SIMON JENNER: PESSOA AS THE GEMINI
The Simon Jenner Page
Simon Jenner responds to John Hooper’s,
‘How a shy poet was spellbound by the Beast:
Lisbon battle to halt auction of literary treasures’,
Observer, 20th July, 2008
Fernando Pessoa (Lisbon, June 13, 1888-Lisbon, November 30th, 1935) is Portugal’s greatest writer (and poet) since Camoens – who died in 1580. That should be, he is the greatest five writers (or even ten) after Camoens, since his especial gift to modernism was a radical extension of the pseudonymous tradition, writing under a mask, or, like Browning’s invention, a persona: Browning’s favourite being psychotic dysfunctionals like the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ or the eponymous love in ‘Porphyra’s Lover’ who strangles her with her own hair to keep her by him. Modernists like Pound took much from him. Pessoa took these two-dimensioned, or even half-rounded selves that emerge in Browning’s book-length The Ring and the Book (1863-9), and created autonomous poets, with complete biographies, literary styles and identities wholly separable, and separate, from his own. The occurrence was instinctive, born from earlier smaller attempts, and was ultimately as psychologically necessary as it was artfully constructed. He felt the birth within him, as he put it, of a school of poets: all wholly individual, corresponding with each other, arguing over their differing styles and literary approaches.
Pessoa was the shy metaphysical; Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915) the Whitmanesque master of facts (‘even stone is too metaphorical’) who died young of TB; Alvaro de Campos (1890-1935?) the vortical modernist trained in Glasgow as a ship engineer; Ricardo Reis (1888-1919) the Epicurean classicist, full of strict measure and looser living.
The fracturing was perhaps one of language: from 1895-1905 Pessoa was educated in Durban by Oxford MAs and started his career as an English poet in the highly-wrought Jacobean style he felt best represented English. Hence his familiarity with English, or Scottish, settings. His only volumes till a year before his death were English juvenilia, noted in the Times where he also made appearances as Thomas Crosse. Earlier there had been Charles Robert Anon, but the longer-lived Alexander Search was the final portal to a return to Portuguese as his genuine mode of literary expression. He corresponded with Harold Munro then editing the Poetry Review (who didn’t really appreciate his crabbed Shakespearean sonnets), the Astrological Society over Bacon’s birth chart, and finally in 1930 with Alistair Crowley, the Great Beast, to correct the Magus on his own horoscope. He even translated his sub-Swinburnian ‘Hymn to Pan’. The Magus was flattered, visited Pessoa in Portugal with a recalcitrant girlfriend, with whom he promptly quarreled and found could just as easily leave him. Together he and Pessoa engineered Crowley’s suicide note, and his disappearance. Then she’d be sorry. Pessoa informed all Lisbon papers and the Times. He claimed to have met Crowley’s ghost. Crowley returned quietly via Spain and popped up at an exhibition of his work in Berlin. They remained friends till Pessoa’s early death.
As for the heteronyms, the joke was deadlier, more darkly creative. Each held a distinct identity; indeed Pessoa in his guise as occultist cast horoscopes for them all, reflecting fragments of his own natal chart as a beginning – de Campos inherited Pessoa’s ascendant as his Sun Sign, with much else, and so on. It was one of the more drastic responses to modernist fracture of the twentieth century. Nearly a century on from this creative self-fragmenting – in June, 1914 – it is also seen as one of the most fruitful bequests to later poets, and increasingly, prose writers. This self-fracturing is intriguingly something Pessoa learnt from his own Sun Sign, the Gemini. Curiously too, it echoes another self-cast Gemini, W. B. Yeats, and has underlined the creation of for instance Geminian poets like Geoffrey Hill (‘The Songbook of Sebastian Arruruz’), Richard Burns (b. 1943) and the Florestan and Eusebius of that most literary of composers, Robert Schumann. There seems a self-conscious tradition that Pessoa pitched to its culmination.
Most, it speaks to other poets. Pessoa’s profile has been recently vaulted from poets to a wide readership on the successful translation (by the great Pessoa translator, Richard Zenith, himself sounding like a Pessoan heteronym) of the unfinishable fragmentary memoir, or set of epigrams and essays on amused despair, that furnish the bass-note of The Book of Disquiet. This, a prose work only unearthed from Pessoa’s vast unpublished trove in 1982, is regarded by many as Pessoa’s masterpiece, though his poetry forms the core of his genius alongside this more accessible manifestation of it. Inevitably Pessoa hired an imagined self to curate the entries, and even fired the first one, deciding like the button-moulder to furnish ‘a mutilated version of myself, without intellect or affectivity.’ This was Bernardo Soares, who like de Campos, was to survive alongside Pessoa till his death. Reading Soares, we might feel we should all possess a lack of intellect like his.
Soares was nevertheless disturbed by the occult symbolism that fascinated Pessoa. Pessoa’s arcane interest wasn’t simply bounded by astrology – though he contemplated setting up as a professional astrologer. In 1916, at the same time as Yeats’s wife started her table-rappings and the next stage of Yeats’s occult and poetic period, Pessoa heard from the Platonist Henry More (1614-1687) in a series of automatic writings whose nature he conveyed to his sympathetic aunt Anica, who seems to have initiated him in several mysteries. Blasted for his masturbation, he was offered the chance to redeem himself by having sex with More’s reincarnated wife (a horoscope too was offered) who, sexually frustrated by More last time round, was the greater masturbator now. Much arcane research was undertaken by Pessoa, who would have been well aware of Yeats’s, a fellow member with Crowley of the Golden Dawn, and similarly expelled, though more politely. Pessoa later held a frustrated girlfriend at bay, who, born a day and twelve years later, seems to have instinctively grasped that to correspond with Pessoa, she had to write to some of his jealous heteronyms care of Pessoa. De Campos kept warning her off Pessoa. They remained friends.
Pessoa was held in admiration by a few of his greatest poetic contemporaries, like the suicidal poet Mario de Sa Carneiro (1890-1916) whose death-pangs from strychnine in Paris Pessoa in Lisbon actually felt before he could have possibly known about them (he’d certainly already had cause to worry for his friend). But his relations with the English-speaking world have been shrouded till recently. Publication of a Selected English Poems (ed. Tony Frazer, Shearsman, 2007) have helped but are not extensively introduced. Understandably, the poetry counts most, but with the English poetry the context foregrounds itself to readers more insistently when it comes to scanning such fascinating juvenilia.
Much could be written about Pessoa’s occult interests – his exploration of the post-Paracelsian spheres that gave rise, for instance to that explosive orchestral modernist masterpiece, Varese’s Arcana of 1927. Pessoa’s interlinking of his literary and symbolist life are elements that challenge the embarrassed academics who can hardly credit, for instance, that the two greatest Irish poets of the 20th century – Yeats and MacNeice – wrote serious astrology books. Much else is, as Pessoa would have wished, hidden from us. It’s difficult to assess how much he wished the initiate to research him, but his essential genius crosses these as it does either his Portuguese or his Jacobean English (not to mention his French heteronyms). But scholars will have to address such understandings if they wish to approach Pessoa’s ferociously private but not forbidding self. He was kind and close to his friends, and his aunt, a life-long friend, was his astrological confidant.
He was of that generation who took astrology from Alan Leo, Theosophy from Annie Besant, and the occult from the kind of places that Satie did. His astrology was remarkably advanced, as has been seen – correcting the Great Beast was a courageous and principled act. His heteronyms led lives not wholly circumvented by what we should see as archetypal charts: the charts respond to the poetry, and visa-versa, but it is a creative interchange.
The only horoscope – a progressed one, not his natal chart – that Pessoa mis-cast, was his own. In the forecast he predicted, at only 47, that he had just another two years to live. The Cirrhosis of the liver then ailing him following his heroic drinking with quiet friends or selves, clearly portended some early death. But one of his friends, another astrologer, noted: ‘I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was out by two years.’ The next week, he wrote in hospital, on November 29th, 1935, in English, his crabbed Jacobean: ‘I know not what tomorrow will bring.’ He was wheeled into the theatre the next day, and wheeled out, as he would put it, an ex-poet. His heteronyms and his poetic persona were not informed. He’d always allowed them posthumous existences after he’d killed off one dear to him like Caeiro, his Master. More poems would be unearthed. Now, as some of his papers go under the hammer to bolster family coffers (much to the disquiet of the whole Portuguese world), Pessoa is still being unearthed. It seems no-one told him he was dead either. He goes on producing work, and Portugal’s greatest writer lives on heteronymically.
Simon Jenner writes for Poetry Review, PNR, The Tablet, Music on the Web and the British Music Society, is the recipient of many awards and bursaries, his collection of poems ‘About Bloody Time’ was published in 2007. He is Director of Survivors’ Poetry, and editor of Waterloo Press (see http://www.waterloopress.co.uk)