Fernando Pessoa
Fernando Pessoa; drawing by David Levine

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 He was courteous, withdrawn, given to heavy drinking, smoked eighty cigarettes a day.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.”

In the article I have already mentioned, published in the Mexican magazine Plural in April and May of this year, Jakobson explores a single poem by Pessoa and reveals a dazzling play of symmetries, mirror images, contraries, contradictions, and balanced cancellations. Pessoa’s oxymorons, which critics always note, and which are at the center of Jakobson’s analysis, are particularly interesting to look at because in them we can follow the poet’s progress very clearly. They go from purely formal figures of rhetoric (a motionless dance, a silent cry, the same differing fields, the old new flowers) through the expression of possibilities which can’t find their way into ordinary language (shapes without shape, unthought thoughts, the dead body of a God who is alive, the king who dies but still lives) and into the expression of sheer impossibility (a door in a wall that has no door, the child you don’t have sleeping peacefully at home).

These impossibilities are frequently ironic, but the sense of life they represent is perfectly serious, even desperate. Campos invokes night in one poem as “Our Lady of Impossible Things,” and the line serves perhaps better than any other to characterize Pessoa himself. He is the poet not only of contradiction and paradox but of the categorically impossible; and it remains for us to look at the varieties of impossibility that are his special province.

In Caeiro the impossibility is Caeiro’s very existence. He is a pastoral poet claiming not to have the complex, civilized worries which are the foundation of pastoral poetry. Nature is not beautiful, he says, “Beauty is the name of something that doesn’t exist.” In fact, there is no such thing as Nature, since Nature is a concept, and concepts are a sickness of the mind: “Nature is parts without a whole.” Our great sin is thought, having theories, looking for meanings, wishing things were other than they are: “Beyond the immediate reality of things there is nothing.”

Caeiro is the incarnation within literature of literature’s absence, and it is not surprising that he should find this role something of a strain. Armand Guibert, Pessoa’s French translator, writes of Caeiro’s “autoritaire douceur,” but that’s putting it mildly. Caeiro is a dull, heavy prose preacher, and he strikes far too many false notes. He is no more than a river or a tree, he says. “I laugh like a brook coolly babbling over stones” (“Rio como um regato que soa fresco numa pedra“—Richard’s word “babbling” doesn’t help much, admittedly, but the line is beyond help). “I was never more than a child at play.” These are things you can’t say if they are true. More than that, if Caeiro were half the simple soul he says he is, he wouldn’t be writing poetry at all, and especially not such predicatory poetry. Pessoa is aware of this of course, and gives Caeiro an occasional sense of his own phoniness, and even, now and then, a flicker of deadpan humor:

The Tagus is fairer than the river flowing through my village,
But the Tagus isn’t fairer than the river flowing through my vil- lage
Because the Tagus isn’t the river flowing through my village.

But the final result is a failed heteronym, the only one of the three to fail: a poet who interests us only because we know that Pessoa is behind him, and unlike him.

Reis, as much as Caeiro, is committed to what he can see and touch, to the “visible presence / Of my nearest gods.” His gods, he says, “dwell not in Vagueness” but in fields and rivers, and like Caeiro he has nothing but scorn for people who seek something “better than life.” Like Caeiro too, he professes indifference for the contemporary civilized world, for politics and suffering and injustice.

I prefer roses to my country,
And I love magnolias more,
Beloved, than glory or virtue.

The most obvious difference between Caeiro and Reis is the literary mode. Instead of a pastoral innocence, Reis chooses a Roman worldliness and hedonism, using Latinisms in Portuguese where he can, and creating intricate and artificial word orders which are a translator’s nightmare and which drive Honig to the straits of beginning a poem with the words, “I the roses love in the gardens of Adonis.” But the more important distinction is the quality of the poems. They are false to the point of pastiche, of course; they belong in a world long since gone from us. But that is their point, and their charm. Their very impossibility is what they are about, that is, the style and stoic posture of Reis are what are impossible in the world Pessoa lived in, and Reis is fully aware of this. “I know what I am forgetting,” he writes. “I sing in order to forget.”

The poems are full of images of height, of standing straight, aloof, of making monuments to dignity. Let us have no grand passions, Reis says in a moving poem, no passions that raise their voice. Let us be quiet, Lydia, let us not wake the sleeping Fury. But the Fury will awake, however quiet we are. We shall care when our loved ones die, however much we try to dilute our love for them in their lifetime. Reis’s denials of night and darkness are pathetic cries in a storm, a pretense that the wind will die down and life become possible again, when the poet and the poems know all too well that it won’t.

There is something of Rimbaud in Campos, and a great deal of Laforgue. There is a recurrent regret for the lost innocence of childhood—“I know very well that in everyone’s childhood there was a garden…and that sadness dates from today”—and the freely moving, mocking style suggests, as Laforgue’s does, that there is so much more to say, that these poems, these poor half-finished lines, scarcely start to touch the subject.

Campos finds the familiar especially mysterious, is dazed by the thought that a man could enter a tobacco shop to buy tobacco, and come out slipping his change into his pocket. He lives with the sense that life is a bad dream, that this movie show, as he says, this circus, can’t be all there is. He spends his life living, studying, loving, even believing, and then wonders whether he has ever done any of those things: “For we can do all this in reality without doing it at all.” He is crippled by the sense of what might have been, he is Pessoa constantly longing to be another Pessoa:

In dreams I’ve achieved more than Napoleon.
I’ve clasped to my hypothetical breast more human races than Christ,
I’ve secretly devised philosophies no Kant ever wrote.

But even in dreams, he admits, his armies are defeated, and he will carry his compulsion to the point of sorrow at the thought that death will take away all the things he never even thought of being. The physically dead, he says, even my own dead past, may well live again in some metaphysical system or other,

But what I never was, what I never did, what I never even dreamed;
What I see only now that I ought to have done,
See clearly only now that I ought to have been—
It’s that that’s dead beyond the gods’ recalling.

He compares himself to the damp in a corridor, to his childhood house now sold, to a burned-out match. He feels like something left behind on a seat in a tram. He is haunted by the sense, impossible to render in normal grammar, that there is something better in himself than himself (melhor em mim do que eu), that something else has been substituted for his real self somewhere along the way. And yet his humor never leaves him, there is always an impudence lurking in his distress:

For I love what’s finite, infinitely,
For I love what’s possible, impos- sibly,
For I want everything or a bit more, if it can be done,
Or even if it can’t….

What is impossible for Campos is that life could really, seriously be as it is. But then he also finds it impossible that it could be otherwise.

Pessoa in the poems written in his own name is very close to Campos in many respects, and we probably need to distinguish between the heteronyms which are fictions, projections of what you are certainly not, although you might wish you were (Caeiro, Reis), and those which are doubles, second selves, agents of confessions or performances you could not bring off on your own but which are, nevertheless, yours (Campos). Like Campos, Pessoa is “serious about what is not,” hurt, as he puts it in another poem, by what doesn’t exist. But where the possibility of another life beyond this one, the possibility of waking from the bad dream, is for Campos merely a mockery of the life he is stuck with, for Pessoa it is a fragile, unkeepable promise—there is life on other astral planes, there is an immortality in myth, but there is no way in which we can penetrate those dimensions.

Pessoa hears voices sounding from the Islands of the Blessed, but as soon as he listens, they stop. In order for them to continue, he would have to hear without hearing, and the oxymoron becomes the emblem and instrument of a magical, inconceivable communication. In the poem Jakobson analyzes in Plural, Ulysses, the mythical founder of Lisbon, appears in a flurry of oxymorons: he was because he didn’t exist (Foi por não ser existindo); without existing he was enough for us (Sem existir nos bastou); he came because he hadn’t come (Por não ter vindo foi vindo); and more generally, although a mythical creature himself he created us (nos creou), the Portuguese, the live children of Lisbon.

The poet himself, in another poem, calls himself the last look of the last Moorish king leaving Granada, and suggests superlatively well what it means to be alive in the death of a former life:

What I am now is that imperial longing
For what I once saw of myself in the distance…
I am myself the loss I suffered…

And on this road which leads to Otherness
Bloom in slender wayside glory
The sunflowers of the empire dead in me…

(Hoje sou a saudade imperial
Do que já na distância de mim vi…
Eu próprio sou aquilo que per- di…
E nesta estrada para Desigual
Florem em esguia glória marginal
Os girassóis do império que mor- ri…)

But if Pessoa writes of life in death—a favorite myth with him is that of Dom Sebastian, the young Portuguese king killed in Morocco in 1578 and fated, according to legend, to return again like Arthur, for his body was never found—he cannot do this without writing of death in life, and his poems all finally tilt that mournful way, nowhere more strikingly and beautifully than at the close of the Ulysses poem. The myth, Pessoa says, fades into legend, the legend fades as it touches reality (“Assim a lenda se escorre / A entrar na realidade“), and life, which is half of nothing, dies (“a vida, metade / De nada, morre“). The case is startling, since Pessoa is using a brutal oxymoron (life dies) to wipe out the magical realm of Ulysses’ paternity created by the other oxymorons: dark, final magic to erase the magical promise.

Nothing, for Pessoa, crosses the gap from desire to the first taste of what you desire; all tastes are sour before your mouth reaches them. Dreams are real and reality is real but there are no roads across the frontiers. In the light of this it is not surprising that Pessoa’s poems should be full both of royal imagery and abdications; not surprising that he should write the poems of Mensagem, dedicated to the dream of a broken, defeated past living in the promise of a resurrection. In the poems about Sebastian we are asked to admire not his future success but his heroic madness in hoping for it. In other poems thrones, dominions, kingdoms, castles become muffled allegories for a world that once was better.

There is an obvious analogy here with the world of childhood which haunts all Pessoa’s poems, those of his heteronyms as much as his own. The empires and conquests of history; the palaces of metaphor; the lost garden of your childhood: three means of lighting up a crippled present. But it is the present that has the last word, and the dominant note of Pessoa’s poems is the finality of failure, the clearly struck note of the impossibility of having anything you want.

Body and soul, I threw off king- ship
And returned to the calm of age-old night,
As does the landscape at the death of day.
(Despi a realeza, corpo e alma,
E regressei à noite antiga e calma
Como a paisagem ao morrer do dia.)

This Issue

September 21, 1972