Pessoa in Durban: The Making of a Poet

Dernière mise à jour : 11 janv. 2021

Pessoa in Durban: the making of a poet

by Margaret Jull Costa

"The author of "Fernando Pessoa in Durban", Hubert Jennings, was born in England in 1896, joined the army at 16, was wounded in the 2nd Battle of Ypres, sent home, but returned to France where he was wounded again and lost an eye. Invalided out of the army, he went to study at Aberystwyth University, qualified as a teacher and moved to South Africa in 1923, where he joined the teaching staff at Durban High School.

On his retirement, he was commissioned to write the history of Durban High, whose former students included Roy Campbell and Fernando Pessoa. Jennings had never previously heard of Pessoa, but became particularly interested in him after reading a letter written by Roy Campbell to a mutual friend and in which Campbell wrote:

”I have just discovered that Fernando Pessoa, the finest poet in any language in this century, also went to Durban High School.”

Jennings then went on to learn Portuguese, spent time in Lisbon doing further research, and was awarded an MA from Aberystwyth University at the age of 80.

His MA thesis forms the basis for his biography of the Portuguese poet, charting the nine years that Pessoa spent in Durban, South Africa, and providing an insight into the young Pessoa and his early and enduring fascination with language and literature.

Fernando Pessoa's house in Durban

Pessoa arrived in Durban in 1896, when he was seven. His widowed mother had remarried, and his stepfather was the Portuguese consul.

Jennings disputes João Gaspar Simões’s theory that Pessoa’s whole introverted personality was shaped by the trauma of losing his father when he was only 5, being uprooted from Lisbon and transplanted to Durban, and, in a sense, ‘losing’ his mother to her new husband and new siblings.

Jennings provides evidence that the stepfather was very kind and welcoming, and that Pessoa was very fond of his siblings, who recall him telling them stories and making up puzzles for them.

Fernando Pessoa and his family in Durban

His family visited Portugal between 1901 and 1902, but little is known of that period.

On his return, Pessoa enrolled at the Commercial School, where he won first prize for an essay on Macaulay (whose work lacks genius, he said, because Macaulay was too sane !) and spent his spare time reading and writing voluminously.

His reading diary for June 1903 includes such writers as Byron, Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, Espronceda, Molière, Voltaire, Shelley, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Aristotle. Pessoa was clearly not an average student.

A fellow pupil described him as:

"A shy and likeable boy, of pleasant character, extremely intelligent, intent on speaking and writing English in the most academical form possible."

When that same pupil, a Mr Ormond, was told that his former schoolfellow was now considered to be a great Portuguese poet, he commented:

"Although I was very young at the time, I remember feeling that no matter what came of it he was a genius... he was then a lively fellow, happy, good‑humoured and of attractive appearance: I felt myself attracted to him as a piece of iron is attracted to a magnet."

Another pupil, Mr Geerdts, described Pessoa thus:

"He was regarded as a brilliant clever boy ... although younger than his schoolfellows of the same class, he appeared to have no difficulty in keeping up with and surpassing them in work. For one of his age, he thought much and deeply ... he took no part in athletic sports of any kind and I think his spare time was spent on reading."