It is not easy to write about the great poet Fernando Pessoa. Even if we weight every syllable, our words are still too heavy to describe his graceful prose and sublime rhyme. So, perhaps we should stick to the facts.
Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. His father, a journalist, died when he was young. His mother remarried and moved to Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa received a British education.
After returning to Lisbon in 1905, Pessoa earned a modest living making translations and writing business letters. He published poems, essays and literary criticism, but remained unknown during his lifetime.
Many of his poems were written in coffee shops, at Brasileira in Chiado or in Terreiro do Passo’s Martinho da Arcada. He wrote under different identities, each with its own personality and distinctive style. Some say that Pessoa and his four major pen names, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and Bernardo Soares are the five finest Portuguese poets.
Pessoa died in 1935, at age 47, one year after publishing his first major book, The Message. He left a literary treasure trove: a trunk full of poetry and prose, including The Book of Disquiet, which, published in 1982, created a new wave of interest in the poet.
Reading Pessoa can change your life, at least that’s what happened to the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi. A chance encounter with Pessoa’s poem “A Tabacaria” (The Tobacco Shop) made him fall in love with the poet’s work and with the language and culture of Portugal.
Here are the first lines of “A Tabacaria” translated by Richard Zenith. Read them at your own peril.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.”