Academic journal article Romance Notes

Pessoa's "O Encoberto" in Mensagem: The Sebastianist Facet of His Occultism

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Pessoa's "O Encoberto" in Mensagem: The Sebastianist Facet of His Occultism

Article excerpt

IN 1914, at the age of twenty six, Fernando Pessoa became very attracted by Sebastianism, an interest that would endure throughout his lifetime and one that very much complemented his apparent occult interests (Kotowicz 27). (1) Sebastianism is the messianic myth about Portugal's King Sebastian (1557-78)--O Desejado ("The Desired One"), as he was known at the time of his birth--whose return would establish a utopian, universal commonwealth under the Portuguese flag. The foretold realm, the Quinto Imperio (Fifth Empire), would be the last of the great empires, subsequent to those of Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome. This expectation derives from the prophet Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream in the Old Testament (Book of Daniel, II).

Slow-witted and vain, King Sebastian openly proclaimed his desire to reinstate to power the Sultan of Morocco, Muley Muhammed, who had been deposed by his Turkish-backed uncle, Muley Abd al-Malik. (Sebastian's real aspiration was to lead a crusade that would crush the infidel.) In 1578, ignoring the counsel of his top advisors, he crossed into Morocco with his entire army and much of the country's wealth. In a desolate spot known as Alcazarquivir, on August 4, Muslim hordes under al-Malik decimated the outnumbered Portuguese. Sebastian's fate went unknown and much of the country's nobility perished. The debacle was such that, as rumored, the captured booty made possible the founding of the city of Marrakech. Two years later, the kingdom of Portugal was annexed by Spain.

Strong Sebastianist content abounds in Pessoa's 1920 poem, "In Memory of the President-King Sidonio Pais," where the assassinated dictator is portrayed as a probable incarnation of the lost king. Yet, it is in his 1934 poem collection Mensagem that his Sebastianism culminates. (2) The collection won second prize in a contest organized by the Secretariat for National Propaganda, an agency of Antonio Oliveira de Salazar's fascist government. It was the only book published by Pessoa in his lifetime and his sole composition with Portugal as its poetic topic.

Divided into three parts, Mensagem recounts Portugal's proud past in its first two sections. Its third, entitled "O Encoberto" and divided into three subparts, is where Pessoa reveals his strong Sebastianist bent. O Encoberto stems from a revelation ascribed to St. Isidore of Seville (560?-636), who had envisioned the coming of a Messiah referred to as Encoberto (Hidden One). This prophecy became popular in sixteenthcentury Portugal thanks to Goncalo Anes, known as "O Bandarra," a cobbler from the village of Trancoso. His prophetic verses (Trovas), based on the Isidorian prophecies and the Old Testament, described the coming of O Encoberto, who would establish the Fifth Empire. However, once these trovas began to appear in written form, a copy reached the hands of the Inquisition. In 1541, the Holy Office prohibited Bandarra from circulating his works, an action that served only to enhance the seer's reputation and lend credence to his prophecies. Such were the circumstances at the time of Sebastian's birth in 1554.

As mentioned, Pessoa devotes the poems of the first two subparts of "O Encoberto" ("Os Simbolos" and "Os Avisos;" the third is entitled "Os Tempos") to King Sebastian and all that his messianic myth entails. In "D. Sebastiao," the first poem of "Os Simbolos," Sebastian himself speaks out, asking readers to await his return as the mythical "Hidden One": (3)

   Sperai! Cai no areal e na hora adversa
   Que Deus concede aos seus
   Para o intervalo em que esteja a alma imersa
   Em sonhos que sao Deus.

   Que importa o areal e a morte e a desventura
   Se com Deus me guardei?
   E O que me sonhei que eterno dura,
   E Esse que regressarei. (Mensagem 81)

The second poem, "O Quinto Imperio," begins by admonishing those who are happy with their everyday lives, because complacency leads to inaction, to a living death. …

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