Friday, January 27, 2012

Was it worth the effort? - closing with Pessoa's Message

Readers curious about Fernando Pessoa, those who plan to read The Book of Disquiet in the near future, for example, but who have been impatient with all of his poetry or my prose will find Carmela Ciararu’s 4,770 words worthwhile.  That appears to be a chapter from her recent book on pseudonyms.

I think I’ll end this run at Pessoa with a stumper, the only book of Portuguese poems from Pessoa’s lifetime, the 1934 Message.  Edwin Honig and Susan Brown include the entire thing, which only covers 23 pages, in the City Lights Poems of Fernando Pessoa. Plus six pages of notes.  It is the only work of Pessoa’s I have seen that, for a non-Portuguese reader, absolutely demands notes, as Pessoa works his way, stanza by stanza, through the succession of Portuguese kings and explorers.

Although, as I leaf through the poem, it looks less obscure.  Are young’uns in American schools still taught about the Portuguese explorers?  We were back in the old days.  And then all of the stuff about King Sebastian – that’s the Battle of the Three Kings!  And the sea monster is from The Lusiads.  The entire poem is a cryptic Modernist compression of The Lusiads.  Still, some obscurity:

First Part:  Coat of Arms
II.  The Castles
Seventh (II):  Philippa of Lancaster

What enigma was borne in your womb
Which bore only geniuses?
What archangel came on a day
To guard your maternal dreams?

Turn your somber visage toward us,
Princess of the Holy Grail,
Mortal womb of Empire,
Godmother of Portugal!

To the notes:  1359-1415, English wife of King João I (ruled 1385-1433, author of The Book of Hunting), six surviving children “were named The Illustrious Generation by Camões.”  I guess this is helpful.

King Sebastian, mentioned above, was killed in battle in Morocco but subsequently became a Portuguese King Arthur figure, a hero who would come to Portugal’s aid in dark times.  A cult or myth of Sebastianism recurs during difficult periods of Portuguese history, sometimes as political metaphor, and sometimes as something more mystical, which is what gets Pessoa’s attention.  Pessoa, who had a longtime interest in esoterica, climaxes the poem with a mishmash of messianic Sebastianism and Rosicrucian symbols (“On the dead and fateful Cross, \ The Rose of the Hidden One”) and the visions of the Portuguese mystic António Vieira.  Some of Vieira has only recently been brought into English, in a book tantalizingly entitled Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish and Other Texts.

In summary, no, I do not know what I am talking about.

In the middle of all of this sidewise patriotism and mystification is something else entirely:

Portuguese Sea

O sea of salt, how much of all your salt
Contains the tears of Portugal?
So we might sail, how many mothers wept,
How many sons have prayed in vain!
How many girls betrothed remained unwed
That we might possess you, Sea!

Was it worth the effort? Anything’s worth it
If the soul’s not petty.
If you’d sail beyond the Cape
Sail you must past cares, past grief.
God gave perils to the sea and sheer depth,
But mirrored heaven there.

I am tempted by an allegorical reading of the poem, one more personal to Pessoa than Portuguese seafaring, but I will instead abandon my own navigation of Pessoa here.  Until the end of March at least – The Book of Disquiet!


  1. Meaning, schmeaning. Who cares, when

    O sea of salt, how much of all your salt
    Contains the tears of Portugal?


    God gave perils to the sea and sheer depth,
    But mirrored heaven there.

    are so stunning?

    Aside: I'm reading a critical edition of Poe's Pym, in which the footnotes outweigh the text. Having recently read Pale Fire, I have to constantly remind myself that the footnotes do not, in fact, constitute a meta-story of their own. Unless they do, without the knowledge of the editor! My incorrect conviction that there's a metanarrative fascinates me.

    Where was I? Oh, this series on Pessoa has been terrific! Thank you. Disquiet is on my reading list now.

  2. Father António Vieira has finally been translated? That's amazing! His prose is one of the cornerstones of Portuguese literature.

    There's a funny thing about Message: Pessoa doesn't devote a single poem to Camões. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Saramago puts words in the mouth of the statue of Camões in Chiado, just a few meters away from Pessoa's in the logo, calling him envious. It's a lovely passage.

  3. That's how I see it, too. Camões is "behind" Message.

    The Saramago conceit is pretty funny.

    The Vieira collection, which is not very long, is becoming more and more tempting.

    Scott - There is definitely a meta-story in those Poe notes. The relevant question is: is it a good story, or an interesting one, or a story worth pulling out and thinking about. Probably not - but you never know!

  4. The collection seems to include a bit of everything: his best known sermon, letters, and chapters of one of his messianic tomes. For my part, I think he's a gifted prose stylist. And any lover of Bernardo Soares owes himself being at least acquainted with 'Master Vieira'.