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Sunday, 2 January 2011

Fernando Pessoa: Inscriptions (from English Poems)


We pass and dream. Earth smiles. Virtue is rare.
Age, duty, gods weigh on our conscious bliss.
Hope for the best and for the worst prepare.
The sum of purposed wisdom speaks in this.

I conquered. Far barbarians hear my name.
Men were dice in my game,
But to my throw myself did lesser come:
I threw dice, Fate the sum.

Some were as loved loved, some as prizes prized.
A natural wife to the fed man my mate,
I was sufficient to whom I sufficed.
I moved, slept, bore and aged without a fate.

I put by pleasure Iike an alien bowl.
Stern, separate, mine, I looked towards where gods seem.
From behind me the common shadow stole.
Dreaming that I slept not, I slept my dream.

Life lived us, not we life. We, as bees sip,
Looked, talked and had. Trees grow as we did last.
We loved the gods but as we see a ship.
Never aware of being aware, we passed.

The work is done. The hammer is laid down.
The artisans, that built the slow-grown town,
Have been succeeded by those who still built.
All this is something lack-of-something screening.
The thought whole has no meaning
But lies by Time's wall like a pitcher spilt.

This covers me, that erst had the blue sky.
This soil treads me, that once I trod. My hand
Put these inscriptions here, half knowing why;
Last, and hence seeing all, of the passing band.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935): Inscriptions, 1920, from English Poems, Lisbon, 1921


Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Gorgeous, Pessoa. Thank you, Tom.

tpw said...

Great poem. Thanks.

manik sharma said...

i bow to this..thank you

TC said...

Thanks Don, Terry, Manik.

Pessoa's early (and very good) English poems are consistent with his later work in their invention of a fictive voice and persona. Here the speaker echoes the epigrams of the Greek anthology, adopting a cool, distanced "classical voice", in composing what would seem to be ancient Roman or Greek tomb inscriptions.

(As is perhaps obvious, the fictional archaic context prompted the selection of images from Eric Fischl's Rome series.)

I had intended to post the complete Inscriptions, with titles and covers and end pages, in facsimile, but the high-res jpg files of these were simply too simply too big for our weak little old computer (which, too, dates from the days of the ancients).

At any rate, this selection of seven of the Inscriptions represents my own editorial judgment. Other editors doubtless would have made different choices.

Here are the ones I've left out, which, as I've gone to the trouble to type them out, may prove of interest to somebody.



Me, Chloe, a maid, the mighty fates have given,

Who was nought to them, to the peopled shades.

Thus the gods will. My years were but twice seven.

I am forgotten in my distant glades.


From my villa on the hill I long looked down

Upon the muttering town;

Then one day drew (life sight-sick, dull hope shed)

My toga o'er my head

(The simplest gesture being the greatest thing)

Like a raised wing.


Not Cecrops kept my bees. My olives bore

Oil like the sun. My several herd lowed far.

The breathing traveller rested by my door.

The wet earth smells still; dead my nostrils are.


Scarce five years passed ere I passed too.

Death came and took the child he found.

No god spared, or fate smiled at, so

Small hands, clutching so little round.


There is a silence where the town was old.

Grass grows where not a memory lies below.

We that dined loud are sand. The tale is told.

The far hoofs hush. The inn's last light doth go.


We, that both lie here, loved. This denies us.

My lost hand crumbles where her breasts' lack is.

Love's known, each lover is anonymous.

We both felt fair. Kiss, for that was our kiss.


I for my city's want fought far and fell.

I could not tell

What she did want, that knew she wanted me.

Her walls be free,

Her speech keep such as I spoke, and men die,

That she die not, as I.

Bowie Hagan said...


Very much enjoy Pessoa, here in his Inscriptions; Such a light and weaving song, haunting as the painting's mirror. thanks.


TC said...

Glad you like these, Bowie. They are delicate and speak by implication; one hears echoes of the Greek Anthology, as if one of the ancients had returned to leave us these belated epigrams.

Olivier Malhomme said...

I tried to put this poem into music. Since I'm french there are bound to be pronunciation issues...
Hope you enjoy it