Until we started planning our trip to Portugal, I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of the country’s Fernando Pessoa—considered one of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century.
Do you know him—or should I say do you know the four greatest Portuguese poets—all Pessoa writing under different names?
Pessoa means person in Portuguese. More than any poet, I think Pessoa reveals the nature of being a spectator observing your own composite person. “Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves,” he wrote.
Pessoa had 136 known literary heteronyms—works by the author outside his own person by a full-fledged individual created by him. For many of his heteronyms, Pessoa developed complete backstories and physical descriptions, and connected the main heteronyms with each other. “I’ve divided all my humanness among the various authors whom I’ve served as literary executor,” he said. “I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I’m less real than the others, less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all,” wrote Pessoa.
Who was he, this author of poetry, prose, drama, philosophy, criticism, political theory and horoscopes?
Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1887. After his father, a music critic, died in 1893, Pessoa created his first heteronym, Chevalier de Pas: “I wrote letters from him to myself.” He and his mother moved to South Africa, where his new stepfather was the Portuguese Consul. There, Pessoa excelled in English and French and invented more heteronyms, like Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search. In 1905 he returned alone to his beloved Lisbon, where he abandoned university for self-education at the National Library. With his talent for essays and poetry, he wrote for numerous journals and newspapers, co-founded literary magazines and movements, and worked as a freelance translator of literature and commercial documents. Only one book of poems, Message, was published during his lifetime. But when he died in 1935, he left behind an archive—two steamer trunks stuffed with nearly 30,000 pieces of writing on scraps of paper, envelopes, flyers and the backs of business letters.
Considered his main heteronym and master was Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915). Pessoa, in a letter to a friend wrote, “I was taken over by some strange, indescribable kind of trance, I wrote 30 something poems in one stretch. That was the most triumphant day of my life and I will never experience another like it. I began with the title The Keeper of Flocks. And what followed was the birth of someone within me, whom I immediately named Alberto Caeiro. Please excuse the absurdity of the phrase: my master will appear within me. But that was my immediate sensation.” Alberto lived with his aunt in the country and had no formal education and wrote in an anti-Romanticism style. Here’s one of my favourite of Alberto’s poems:
And that sun, although it still hasn’t raised its face
Over the wall of the horizon,
Is already showing the tips of its fingers
Gripping the top of the wall
Of the horizon sprinkled with low hills.
How can you not agree with the philosophy in the following poem by another of Pessoa’s more famous heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos (1890-1935), a mechanical engineer who graduated in ship engineering in Glasgow, visited Ireland and the Orient and aired his views on political and literary matters in Lisbon-based magazines?
I don’t know if the stars rule the world
Or if tarot or playing cards
Can reveal anything.
I don’t know if the rolling of dice
Can lead to any conclusion.
But I also don’t know
If anything is attained
By living the way most people do.
I’m also very fond of these lines from Álvaro:
I live on thought’s ground floor.
To feel my humanity change in faraway places.
The winds of Patagonia have tattooed my imagination.
Bon voyage! Bon voyage! That’s what life is…
What’s the writing of poetry but a confession that life isn’t enough?
What’s art but a way to forget that life is just this?
Who have tripped in public on the rugs of etiquette?
It’s been a long time since I’ve been me.
You can see the stylist independence of Ricardo Reis, whom Pessoa described as a Jesuit-educated physician forced by his support for the monarchy to live in Brazil whose writing, Pessoa says, has “a certain ideal of classic measure and rule.” (Lydia, named in the following poem, was a friend of Pessoa’s; he may or may not have been in love with her; he may or may not have been celibate.)
When, Lydia, our autumn arrives
With the winter it harbors, let’s reserve
A thought, not for the future spring,
Which belongs to others,
Nor for the summer, whose deceased we are,
But for what remains of what is passing:
The present yellow that the leaves live
And that makes them different.
And now for Pessoa’s own words. First, from a book of poetry published before his death, Message, two poems that capture his love of Portugal and a disquieting take on its position in Europe.
The Field of the Castles
Europe, stretched out from East to West
And propped on her elbows, stares
From beneath her romantic hair
With Greek eyes, remembering.
Her left elbow is pulled back;
Her right forms an angle.
The first, which lies flat, says Italy;
The second says England and extends
The hand that holds up her face.
She stares with a fatal, sphinxian gaze
At the West, the future of the past.
The staring face is Portugal.
Others are bound to have
What we are bound to lose.
Others are apt to find
What in our discoveries
Was found, or not found,
In accord with Destiny.
But what they cannot have
Is the Magic of the Faraway
Which makes it history.
For this reason their glory
Is a tempered brilliance, given
By a borrowed light.
But for me it is the “languid fluidity” of poetry about the human condition that Pessoa—in singularity and plurality—that captures the absurdity of life.
Where’s my life going, and who’s taking it there?…What part of me that I don’t know is my guide?
Everything we do, in art and life, is the imperfect copy of what we intended.
No one understands anyone else. We are, as the poet said, enisled in the sea of life; between us flows the sea that defines and separates us. However hard one soul struggles to know another soul, he can only judge by what words are spoken—a formless shadow on the floor of his understanding.
Life is a journey of the spirit through the material world.
In 1920, Pessoa rented an apartment at Rua Coelho da Rocha 16 for his half-sister, mother and himself, residing there until his death. It became Casa Fernando Pessoa to which Magellan and I made a pilgrimage one Friday morning when tours are offered in English. “What brought you here?” our soft-spoken guide Louis asked the four of us on the tour. “I got The Book of Disquiet for my birthday last year and it changed my life,“ said the young man from Germany. Written by heteronyms, first Vincente Guedes (1913-1920) and then Bernardo Soares (1929 onward), a solitary clerk extoling about the hopeless tediousness of the examined life (“a metaphysical nihilism, in which the great truth the artist had to communicate was that nothing matters”), and published posthumously, this is Pessoa’s most definitive mosaic of aphorisms on existentialism. Myself, I prefer his books of poetry. But “In a time which celebrates fame, success, stupidity, convenience, and noise, here is the perfect antidote,” writes John Lancaster in the newly translated edition by Margaret Jull Costa.
Perhaps Pessoa’s greatest gift is having us imagine and accept our many selves: obsessive planner, compulsive reader, stoic jubilado… He reminds us, “Life is what we make of it. Travel is the traveler. What we see isn’t what we see but what we are,” and as Adam Kirsch says in an article about Pessoa in the New Yorker, “…thinking is the greatest of adventures.”
UPDATE August 225, 2021: “Unbuilt City,” an article by Benjamin Moser in The New York Times Sunday, August 15, 2021, in which he reviews a new biography of Pessoa by Richard Zenith.
Kirsch, Adam. “Voices from the Void.” The New Yorker. New York: September 4, 2017.
Pessoa, Fernando. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith. A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems. London, Penguin Classics, 2006.
Pessoa, Fernando. Translated by Richard Zenith. Message. Alfragide: LeYa Group, 2008.
Pessoa, Fernando. Edited by Jerónimo Pizarro. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. The Book of Disquiet. US: New Directions, 2017.