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
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,
While the chess-board
Fulfills their indifference.