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Tom d’Egidio: The Poet And His Double: Split Personalities, Alternate Identities, and THE PESSOA-BROWNING CONNECTION  

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Sordello Pound
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12/10/2020 10:48 pm  

Tom d’Egidio: The Poet And His Double: Split Personalities, Alternate Identities, and THE PESSOA-BROWNING CONNECTION

Date: Wednesday, October 14, 2020
Time 1pm. – Via ZOOM

Tom d’Egidio: The Poet And His Double: Split Personalities, Alternate Identities, and THE PESSOA-BROWNING CONNECTION
(Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81988421007 )

Welcome one and all to the 114th Season of the New York Browning Society. 2020 has been
an interesting time indeed, as we have seen changes that no doubt have faced our Society
in the past. I hope that this newsletter is being received in good health by all of our
members, and look forward to seeing your bright and smiling faces for our first meeting of
the new season.

 

Hopefully our members who have access to a smart phone, or a computer with internet
access, will be able to download the Zoom client and participate with us for our first virtual
meeting on October 14th. I will be personally reaching out to members who will need
assistance in this regard. I hope we can make this new online meeting as warm and
welcome as we have had in person for 114 years. We will try to make it as painless as
possible! We look forward to our future, with your help and participation!

We have a treat for our opening meeting, let’s get this new season started!
Tom d’Egidio will present: “THE PESSOA-BROWNING CONNECTION.” 

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa died in obscurity in his native Lisbon in 1935. Yet today he is considered one of the major literary modernists of the 20th century, recently becoming a hot property with a growing list of translators and publishers eager to get their versions of Pessoa into the bookshops.

One reason for Pessoa’s notable appeal is that while living an apparently uneventful bachelor life of shabby respectability, he spawned, in the privacy of his furnished room, an entire crew of alternate poetic personalities, assigning them names, biographies and widely divergent personalities, as well as penning substantial bodies of remarkable work for each one.

Pessoa’s imagining of these personas is so intensely comprehensive, that they even write about and to each other and judge each other’s poetry and character.  Is there any possible explanation for such literary ‘schizophrenia’?

A big chunk of Pessoa’s early life, from 7 to 17 years of age, was spent living in the South African city of Durban where his stepfather served as the Portuguese consul. There the young Pessoa learned English, read the English poets; and his first attempts at poetry were in English.

Poet Tom d’Egidio, acting on a hint from the late great critic Harold Bloom, and with the encouragement and advice of Browning Society member, poet and translator Albert Rosenblatt, explores the intriguing possibility that Pessoa was not only inspired by Robert Browning, but that Andrea del Sarto, Fra Lippo Lippi, and other characters limned by Browning in his dramatic monologues served as specific templates for Pessoa’s alter egos.

Tom has graced us as our opening speaker for the past few seasons, come and enjoy the spooks and chills he brings to this lovely fall with his latest presentation. We look forward
to seeing and hearing you virtually! If you have any additional questions feel free to reach
out to myself at: JamesBKepple@gmail.com. Cheers!

But what if I fail of my purpose here? It
is but to keep the nerves at strain, to dry
one’s eyes and laugh at a fall, and
baffled, get up and begin again.

                                       -Robert Browning


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nybrowning1907
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14/10/2020 10:05 am  

The Poet And His Double: Split Personalities, Alternate Identities, and

  1. THE PESSOA-BROWNING CONNECTION

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa died in obscurity in his native Lisbon in 1935. Yet today he is considered one of the major literary modernists of the 20th century, recently becoming a hot property with a growing list of translators and publishers eager to get their versions of Pessoa into the bookshops.

One reason for Pessoa’s notable appeal is that while living an apparently uneventful bachelor life of shabby respectability, he spawned, in the privacy of his furnished room, an entire crew of alternate poetic personalities, assigning them names, biographies, and widely divergent personalities, as well as penning substantial bodies of remarkable work for each one.

Pessoa’s imagining of these personas is so intensely comprehensive that they even write about and to each other and comment on each other’s poetry and character. Is there any possible explanation for such literary schizophrenia?

A big chunk of Pessoa’s early life, from 7 to 17 years of age, was spent in the South African city of Durban where his stepfather served as the Portuguese Consul. There the young Pessoa learned English, read the English poets; and his first attempts at poetry were in English.

Acting on a hint from the late great critic Harold Bloom, I intend to explore the intriguing possibility that Pessoa was not only inspired by Robert Browning, but that Andrea del Sarto, Fra Lippo Lippi, and other characters brought to life by Browning in his dramatic monologues served as specific templates for Pessoa’s alter egos.

This no simple question; and I imagine that our only hope of coming close to solving this literary mystery is to look for clues not only in Fernando Pessoa’s writings and life story, but also in the powerful literary and societal trends that undoubtedly formed him as a man and as a poet. It is only by locating him in place and time that we can begin to understand what he was heir to.

Fernando Pessoa was born in a pre-industrial Portugal in 1888, making him the exact contemporary of T.S. Eliot. His first few years were spent in the sleepy Baroque capitol of Lisbon, at the western edge of continental Europe, and far from any literary, artistic, or indeed industrial dynamism.

But fate had a stimulating surprise in store for the young Fernando. In 1895 his diplomat stepfather brought the family to the bustling British colonial city of Durban (South Africa). In the same year that H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, the impressionable seven-year-old Fernando was accelerated into the disquieting world of Modernity, and plunged into English, its quintessential language.

Pessoa returned to Lisbon at 17, wrote some English poetry, then lots of Portuguese poetry, lived a quiet bachelor existence, earned a living translating business correspondence, drank somewhat heavily, and died in relative obscurity, unknown outside of a small coterie of literary friends, possibly of cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 47. His only collection of Portuguese poems was a thin volume that had appeared the previous year.

That collection contains some of Pessoa’s more conventional poems, extolling kings, explorers and other national heroes, seemingly designed to appeal to the new totalitarian dictatorship of Salazar. Like many important modernist writers, including Yeats, Pirandello, Rilke, Lawrence, Pound, Eliot, and Celine, Pessoa had right-wing tendencies.

Pessoa had the good fortune to live and die in a country where poets and poetry are valued; so that when he died his landlord did not put his trunk full of scribblings, often on the backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper, out with the trash, as one can easily imagine happening in some other places that I shall refrain from naming.

Through the usual labyrinthine processes, by the 1970s, collections of his poems began appearing in English, and readers were quite intrigued, predictably enough, that Pessoa had produced whole bodies of work, authorship of which he had ascribed to a motley gang of alter egos he called heteronyms.

In 1976, the prominent English critic Martin Seymour-Smith declared Pessoa “one of the dozen or so greatest poets of this century”. And in his highly influential 2002 book Genius, Harold Bloom writes about 100 “exemplary creative minds”, one of whom is Fernando Pessoa.

In his chapter on Pessoa, Bloom convincingly makes his case for Pessoa’s greatness as a poet, but Bloom being Bloom (the critic who, after all, claimed that the Biblical book of Genesis was written by a woman), he rather blithely supports the idea that Pessoa derived his whole scheme of heteronyms from the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning.

Bloom says that this was done “in a complex way”, without getting into the nitty-gritty of that complexity. So now please get ready for a deep dive into the underpinnings, maybe even into the very soul of the century that saw the births of Robert Browning, of Fernando Pessoa, of the Modern Age, and, I would contend, of our own time now: the very strangely misunderstood 19th century.

II: CENTURY OF INDUSTRY, EVOLUTION, HYPERSPACE, DOPPELGANGERS, VAMPIRES, AND WAYS OF ESCAPE:

Many of us think of the nineteenth century as a period of great propriety and bottled up emotions, as symbolized by a Queen Victoria who was perpetually unamused. It was also an era of society-altering industrialization, and great scientific progress including such earth-shattering concepts as Evolution and Hyperspace.

It was also, not coincidently, the century of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and Dorian Gray.  In H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, unwashed hordes occupying the back alleys and sub-basements of Victorian London are ancestors of the Morlocks, a subterranean race of monstrous humanoids.

Victorian England, wrote W.H. Auden, had “created the most impersonal, the most mechanical, and the most unequal civilization the world has ever seen…a civilization torn apart by the opposing emotions born of economic injustice”.

It was a period of unprecedented riches and of great social distortion to which the common person found it particularly difficult to adapt, a nightmarish period not dissimilar to our own.

It was, in fact, the stressful beginning of the Modern Age, from which people looked for ways of escape. The Brownings fled to preindustrial Florence, Robert Louis Stevenson and Gaugin to primitive societies on remote Pacific islands.

Bohemianism as we know it was born with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: A dimension into which one could escape right in the center of London.

The Victorian era’s oxycontin was a tincture of opium called laudanum whose use and abuse was widespread. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who used laudanum daily, died “suddenly” in June 1861. Her friend, Elizabeth Siddal Rossetti died from an overdose a few months later. 

And then there was the strange case of Robert Browning and Robert Browning. The cognitive dissonance inspired by Browning the person vs. Browning the poet inspired his friend Henry James to portray Browning in a spooky short story, The Private Life, as a doppelganger seen in two places at once, with one version of the man out socializing whilst his double sat at a desk writing.

With Poe’s doppelganger William Wilson, Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde, and Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Henry James was hardly the only writer seeing ‘double’.

Doubleness, or even “a confused multitudinouness” (to go back to Matthew Arnold’s disapproving take on Robert Browning’s poems), was becoming standard literary fare in response to all the dislocations, literal and figurative, increasingly stressing out whole societies.

III. PESSOA AND A BRIEF SURVEY OF POETIC DOUBLING

In Durban, Pessoa was enrolled in an English school where he learned to write the language well enough to win prizes for his essays. We know that his school age reading included Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Keats and Shelley, as would be expected. We even know that he read Browning during his South African childhood.

Then, back in Lisbon, Pessoa found himself in a familiar place where he no longer fit.  He’d been inculcated into English culture and literature. Portuguese child of Victorian English alienation that he was, he now split, not only doubling but quadrupling himself, and more.

Various critics strongly believe that the young Pessoa was influenced, “in a complex way” to be sure, as Harold Bloom puts it, by Browning in this splitting which is extreme enough to make us suspect that something slightly beyond the literary is going on, that some psychological instability may be manifesting itself. After all, it’s one thing for writers to react to disturbing societal change by creating weird and even supernatural characters; quite another to split yourself into multiple creative personalities.

But before we declare that Pessoa is out of his mind, let’s take a very quick chronological survey of some other instances of varying degrees of authorial splitting.

The great German poet Holderlin suddenly insisted, in the early years of the 19th century, that he was no longer Holderlin but instead a poet with the Italian name of Scardanelli. Holderlin was considered clinically insane at the time.

In 1842 Robert Browning writes in the introduction to his Dramatic Lyrics, that his poems are “for the most part lyric in expression, always dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of many imaginary persons, not mine”. Isn’t this a clear expression of the Modernist need to convert personal communication into impersonal creation?

John Ashbery says in his 1975 poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”:

This otherness, this

“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at

In the mirror, though no one can say

How it came to be this way.  A ship

Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.

So maybe it’s not all that unusual for a poet to find reflected in his mind or in an actual mirror, another self who is and is not the poet.

The title Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror, refers to a painting by the Late Renaissance/ Early Mannerist artist Parmigianino who indeed painted his own face as distorted by a curved mirror. And there’s no way that Ashbery wasn’t thinking about Browning as he chose a Renaissance Italian artist to represent a temperament.

That Robert Browning continues to influence poets today is a fact. Prominent contemporary poet Tom Sleigh acknowledges Browning as his primary influence. Perhaps Browning is in fact the first ‘modern’ poet. Pound, considered by many the father of literary modernism, called Browning his father. And what would make more sense than Ashbery, a poet often labeled incomprehensible, taking an interest in a poet who was denounced as unintelligible a hundred years earlier? And what’s so special about yet another poet, Fernando Pessoa, being influenced by Robert Browning?

Harold Bloom makes a special point in his book Genius, of mentioning that Browning turned to the form of the dramatic monologue in order “to evade his Shelleyan anxiety-of-influence”.  When, in turn, Pessoa needed to evade his Browningesque anxiety-of-influence he could hardly have recourse to the same methodology could he?

Just so, Pound complains in the opening of his second Canto:

“Hang it all, Robert Browning, there can be but the one “Sordello”. 

As for Fernando Pessoa having specific recourse to heteronyms, not even that is unique. After all, the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado, Pessoa’s elder by 13 years, also made use of heteronyms, though not so extensively or systematically. Just as Pessoa killed off his heteronym Alberto Caeiro at 29 years of age, Machado in his beautiful 1928 poem Siesta, mourns the death of his heteronym Abel Martin.

  1. FOUR TEMPERAMENTS
  2. First to die, Alberto Caeiro was the first heteronym Pessoa brought to life. Pessoa created four main heteronyms, and we are going to have a look at only those four, out of many others. Harold Bloom intriguingly equates Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro with Browning’s Abt Vogler. Since you are less likely to be familiar with Caeiro than with Vogler, or at least Browning’s Vogler, let’s begin with him. To my ear Caeiro has a hint of the idiot savant about him; or just maybe his simplicity and naturalness is the clever put-on of a con man. The other heteronyms look up to Caeiro as an inspiring figure. Caeiro lives in the countryside and refers to himself as a shepherd. His poetic sentiments are simple to the point of near idiocy. Think Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, who really is a simpleton who somehow comes off as profound. But no simpleton could write Caieiro’s poems which affect a simplicity while adhering to a consistent aesthetic which one could call Franciscan if Caeiro were a pious man or even a man of conventional faith. He is instead explicitly anti-Franciscan:

“But if God is the flowers and trees

And hills and sun and moon,

Then why should I call him God?”

To me Caeiro’s is an artistic pose, making the most of a limited talent by presenting his slight poems as idiot savant profundities. Therefore he is that interesting phenomenon of every era, the failed artist with a following. Not that there isn’t a certain faint charm to his poems, a charm which, tellingly, was undoubtedly far more impressive when Caeiro was still alive and able to exert a personal magnetism upon his hearers. Also, Caeiro died young, at only 26, burnishing the legend yet further in the manner of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Browning’s Abt Vogler is one of his greatest poems, the character of Vogler one of his greatest creations. Yet Georg Josef Vogler was a real person, born in 1749 and dying in 1814, at what was then considered the advanced age of 65. A musician and composer, he had, unlike country bumpkin Alberto Caeiro, quite a lot of worldly success in major European capitals.  So in what “complex way” (to quote Bloom’s proviso of a phrase) does Caeiro resemble Vogler? Even more intriguing is to guess at the possible very real influence of Vogler on the youthful Browning whose music teacher had been Vogler’s pupil.  Aficionados of classical music know the work of Vogler’s far more famous pupils Weber and Meyerbeer. Like Caeiro, Vogler is the failed artist who managed to make an impression in person. Browning, who has inside information through his own music teacher, portrays Vogler as a pious fraud who relies upon demons to put a spell on his audiences as he performs:

“Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to

           their work,

Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch,

             as when Solomon willed

Armies of angels that soar, legions of de-

         mons that lurk” .

Pessoa’s Caeiro flatly denies the existence of God. It is easy to see how Browning’s Abt Vogler would have drawn in Pessoa, who dabbled in the occult. The Abt in Abt Vogler was a prestigious honorific of religious origin, bestowed by the Catholic Church. The more genuinely pious Franz Liszt came to be known as Abbe’ Liszt, wearing a Franciscan habit in his later years. Both the historic and Browning’s Abt Vogler wowed audiences like Liszt, as a keyboard artist, but by improvising on a strange instrument of his own design called the Orchestreion. But whenever other skilled musicians tried performing on the Orchestreion, the results were always strangely disappointing.  Just as Vogler’s most impressive works were improvisations never written down, so Caeiro made an impression on his fellow heteronyms not altogether justified by his faux-naif verses. In some ways Caeiro is the most mysterious and fascinating of the heteronyms. Both he and Abt Vogler were important influencers. The other heteronyms regarded Caeiro as a sort of guru, inspiring them to write their considerably more impressive poems. Georg Josef Vogler inspired pupils Weber and Meyerbeer to compose famous operas, and he inspired, through another pupil, Robert Browning to create one of his greatest characters, Abt Vogler. 

  1. Ricardo Reis is another of Fernando Pessoa’s four main heteronyms, the one whom Harold Bloom pairs with Browning’s Andrea Del Sarto. Reis is, like Caeiro, a bit of a stock character. Reis is a Jesuit educated high school Latin teacher and writes poetry reminiscent of Horace. He is a monarchist, and altogether an old-fashioned sort whose supposed paganism is even the literary paganism of classical culture. Browning’s Andrea Del Sarto was based on his reading of Vasari’s Lives Of The Painters, and on the sort of vicious gossip about Renaissance figures that one still hears in Florence to this day. Like Ricardo Reis, he lacked ambition in his art, using his considerable talent without notable originality, sticking with the tried and true much as Reis stuck to his classical learning and odes with the perfume of ancient Rome about them. Thus both these men were artists who failed through timidity and lack of ambition, to measure up to their abilities:

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?         All is silver-gray

Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!”

Andrea Del Sarto even breaks his contract with king Francois I of France, in order to return to Florence and to a wife whom the Florentines believe has made a fool of him. Browning’s poem stems from seeing the double potrait the painter did of his wife and himself. Some critics have written that Del Sarto’s manipulative wife Lucrezia is a stand-in for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Certainly Browning endured many years of being considered the husband of a famous poet. The measured classical sentiments of Reis’s poetry reflect the quiet desperation of a defeated man to sound accepting of fate and duty in the manner of Marcus Aurelius:

“I was left in the world all alone,

By the Gods who ordain.

It’s futile to fight them: what they’ve given

I accept without question,”

Ricardo Reis is perhaps what Pessoa imagined he would have become without the invigorating shock of Anglo-Saxon South Africa, and the injection of Whitman and Browning into his youthful reading.

  1. Most colorful of the heteronyms is Alvaro De Campos. If Ricardo Reis is who Pessoa might have been, Alvaro De Campos is certainly who he wishes he could be: a bisexual dandy who smokes opium and pens wild-eyed manifestoes in the style of the Italian Futurists. He’s the most energized of the heteronyms, sounding in places like a more frenetic version of Apollinaire:

“Ah, the first minutes in café’s of new cities!

The early morning arrivals at docks or at stations

Full of a tranquil and luminous silence!”

Harold Bloom pegs Fra Lippo Lippi as inspiration for Alvaro De Campos, and the great Renaissance painter certainly lived his life on the wild side. Fra Lippo, or Brother Phil, was a monk who seduced nuns, and lived such a harum-scarum life that Duke Cosimo de’Medici put him under lock and key so he would paint instead of running around partying. If Pessoa wished he were the dashing De Campos, did Browning secretly want to be a party boy like Lippi? I ask the question only because Browning uses this poem about a sex-crazed monk to expound upon his own creative philosophy:

“If you get simple beauty and naught else,

You get about the best thing God invents-“

And because of how very bottled up he seemed to those who met him.

  1. Our fourth and final heteronym of Fernando Pessoa is “Fernando Pessoa”: I’ve already talked about how Robert Browning the person did not strike one as Robert Browning the poet, to such an extent that his friend Henry James portrayed him in a short story as a doppelganger. Just so, we may look upon the poet “Fernando Pessoa” as Fernando Pessoa’s doppelganger. That creepy concept is certainly appropriate to a discussion of Harold Bloom’s equating of “Fernando Pessoa” the heteronym with creepy Childe Roland. Whether or not Browning wished he could let his hair down and be at least a little more like Lippo Lippi, he was undoubtedly something like Childe Roland. Browning, like Pessoa, like Roland, were men on a quest, searchers after their true selves; in a word, poets, and members together therefore of a brotherhood, a select Band.

“Thus I had so long suffered in this quest,

      Heard failure prophesied so oft, been writ

       So many times among “The Band”-------to

               wit,

The knights who to the Dark Tower’s search

             addressed

Their steps-----that just to fail as they, seemed

             best,

And all the doubt was now----------should I be

         fit?”   

Browning the staid son of a banker liked to see himself as the heir somehow to the arch-romantic Shelley. Stay at home bourgeois Pessoa would like to travel the world’s capitals as a suave seducer, like his invention Alvaro De Campos. Instead they’re both more like Roland, crossing a blasted heath in order to confront and challenge their inner selfhood ensconced in an ominous tower. Robert Browning is said to have literally dreamed up the poem in his sleep. Under the guidance of his Italian tutor in London, young Browning had translated parts of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso (Roland Insane). Then, while living in Florence, Robert and Elizabeth spent summers in the mountains north of Florence where the poet Ariosto had served as Governor of the region. They usually stayed in a town near a tower in which Ariosto had resided for a time. More speculation, but there just may be a connection. Ariosto’s knight Orlando has his whole sense of identity stolen by a sorcerer who conceals Orlando’s senses in a harsh lunar landscape. Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came was certain to exert its hold on Pessoa, as it has on so many others. A new generation has been turned on to the poem by Stephen King’s Dark Tower series of novels.  As “Fernando Pessoa” says:

“In the nimble flight of the dying hour,

Always the same disillusion

Of the same gaze cast from the top of the tower

Across the futile plain!”

With that I strongly recommend Richard Zenith’s excellent translations of Pessoa from which I’ve briefly quoted, and advise all you members of the New York Browning Society to get hold of his book Fernando Pessoa & Co. and make up your own minds about The Browning-Pessoa Connection.


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