Florencia Brino Reviews Fernando Pessoa’s A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems

pessoa A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, by Fernando Pessoa. (Penguin, 2006)

…I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Álvaro de Campos, “The Tobacco Shop”

On June 13, 1888, a whole new world was born. It was created out of words, beauty and sorrow, and it was inhabited by numerous souls coexisting in one complex body. Light as air, fragile as bones. That body started doubting about his own existence. He, the one that distrusted thinking and preferred feeling above all things, could not stop thinking, like the rest of us simple mortals that wish to put our brains on hold to enjoy the sight of the world. Despite any doubt, we all know his presence was too real, too strong, bigger than a planet, a little larger than the entire universe.

That man was Fernando Pessoa, who was born under that last name as if he had already something to achieve, for Pessoa means “person”, and he have split himself into a multitude of heteronyms to convey the vastness that laid inside of him. A universe of literature and feelings was waiting to be awoken. The rich range of literature that the young Pessoa absorbed and the French symbolists he admired gave form to the brilliant writer we know today. Nonetheless, we should also thank Walt Whitman, since he embodied the most powerful force that made it possible for Pessoa to create four of the greatest poets of the 20th century: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos and Fernando Pessoa-himself.

Certainly, Pessoa created the four poets aforementioned, but he endowed them with a time and place of birth, diverse thoughts, passion, different views on the world; ultimately, with existence. So it is only fair to speak about them as if they were real writers. Pessoa’s mind might have been a common source for them, however, they alienated themselves. They took their own place in the world by force. The force of their art and the willing to live.


The first thing we find inside this book is Zenith’s remarkable “Introduction: The Birth of a Nation”. There, he skillfully describes Pessoa’s most relevant life events and the process of his creations. He did not write a cold biography that merely enumerates certain events in someone’s life. With a rich vocabulary, a clear style and the mesmerizing excerpts he intertwines with his own words, he created a true work of art. Be sure to not skip it.


Alberto Caeiro or The Primacy of Reality

Caeiro, born on April 16, 1889, personified the poet of Nature. He, the creator of The Keeper of Sheep, always said he wanted to see things as they are, without the interference of his brain. Without preconceptions. Without prejudices. Only the appreciation for what it really was. He did not consider himself as a materialist nor a deist: just a man that one fine day discovered that Nature existed.  Caeiro, the collector of facts. Facts he embellished with the art of the words. He thought he could detachedly describe Nature.

…I know I understand Nature on the outside,
And I don’t understand it on the inside,
Because Nature has no inside.
If it did, it wouldn’t be Nature. (31)

That he could dissipate the cloud of sentiment and portray only what his eyes were willing to see. Apparently, he could and, ironically, he made poetry out of that.

I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it,
Because to think is to not understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it…

To love is eternal innocence,
And the only innocence is not to think… (11)

By denying the possibility of thought, he released himself from the torture of expectations. Of anxiety. And doubts. He saw how the world was being handed to him and he accepted it (I accept because it’s my nature to accept; 64), without questioning. This suppression of the mind might have led him to happiness.

…Seeing nothing but my thoughts…
I would grow sad and remain in the dark.
The way I am, without thinking, I have the Earth and the Sky. (36)

We will never know, of course. We have to rely on what he wrote… It does sound great in theory. Uncertainties are the rotten apple in someone’s inner life. They are born in the mind and quickly reach the soul, creating a void that seems unstoppable.

I’m a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And each thought a sensation.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.

Then I feel my whole body lying down in reality,
I know the truth, and I’m happy. (23)

I have said it was only fair to treat these poets as real people. Since I am human and, therefore, a walking contradiction, I have to say this: Caeiro is a very complex creation by Pessoa. And as much as I enjoy his poetry, I do not believe most of it. Only an invention can live without thinking. Or a charlatan claiming he can. Even so, I sure find his poetry mesmerizing.

May this be my life, now and always:
The day bright with sunshine, or gentle with rain,
Or stormy as if the world were ending,
The evening gentle and my eyes attentive
To the people passing by my window,
With my last friendly gaze going to the peaceful trees,
And then, window shut and the lamp lit,
Without reading or sleeping and thinking of nothing,
To feel life flowing through me like a river between its banks,
And outside a great silence like a god who is sleeping. (46)

I can quote a million poems, even though I do not fully believe him. I believe De Campos, and quote Caeiro.  Coherent. Anyway, like I said, I can only rely on what Caeiro wrote. I will never know the truth. He expressed that idea in the most beautiful way possible.

If, after I die, someone wants to write my biography,
There’s nothing simpler. It has just two dates—the day I was born and the day I died.
Between the two, all the days are mine. (61)


Ricardo Reis or The Serene Acceptance of Fate 

Born in 1887, this physician and classicist continued Caeiro’s vision on the world but in a more measured way. An incurable pagan, he accepted the world as it was and expressed that acceptance through the traditional style of his art. A quiet, modest and structured art.

16 June 1914
…The sun of the Parthenon and Acropolis
Which lit up the slow and weighty steps
of Aristotle speaking. But Epicurus speaks more
To my heart with his caressing, earthly voice;
His attitude toward the gods is of a fellow god,
Serene and seeing life
At the distance where it lies. (86)

He did not want extremes. He had no desires but the absence of desires.

9 July 1930
…wanting little,
A man has everything. Wanting nothing,
He’s free. Not having and not desiring,
He’s equal, though man, to the Gods. (129)

He did not like conflict and he probably never had any since he serenely chose to accept fate. He accepted everything—and he encouraged us to do the same—even though he disliked changes, as he openly manifested in several poems. He seemed to actually enjoy the silent murderer that is the routine of life.

9 October 1916
…Anything whatsoever that changes
The smooth course of my existence,
Though it change it for something better,
Because it means change,
I hate and don’t want. May the gods
Allow my life to be a continuous,
Perfectly flat plain, running
To where it ends.
Though I never taste glory and never
Receive love or due respect from others,
It will suffice that life be only life
And that I live it. (102)

It is so beautifully put and yet I struggled with the idea. Some of Reis’ poems express simple ideas that my egocentrism could not understand. Who am I to judge if someone loves a dull and plain existence?

Reis’ writing lacks the spirited style of Caeiro’s poetry. However, it is remarkably evocative. There is so much beauty in his rationalization.  There is a poem called “The Chess Players”. Chess always serves as a marvelous parallelism between us and life itself (it immediately reminded me of Zweig’s short story). The language that Reis was capable of creating is simply exquisite.

…Glory weighs like an overlarge burden
And fame like a fever,
Love wearies, for it ardently searches,
Science never finds,
And life grieves, for it knows it is passing…
The game of chess
Completely absorbs one’s heart but weighs little
When lost, for it’s nothing. (99)

Rhythm and structures. Forms and rules. Acceptance of life. Melancholy caused by change. That is Reis, the king of the conflicting verse.

2 March 1933
Each day you didn’t enjoy wasn’t yours:
You just got through it. Whatever you live
Without enjoying, you don’t live.
You don’t have to love or drink or smile.
The sun’s reflection in a puddle of water
is enough, if it pleases you.
Happy those who, placing their delight
In slight things, are never deprived
Of each day’s natural fortune. (134)


Alvaro de Campos or The Unstoppable Desire of Everything and Nothing 

It’s not with the eyes but with the soul that I see; it’s not with the ears but with the soul that I hear;
it’s not with the skin but with the soul that I touch.
And if someone should ask me what the soul is, I’ll answer that it’s me. (146)

Born in 1890. Lover of machines. Enemy of progress. Pursuer of freedom. Admirer of solitude. Pessoa’s playful, sometimes scathing critic.  De Campos was madness. He was intensity, ecstasy, imbalance. The love and hatred for modern civilization. He was the violent desire of breaking loose; the passionate longing for sensations. He was the furious imagination that craved for something new. New people, new places. The frenetic  explosion  of self.  Everything can be clearly seen in his “Maritime Ode”:

Ah, to depart! By whatever means and to whatever place!
To set out across the waves, across unknown perils, across the sea! (173)

To take off…
My peaceful life, 
My seated, static, orderly and repetitive life! (175)

Ah, pirates! Pirates!
The yearning for lawlessness coupled with brutality,
the yearning for absolutely cruel and abominable things,…
Beat and humiliate me! 

Make me into something that’s dragged
—O pleasure, O beloved pain!—
As if behind horses whipped by you…
But all this at sea, at se-e-e-ea, at SE-E-E-E-EA! (184)

I have seen what is inside of him. And some of what I have seen should never leave that dark nook of his soul.

As much as De Campos wanted to contain the world (Whitman’s presence is unquestionable, there is even a poem called “Salutation to Walt Whitman”: I salute you, Walt, I salute you, my Universal brother/Forever modern and eternal, the singer of concrete absolutes…), we distinguish two different sides of him. After the part kept inside of him loudly asked to be freed, to see the world, the part he inevitably showed to the world—the part that mildly asked to be noticed while yearning for solitude—brought calm and a sense of relief. Relief for myself, since I know now that not everything is an hysterically desire of satisfying his instinctual self.  The same poem portrays it perfectly.

An inexplicable feeling of tenderness, 
a tearful and heartfelt remorse…
Ah, how could I think or dream those things?
How far I am from what I was a few minutes ago! (187)

De Campos embodied desire, in all forms. He expected too much. He wanted too much. Having such a strong, almost stubborn desire of experiencing everything, can lead to nothing more than despair. And ultimately, uncertainty. A sense of loss. The lack of meaning that haunts every mortal.  The poet wanted to feel all the sensations of the world while being on the never-ending quest for identity. He did not know who he was; he did not know what he wanted.

Salutation to Walt Whitman
I’m exhausted from being so many things.
The latecomers are finally arriving,
And I suddenly get sick of waiting, of existing, of being.

It’s good to feel, if for no other reason, so as to stop feeling. (215)

Delightful contradictions from the man that a couple of pages ago wanted to meet the whole world.

Lisbon Revisited (1923)
Don’t grab me by the arm!
I don’t like my arm being grabbed. I want to be alone,
I already told you that I can only be alone!
I’m sick of you wanting me to be sociable! (216)

He who does not know himself at all, has to settle with wanting everything. And most of the times, he achieves nothing.

Lisbon Revisited (1926)
Nothing holds me.
I want fifty things at the same time.
I long with meat-craving anxiety
For I don’t know what—
Definitely something indefinite… (218)


Fernando Pessoa-himself or The Analyst of Being 

Another side of the real Pessoa. The sum of different aspects of the three poets analyzed before. However, this review has reached the longitude of The Great Wall of China without even noticing, so I will control my enthusiasm. (That was a lie; I cannot control anything.)

Melancholy, despair; elements that are often present in FP-himself’s poetry. Just like the themes of dreams and creativity, which characterizes the real Pessoa’s works.  Seeker of the truth. The analyst of humanity. The intellectual side of sentiments. Lord of disquiet. We see a man expressing his feelings through a poetic melody that runs aimlessly all over the world. The one thing he had to channelize his emotions and purge himself from whatever was troubling him.  I wonder if he ever succeeded.

Some Ramdon Verses
…What matters is that nothing matter
Anymore… Whether Fate
Hangs over us or quietly and obscurely
Lurks in the distance
Is all the same… Here’s the moment…
Let’s be it… What good is thinking? (286)

Four poets deal with similar topics from their own perspectives. Each one of them has a unique personality and style. They do the best they can with the little they have.

The haunting past is usually trying to make its way into the life, approaching with firm steps. Calm but steady. Nostalgia is heavy. Ruthless. It can wear us out in a day. FP-himself cannot escape from that, either.

from Songbook
…You are to me like a dream—
In my soul your ringing is distant.
With every one of your clangs
Resounding across the sky,
I feel the past farther away,
I feel nostalgia close by. (274)

Nonetheless, the worst side of nostalgia is the one caused by something that have never existed. Only time can heal the frustrating wounds of missing what we never had.

There is an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness in FP-himself’s verses. You inevitably feel empathy with his afflicted soul. I am well acquainted with the desire of breaking the patterns of loneliness while embracing the safe place that solitude provides.

Diary in the Shade

Don’t you still sense in my sad and calm face
The sad child who always played far away from the others
And sometimes looked at them with sad eyes but without regret?
I know you’re watching and don’t understand what sadness is
That makes me look sad.
It isn’t regret or nostalgia, disappointment or resentment.
No… It’s the sadness…
The incurable sadness
Of one who realizes that everything’s pointless, worthless,
That effort is an absurd waste,
And that life is a void,
Since disillusion always follows on the heels of illusion
And Death seems to be the meaning of Life… (288)

Beautiful verses, and that kind of life is intolerable. So. Here we are. Caeiro, Reis, De Campos, Himself. I have met them all. I am in the same place, inside the same body that cages the same restless soul that quietly longs for something different.  I am in the same place and yet, I feel like I lived a little more. By meeting one person I have met the entire universe. Fernando Pessoa or the intellectual dissection of the soul.