The Poets of Epicurus, I: Pessoa

2012-07-21

Pondering ways to improve my dialogue on Epicurus, I'm thinking about sprinkling in some poems here and there (although one could argue that this isn't quite true to Epicurus, who preferred plain language to florid verse). So the question naturally arises: which poets have been influenced by Epicurus? There's Horace, of course, about whom I'll have more to say in a future installment of "The Poets of Epicurus". There's Lucretius, whose massive De Rerum Natura set forth the entire system of Epicureanism in poetic form. Some also claim to find Epicurean influences in Catullus, Vergil, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, etc. Another poet recommended to me recently on the Epicurean Philosophy List is Fernando Pessoa.

Pessoa is an interesting case. He wrote under a number of pen names, and each of his heteronyms had a different personality (they even commented on each other's work, wrote prefaces to each other's books, and so on!). The most Epicurean of his personas is Ricardo Reis -- in his translations of Pessoa, Richard Zenith calls Reis a "sad Epicurean". The description is apt, because Reis is more of a defeatist than Epicurus and lacks the positive focus on friendship and happiness that one finds in Epicurus himself. Yet some of his poems have an austere beauty even in translation (I don't read the native Portugeuse, so I quote Zenith's quite fine renderings here). As Reis beseeched in one of his poems: "May the chaste calm of ancient beauty restore to us the ancient feeling of life."

Consider:

Each man is a world, and as each fountain
Has its own deity, might not each man
  Have a god all his own?

In the inscrutable succession of things,
Only the wise man feels he was nothing
  More than the life he left.

He also gave expression to a somewhat strange sentiment that one can find in Whitman's Song of Myself:

Happy the animal, anonymous to itself,
Which grazes in green fields and enters
  Death as if it were home...

Yes, Epicurus recognized our animal nature millennia before that was a popular stance, but I don't think he would have glorified the life of animals or claimed (as Reis/Pessoa does) that "happiness is ignorant". Perhaps because he thought that fate is unknowable, Reis consistently favored a detachment from life:

Follow your destiny,
Water your plants,
Love your roses.
The rest is shadow
Of unknown trees.

Reality is always
More or less
Than what we want.
Only we are always
Equal to ourselves

It's good to live alone,
And noble and great
Always to live simply.
Leave pain on the altar
As an offering to the gods.

See life from a distance.
Never question it.
There's nothing it can
Tell you. The answer
Lies beyond the Gods.

But quietly imitate
Olympus in your heart.
The gods are gods
Because they don't think
About what they are.

To illustrate one of the ways in which Pessoa strays from true Epicureanism, Epicurus himself would never have said "it's good to live alone" -- he of the aphorism "Friendship dances around the world, announcing to each of us that we must awaken to happiness." (Vatican Saying 52) Similarly, Epicurus was not in favor of renouncing life, as Reis seems to recommend in one of the lines from this beautiful poem:

On this day when the green fields
Are a colony goldenly ruled by Apollo,
May the sensation we have of life
  Be a dance within us.

Not randomly but with regular rhythm
May our feeling, like a nymph,
Accompany in its cadences
  The discipline of the dance.

At twilight when the fields become
An empire overwhelmed by shadows
As by a legion marching onward,
  Let us renounce the day.

And let us place on high in our memory,
Like a new god from a new land,
Whatever calm remains in us
  From the transitory day.

Despite the fact that Pessoa is not a consistent Epicurean, some of the poems that he published under the name of Ricardo Reis do capture aspects of the "ancient feeling of life" that one finds in Epicurus, Lucretius, Horace, and other writers from antiquity. So a few of his lines might find their way into Letters on Epicurus...


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