António Thomaz Botto was born at 8:00 a.m. to Maria Pires Agudo and Francisco Thomaz Botto, near Abrantes. His father earned his living as a boatman in the Tagus. In 1902 his family moved to the Alfama quarter in Lisbon, where he grew up in its typical and popular atmosphere, which would deeply influence his work. He was poorly educated and since youth he took to a series of menial jobs, among them that of a book-shop clerk which made him acquainted with many of Lisbon's men of letters. He got into civil service as an administrative clerk in several government offices. In 1924–25 he worked in Santo António do Zaire and Luanda, Angola.
His first book of poems Trovas was published in 1917. It was followed by Cantigas de Saudade (1918) and Cantares (1919). Canções (Songs) was published in 1920 and went unnoticed. Only when the 2nd edition was printed in 1922, and Fernando Pessoa wrote a provocative and encomiastic article about the book praising the author’s courage and sincerity for shamelessly singing homosexual love as a true aesthete, was there public scandal amongst the Lisbon society and Botto attained a lifelong notoriety.
Conservatives reacted and complained to the police about the work’s immorality ("Sodom's literature") and the book was apprehended by the authorities in 1923. Catholic college students clamored for an auto-da-fé of Botto's book and someone even suggested the author should be hanged. Nevertheless, most artists and intellectuals, headed by Pessoa (a close friend of Botto's and also his publisher and English translator), promptly took up his defence in several polemic articles.
Eventually, the scandal subsided, the next year the ban was lifted and until the end of his life Botto would publish several revised versions of the book. His work was applauded by people like Antonio Machado, Miguel de Unamuno, Camilo Pessanha, Virginia Woolf, Teixeira de Pascoaes, José Régio, Luigi Pirandello, Stefan Zweig, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce and Federico García Lorca.
Botto was somewhat of a character. He is described as a slender, medium-height dandy, fastidiously dressed, oval-faced, a tiny mouth with thin pursed lips, strange, scrutinizing, ironic eyes (sometimes clouded by a disturbing malicious expression) hidden by an everpresent fedora. He had a sardonic sense of humour, a sharp, perverse and irreverent mind and tongue, and he was a brilliant and witty conversationalist. He was kind to his friends but he would become fiercely bitchy if he felt someone disliked him or didn't treat him with the unconditional admiration he felt he deserved. He also revelled in indiscrete gossiping. On that account he made a lot of enemies. Some of his contemporaries said he was frivolous, mercurial, mundane, uneducated, vindictive, a mythomaniac and, above all, terribly vain and narcissistic to the point of megalomania. He was a regular visitor of Lisbon's popular bohemian quarters and the docks, enjoying the company of sailors, a frequent image in his poems. In spite of being mainly homosexual, he had a lifelong female companion, Carminda Silva Rodrigues:
"Marriage suits every handsome and decadent man", he once wrote.On November 9, 1942 Botto was expelled from the civil service for i) disobeying orders; ii) for wooing a male co-worker and addressing to him ambiguous words, denouncing tendencies condemned by the social morals; and iii) for writing and reciting verses during the working hours, disrupting discipline in the workplace. When he read the public announcement in the official gazette he was totally disheartened: "Now I'm the only acknowledged homosexual in Portugal...", he ironized.
He supported himself by writing articles, columns and criticism in newspapers, and several books, among them Os Contos de António Botto and O Livro das Crianças, a best-seller collection of short stories for children that would be officially approved as school reading in Ireland (The Children’s Book, translated by Alice Lawrence Oram). But this proved insufficient. His health was deteriorating from tertiary syphilis (he refused to be treated) and the brilliance of his poetry was fading away. He was jeered at in cafés and cinemas by homophobes. He was fed up with living in Portugal and in 1947 he decided to emigrate to Brazil. To raise funds for his trip in May he gave two large poetry recitals in Lisbon and Porto. It was a big success and he was largely praised by several artists and intellectuals, among them Amália Rodrigues, João Villaret and the writer Aquilino Ribeiro. On August 17 (the day he turned 50), he and his wife sailed to Brazil.
In Brazil he resided in São Paulo until 1951 and then moved to Rio de Janeiro. He survived by writing articles and columns in Portuguese and Brazilian newspapers, doing some radio shows and poetry readings in theatres, associations, clubs and, finally, cheap taverns.
He was doing badly day by day and he ended up living in utter misery (sometimes he fed on flour mixed with water). His megalomania (due to syphilis) was rampant and he told delirious, outlandish stories of being visited in Lisbon by André Gide ("If it was not him then it was Marcel Proust..."), of being the greatest living poet in the world and that he was the owner of São Paulo. In 1954 he asked to be repatriated but he gave up because he lacked the money for the trip. (For that purpose he even tried to be in the good graces of Cardinal Cerejeira, writing the lyrics of Avé de Fátima, Our Lady of Fátima's now most popular hymn.) In 1956 he fell seriously ill and was hospitalised for a time.
On March 4, 1959, while crossing the Copacabana Avenue, in Rio de Janeiro, he was run over by a car. He died on March 16, 1959, around 5:00 pm, in the Hospital da Beneficiência Portuguesa. In 1966 his remains were transferred to Lisbon and since November 11 they are buried in the Alto de São João cemetery.
The Songs of Antonio Botto edited by Josiah Blackmore, translated by Fernando Pessoa
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press (November 8, 2010)
Amazon: The Songs of Antonio Botto
"In Antonio Botto’s poems, the mouth trembles, kisses, lies, tells the truth, bites, bleeds, laughs, pleads, and sings, while the hand writes it all down trying to create something beautiful out of the dirty silences that surround unsanctioned love and sex. Even reading the poems a half century after they were written, one feels the flesh burn." —Henri ColeAntónio Botto was one of Portugal's first openly gay writers, a poète maudit whose unapologetic and candid verses about homosexual life and passion were both praised and reviled when they appeared in Portuguese in 1922 under the title Canções. Botto's poetic voice-confessional, personal, and intimate-revels and luxuriates in eroticism while expressing the ache of longing, silence, and suffering. Yet for all of his acclaim and notoriety-he was both hailed as one of the great poets of his day and condemned for his frank depictions of male-male desire-Botto and his work fell into oblivion after his death.
The Songs of António Botto recovers this important, urgent voice in modern poetry by making available-for the first time since its private publication in 1948-the English-language translation of Canções that Botto's friend and artistic collaborator, Fernando Pessoa, completed in 1933. Pessoa, Portugal's preeminent modernist literary figure, considered Botto the only Portuguese poet worthy of the label "aesthete" and, as a critic and publisher, championed his work. Featuring an introduction to Botto's work and Pessoa's previously unpublished foreword to the 1948 edition as well as a new translation of Botto's 1941 elegy to Pessoa, The Songs of António Botto establishes Botto as a pioneering figure in modern gay literature and places him alongside C. P. Cavafy and Federico García Lorca as one of the major poetic voices of the twentieth century.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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