Fernando Pessoa’s A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems

The twin pleasures of my August involved reading the poetry of Portuguese master Fernando Pessoa in tandem with Richard Zenith’s recently released 900-page biography of the poet. Zenith is the scholar-translator Pessoa deserves, an American now living in Portugal who has devoted his life to excavating, studying and translating the forgotten writings of one of the 20th century’s most original voices, and it is to his efforts that we owe this representative selection of verses, taken not only from across the poet’s all-too short life but from each of his famed heteronyms, the distinct characters he created and put in conversation with one another, endowed with birthdays and biographies and varying outlooks on art and politics, enabling him to achieve a poetic range and variety unsurpassed by any other 20th century poet. “I’ve divided all my humanness among the various authors whom I’ve served as literary executor. […] I subsist as a kind of medium of myself, but I’m less real than the others, less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all.” How committed was he to this self-splitting? Pessoa would submit poetry to one journal in the name of one of his heteronyms and then submit reviews of it in the name of another. He created distinct signatures for each of his heteronyms, and on occasion would surprise (and sometimes embarrass) his friends by showing up to a coffee or lunch date not as Fernando Pessoa but as one of the characters he spawned. Pessoa studied English poetry in Durban, South Africa, when it was an outpost of the British Empire, where he very nearly pursued a career as an English poet, and though fate intervened and brought him back to Portugal, his enduring love of British poetry – particularly Shakespeare – left its mark: he knew no higher ambition than to create personality with language, and he wished his readers to think of his heteronyms as Shakespearean characters escaped from the confines of their plays.

The two major consequences of that pursuit were the birth of his heteronyms (Zenith counts over 80, with some much more fully formed than others) and the disappearance or perhaps recession of his own self. He never married, and likely never had sex; his career, such as it was, kept him in perpetual debt, its sole advantage being that it offered him the time, solitude and space he needed to write; and after his years of schooling in Africa, he rarely left Portugal, or indeed his native Lisbon. Zenith:

Pessoa, in a certain way, remained forever on that threshold [of becoming an adult]. Instead of getting down to the practical business of living, he continued to wrestle with theoretical problems and the big questions: the existence of God, the meaning of life and the meaning of death, good vs. evil, reality vs. appearance, the idea (is it just an idea?) of love, the limits of consciousness, and so on. All of which was rich fodder for his poetry, thriving as it did on ideas more than on actual experience.

Like Kafka, Pessoa’s greatest literary triumphs came at the expense of existential failure, and like Kafka he was acutely aware of and sensitive to that failure:

I, what’s truly I, am the center that only exists in the geometry of the abyss: I’m the nothing around which everything spins, existing only so that it can spin, being a center only because every circle has one. I, what’s truly I, am a well without walls but with the walls’ viscosity, the center of everything with nothing around it.


I am overwhelmed by a sarcastic terror of life, a dejection that overflows the bounds of my conscious being. I know that I was never anything but error and mistake, that I never lived, that I existed only in the sense that I filled up time with consciousness and thought. And my sense of myself is that of a person waking up after a sleep full of real dreams, or like someone freed by an earthquake from the feeble light of the prison to which he had become accustomed.

But the loss to Pessoa was amply compensated in the growth of his heteronyms, most prominently Alberto Caeiro (Carneiro in Portuguese is sheep, and carne is meat, so Alberto Caiero is “a sheep without flesh,” an “idealized shepherd” as Zenith calls him), Àlvaro de Campos (de campos is “of the fields”), and Ricardo Reis (reis means kings in Portuguese). Caeiro is a nature’s poet, Pessoa’s homage to nature and the pastoral; in an “interview” given by Caeiro, he offers this bold self-description:

I’m not a materialist or a deist or anyhting else. I’m a man who one day opened the window and discovered this crucial thing: Nature exists. I saw that the trees, the rivers and the stones are things that truly exist. No one had ever thought about this. I don’t pretend to be anything more than the greatest poet in the world. I made the greatest discovery worth making, next to which all other discoveries are games of stupid children. I noticed the Universe. The greeks, with all their visual acuity, didn’t do as much.

Accordingly, Caiero’s poetry is dominated by impressions, by a celebration of sensation (“I have no philosophy, I have senses…”) and a repudiation of philosophy and abstract thought. “To think about God is to disobey God,” begins one poem, “Since God wanted us not to know him, / Which is why he didn’t reveal himself to us …” Here is a representative poem, at once a celebration of the mundane and the universal:

From my village I see as much of the universe as can be seen form the earth,
And so my village is as large as any town,
For I am the size of what I see
And not the size of my height …

In the cities life is smaller
Than here in my house on top of this hill,
The big buildings of cities lock up the view,
They hide the horizon, pulling our gaze far away from the open sky.
They make us small, for they take away all the vastness our eyes can see,
And they make us poor, for our only wealth is seeing.

It was the discovery of Walt Whitman – his exuberance, his self-assurance, and his democratic insistence that his life was fit subject for poetry – that unlocked Alberto Caiero, and in the above poem we glimpse some of those Whitmanian qualities in play. But for Pessoa, trained in the classics, fluent in ancient Greek and Latin, this poet of nature could only ever be a fraction of the whole. His counterpart, almost his poetic opposite, is Ricardo Reis, described by Pessoa as “a Greek Horace writing in Portuguese.” Reis observes the highly technical, strictly metered forms of poetry, in service of classical ideals. Pessoa, again: “Caiero has one discipline: things must be felt as they are. Ricardo Reis has another king of discipline: things must be felt, not only as they are, but also so as to fall in with a certain ideal of classic measure and rule. In Álvaro de Campos things must simply be felt.” If Caiero is Pessoa at as Walt Whitman, championing the ideals of the sensations and the poet who experiences them, Ricardo Reis writes under the banner of the ideal. Here is Reis-Pessoa describing himself and his work:

I was born believing in the gods, I was raised in that belief, and in that belief I will die, loving them. I know what the pagan feeling is. My only regret is that I can’t really explain how utterly and inscrutably different it is from all other feelings. Even our calm and the vague stoicism some of us have bear no resemblance to the calm of antiquity and the stoicism of the Greeks.

Here is a representative Reis poem:

Bearing in mind our likeness with the gods
Let us, for our own good,
See ourselves as exiled deities
In possession of life
By virtue of an ancient authority
Coeval with Jove.

Proud masters over our own selves,
Let’s use existence
Like a villa the gods have given us
To forget the summer.

It’s not worth our while to use in another,
More fretful manner
Our wavering existence, a condemned stream
Of the somber river.

Like the calm, implacable Destiny
That reigns above the gods,
Let’s construct a voluntary fate
Above ourselves,
So that when it oppresses us, it is we
Who’ll be our oppressors.
And when we enter the night, we’ll enter
By our own two feet.

One imagines that of all Pessoa’s verses, the poetry of Ricardo Reis would prove the most difficult to translate, the tight meter and rhymes allowing less margin for creativity, but the above poem succeeds spectacularly, even in English, but the above poem nonetheless gives us insight into the stoicism, metrical regularity and even metaphorical logic of Reis the classicist. To master “our own selves,” to use existence “like a villa the gods have given us / to forget the summer,” is exemplary Stoic thought, but for Pessoa, no one mode of being or thinking could ever suffice.

Seen in this light, the heteronyms become a mode of radical experimentation in self-investigation, an ultra-sophisticated version of children’s imaginative play, allowing Pessoa to embody one ideal at one moment and its antithesis in the next. Unlike his peers, whose fights for identity took place in existence itself, in pursuit of wealth or fame or romance, Pessoa’s quest for self-understanding was a linguistic enterprise. “I have no social or political sentiments,” he writes in The Book Of Disquiet, “and yet there is a way in which I’m highly nationalistic. My nation is the Portuguese language.” Zenith makes the case, in his biography of Pessoa, that the three major heteronyms, taken individually, are the three strongest Portuguese poets – but taken together, he argues, they constitute a distinct nation and Pessoa’s greatest poetic achievement.