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Mod and Great

Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems

edited and translated by Peter Rickard
University of Texas Press, 189 pp., $2.25 (paper)

Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa

translated by Edwin Honig
Swallow Press, 170 pp., $8.00

They shut me up
Inside myself.
Ah, but I ran away.

A quiet life as a commercial correspondent, publishing poems occasionally in ephemeral literary magazines. A brief, late, abortive romance with a girl called Ophelia. He had astral visions, dabbled in theosophy, got entangled with Aleister Crowley, invented a “Synthetic Yearly Calendar By Name and Any Other Classification, Consult-able in Any Language.” He was courteous, withdrawn, given to heavy drinking, smoked eighty cigarettes a day. He was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died in Lisbon in 1935. He went to school in South Africa, wrote verse in English as well as in Portuguese. He was Fernando Pessoa, unmistakably one of this century’s major poets, linked by Roman Jakobson in a recent article with Joyce, Braque, Picasso, Stravinsky, Le Corbusier—a forgotten member of a remarkable generation. Reading him for the first time is like discovering Svevo or Borges. Not knowing about him is like not knowing about Nerval or Apollinaire.

Pessoa’s diversity is such that no selection can do any kind of justice to him, but that is not a reason for being ungrateful for these English versions—the first poems by Pessoa to appear in English in any quantity. One can quibble. Rickard as a translator is slightly too cautious, slightly too unwilling to risk the odd literalism or rough edge. Meanings get rounded out and Pessoa is made to sound rather more Victorian than he is—fond of words like “erstwhile” and “afar.” Honig on the other hand keeps slipping into modern slang, and sometimes into tired jargon (“go through the motions”), and he makes a lot of mistakes, whereas Rickard is scrupulously accurate.

Still, the qualification for complaining seriously about translations is being able to do better yourself: I’ve tried, and I can’t. Both Honig and Rickard have a high number of successes in their renderings, and it would be absurd to insist on their failures. Beyond the poems, however, there are grave differences between the two books. Rickard’s offers the ideal first acquaintance with Pessoa: the selection is broad and sensible; Rickard’s prefatory study is a model of thoroughness and lucidity. Honig’s selection is thin and eccentric, and the book itself is marred by misprints, duplicated lines, and bad grammar (“Like Baudelaire and Rilke his work elicits immediate rapport…”); it has an introduction by Octavio Paz which Honig must have translated in his sleep, so full is it of errors and missed nuances and idioms.

Pessoa means person in Portuguese, and Fernando Pessoa, like Donne, made a practice of exploiting his name in his poems. “The memory of another person,” we read, “mysteriously mine.” Or again: “How idyllic life would be if it were lived by another person.” Another person, the pun suggests, who would still be myself: another Pessoa. What is curious is that these punning uses of the name occur most frequently in poems that Pessoa signed with a pseudonym. A writer who is already another Pessoa longs to be yet another, threatens to launch an infinite series of poets unhappy with being who they are. Conversely, Pessoa’s other pseudonymous creations are almost offensively contented with their identity, and we see the double implication of the puns.

A person, in Pessoa’s world, is a personality, a constructed self, someone more real than you can manage to be in your diffuse daily life—Pessoa comments in a letter on his “excessively multilateral” nature. But a person is also a mask, an impersonation, someone you know you are not, a further instance of diffusion. There is no salvation in the proliferating masks, there is only an articulation of the original dilemma. “I break my soul into pieces,” Pessoa wrote in his own name, “and into different persons.” The dissatisfied pseudonymous Pessoa I have already quoted writes in one poem of the shattering of the magic mirror of his unchanging self, and in another portrays his soul as a broken vase, smashed into more pieces than there was porcelain in the original object.

Fernando Pessoa was not one but several poets; and what I have so far called pseudonyms he himself called heteronyms, defining the term in this way:

A pseudonymic work [he said in an anonymous article] is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama of his would be.

Thus Gérard de Nerval, Stendhal, George Eliot are pseudonyms, and Pessoa had an array of pseudonyms of his own: A. C. Cross, A. Mora, Bernardo Soares, B. Pacheco, Baron de Teive, Jean Seul, Vincente Guedos, and a number of others.

But Pessoa also had three heteronyms who wrote a sizable portion of his poetic work—between a third and a half of his poems in Portuguese, according to Rickard’s count. This is a fragmentation that goes well beyond the use of poetic personae in any ordinary sense. It is a literal shattering of the mirror, a series of charades played out in perfect seriousness, a whole oeuvre cast in the form of a shadowy play. Pessoa becomes Alberto Caeiro, a stern and simple primitive, a pastoral figure too pre-occupied with nature to be bothered with sheep (“I have never tended flocks,” he says at the outset of his volume of verse The Keeper of Flocks); becomes Ricardo Reis, a neoclassical hedonist, elegant heir to Horace and Herrick (“Let us in ourselves create a refuge / And from the hurt and tumult / Of the world withdraw”); and becomes Alvaro de Cam-pos, a futurist and a disciple of Whitman and Laforgue, a poet who comes to seem less a heteronym than a petulant and more frankly melancholy version of Pessoa himself, the disciplined poet let loose, a witty, fierce, and mournful Mr. Hyde leaping out from the discreet Dr. Jekyll.

Pessoa invented biographies for his three masks: Caeiro was born in Lisbon in 1889, lived most of his life in the country with an elderly aunt. He had very little education, died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six. He had fair hair and blue eyes. Reis was born in Oporto in 1887, was educated by Jesuits, was a fair classicist, and a doctor by profession. He went into voluntary exile in Brazil in 1919, because of his monarchist sympathies. He was below average height, his complexion was dark. Campos was born in Tavira in 1890. A naval engineer trained in Glasgow, no longer practicing, a great traveler, he wore a monocle, stooped slightly. He was tall and thin, a vaguely Portuguese Jewish type, Pessoa says.

In the face of all this, of course, Pessoa himself becomes virtually invisible, the unknown author of highly complex and compressed metrical, rhyming lyrics, of a Faust fragment, and of a series of heraldic poems on Portuguese history called Mensagem (1934)—the only volume of Portuguese verse Pessoa published in his lifetime.

What are we to make of this elaborate self-dispersal? Pessoa’s tone, in a famous letter in which he describes the birth of his heteronyms, is treacherous, both slyly playful and painstakingly honest:

Ever since I was a child, I have tended to create around me a fictitious world, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. (I don’t know, of course, whether they really didn’t exist, or whether I’m the one who doesn’t exist. We musn’t be dogmatic in these matters, or indeed in any others.)

He goes on to describe his plans for creating an imaginary pagan poet—Ricardo Reis, although he did not come to life at this time—and another, equally imaginary writer of pastoral. He had given up both projects when suddenly, on March 8, 1914, in a rush of inspiration, he wrote thirty Alberto Caeiro poems, inventing the poet’s name immediately afterward. “I know it sounds absurd, but my master had appeared.” “It was the triumphant day of my life, and there will never be another like it.” Pessoa then went on to write six poems as Fernando Pessoa, to breathe life into the stillborn Ricardo Reis, and in a countermovement to engender his opposite, the tumultuous Alvaro de Campos. He then created relations between his three creations—patterns, conversations, influences, correspondence, a whole coterie.

There is an element of mystification there, undoubtedly. Pessoa is replying to an admirer, twenty-one years after the events he is describing, and he is indulging himself. The biographies are minor metaphors for the works of the men they belong to, brief epitomes and extensions of the poems, a joking inversion of the critical practice which uses a poet’s life to interpret his writing. But to leave it at that is to miss the passionate sincerity of the letter. The lives of the poets, their relations outside their poems, are a smokescreen, an expression of Pessoa’s diffidence about what the smokescreen allows him to confess: the indisputable, independent reality of Caeiro, Reis, and Campos. They are, for him, not masks, not other persons (Pessoas), but simply others, irreducibly different beings.

The relation Pessoa means us to take seriously is that of master and disciples: we are to see Reis, Campos, and Pessoa himself as sitting at Caeiro’s feet. Caeiro, as Octavio Paz suggests, is the touchstone, the innocent poet, the founding myth, the necessary fiction which brings the poetry of the others into being. But this relation, it seems to me, was more important for Pessoa than it can be for us—something Pessoa tried to hint at, possibly, by having Caeiro die in 1915, at the nominal age of twenty-six, but only one year after his literary birth. Another relation, also given to us in the letter, but not insisted on, takes us further into Pessoa’s work. It is a dialectical relation, a form of creation by antithesis: the innocent, primitive Caeiro releases the complicated, symbolist Fernando Pessoa; the classical Reis generates the modernist Campos. And this relation is present not only at the birth of the heteronyms but throughout their life—since Pessoa used both his own name and his heteronyms throughout his complete writing career, keeping even Caeiro, who “died” in 1915, writing until 1930.

That is, Pessoa in any one of his incarnations has the other three in mind, with the chances of correction and contradiction that they represent, and this is the way out of the trap created by the fact that all truths, however true, seem only half truths to Pessoa. It is his profound and constant habit to think in opposites. Am I happy or sad? he asks in one poem. My sadness consists in not knowing much about myself. But then my happiness consists in that too…. Twenty lost years, Campos cries out, only to catch himself up immediately: “but if they should be gained, what then?” “Contradiction is the essence of the universe,” Pessoa once wrote. And again: “Paradox is the typical form of nature.”

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