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 He was courteous, withdrawn, given to heavy drinking, smoked eighty cigarettes a day.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

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