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Pessoa in Durban: The Making of a Poet

Mis à jour : janv. 11

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."

Fernando Pessoa's school report card

He also mentioned that when he left Durban to study at Oxford University, he received a letter from Pessoa, with whom he had remained friends. The letter purported to come from a doctor in Lisbon, but Geerdts was sure it had been written by Pessoa himself. Geerdts had not kept the letter, but Jennings later found a fragment written in French among Pessoa’s many papers, and which he believed to be a draft of that letter to Geerdts.

In this document, Pessoa describes ”the patient P”:

"[the mental life of P.] was not absolutely normal. (...) Again, at seven years P. was showing that reserved character — unchildlike — and a ponderation (not that sensible, completely middle-­class ponderation, but a melancholy and intellectual ponderation), and an astonishing seriousness. He is already isolating himself, he loves to play alone, to read, to write (he learned to do so by himself). He is a solitary, that is quite plain ! And to all this must be added plenty of impulsive anger... plenty of fear. His character can be summarised as — intellectual precocity, prematurely intense imagination, naughtiness, fear, need to be alone. It is miniature neuropathy."

He also comments that:

"Having lived in a land (Natal) far from the corruptive influence of civilization, he had not lost his mental purity; at that time he still kept mentally (as far as I can tell) a perfect virginity of imagination."

This description does perhaps support Simões’s view of Pessoa as a wounded soul, but, more interestingly, it also provides an early example of Pessoa splitting off from ”Pessoa ele mesmo” ("Pessoa himself") and creating another self like himself but not himself.

Pessoa began writing very early on — stories, poems and pastiches. He also created word and logic puzzles that were good enough to be published in the local newspapers and to which we can perhaps trace his “detective” novels — Quaresma, Decifrador — which are really more puzzle than novel. The slightly stilted and old-fashioned English poems he wrote at the time are clearly the work of a young man under the influence of all the many writers he was reading.

Jennings notes João Gaspar Simões’s comment about Pessoa’s ten years in South Africa:

"One thing is certain that in all his work there is not a single word about that remote home – the distant land where he spent nearly ten years..."

Jennings seconds this, noting that, despite Durban’s great natural beauty, there is virtually no mention of this in any of Pessoa’s early writings, almost as if Durban did not exist, as if it were less real than the literary world in which the poet was immersed.

The brief account of Jennings’s own life in Douglas Livingstone’s introduction reminds one of what we consider to be a normal life full of incident and is in marked contrast to Pessoa’s life which is lived almost entirely through poetry, puzzles and fictions.

In Part 2 of Pessoa in Durban, Jennings deals with the many literary influences on Pessoa’s work. The poet was immersed in the work of English-language authors, but dismissed the work of Hugo, Musset and Lamartine as ”constructive monstrosities”, adding that ”The French spirit is the apotheosis of the second rate.” He felt quite differently about the classics. He learned Latin at school in Durban and was particularly drawn to the poems of Horace, an interest that found an outlet in his heteronym Ricardo Reis.

As Jennings writes:

"Ricardo Reis frequently paraphrases not only the wording but sometimes the themes which Horace uses, but adding always his own marked and individual touch."

Pessoa never learned Greek, but had read most of the Greek tragedies and had, for his own amusement, translated into Portuguese some of W.R. Paton’s Greek Anthology. The impression one gets is of a man constantly in search of knowledge, but also someone already in search of other personae.

Citing Octavio Paz’s summation of Pessoa’s work:

“His work is a step towards the unknown. A passion.”

Jennings in turn remarks:

"It was a passion tempered by the Greek spirit of speculation and scepticism: things he had learned in South Africa, when, with fine prescience, he had taken for himself the name of Alexander Search."

The book concludes with a selection of translations by Jennings of poems by Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and Fernando Pessoa himself.

There is also a series of photos of Durban, Durban High School and of Pessoa at the ages of 8, 11, 13, 19, 27, as well as the famous one of him striding along in the Baixa, and the last one taken in 1935.

Pessoa in Durban, 1898, aged 10

In all of them one sees the same wariness, the same withheldness, which may simply be explained as the way people posed for photos long before the age of the beaming selfie. It is hard, though, not to interpret them all as Pessoa-the-façade behind which seethe all those many other lives.

Fernando Pessoa in 1901, age 13

This is particularly true of the last photo, in which he looks cautiously at the photographer and at us or at some point just beyond. He seems to find it almost painful to be seen at all.

Fernando Pessoa ; Last photo, February 1, 1935.

Whatever the roots of Pessoa’s intense introversion — whether it was the early loss of his father, his mother’s remarriage, being transplanted to another culture and another language and another family when only seven years old — what comes across in this brief biography is that even from that very young age he was recognisably Pessoa, trying out different languages and voices and personalities and already creating a personal universe to be peopled with his many alternative selves, a universe existing in parallel to the real world.

Jennings’s thesis was, oddly enough, first published in Portuguese in Portugal under the title Os Dois Exílios, a reference to four painful and enigmatic poems by Pessoa.

The first line of the second of these poems seems to sum up the Pessoa of that last photograph:

"Dói viver, nada sou que valha ser."
"To live hurts, there is nothing worth being."

And yet this is the same man who concluded “Ode Triunfal” (Triumphal Ode) with the words:

"Ah não ser eu toda a gente e toda a parte !"
“Ah if only I could be all people and all places !”

What one takes from this biography is a sense of a man who wanted simultaneously to be no one and to be everyone."


Journal of Pessoa Studies N°8
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