Unbound presents Fernando Pessoa

Alone this summer morning on the deserted wharf,
I look towards the bar, I look towards the Indefinite,
I look and am glad to see
The tiny black figure of an oncoming steamer.
It’s still far away but distinct, classic in its own way.
It leaves a useless trail of smoke in the air far behind it.
It’s coming in, and the morning with it, and here and there
Along the river maritime life begins to stir:
Sails are hoisted, tugboats advance,
Small boats jut out from behind the ships in the harbour.1

Unbound presents the Portuguese poet FERNANDO PESSOA regarded as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. F. Pessoa (1886-1935) was born in Lisbon and lived shortly in Durbai, South Africa, after which he returned to Lisbon. He started writing poetry in 1914. Playing with fluid notions of identity, he often used various literary personas as distinct literary figures apart from writing under his own name. Although he invented many heteronyms, he mainly signed his work under the three following heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, “a rural, uneducated poet of great ideas who wrote in free verse”, Ricardo Reis, “a physician who composed formal odes influenced by Horace”; and Álvaro de Campos, “an adventurous London-based naval engineer influenced by poet Walt Whitman and the Italian Futurists” (source: Poetry Foundation). 

Of the three main heteronyms used, most critics agree that Álvaro de Campos (born on the 15 October 1890 in Tavira, Portugal) is the one that is probably closest to Pessoa’s personality. Á. de Campos  is the one who feels most strongly, his motto being ‘to feel everything in every way.’ ‘The best way to travel,’ he wrote, ‘is to feel.’ His poetry is the most emotionally intense and varied, constantly oscillating between two fundamental impulses: on the one hand an intense desire to be and feel everything and everyone, declaring that ‘in every corner of my soul stands an altar to a different god’ (alluding to Walt Whitman’s desire to ‘contain multitudes’), and, on the other, a wish for a state of isolation and a sense of nothingness. Pessoa died when he was 47 years old, on November 30, 1935 in Lisbon.

Some critics have discussed the question of what memories of Lisbon are being explored and rewritten in Pessoa’s writing on the city. Is he writing about the city that he left before moving to to South Africa or about the one that he returned to later in his life? According to the critic Maria José de Lancastre, the city represented in Pessoa’s / de Campos poems is the one of the mythical city of his childhood.The city to which he returns after South Africa remains mainly unwritten, although Pessoa uses an external topography of places he resided in or visited, argues de Lancastre. At the same time, the city of Lisbon is reconstructed ‘a posteriori’ as an imagined city that has acquired a purely mythical dimension. At the same time, the city of Lisbon is reconstructed ‘a posteriori’ as an imagined city that has acquired a purely mythical dimension. It is primarily the interior topography of the poet that is being expressed in his writing.

Lisbon is a city that is both lost and regained through writing. It becomes a “metaphor”,  a ‘symbol” punctuated by nostalgia and the feeling of ‘saudade’. Yet, as the critic Filipa de Freitas argues in her analysis of the translations of Pessoa’s long poem ‘Maritime Ode’ notes that there is a notable difference between nostalgia and ‘saudade’ in Pessoa’s work:3

Although nostalgia is also related with sadness and absence, it cannot evidence the complexity of saudade. Nostalgia is a weaker feeling, something like a fog within the poet’s spirit, more close to an idea of melancholy instead of the pain which is also joyful within ‘saudade’ (…) ‘Saudade’, however, is a very deep disposition that structures the subject and appeals to a group of other emotions that conjugate with each other in a very definite way. There is a desire for something lost or absent, a wish of returning and this wish referent may be anything at all, that leads to a sadness initiated by that absence.

A close textual reading of Pessoa’s writing shows the author’s propensity for an incredibly varied number of voices, styles and personas that are characteristic of his writing.4  The excerpts of the poems ‘Lisbon Revisited’ written in 1923 & 1926 shown below are an example of his varied writing on the city.. They plunge the reader into the poet’s interior space that gives rise to the rewriting of his native city and its transformation into a myth.

‘Lisbon revisited’ (1923)

No, I don’t want anything.
I already said I don’t want anything.
Don’t come to me with conclusions!
Death is the only conclusion.
Don’t offer me aesthetics!
Don’t talk to me of morals!
Take metaphysics away from here!
Don’t try to sell me complete systems, don’t bore me
with the breakthroughs Of science (of science, my God, of science!)
— Of science, of the arts, of modern civilization!

(…)

O blue sky—the same one I knew as a child—
Perfect and empty eternal truth!
O gentle, silent, ancestral Tagus,
Tiny truth in which the sky is mirrored!
O sorrow revisited, Lisbon of bygone days today!
You give me nothing, you take nothing from me, you’re nothing I feel is me.
Leave me in peace! I won’t stay long, for I never stay long…
And as long as Silence and the Abyss hold off, I want to be alone!

“Lisbon Revisited”, 1926

Nothing holds me.
I want fifty things at the same time.
I long with meat-craving anxiety
For I don’t know what–
Definitely something indefinite…
I sleep fitfully and live in the fitful dream-state
Of a fitful sleeper, half dreaming.

All abstract and necessary doors were closed in my face.
Curtains were drawn across every hypothesis I could have seen
from the street.
I found the alley but not the number of the address I was given.

I woke up to the same life I’d fallen asleep to.
Even the armies I dreamed of were defeated.
Even my dreams felt false while I dreamed them.
Even the life I merely long for jades me–even that life…

(…)

Once more I see you,
City of my horrifyingly lost childhood…
Happy and sad city, once more I dream here…
I? Is it one and the same I who lived here, and came back,
And came back again, and again,
And yet again have come back?
Or are we–all the I’s that I was here or that were here–
A series of bead-beings joined together by a string of memory,
A series of dreams about me dreamed by someone outside me?
Once more I see you,
With a heart that’s more distant, a soul that’s less mine.

Once more I see you–Lisbon, the Tagus and the rest–,
A useless onlooker of you and of myself,
A foreigner here like everywhere else,
Incidental in life as in my soul,
A ghost wandering through halls of remembrances
To the sound of rats and creaking floorboards
In the accursed castle of having to live…

Once more I see you,
A shadow moving among shadows, gleaming
For an instant in some bleak unknown light
Before passing into the night like a ship’s wake swallowed
In water whose sound fades into silence…

Once more I see you,
But, oh, I cannot see myself!
The magic mirror where I always looked the same has shattered,
And in each fateful fragment I see only a piece of me–
A piece of you and of me!

Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani Mina Ray, 7/5/2018.

  1. Àlvaro de Campos (heteronym), “Maritime Ode”, 1915.
  2. Maria José de Lancastre, Fernando Pessoa, Lisbonne revisitée, Anthologie (bilingual Portuguese & French), Paris: Chandeigne, 2017.
  3. Filipa de Freitas, “Naval Ode Translations: Reading the Poet’s Dispositions”, May 7, 2018, https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Portuguese_Brazilian_Studies/ejph/pessoaplural/Issue8/PDF/I8A04.pdf
  4. For further reading of Pessoa’s work see: F. Pessoa, Message, 1934; B. Soares (heteronym), The Book of Disquiet, 1982 (published posthumously); À. de Campos (heteronym), ‘Maritime Ode’, 1915; À. de Campos, ‘Lisbon revisited’, 1923; À. de Campos, ‘Lisbon revisited’, 1926. Other writings published posthumously and translated into several languages include “Poesias de Fernando Pessoa” (1942), Poesias de Alvaro de Campos” (1944), Poemas de Alberto Caeiro” (1946), and “Odes de Ricardo Reis” (1946).

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