Fernando Pessoa - Early Years in Durban

Early Years in Durban

Nothing had ever obliged him to do anything. He had spent his childhood alone. He never joined any group. He never pursued a course of study. He never belonged to a crowd. The circumstances of his life were marked by that strange but rather common phenomenon – perhaps, in fact, it’s true for all lives – of being tailored to the image and likeness of his instincts, which tended towards inertia and withdrawal.

Fernando Pessoa, from the Preface of
The Book of Disquiet, tr. by Richard Zenith.

On 13 July 1893, when Pessoa was five, his father, Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, died of tuberculosis. The following year, on 2 January, his younger brother Jorge, aged only one, also died. His mother, Maria Madalena Pinheiro Nogueira, married again in December 1895. In the beginning of 1896, he moved with his mother to Durban, capital of the former British Colony of Natal, where his stepfather João Miguel dos Santos Rosa, a military officer, had been appointed Portuguese consul. The young Pessoa received his early education at St. Joseph Convent School, a Catholic grammar school run by Irish and French nuns. He moved to Durban High School in April, 1899, becoming fluent in English and developing an appreciation for English literature. During the Matriculation Examination, held at the time by the then University of the Cape of Good Hope, forerunner of the University of Cape Town, in November 1903, he was awarded the recently-created Queen Victoria Memorial Prize for best paper in English. While preparing to enter university, he also attended the Durban Commercial School during one year, in the evening shift. Meanwhile, he started writing short stories in English, some under the name of David Merrick, many of which he left unfinished.

Hillier did first usurp the realms of rhyme
To parody the bard of olden time:
Haggar then followed and, in shallow verse,
Proves that to every bad there is a worse.
Some nameless critic then in furious strain
Causes the reader cruel pain
While after metre pure he seems to thirst
But shows how every worse can have a worst.
Charles Robert Anon,
Natal Mercury, July 6, 1904.

At the age of sixteen, The Natal Mercury (July 6, 1904 edition) published his poem "Hillier did first usurp the realms of rhyme...", under the name of Charles Robert Anon, along with a brief introductory text: "I read with great amusement...". In December, The Durban High School Magazine published his essay "Macaulay". From February to June, 1905, in the section "The Man in the Moon," The Natal Mercury also published at least four sonnets by Fernando Pessoa: "Joseph Chamberlain", "To England I", "To England II" and "Liberty". His poems often carried humorous versions of Anon as the author's name. Pessoa started using pen names quite young. The first one, still in his childhood, was Chevalier de Pas, supposedly a French noble. In addition to David Merrick and Charles Robert Anon, the young writer also signed up, among other pen names, as Horace James Faber and Alexander Search, another meaningful pseudonym.

The young Pessoa as seen by a schoolfellow
"I cannot tell you exactly how long I knew him, but the period during which I received most of my impressions of him was the whole of the year 1904 when we were at school together. How old he was at this time I don’t know, but judge him to have 15 or 16."
"He was pale and thin and appeared physically to be very imperfectly developed. He had a narrow and contracted chest and was inclined to stoop. He had a peculiar walk and some defect in his eyesight gave to his eyes also a peculiar appearance, the lids seemed to drop over the eyes."
"He was regarded as a brilliant clever boy as, in spite of the fact that he had not spoken English in his early years, he had learned it so rapidly and so well that he had a splendid style in that language. Although younger than his schoolfellows of the same class he appeared to have no difficulty in keeping up with and surpassing them in work. For one of his age, he thought much and deeply and in a letter to me once complained of 'spiritual and material encumbrances of most especial adverseness'."
"He took no part in athletic sports of any kind and I think his spare time was spent on reading. We generally considered that he worked far too much and that he would ruin his health by so doing."
--Clifford E. Geerdts, "Letter to Dr. Faustino Antunes", April 10, 1907.

Ten years after his arrival, he sailed for Lisbon via the Suez Canal on board the "Herzog", leaving Durban for good at the age of seventeen. This journey inspired the poems "Opiário" (dedicated to his friend, the poet and writer Mário de Sá-Carneiro) published in March, 1915, in Orpheu nr.1 and "Ode Marítima" (dedicated to the futurist painter Santa Rita Pintor) published in June, 1915, in Orpheu nr.2 by his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.

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