Rare first edition moved to Special Collections

Published: 24 September 2010

A rare copy of a book published in the lifetime of the Modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa has been found on open shelves at the Glasgow University Library.

A rare copy of a book published in the lifetime of the Modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa has been found on open shelves at the Glasgow University Library.

Similar copies of the first edition of Fernando Pessoa’s Mensagem, published in Lisbon in 1934 have sold at auction between £1,000 and £5,000, though the University’s copy, having been handled by generations of students of Portuguese, would probably be valued towards the lower scale.

The copy of the book, fresh from the press, was a gift by Mr Leonard S. Downes, in 1934 to the now extinct departmental library of Hispanic Studies. Luis Gomes with Book

Fernando Pessoa was a Modernist Portuguese poet, most active from 1913 until his death, in 1935. Although very well known in the cultural circles of early Modernist movement of Portugal and beyond, Pessoa published very little poetry in his life time.

In Mensagem, Pessoa lays claim to the design of Portugal to rule over all nations, in true early twentieth-century idealist fashion, as well as following on from a medieval European tradition inspired by the Kabala and the Masons. In the case of Portugal, this messianic tradition was reinforced by historical events in the sixteenth-century – when Portugal lost her independence to Spain due to the death of the young heirless king Sebastian, who died in a faith-led battle in North Africa. As his body was never recovered, the Portuguese began a long lasting belief that the king, now a kind of political messiah, had gone into hiding and would come one day to redeem the nation from the grip of Spain.

He never returned, Portugal got her independence back in 1640, and yet the belief persisted. In his book, Pessoa attempts to relay the message of the supposed devine designs of Portugal, encoded in cryptic poetry, to the turbulent nation – the Republic was only young (it began shortly after a regicide in 1908), and the New State dictatorial regime of Salazar was still fresh and idealistic. On the eve of WWII, when radical political regimes were rife throughout Europe, all nations strove to define their idiosyncrasies as distinct and superior races to other nations’ idiosyncrasies. This book, in a sense, embodied Portuguese idiosyncrasies, particularly in such poems as “Mar Português” (“Salty Sea”):

Ó mar salgado, quanto do teu sal
São lágrimas de Portugal!
Por te cruzarmos, quantas mães choraram,
Quantos filhos em vão rezaram!
Quantas noivas ficaram por casar
Para que fosses nosso, ó mar!

Valeu a pena? Tudo vale a pena
Se a alma não é pequena.
Quem quer passar além do Bojador
Tem que passar além da dor.
Deus ao mar o perigo e o abismo deu,
Mas nele é que espelhou o céu.


Oh salty sea, how much of your salt
Are the tears of Portugal!
So as to traverse you, how many mother cried,
How many sons prayed in vain!
How many brides remained unmarried
For you to be ours, oh sea!

Was it worth it? Everything is worth it
If the soul is not small.
If you want to go beyond Bojador
Must also pass beyond pain.
God gave danger and the abyss to the sea,
But in it He mirrored heaven.

Luís Gomes, SMLC (Hispanic Studies) who discovered the book in the library said: “Although the shabby meter and rhyme of my translation does not make justice to the original, the content spoke straight into the hearts of Portuguese people since its publication. This book had a small print run, and was not read profusely by the nation; nonetheless, it contains some of those texts that have permeated through the national psyche by various means. Most recently, the “mar salgado” even found its way into a Portuguese Eurovision contestant song!

“I was very surprised to find this copy lying in the shelves of Glasgow University Library, particularly given its current and growing monetary value. Of course, as is the way with these things, the cultural value of this book is beyond Pounds and Euros, it speaks to an entire nation, moving people’s will to act in one way or the other. And as Pessoa’s most famous heteronym, the naval engineer Álvaro de Campos, had graduated from Glasgow’s School of Naval Engineering, it is, perhaps, befitting that we should have such a valuable copy of the person himself.”

Helen Durndell, University Librarian said: "We are always grateful when academic colleagues advise us of items which might benefit from additional protection within Special Collections."

Further information:
Martin Shannon, Senior Media Relations Officer
University of Glasgow Tel: 0141 330 8593

First published: 24 September 2010