More than sixty years after his death, seven books by and about the poetry and prose of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa have been published in English, on both sides of the Atlantic, in close succession, a number of them in the same year. Edwin Honig, who with Susan M. Brown has collaborated on two of the recent volumes of Pessoa’s poems, and who has translated a volume of Pessoa’s prose by himself, has been working on Pessoa, translating and writing about him, since the Sixties. The present Honig-Brown edition of the Poems of Fernando Pessoa by City Lights is essentially a reissue of a 1986 Ecco Press edition, and their bilingual volume The Keeper of Sheep (the Sheep Meadow Press) reissues translations—some of them revised—that were first published at the beginning of the Seventies. In great part because of Honig’s work (he published a bilingual Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa with Swallow Press in 1971) and Honig’s and Brown’s collaborations, poets whose language is English have discovered and cherished Pessoa’s powerful poetry for years.
But for the most part Pessoa’s writing, the whole of his extraordinary opus, a major presence in what has come to be known as “modernism” in the European languages, has received relatively little attention in English until recently. EugÌ©nio Lisboa, one of the editors of the English Carcanet volume Fernando Pessoa: A Centenary Edition (cloth edition first published in 1995) notes that when Harold Bloom published The Western Canon in 1994 and included Pessoa in his short list of twenty-six writers who, in his judgment, comprise the canon of Western literature, Time magazine’s reviewer (who may be left appropriately nameless) flaunted a supercilious but in fact common ignorance, assuming that in the case of Pessoa Professor Bloom had indulged in a private weakness for “academic obscurities.”
In 1935, when Pessoa died, he was not, indeed, well known, but he had published some three hundred poems, a hundred and thirty-two prose pieces in periodicals, and a small volume of early poems in English (he was bilingual, having spent his school years in South Africa), and several critics in Portugal had hailed him as a pioneer of modernism in the language. His death, at forty-seven, was caused by cirrhosis of the liver, L.C. Taylor tells us in the Carcanet edition, though Honig, in Always Astonished, says that he was admitted to the hospital with hepatitis. He was a confirmed and—as with most things—meticulous astrologer, and according to his calculations he had another two years to live, in which he was planning to put in order his wooden trunkful of writings, some 25,000 separate pieces. At his death, Miguel Torga, who at the time was a young doctor, and has since become one of the preeminent literary figures in Portugal, wrote in his journal:
Fernando Pessoa is dead. As soon as I heard the news in the paper, I closed my surgery and plunged into the mountains. There, with the pines and the rocks, I wept for the death of the greatest poet of our times, whom Portugal watched pass by in his coffin, on his way to immortality, without even asking who he was.
The passage (along with others in this review) is quoted in L.C. Taylor’s copiously detailed “Life and Times of Pessoa,” which comprises one section of the Carcanet volume Fernando Pessoa. Miguel Torga’s response to the news of Pessoa’s death, Taylor notes, was a token of what would become a romantic legend of Pessoa as the great poet, “solitary, poor, unrecognized,” and accorded the acclaim that was his due only after he was dead.
The same essay quotes a passage from “Erostratus,” an unfinished composition of Pessoa’s written in English on the subject of genius and its recognition in its own time, which seems to summarize Pessoa’s views on the subject. (Further excerpts from it are published elsewhere in that same volume and also in Always Astonished.) It was written when the age of advertisement was just hitting its stride:
Sometimes I think about celebrated men and then I feel all the bane of celebrity. Celebrity is a plebeianism. It wounds any person of sensitivity. It is a plebeianism in that, by exposing a person to public gaze, to the common view, it forces a sensitive person to share the same position as those who behave scandalously in the street, or gesticulate or talk loudly in a public place. The man who becomes a celebrity no longer has any privacy…. The walls surrounding his private life are turned to glass; his clothes acquire a certain excess; his slightest actions—even the most ludicrously human—which he should want to keep invisible, become, beneath the magnifying glass of celebrity, little exhibitions which soil the soul or weary it. You have to be really coarse to live at ease with celebrity. And, beside its plebeian character, celebrity is a contradiction: whereas it gives the impression of valuing and supporting a person, it actually devalues and enfeebles him. The unknown man of genius can relish the voluptuous contrast between his obscurity and his genius; when he reckons he could be celebrated if he so wished, he is measuring his value against the one true yardstick—himself. Once recognized publically, however, he no longer possesses the power to return to obscurity. Celebrity is irreparable. Like time, the machine can’t be put into reverse.
Pessoa clearly had not had a chance to observe the minute size of the public attention span, particularly after it had begun to be manipulated for commercial purposes and sold by the second. But the passage, and the unfinished essay from which it is taken, acquire, besides their immediate and general sense, a growing aura of refractions when they are considered as part of Pessoa’s kaleidoscopic psychic and literary history.
Pessoa, in Portuguese, means “person,” and in Pessoa’s life it came to stand for a series of personae, an inner ring, and outer figures of various magnitudes and insistence, projected by and projections of Pessoa himself, whoever that was. “The whole constitution of my spirit,” he wrote in 1910, when he was twenty-two, “is one of hesitancy and of doubt. Nothing is or can be positive to me; all things oscillate round me, and I with them, an uncertainty unto myself.”
In that same year he wrote:
Poetry is astonishment, admiration, as of a being fallen from the skies taking full consciousness of his fall, astonished about things. As of one who knew [what] things [were] in their souls, striving to remember this knowledge, remembering that it was not thus he knew them, not under these forms and these conditions, but remembering nothing more. (from the Introduction to The Keeper of Sheep)
It is not surprising that the person we might call the central Pessoa was seriously drawn to the occult. And viewed from afterward it is not surprising that as far back as his adolescent years in South Africa, in Durban High School, he had been writing poems in English under the name of Alexander Search, who was perhaps the first of the self-projections he came to call his “heteronyms,” and collectively his “coterie.” Toward the end of his life he wrote to Adolfo Casais Monteiro:
Since childhood I had the tendency to create around me a fictitious world, surrounding myself with friends and acquaintances that never existed. (I don’t know, of course, if they really didn’t exist or if it was I who didn’t exist….)
In 1913, after a period filled with a rush of ideas that kept him writing in notebooks so fast that sometimes he could not later decipher his own words, while at the same time he was unable to sustain any continuity of work, he began what he called his Book of Disquietude, an accumulating assembly of fragments of various lengths, some of which he published, eventually, in literary journals. In that same year he wrote to Mário de Sá-Carneiro:
…I’m going through one of those crises which they usually call, in agriculture, crises of over-abundance…verses in English, in Portuguese, reflections, ideas, projects, fragments about which I understand nothing except that they exist, letters with neither beginnings nor endings, critical flashes, metaphysical murmurs…. A whole literature, my dear Mário, which comes from a mist, passes through a mist, vanishes into a mist….
In the following year, intending to play a trick on this same friend, Pessoa wrote to him that he had made up “a pastoral poet of a complicated type,” whom he then meant to present as a real person; and before that, he said, he had considered writing some poems “of a pagan type,” in a manner that he would come to ascribe to his heteronym “Ricardo Reis.”
The dramatic realization of the small galaxy that constituted Fernando Pessoa happened in the following year, 1914. He described it in a letter to Casais Monteiro that has become a landmark not only in his story but in modern Portuguese literary history.
One day—it was March 8, 1914—I went over to a high desk, and taking a piece of paper, began to write standing, as I always do when possible. And I wrote some thirty poems, one after another, in a sort of ecstasy, the nature of which I am unable to define. It was the triumphant day of my life…. I began with the title “O Guardador de Rebanhos” [“The Keeper of Flocks”]. What followed was the appearance of someone in me to whom I immediately gave the name Alberto Caeiro. Forgive the absurdity of the sentence: In me there appeared my master…. Scarcely were those thirty-odd poems written than I took more paper and wrote, again without stopping, the six poems constituting “Chuva Obliqua“/”Oblique Rain” by Fernando Pessoa…. It was the return of Fernando Pessoa…to Fernando Pessoa himself…. Once Alberto Caeiro had appeared, I instinctively and subconsciously tried to find disciples for him. Out of his false pagan-ism I plucked the latent Ricardo Reis…. And suddenly…there surged up the Triumphal Ode of Alvaro de Campos, the ode of that title along with the man of that name. Then I created a nonexistent coterie. I sorted out the influences and the relationships, listened, inside myself, to the debates and differences in criteria, and in all of this, it seemed to me that I, the creator of it all, had the lesser presence….
The “coterie” remained with Pessoa, or remained Pessoa, for the rest of his life. The famous letter was written twenty-one years after the event it described, and only months before his death. Each of the principal voices had a biography—and indeed a horoscope—and a distinct character, personality, tastes, what he calls “criteria.” The first of them, his “master” Alberto Caeiro, was born in Lisbon in 1889 (a year after Pessoa) and died there in 1915, a year after his manifestation to Pessoa and the first poems of O Guardador de Rebanhos as they occurred to Pessoa, but Pessoa dated the poems of that collection 1911-1912, and followed them with another book of Caeiro’s, The Amorous Shepherd: Uncollected Poems, 1913-1915.
So in considering the recognition accorded or failing to be accorded to Pessoa (whether the “orthonymic” Pessoa, as a number of writers about him put it, or the historic Pessoa) one must take into some kind of account the “coterie” in which he felt he was “the lesser presence.” He wrote, in his orbiting prose fragments, about the “sincerity” of the “heteronyms,” and compared it not to the “sincerity” of Shakespeare but to that of his characters. On the other hand, he spoke of himself as a fiction, with the sincerity of one of his heteronyms informing him, at least part of the time.
The subject of authenticity, its presence and its transparency, runs through Pessoa’s whole system like its light and time. The first poems of O Guardador de Rebanhos (Honig and Brown, and Zenith, translated the title felicitously as The Keeper of Sheep), which arrived so dramatically in 1914, begins:
I never kept sheep,
but it’s as if I’d done so.
My soul is like a shepherd.
It knows wind and sun
Walking hand in hand with the Seasons
Observing, and following along.
All of Nature’s unpeopled peacefulness
Comes to sit alongside me.
Still I’m sad, as a sunset is
To the imagination,
When it grows cold at the end of the plain
And you feel the night come in
Like a butterfly through the window.
But my sadness is comforting
Because it’s right and natural…
The consideration of authenticity is given a further spin when we consider it in translations; in that form too the subject occurred to Pessoa and he wrote about it, considering it partly on the basis of translations he himself made of poems of his own and of others, both into Portuguese and into English. He planned enormously ambitious translations: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, Milton, and Shakespeare. His further comments on any such enter- prise, if he had undertaken it, might have been as valuable as the translations themselves.
Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown’s bilingual edition of The Keeper of Sheep allows us to compare their versions and Richard Zenith’s (in Fernando Pessoa & Co.) with the originals. Both translations, in fact, are valuable reflections. Alberto Caeiro, the “author,” the first of the heteronyms, is in some respects the most mysterious and imposing of them all. He has been scrutinized repeatedly in the literature that has accrued around Pessoa, and he retains some of the endlessly suggestive elusiveness of a fiction from far below the surface. He and the other principal heteronyms remind me of Louis Jouvet’s great soliloquy-essay in the person of Tartuffe, which begins, “I am not a being, I am a character.”
In the decades since World War II, which have seen the gradual recognition of Pessoa’s true importance in the literature of this century, one of the major illuminations of the nature and scope of his work is “Unknown to Himself,” an essay about Pessoa that Octavio Paz published originally in Cuadrivio, in Spain, and that served as the introduction to Edwin Honig’s Selected Poems of Fernando Pessoa in 1971. The essay is reprinted in the present Carcanet Fernando Pessoa—one of the many invaluable sections of that volume, which also includes a trove of photographs—with a telling opening paragraph that was not there in the Swallow edition. It begins: “Poets don’t have biographies. Their work is their biography. Pessoa, who always doubted the reality of this world, would readily approve if I were to go straight to his poems, forgetting the incidents and accidents of his earthly life.” Having said that, and added that “his history could be reduced to the passage between the unreality of his daily life and the reality of his fictions…,” Paz has to note that the fictions include, “above all, Fernando Pessoa himself,” and so he turns to the biography of the historic person after all, “so long as we know that it is the footprints of a shadow we are following. The real Pessoa is someone else.”
The historic Pessoa’s mother came from the Azores, from a land-owning family. She was a well-read woman who spoke French fluently, wrote poetry, played the piano. His father’s father had been a general. His father worked in the Ministry of Justice, loved music, and wrote music criticism. In Pessoa’s early years they lived in a fashionable part of Lisbon within sight of the San Carlos Opera House. When Pessoa was five his father died of tuberculosis. The whole family moved to a more modest apartment. The following year Pessoa’s infant brother died, at the age of one year, and Pessoa began inventing heteronyms. The year after that his mother became engaged to Commander JoÌ£o Miguel Rosa, who had just been appointed consul to Durban in the British colony of Natal. The couple were married by proxy and Pessoa and his mother left Lisbon for South Africa.
They lived in Durban and his schooling, between the ages of eight and seventeen, was in English. “I’ve never suffered any nostalgia for my childhood,” he wrote years later, in his forties. “In truth I’ve never felt the slightest nostalgia…. I’m not by nature pessimistic, nor given to retrospection….” In Durban he invented the first important literary heteronym, Alexander Search, who was a Scottish engineer with an elder brother, and who wrote, of course, in English. The young Pessoa had visiting cards printed up for Search. In 1906, after the death of his sister, Pessoa returned to Lisbon, where he remained when his family went back to Durban. He enrolled at the University of Lisbon and went to live with his paternal grandmother DionÌ?sia, who had spells of insanity that led him to “one of my mental complications,…a fear of madness, which is already in itself a part of madness.” The note was written two years later, after his grandmother had died, leaving him a small inheritance. He lived alone then, and began undertaking freelance commercial translation, managing to make just enough to live on and write.
This, essentially, was his situation at the time of the “triumphant day” when the heteronyms took the center of the stage. And the successive displacements and disappearances of the early years are pertinent not only to considerations of the orthonym Pessoa and where he is speaking from, but to the words, figures, and “criteria” of the rest of the “coterie.”
Paz, in “Unknown to Himself,” writes of Caeiro, whom Pessoa repeatedly referred to as “my master,” that he “is the touchstone of all his work,” and Paz’s evocation of Caeiro has the magisterial, comprehensive lucidity that characterizes many of his major essays and again and again leaves us in his debt. “Caeiro,” Paz says, “is all that Pessoa is not.” He is “the only affirmation Pessoa ever made…. Reis believes in form, Campos in sensation, Pessoa in symbols. Caeiro doesn’t believe in anything: he exists.” He quotes another of his heteronyms, Campos, saying of Caeiro, “My master Caeiro was not pagan; he was paganism.” Paz writes:
It would not be hard to show Caeiro that reality is never at hand…. The real poet knows that words and things are not the same…. Words…are the bridges we extend between the things and ourselves. The poet is the conscience of the words, that is, the nostalgia for the actual reality of things….
Caeiro, Paz tells us, is the mythical innocent poet that Pessoa needed to “reinvent” in order to justify his own poetry, and yet Caeiro’s own reality is limited and dubious.
But it is because Caeiro is indeed a touchstone of all Pessoa’s work, and in that sense his master, that his role can be taken as an example of that of all the other heteronyms. Darlene J. Sadlier, in her careful and helpful Introduction to Fernando Pessoa, discusses the corpus of work now extant on the origin and evolution of the heteronyms and the copious studies of Caeiro, whom Reis, Campos, and Pessoa all spoke of as their master. She cites the heteronym Alvaro de Campos talking with Caeiro about Wordsworth’s “Peter Bell.” Pessoa’s own thinking on the subject, she suggests, may have evolved from reading Ruskin’s essay “Of the Pathetic Fallacy.” Campos and Caeiro discuss “the direct perception of things that characterizes the sensibility of Caeiro,” and Wordsworth’s lines:
A primrose by the river’s brim
A primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.
Caeiro says, “What that English poet wanted to show was that the yellow flower had become a common experience or a known thing to the man. Now that isn’t good. Everything we see, we must always see for the first time, because that is when we truly see it.” Sadlier’s discussion of Caeiro, his own perception and its relation to Ruskin’s essay and to the rest of Pessoa’s cosmology, is a clear and careful characterization. It forms a key passage in her study, which manages to present complex elucidations in language of admirable plainness, mercifully free of jargon. The notes at the end of her work, as well as much of the text itself, are a mine of information about Pessoa, his work, and recent interpretations.*
Almost any commentary of any length on Pessoa’s writings, sensibility, and imagination is bound to convey a glimpse, at least, of its intensity and elusiveness, its apparently endlessly unfolding hall of mirrors. His poetry, as well as the literary figures it comes from, emerges and proceeds in that edifice of reflections, and it is easier to suggest the intricacies of its connotations and shadows than the authority—ghostly, ironic, mercurial, with some of the lingering resonance of a mask—of the poetry itself. An unforeseen irony perhaps is how much of the poetry’s vivid character seems to survive in translation—at least in the present translations in English. One can always lament, and usually with good reason, what is lost in any translation.
But what is heartening in these English versions is how much of the voices of the heteronyms, the urgency of the originals, seems to have come through and be present. Much of this, obviously, is due to the talents and devotion, the patient listening of the translators, Susan M. Brown, Edwin Honig, and Richard Zenith. Some shadowy part of it may have to do with Pessoa’s lifelong, intimate awareness of English and his familiarity with the corpus of poetry in English from the Elizabethans through the Victorians. But some of it must have to do with the oddly removed, refracted, projected nature of much of the poetry of the heteronyms, including Pessoa himself. The variety in his gallery of personae makes it virtually impossible to choose a single typical poem, yet the same circumstances make any of the poems a possible example.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Today I’m defeated, as if I’d learned the truth.
Today I’m lucid, as if I were about to die
And had no greater kinship with things
Than to say farewell…
(“The Tobacco Shop”by Alvaro de Campos,translated by Richard Zenith)
Some of the vibrancy which Pessoa’s work continues to radiate in English is outlined by George Monteiro in his The Presence of Pessoa, which includes in its appendix the whole of Roy Campbell’s essay on Pessoa, an untempered foghorn cadenza sustained by a rather touching fellow-student (years apart) possessiveness. Monteiro traces the responses of many English, American, and South African writers to Pessoa’s work.
Besides the poetry, Pessoa’s rapid prose, snatched in flight and restlessly suggestive, remains haunting, often startling, like the touch of a vibrating wire, elusive and persistent like the poetry. Zenith’s translation of “The Book of Disquietude” in the Carcanet volume, and the passages given us in the Honig and Brown translations, add to a sense of the landscape of Pessoa’s mind. Each fragment, as one comes upon it, is eerily and unmistakably his. Even his heteronyms may have sounded at times like echoes but they do not resemble each other. In any of their voices there is nobody like him.
December 3, 1998
This commentary was already in proof when I received another new work on Pessoa, this one in French: Ì?trange Ì?tranger, by Robert BrÌ©chon (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1996), which is an ambitious and deeply researched critical biography. I have had time to do little more than examine some crucial passages (including several examinations of the heteronyms’ conversing viewpoints) but they are enough to lead me to believe that this book is a valuable addition to the exegesis of Pessoa’s articulate shadows. I expect that Ì?trange Ì?tranger will be translated into English and will receive a review of its own in due course. ↩