Malta Independent

The Maltese poet who died at a young age

- Fr Hermann Duncan

The poet Rużar Briffa was born in Valletta on 16 January 1906 to Ġovanna and Duminku. He attended the primary school in St Elmo, Valletta, and after attended the Valletta Lyceum. In 1923 he joined the department of education as a primary school teacher where he began to teach at the Żabbar primary school. He is said to have been the first matriculat­ion teacher in the Department of Education.

A year later, in 1924 he began studying medicine at the University of Malta aiming through his profession to be able to enhance the skin’s beauty and remove its defects. He graduated years later with a Bachelor of Science (BSc)

Around the time he began his course in medicine, he wrote his first poem known as Lacrymae Rerum, and in 1926 he joined The Academy of Maltese where he obtained a special edition of “IlMalti” (Maltese) for university students. Whilst he was at university studying medicine he won several prizes and competitio­ns by the Maltese Prognostic and in 1931, along with another poet Guze Bonnici, he set up the Maltese Associatio­n at University and there began publishing “IlLeħen il-Malti”, “The voice of the Maltese”.

Briffa didn’t spend long leading the Maltese Associatio­n as he was awarded a scholarshi­p in London to specialize in dermatolog­y. In 1932 he returned to Malta as a professor or rather a specialist in skin diseases. A year later he got married to Constance Winifrid Dunn and in 1936 they had a child named Cecilia. That same year there was a plague outbreak in which Briffa played an important role as a specialist. Following the second outbreak in 1945, he was made Supervisor­y Officer of Leprosy. He then travelled to India to attend a course on the study of leprosy.

In April 1950 he lost his wife Constance after a hard battle with her illness. He came to hate his home so much, that he moved out and into a private room at Central Hospital. The following year he began to teach at university and in 1952 he met Louisette Attard Bajona and shortly after they got married.

Sadly, before his tenth wedding anniversar­y, he was diagnosed with cancer in July of 1961. He spent the subsequent two years seeing patients at Crown Pharmacy. On 19February 1963 he gave his last lesson to students of the University of Malta who were studying medicine at St Luke’s Hospital. Three days later, on 22 February 1963, he passed to eternal life at his home in Valletta.

Rużar Briffa was only 57 when he died. On the fortieth anniversar­y of his death, a ceremony was held where it was confirmed that ‘forty years ago’ the best voice of Maltese poetry had died.

Although Briffa didn’t write many poems, it is safe to say that he opened the way for reflective yet concise poetry, lacking any formalism, and known mainly for his silence and sorrow. During his life Rużar Briffa had extreme sorrow. As a child, he suffered the loss of his brother. He never truly got over this sadness. Another death that touched him deeply and threw him into a sea of sorrow was the death of his wife Constance who he had been married to for 17 years.

From childhood, he loved quiet gardens, especially the Upper Barrakka Gardens, Hastings, Sa Maison and the Argotti gardens. He is noted to have often been seen in these gardens looking at plants or roses or listening to the birds chirping. Most of his works were written in quiet places. His semantic field is filled with words that express neglect, silence, and solitary places like unfrequent­ed chapels, hills, monasterie­s and cemeteries. This is clearly visible in the sonnet Nofsinhar Sajfi (A summer noon), where the insistence is always felt on the count of the constant frequency on the diminutive.

According to the Jesuit Fr Guze Delia, Briffa was as a man of great sentiment, always filled with compassion towards others and constantly trying to help everyone. One of his students Dr Alfred Cauchi, stated that Dr Briffa was reserved in his words, rarely laughed, and always seemed sad. This must have been due to the suffering he had experience­d through which according to the poet Oliver Friggieri is found in all his poems from the first one Lacrymae Rerum until the last Ballatella tal- Funtana. Briffa was a sensitive man, looking at the world from afar, rememberin­g it with keen nostalgia for the past while his sorrow caused him great suffering.

We can say that for Briffa poetry was therapy. Even though he had published some of his poems when he was younger, later they became his private diary. His poems, Tfajla Toħlomx, Lacrymae Rerum and IlGħanja tal-Imħabba won awards from the Maltese Prognostic­s but it was only on the insistence of his wife Louisette and close friend Fr Valentin OP that he published his first set of poems in 1960, which Rużar had actually not intended for publicatio­n as they were personal poems.

It is interestin­g to note that he was not very careful with his poems as they were scribbled on small sheets cut from pocket notebooks, empty packs of cigarettes and paper bags.

The work of Rużar Briffa continues to bear fruit among many poetry readers. The Maltese Associatio­n recalled this in a special issue the same year of his death. And ten years later the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju (Awakening Literary Movement) put up a memorial plaque at the the Upper Barrakka gardens to commemorat­e this poet, in that very garden where the poet fell in love with poetry (tħabbeb mal-poeżija). Further commemorat­ions are hospital wards as in St Vincent de Paul Hospital and streets which are named after him.

To end this article, here is the first verse of Rużar Birffa’s poem that is so beautiful and encourages reflection.

L-G]anja tal-Imnikket

O Madonna tad-Duluri, Mhux il-ward Jiena fittixt ħa nsebbaħ darek U nfewwaħlek lil altarek, Imma x-xewk minn qalb ix-xagħri U għollieq, marrad, musfari, O Madonna tad-Duluri, Dana biss!

Fr. Hermann Duncan O.Carm, Balluta

 ??  ?? Rużar Briffa (1906-1963)
Rużar Briffa (1906-1963)
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