“My nation is the Portuguese language,” Fernando Pessoa famously wrote in The Book of Disquiet, to stress that his nationalism was not geographical or political but linguistic and literary. Pessoa loved language, and especially his mother tongue. But he also had a second “nation” – the English language, and his ambition as a young man was to become a great poet in the same linguistic tradition as Shakespeare. This was only natural, since almost all of the aspiring writer’s schooling was in English.
Born in Lisbon in 1888, Pessoa lost his father when he was five years old. His mother’s second husband was Portugal’s consul in Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa lived from age seven to seventeen. Although new to the English language, young Fernando soon stood out among his classmates for his verbal skills. The headmaster at Durban High School pushed his students hard, but Pessoa did not really need pushing. A shy type and not fond of sports, he enjoyed studying and was a voracious reader, especially of Shakespeare, Milton, the English Romantic poets (Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth), Edgar Allan Poe, and Thomas Carlyle for prose. He also read in French and was an excellent student of Latin.
Since Pessoa’s poetic models were predominantly English, it was in this language that he penned his first poems. The oldest one to survive, ‘Separated from thee’, was written shortly before his thirteenth birthday. Virtually all the poetry Pessoa wrote in Durban was in English, and he signed most of his verses with the name of Charles Robert Anon, the first of his literary alter egos with a substantial output. Pessoa’s full-fledged “heteronyms” – for whom he invented biographies and distinct literary styles – burst onto the scene in 1914, and in Portuguese, but his two most important pre-heteronyms expressed themselves in English. Charles Robert (or “C.R.”) Anon, who signed letters and poems sent to Durban’s main newspaper, was followed by the even more prolific Alexander Search, supposed author of almost two hundred poems.
Search emerged a year or so after Pessoa returned to Lisbon, in 1905, to study for a degree in Letters. Bored or impatient with the course, which he eventually ditched without having earned any credits, Pessoa preferred to devote his energies to his own reading and writing. He invented other pre-heteronyms, including a Frenchman, Jean Seul, but his poetic production continued to be almost exclusively in English. When he was thirteen, the family had made a year-long trip to Portugal, where the budding writer composed a number of poems in Portuguese (one of which was published in a Lisbon newspaper), demonstrating a considerable mastery of various poetic forms such as the sonnet, but it was not until late 1908 – three years after returning to his homeland for good – that he went back to writing verses in his native tongue.
In the 1910s Pessoa flourished as a Portuguese poet, whether writing in his own name or in those of his heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. But he still nurtured the dream of gaining renown for his poems in English. Throughout the decade he assiduously wrote poetry in both languages. Shakespeare, his literary idol, was the writer he strove to emulate and, if possible, surpass. What so impressed Pessoa was not only the quality of Shakespeare’s work but the specific capacity of the Elizabethan poet and playwright to forge personalities. Long before Harold Bloom brilliantly argued that Shakespeare invented us – insofar as he gave vivid dramatic form to previously hazy zones of the human psyche – Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet referred to the bard as a “creator of world consciousness”. Pessoa defined himself not as a poet but more essentially as a dramatist, or dramatic poet, and he often compared himself to Shakespeare, saying that his heteronyms were like Hamlets, with the difference that he wrote no play for them to act in.
According to Pessoa, his life was the stage on which Álvaro de Campos and the rest of the heteronymic company spontaneously expressed themselves – and himself. It was as if he had put his entire self into his invented others and then set them free. This extreme form of depersonalisation, described as a “drama divided into people instead of into acts”, was the poet’s most profound attempt at one-upmanship over Shakespeare. The sonnets he wrote in English were a more obvious, less successful attempt.
Pessoa told a friend that his English sonnets aspired to reproduce Shakespeare’s “complexity” in a “modern adaptation”. In a certain way he succeeded. Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are all about love, whereas Pessoa’s sonnets address a wide range of themes, particularly philosophical ones: appearance vs. reality, the impossibility of truly knowing others or ourselves, the tyranny of time and destiny, and the inscrutable mystery of existence. Though these themes are not especially modern, Pessoa’s treatment of them in the sonnet form was arguably innovative. In terms of complexity, there is no question that his English sonnets – with their hyphenated compound words, their antitheses, paradoxes and somewhat tortured syntax – are at least as complex as Shakespeare’s. But are they good poetry?
Pessoa self-published his 35 Sonnets in 1918 and sent a copy to the Times Literary Supplement, which printed a review noting that they had worthwhile things to say and employed “ultra-Shakespearian Shakespearianisms” to say them. The review was basically favorable, and Pessoa may have taken some satisfaction in his “ultra-Shakespearian” achievement. It was a fatally flawed achievement, however. In Shakespeare the linguistic difficulties of the sonnets grow out of the difficult concepts and feelings he so trenchantly traces in his world of love, which entails the whole world of human emotions. In the 35 Sonnets there are two planes – what is being said and the words used to say it – that mirror each other and interact; they do not form an organic whole.
Whether in the sonnets or in the many other poems he wrote in English, Pessoa was held back by his knowledge of a language that – odd as it may sound – was too poetic. In South Africa the great future writer did not have many friends, and at home he spoke Portuguese. His was a marvellously proficient but bookish, literary English. It was not organic, not alive, like his mother tongue. However hard Pessoa tried, his poetry in English could not connect to the womb. It is full of striking moments, however, and takes up the same themes that fascinate us in his Portuguese verses. This is a case in which translated poetry – when the translator is as competent as August Willemsen – stands a good chance of improving on and illuminating the original.