Pessoa, Fernando (1888–1935)

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PESSOA, FERNANDO (1888–1935)


Portuguese poet.

Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa, one of Europe's great poets, was born in Lisbon, Portugal, on 13 June 1888, and died in the same city on 30 November 1935. Except for a few weeks at the University of Lisbon in 1906, he received his formal education in Durban, South Africa, where his stepfather served as Portuguese consul.

Pessoa's main concern and his true occupation was always his writing. He supported himself (barely) by handling English and French correspondence for several commercial houses in Lisbon. When he broke up with his lover, Ofélia Queiroz, the reason he gave was that his commitment was to his writing.

Bilingual and bicultural, Pessoa hoped at first to establish himself as an English poet. In his teens he tried but failed to place poems in English magazines such as Punch and had no better luck placing stories in journals such as Cassell's. In 1917 he submitted The Mad Fiddler, a book of poems, to the London publisher Constable. It was turned down. A year later, from Lisbon, he issued Antinous and 35 Sonnets, chapbooks that were distributed in the British Isles to a lukewarm reception. His only publication in England came in 1920 when The Athenaeum published "Meantime," a short lyric poem. Encouraged, perhaps, by this modest success, he reissued Antinous in 1921, along with Epithalamium under the titles English Poems I–II and English Poems III, only to be disappointed by their reception. Only one other book would appear during his lifetime. Mensagem (Message), an arrangement of elegiac and prophetic lyrics on historical themes, was published in 1934.

Pessoa frequently contributed poetry and prose to journals and newspapers, beginning in 1912 with two remarkable essays on the present state of Portuguese poetry and its prospects. These appeared in A Águia, the organ for the so-called Nova Renascença (New renaissance) movement led by the poet Teixeira de Pascoaes, the prime advocate of saudosismo—an ethos characterized by nostalgia for the nation's heroic past. In addition to defining the nature and properties of modern Portuguese poetry, Pessoa prophesied the imminent emergence of a "supra-Camões," a poet destined to supplant the sixteenth-century Luis Vaz de Camões as Portugal's national poet. Pessoa's career as a major Portuguese-language poet can be said to have begun on 8 March 1914. On that date, as Pessoa recalled twenty-one years later, he began suddenly to write poetry in different voices (he called them heteronyms—fictional personalities, each one the author of a distinctive body of writing) to which he gave discrete personalities and names. In this way, at that one sitting, he wrote the more than three dozen poems comprising O Guardador de Rebanhos (The Keeper of Sheep) by "Alberto Caeiro," followed immediately by Chuva Oblíqua (Oblique Rain), poems he attributed to himself, and then Ode Triunfal (Triumphal Ode) by "Álvaro de Campos." These heteronyms were joined by "Ricardo Reis," who had been devised by Pessoa in 1913 but whose poetry had not yet been written and would not be published for more than a decade. Thus, in 1914 began what Pessoa, rejecting the outward drama of action or plot, called his drama-en-gente (plays within persons).

In 1915 Pessoa was instrumental in founding Orpheu, an avant-garde journal. There he first published poetry under his own name (Chuva Obliqua) as well as major odes by Campos. In its two issues Orpheu set the course for twentieth-century modernist Portuguese writing.

In 1926 the young editors of the Coimbra-based journal Presença hailed Pessoa as Portugal's greatest living poet. In ensuing years this journal became a major outlet for his poetry. In its pages he published some of his most important work. Besides Campos's Anniversario (Birthday) and Tabacaria (Tobacco Shop)—a strikingly modern poem—Pessoa chose Presença for Autopsicografia (Autopsychography), a poetic statement of an ars poetica. In this poem, in accordance with his anti-romantic commitment to depersonalization, Pessoa reveals that the poet forges his work, that is, he "fakes" his feelings and sentient thoughts so as to "remake" them as he incorporates them into his poems.

Although Pessoa had published many of his major poems and essays in periodicals and newspapers, he left for posterity a trunkful of manuscripts, notes, and other unpublished material. His first editors soon embarked on a "collected works" project that by 2006 had not yet exhausted his literary remains. Remarkably, not until 1982 was Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet) compiled from Pessoa's scattered notes and jottings. Attributed to an assistant bookkeeper he named Bernardo Soares, this "anatomy" of deeply felt, trenchant meditations, these striking instances of self-examination, are considered by many to be among the great literary achievements of the twentieth century.

See alsoPortugal.


Primary Sources

Pessoa, Fernando. Poems I–II. Lisbon, 1921.

——. English Poems III. Lisbon. 1921.

——. Mensagem, Poemas esotéricos. Edited by José Augusto Seabra. Nanterre, France, 1993.

——. Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith. New York, 1998.

——. The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith. New York, 2001.

——. The Book of Disquiet. Edited and translated by Richard Zenith. New York, 2003.

Secondary Sources

Monteiro, George. Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature. Lexington, Ky., 2000. Influences and affinities.

Sadlier, Darlene J. An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa: Modernism and the Paradoxes of Authorship. Gainesville, Fla., 1998. The complexities of Pessoa's multiple authorial identities.

Santos, Irene Ramalho. Atlantic Poets: Fernando Pessoa's Turn in Anglo-American Modernism. Hanover, N.H., 2003. Pessoa in the context of American poets such as Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and others.

George Monteiro