It is not uncommon to see art installations constructed of mirrors, as, for example, those by Anish Kapoor and Yayoi Kusama, in which we see ourselves either distorted into grotesque figures or multiplied to infinity. We look with amusement or shock at the appearance in the mirror of the self which is our own and yet an alien who seems strangely disturbing: it is as if a whole new being had detached itself from the person we had thought we were and threatened to vitiate our belief in the inviolate integrity of the self. In another mirrored scene, our reflected self moves in the opposite direction each time we take a step and for a moment we wonder who that person is who’s so bent on avoiding us. Watching this other’s furtive movements, we ascribe an identity to him that is not ours and in that moment invent a fiction of his reality complete with intimate biographical details. And in the street, too, there’s sometimes the feeling that someone mysterious, but strangely familiar, is stalking us and each time we look back we see a figure slip into a shadow. Our lives are crowded with this fictitious multitude of different people rushing out of our interior self as from an underground tube station’s exit gate.

The poet Fernando Pessoa called these projections of the self his ‘heteronyms’, and gave them names — prominent among them Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis for each of whom he invented a separate biography that gave each a unique historical presence, and then wrote the poems that only they, had they existed, and were the real Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis, each drawing on his life experience, could possibly have written. Pessoa composed the three sets of poems as stylistically very different from one another. He could not claim to be the author of the poems thus produced, for unlike a poet who uses a pseudonym to wear a stranger’s mask in order not to show his own face as the author, these three collections were written by men he had invented, his heteronyms, each with a life separate from his own, though each had come into existence by being released from his self: although he wrote the poems, the poems could only have been written by them.

At the same time, Pessoa wrote poems under his own name that were different from any he wrote as the three heteronyms who thereby seemed more convincingly to possess their own individual selves which bore no connection with their maker. The poetry exists, we see the separate streams, each distinct from the others in width and depth, but their single source is hidden under a rock. It amounted to a disappearing trick, a way of being present by being absent. Perhaps this subtle prestidigitation on Pessoa’s part, which is not without a curious epistemological relevance, is why he remains largely hidden from popular consciousness. I’ve made a marginal reference in an earlier essay to his significance; what follows is a more comprehensive evaluation.


The poet whose life coincided with one of the most important periods in the history of European poetry called projections of the self his ‘heteronyms’, and gave them names


Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was born in Lisbon in the same year as T.S. Eliot, and his life coincided with one of the most important periods in the history of European poetry. Pessoa’s contemporaries included T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound — the three foreigners living in London in the early 20th century who transformed English poetry; while on the Continent Vladimir Mayakovsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Antonio Machado, and Federico García Lorca did the same for poetry in Russian, German, French and Spanish. It was a hectically revolutionary time in the arts with a succession of movements — Surrealism, Symbolism, Futurism, etc — driving huge creative waves out of Europe that a hundred years later still compel us, like surf-riders floating in the swelling sea who keep glancing back at the waves rising from the ocean depth, to look for the one wave that could lift us on its crest to an unprecedented height. In those revolutionary years when so much original art was produced, Fernando Pessoa’s poetry was among the finest.

And yet his name is scarcely known even to people with some familiarity with the poets of his time — as if bearing the name Pessoa, which means person, he had been consigned to anonymity at birth. One simple reason for his neglect could be that he wrote in Portuguese, a marginal language in Europe where the literatures of England, France, Germany and Russia dominate. Or it could be the confusing element in his work created by the varying styles of the heteronyms that effects a disconnect with his name. Whereas we can connect Rilke with the Duino Elegies or T.S. Eliot with The Waste Land, there is no similarly singular work associated with Pessoa: one has to know all of him to know any of him, and when one does, he quietly slips away into one of his invented selves.

For the English-language reader, there are three good translations of Pessoa’s poetry: Selected Poems (by Peter Rickard, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1971), Selected Poems by Fernando Pessoa (by Edwin Honig, The Swallow Press, Chicago, 1971), both bilingual editions, and Fernando Pessoa & Co. Selected Poems (by Richard Zenith, Grove Press, New York, 1998).

The Swallow Press edition has a fine introduction by Octavio Paz in which, commenting on Pessoa’s heteronyms, he expresses the insight of many great poets into the mystery of the writer’s self: “We write to be what we are or to be what we aren’t. In either case we are looking for ourselves. And if we are lucky enough to find ourselves — the sign of creation — we’ll discover that we are an unknown person. Always the other, always he, inseparable, alien, having your face and mine, you who are always with me and always alone.”

Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His novels include the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian, and The Murder of Aziz Khan which launched Pakistani fiction in English when first published in London 50 years ago. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.
Zulfikar Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His novels include the trilogy The Incredible Brazilian, and The Murder of Aziz Khan which launched Pakistani fiction in English when first published in London 50 years ago. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.

While each of these three books of Pessoa’s poems can be recommended, the reader looking initially for only one should choose the one by Peter Rickard: his translation is good (if any translation of poetry can be called good), his scholarship impeccable, and his introduction is comprehensive, enlightening and critically sharp. When the same poem is also translated by Honig or Zenith, Rickard’s version reads closer to the original though the other might sound better. The translation of poetry is invariably problematic because what in the original is transmitted as poetry to the inner ear is not the idea stated by the words but the thought communicated by the language, and each language has its own music that is heard as a mystical melody.


Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was born in Lisbon in the same year as T.S. Eliot, and his life coincided with one of the most important periods in the history of European poetry. Pessoa’s contemporaries included T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound — the three foreigners living in London in the early 20th century who transformed English poetry; while on the Continent Vladimir Mayakovsky, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Antonio Machado, and Federico García Lorca did the same for poetry in Russian, German, French and Spanish.


Here is a stanza in Rickard’s translation:

I know not what it was, that was not.
I know it lulled me softly,
As though the very lulling would
Make me once more the one I am.

As an idea in English, the statement is banal; the expression is clumsy; and “lulled” and “lulling” is an awkward choice. But the Portuguese original is sublime.

While the work of the three heteronyms and poems that Pessoa published as written by himself each is in a different style, the four do have an obsessive theme in common — the identity of the self that puzzles us in the meaningless mass we call the world which is but a film of sequential images that we can never be certain is a picture of reality. We are “vain shadows”, writes Álvaro de Campos, nobody needs us, the world will go on without us; “Reality doesn’t need me”, writes Alberto Caeiro; and Ricardo Reis sees “another self” when “the past becomes the present” and adds, “who I am and who I was/Are different dreams”; and, as Rickard says in his introduction, Pessoa himself is tormented by “utter scepticism, the hopelessness which expects nothing from life”.

Looking into the poetry of his other selves, as if he sought among the aliens crowded into his being possibly one whose poetry celebrated life with the sanctimonious fervour of the faithful, Pessoa hears only a variation of his own darkly brooding obsession: there is no answer to questions concerning the mystery of existence, and as Rickard says, Pessoa “can only struggle on, dissipating his thoughts in the complications and contradictions of a mind which feels doomed to absurdity”.

For some readers such pessimistic epistemological obsession may sound unrelentingly negative but the same theme has been a philosophical preoccupation, which frequently leads to a dark conclusion, in much of literature from long before Shakespeare’s King Lear pointed to the mud-encrusted naked Edgar on the tempestuous heath and asked, “Is man no more than this?”, and long after Beckett’s Bom and Pim are seen as in a chain of humanity crawling through a sea of mud, for literature always seems headed for Dante’s hell. A work of art never offers solutions to social problems but even when the vision it presents is the darkest it brings to the mind that experiences it the profound solace of a catharsis which makes the darkness endurable. And that experience, which is released by the writer’s formal organisation of his material, when the language so perfectly illuminates the horror in the heart of that darkness that it comes as a joyful release, is what Pessoa’s poetry has to offer.

As does his famous prose work, The Book of Disquiet (translated by Alfred Mac Adam, Pantheon Books, New York, 1991). In his excellent introduction, Mac Adam compares The Book of Disquiet to memoirs written by Rilke and Siegfried Sassoon to remark that though these works appear to be autobiographical, yet they are fictitious; in some passages, Pessoa’s book appears to be a diary, in others a notebook: it is, Mac Adam states perceptively, “an image or projection of the literary imagination at work”. It can also be compared to Paul Valéry’s delightful Analects, which offers some 600 pages of sheer intellectual pleasure with its range of succinctly expressed epigrams and paragraph-length observations on life and literature, and to W.H. Auden’s ‘Hic et Ille’ chapter in The Dyer’s Hand, which memorably begins with, “Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow”. These are works that one reads a paragraph or two at a time, is amused or charmed or perturbed by the thought expressed therein, leans back and closes one’s eyes in a dreamlike contemplation of the idea which often is so fine that one marks it as a quotation to share with others — as this one from Auden: “My prejudices must be right because, if I knew them to be wrong, I could no longer hold them”.

The Book of Disquiet has more than the variety of ideas that are so memorably expressed by these other writers: there are passages that seem autobiographical but metamorphose into fiction even as we read them, there are observations that a novelist might make of characters Pessoa encounters, ordinary people behind whose quiet demeanour the novelist’s eye observes a passionate intensity, and there are journal entries on days when nothing happens and yet the very recording of the feeling of an inner desolation fills that nothingness with the delusion of meaning, as if to have talked poignantly about nothing is to have talked positively about something.

On some days a routine entry digresses into a thought revelatory of the interior self in an expression that foregrounds a distressing inner darkness in a luminous prose; his entry for Oct 16, 1931, begins, “Yes, it’s the sunset. I reach the beginning of the Rua da Alfândega, adrift, thinking about nothing in particular … ”, and coming to the river Tagus and seeing “the sunlessness of the western sky”, records: “That sky is of a greenish blue turning to ashy white, where, towards the left side above the mountains on the other shore, a chestnut-tone mist the colour of dead roses is hunched over, piling up.” The prospect is one of a “grand peace”, but remarking that peace is what he himself lacks, he then observes that the dissolving of colours in the sky he’s looking at is not an image of peace, “but only sky, sky of all the colours that fade — whitish blue, still bluish green … ” a long series of fading colours which present “a vision that disappears in the same moment it’s experienced, an interval between nothing and nothing”. Heavenly beauty fades into a blank abstraction and again he must endure “the disquiet of being here”, this inescapable place of the soul’s restlessness.

“I don’t know if I exist”, he writes in another passage, and imagines that he “might be a character in a novel”. Well, 53 years later he became one. The great Portuguese novelist José Saramago (1922-2010) created one of the most brilliant literary jokes with his 1984 novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which the main character, Ricardo Reis, is so well formed that he seems to be drawn straight from life and only the reader familiar with Fernando Pessoa’s work would know that Ricardo Reis is one of his heteronyms; the principal protagonist in Saramago’s novel is actually another writer’s invention of one of his other selves, but while he now looks undeniably real it is his maker who definitely is not. The reader is alerted to the literary joke on the opening page of the novel where Saramago prints three short epigraphs, a sentence each expressing an existential thought by three authors who the unknowing reader assumes must be important writers — Fernando Pessoa and two of his heteronyms!

The novel is set in the year after Pessoa’s death, and there is a wonderful early scene in which Reis enters his room to find Pessoa’s ghost sitting there. At one point, Pessoa gets up and happening to look at a mirror, says, “It gives me an odd feeling to look in the mirror and not see myself there”, and then adds, “I know that I am looking at myself, but I see nothing”, whereupon Reis remarks, “Yet you cast a shadow”, and Pessoa replies, “It’s all I possess.” What reads like a playful exchange of witty remarks is in fact a restatement of Pessoa’s idea of the self’s disengagement from one’s being, and the reader of Saramago’s novel is reminded that the desperation to see one’s self as a real presence was expressed, as Ricardo Reis must surely know, by his contemporary Álvaro de Campos, in whose poem, ‘Lisbon Revisited (1926)’, their maker, Fernando Pessoa, made Campos write:

If only I could see myself once more!
The magic mirror shattered where I saw myself unchanged,
And in each fateful fragment I see only a piece of me —

Towards the end of Saramago’s novel, Reis says, “We never really understood each other”, and Pessoa answers, “That was inevitable, since each of us was a multitude of different people” — a jostling crowd of shadows in a crazed stampede crushing the individual self; or it is you, reader, entering an art installation in which the floor is covered with shattered mirrors and with each step you take you trample upon a fragment of yourself and yet can never extinguish a sense of your being because the eye reflected on the next bit of shattered mirror you look at, when you are just about to step on it, is yours.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 29th, 2016