FERNANDO PESSOA POETRY AND the meaning of life

Fernando Pessoa - 1888-1935 - is one of the greatest and most representative poets of the twentieth century. Poems such as Tobacco Kiosk are sublime and major examples of human poetic genius. 

But Pessoa's poems are also major examples of existentialist philosophy. Much of the poetry of Pessoa is also philosophy glosing on the meaning of life.

To understand life, to give it a purpose or to refuse it depends deeply on our feelings, perhaps more than on our reason. And Pessoa's poetry is an example of it. Philosophical profundity is, in the case of Pessoa, intimately connected to beauty, to art, to the ability of the writer to touch our souls, our astonishment, or his ability to open new horizons of awareness.

Tabacaria (Tobacco Kiosk, translated below) is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary poems of the twentieth century. It’s a hallmark, very typical of Pessoa’s poetry, with its philosophical and pessimistic perspective, and a constant questioning of the meaning of life.

TOBACCO KIOSK 

I am nothing 
I shall always be nothing
I cannot wish to be anything. 
Aside from that, I have within me all the dreams of the world.

Windows of my room, 
The room of one of the world's millions nobody knows about 
(And if they knew about me, what would they know?) 
Open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people, 
To a street inaccessible to any thought, 
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain, 
With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings, 
With death making the walls damp and men's hair white, 
With the Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.

Today I am defeated, as if I knew the truth. 
Today I am clear-minded, as if I were about to die 
And had no more kinship with things 
Than a goodbye, this building and this side of the street becoming
A long row of train carriages, and a whistle departing
From inside my head, 
And a jolt of my nerves and a creak of bones as we go.

Today I am bewildered, as one who wondered and discovered and forgot. 
Today I am divided between the loyalty I owe 
To the outward reality of the Tobacco Kiosk of the other side of the street 
And to the inward real feeling that everything is but a dream.
I have missed everything.
And since I had no aims, maybe everything was indeed nothing.

What I was taught, 
I go down from the window at the back of the house. 
I went to the countryside with grand plans, 
But all I found in it was grass and trees, 
And when there were people, they were just like other people
I step back from the window and sit in a chair. What should I think about now?

 (…)
I have dreamed more than Napoleon did.
I have held against the hypothetical heart more humanities than Christ.
I have secretly created philosophies no Kant has ever written.
But I am, and perhaps always should be, the one from the attic
Although I don't live in it;
I shall always be someone not born for this;
I shall always be the one who just had qualities;
I shall always be the one who has waited for a gate to open next a wall without a door
And sang the song of the infinite in a poultry-yard,
And heard God's voice in a blocked-up well.
Believe in myself? No, not in me and not in nothing.
May Nature be dissolved on my feverish head
Her sun, her rain, the wind that ruffles my hair,
And the rest, let it come if it must, it doesn't matter.
Hearts in thrall to the stars,
We have conquered the whole world before leaving our beds.
But we were awakened and it was opaque,
We rose and he was strange to us
We left the house and it was the whole world,
And also the Solar System, the Milky Way and the Indefinite...

(Eat your chocolates, little one!
Eat chocolates!
Know there are no metaphysics in the world but chocolates.
Know that all the faiths don't teach more than confectionery.
Eat, dirty one, eat!
If only I could eat chocolates with the same veracity you do!
But I think, and when I lift the silver paper of a leaf of tin-foil
I let everything fall to the ground, as I have done to my life.)

(…)
Musical essence of my useless verses, 
If only I could face you as something I had created 
Instead of always facing the Tobacco Kiosk across the street, 
Forcing underfoot the consciousness of existing, 
Like a carpet a drunkard stumbles on
Or a straw mat stolen by gypsies and  worth nothing.

But the Tobacco Kiosk owner has come to the door and is standing there. 
I look at him with the discomfort of an half-turned head 
And the discomfort of an half-grasping soul. 
He shall die and I shall die. 
He shall leave his signboard and I shall leave my poems. 
His sign will die, and so will my poems. 
And soon the street where the sign is, will die too, 
And so will the language in which my poems are written. 
And so will the whirling planet where all of this happened. 
On other satellites of other systems something like people 
Will go on making something like poems and living under things like signboards, 
Always one thing facing the other, 
Always one thing as useless as the other, 
Always the impossible as stupid as reality, 
Always the mystery of the bottom as powerful as the mysterious dream of the top. 
Always this or always some other thing, or neither one nor the other.

 But a man has entered the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?), 
And plausible reality suddenly hits me. 
I half rouse myself, energetic, convinced, human,
And I will try to write these verses in which I say the opposite.

I light a cigarette as I think about writing them, 
And in that cigarette I savour liberation from all thoughts. 
I follow the smoke as if it were my personal itinerary
And enjoy, in a sensitive and capable moment 
The liberation of all the speculations 
With the conscience that metaphysics is a consequence of not feeling well.

Afterwards I throw myself on the chair 
And continue smoking. 
As long as Destiny allows, I will keep smoking.

(If I married my washwoman's daughter 
Maybe I should be happy.) 
Upon that, I rise. And I go to the window.

The man has come out of the Tobacco Kiosk (putting change in his trousers?). 
Ah, I know him: he is Esteves without metaphysics. 
(The Tobacco Kiosk owner has come to the door.) 
As if by a divine instinct, Esteves turned around and saw me. 
He waved hello, I greet him "Hello there, Esteves!", and the universe 
Reconstructed itself for me, without ideal or hope, and the owner of the Tobacco Kiosk smiled.

Fernando Pessoa, Portuguese poet, 1888-1935

 

 

 

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