One of Fernando Pessoa’s shortest poems

On New Year’s Eve, 1920, Fernando Pessoa composed one of his shortest and most hermetic poems shortly after the end of the Great War. It is well known that the poet had a solid existentialist tendency toward transcending transcendence through symbolism and even esotericism. As we shall see, in these few verses, he condenses a synthesis of his quest, seemingly unsuccessful, but, in the end, much deeper and more fraught with truth than one might initially think.

Fernando Pessoa's poetry is often imbued with an existentialism that tends toward a search for transcendence that often takes refuge in symbolism and esotericism.

The shortest poem that Fernando Pessoa wrote

We begin by quoting the short text of the poem:

Away from me in me I exist
Outside of who I am
The shadow and movement in which I consist.

Considerations about the verses

From the very first verse, there is a strong tendency toward negative existentialism. That is, almost like Montale, the poet affirms what he is not rather than defining what he is or feels he is. To achieve this, he makes a movement of alienation, of estrangement, which is immediately related to a return to a center with which he identifies.

The juxtaposition of distance and total proximity places being in a non-place where it finds fulfillment. So, there is a motion of spirit that forces negation by evoking remoteness, and immediately, without even the weight of punctuation, we find the affirmation of the in-self, that is, of that uniqueness of human existence that desires no collective term. Like a drop of oil in water, it remains isolated though immersed in a world that does not belong to it.

But how can one exist outside of what one is? An existential concept of crucial importance clarifies the point. Self-realization, the recognition of being as other than the external world, is made possible precisely by the violent clash with the latter. Just as the newborn child who is violently torn from the microcosm that is part of himself, Fernando Pessoa, in this short composition, wants to perform a regression to the prenatal state and redefine what he is without the need to alienate himself in a world that alters and filters all experience.

The last two verses confirm this intention, as the poet encloses in otherness not only the “public” essence but also the shadow, i.e., that emptiness created by one’s figure placed in front of an exterior “Dazzling Sun” of Montalian memory, and any form of dynamism, which can only take place in a shared space, that is, shaped by the multitude that inhabits it. In this sense, there is a sharp contrast between existence and consistency. While the former is experienced as something inherently intimate and inalienable (even though this is psychoanalytically impossible), the latter feeds on appearance and is, in other words, phenomenal.

In saying “I am,” contrary to Descartes‘ claim, man is founded in his uniqueness and total solitude. But, such a state of affairs being impossible, existence must perforce change in consistency, giving way to an “I am with” or “I am concerning…”

Here, then, is the vanishing of all authenticity, of which, if one can keep the memory, mentioned in the first verse, but which, in the very act of writing, dissolves as the eyes that read the words traced on the paper cannot help but realize that they see what one is not and thus create once again that tension that drives one’s “spiritual” nature, stretched toward the search for an absolute transcendence, indefinitely far from the existential one, anchored in the world of otherness, which makes man what he is as a social being and what he is not as a being-in-itself.

Short biographical note on Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa, a famous Portuguese writer and poet, was a literary genius known for his unique style and profound ideas. Born in Lisbon in 1888, Pessoa is famous for his concept of heteronyms, creating distinct literary characters with their style and beliefs. This innovative approach allowed him to explore different themes and emotions in his works, making him one of the most influential figures in modernist literature.

Portrait of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa painted by Almada Negreiros.
Portrait of Fernando Pessoa painted by painter Almada Negreiros (1893-1970).

Pessoa’s poetic output is vast and varied, encompassing many themes, including existentialism, individualism, and the nature of reality. His writing style is characterized by its reflective nature, philosophical depth, and intricate use of language, which often defies traditional literary conventions.

Throughout his life, Pessoa grappled with questions about identity, existence, and the meaning of life, recurring themes in his poetry. His works continue to inspire readers and writers worldwide, cementing his legacy as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century.

For insights into the poetics of Fernando Pessoa.

Poems of Fernando Pessoa
  • Fernando Pessoa is Portugal’s most important contemporary poet
  • He wrote under several identities, which he called heteronyms: Albet Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and Bernardo Soares
  • He wrote fine poetry under his own name as well, and each of his “voices” is completely different in subject, temperament and style
  • This volume brings back into print the comprehensive collection of his work published by Ecco Press in 1986
  • "At last, at last, at last, Pessoa again! More Pessoa! One of the very great poets of the twentieth century, again and more! And one of the fascinating figures of all literature, with his manifold identities, his amazing audacities, his brilliance and his shyness
A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems
  • The largest and richest English-language volume of poetry from “the greatest twentieth-century writer you have never heard of” (Los Angeles Times)   Edited, Translated, and with an Introduction by Richard Zenith, the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Pessoa: A Biography
  • A Penguin Classic
  • Writing obsessively in French, English, and Portuguese, poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) left a prodigious body of work, much of it credited to three “heteronyms”―Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos―alter egos with startlingly different styles, points of view, and biographies
  • Offering a unique sampling of his most famous voices, this collection features Pessoa’s major, best-known works and several stunning poems that have come to light only in this century, including his long, highly autobiographical swan song
  • Featuring a rich body of work that has never before been translated into English, this is the finest introduction available to the stunning breadth of Pessoa’s genius
The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition
  • The Book of DisquietThe Book of Disquiet Leggi di più

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