Fernando Pessoa’s life, on a passing observation, conforms rather neatly to the formal demands of the classical Brexit elegy, a form that seemed old even before the referendum shook things up like ‘the comet of a regicide / Lighting up with Awe and Fanfare the usual / Clear skies of everyday Civilisation.’ Such an elegy might run: Brought up in Durban, South Africa, he began writing poems in English, and even after he had committed himself to producing his longest and most notable works in Portuguese, he continued writing and publishing in English until his dying day. Spanning two great national verse traditions, he may be considered as a true European and a forerunner of the globalised, cosmopolitan citizenry of today. Alas! Now that the British isles have slipped their moorings and are drifting rudderlessly away from the calm water of the continental shores, out into the mid-Atlantic beneath a dark and lowering sky, shall we ever see his like again? You know the sort of thing I mean; there’s a whole newspaper dedicated to the stuff.
The first task of the critic, however, is to recover lived complexities from simple narratives, and few poets are more complex than Fernando Pessoa. Like Whitman but more so, he contained in himself multitudes. A group biography would be needed to capture the complexity of his invented characters, the heteronyms under whose names he wrote his poems, each influenced by the others at different points in their lives, in different ways, each full of their individual projects. Fernando Pessoa is like a mighty river, tumbling from the unknown spring of true selfhood in the distant and undiscovered mountains of the real, and dividing into innumerable rivers, streams, brooks, rills and rivulets: a fountainhead of harmonious and discordant voices. Of the three most important of these rivers, Alberto Caeiro is a calm, deep, lucid stream flowing gently through a pastoral landscape towards a diffuse and accepting sea. Ricardo Reis is another limpid river of clarity that flows by the foothills of Parnassus and drinks rich libations from the halls of Ancient Rome. Alvaro de Campos is a stream of altogether different character—a swift, restless, impetuous, turbulent river of many strange currents and eddies. Parts of the stream roll past the mills and factories, driving pistons and flywheels and transmission belts and dynamos, contributing its restless energy to the great drive and rush of modernity; other parts, infested with the most ruthless of pirates and robbers, run red with the blood of innocents and revel in sweet liquor from smashed cases of rum. One heteronym dismisses all discussion of change or revolution with the line: ‘If things were different, they’d be different: that’s all’; another, claiming to be ‘Pessoa—himself’ writes poems investing Portuguese history with symbolist mysticism and receives an award from the National Office of Propaganda; another, in the course the hilarious, horrible, marvellous 'Maritime Ode' produces something like Robert Louis Stevenson crossed with the Marquis de Sade.
How, from this babel of voices, could one ever drag a settled proposition, a firm opinion, out into the light of day? What would Pessoa have thought of Brexit? Perhaps he would have ignored it entirely, but I rather like to think he would have found heteronyms to argue both sides of the question. The referendum sorely lacked the presence of someone like him, who could have brought the brilliancy, the energy and the serenity of art to the grey, bad-tempered slog of the campaign.
O factories, O laboratories, O music halls, O amusement parks,
O battleships, O bridges, O floating docks—
In my restless, ardent mind
I possess you like a beautiful woman,
I completely possess you like a beautiful woman who isn't loved
But who fascinates the man who happens to meet her.
Hey-ya facades of big stores!
Hey-ya elevators of tall buildings!
Hey-ya major cabinet reshufflings!
Policy decisions, parliaments, budget officers,
Trumped up budgets!
(A budget is as natural as a tree
And a parliament as beautiful as a butterly.)
There were presumably some people who enjoyed the referendum. People with a particular love for bulldogs in Union Jack hats, perhaps, or those who thrill to a cogent economic argument or an abstract critique of sovereignty. However, compared to the Scottish referendum, which provoked a wave of activism, music, poetry and several really good parties, it was distinctly uninspired. Fewer than ten percent of those voting Remain did so because of a strong attachment to the EU, its history and its culture, while the Leave party offered nothing more inspiring than the Churchillian clichés of the tabloids. The nadir of the thing, from an artistic standpoint, was that deeply embarrassing post-campaign moment where PJ Harvey recited one of John Donne’s prose meditations at a music festival and every media outlet insisted on calling it a poem. We poets deserved better.
This year, we have all felt the strain of constantly speaking the language of the lesser evil. In a campaign too often framed as a choice between two such evils: between the isolationism, xenophobia and impending financial ruin projected by Project Fear and the vast bureaucratic vampire currently sucking the life from Greece, the futurist energy of ‘Triumphal Ode’ gives us a glimpse of how Pessoa might have launched a poetic defence of the European Union. Writing as de Campos enables Pessoa to ironise the tone of quasi-futurist fervour without detracting from its unrushing momentum. Rather than surveying modernity from some lofty eminence and passing his measured judgment, de Campos throws himself willingly into the heart of the engine.
Productive European hours, wedged
Between machines and practical matters!
Big cities pausing for a moment in cafés,
In cafés, those oases of useless chatter
Where the sounds and gestures of the Useful
Crystallize and precipitate,
And with them the wheels, cogwheels and ball bearings of Progress!
New soulless Minerva of wharfs and train stations!
New enthusiasms commensurate with the Moment!
Iron plated keels smiling on docksides,
Or raised out of the water, on harbor slipways!
International, transatlantic, Canadian Pacific activity!
How pleasant then, to imagine what he might have said of the European Union, with its multiple parliaments and councils like a kaleidoscope of butterflies, the cars, trains and bicycles speeding freely over borders beaten out by war and blood, the Euromyths of wrongly-curved bananas, the impossible task of standardising the ten thousand wild pulses of growth and industry to a regular beat, and the nearly invisible achievement of a seventy-year Westphalian peace.
Excerpts from Pessoa’s poem appears with permission from the translator, Richard Zenith.