Dom Casmurro Chapter 55


After this my former classmate shook my hands with all the force of his tremendous gratitude, said goodbye and went off. I was left alone with the Panegyric, and what its pages brought back to me is worth a chapter or so. Before this, however – because I, too, had my Panegyric – I will tell the tale of a sonnet I never wrote. It was during the time of the seminary, and the first line went as follows:

O flower of heaven! O flower white and pure!

How and why this line came into my head I do not know. It came as I lay in bed – an isolated exclamation. And when I noted that it scanned like poetry I thought of composing something to go with it: to turn it into a sonnet. Insomnia, the muse with staring eyes, did not let me sleep for a long hour or two. It seemed an itch asking for scratching, and I scratched wholeheartedly. I did not decide on the sonnet form right away. At first I considered other forms in rhymed as well as blank verse, but finally I settled on the sonnet: a poem both brief and serviceable. As for the theme, the first line was not yet an idea, it was just an exclamation; the theme would come later. Thus, lying in bed, wrapped in my sheets, I tried to compose a poem. I was as excited as a mother who feels within her the stirrings of her first child. I was going to be a poet and compete with that monk of Bahia who had just been discovered and was all the rage. I, a seminarist, would recount my woes in verse as he had written of his sufferings from the cloister. I memorized the line and repeated it in a soft voice to the sheets. Frankly I thought it beautiful, and even now it does not seem bad to me.

O flower of heaven! O flower white and pure!

What was the flower? Capitu, of course; but it could be virtue, poetry, religion, any other concept that would fit the metaphor of ‘flower’ and ‘flower of heaven’ I waited for the rest, reciting the line over and over, first on my right side, then on the left; finally I lay on my back with my eyes fixed on the ceiling. Even in this position nothing more came.

Then it dawned on me that the most highly extolled sonnets were those that ended with a ‘golden key’, that is, with one of those lines that sum up everything in their meaning and form. I decided to forge such a key, for, I reflected, if the final line came forth after the preceding thirteen one could scarcely expect it to have the approved perfection. I imagined that such keys were made before the lock. Thus it was that I determined to compose the last line of the sonnet, and after much sweating this emerged:

Though life is lost, the battle still is won!

Without boasting, and looked at dispassionately, it was a magnificent line. Sonorous, without a doubt. And it had profundity – victory gained at the cost of life itself, an exalted and noble sentiment. It may not have been very original, but neither was it commonplace; and even today I cannot explain by what mysterious means it came into such a youthful head. At the time I found it sublime. I recited my golden key again and again, then I repeated the two lines in sequence and made ready to connect them by the twelve central ones. As for the theme, it seemed to me now, in view of my last line, that it would be better if it were not Capitu; it would be justice. It was more appropriate to say that in the struggle for justice life may be lost, but the battle still is won. It also occurred to me to accept ‘battle’ in its literal sense and make it the battle for one’s country. In that case, the ‘flower of heaven’ would be freedom. This term, however, since the poet was a seminarist, might not be as suitable as the first; and I spent several minutes deciding on one or the other. I thought justice was the better, but in the end I chose another idea – that of charity.

I recited the two lines, each in its own style, the one languorously:

O flower of heaven! O flower white and pure!

and the other with vigour:

Though life is lost, the battle still is won!

The sensation I had was that a perfect sonnet was about to emerge. It was no small thing to begin well and end well. To encourage creativity I called to mind some celebrated sonnets, and I noted that most of them seemed quite artless. The lines flowed so naturally from one to the other that one could not decide whether it was the sentiment that had inspired the lines or they that had generated the sentiment. Then I turned back to my sonnet and repeated the first line and awaited the second. It was not forthcoming, nor the third, nor the fourth, nor any of them. I had several fits of rage and more than once considered getting out of bed and obtaining ink and paper. Perhaps in writing the lines would come, but …

Tired of waiting, I thought of altering the meaning of the final line by transposing the words, thus:

Though the battle may be lost, life is won!

The sense was entirely the opposite, but perhaps this might bring inspiration. In this case, the meaning would be ironic: by not practising charity one may win in life but lose the battle for heaven. I summoned more patience and waited. I did not have a window near by. If I had been adjacent to one it is possible I might have begged an idea from the night firmament. And who knows if the fireflies flashing below might not have acted as echoes for the stars, and this living metaphor provided the elusive lines.

I toiled in vain; I searched, I hunted, I waited, but no lines came. Later on in life I have written some prose, and now I am composing this narrative, though I still find nothing in this world more difficult than writing, whether well or ill. Well, nothing consoles me for that sonnet I never wrote. But, since I believe that sonnets spring ready made, like odes and dramas and other works of art, for such are the laws of metaphysics, I offer my two lines to the first idle soul who wants them. One Sunday, or if it’s raining, in the country or at any other moment of leisure, he can see if the sonnet will come. All he has to do is give it a theme and fill in the missing central section.