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Fernando Pessoa, Featuring Ricardo Reis-The Game of Chess

Detail from “Buzurjmihr Masters the Game of Chess”, Folio from the Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Shah Tahmasp, ca. 1530–35. Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020). Painter (attributed to): ‘Abd al-Vahhab. Iran, Tabriz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Arthur A. Houghton Jr., 1970 (1970.301.71).


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a poem from Fernando Pessoa, featuring the sad epicurean ‘Ricardo Reis’ persona. Odes de Ricardo Reis . Fernando Pessoa. (Notas de João Gaspar Simões e Luiz de Montalvor.) Lisboa: Ática, 1946 (imp.1994). Translated into English from the original Portuguese by O.A. Ramos.



I heard that once, when Persia

Had, I’m not sure which, war,

When the invasion blazed in the City

And the women screamed,

Two chess players played

Their continuous game.


To the shadow of the ample tree they stared

The ancient board,

And, beside one another, awaiting each other’s

Most loose moments,

When they had moved the stone, and now

Waited upon the adversary,

A goblet with fresh wine refreshed

Soberly their thirst.


The houses burned, they were looted

The arches and the walls,

Violated, the women were set

Against the fallen walls,

Pierced with lances, the children

Were blood in the streets . . .


But where they were, near to the city,

And far from its noise,

The chess players played

The game of chess.


Yet in the messages of the wild wind

The shrieks would come to them,

And, upon reflection, they knew from the soul

That for sure the women

And the tender violated daughters were

In that close distance,

Further that, in the moment that they thought,

A light shadow

Passed them in front oblivious and vague,

Briefly their calm eyes

Returned their intent confidence

To the old chessboard.


When the king of marble is in danger,

What does the bone and meat matter

Of sisters and of mothers and of children?

When the tower does not cover

The retreat of the white queen,

The looting matters little.


And when the confident hand serves the check

To the king of the adversary,

Little weighs on the soul that there far away

There are dying children.

Even that, suddenly, over the wall

Surges the terrifying face

Of an invading warrior, and briefly should

In blood fall there

The solemn chess player,

The moment before that

(It’s yet given to the calculation of a lance

For the effect hours afterwards)

It’s still delivered to the favorite game

Of the great indifferent players.


Cities fall, populaces suffer, it ceases

Freedom and life,

The calm and bequeathed possessions

Ignite and are yanked,

But when the war interrupts games,

The king is without check,

And the most advanced pawn of marble

Is close to buying the tower.


My brothers in arming ourselves Epicurus

And in understanding it more

In agreement with ourselves that with him,

We shall learn in the story

Of the calm chess players

How to pass life.


Everything that is serious matters to us little,

The grave weighs little,

The natural impulse of the instincts

Which cedes to the useless enjoyment

(Under the tranquil shadow of the grove)

Of playing a good game.


What we carry of this useless life

Is worth so much if it is

The glory; the fame, the love, the science, the life,

As if it was merely

The recollection of a game well played

And one match wins

A better player.


The glory weighs down like a rich burden,

The fame like a fever,

Love tires, because it’s serious and searches,

The science never finds,

And life passes and hurts because it knows it . . .


The game of chess

Seizes the whole soul, but, lost, weighs

Little, then it is nothing.


Ah! Beneath the shadows that without wanting we love,

Like a goblet of wine

At the side, and intent only upon the useless task

Of the game of chess,

Even so that the game is merely a dream

And there is no partner,

Let us imitate the Persians of this story,

And, while there outside,

Whether near or far, the war and the fatherland and life

Call for us, let us leave

That in vain they call for us, each one of us

Under the friendly shadows

Dreaming, them the partners, and the chess

Their indifference.


Original Portuguese here


Our own English translation 🤓

The Chess Players


I have heard tales

Of remote ages;

When Persia was at war;

A war whose name I couldn’t reckon;

while the invasion was setting the city ablaze

And the women were screaming,

Two chess players were

at their game, un-disrupted.


In the shade of a large foliage,

Their gazes were riveted

To the ancient chess board,

And, besides each of them,

In anticipation of resting moments,

 When one has moved a piece,

 And waiting for his opponent,

A jug of wine was available

To quench his sober thirst.


And the houses were burning,

The yards and the vaults looted;

Raped, the women were pressed

Against the fallen walls pierced by spears;

The children were all blood in the streets…


But where they were located,

in the outskirts of the city,

And far from its hubbub,

Our two chess players were unabashed.


And even if the messages

Of the disheartened wind

Were reaching them;

Even if, in their thoughts,

Rising from the depths of the soul,

The intuition that without a doubt

Their wives and gentle daughters

Were raped at so close a distance,

Even if, at the moment, they were thinking about it,

Lightly, a shadow was gushing forth

Their indifferent foreheads,

Their eyes were fast to confidently refocus on the old board.


When the ivory king is threatened,

Do sisters’, mothers’ and children’s

flesh and bones mater?

When the tower does not cover

The white lady’s retreat anymore,

The looting is of no importance;

And when the confident hand puts the opponent’s king in check,

In the soul, does the nearby slaughtering of daughters and sons matter?


When from above the wall, all of a sudden,

Would surge the maddened face of an armed invader,

And when in a while, at this very place,

Our solemn chess player would collapse in his spilt blood,

The preceding moment (still devoted to calculate a move

Whose effect would strike hours later) was still busy focusing upon

The cherished game of those two arch-indifferent.


Cities crumble! People suffer! Liberty stolen! Life terminated!

The leisurely good inherited

From the ancestors

Given to fire, looting!

But when war interrupts the game,

May the king not be defeated,

And the most advanced pawn be ready

To take over the tower!


My brothers in the love of Epicurus,

Us, who from ourselves understand him

better than from himself,

May we learn from the story

of the chess players

To steer our lives.


May the whole world’s seriousness matter not,

Its grimness become light,

May the natural flow of our instincts

Give way to the useless pleasure

(under the still shadow of any large foliage)

Of enjoying a good game.


What we get from this useless life

Has as much value-

Glory, fame, love, science, life-

As if it was just the mere remembrance of a wining game

over better than ourselves.


Glory weights like a burden of riches.

Fame is like fever,

Love tires, as a serious ceaseless quest,

Science never finds,

And life moves on and makes us suffer

because, she knows well…


The chess game storms the entire soul,

And, once defeated, it does not matter much

Because she is nothing.


Ah, under the shadows who, unknown to them, love us,

A jug of wine, at hands distance,

Heedful to the useless maneuvers of the chess game,

Even though this very game may well be all but just a dream,

And that there is no actual opponent,

Let’s imitate the Persians of this story,

And, while outside, close or afar, war, country, life,

Call us, well, let’s leave them call us in vain,

And may each of us,

Under the friendly shadows,

Carry on one’s dream,

confronting opponents,

While the chess-board

Fulfills their indifference.


Abu’l Qasim Firdausi (935–1020) “Buzurjmihr Masters the Game of Chess”, Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings), ca. 1330–40 Islamic, Ilkhanid period (1206–1353) Ink, opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper; Entire Page: 8 1/16 x 4 7/8 in. (20.5 x 12.4 cm) Painting: 3 1/8 x 4 in. (8 x 10.2 cm) Mat: 19 1/4 x 14 1/4 Frame: 22 x 17 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Monroe C. Gutman, 1974 (1974.290.39)
Fernando Pessoa, Featuring Ricardo Reis-The Game of Chess

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