles! I be seein dem whippin’ on us peoples terrabul. Yo don’ go say nothin’ back on
    dem, yo hearin’ yo mammy?!"

    From your soul in the tunnel’s deep end,
    I sometimes feel, as I sometimes descend,
    that as a fierce, hungry wolf in its pack,
    your vile hatred spies behind my back.
    ("Imprisoned by Hate")

    Da tu’alma na funda galeria
    descendo às vezes, eu às vezes sinto
    que como o mais feroz lobo faminto
    teu ódio baixo de alcatéia espia.
    ("Presa do Ódio")

    Neither his patroness nor his mother had as yet suspected that these and other counsels
    and messages, folk-tales, verse, spirits, dreams, inconsistencies and terror, were already
    gathering force in a prodigious intelligence, stimulating the creative energy deep in the
    mind of João, who was hearing everything, dressed in white shirts and velvet-collar
    jackets, wearing imported shoes, munching on pastries and chocolates from the town, being
    rewarded with a noblesse-oblige pat on the head when he got the verse right, which
    he usually did with unusual speed. By age seven, when brought into the presence of the
    great man of the house, by then a Marechal, he could recite not only his lessons,
    but verses of his own composition. His foster-parents nodded at each other with pride and
    satisfaction; they would arrange for a public recital, before the cream of society.

    Here, then, was the talk of the town, on-stage for Nossa Senhora do Desterro’s
    anniversary, on the patron saint’s day, between acts at the city’s best theatre, speaking
    in verse to the Governor, the General, the priests and the doctors. The Wealthy, the
    Powerful, the Owners. To some he was a phenomenon, to others a curiosity, a simple
    entertainment, or merely a clown. He was the only black so promoted, so commented, so
    honored, for hundreds of miles, the only black child-prodigy poet on the Continent,
    perhaps in the world, the only Brazilian black destined to create a literary movement, an
    original style of symbolism. To some, of course, he was an uppity. They heard his
    name too much, and didn’t like it. And they were jealous. A black poet! When was the first
    slander? When the first intrigue set into motion against the young genius?

    And the boy himself, named after a medieval Carmelite monk and a high society family?
    When did he first see, on the way to the stage, men of his own color in chains? When did
    he first use his liberty to sneak away from the mansion, go to town, and see, by accident,
    a whipping at the pillory? What was Carolina, his mother, saying then to Guilherme, her
    husband, and to her son, when her child, her little boy, one generation out of Africa, was
    being applauded by white men, on the white man’s ceremony day? To what god was she
    offering? Was it the same as her husband’s? Was the bricklayer dismayed, proud, fearful?
    He never got much into symbolism. The bricks remained always just bricks.

    Their son, the black poet, recognized, well-known, was awarded a scholarship to
    the best prep school in the province; its large German population believed in education,
    and had brought in a visiting professor (a correspondent of Darwin), several local
    scholars including an orientalist-priest, a mathematician, and more, all in four
    languages, counting Latin and Greek. A classical education, an atmosphere of learning,
    illiterate slaves at home, men in chains on the street, his all-white class, his
    black African blood, the legacy of abstract thought, Greek philosophy, and the horrors
    against his people: João Cruz e Souza. He had it all.

    He graduated at the top of his class, began working as a private teacher, published
    poetry in the papers at sixteen, helped found a literary journal, was reported to have his
    way with the town slave girls,

    (Oh I have bloodily loved such flesh
    voluptuous, lethal, full of pain,
    essence of heliotrope and rose, mesh
    of tropical essences, warm but profane…

    Virgin, tepid flesh arising in the Orient
    of Dream and of fabulous Stars,
    bitter flesh, marvelous and opulent,
    temptresses of the sun, intensest avatars…)


    (Ó carnes que eu amei sangrentamente,
    ó volúpias letais e dolorosas,
    essências de heliotropos e de rosas
    de essência morna, tropical, dolente…

    Carnes virgens e tépidas do Oriente
    do Sonho e das Estrelas fabulosas,
    carnes acerbas e maravilhosas,
    tentadoras do sol intensamente…)


    which, together with his exclusive education and his white friends, distanced him from
    the local black population. His mother Caroline had thrown him out of the house years ago.
    Racist hatred, belatedly being denounced even now in Brazil, was at his back. Rescued from
    a delicate situation by an itinerant group of actors and entertainers, he went on the road
    for two years, reading his poetry. And organizing anti-slavery conferences.

    Upon returning to Santa Catarina, more famous and controversial than ever, he was
    introduced to the President of the province, a Dr. Gama Rosa, reportedly a sympathizer who
    later went so far as to nominate the 23-year old poet and activist for the post of
    District Attorney. What was the doctor thinking? At the time, there probably wasn’t a
    black clerk, policeman, or high school teacher in the entire country; its slaves wouldn’t
    be freed until years later. (Think about nominating a black with Cruz e Sousa’s
    credentials for the same position in Mississippi, 1930’s.) It didn’t go down at all with
    the slaveholding political establishment; the nomination was rejected outright. The young
    man had already made enemies with the Brazilian version of the Klan; now it was official.
    He left town shortly after. He had nothing.

    Sad star, to reflect in mud and mire,
    ray of light, to scintillate in dusty space,
    you’ve sweetness of curves and rare fire,
    the subtlety and fascination of grace….
    ("Heavenly Shelter")

    Estrela triste a refletir na lama,
    raio de luz a cintilar na poeira,
    tem a graça sutil e feiticeira,
    a doceira das curvas e da chama….
    ("Abrigo Celeste")

    Caught between two cultures, well-received in neither, harassed by his country’s
    notoriously repressive elite establishment, barred from any employment worthy of his
    talents, Cruz e Sousa died in poverty at age thirty-six, in 1898. His best work went
    unpublished until after his death. Today the poet is recognized as the pioneer of the
    symbolist movement in Brazil. Like Poe,2 Rimbaud, and other masters of the
    genre, his fundamental experience was that of a reality more mental than material, more
    spiritual than physical, more Absolute than contingent; his metaphysic the relation of the
    former, elements of the Eternal, to the latter, elements of time; his poetics based on the
    presupposition that these ineffable intuitions can best be evoked indirectly and subtly;
    that is, symbolically.

    Nothing there is can me overpower and win
    when silently awakened is my soul…
    It bursts into flower and will overflow
    as such immense emotion rushes in.

    Defendant am I of celestial Sentence,
    by Love condemned, one who remembers
    that Love and in the Silence embroiders
    skies of his thoughts and sins with stars immense….


    Nada há que me domine e que me vença
    quando a minh’alma mudamente acorda…
    Ela rebenta em flor, ela transborda
    nos alvoroços da emoção imensa.

    Sou como um Réu de celestial Sentença,
    condenado do Amor, que se recorda
    do Amor e sempre no silêncio borda
    d’estrelas todo e céu em que erra e pensa….


    To propose a poem with the title "Ineffable" is to assume paradox at the
    outset, in attempting to write about that which is impressed but which, by definition,
    cannot be expressed. Indirectly, the poet is assuming mysticism as a way of knowing,
    whereby the knower becomes that which is known; the whole mystic tradition proclaims such
    knowledge can indeed only be experienced, and not demonstrated. Thus the need for symbolic
    language by the religious visionary, who writes of miracles, fantastic spiritualizations,
    visionary spectacles, paradoxes, reincarnations, epical confrontations. The historical
    value of these images is not at all the point, which is rather the lifting of the mind to
    other levels of reality. Evelyn Underhill, in Mysticism, makes a useful commentary
    on the technique:

    "Thanks to the special imagery inseparable from human thinking and human
    expression, no direct description of spiritual experience is or can be possible to man. It
    must always be symbolic, allusive, oblique, always suggest, but never tell, the
    truth….The greater the suggestive quality of the symbol used, the more answering emotion
    it evokes in those to whom it is addressed, the more truth it will convey. A good
    symbolism, therefore, will be more than mere diagram or mere allegory: it will use to the
    utmost the resources of beauty and of passion, will bring with it hints of mystery and
    wonder, bewitch with dreamy periods the mind to which it is addressed. Its appeal will be
    not to the clever brain, but to the desirous heart, the intuitive sense, of man."3

    In Cruz e Sousa’s case, the poetic difficulties were exacerbated by his impossible
    situation in society. Too much suffering can and has made many decide that there is no
    overall, coherent meaning to be found in merely real-time experience, and search for their
    meaning in the inner world of religion, philosophy, mysticism or other vehicles of the
    spiritual life. It’s not difficult to suppose that a sensitive poet could fail to find
    much meaning in a slaveholding society and, in contemplation, find evidence for belief in
    an Absolute which might subsume even the evils surrounding him. The traditional key to
    this vision is Faith:

    See how Pain may transcendentalize your life!
    So nobly believe, through deep Pain and strife.
    Transfigure with the force of faith your being
    that all become divine, that beauty be seeing….

    Vê como a Dor te transcendentaliza!
    Mas no fundo da dor crê nobremente.
    Transfigura o teu ser na força crente
    que tudo torna belo e diviniza….

    Of course too much belief in spiritual values, if made public by a book of poetry, will
    provoke repression from the materialistic side of the establishment and this in turn will
    mean more suffering and the need for stronger belief, and then, more repression…. As a
    matter of policy, those who have no ideals must attempt to destroy any stubborn
    recrudescence of idealism which shows up. It makes them look bad.

    The values found in these fleeting glimpses of reality are impossible to demonstrate
    directly; the difficulty is extensively analyzed by the poet’s namesake, Saint John of the
    Cross: "…mystical theology…secret wisdom… happens secretly and in darkness, so
    as to be hidden from the work of the understanding and of other faculties…the soul
    cannot speak of it and give it a name whereby it may be called…can find no suitable way
    or manner or similitude by which it may be able to describe such lofty understanding and
    such delicate spiritual feeling."4

    In common with other works which use symbolism to express the artists’ deepest beliefs,
    Cruz e Sousa’s poetry contains almost no references to historical, physical persons or
    places, things or events. Even a cursory look at his titles indicates his interests were
    far from any verifiable circumstance. Consider a selection of titles from his best work, Last
    Sonnets, which indicate themes from the possible world of Absolutes, rather
    than from the "real" world of material being: "Immortal Attitude,"
    "Prison of Souls," "Supreme Verb," "God of Evil,"
    "Indecisive Souls," "Celestial Refuge," "Buddhic Ecstasy."
    "Prison of Souls" ("Cárcere das Almas") re-interprets a basic
    metaphor for visualizing the good man’s dilemma:

    Thus in this life imprisoned, every soul
    sobs in the darkness, behind the bars
    watching, from down in the dungeon’s hole,
    the outer vastnesses, seas, noons, stars.

    But all is dressed in celestial clothes
    when the soul in its chains, as cure,
    dreams of freedom, then will disclose
    immortalities in the sublime Space of the Pure.

    Oh speechless and incarcerated souls
    held in colossal abandoned cells, seas
    of Pain in deathly pitless gaols!

    Which guard from Heaven holds the keys
    in this lonely silence, without history,
    to open you the doors of Mystery?!

    Ah! Toda a alma num cárcere anda presa,
    soluçando nas trevas, entre as grades
    do calabouço olhando imensidades,
    mares, estrelas, tardes, natureza.

    Tudo se veste de uma igual grandeza
    quando a alma entre grilhões as liberdades
    sonha e, sonhando, as imortalidades
    rasga no etéreo Espaço da Pureza.

    Ó almas presas, mudas e fechadas
    nas prisões colossais e abandonadas,
    da Dor no calabouço, atroz, funéreo!

    Nesses silêncios solitários, graves,
    que chaveiro do Céu possui as chaves
    para abrir-vos as portas do Mistério?!

    The image of the body as prison to the soul is traditional. How much stronger it would
    have been for a man like Cruz e Sousa, a noble mind wandering among unfeeling and corrupt
    institutions, a sensitive soul made the butt of an insensitive, power—and
    status—hungry ruling class. But the dream of freedom, if believed in with enough
    intensity, becomes a reality; belief in the Mystery of Creation, if firmly held to,
    becomes the very presence of that Mystery. Milton said it: "The mind is its own
    place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n."5

    Last Sonnets contains 96 poems, some eighty percent of which include the word soul.
    The highly personal language, the refined images and metaphors indirectly describe what is
    everyman’s inexpressible interior reality; "From Soul to Soul" ("De Alma em
    Alma") is typical:

    You erringly wander from soul to soul;
    one such sanctuary, then another, choose
    A mystic secret templar, your role
    is to contemplate, alone, the souls you use.

    I know not what harps in you are vibrating,
    what sounds a Stradivarian pilgrim is creating,
    recalling sacristy-like veneration,
    voices murmuring celestial adoration.

    But I do know, that from soul to soul, you are lost,
    seeking that beautiful world, as yet unglossed,
    of Silence, of Love, and Fascination,

    So go! Dreamer of noble veneration!
    The soul of Faith flowers such bright design,
    even from Death does resurrect and shine!

    Tu andas de alma em alma errando, errando,
    como de santuário em santuário.
    És o secreto e místico templário
    as almas, em silêncio, contemplando.

    Não sei que de harpas há em ti vibrando,
    que sons de peregrino estradivário,
    que lembras reverências de sacrário
    e de vozes celestes murmurando.

    Mas sei que de alma em alma andas perdido,
    atrás de um belo mundo indefinido
    de Silêncio, de Amor, de Maravilha.

    Vai! Sonhador das nobres reverências!
    A alma da Fé tem dessas florescências,
    mesmo da Morte ressuscita e brilha!

    Obviously, there is no objective way to demonstrate the real-time existence of any of
    the poet’s images. Even the violin is rare. The reader can only appeal to his own personal
    experience of ideal values. Whether or not the poet was a full-blown mystic will probably
    never be determined, but another clue to his inner life is his habitual speaking of his
    own soul or being in the third person, as if his deepest consciousness were looking at the
    life of Cruz e Sousa from afar. The practice of seeing one’s existential self as not the
    "really real" or essential self is common advice in the literature from that
    school known as the mystical, references to which appear often enough in the poetry to
    hazard that the author was well acquainted with mystical science. "Mysticism"
    has been defined as a method of search, a science of the Absolute; meditation and
    contemplation are its basic tools. It is hard to imagine any poet who does not use
    meditation, though the complete mystic seems to be rarer than the complete poet.
    T.S.Eliot, for example, was obviously acquainted with much mystic literature, and
    obviously not a mystic. What he knew, Cruz e Sousa saw.

    1 "De Alma em Alma"("From Soul to Soul"), see
    below. All quotations of the poetry are from Cruz e Sousa, Collected Works, ed.
    Andrade Muricy (Rio de Janeiro: Editora José Aguilar Ltda., 1961.

    2 Certain lines from the poet could easily be taken for Poe’s(and
    vice-versa), i.e. from the former: "…mouth of Ophelia dead on the lake,/within the
    vague dream’s halo of light…" ("…boca de Ofélia morta sobre o lago,/dentre
    a auréola de luz do sonho vago….") "Boca."

    3 (New York: New American Library, 1974), p. 126.

    4 Dark Night of the Soul, tr. E. Allison Piers (New York:
    Image Books, 1959), p. 159.

    5 Paradise Lost, bk i, 1, l.254.

    John Howard has published the translations of several Brazilian poets, and several
    poems of his own. He has an MA in literature from California State University. Several of
    his São Paulo graffitos can be seen on the Internet at "Art Crimes/The Writing on
    the Wall." You can reach him at

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