Portuguese American Journal

A fresh look at Dante “carioca” style – by George Monteiro

One of the more touching sonnets in Dante’s La Vita Nuova expresses the poet’s thoughts as he witnesses the fashion of the way his elusive “mia donna” makes her way, gracefully and independently, down the street before him:

Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare
La donna mia quand’ella altrui saluta
Ch’ogne lingua deven tremando muta,
E li occhi no l’ardiscon di guardare.

Ella si va, sentendosi laudare,
Benignamente d’umiltà vestuta;
E par che sia una cosa venuta
Da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare.

Mostrasi sì piacente a chi la mira,
Che dà per li occhi una dolcezza al core,
Che entender no la può chi no la prova;

E par che de la sua labbia si mova
Un spirito soave pien d’amore;
Che va dicendo a l’anima: “Sospira.”

My point is simple, but for those who know the twentieth-century Brazilian poet-songwriter Vinicius de Moraes only as a popular songwriter, and not the cultured, learned, modernist poet that he was in the earlier phase of his artistic career, it may come as a surprise. Dante’s 1265 lyric — the poet’s soulful take on his “donna mia” as she moves before him — is a prototype for two lyrics by Vinícius — a less-than-sweetly-depressive samba “Quando tu passas por mim” and the celebrated song “A Garota de Ipanema.” In all three lyrics — Vinicius’ two and the Dantean prototype — the image of the woman (whose own story remains a mystery to us) as she passes before the man serves as an emblem to each poet of the passage of time itself.

“Quando tu passas por mim” (1953), Vinicius’ first samba, written with Antônio Maria, runs:

vinQuando tu passas por mim
Por mim passam saudades cruéis
Passam saudades de um tempo
Em que a vida eu vivia à teus pés
Quando tu passas por mim
Passa o tempo e me leva para trás
Leva-me a um tempo sem fim
A um amar onde o amor foi demais
E eu que só fiz te adorar
E de tanto te amar penei mágoas sem fim
Hoje nem olho para trás
Quando tu passas por mim

It is possible, I think, at least in retrospect, to entertain the idea that the vengeful lyrics of this first samba morphed into Vinicius’ more delicately mournful song “A Garota de Ipanema” (1962). The original lyrics of this enormously popular song, written with Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim (1927-94), read:

Vinicius de Moraes with Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (born 1943), the real life “Garota de Ipanema”. Later she married, became Helô Pinheiro, and was Brazilian Playboy Playmate in 1987 and once again in 2003.

Vinicius de Moraes with Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (born 1943), the real life “Garota de Ipanema”. Later she married, became Helô Pinheiro, and was Brazilian Playboy Playmate in 1987 and once again in 2003 when, at age 60, she posed with her daughter, Ticiane Pinheiro.

Olha, que coisa mais linda,
Mais cheia de graça
É ela, a menina
Que vem e que passa
Num doce balanço
Caminho do mar…
Moça do corpo dourado,
Do sol de Ipanema,
O seu balançado
É mais que um poema
É a coisa mais linda
Que eu já vi passar…
Ah, porque estou tão sozinho
Ah, por que tudo é tão triste
Ah, a beleza que existe
A beleza que não é só minha
Que também passa sozinha…
Ah, se ela soubesse
Que quando ela passa,
O mundo sorrindo
Se enche de graça
E fica mais lindo
Por causa do amor…
[1]

It is pleasing to think that Vinicius himself was aware of the Dantean predecessor to his own tender tribute to the lovely girl who so touches him as she walks to the beach. [2]

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[1] O Operário em Construção e Outros Poemas, ed. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda [Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1979], p. 108.

[2] In Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: McFarland, 2012), I discuss how Bishop’s “Pink Dog,” a posthumously published poem critical of Rio de Janeiro, can be traced back to Dante by way of Vinícius’ “A Garota de Ipanema” (pp. 79-80).

This article was first published in RTP/Comunidades. Reprinted with permission.

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Recent Posts by Professor George Monteiro

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George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…