Today is the feast day of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of Lisbon. It’s also the anniversary of Fernando Pessoa’s birth, an appropriate birthday for the half-Azorean poet considered to be Lisbon’s quintessential writer. Through nearly 80 literary alter egos, Pessoa created an elaborate imaginative space that continues to resonate with people a century later. In today’s guest post, Mirna Queiroz, a Brazilian writer and Pessoa aficianado, imagines Pessoa’s life through his daily activities, his heteronyms and his poetry.
REALITY, COME BACK TOMORROW
Lisbon, November 26, 1935. Pessoa heads for home at the end of his workday at the import-export office. Under his arm he carries, as always, a leather briefcase. Before going up to his apartment on Coelho da Rocha Street, he stops off at Trindade’s Bar, just around the corner. This is routine. His friend sells him goods on credit. He goes up to the counter and says:
“2, 8 and 6.”
Trindade brings him a box of matches, a pack of cigarettes and a small glass of brandy. There is complicity in his eyes. The matches cost 20 cents, the cigarettes 80, and the brandy 60. So Pessoa simplifies his request: 2, 8, and 6. Trindade is used to it. The poet lights a cigarette and drinks the brandy in one gulp. He takes an empty black bottle out of his briefcase and hands it to Trindade who, discreetly, returns it filled up. With his little black bottle safely put away, Pessoa departs. He staggers out of the bar, reciting:
Drunk, it grows white
As if by the sand
In the market streets,
Of the empty market,
In the dark of night
Of shadows half-shown.
The moon becomes white
In the streets of the market
Deserted, unknown… (1)
MY SOUL SHATTERED LIKE AN EMPTY VASE
In his room, he spends the entire night bent over his desk. His figure blends in with the books, papers and tiny pencils that no one but him would be able to handle. The ashtray is full of cigarette ends. He writes, compulsively, to his young friend Casais Monteiro:
“…Ever since I was a child, I have had the tendency to create a fictitious world around me, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. ( I don’t know, of course, if they didn’t really exist or if it is me who doesn’t exist. On such matters, as in all others, one shouldn’t be dogmatic.) Ever since I became aware of the thing that I call self, I can remember with mental precision, the figures, the movements, the character and the history of several fictitious people who were, to me, as visible and mine as those things which we, perhaps abusively, call real life. This tendency, which exists since I realized that I was a self, has always been with me, modifying slightly the kind of music it uses to bewitch me but never altering its manner of bewitching.” (2)
His writing is going at full speed when Pessoa begins to receive unexpected visitors: Caeiro, Reis, Campos and Soares. They have plans and they want to show them to the great poet. They arrive one at a time. It is dawn and now they are all together. They are surprised by a deeply moved poet, still holding the sheets of paper in his hand. “Had he received bad news?” they ask, showing concern. The poet tries to change the subject. He becomes confused, lost in his own words, something that had never happened before. But then, he had never received visitors at such a late hour, especially without a previous appointment. This must be an act of “The Great Architect of the Universe,” he thinks. So be it; let destiny take its course… Then, by fits and starts, he explains:
“I put off telling the truth as long as I could. Now, it’s time to take off the mask.”
His listeners are uneasy. Those who are sitting stand up, those who are standing either sit down or begin pacing the floor. Pessoa’s evasive speech is interrupted by moans and groans:
“I was just writing a letter to a friend in which I confided everything that I now feel I must tell you.”
He takes a deep breath and blurts out:
“You don’t exist.”
There’s general commotion among those present.
“That’s it. You people are nothing but characters that I have created. When I die, I’ll take you with me.”
“This can only be insanity. Sheer madness,” says an offended Álvaro de Campos.
“I’ll tell you how it all happened. ‘One day, it was March 8, 1914, when I had finally decided to give it all up, I went up to a high desk, took a sheet of paper and began to write, standing up as I usually do whenever I can. I wrote thirty-odd poems in one go, in a kind of trance whose nature I cannot define. It was the greatest day of my life and I’ll never have another one like it. I started with the title, O Guardador de Rebanhos ( The Keeper of Sheep). What followed was the appearance of someone in me, to whom I immediately gave the name of Alberto Caeiro. …So much so, that upon finishing those thirty-odd poems, I immediately took another piece of paper and wrote, also in one go, the six poems that make up A Chuva Oblíqua (Oblique Rain), by Fernando Pessoa. Once Alberto Caeiro’s presence materialized, I, instinctively and subconsciously, set out to find him some disciples. I yanked a latent Ricardo Reis out of his false paganism, discovered his name, and adjusted him to himself, because, at this stage, I could already see him. And, suddenly, arising from sources directly opposed to those of Ricardo Reis, a new individual burst impetuously into my mind. In one fell swoop, at the typewriter, without interruption or correction, there emerged the Ode Triunfal (Triumphal Ode) by Alvaro Campos – both, the Ode and the author, already carrying the name they have now.’” (2)
“You mean to say that all this time we’ve been nothing but lies?” asks Ricardo Reis.
Bernardo Soares replies:
Poets are fakers
and their faking is so real
that they even fake the pain,
the pain that they really feel. (3)
“That’s really the key,” explains Pessoa.
“I don’t accept that. Let my creator die in peace, but I’m going to continue quite alive, making poetry as always,” cries Álvaro Campos, in defiance.
“Well, now! So the creature turns against its own creator. I should have suspected as much,” deplores Pessoa. “And what about you, Caeiro?”
I like everything that’s real
and everything that’s right;
And I like it because it would be so,
whether or not I liked it.
And so, if I die now, I die a happy man,
Because everything is real and everything is right.(4)
Álvaro Campos remarks: “I don’t understand your complacency. Can’t you see that Pessoa took advantage of us and, particularly, of you? He was compelled to overcome his decadent lyric subjectivity and he defeated it in such a sudden and aggressive fashion that he had no alternative but to give a name to the critic who did it. And that’s where you come in, to save him. (5)
Caeiro can’t hide his displeasure. And so, Pessoa explains:
“I wrote the eighth poem of Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep), with misgivings and repugnance, following your childish and antispiritualist blasphemies. To each character that I was able to experience within me, I gave an expressive nature and turned him into an author, with books, ideas, emotions, and art, none of which I, the real author, possess, except for having been the medium through whom they were written by the figures that I, myself, created.
“You didn’t have the right to do that,” Campos insists.
“To deny me the right to do that would be the same as denying Shakespeare the right to give expression to Lady Macbeth’s soul. And if that’s true for fictitious characters in a drama, it is equally true for characters not in a drama, since it applies because they are fictitious and not because they are in a drama. There’s no need to explain something which, by its nature, is simple and intuitively understandable. It happens, however, that human stupidity is great while human kindness is not worthy of note.
Ricardo Reis, who had remained silent throughout the explanation, asks:
“Why, then, did you invent us? What’s the origin of it all?”
Patiently, Pessoa tries to explain it to him:
“It’s the deep characteristics of hysteria that exist in me. I don’t know if I am simply hysterical, or if I am, to put it more adequately, hysterical neurasthenic. Whatever the case, your mental origins are in my organic and constant tendency to depersonalize and to simulate. If I were a woman – in women hysterical phenomena manifest themselves through seizures and things like that – each poem by Álvaro Campos, the most hysterical within me, would cause a commotion in the neighborhood. But I am a man and in men hysteria becomes, mostly, a matter of the mind; thus, everything ends up in silence and poetry…” (2)
The answer is not convincing; it pleases no one. Gone is the time when he was eloquent. Now nobody listens. Pessoa feels distressed. Silence is all around him; he feels the incomprehension, the hurt and even the contempt of his other “selves.” He turns for one final plea. He is left alone with his truth.
I AM GOING TO EXIST
When he thinks about going to bed, it’s already a new day. Someone knocks at the door. It’s Mr. Manacés, the barber. Pessoa hardly says “good-morning” to him. The phlegm in his throat hampers his speech. His trousers slipping down his legs, he points to the little black bottle. Manacés understands the signal. He goes down to Trindade’s bar to fill it up, even before he sharpened his razor blade. Now shaved, the poet leaves for the office. He finishes some translations; has lunch at Martinho da Arcada and, before returning to work, he goes into a tavern, reluctantly. He thinks of his doctor who had forbidden him to drink. Then he asks himself.
Should I drink something or should I commit suicide?
No; I am going to exist. Dammit! I am going to exist.
Give me something to drink, for I am not thirsty! (6)
The night of November 27 to 28. Pessoa lies shrunken in bed, his hands pressing his abdomen to relieve liver colics. He moans, he is in pain. In the morning of the 28th, Pessoa is taken to S. Luis dos Franceses Hospital. The pain increases, he has difficulty breathing. The poet agonizes. He begs for an end to such suffering and is given a pain reliever. Under the effect of the drug, he reflects upon his life, which now threatens to leave him.
OH, TO RELIVE THE SORROW
June 13, 1888. Celebration of Saint Anthony’s Day, the Patron Saint of the city. 15:20h. The streets of Lisbon are crowded because of a religious procession. At 4 Largo São Carlos, the excitement is even greater. Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira, a native of the Azores, is drenched in sweat. Her fingers press hard and squeeze a pillow; the pangs of childbirth. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, her husband, is listening to music in back of the house. Outside, there is a priest saying mass. In the bedroom, a baby cries. Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa is born. The sun is in Gemini. “He will be a child blessed with the gifts of sensibility and humanism,” ventures one of his aunts.
At the age of six, Fernando loses his father, a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice and music critic for the daily Diário de Notícias. Soon thereafter, his brother Jorge, just a bit over six months old, dies. Loneliness becomes a part of Pessoa’s everyday life at a very tender age. He invents a friend: a certain Chevallier de Pas, through whom he writes letters from him, Pessoa, to himself.
He moves to Durban, at the age of seven. His mother had married, by proxy, commander João Miguel Rosa, Portuguese consul in the British colony of Natal, in South Africa. Five children are born to the couple. It’s a new family for Pessoa. He’ll live in Durban until the age of 17. In 1896, he is admitted to West Street, where he studies English and makes his first Holy Communion. In English schools he learns principles of trade and commerce. He stands out as one of the better students. In 1904, he finishes his Intermediate Examination in the arts. He is awarded the Queen Victoria Prize in English Stylistics as part of the admission tests for Cabo Universidade. He writes poetry and prose, always in English. He reads Milton, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson and Poe. He is familiar with Pope and his school of thought.
1905. Pessoa decides to move back to Lisbon to take a university course on literature. He leaves Durban on a German ship, the “Herzog.” He’ll be staying with his grandmother Dionisia. The Portuguese language reveals itself as “foreign,” with the added characteristic of seeming “strange,” even though he understands it perfectly. In other words, to his ears the Portuguese language is not yet worn out by daily use, bom dia (good morning), boa tarde (good afternoon), como está (how are you?), passou bem? (how have you been?) e a mãezinha está melhor? (is your Mom feeling better?) está melhorzinha, muito obrigado (she feels a bit better, thank you)! The language is a block of marble that makes one feel like sculpting it, to make literature. He discovers Cesário Verde and Baudelaire.
1907. He drops out of the course. His grandmother dies. He takes his inheritance and sets up a printing shop: Ibis-Tipográfica Editora-Oficinas a Vapor. It hardly begins to operate and closes down. Frustration.
I failed at everything.
Considering that I had no goals,
perhaps everything was nothing.
I dodged the training I was given
by slipping through the window
in the back of the house…(7)
The poet earns his living as a translator of business letters and, later, as foreign correspondent. Monotony. He gets away from the office whenever he can. He just grabs his hat and says: “I’m going to Abel’s.”
His boss finds out that “Abel’s” is nothing more than a warehouse belonging to the Abel Pereira da Fonseca winery, where Pessoa goes for a few shots of brandy. He is caught “red-handed.” The boss doesn’t mind because Pessoa “aways comes back in better shape to work.” It’s a part-time job. The rest of the time he devotes to literature: Camões, António Vieira, Antero de Quental and the symbolists. He begins to write verses in Portuguese. The Portuguese Renaissance, a nostalgic movement headed by Teixeira de Pascoaes, makes its appearance. In the city of Oporto, the group founds a literary magazine called Águia. Pessoa becomes a collaborator. He publishes a series of articles, among them “The New Portuguese Poetry Sociologically Considered.”
He also becomes a critic for the weekly magazine Teatro. He makes friends with Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Luís de Montalvor, Armando Cortes-Rodrigues, Raul Leal, António Ferro, Alfredo Guisado and the painter Almada Negreiros. He never misses the literary gatherings held at Café Chiado, Montanha, A Brasileira, Os Irmãos Unidos. Together with this group, Pessoa founds Orpheu, an avant-garde magazine in tune with the new European movements: futurism, orphism, cubism…(8) This publication reveals names such as Santa-Rita Pintor and Ângelo Lima, a marginal poet who was committed to an asylum. Orpheu doesn’t reach its third issue. Two issues were enough to outrage literary conservatives.
Tired of transcendental mysticism, Pessoa feels rewarded. He writes to a friend: In none of my circle of acquaintances do I find an attitude toward life that agrees with my inner sensibility, with my aspirations, with everything that makes up the fundamental and essential nature of my inner spiritual being. I do find, of course, those who are in agreement with literary activities which are only a part of the fringes of my sincerity. And that’s enough for me. As a result, everything that is literary frivolousness, trivial art, is gradually sounding more and more hollow and repugnant to my sensibility, which is increasingly deeper, and to my greater awareness of the terrible and religious mission that every man of genius receives from God, together with his genius.
THE OTHER POETS
1914. Pessoa meets Alberto Caeiro, a “pale blond, blue-eyed” man. (5) He was born in Lisbon, 1888, but now lives in Ribatejo. He has no profession. His education is limited. He views the world from an old aunt’s estate. A simple, bucolic man, he writes O Guardador de Rebanhos (The keeper of Sheep), O Pastor Amoroso (The Loving Shepherd) and part of Poemas Inconjuntos (Disconnected Poems). In a letter to a friend, Pessoa reveals: Forgive me for the absurdity of this phrase: My master had become present in me.
…I don’t believe in God because I have never seen him.
If he wanted me to believe in him,
Undoubtedly he would come to speak to me
And he would come through my door
Saying to me: Here I am! (9)
Pessoa breathes and perspires poetry; he draws in the other poets. He meets Álvaro de Campos, the avant-garde author of Ode Triunfal (Triumphal Ode), Ode Marítima (Maritime Ode) and Ultimatum. He is tall, has straight hair, parted on one side, and wears a monocle. (2)
He was born in Tavira in 1890. He had finished high school in Portugal and then moved to Glasgow, in Scotland, where he graduated as a mechanical and naval engineer. He had written Opiário, an ironical poem about opium and exoticism, a piece of literary decadence. In Lisbon, he had dedicated himself to literature and to modernist polemics. He had also written articles for some newspapers on current political affairs. As far as Pessoa was concerned, Álvaro was only a blasé, indolent symbolist, a cultured and bored bourgeois. Campos is also a disciple of Caeiro, but contrary to Caeiro’s serenity, he chooses the ethics of dynamism and violence.(8)
Oh, the savagery of this savagery! To hell
with every life like ours, this is not
what life is about!
Here I am, an engineer, forced to be practical,
sensitive to everything,
Here I am, motionless, in relation to you,
even when I walk;
Even when I act, I am inert;
when I’m in command, I am weak;
Immutable, broken, a dissenter, a coward before
Before your great dynamics,
strident, hot and soaked in blood! (10)
June, 1914. Another poet makes his appearance in the life of Pessoa, who had become aware of his existence two years before. He is Ricardo Reis, average height, although frail he didn’t appear to be as frail as, in truth, he was, with a vaguely brown complexion. (2) This physician from Oporto, a defender of the monarchy, is one year older than Pessoa and spends some time in exile in Brazil after the proclamation of the Republic. A traditional thinker, a conservative, he uses classicism as a point of departure to approach the subject of human restlessness, to question the meaning of the Universe. (8) He writes intensely: eleven odes in one month.
And so, Lydia, by the fireplace, as if we were,
with the Gods of home, right there in eternity,
Like people who confection clothes
As we once did
In that disquiet that rest
Brings to our lives when we think
Of what we once were.
And outside, there is only night. (11)
Pessoa devotes himself entirely to his new friends. His close relationship with such distinguished poets brings more color to his colorless daily life. One other writer will be added to this group of artists. In one of these low-priced restaurants,…the poet meets a man, who looks to be around 30, somewhat tall, whose back becomes quite hunched when he sits. They begin to greet each other and soon they become friends. Soares gives the poet his Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), a collection of writings, not easily classified, with characteristics of autobiographical fragments, confessions, psychological introspection, descriptions of landscapes, reflections, and free verses. (8)
Pessoa has a falling-out with Campos. At the center of their quarrel is Ophélia Queiroz, a young lady Pessoa had met at the office of the Félix Valadas & Freitas company. She is twenty years old and, immediately, she awakens in the poet an interest in her. The relationship between them is shaken when they begin to date regularly. They walk hand in hand, they exchange letters and short messages. But she feels hostility coming from Fernando’s friend. Campos is afraid that Pessoa will abandon his poetry because of Ophélia. Perhaps influenced by this appeal, Pessoa decides to terminate the romance.
1916. Mário de Sá-Carneiro commits suicide in Paris. Pessoa is shocked. In a letter to his Aunt Anica he says that, despite the distance, his friend’s death is deeply felt. Distress. He begins to look for answers in the occult. “I believe in the existence of worlds which are superior to ours, in the existence of inhabitants of such worlds, and in the existence of several degrees of spiritualities,” he admits. He becomes interested in secret societies such as the Rosicrucian Order, the Freemasons, the Knights Templar. He studies spiritism, sorcery and the cabala and translates many books of the Theosophical and Esoteric Collection. Under the influence of occultism, he writes O Último Sortilégio (The Last Sortilege) and Além-Deus (Beyond God). He becomes especially interested in astrology and begins to study and practice it. He even considers establishing himself in Lisbon as a licensed astrologer. Caeiro receives an astrological chart made by the poet.
Pessoa’s poetry begins to arouse the interest of the critics. The Times and The Glasgow Herald have articles covering the two booklets of poems in English which he had published in 1918. He now writes for the most important literary magazines in Portugal. In Contemporânea he publishes O Banqueiro Anarquista (The Anarchist Banker), Mar Português (The Portuguese Sea), O Menino da Sua Mãe (Mommy’s Little Boy), Lisbon Revisited…
In 1928, he becomes involved in politics. In Interregno, a political publication of the Núcleo de Acção Nacional (Center for National Action), he publishes an apology for Salazar’s dictatorship. A blunder. Pessoa does not agree with the despotism and ultranationalism of the existing regime. Later, he writes three texts satirizing the Estado Novo (The New Order). One of them is addressed to the leader of the movement:
António de Oliveira Salazar
A sequence of three names, quite regular…
António is António
Oliveira is a tree.
Salazar is just a last name.
By themselves, they’re not hard to take.
What doesn’t make sense
Is the sense that they all make. (12)
In that same year, Pessoa goes into advertising. Coca-Cola has just entered the Portuguese market and the poet is charged with the task of creating a slogan for the product: “First, you find it strange; then you can’t change.” The product sells like hotcakes, but later the authorities prohibit its sale in Portugal. The very slogan, argue the authorities, recognizes the harmful effects of the soft drink.
In the years that follow, Pessoa plunges into the study of astrology. He exchanges correspondence with the world-famous British occultist Aleister Crowley, known throughout the world. Crowley goes to Lisbon to meet Pessoa and then vanishes mysteriously. Pessoa collaborates with the police to solve what is being described as a crime. Pessoa writes to a friend about this hubbub: “Crowley, who took up residence in Germany after committing suicide, wrote me a few days ago asking for my translation, or rather, the publication of the translation.” Pessoa is referring to the sorcerer’s poem “Hymn to Pan,” which is published in 1931.
1934. Pessoa publishes Mensagem (Message), a poem about the history of Portugal. Esoteric and mystical. It will be the only book of poems in Portuguese published in his lifetime. He wins the Second Category Prize awarded by the Secretariado de Propaganda Nacional (National Department of Propaganda).
TOO LATE FOR THE REUNION
November 30, 1935. Edgy, tossing and turning in bed, Pessoa is burning with fever.
I am nothing
I shall never be anything
I cannot wish to be anything.
Aside from that, I hold within me
all the dreams of the world.
Today, I’m defeated, as if I’d learned the truth.
Today, I am lucid, as if I were about to die. (7)
The chaplain tries to calm him down. He insists on calling out the names of Caeiro, Reis, Campos and Soares. As if they heard the summons of their creator, the poets head for the hospital. Pessoa is in the throes of death. He tugs at the bedsheet, his body shrinks. “Give me my glasses, my glasses,” he asks. He readies himself for a last glance at his creation. They haven’t arrived yet. But he can feel that they are coming. Oh, yes, they are coming.
Caeiro, Reis, Campos and Soares rush into the room. But they are too late, the poet is dead. There remain only a few notes scribbled on a piece of paper:
I made of myself something beyond my knowledge,
And what I could make of myself I failed to do.
The domino costume that I wore was all wrong.
They immediately took me for someone I was not
and I didn’t deny it, and I was lost. When I tried
to take off the mask,
It was stuck to my face.
When I took it off and looked in the mirror,
I had grown old,
I was drunk, and I didn’t know how to put on
the costume that I had not taken off.
I threw the mask away and slept
in the dressing room
As a dog tolerated by the management
because he’s harmless.
And I’m going to write this story to prove
that I’m sublime. (7)
(1) Pierrot Bêbado(Drunken Pierrot), F.P. – (2) Carta a Casais Monteiro (Letter to Casais Monteiro)(01-13-1935) – (3) Livro do Desassossego, (The Book of Disquiet) B.S. – (4) Poemas Inconjuntos (Disconnected Poems), A.Caeiro – (5) João Gaspar Simões, biographer. – (6) Bicarbonato de Soda (Bicarbonate of Soda), F.P. – (7) Tabacaria (The Tobacco Shop), A.Campos.-(8) Maria José de Lencastre, biographer – (9) O Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep), A.Caeiro. – (10) Ode Marítima (Maritime Ode), A.Campos, carta de F.P. a Casais Monteiro – (11) Lydia, R.Reis – (12) António de Oliveira Salazar, F.P.