May 12, 2000

1. Tagore

I mentioned in last month’s issue that Rabindranath Tagore, Indian poet, won the Nobel Prize in 1913, and is still popular in India today. I recently received e-mail from a Phlit subscriber in India, Amrit Hallan, who wrote,

“Tagore is a revered figure in India, especially in West Bengal, and his book Gitanjali is almost considered as a religious piece. There is a whole branch of music called ‘Robindro Songeet’ which in Bengali means ‘the music of Rabindranath Tagore.’ Mostly his religious poems are sung. He has an ‘ashram’ somewhere in West Bengal by the name of ‘Shantiniketan.’ Ketan means an abode and Shanti means peace. The Bengalis take him as a saint and pray in front of his statues.”

This is consistent with what we find in the introduction to Gitanjali, written in 1912 by the Irish poet Yeats. Yeats quotes an Indian friend: “‘We have other poets, but none that are his equal; we call this the epoch of Rabindranath. No poet seems to me as famous in Europe as he is among us. He is as great in music as in poetry, and his songs are sung from the west of India into Burma wherever Bengali is spoken. A little while ago he was to read divine service in one of our churches... it was the largest in Calcutta and not only was it crowded, people even standing in the windows, but the streets were all but impassable because of the people.’ He then told me [this is Yeats speaking] of Mr. Tagore’s family and how for generations great men have come out of its cradles.”

I’ve now finished Tagore’s Gitanjali, and I think that the best poems are the poems about death, which are near the end of the book. It isn’t surprising that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying, had a special interest in Tagore. I’d like to quote one of Tagore’s poems on death, but I can’t decide which one to quote, so I’ll quote two. Here’s the first:

On the day when death will knock at thy door what wilt thou offer to him?

Oh, I will set before my guest the full vessel of my life — I will never let him go with empty hands.

All the sweet vintage of all my autumn days and summer nights, all the earnings and gleanings of my busy life will I place before him at the close of my days when death will knock at my door.

Has any writer ever celebrated death as Tagore does? In one poem, he writes, “because I love this life, I know I shall love death as well.” When he thinks of death, his attitude toward life changes:

I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.

Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains.

When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks and I see by the light of death thy world with its careless treasures. Rare is its lowliest seat, rare is its meanest of lives.

Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got — let them pass. Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked.

2. Lorca

Besides being a gifted writer, Tagore was also a gifted musician and painter. Thus, Tagore reminds me of the Spanish writer, Federico García Lorca. I haven’t read Lorca’s work, and I didn’t even know his name until two days ago, when I heard it from Edwin Honig, a poet and translator who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. This is what I’ve been able to learn so far about Lorca:

As a young man, Lorca was best-known for his musical talents, and as he grew older, his drawings were sometimes exhibited, but now his fame rests on his literary works, his poems and plays. Lorca is one of the major figures in 20th-century poetry, but his work isn’t well-known in the U.S., perhaps because poetry is so difficult to translate.


Some languages — English, French, etc. — seem to be old and tired, producing little poetry, and less poetic drama. When one looks at Lorca’s work, one is struck by how much energy and vigor, how much music, is still in the Spanish language; Lorca wrote not only poetry, but also poetic drama. Tagore’s language (Bengali) also seems to have a musical energy that isn’t found in English, French, etc.; Tagore’s songs were sung by all classes of people. As Yeats’ Indian friend said, “No poet seems to me as famous in Europe as [Tagore] is among us.”

Maybe it isn’t the language that becomes old and tired, maybe it’s the soul that becomes old and tired. The creative energy of the Spanish soul is evident not only in poetry (Lorca) but also in philosophy (Ortega) and visual art (Picasso). In the 20th century, when the heart of Europe seemed weak and weary, the periphery of Europe seemed to still possess creative energy: Spain’s contribution to modern culture is considerable, Ireland’s contribution to modern culture, especially literature, is also considerable, and the writers of Central and Eastern Europe, such as Kundera and Solzhenitsyn, seem to have a power not found in the old centers of European civilization.

Pardon this digression; I return to Federico García Lorca. In 1919, at the age of 21, Lorca entered the University of Madrid. Though he published almost nothing, he gained a wide reputation through his public readings. “Verse is made to be recited,” Lorca said; “in a book it is dead.” When he was 24, Lorca collaborated with the composer Manuel de Falla, writing Gypsy Ballads and other works.

At the age of 30, Lorca was internationally famous, but displeased with “the myth of my gypsy-hood.” Suffering from an emotional crisis, he sought relief in America and Cuba. The trip inspired a book of poems called Poet in New York, which expressed Lorca’s horror at modern, urban civilization.

Like Goethe, Lorca had a passion for puppets since his childhood days, and when he was 33, Lorca wrote two puppet plays. But even these puppet plays were overcast with melancholy.

At 34, Lorca founded a drama troupe, and during the next three years, his troupe performed classical Spanish drama (Lope de Vega, Calderón, Cervantes, etc.) for all classes of the Spanish population. (When one reads about puppets, plays and poetry readings, one is struck anew at how different things were before the advent of tv, movies, etc.)

At 35, having learned from his stage experience, Lorca wrote a dramatic trilogy, which is perhaps his best-known work. He also wrote an elegy for a dead friend, a bullfighter who had been gored:

At five in the afternoon.
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone
at five in the afternoon.

A las cinco de la tarde.
Eran las cinco en punto de la tarde.
Un niño trajo la blanca sábana
a las cinco de la tarde.
Una espuerta de cal ya prevenida
a las cinco de la tarde.
Lo demás era muerte y sólo muerte
a las cinco de la tarde.

When Lorca was 38, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Lorca was shot by the Nationalists, fulfilling the premonition of violent death that is found in his works.

3. Pessoa

A year or so ago, I received e-mail from a woman in Sicily, Gabriella Alu', who mentioned the Portuguese poet Pessoa among the best writers of the 20th century. At that time, I had never heard the name Pessoa. Recently, I decided to learn something about Pessoa. I discovered that one of the chief English-language Pessoa translators is Edwin Honig, the Providence poet whom I mentioned earlier. Honig was knighted by the Portuguese government for his work on Pessoa, and knighted by the Spanish government for his work on Lorca.

When Pessoa died in 1935, at the age of 47, he left behind about 25,000 manuscripts. Pessoa frequented the cafés and restaurants of Lisbon, and jotted down poems and journal entries on a scrap of paper, or on the back of a menu. When he returned home, he stuffed these barely-legible scraps in a drawer, and eventually they totaled about 25,000. Much of Pessoa’s work is fragmentary, incomplete.

Pessoa spent part of his childhood in South Africa, where he learned English. A significant part of his literary output is in English, and some of his works were published in English magazines. Pessoa’s knowledge of English enabled him to earn a living in Lisbon as a writer and translator of business letters. Pessoa was known in Portuguese literary circles, and helped to found several literary journals. He was interested in the occult, translated some works on occult matters into Portuguese, practiced astrology, and corresponded with Aleister Crowley, a prominent witch.

Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa had a rich imagination, and he created several imaginary characters or “heteronyms,” furnishing them not only with biographies but also with literary works. Much of Pessoa’s work is written under the name of one of his various heteronyms.

Pessoa’s prose works contain some impressive philosophical passages. For example:

“Since the second half of the eighteenth century, a terrible, progressive illness has fallen on our civilization.... The horror of action, which has to be vile in a vile society, sullied our spirit. The soul’s higher activity sickened; only its lower activity, because it was more vital, did not decay; with the other inert, it assumed control over the world.... [One thinks of Yeats’ lines, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”] The only recourse for souls born to command was abstention. Souls born to create in a society where creative forces failed had as the only plastic world at their disposal the social world of their dreams, the introspective sterility of the soul itself.... The ruin of aristocratic influence created an atmosphere of brutality and indifference to the arts.... The ruin of classical ideals made everyone into potential artists — bad artists.”1

Pessoa’s political views remind one of Nietzsche’s. “Pessoa described himself [says Wikipedia] as conservative within the British tradition. He was an outspoken elitist and aligned himself against communism, socialism, fascism and Catholicism.”

There are many striking passages in Pessoa’s works. Though you may not find the content of his work attractive, Pessoa grabs your attention with his style. You know you’re in the presence of a great literary talent. Like most great literary talents, Pessoa was completely immersed in literature; “my destiny,” he wrote to a secretary named Ophelia, “belongs to another law whose existence you do not even sense.”2

Pessoa is not cheerful or affirmative; one often hears a note of despair in Pessoa’s work. If one reads a chronology of his life, one finds “1933: experiences severe depression.” Pessoa’s life was loveless and lonely; he never married. He said that he belonged to a generation that had “lost all respect for the past and all belief or hope in the future.... Our fathers still had the believing impulse, which they transferred from Christianity to other forms of illusion. Some were champions of social equality, others were wholly enamored of beauty, still others had faith in science and its achievements.... We lost all of this.”3 Pessoa’s depression had psychological roots as well as historical roots; his father died when he was only five, and surely this event contributed to Pessoa’s psychological problems.

Pessoa believed that art should not be connected to life, but rather should be artificial, should replace life. Pessoa lived this ideal; one Pessoa scholar described him as “relentlessly detached from physical life.”4 This attitude seems far removed from Zen, but one of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro, has been described as a Zennish writer because of his love of nature, his receptivity to sensation, and his preoccupation with the object. That Pessoa could create such a figure is a testament to his genius.

According to Wikipedia, Pessoa “states his confidence that Portugal would soon produce a great poet — a super-Camões — pledged to make an important contribution for European culture, and indeed, for humanity.” Likewise, Joyce predicted (if I remember correctly) that Ireland would soon produce a major imaginative writer. Did Pessoa think that he himself was the great poet, the super-Camões? Joyce probably did think that he himself was the great imaginative writer.

Pessoa died on November 30, 1935. The day before his death, Pessoa wrote ominously, in English, “I know not what tomorrow will bring.”

From Adam Kirsch’s NewYorker article on Pessoa:

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. The Book of Disquiet, translated by Alfred Mac Adam, #470

When Pessoa speaks of “abstention,” “the horror of action,” and being “inert,” I’m reminded of Melville’s remark that “God’s true princes of the Empire [avoid] the world’s hustings.” Melville says, “the highest honors that this air can give” go to those who have an “infinite inferiority to the choice hidden handful of the Divine Inert.” On the other hand, those who obtain these highest honors have an “undoubted superiority over the dead level of the mass.”(Moby Dick, Ch. 33) back

2. The Keeper of Sheep, translated by Edwin Honig, Introduction back
3. Richard Zenith, Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems, Introduction back
4. ibid back