The mysterious masterpiece of Portugal’s great modernist.
If ever there was a writer in flight from his name, it was Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa is the Portuguese word for “person,” and there is nothing he less wanted to be. Again and again, in both poetry and prose, Pessoa denied that he existed as any kind of distinctive individual. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he writes in one poem. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me. . . . That’s me. Period.”
In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say.”
Filed under Reminder, Study
Arthur Hugh Clough‘s long poem Amours de Voyage is about failure, misreading and cowardice in love. Julian Barnes salutes Matthew Arnold’s overshadowed friend.
One hundred and sixty years ago today, on 18 April 1849, a 30-year-old English poet wrote to his mother from Rome. British writers had been coming here on a regular basis for a century and more. In 1818 Shelley found its monuments “sublime”. The following year the city “delighted” Byron: “it beats Greece – Constantinople – every thing – at least that I have ever seen.” And in 1845 Dickens arrived, later telling his biographer John Forster that he had been “moved and overcome” by the Colosseum as by no other sight in his life, “except perhaps by the first contemplation of the Falls of Niagara.”
The young English poet was in good spirits, and happier than at any previous time in his adult life. The great early crisis of his life – one mixing religious belief and employment, and causing him to resign his fellowship at Oxford – had passed; a post at University College London, awaited him in the autumn. He was a classicist as well as a poet, and so we might expect Rome to produce the effect it had on his many literary predecessors. But neither the city of the ancient Romans nor the city of the modern Popes impressed him. He wrote to his mother: “St Peter’s disappoints me: the stone of which it is made is a poor plastery material; and, indeed, Rome in general might be called a rubbishy place; the Roman antiquities in general seem to me only interesting as antiquities, and not for any beauty … The weather has not been very brilliant.”
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A final reminder that on September 27 we will be reading and discussing Great Narrative Poetry of the Victorian era.