Fernando Pessoa: A Centenary Pessoa
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.