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Hiraeth, Saudade, and the Concept of Longing


Marguerite Itamar Harrison, Spanish & Portuguese;
Pamela Petro, English Language & Literature

The Welsh word hiraeth has no equivalent in English. It often translates as “homesickness,” but the actual concept is far more complex. It incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to experience a deep sense of incompleteness tinged with longing. The only living language with an exact equivalent is Portuguese, through the term saudade, which refers to an impossible longing for the unattainable. Other languages, however, hold terms that come close in meaning: dor in Romanian, Wehmut in German, kaiho in Finnish. In some cases, the term refers to issues of national history and identity. In Wales, for example, hiraeth is tied to the national loss of self-determination in 1282. In Portugal, saudade emanates from the Age of Discovery, when Portuguese explorers set sail for the east and west, many never to return. Sometimes these sentiments are yoked to scientific discovery and the disorientations of modernity. In her book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, Jane Brox notes that each technological step forward in erasing night’s darkness has carried a price—personal isolation, disruption of animals’ nocturnal rhythms, and other responses that have caused people to feel both gain and loss at the same time…a form of global hiraeth.

This short-term Kahn project will use saudade and hiraeth as a starting-point for investigating expressions and occurrences of this sentiment across a wide cultural spectrum. Participants will be invited to identify manifestations of saudade and hiraeth through a range of disciplines and genres—through music, dance, poetry, literature, film, or the visual arts. The group will discuss the ways in which this sentiment is linked to cultural, scientific, and political forces, and its possible value from an evolutionary standpoint. Why do humans feel this complicated and painful sensation of longing? Does it drive us forward or hold us back?

The colloquium will begin with a poetry reading by the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, whose work often explores the feeling of hiraeth and whose presentation will introduce the concept explicitly.  Her reading will serve as a springboard for the group’s analysis, for sharing of other artistic expressions of “hopeless but persistent longing,” and for cross-disciplinary discussion about how and why this sentiment afflicts and/or dignifies the human race.

Interest Faculty and Staff: Click here to apply for this project.


Tuesday March 5, 2013:

  • Live Poetry Reading by Menna Elfyn, 7 pm Carroll Room, Campus Center (optional)

Friday, April 12, 2013:

  • Screening of poetry reading, dinner, 5:00-8:30 pm

Saturday, April 13, 2013:

  • Colloquium Discussions, 9:00 am -3:00 pm (includes lunch)



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