Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Several Names of Fernando Pessoa

By Edouard Roditi

THOUGH BORN IN LISBON in 1888, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa spent much of his childhood, from 1896 to 1908, in South Africa, after which he returned to Portugal, where he died in 1935. Educated in Durban and Capetown, he spoke perfect English and wrote some of his earlier poetry in English. Pessoa's bilingualism may indeed be the cause of his extraordinary and almost psychopathic diversity as a Portuguese poet too. Not content with writing in two different languages and literary traditions, those of late Nineteenth-century English poetry and of post-Romantic Portuguese poetry, Pessoa wrote and published his Portuguese works under six different names, in six poetic idioms, each one of which constitutes a separate identity among what Pessoa and his Portuguese critics have called his heterónimos.

Denied any Wordsworthian spontaneity of expression be­cause always forced to choose whether to express himself in English or Portuguese, Pessoa thus made a virtue of the self­-alienation imposed upon him by his having to hesitate between either of two languages that remained, through this very choice, both equally familiar and foreign to him. In either language, Pessoa had to pretend, at all times, to ignore the poetic traditions and conventions of the other, and in Portuguese to ignore also the idioms that were particular to the five other personalities whom he repressed each time that he allowed the sixth one to write.

Even Pessoa's name seems to imply this peculiar fate. Derived from the Latin word that means a character in a play or a mask, it now means, in spoken Portuguese, a mere person, in the very vaguest sense of this word. Long before becoming insane, Ezra Pound had thus chosen Personae, meaning masks, as the title of the early collection of his poems where he revealed, for the first time, the complexities of his own identity while hinting unconsciously at his own future alienation. To this very theme of the mask or person, Pessoa devoted one of the finest of the Thirty-five Sonnets that he published privately in English in 1918.

But Pessoa was well aware of the limitations that fate and neurosis imposed on his genius. To be freed of these, he began, like a character in a Pirandello play, to lead his other lives, imaginary lives of imaginary poets, of fictional characters whose very real works he wrote and published under these other names that are now his heterónimos. In one of his Thirty-five Sonnets, Pessoa justifies these playful mystifications by re­ferring to the greater mysteries of astrology:

With the higher trifling let us world our wit
Conscious that, if we do 't, that was the lot     
      The regular stars bound us to, when they stood
      Godfathers to our birth and to our blood.

When he expressed himself in English, Fernando Pessoa generally closed his metaphysical considerations and erotic fantasies in somewhat learned diction, creating for himself an idiom as personal as those of Edward Benlowes, William Blake, Hopkins or even Laura Riding. He was one of the hermits of our language, a kind of Trappist of English poetry who wrote an idiom that he often read or imagined but rarely spoke or heard:

As a bad orator, badly o'er-book-skilled,
Doth overflow his purpose with made heat,
And, like a clock, winds with withoutness willed
What should have been an inner instinct's feat;
Or as a prose-wit, harshly poet turned,
Lacking the subtler music in his measure,
With useless care labours but to be spurned,
Courting in alien speech the Muse's pleasure;
I study how to love or how to hate
Estranged by consciousness from sentiment,
With a thought feeling forced to be sedate
Even when the feeling's nature is violent;
        As who would learn to swim without the river,
        When nearest to the trick as far as ever.

It is odd that Pessoa, in his lifetime, should have published but one poem in England, in The Athenaeum of January 30th 1920, that his English writings, when printed privately in Lisbon, should have attracted the attention only of the critic of the Times Literary Supplement and of the Glasgow Herald, and especially that no critic or historian, whether English or Portuguese, should yet have taken the trouble, since the poet's death in 1935, to seek, among his literary remains, the three unpublished English poems, Prayer to a Woman's Body, Pan­-Eros and Anteros, which the author mentioned in a letter of November 18th, 1930 to Joâo Gaspar Simoês but failed to include in the privately printed 1921 Lisbon edition of his English Poems. Pessoa admits, in this letter, that the three lost poems were already written; he even explains that they completed the cycle of erotic poems begun in Antinous and Epithalamium, both of which he published. After celebrating, in these two published poems, the conceptions of love of the Greek and the Roman worlds of antiquity, he had expressed, in the three unpublished poems, the Christian philosophy of love, then that of the modern world and, in the last, that of the future too.

One can detect, in the two published poems of this cycle, an element of archaism that gives us a foretaste of the philo­sophies of love that Pessoa probably developed in his three unpublished poems. Transcending Whitman in his pantheism, the Portuguese poet was already very close, in some respects, to D.H. Lawrence. Though his English is often a bit bookish, his syntax once in a while awkward, Pessoa's expression re­mains, on the whole, scarcely more foreign or artificial than that, say, of Sacheverell Sitwell.

In most of the Portuguese poetry that he published under his own name, Pessoa reveals himself as a late Romantic or a Symbolist rather than a Modern. Sometimes a bit decadent, like his friend the Portuguese poet Mario de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa tended, after 1910, to be increasingly interested in occultism and, in this respect, was a precursor of the early Surrealists. Though a translator of Poe, Pessoa remembered his readings of Whitman too, but never as much as in the overtly pantheistic poetry that he published under two other names, Alberto Caeiro and Alvaro de Campos. At no time, in any of the poetry that he ever published in Portuguese under any of his various names, was Pessoa preoccupied with the wildly erotic visions that characterize much of his English poetry. On the contrary, he expressed as an English poet a personality as distinct as that of any of his Portuguese heterónimos. He seems to have de­liberately chosen the language of his Anglo-Saxon school years to write the kind of poetry that some English poets dare write only in Latin or in French.

As Ricardo Reis, one of the least prolific of his Portu­guese personalities, Pessoa was consciously classical, a gnomic poet who remembered the Odes of Horace and perhaps also some of the more Olympian utterances of Goethe and of Nietzsche, certainly the Augustan serenity of Alexander Pope as well as of the eighteenth-century Portuguese poet Bocage. As Alberto Caeiro, Pessoa appeared as a modern Pantheist, a balanced and optimistic disciple of Whitman. Always more articulate than William Carlos Williams, less blatant than Carl Sandburg, Pessoa was also more consciously complex, in his psychology and beliefs, than Whitman's French disciple Valéry Larbaud, the poet who created, after Gide's André Walter, his own Heterónimo, A. O. Barnabooth, an imaginary poet of much the same race as Prufrock too.

It is as Alvaro de Campos, however, that Fernando Pessoa has attracted the most attention, both in Portugal and in France, where he has been excellently translated by the poet Armand Guibert. An imaginary Jew, a neurasthenic disciple of Mari­netti's Futurism, a marine engineer who has lost faith in man and machines and no longer knows where he belongs, why he writes, Alvaro de Campos is almost like a character out of a Kafka novel:

I have lived, studied, loved and believed,
And today there is no beggar of whose fate I am not
      jealous merely because he is not I.
In each man I see the rags, the scars, the lies,
And I think: "Perhaps you too have lived, studied,
      loved, believed,”
(For it is possible to manipulate the reality of all this
      without actually achieving any of it);
Perhaps you have scarcely existed at all, like a lizzard
       that has had its tail cut off,
And the tail severed from the lizzard still quivers
       endlessly . . . .

Writing free verse and remembering both Whitman and Baudelaire, Marinetti and his own poems already published under the name of Alberto Caeiro whom Alvaro de Campos now claimed as his master, Pessoa went much further, in some of these poems, than Guillaume Apollinaire ever did along those avenues of emotion and poetic expression that the French poet of Alcools also explored, especially in Zone and in the prose of Onirocritique and of Les Mamelles de Tieresias. In a dreamlike world that was destined, a few years later, to become that of Surrealism, Alvaro de Campos stopped only at the very frontiers of hallucination, depersonalization, self-alienation:

What do I know of what I shall be, I who do not know
       what I am?
To be what I think? But I think I am so much and
     so much.
And there are so many others who all think they are the
    same and they cannot all be right . . . .

It is significant that Pessoa published under the signature of Alvaro de Campos his great prophetic manifesto where he defined the literature of the future, the poetry of an age in which the individual would cease to have any meaning or existence. Now that we are already living in a world that daily flouts, whether in the name of Marxism, of Fascism or of a panic-stricken democracy, the very principles of individualism on which our conception of literature has always been founded, we begin to understand the nihilism and despair that once haunted the visions of Alvaro de Campos:

I am nothing.
Never shall I be anything.
I cannot want to be anything.
Apart from that, I bear within me all the world's    
                         dreams.

Writing under the name of Bernardo Soares, Pessoa finally allowed himself to be quite undistinguished, uninspired, a mutilated personality whom he treats with an affectionate indulgence. A competent accountant, Soares seems to be the kind of man that Pessoa's father-in-law had wanted his proble­matic stepson to be. As C. Pacheco, Pessoa published only one work, a sample of highly intellectualized Futurism or Sur­realism. As Antonio-Mora, he wrote nothing at all but is men­tioned as the "intellectually pagan" imaginary master of his own imaginary C. Pacheco, much as Caeiro had been the avowed master of Alvaro de Campos.

In an essay published in his Paginas the Doutrina Estética, Pessoa distinguishes clearly his various heterónimos: "Bernardo Soares . . . . is myself, minus my faculty of reason­ing and my affectivity. His prose, except for the tenuous quality that my reasoning gives to mine, is equal to mine, in absolutely equivalent Portuguese; whereas Caeiro wrote bad Portuguese and Campos reasonable Portuguese, but with lapses . . . . . Reis wrote better than I do, with a purity of style that I consider exaggerated. It is difficult for me to write the prose of Reis, and that is why it is unpublished, or that of Campos. This kind of simulation is more easy, because more spontaneous, in verse than in prose." All poetry, in Pessoa's eyes, was indeed simula­tion, and all poets, according to his faith, are most sincere when least sincere, most truthful when they feign.

Originally Published: October 27th, 2009
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  1. December 22, 2014
     Jason W.

    This easily ranks among the best
    essays Poetry has published.