SELECTED ENGLISH POEMS
by Fernando Pessoa
When you discover Fernando Pessoa you don't walk into a new room of poetry, but into another wing. Hop over to another planet. More than any other human, he lived life solely in his poems, his life a shell for the literary movement that was himself. Pessoa is the extreme example of what may be the essentially modern kind of poet: the objective introvert.
In fact, Pessoa was a poet who refused to be himself. He was a poet of mirrors, of the overlapping layers of consciousness, of the many facets of identity that refuse to be unified under one rubric. Self, in Pessoa, was always in tension with Other. As translator Edwin Honig commented, "The other contains the various fragments of an 'I' that the poet tries to mask and reveal at the same time." The masks Pessoa employed are his "heteronyms" (his term), a system of alternative identities that go beyond mere pseudonyms.
There was Alberto Caeiro, the pastoral visionary; Alvaro de Campos, the Futurist; Ricardo Reis, the refined classicist; and finally Fernando Pessoa himself, the Symbolist. Each of these four personae had his own poetic style, his own view of the universe, even his own height, birthplace, and in some cases, his own date and time of death. (A fifth identity was Bernardo Soares, a bookkeeper who only wrote prose.) Like a consummate actor, Pessoa commented, "To pretend is to know thyself." Each of his heteronyms had a seemingly authentic voice and life.
Thus Pessoa found within himself multiple voices, multiple identities: "I am a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness," he wrote. What his exploration unearthed cannot simply be reduced into one man, one poetry, or one philosophy. A poetic oeuvre springs forth that is novelistic, for Pessoa conceived his poets like characters in a novel. It is also a play -- both the actor and the performance. The journey enabled the poet to become all-inclusive, omniscient. He put down the pen and examined his own mind, and through self-scrutiny discovered the universal.
Pessoa's poems are major examples of existentialist philosophy. Much of the poetry of Pessoa is also philosophy. To understand life, to give it a meaning or to refuse it depends deeply on our feelings, perhaps more than on our reason. And Pessoa's poetry is an example of it. Philosophical profundity is, in the case of Pessoa, intimately connected to beauty, to art, to the ability of the writer to touch our souls, our astonishment, or his ability to open new horizons of awareness.
Standing at the dawn of the twentieth century, Pessoa crawled inward to discover the complicated forces operating in modern man. "To feel is to create," he wrote. "To feel is to think without ideas, and therefore, feeling is understanding, given that the universe has no ideas... Feeling opens the doors of the prison in which thought locks the soul." To read Pessoa is to delve into a world where the maxim, the desire to express the truth, is the only rule.