Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems

Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems


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Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) - a poet who lived most his life in Lisbon, Portugal, and who died in obscurity there - has in recent years gained international recognition as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Now Richard Zenith has collected in a single volume all the major poetry of "one of the most extraordinary poetic talents the century has produced" (Microsoft Network's Reading Forum). Fernando Pessoa was as much a creator of personas as he was of poetry, prose, and criticism. He wrote under numerous "heteronyms," literary alter egos with fully fleshed identities and writing styles, who supported and criticized each other's work in the margins of his drafts and in the literary journals of the time. From spare minimalism to a revolutionary exuberance that recalls Leaves of Grass, Pessoa's oeuvre was radically new and anticipated contemporary literary concerns to an unnerving degree. The first comprehensive edition of Pessoa's poetry in the English language, Fernando Pessoa & Co. is a work of extraordinary depth and poetic precision. "Zenith's selection of Pessoa is a beautiful one-volume course in the soul of the twentieth century." — Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802136275
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/28/1999
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 759,883
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 8.16(h) x 0.77(d)

Read an Excerpt




"The life of Caeiro cannot be told for there is nothing in it to tell." So said Ricardo Reis in the preface he drafted for his fellow heteronym's Complete Poems. But Fernando Pessoa informs us that Alberto Caeiro da Silva was born in Lisbon in 1889, lived most of his brief life with an old aunt in the country, and returned to his native city just a few months before his death, from tuberculosis, in 1915. He kept writing poems, however, until at least 1930, apparently by dictating them through Pessoa.

Álvaro de Campos left us a physical description of Caeiro — medium tall, blue eyes, fair hair, and fair skin, with a strikingly white forehead — and reported that he once loved a young lady who did not return his love. Ricardo Reis, defending his view that there was nothing in Caeiro's life worth telling, declared that this "fruitless and absurd" passion was "not an event but, so to speak, a forgetting." A forgetting of what? Perhaps his vocation as the "only poet of Nature."

Although he had no profession, Caeiro fancied himself a shepherd, with thoughts instead of sheep for his flock. His thoughts, he hastened to add in one of his poems, were sensations; his way of thinking was through his eyes and ears, hands and feet, nose and mouth. Caeiro was an unlettered man who eschewed analytical thought.

"Nature is parts without a whole." This, according to Reis, was the most telling verse written by Caeiro, who appreciated things for what they were, showing no concern to find any unifying principle. Variously described as a "pure mystic," a "reconstructor of paganism," a "Saint Francis of Assisi without faith," and an "Antichrist," Caeiro did not personally have anything against Christianity, it simply happened that his nature was antithetical to it. He felt that if God wanted us to believe in him, he would appear and say, "Look, here I am." It is possible to speculate that God is behind or in, or in some way is, the flowers and trees and sun and moon, but Caeiro had no interest in speculating.

He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind. He does not let any thoughts arise when he looks at a flower. Far from seeing sermons in stones, he never even lets himself conceive a stone as beginning a sermon. The only sermon a stone contains for him is that it exists. The only thing a stone tells him is that it has nothing at all to tell him. A state of mind may be conceived resembling this. But it cannot be conceived in a poet. This way of looking at a stone may be described as the totally unpoetic way of looking at it. The stupendous fact about Caeiro is that out of this sentiment, or rather, absence of sentiment, he makes poetry.

From a text Pessoa wrote in English

Simple and unassuming as this poet was, the other two heteronyms considered him their Master. Ricardo Reis, in fact, never wrote a single verse until he met Caeiro, at age twenty-five. Reis, the Epicurean classicist who believed in a countless host of gods and divine powers, recognized in Caeiro not a fellow pagan but paganism itself, an innate and absolute awareness of natural forces, such that any affirmation of belief would have been superfluous, a distraction. Álvaro de Campos, on the other hand, tells us that, yes, he had written a handful of more traditional poems before meeting Caeiro in 1914, but it was only after this life-changing encounter that he began to produce his Sensationist odes in the free-verse style that was already being used by the country-bred poet. Although Campos, the worldly naval engineer, at one point chides Caeiro (along with Reis and Pessoa-himself) for seeing without actually touching reality, he acknowledged him as the Pure Sensationist and therefore as his Master. One day, when attempting to talk metaphysics with Alberto, a frustrated Álvaro finally said, "Just tell me one thing. What are you to yourself?" To which the quasi shepherd answered, "I'm one of my sensations."

Caeiro was even the Master of his inventor, Fernando Pessoa. They met for the first time on March 8, 1914, and Pessoa, completely shaken up on hearing Caeiro read poems from his The Keeper of Sheep, immediately went home to write verses of a kind he never could have produced otherwise. For Fernando, afflicted by an "overly keen sensibility" coupled with an "overly keen mind," the direct and ingenuous poetry of Caeiro acted like a "vaccine against the stupidity of the intelligent." It is Álvaro de Campos who recounts the meeting of these two men and the consequences it had for the creator of heteronyms, but he takes care to remind us that "Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn't exist."



I've never kept sheep,
But it's as if I did.
My soul is like a shepherd.
It knows the wind and sun,
And walks hand in hand with the Seasons Looking at what passes.
All the peace of Nature without people Sits down at my side.

But I get sad like a sunset In our imagination When the cold drifts over the plain And we feel the night come in Like a butterfly through the window.

Yet my sadness is a comfort For it is natural and right And is what should fill the soul Whenever it thinks it exists And doesn't notice the hands picking flowers.

Like a sound of sheep bells Beyond the curve in the road My thoughts are content.
My only regret is that I know they're content,
Since if I did not know it They would be content and happy Instead of sadly content.

Thinking is a discomfort, like walking in the rain When the wind kicks up and it seems to rain harder.

I have no ambitions and no desires.
To be a poet is not my ambition,
It's my way of being alone.
And if sometimes, in my imagination,
I desire to be a small lamb
(Or to be the whole flock So as to be scattered across the hillside As many happy things at the same time),
It's only because I feel what I write when the sun sets Or when a cloud passes its hand over the light And a silence sweeps through the grass.

When I sit down to write verses Or I walk along roads and pathways Jotting verses on a piece of paper in my mind,
I feel a staff in my hand And see my own profile On top of a low hill Looking after my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or looking after my ideas and seeing my flock,
And smiling vaguely, like one who doesn't grasp what was said But pretends he did.

I salute all who may read me,
Tipping my wide-brimmed hat As soon as the coach tops the hill And they see me at my door.
I salute them and wish them sunshine,
Or rain, if rain is needed,
And a favorite chair where they sit At home, reading my poems Next to an open window.

And as they read my poems, I hope They think I'm something natural —
That old tree, for instance,
In whose shade when they were children They sat down with a thud, tired of playing,
And wiped the sweat from their hot foreheads With the sleeve of their striped smocks.

8 MARCH 1914


My gaze is clear like a sunflower.
It is my custom to walk the roads Looking right and left And sometimes looking behind me,
And what I see at each moment Is what I never saw before,
And I'm very good at noticing things.
I'm capable of having that sheer wonder That a newborn child would have If he realized he'd just been born.
I always feel that I've just been born Into an endlessly new world.

I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don't think about it,
Because to think is to not understand.
The world wasn't made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren't well)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.

I have no philosophy, I have senses.
If I speak of Nature it's not because I know what it is But because I love it, and for that very reason,
Because those who love never know what they love Or why they love, or what love is.

To love is eternal innocence,
And the only innocence is not to think.

8 MARCH 1914


To not think of anything is metaphysics enough.

What do I think of the world?
Who knows what I think of it!
If I weren't well then I'd think about it.

What's my idea about matter?
What's my opinion about causes and effects?
What are my thoughts on God and the soul And the creation of the world?
I don't know. To think about such things would be to shut my eyes And not think. It would be to close the curtains Of my window (which, however, has no curtains).

The mystery of things? What mystery?
The only mystery is that some people think about mystery.
If you're in the sun and close your eyes,
You begin not to know what the sun is,
And you think about various warm things.
But open your eyes and you see the sun,
And you can no longer think about anything,
Because the light of the sun is truer than the thoughts Of all philosophers and all poets.
The light of the sun doesn't know what it does,
And so it cannot err and is common and good.

Metaphysics? What metaphysics do those trees have?
Only that of being green and lush and of having branches Which bear fruit in their season, and we think nothing of it.
We hardly even notice them.
But what better metaphysics than theirs,
Which consists in not knowing why they live And in not knowing that they don't know?

"The inner makeup of things ..."
"The inner meaning of the Universe ..."
All of this is unreal and means absolutely nothing.
It's incredible that anyone can think about such things.
It's like thinking about reasons and objectives When morning is breaking, and on the trunks of the trees A faint glimmer of gold is dissolving the darkness.

To think about the inner meaning of things Is superfluous, like thinking about health Or carrying a glass to a spring.
The only inner meaning of things Is that they have no inner meaning at all.

I don't believe in God because I've never seen him.
If he wanted me to believe in him,
Then surely he'd come and speak with me.
He would enter by my door Saying, "Here I am!"

(This may sound ridiculous to those who, Because they aren't used to looking at things, Can't understand a man who speaks of them In the way that looking at things teaches.)

But if God is the flowers and trees And hills and sun and moon,
Then I believe in him,
I believe in him at every moment,
And my life is all a prayer and a mass And a communion by way of my eyes and ears.

But if God is the flowers and trees And hills and sun and moon,
Then why should I call him God?
I'll call him flowers and trees and hills and sun and moon.
Because if to my eyes he made himself Sun and moon and flowers and trees and hills,
If he appears to me as trees and hills And moon and sun and flowers,
Then he wants me to know him As trees and hills and flowers and moon and sun.

And so I obey him.
(Do I know more about God than God knows about himself?)
I obey him by living spontaneously As a man who opens his eyes and sees,
And I call him moon and sun and flowers and trees and hills,
And I love him without thinking of him,
And I think him by seeing and hearing,
And I am with him at every moment.


I'm a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts And each thought a sensation.
I think with my eyes and my ears And with my hands and feet And with my nose and mouth.

To think a flower is to see and smell it,
And to eat a fruit is to know its meaning.

That is why on a hot day When I enjoy it so much I feel sad,
And I lie down in the grass And close my warm eyes,
Then I feel my whole body lying down in reality,
I know the truth, and I'm happy.


"Hello, keeper of sheep There on the side of the road.
What does the blowing wind say to you?"

"That it's wind and that it blows,
And that it has blown before,
And that it will blow hereafter.
And what does it say to you?"

"Much more than that.
It speaks to me of many other things:
Of memories and nostalgias,
And of things that never were."

"You've never heard the wind blow.
The wind only speaks of the wind.
What you heard was a lie,
And the lie is in you."

I'd rather be the dust of the road And trampled on by the feet of the poor ...


I'd rather be the rivers that flow And have washerwomen along my shore ...

I'd rather be the poplars next to the river With only sky above and the water below ...

I'd rather be the miller's donkey And have him beat me and care for me ...

Rather this than to go through life Always looking back and feeling regret ...


The Tagus is more beautiful than the river that flows through my village,
But the Tagus is not more beautiful than the river that flows through my village Because the Tagus is not the river that flows through my village.

The Tagus has enormous ships,
And for those who see in everything that which isn't there Its waters are still sailed By the memory of the carracks.

The Tagus descends from Spain And crosses Portugal to pour into the sea.
Everyone knows this.
But few know what the river of my village is called And where it goes to And where it comes from.
And so, because it belongs to fewer people,
The river of my village is freer and larger.

The Tagus leads to the world.
Beyond the Tagus there is America And the fortune of those who find it.
No one ever thought about what's beyond The river of my village.

The river of my village doesn't make one think of anything.
Whoever is next to it is simply next to it.


My gaze, blue like the sky,
Is calm like water in the sunlight.
It is blue and calm Because it does not question or marvel too much.

If I questioned and marveled,
New flowers would not sprout in the meadows,
Nor would anything change in the sun to make it more beautiful.

(Even if new flowers sprouted in the meadow And the sun changed to become more beautiful,
I would feel less flowers in the meadow And find the sun less beautiful.
Because everything is what it is, which is how it should be,
And I accept it, and don't even give thanks,
Since that might suggest I think about it.)


What we see of things are the things.
Why would we see one thing when another thing is there?
Why would seeing and hearing be to delude ourselves When seeing and hearing are seeing and hearing?

What matters is to know how to see,
To know how to see without thinking,
To know how to see when seeing And not think when seeing Nor see when thinking.

But this (if only we didn't have a dressed-up heart!) —
This requires deep study,
Lessons in unlearning,
And a retreat into the freedom of that convent Where the stars — say poets — are the eternal nuns And the flowers the contrite believers of just one day,
But where after all the stars are just stars And the flowers just flowers,
Which is why we call them stars and flowers.

13 MARCH 1914


Yesterday afternoon a man from the cities Spoke at the door of the inn.
He spoke to me as well.

He spoke of justice and the struggle for justice,
Of the workers who suffer,
Of their unending drudgery, of those who hunger,
And of the rich who only turn their backs.

And looking at me, he saw tears in my eyes And smiled with satisfaction, convinced that I felt The hatred he felt and the compassion He said he felt.

(But I was scarcely listening to him.
What do I care about people And what they suffer or suppose they suffer?
Let them be like me, and they won't suffer.
All of the world's trouble comes from us fretting over one another,
Whether it be to do good or to do evil.
Our soul and the sky and the earth are all we need.
To want more is to lose this, and to be unhappy.)

What I was thinking about While the friend of the people spoke
(And this moved me to tears)
Was how the distant tinkling of sheep bells As the day began to close
Did not seem like the bells of a tiny chapel Calling to mass the flowers and streams And simple souls like my own.

(I thank God I'm not good But have the natural egoism of flowers And rivers that follow their path Unwittingly preoccupied With only their flowering and their flowing.
That is the only mission in the world:
To exist clearly,
And to do so without thinking about it.)

And the man fell silent, looking at the sunset.
But what good is a sunset to one who hates and loves?


Like a large blot of smudged fire The setting sun lingers in the clouds that remain.
I hear a faint whistle in the distance of the still evening.
It must be a distant train.

In this moment I feel a vague nostalgia Along with a vague and placid desire That comes and goes.

So too, sometimes, on the surface of streams,
There are bubbles of water That appear and then pop.
And they have no meaning But to be bubbles of water That appear and then pop.


Blessed be the same sun of other lands For making all men my brothers Since all men, at some moment in the day, look at it as I do.
And in that pure, limpid,
And sensitive moment They partially return With a sigh they hardly feel To the true and primitive Man Who saw the sun come up and did not yet worship it.
For that is what's natural — more natural Than worshiping the sun, then God,
And then everything else that doesn't exist.


The mystery of things — where is it?
Why doesn't it come out To show us at least that it's mystery?
What do the river and the tree know about it?
And what do I, who am no more than they, know about it?

Whenever I look at things and think about what people think of them,
I laugh like a brook cleanly plashing against a rock.
For the only hidden meaning of things Is that they have no hidden meaning.
It's the strangest thing of all,
Stranger than all poets' dreams And all philosophers' thoughts,
That things are really what they seem to be And there's nothing to understand.

Yes, this is what my senses learned on their own:
Things have no meaning; they exist.
Things are the only hidden meaning of things.


Excerpted from "Fernando Pessoa & Co."
by .
Copyright © 1998 Richard Zenith.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Fernando Pessoa was one of the most gifted poets of the 20th century, a tireless innovator who anticipated and influenced many of the directions modernism would take after his death in 1935. This luminous translation by Richard Zenith, part of the recent and long-overdue surge of interest in Pessoa and his work, comprises the first comprehensive edition in English of the Portuguese master.

Even in his native country, Pessoa spent his life in relative obscurity. Born in Lisbon in 1888, Pessoa was transplanted to South Africa at the age of six; his first poems were written in English. Upon his return at 17, Pessoa rarely strayed from Lisbon, where he was a frequent and solitary drinker in the cafés and taverns of the old quarter. Like Kafka, he eked out a modest income as a clerk, living alone with few friends and virtually no romantic attachments. During his lifetime, Pessoa published only one slim volume in Portuguese, as well as more than 200 poems and 100 pieces of prose in magazines and journals.

This seemingly mediocre existence masked the violent exuberance and radical inventiveness of Pessoa's poetic efforts. After his death, more than 25,000 manuscripts were discovered in a wooden trunk in his rented room.

Pessoa's single most important contribution to modernism began in 1914, when he invented the "heteronyms"— fictitious characters — who were to serve as the ostensible authors of the majority of his future poems. Pessoa was careful to distinguish a heteronym from a pseudonym, for while the latter is merely a false name for an author, the former is an individual in his own right, with a distinct voice, biography, and system of beliefs. Thus were born Alberto Caeiro, a 'noble savage,' unlettered, bucolic, and immersed in his immediate sensations; Ricardo Reis, the middle-aged pagan, monarchist, and present-day Horace who taught school in Brazil; and Alvaro de Campos, the aesthete, an opium-eating explorer of the Orient, engrossed in reflections about his own nature. These were only the most important of the estimated 70 personas to whom Pessoa attributed his writing. Last of all, of course, was the "orthonym" he created: himself. The writings signed by the individual called "Fernando Pessoa," we are told, should be viewed as separate from the man who lived in Lisbon, employed as a clerk. Though the two share much in common, the orthonym is completely inserted into the dimension of the other heteronyms -- this "Pessoa" was deeply inspired by his first meeting with Caeiro, had his work criticized by Campos, and so forth.

These four major heteronyms are here very sensibly organized by Zenith into four distinct segments of the book, which are each in turn arranged in chronological order. This allows the different personas to emerge as fully fledged poetic entities, each with different aesthetics, techniques, and concerns. Where Caeiro possesses a beautiful simplicity and purity in his reflections of nature, Reis is classical and elegant in his considerations of the metaphysical; and while Campos has a fervency and revolutionary urgency resembling both Whitman and Marinetti, "Pessoa" undramatically but with perfect precision probes the uncertainties in his own identity and in the spiritual structure of the universe. It is here, in his orthonym's incisive, subtle examinations of the self, that we gain a glimpse of Pessoa's essential project:

The poet is a faker
Who's so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

And those who read his words
Will feel in what he wrote
Neither of the pains he has
But just the one they don't.

And so around its track
This thing called the heart winds,
A little clockwork train
To entertain our minds.

The poet's pain, the fictive pain he describes, the pain that the readers perceive -- for Pessoa, the world is reflection upon reflection, a labyrinth of mirrors. This labyrinth is the soul itself, or rather, the multiplicity of soul:

"I don't know how many souls I have.
I've changed at every moment.
I always feel like a stranger.
I've never seen or found myself."

Even before postmodernism dissected the unified subject, Pessoa performed the surgery on himself, becoming a host of selves formed out of language:

"That's why I read, as a stranger,
My being as if it were pages
Not knowing what will come
And forgetting what has passed."

Pessoa's sacrifice achieves its purpose: This collection is one of exquisite epiphanic discoveries and dazzling explorations of the inner landscape.

Monica Ferrell

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