While Rużar Briffa was not a prolific writer, one would be hard pressed to find a Maltese poet who is as universally loved. However, his gentle demeanor and famously shy personality masked a heartfelt disappointment at humanity’s misguided efforts to better itself.

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Briffa was born in Valletta on the 16th of January 1906. In 1923 he obtained a matriculation certificate which allowed him to teach at elementary schools. A year later Briffa read medicine at the University of Malta but completed his studies in London, specialising in venereology and dermatology. He played a pivotal role in the plague outbreaks of 1936 and 1945. Briffa spent some time in India, where he came in contact with people suffering from leprosy, an experience that left a lasting impression on him.

Early on in his career, Briffa realised that pain is a very personal experience and that as a medical doctor he could only treat the physical symptoms of his patients. He had no means of healing the existential agony which underpinned human existence. In “Minn Kulma Ħlomt f’Żgħoriti”, Briffa laments his youthful aspirations saying that all his dreams turned out to be just that, dreams: a mischief that life played on him. The same disappointment is evident in “Tfajla, Toħlomx”, where the poet warns a young woman not to invest much hope in the future because life always tends to take a shifty left turn and leave one discouraged and disenchanted.

However, in “Tfajla, Toħlomx”, Briffa also tells this young woman that she doesn’t have to bear this cross on her own. Loneliness is another major theme of Briffa’s. In “Tristis est Anima Mea” he recalls that passage from the gospel where Christ is in the garden of Gethsemane waiting for the soldiers to arrest him. He is praying alone; his disciples have abandoned him and he knows full well that he will be executed shortly.

Sometimes this loneliness allows Briffa to take an objective view of the world. For instance, in “Quo Vadis?”, he personifies a very old carob tree on top of a hill, who bemoans humanity’s relentless pursuit of material enjoyment at the expense of a more grounded, less hectic and worthwhile existence. By giving a voice to the lonely tree, Briffa assumes the role of a detached observer in order to underscore the absurdity of chasing a life rather than living it.

Nevertheless, Briffa’s existentialism lacks the overt intellectualism of his contemporaries. At its core is an emotive dimension which is tempered by meaningful experience. The violinist in “Vjolin Marid” is sick and his playing is poor; yet, he had met with kings and important musicians, and been loved by women. Despite his current situation, he has lived a meaningful and fulfilling life, which Briffa clearly yearned for.

Written by Noel Tanti




A book inspired by Rużar Briffa
Kit AzzopardiLeanne Ellul
Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, Malta

Rużar Briffa

Collected poems
Oliver Friggieri
Klabb Kotba Maltin, Malta


Lux Press, Malta
Supported by

Arts Council Malta

Creative Industries Platform

Project co-ordinator: Clare Azzopardi

With the help of: Kirsty Azzopardi, Leanne Ellul and Albert Gatt

Proofreader: Dwayne Ellul

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