Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Real and metaphysical gibberish in the age of the rubber stamp - Pessoa's great "Maritime Ode"

“Tobacco Shop,” from 1928, is an example of mature Campos, or mature Pessoa.  Post-Boom Pessoa.  The Boom was the invention, in 1914, of Alberto Caeiro and the writing of the poems The Keeper of Sheep, and the creation of the Campos and Reis heteronyms and the accompanying poems, especially two long Whitman-inspired poems by Campos, “Maritime Ode” and “Salutation to Walt Whitman.”

Along with the Caeiro poems, Pessoa’s blending of Whitman into his own thought is his most impressive achievement.  By impressive, I mean ambitious, or of large scope.  Pessoa wrote plenty of interesting short poems, and another impressive long one before he died.  I have barely brushed against “Maritime Ode,” and do not plan to interpret it today, so much as to poke at it.

Campos is “Alone, on the deserted dock,” looking “out toward Indefinitude” (?), watching a little steamer approach.  “Maritime Ode” is explicitly a descendant of Whitman’s great seashore poems.  Pessoa has made Campos a naval engineer by trade, perhaps only because he wanted the writer of this poem to have a direct connection with seafaring.  He asks “all you seafaring things” to

Give me metaphors, images, literature,
Because in actual fact, seriously, literally,
My sensations are a ship with its keel in the wind,
My imagination a half-sunken anchor,
My anxiety a broken oar,
And the weave of my nerves a net to dry on the beach.

“[I]n me a flywheel starts spinning lightly,” and the poet launches into an elaborate nautical visionary fantasy, much of which involves pirates (“The Pirate Chief!  King of the pirates! \ I pillage, I kill, I tear, I cut everything up!”).  Some of this is pretty ridiculous, but the violence and crime becomes more cruel and less cartoonish, until the poet makes a surprising masochistic flip and becomes the willing victim of the violence of the pirates.  “Subdue me like a dog you kick to death!” etc. etc.  It goes on for a while.  I cannot remember a Whitman poem that works itself into such a frenzy, that shrieks like “Maritime Ode.”

The intensity and pain are, fortunately, unsustainable; the flywheel slows, and Campos drops out of the vision:

Ah, how could I have thought and dreamt of such things?
How removed I am now from what I was a few minutes ago!
The hysteria of one’s sensations – first one thing, then the opposite!

The poem continues placidly, even gently, with a visit to a childhood aunt, some marveling at naval machinery and shipping.  This is “the age of the rubber stamp,” which does not sound so poetic, but Campos insists, with Whitman’s example behind him, that “Poetry hasn’t lost out a bit!”  The poet ends the poem still open to all sensations: “God knows what emotion” might be inspired by a “slow-moving crane” or the glitter of sunlight on the Lisbon buildings.

I have not even gotten to the “real and metaphysical gibberish” – now this is the poet for me! – of “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” which is punchier line for line – “Maritime Ode” is 34 pages in the Honig and Brown collection, “Salutation” nine pages, “Tobacco Shop” six.  Richard Zenith’s book omits both “Maritime Ode” and “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” possibly because they are ably translated elsewhere.  The two collections work well together.  Taking a run at Pessoa without sampling “Maritime Ode” would be a shame.


  1. I guess "Maritime Ode" and "Salutation to Walt Whitman" will be my reading for this evening if I can pry them out of the library. Fascinating - how Pessoa's obsession with Whitman's "multitudes" meshes with Portuguese melancholy and the "deterior[ation] and decompos[ition]" of the "I" as explicitly suggested at the end of The Maias.

  2. Good - entirely worth the time. Big, rich poems.

    I wonder if the "marginal" status of Portuguese culture at the time, its dominance by French and English forces, feeds into that feeling of unstable or multiple identity.

    Obviously, much of what Pessoa is doing is personal, but I think you are right to see some glimmer of the idea in other, quite different, writers.

  3. Both Eça and Pessoa were some sort of misfits, I'd say. Intellectually, they owed a lot to the anglo saxon culture which was something rather rare in itself - most influences, artistic and political were rather french oriented until very recently. Well, French influence shows in Eça but his idea of civilizational progress was rather english, I think.

    It's of marginal interest, obviously, but I find it rather amusing that Pessoa thought Eça was provincial - which is precisely the opposite view of everybody else. In that paradoxical way Pessoa tends to reason, Eça was provincial because he had absorbed and been exposed to foreign culture and values. This meant he wished that Portugal were more like the "modern" countries which is the mark of a true provincial character. Pessoa, according to himself, was not provincial because he lived perfectly well anywhere since cosmopolitanism is a personal quality rather than a result of the surroundings.

    Once I heard Lobo Antunes saying he had no respect for Pessoa because a man who died a virgin couldn't have much to say about life.

    I'm sure when Lobo Antunes is dead some other writer will claim that his PTSD colored his world in too many shades of gray and his view of life is to be discarded also.

    And so the Portuguese writers posthumous quarreling will go on.

    Anyway, excuse me for the rambling but your blog posts have been a great excuse to rethink some things that have been gathering dust, filed away in some drawer in my brain - many of them since high school. How can you *really* understand Maias at 16?

  4. Claudia, what a rich comment! Full of amazing things. That Lobo Antunes dig at Pessoa is wild, and so wrong, but revealing about Lobo Antunes. Just as Pessoa's thoughts on Eça tell us a lot about Pessoa, but not much about Eça.

    How can you *really* understand Maias at 16?

    Yes, how much would I have gotten from it at 16? 10%? Now I get about 30%, I would guess, which is big progress. When I re-read it, I hope to get 50%.