The devilish humour of Fernando Pessoa

A famous portrait of Fernando Pessoa by Jose de Almada Negreiros

A famous portrait of Fernando Pessoa by Jose de Almada Negreiros

Anyone who is interested in the Romance languages should at some stage in their lives investigate the works of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Although he is regarded as one of the greatest Portuguese poets – the internationally renowned fado singer Mariza is a great admirer and his poetry has been the base for some of her songs – he received most of his schooling in English in Durban, South Africa, where he lived from the ages of 7 to 17 before returning to Lisbon. He was a prolific writer in both English and Portuguese (and sometimes wrote in French), and apart from his own writing (which he often did using an elaborate form of nom de plume, or heteronym, as he called them) he frequently translated other people’s novels from one language to another. Unfortunately for him, though, not much of his own work was published in his own lifetime, but he left behind a great body of work that is now available in print. For any students of the Portuguese language, this is good news because his English poems have been translated into Portuguese by modern translators, and vice versa, and in Portugal and Brazil at least it is easy to find both language versions of a poem in the one book. For lazy language learners like me, this means you don’t have to constantly turn to the dictionary for help.

Pessoa is regarded as one of the voices of Lisbon, and if you are ever in the Portuguese capital (one of my favourite cities) you must go to the cafe called A Brasileira (The Brazilian) because at one of the tables outside you can sit down alongside Fernando himself – there is a statue of him there (see the picture below). It is a very famous cafe at 120 Rua Garrett in the middle of the old town (near the Largo do Chiado) and you can’t miss it. You can read more about it here.

the cafe

Fernando Pessoa is the chap sitting on the extreme left outside the cafe A Brasileira in Lisbon. He has been waiting a long time for service, haha

On my last trip to Lisbon, I bought Volume II of Fernando Pessoa’s Poesia Inglesa. It must have inspired me more than Volume I. Or more likely it was cheaper, or smaller and lighter to carry on a plane. It is from the series Obras de Fernando Pessoa (The Works of Fernando Pessoa) translated by Luísa Freire, published by Assíro & Alvim. For educational purposes, I shall find a short poem or an extract from one and give the translation.

(Pause while Bernardo skims through Fernando’s poetry.)

I rather like this one: it is a description of one of my favourite regions in Portugal, the arid Alentejo. I like the area for its remoteness and stillness (often you will see just olive trees or cork trees in a field of sunburnt yellow, as per the picture below). Perhaps nowadays the Alentejo is an escape from the hurly-burly of the modern world. But for Pessoa, writing in 1907, it must have seemed far less alluring.

Alentejo field

Alentejo seen from the train

Nothing with nothing around it
And a few trees in between
None of which very clearly green,
Where no river or flower pays a visit.
If there be a hell, I’ve found it,
For if it ain’t here, where the Devil is it?

Alentejo visto do comboio

Nada, tendo nada em seu redor
E, de permeio, algumas árvores somente
Nehuma delas verde claramente,
Onde nada aparece, rio ou flor.
Se acaso há um inferno, ele aqui está,
Pois, se não aqui, onde o Diabo estará?

Some help with the vocabulary:

  • um redor (masculine) is a “circle, circuit, or contour”, but it can also mean environs or surroundings, while ao redor, de redor or em redor mean “round, all around, about or all about”.
  • de permeio means “in the middle of, among or between”. It can also mean “inwardly”.
  • um acaso as a noun means “chance, hazard, fortune, luck or venture”, while acaso by itself as an adverb means “by chance, perhaps or indicentally”; ao acaso means “at random”; por acaso also means “by chance or perchance”.
  • pois is a very useful word to have in your vocabulary. As a conjunction it can mean “because, since, whereas, therefore, as, for, so”; pois bem means “well then”; pois é means “that’s it” either in a factual or exclamatory fashion; pois é isso mesmo! means “that’s just it!” pois não means “of course, certainly”; while pois sim! means an ironical or sarcastic “yeah, sure!”

The Alentejo is not as bad as Pessoa makes it out to be. It is the hottest and driest part of Portugal, to be sure, but it can be quite verdant and it has a splendid coastline (although the waves here are rougher than in the more popular Algarve region), some great historic buildings and castles. Here are some images to give you an idea.

The old frontier fortifications at Marvão, high on a hill looking over into Spain…


The castle at Beja, which historically is one of the most important cities in the district…

Beja - the castle


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