by Fernando Pessoa
THE LITERARY WORK
A group of 44 poems set mainly in Portugal, but also in Africa and India, from the twelfth to the sixteenth century; written 1913-34; published in Portuguese (as Mensagem) in 1934, in English in 1992.
Featuring the motif of the semi-legendary King Sebastian, the poems revolve around key events and figures of Portuguese history and myth in relation to the nation’s founding, the Reconquest, and the voyages of exploration.
Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon on June 13, 1888, and he died there in November 1935. When Pessoa was five years old, his father died, and his mother remarried two years later. Pessoa’s stepfather was the Portuguese consul in Durban, South Africa, and after the boy and his mother moved there in 1896, he attended local schools and became fluent in English. Pessoa returned to the Portuguese capital in 1905, where he enrolled in the University of Lisbon, but two years later abandoned his studies in favor of a career as a commercial correspondent. He never returned to school and rarely ever left the area of greater Lisbon. Best known for writing poetry under the guise of four distinct literary personalities (heteronyms), Pessoa published only one complete book of poems during his lifetime—Mensagem, or Message. While his work was known only to a small group of friends and specialists at the time of his death, he is now considered one of the most important, complex voices in Portuguese poetry. In Mensagem the poet evokes key moments and figures of Portuguese history to trace the contours of a spiritual quest for identity that is both personal and collective.
The origins of the nation and the Reconquest
Portugal emerged as an independent nation at the beginning of the twelfth century when the first king, Afonso Henriques, successfully rebelled against his mother, Theresia (called D. Tareja in Message), the illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VI, who ruled the Spanish kingdoms of Leon, Castile, Galicia, and the kingdom of Portugal. At that time, the Christian populations of the northern Iberian Peninsula were engaged in the Reconquest, a series of military campaigns to oust the Islamic rulers who controlled more than half the peninsula’s territory. In his tenure as founder of Portugal’s first dynasty, the House of Burgundy, Afonso Henriques managed to extend the nation’s frontiers well to the south of Lisbon and, during the reign of his grandson, Afonso III (1246-79), the Reconquest was completed in Portugal. Immediately following this consolidation of national borders, Afonso III’s son, Dinis, proclaimed Portuguese to be the national language, created a national university (in Lisbon,
Besides writing and publishing poems under his own name, Fernando Pessoa created a series of literary personae who also produced a significant body of work. Pessoa chose to call these personae “heteronyms” instead of pseudonyms because each had a personality that he considered different from his own. The poems attributed to Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos are written in styles unlike that used by Pessoa in the work that he signed under his own name. In addition, all these “poets” were given distinct biographies which, according to their creator, contributed to both their literary style and their personalities. The first to appear was Caeiro, who was considered the “master” by Pessoa and the others. Caeiro was a simple man, barely literate, who championed a poetry of the senses. Reis, on the other hand, cultivated a neo-classical verse style, while Campos was the author of long modernist odes, written in free verse, and of shorter, ironic poems filled with his existential doubts. Bernardo Soares, author of the Livro do Desassossego (Book of Disquietude) wrote exclusively in prose. For this reason and because, as Pessoa explained, Soares was not a different personality from his, but rather a mere mutilation of his personality, Pessoa considered him a “semi-heteronym” (see Obras Completas, vol. 2, p. 343). While Pessoa resorted to various explanations regarding the appearance and role of the heteronyms, it is evident that they were more than mere literary artifices, nor can they be understood in purely psychological terms. Generations of critics have debated the form and function of these personalities from a variety of linguistic and literary perspectives.
later moved to Coimbra), and established Lisbon as the capital. Dinis (reigned 1279-1325) also gained renown as a poet, one of the last to cultivate the medieval verse form of the cantigas, songs inspired by the troubadour culture.
The House of Burgundy’s rule came to an end and the House of Avis was initiated in 1385 when João I (John I) proclaimed himself king after successfully rebelling against Leonor Teles, widow of King Ferdinand I. João married Phillipa of Lancaster, daughter of the British Duke John of Gaunt, thereby cementing a political alliance with England that would last until the present day. The couple had five sons (Duarte, Pedro, Henrique, João, and Fernando). Commonly referred to as the inclita geração (the illustrious generation), they would become active participants in the first voyages of discovery. Duarte, in conjunction with his father, organized a military expedition to the Moroccan port of Ceuta, which the Portuguese forces attacked and successfully captured in 1415. Upon establishing a military presence and erecting a fortress there, the men returned to Portugal rich with booty and confident in the knowledge that they were helping to expand the Christian faith. While many immediately clamored to continue the campaigns in Morocco, King João I decided to forego any subsequent expeditions.
On the death of his father in 1433, Duarte assumed the throne; in 1437, he was persuaded to resume Portuguese crusades in North Africa. That year the Portuguese assailed Tangier in an attack that failed miserably—Duarte’s brother Fernando was taken captive during this campaign and died in prison, earning the nickname Infante Santo (Sainted Prince). Once again, expeditions to Africa came to a halt. Upon Duarte’s death in 1438, his brother Pedro, duke of Coimbra, assumed the role of regent after a brief civil war that pitted those in favor of continuing the incursions against the “infidel” in North Africa against those opposed to the endeavor. Under Pedro’s leadership, the expeditions to Africa resumed.
Voyages of discovery
Of the remaining sons of João I, his namesake, João, left the slightest mark on history. Henrique, on the other hand, who was to become known as Henry the Navigator, is best remembered for his role in preparing the way for Portugal’s overseas expansion and subsequent empire. Named Duke of Viseu and Master of the Order of Christ, Henrique was awarded the governership of Ceuta and the Algarve (the southernmost part of continental Portugal, a separate kingdom at the time). He also received rights to develop the recently discovered islands of Madeira and the Azores. In order to better exploit the wealth and potential of his possessions, Henrique established a center of learning in Sagres, at the far southwestern tip of Portugal. Surrounded by scholars and experts on foreign trade, he found himself in an excellent position to sponsor a series of sea voyages along the coast of West Africa. By the time of Henrique’s death in 1460, Portuguese vessels had arrived to the south of the Geba River, in what is present-day Guinea-Bissau.
Ostensibly the motivations for these voyages were to extend the Reconquest, to spread the Christian faith, and hopefully to make contact with the mythic territory ruled over by the rich and powerful emperor-priest Prester John, a legendary Christian leader thought to be living anywhere from northeastern Africa to Asia. However, a subsidiary plan gradually took shape. It became increasingly clear that there were enormous profits to be made from these voyages of exploration. In addition to the great quantities of gold added to the nation’s coffers, the expeditions yielded slaves (imported to Portugal and to the rest of Europe) and such precious commodities as red pepper, cotton, grain, and ivory. Moreover, as the Portuguese continued to chart new stretches of the coast, leaving behind padrões (“standards” or stone pillars topped by a cross), claiming the newly discovered territories for the Crown, a plan to reach the Indian Ocean by sea emerged. In 1485-86, during the reign of João II (grandson of Duarte), the navigator Diogo Cão charted the coast of Africa from Gabon to Namibia. Finally, in 1488, a fleet of three caravels, commanded by Bartolomeu Dias, rounded the southern tip at Cape of Good Hope. While Vasco da Gama’s history-making voyage to India was not to occur for another ten years, Europe’s understanding of science and geography were forever changed by Dias’s feat.
In conjunction with the efforts to round the southern tip of Africa, King João II also chartered many expeditions to the west. By the mid-1480s, the king and his advisers had accepted the theory that the earth was a sphere. When he declined to subsidize Christopher Columbus’s trip, believing correctly that the sea route to India via the east was much shorter, Columbus left Portugal and sought support from the king and queen of neighboring Spain. Columbus had, however, lived and studied navigation and geography in Portugal, so upon his return from the New World, he stopped off in Lisbon to inform the Portuguese king of his success. This led to a series of negotiations with Castile and to the subsequent division of the globe on a line that ran north-south 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. According to the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), lands to the west of that line would belong to Spain; those to the east, to Portugal.
João II did not live long enough to see his dream of sending a fleet to India fulfilled; it was during the reign of his successor, Manuel I, that Vasco da Gama would complete the trip, his ships returning to Europe loaded with valuable spices and with important knowledge about navigating the Indian Ocean. On the following voyage to India, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral, Brazil was discovered when Cabral’s ships sailed far to the southwest, apparently in search of strong currents to propel them back around the Cape of Good Hope. According to the Treaty of Tordesillas, this new land also belonged to the king of Portugal, while the rest of South America would remain Spanish. Another Portuguese adventurer, nonetheless, played an important role in the discovery of Argentina and Chile—Fernão de Mag-alhães (Magellan). In service to the king of Spain at the time, he became the first to circumnavigate the globe as he searched for a western route to the Moluccas (Spice Islands of Indonesia).
During the decades after Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, the Portuguese Crown’s main interest lay in Asia, a continent that was home to diverse cosmopolitan societies, many of whom were eager to trade with Europeans. Within a very short time, Portugal gained sea control of the entire Indian Ocean and, over the course of the following decades, it established commercial and military alliances in India, Malacca, China (Macau), and Japan. The administrative heart of the Eastern Empire was in India, whose territory of Goa received its first viceroy in 1505. It was, however, the second viceroy of India who would become known as “both the true founder of the Portuguese ‘empire’ in Asia and the best warrant of its permanence” (Oliveira Marques, p. 233). During the rule of this second viceroy, Afonso de Albuquerque (1509-1515), Portuguese authority was established from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca.
King Sebastian and the sebastianist myth
The central metaphor of Message is that of King Sebastian (who disappeared while in battle in North Africa) and the prophecy that the Fifth Empire of the world would be inaugurated upon his return. The real Sebastian had a brief, albeit dramatic, life. By 1557, when young Sebastian inherited the throne (he was just three at the time), Portugal controlled a commercial empire with holdings on three continents (Asia, Africa, and South America), commanding the respect and envy of other European nations who looked to them as a model for expansion. That is not to say there were no problems to solve. Much of the wealth from overseas trade was invested unwisely, and corruption ran rife. Moreover, religious intolerance soared until Portugal established its own Inquisition in 1537. Unfortunately, Portugal could not look to Sebastian to solve its problems. His death in 1578 would, in fact, bring Portugal face-to-face with the greatest obstacle it had ever confronted. When Sebastian disappeared in a battle against the Moors in Alcácer Quibir (Morocco) in the summer of 1578, he left no heirs (the young bachelor-king was said to abhor the idea of taking a wife). Two years later, in 1580, his great-uncle, King Felipe II of Spain, asserted his rights to the Portuguese throne. The “Iberian Union,” under which Spain and Portugal were governed by the same monarch, would last 80 years, until the restoration of Portuguese independence in 1640.
Sebastian’s physical and intellectual weaknesses have been documented by many sources. Raised in a climate of religious fanaticism, he showed little interest in governing Portugal, instead recklessly dreaming of leading his army in a campaign to conquer Morocco. At a time when European expansion was moving swiftly into a modern, mercantilist phase, he acted on a misguided desire to revive the medieval ideology of Reconquest. Nevertheless, his loss was sorely felt, especially among Portugal’s lower classes. While the aristocrats tended to support the post-Sebastian Habsburg rule, which assured them financial gain and political protection, the less privileged felt abandoned and decided to resist. Rumors began to circulate, alleging that the young king had not actually died in the battle. Since his corpse had never been definitively identified and no one would admit to having witnessed his death, a myth began to take shape that Sebastian had retired to some hidden land from whence he would soon return to save Portugal and restore independence.
This belief, called sebastianismo, became yet one more of many messianic prophesies that circulated in sixteenth-century Europe. In Portugal, the myth surrounding Sebastian’s disappearance was quickly associated with earlier predictions circulated by a shoemaker named Bandarra during the reign of King João III. Bandarra had announced the arrival of a hidden king or savior (o encoberto) who would redeem humanity. At the same time, the sebastianist myth took on special meaning for the “new Christians” (Jews forced to convert by the Inquisition), who related the lost king’s return to a belief in the so-called Fifth Empire of the Old Testament. (An apocalyptic prediction in the Book of Daniel, the Fifth Empire refers to the Greek nation’s demise being followed by that of four kingdoms. From their ruins would arise a powerful king whose appearance would signal the end of history and a resurrection of the righteous and the wicked.) Eventually, the form of this savior began to be confused with that of the duke of Bragança who, as King João IV, would lead the nation after independence from Spain in 1640. Father António Vieira (1608-1697), a Jesuit priest who preached in both Brazil and Portugal, was one of the main exponents of a theory that João IV would succeed in founding a universal empire based on a purified “True Faith.” Even after the death of the king, Vieira, who declared himself a prophet like those of the Old Testatment, continued to believe in the king’s imminent resurrection. As one might expect, his declarations resulted in Vieria’s having serious trouble with the Inquisition, the tribunal established to suppress deviation from teachings of the Catholic Church. He was confined to a monastery, then exiled to Rome. By the twentieth century, when Fernando Pessoa chose the sebastianist myth as the organizing metaphor for Message, clearly no one continued to believe in the return of the historical King Sebastian as savior of the Portuguese people. But for some, messianic sebastianist thought did still hold a certain imaginative power, and all Portuguese knew the story that the desired king (o Desejado) would appear, on a foggy morning, to save the nation from its torpor and decadence.
Message is divided into three parts-“Blazon,” “Portuguese Sea,” and “The Hidden One.” As readers move through the poetry that comprises each part, it becomes clear that they are accompanying the poet on a journey that is both historical and spiritual. They are advancing toward a rebirth or regeneration that will occur once the signs are in place (that is, once the necessary prophecies have occurred) and the time is prepared for the return of King Sebastian.
The short poems that comprise the first part of Message correspond loosely to the various components in the Portuguese Royal Coat of Arms. They are arranged in five subsections, beginning with “The Fields.” The two poems in this subsection define the background of the blazon, describing the Portuguese nation in physical and spiritual terms. In “The Castles,” Europe is portrayed as a woman gazing out at the west, a space described as “the future of the past, / The face that stares is Portugal” (Pessoa, Message, The Poems of Fernando Pessoa, p. 161). The following poem, “The Five Shields,” begins by affirming that “disaster’s the price of glory” (Message, p. 161). The speaker goes on to celebrate these two opposite extremes, observing that life is short and that, to achieve Grace, one must be willing to risk lowliness and misfortune. While Sebastian is not specifically mentioned, the emphasis on extremes and on disaster evokes the king’s recklessness, a characteristic presented as fundamental for the attainment of grandeur.
The remaining four subsections in this first section correspond to the seven castles, the five shields, the crown, and the crest found on the coat of arms. Each poem in the “The Castles” subsection is directed to a mythic or historical figure: Ulysses, supposedly the founder of the city of Lisbon, is invoked, as is Viriato, the courageous Lusitanian warrior who dared to defy the Roman invaders. The other figures addressed all belong to Portugal’s early history, and it is implied that their role is one of preparation for the glorious moment of expansion. Included are Count Henry, Queen Tareja, King Afonso Henriques, King Dinis (described as “planter of ships to come” [Message, p. 164]), King John I, and Phillipa of Lancaster. The five poems in “The Shields” subsection are spoken in the first person—four from the perspective of the sons of João I; the final one from that of Sebastian. In this first of many references to this king, we hear him praise his madness, for it alone can explain the degree of greatness he desired: “Which fate gives nobody” (Message, p. 166). Next come poems describing four national heroes whose deeds assured Portugal independence and imperial glory (Nun’ Álvares Pereira, Prince Henrique, King John II, and Afonso de Albuquerque).
Twelve poems make up the second section of Message. In this section, the dangers and uncertainties of the Age of Discoveries are dramatized, first through a poem directed to Prince Henry the Navigator, followed by a more general appeal to the sea beyond the horizon. In the third poem, Diogo Cão claims the endless sea for the Portuguese, while the fourth poem decries the dangerous, mythical sea monster that inhabits the rocks along the Cape of Good Hope. The reference here is to the mythical Adamastor, a sea monster whose tragic prophecies alarm the Portuguese explorers in the Portuguese epic The Lusiads (also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). From Adamastor, the section progresses to prominent real-life figures associated with the
I ntroducing each part of the Portuguese version of Message is a Latin epigraph that evokes the general tenor of that section:
Salutation Benedictus Domirtus Deus Noster Qui Dedit Nobis Signum —Blessed is the Lord Our God Who Gave the Sign to Us
Epigraph to Part 1 Bellum Sine Bello— War Without War
Part 2 Possessio Maris —Possession of the Sea
Part 3 Pax in Excelsis —Peace in the Highest
Valediction Valete, Fratres— Farewell, Brothers
voyages of discovery (Bartolomeu Dias, the Columbus brothers, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama). Then come several poems focusing on the loss of King Sebastian and on other prices paid in the name of Portuguese glory. The poet recognizes the tears shed by mothers, and future wives left behind. He concludes, however, that “Anything’s worth it, / If the soul’s not petty. / If you’d sail beyond the Cape / Sail you must beyond cares, past grief. / God gave perils to the sea and sheer depth, / But mirrored heaven there” (Message, p. 173). The eleventh poem, “The Last Ship,” describes King Sebastian’s departure, sailing into the sun “Alone, ill-omened, to anguished cries impending” (Message, p. 174). Here, in the final two stanzas, the speaker refers to himself as poet, using the first-person pronoun (“I”) for the first time as he addresses the mad young king (previously the speaker made use of either a collective “we” or assumed the dramatized perspective of other historical figures). In preparation for the final part of Message, the speaker exclaims “The hour I do not know, but know there is an hour” (Message, p. 173). The closing poem of this section then comprises a prayer in which the poet asks: “And once again we’ll go and vanquish Distance—/ Of the ocean-sea or anything, so long as it is ours!” (Message, p. 174).
“The Hidden One.”
The third and final section of Message, “The Hidden One,” includes 13 poems in three subsections. Each subsection corresponds to the necessary conditions for King Sebastian’s return. The first subsection, “The Symbols,” describes elements of sebastianist myth, such as the Fifth Empire. In the second subsection, “The Prophecies,” after two poems that refer to historical figures who prophesised Sebastian’s return (Bandarra and António Vieira), Pessoa includes an untitled poem, in the first person, that directly addresses the lost king, asking when he will redeem the poet, making him “more than the fitful sigh / Of some vast yearning God created?” (Message, p. 178). After this poem, in which he implicitly declares himself the third prophet of Sebastian’s return, the poet ends the volume with five short poems in the subsection “Times” (in Portuguese, Tempos refers to both historical era and to weather conditions). Night, storm, calm, pre-dawn, and heavy fog—these times will lead to the much awaited misty day on which the king will arrive. There is a pessimistic assessment of contemporary Portugal (“All’s uncertain, nears its end, /All’s fragmented, nothing’s whole. / O Portugal, today you are the fog”), followed by energetic exaltation. The way has been prepared for the longed-for personal and national redemption—“Comes the Hour!” (Message, p. 181).
Occultism and esoteric thought
Much of the structure and content of Message is informed by esoteric thought or occultist practice. The poem’s tripartite organization, as well as the additional division of the third section into three subsections, draws upon the “three-step initiatory hierarchy to be found in many of the occultist sources that Pessoa knew, from Freemasonry to ritual magic to Theosophy” (Sousa, p. 142). In these rites, the initiate moves from an incipient state of ignorance through a phase of struggle in order to attain enough insight and knowledge to be able to carry on the journey on his own. Applying the three stages to Message, one can surmise that the readers occupy the role of the initiate, and it is the poet’s responsibility to show them the way (through his or her portrayal of Portuguese history). Thus, the first section of Message recalls figures and moments of the early stages of Portugal’s history that may be viewed as preparatory to the age of discovery. The second section (“Portuguese Sea”) corresponds to the phase of struggle by invoking the vicissitudes of Empire. In the third and last section, the reader is finally granted access to the signs and prophecies that will allow recognition of spiritual truth and afford the possibility of regeneration, symbolized by the myth of King Sebastian and the Fifth Empire.
The sebastianist cult that infuses the poem and developed in Portugal in the sixteenth century had its roots in a wide variety of medieval philosophies and esoteric practices. Among these were the mystical prophecies regarding the appearance of a messiah that circulated in the New Christian communities of Portugal and the secret rites of the religious order of the Knights Templar, which was disbanded in 1312. As Pessoa himself was to explain in a letter written near the end of his life to the literary critic and poet Adolfo Casais Monteiro, the practices of the latter group became extinct or dormant in Portugal around 1888, but he was able to consult a manuscript containing the rituals of the first three steps of the Templar Order.
In his reply to Casais Monteiro, Pessoa also responded to a question as to whether he himself believed in occultism. While he categorically stated “I do not belong to any Iniatiatic Order” (Obras Completas, vol. 2, p. 345; trans. E. Sapega), he demonstrated a knowledge of great depth about occultist practices. Another biographical note written around the same time, however, contains contradictory information. There, he states that he is “initiated, by direct communication from Master to Disciple, in the three lower levels of the … Order of the Templars in Portugal” (Obras Completas, vol. 3, p. 1429; trans. E. Sapega).
In many regards, Pessoa’s paradoxical statements in regard to his occultist beliefs and practices mirror other aspects of his literary project, such as the creation of the heteronyms. In this latter case, each “personality” can be seen as representing a different point of view or approach to representing the contradictions of existence. It is quite possible, therefore, that the “Pessoa” who wrote Message (as well as several other “occultist” poems) was an initiate, while an altogether different “Pessoa” wrote the letter to Casais Monteiro.
Sources and literary context
Pessoa is considered one of the founders of the modernist movement in Portugal. His early work was greatly influenced by symbolist poets (French and Portuguese), who experimented in writing “pure poetry” that attempted to transform everyday experience through the creation of a private language based on a poet’s sensations. Pessoa’s effort to celebrate the creative ethic of the Portuguese nation has roots in the poetic environment of the early years of the First Republic. Of influence, for example, was the poetry of Teixeira de Pascoaes; in Pascoaes’s work, Pessoa recognized, with appreciation, an ability to resolve the dichotomy between the feeling and the idea by “finding in everything a beyond” (Pessoa, Obras Completas, vol. 2, p. 1176; trans. E. Sapega). Pessoa, however, demanded a greater level of complexity than he found in local poetry of his day and so he looked to the writing of such diverse practitioners as American poet Walt Whitman and French-Italian writer F. T. Marinetti.
The epic view of Portuguese history implicit in Message has led many of the poem’s commentators to compare it to The Lusiads by Renaissance poet Luis de Camoes. As Jacinto do Prado Coelho has pointed out, both The Lusiads and Message display a mystic, missionary concept of Portuguese history. While Pessoa’s poems never make explicit reference to the Renaissance epic, many of them describe the same historical figures and events celebrated by Camoes. Message, however, invokes a different notion of heroism, transferring the object of the poet’s longing and hope to the realm of dream and Utopia. Pessoa’s work furthermore favors a lyric, metaphysical view of the nation’s past rather than the descriptive, narrative elements typical of The Lusiads.
Other influences in Message include English poets and philosophers whose work Pessoa knew as the result of the British education he received as an adolescent in Durban, South Africa (including John Keats, John Milton, and Thomas Carlyle). Carlyle, in particular—with his theories of a society based on an aristocracy of heroes (in which the poet represents the most important hero of all)—seems to have played an important role in the composition of Message.
Soul searching—Republican Portugal to the New State
By the late nineteenth century, when Fernando Pessoa was born, King Sebastian’s return clearly no longer represented a viable solution to the political, economic, and social problems that the Portuguese nation was facing. Still, many artists and intellectuals of the day felt a need to revive this and other nationalist mystical beliefs in the process of imagining a new role for Portugal within the concert of European nations. An interest in spiritualism and theosophy
The first issue of Orpheu, an avant-garde magazine that was the brain child of Fernando Pessoa and fellow poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, was published in March 1915. Its contents, which included a “static,” one-act drama by Pessoa entitled O Marinheiro (The Mariner) and two poems by Pessoa’s het-eronym, Álvaro de Campos, caused a scandal in Lisbon’s conservative artistic and literary circles. A second issue of Orpheu (also containing poems by Pessoa and Campos) came out in June of that same year, and a third issue was planned for 1916. Due to lack of funds and to Sá-Carneiro’s tragic suicide, this final issue never went beyond the stage of page proofs. It is interesting to note, however, that it contained an early version of one of the poems in Message (originally titled “Cladio” [Sword], it would be given the name “D. Fernando, Infante of Portugal” in the 1934 volume). While Orpheu was not the first Portuguese magazine to publish Pessoa’s poetry, its blend of irreverence and experimental artistic techniques made it a touchstone In the history of Portuguese modernism. In Pessoa’s words, “There are only two interesting things in Portugal—the countryside and Orpheu.… Orpheu is the sum and synthesis of all modern literary movements; for that reason, it is more important to write about it than the countryside, which is only just the absence of the people who live in it” (Pessoa, Páginas Íntirnas, pp. 146-47).
was widespread in Europe and the Americas at this time, constituting, in part, a reaction to the so-called positivist views espoused by writers of the naturalist school, who believed that scientific principles could be used to explain people’s relationship to the world around them. The reaction against positivism bespoke a disillusionment with the possibility of a rational explanation for the universe. In Portugal this disillusionment was accompanied by an awareness of the nation’s increasingly diminished role as an imperial power, a disillusionment that perhaps helps account for the resurgence of secret societies such as Freemasonry.
Though Portugal’s political decline was hardly sudden, it advanced precipitously as the twentieth century approached. In 1890 support for the Portuguese monarchy suffered a severe blow in response to a British ultimatum. The ultimatum demanded that Portugal relinquish all territorial claims on the area of Africa roughly corresponding to present-day Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe or face the possibility of a break in diplomatic relations with Britain and the use of force to the same end. Portugal had no alternative but to capitulate. In so doing, the nation’s citizens found themselves acknowledging that Portugal’s reduced presence in Africa was a direct consequence of its marginal position and military weakness in relation to other, more powerful European nations. In the literary sphere, poetry reflected the defeatism felt by the people as a whole, but the writers also set about examining the hidden, spiritual qualities that they believed made the Portuguese a distinct community that could boast not only a glorious past but also a singular emotional understanding of the world. Central to this inquiry was the elaboration of a theory of saudade, a uniquely Portuguese word that invokes a longing, both pleasurable and sorrowful, for someone or something no longer present. Writers in this vein became known as part of the Saudosista Movement; Pessoa’s poem goes beyond their purview, invoking the longing by recalling national heroes of the past, then moving forward to a spiritual rebirth in the vision of an apocalyptic yet redemptive future.
Portugal’s monarchy fell in 1910, to be replaced by a republic that was to last until 1926. The cornerstones of the new government were a strong colonial policy and the secularization of schools and other institutions previously controlled by the Catholic Church. It was during this period that Freemasonry, another esoteric system influencing Pessoa, gained in authority as it added new members, with some 100 lodges enrolling 4,000 participants. Many of the Republic’s programs were never fully implemented due to the economic and political chaos that marked the period, however, and a right-wing military coup in 1926 put an end to the secular democratic experiment, also outlawing Freemasonry two years later.
The military coup of 1926 would lead directly to the creation of the Portuguese Estado Novo (New State), the dictatorship headed by António de Oliveira Salazar. In 1928, Salazar arrived in Lisbon to assume the position of Finance Minister. Salazar acquired direct control over all other ministerial budgets, gaining a financial power that allowed him to quickly assert his influence in all spheres of government. As early as 1929, he was addressing the nation on matters that went well beyond finance (speaking on political and moral issues), and in 1933 a new conservative constitution was approved that institutionalized such corporative governmental structures as a single national party and government-controlled labor syndicates instead of labor unions.
While Salazar himself had previously been allied with right-wing Catholic political movements, he did not go so far as proclaiming Portugal a Catholic nation, and the Constitution of 1933 maintained the republic’s separation of Church and state. Intolerance of non-Catholic practices increased, however, while the nationalist sentiments that had inspired the republic’s proclamation were now tailored to suit the more conservative interests of the New State. Thus, in 1913 when Pessoa embarked on Message, he did so in a relatively open environment, conducive to personal and national introspection and experimentation. By the time he finished in 1934, Portugal had turned a corner, sending such introspection under cover.
While many of the poems that comprise Message were written during the period of the First Republic, Pessoa did not organize them into a volume until one year before his death in 1935. He then entered his book in a competition for a literary prize that was sponsored by the government of the Portuguese New State, headed by António de Oliveira Salazar. According to the regulations for the contest, the award would go to the work that best communicated a sense of patriotic pride. Message did not win, but the Director of Propaganda, António Ferro, acknowledging the value of Pessoa’s poem, decided to reward it anyway, and a “special” category was created. During the years immediately following its publication, Message was treated as a work inspired by a nationalist, even imperialist, sentiment, leading many critics who were closely associated with the regime to interpret it as a paean to Salazar’s New State. During this time, therefore, the book was hailed by those who agreed with Salazar’s politics, while it was often treated as mediocre by those in the opposition.
Later generations of critics came to recognize the poem’s complexity, with critics such as António Quadros and Y. K. Centeno going to great lengths to document its relation to esoteric texts and practices. After the Portuguese revolution of 1974, it became possible to openly discuss and analyze Pessoa’s politically satirical poems and several critical studies appeared that focused on his ambiguous relationship with the Estado Novo. Given the patriotic themes implicit in its treatment of history, the knowledge of the historical context in which it first appeared, and the hermetic view of personal and national experience behind its occultist approach to history, Message remains one of Pessoa’s most controversial projects.
—Ellen W. Sapega
Almeida, Onésimo Teotónio. “A ideologia da Mensagem.” In Mensagem e Poemas esotéricos de Fernando Pessoa. Ed. José Augusto Seabra. Paris: Signatário Acuerdo Archivos, 1993.
Blanco, José. “A Mensagem e a Critica do seu Tempo.” In Fernando Pessoa no seu tempo. Eds. Eduardo Lourenco and António Braz de Oliveira. Lisboa: Biblioteca Nacional de Lisboa, 1988.
Centeno, Y. K. “O pensamento esotérico de Fernando Pessoa.” In Mensagem e Poemas esotéricos de Fernando Pessoa. Ed. José Augusto Seabra. Paris: Signatário Acuerdo Archivos, 1993.
Cirugiao, António. 0 “Olhar esflngico” da “Mensagem.” Lisboa: Instituto de Língua e Cultura Portuguesa/Ministério da Educagão, 1990.
Coelho, Jacinto do Prado. Camões e Pessoa: Poetas da Utopia. Lisboa: Europa América, 1983.
Pessoa, Fernando. Obras Completas. 3 vols. Porto: Lello & Irmao, 1986.
_____;. Páginas Íntimas e de Auto-lnterpretaCão. Eds. Goerg Rudolf Lind and Jacinto Prado Coelho. Lisboa: Ática, 1966.
_____;. Message. In The Poems of Fernando Pessoa. Trans. Edwin Honig and Susan Brown. New York: Ecco, 1986.
Sadlier, Darlene. An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa: Modernism and the Paradoxes of Authorship. Gainesville: Florida University Press, 1998.
Seabra, José Augusto, ed. Mensagem e Poemas esotéricos de Fernando Pessoa. Paris: Signatário Acuerdo Archivos, 1993.
Sousa, Ronald. “Pessoa the Messenger.” In The Re-discoverers. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981.
mes·sage / ˈmesij/ • n. 1. a verbal, written, or recorded communication sent to or left for a recipient who cannot be contacted directly: if I'm not there, leave a message on the voice mail. ∎ an official or formal communication, esp. a speech delivered by a head of state to a legislative assembly or the public: the president's message to Congress. ∎ an item of electronic mail. ∎ an electronic communication generated automatically by a computer program and displayed on a VDT: an error message. ∎ a significant point or central theme, esp. one that has political, social, or moral importance: a campaign to get the message about home security across. ∎ a divinely inspired communication from a prophet or preacher. ∎ a television or radio commercial: we will return after these messages.2. chiefly Brit. an errand: all she did was make the tea and run messages.PHRASES: get the message inf. infer an implication from a remark or action.send a message make a significant statement, either implicitly or by one's actions: the elections sent a message to political quarters that the party was riding a wave of popularity.ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French, based on Latin missus, past participle of mittere ‘send.’
1. The unit of information transferred by a message switching system. Messages may be of any length, from a few bits to a complete file, and no part of a message is released to its final recipient until all of the message has been received at the network node adjacent to the destination.
2. Another name (deprecated) for packet. The distinction between packet and message is valuable, since it refers to whether or not a partial transmission of a complete document can occur; a packet switching system may allow this whereas a message switching system may not.
3. See Shannon's model (of a communication system).
4. A specially formatted document sent in an electronic mail system.
5. See object, object-oriented programming.
So messenger XIII. ME. messager (later messanger) — (O)F. messager, f. message.