A Review of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), legendary Portuguese Poet plus ten of his poems

Until last month (October 202I, I had never heard of the Portuguese poet and major literary artist, Fernando Pessoa (1887-1935), who made an outstanding contribution to the written word in Portuguese and English.

Portuguese lovers of poetry often regard Fernando Pessoa, Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis as four of Portugal’s greatest poets of the 20th century. All four poets sprang from the same person, namely the creative outbursts of Pessoa – a much loved appreciation in Portugal of four sublime poets in one.

Pessoa referred to Caeiro, de Campos and Reis as heteronyms. I had to google the word for its meaning, which refers to words spelt differently but with the same meaning. We can regard the four poets as the same poet but different voices, a distinctive style of poetry and varying political views. Pessoa even gave them dates of birth and death.

A master of Portuguese, English and French, Pessoa gave wise advice on translating poetry from one language to another.

The translation of a poem should therefore conform absolutely

  1. To the idea or emotion which constitutes the poem
  2. To the verbal rhythm in which that idea or emotion is expressed
  3. It should conform relatively to the inner or visual rhythm, keeping to the images themselves when it can, but keeping always to the type of image.”

Pessoa engaged in a profound exploration of the spiritual, East and West. He translated into Portuguese books by the founder of Theosophy, Anna Blavatsky and influential Theosophists, a spiritual/esoteric teaching with roots in India and the West.

He explored spiritualism, attended sessions with mediums, witnessed auras, the astral world, had mystical experiences, studied astrology, horoscopes, occultism, freemasonry and neo-paganism.  Writing on 29 November 1935, he wrote his last words: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. He died the next day.

Outside La Brasileira coffee shop in Lisbon, there is a statue of Pessoa sitting at the table drinking a coffee. He also spent many hours in Lisbon’s Martinho da Arcada coffee shop, which he used like an office to write and meet friends.

Pessoa published four books in English and one in Portuguese – Mensagem (Message) but left a large wooden trunk full of unpublished writings still in the process of editing and translating.  Pessoa’s portrait was on the 100-escudo banknote before Portugal changed to the Euro. There is a statue of Pessoa on the pavement outside his favourite coffee shop in Portugal. Coffee shops are natural homes for writing poetry and thinking about non-violent revolution. I know.

Hearing About Fernando Pessoa

I first heard Pessoa’s name on a retreat at the Waldhaus Buddhist Zentrum when a retreatant walked into my room with a book in his hand

By Fernando Pessoa.
Edited and translated by Richard Zenith.

The retreatant read me one of his poems which he had memorised. Here is what he recited.

Poem 102

 “I’m not in a hurry. In a hurry to do what!

The sun and the moon aren’t in a hurry: there right.

Being in a hurry means we believe we can get ahead of our legs,

Or, that with one leap, we can jump over our own shadow,

No, I don’t know how to hurry.

If I reach out one arm I can reach exactly as far as my arm can reach –

Not a centimetre further.

I touch only what I touch, not what I think.

I can only sit where I am.

And like all absolutely true truths, this makes me laugh,

But what really makes me laugh is us always thinking about something else,

And living like truants from our own reality.

And being always outside reality because we’re here.”

Upon returning home, I bought the above book, plus THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ALBERTO CAEIR0 – easily my favourite of the ‘four’ poets. Translated by Margaret Jull Cost and Patricio Ferrari. The English translation on the right of the page faces the Portuguese text on the left-hand side.

I also read Pessoa’s THE BOOK OF DISQUIET, a collection of vignettes conveying the dark moods and perceptions of Pessoa, which he refers to as a ‘tactless autobiography.’  While appreciating his literary skills, I found the book an ongoing litany of despair about life, a sustained nihilism rare in books and gave up on it halfway through.

In the complete works of Alberto Caeiro, Pessoa points with immense frequency to what he sees as the real while dismissing thought, reason and science. This verse below summaries his varied poetic utterances to encourage us to see without explanation. Pessoa adopts a core view of phenomena detached and unrelated to the realms of knowledge and views. The exclusion of mind and the priority of phenomena reveals a determination of the mind of Pessoa. Despite what I would regard as the shortcoming of his view, I appreciate our potential for intimacy with phenomena. The formations of mind-matter have much more in common than Pessoa recognises. This does not detract from his precious poems.

Page 71 from a Caeiro poem in A Little Larger than the Entire Universe

All the opinions ever formed about nature

Never made a flower bloom or a blade of grass grow.

All the knowledge there is of things

Was never something I could seize, like a thing.

If science wants to be true,

What truer science is there than that of things without science?

I closed my eyes and the hard earth on which I lie

 as such a real reality that even my back feels it.

I don’t need reason when I have shoulder blades.

Scientists have their view about reality. They have become persuasive in the world we live. Meditators engage in a lot of reclining posture. Fernando says he lies on his back and feels the Earth under his body. Under his body, he experiences the reality. He then asked a bold question. Is Science True?

Why do I need science? To know reality, you know you are right on the button. We do not need science to tell us reality. Recognising the benefits and the limits of science, the teachings and practices explore what goes on for us.

The poem reminds us of our inner authority to know reality. Science has persuaded us that we don’t know what reality is. The poet says: “I don’t need scientists. I have shoulder blades.”

Here are more extracts from The Complete Works of Albert Caeiro

Poem 2

I have no philosophy I have senses…

If I talk about nature, that isn’t because I know what it is,

but because I love it, and that’s why I love it,

Because whoever loves living knows what he loves

Know why he loves, nor what it means to love…

To love is the first innocence, and the only true innocence is not to think..,

Poem 9

To think a flower is to see it and smell it

and to eat a fruit is to know its meaning.

That’s why on a warm day

I feel sad because I enjoy it so much,

and stretching out on the grass,

and closing my hot eyes,

I feel my whole body lying stretched out on reality,

I know the truth and I am happy.

Poem 21

We need to be natural and calm

in happiness and unhappiness,

To feel like someone looking,

To think like someone walking,

And when the time comes to die,

We should remember that the day dies too

and that the sunset is beautiful

And the night that follows is beautiful too

And that this is so because it is so.

Poem 28.

As for myself, I write the pros of my poetry

And am contented,

Because I know I understand nature from without;

And I don’t understand it from within

Because nature has no within; If it did it wouldn’t be nature.

Poem 33.

Poor flowers planted in regular garden beds.

They look as if they were afraid of the police

But there so sure of themselves that they bloom in just the same way

And have the same ancient colour

As when they were free and were seen by the first gaze of the first man

Who saw them appear and touched them gently

So as to see them with his fingers too.

Poem 47

The Great Mystery of which the false poets speak

I see that there is no nature,

That Nature doesn’t exist,

That there are hills, valleys, plains,

That there are trees, flowers common grasses,

That there are rivers and stones,

But that there isn’t a whole to which this belongs,

That a real and true unity is a disease about ideas.

Nature is parts without a whole,

This is perhaps the mystery they speak of.

Poem 62

If I knew that I would die tomorrow

And spring was due to arrive the day after tomorrow, I would die contented,

Because it was due to arrive the day after tomorrow.

If that is it proper time, when would it come if not at that proper time?

I like everything to be real and everything to be right:

And I like it to be that way even if I don’t like it from stop that is why,

if I were to die now, I would die contented,

Because everything is real and everything is right.


Beyond the bend in the road

There may be a well, a castle.

There may be simply more road.

I neither know nor ask.

As long as i’m on the road before the bend

I simply look at the road before the bend,

Since i can see only the road before the bend.

It would do no good to look elsewhere

Or at what i can’t see.

Let’s just concentrate on where we are.

There’s beauty enough in being here, not elsewhere.

If anyone’s there beyond the bend in the road,

Let them worry about what’s beyond the bend in the road.

That is the road, to them.

If we arrive there, when we arrive we’ll know.

Now we only know that we’re not there.

Here there’s only the road before the bend, and before the bend

There’s the road with no bend at all.

May all beings be free from dependency on thought

May all beings be free from viewing generalities and specifics

May all beings see the real of poetry


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