Fernando Pessoa: The Greatest Poet You Never Read…

Fernando Pessoa

I am nothing.
I shall always be nothing.
I can only want to be nothing.
Apart from this, I have in me all the dreams in the world.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguesepoet of modern times. He remains criminally underapreciated in English speaking countries, due to the relative unpopularity of translated literary works – nevermind of poetry!

But to discover Pessoa is to discover a completely new world, full of existential angst, dreams, despair and some truly fascinating thoughts.

He actually wrote poems under four different names, in completely different styles. According to Pessoa, each of these different authors were not really himself, but fully-fledged individuals with their own personality – he called them “heteronyms” rather than “pseudonyms”. For him, these were not “false” names, but simply “other” names, authors who wrote things Pessoa himself could never write. He was, it’s fair to say, a bit of a weird individual!

One of Fernando Pessoa’s friends was none other than Aleister Crowley, the infamous mystic and occcultist who wrote The Book Of Law. In 1930, when Crowley visited him in Portugal, Pessoa helped the magus to fake his own suicide, which included a suicide note left at a rock formation called the Mouth of Hell. Fernando Pessoa went as far as telling the press he’d seen Aleister Crowley’s ghost the day after his supposed suicide. Meanwhile, Crowley was in Spain enjoying the media scandal his prank generated.

This was an unlikely, flamboyant moment in Pessoa’s life, an author who was very shy and whowent unrecognised in hislifetime.

When the Lisbon poet died, in 1935, he left a trunk with over 27000 unpublishedworks, written by 86 different heteronyms.

Pessoa’s poetry took on many forms, but his bestworks are perhaps the ones soaked in melancholia andresignation. He understood life wasn’t all it was supposed to be, filled with impossible, crushing solitude.

His landmark poem was Tobacco Shop, which starts with the lines that opened this article. It continues:

“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?)/ You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people/ Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain/ With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings/ With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white”

Tobacco Shop is an epic, sprawling poem, inspired   by the poet’s realisation  that dreams don’t come true, and he’ll never be all he wants to be be. That everything will eventually die: including the tobacco shop he’s visited, the street where it stands, and also his own poems and, finally, the language they were written. And one day, even the planet will die.

But is it all for nothing? To Pessoa, it’s the fleeting sensations, the small  pleasures, that will offer a relief: 

“And in that cigarette I Savour a freedom from all  thoughts/ I follow the smoke as if it were my own trail/ And enjoy, for a sensitive and adequate moment/ The liberation from all speculation”


Allen Ginsberg reading Fernando Pessoa’s Tobacco Shop: