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by Bamber Gascoigne

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) - pseudonyms Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis


The most celebrated Portuguese poet, who had a major role in the development of modernism in his country. Fernando Pessoa was a member of the Modernist group Orpheu; he was its greatest representative. Pessoa's use of "heteronyms," literary alter egos, who support and criticize each other's works was also unconventional. During his career Pessoa was virtually unknown and he published little of his vast body of work. Most of his life Pessoa lived in a furnished room in Lisbon, where he died in obscurity.

I never kept sheep,
But it's as if I'd done so.
My soul is like a shepherd.
It knows wind and sun
Walking hand in hand with the Seasons
Observing, and following along.

(from 'I never kept sheep,' The Keeper of Sheep, 1914)

Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa was born in Lisbon. His father, Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, died of tuberculosis when Pessoa was young. At the age of five or six Pessoa began to address letters to an imaginary companion, named Le Chevalier de Pas, the precursor of hís other imaginary figures. Maria Madalena Nogueira Pessoa, his mother, married João Miguel Rosa, the Portuguese consul in Durban in South Africa, where the family lived from 1896. The marriage  was happy; they had six children.

During these years Pessoa became fluent in English and developed an early love for such authors as William Shakespeare and John Milton. He also composed his early poems in English. In a letter to the editor of the British Journal of Astrology, Pessoa confessed that English education had been a factor of supreme importance in his life. However, his best poems he wrote in Portuguese.

Pessoa was educated in Durban. He was the best student in his class at the Durban High School. By the time he was fourteen he was sending riddles to a newspaper under the pseudonym 'Dr Pancrácio' (Dr Simpleton). At the age of seventeen he returned to Lisbon to study literature at the university. When a student strike interrupted classes, he dropped out of the university, and took a job as a business correspondent. For some years, he lived with his Aunt Anica. She was an enthusiast of occultism, and sparked Pessoa's interest in spiritual matters. Pessoa had a strong anticlerical bent. Organized religion did not appeal to him. In 1916 Pessoa began to experiment with automatic writing. Moreover, he acted as a medium, but admitted later that he had pretended to be able to speak with the spirits. Curiously, Pessoa believed in astrology and he studied  Rosicrucianism but he thought that "spiritism should be prohibited by law".

In 1919 Pessoa met Ophélia Queiroz, a nineteen years old secretary; they exchanged letters but in November 1920 Pessoa broke off with her. Unlike a number of romantically inclined poets, he never produced a body of love poetry addressed to her. 

With his mother, and his half sister Henriquetta, Pessoa rented an apartment on the Rua Coelho de Rocha, 16, where he lived until his death. Pessoa never married. In a letter in the 1930s, he stated that sexual desires are "a hindrance to superior mental processes." However, his own sexual orientation obsessed him.

Pessoa set up a small printing company called 'Ibis' with the money he inherited from his grandmother, but the business failed. He used to embrass his family by standing on one leg and shooring out "I am an ibis". Outside his familily he had no close friendships; the heteronyms replaced the contacts with real people. 

Pessoa earned a modest living as a commercial translator, and wrote avant-garde reviews, especially for Orpheu, which was a forum for new aesthetic views. His articles in praise of the saudosismo (nostalgia) movement provoked polemics because of their extravagant language. Pessoa's first book, Antinous, came out in 1918, and was followed by two other collection of poems, all written in English. It was not until 1933 that he published his first book, the slim, prize-winning Mensagem, in Portuguese. It did not attract much attention.

The bulk of Pessoa's oeuvre appeared in literary magazines, especially in his own Athena. In John Murry's Athenaeum his work appeared only once; the magazine ceased publication in 1921. 'Spell,' published in May 1923 in Contemporanea, was the last of his English poems to achieve print in his lifetime.

Before creating his literary personalities from his inner discordant voices, Pessoa had long had doubts about his own sanity. Under his own name Pessoa wrote poems that are marked by their innovative language, although he used traditional stanza and metric patterns. The poetical technique for which Pessoa has become especially noted is the use of heteronyms, or alternative literary personae, resembling the verse personae of Ezra Pound. or Søren Kierkegaard's "characters" who actually "authored" some of his books.

Pessoa's own family name means both person and persona. He considered that a "heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of  complete individuality made up by him, or just as the uttersances of some character in a drama would be." It must be said, that Pessoa did not suffer from schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder.

Much of his best work Pessoa attributed later to his heteronyms, de Campos, Reis, and Caeiro, who were partly born as a prank on Mário Sá-Carneiro (1890-1916), an avant-garde poet from Orpheu. Álvaro de Campos, an engineer, represents in the spirit of Walt Whitman the ecstasy of experience; he writes in free verse. Ricardo Reis is an epicurean doctor with a classical education; he writes in meters and stanzas that recall Horace. (See also Jose Saramago's novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984.) Some of the minor heteronyms were exotic, like the Baron of Tieve, a suicidal aristocrat, or Jean Seul de Méluret, and essyist with an interest in dancing girls. One is a woman –  Maria José, a tubercular hunchback with a crippled leg. When analyzing his heteronyms he came to the conclusion that they "have their origin in a deep-seated form of hysteria. I don't know if I'm afflicted by simple hysteria or, more specifically, by hysterical neurasthenia." (Character and Person by John Frow, 2014, p. 218)

Alberto Caeiro, who called himself a shepherd, is against all sentimentality, and writes in colloquial free verse. By the birth of this heteronym, Pessoa had published two books of poetry, 35 Sonnets, and Antinous. Caeiro appeared in him suddenly: "I found myself before a tall chest of drawers, took up a piece of paper, began to write, remaining upright all the while since I always stand when I can." Beginning with a title, The Keeper of Sheep, Pessoa produced over 30 poems in a single go. He then wrote the six poems that make up 'Oblique Rain.'

Caeiro had two disciples, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, who says melancholically in 'The Tobacconist's' (1928): "I am nothing. / I shall always be nothing." According to Reis, "The life of Caeiro cannot be told for there is nothing in it to tell." Pessoa once informed that Caeiro died from tuberculosis in 1915. After meeting him on March 8, 1914, Pessoa began to write poetry. In 'I never kept sheep' Caeiro said: "I've no ambitions or desires. / My being a poet isn't an ambition. / It's my way of being alone." Each persona has a distinct philosophy of life. Pessoa even created literary discussions among them.

In 'Toward Explaining Heteronomity' Pessoa criticized the distinction made between three generic types or classes of poetry – epic or narrative, in which the narrator speaks in the first person, drama, in which the characters do all the talking, and lyric, uttered through the first person. "Like all well conceived classifications, this one is useful and clear; like all classifications, it is false. The genres do not separate out with essential facility, and, if we closely analyze what they are made of, we shall find that from lyric poetry to dramatic there is one continuous gradation. In effect, and going right to the origins of dramatic poetry – Aeschylus, for instance – it will be nearer the truth to say that what we encounter is lyric poetry put into the mouths of different characters."

Pessoa died of hepatitis, brought on by heavy drinking, on November 30, 1935, in Lisbon. The previous day he wrote as his last words: "I know not what tomorrow will bring." Pressoa was buried at the Cemitério dos Prazeres– it was not his final resting place. His remains were removed in 1985 to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon.

Throughout his life, Pessoa kept himself aloof from the literary world, but he followed keenly foreign literary movements. "There are many cultured persons in Portugal, but there are no cultural milieu," he once said. One of Pessoa's pen friends was the English writer and occult figure Aleister Crowley, known as "the Great Beast" – their correspondence began in 1930. Crowley signed his letters "666". In the 1910s Pessoa had practiced mediumistic writing, claiming once that his uncle, Manuel Gualdino da Cunha, had used his hand to make a signature. Many of Pessoa's questions to the spirits dealt with his own sex life. One of them mocked him, "You masturbator! You masochist! You man without manhood!" In his library Pessoa had E.G. Stanley's book Amativeness: The Master Passion of Life, which warned about the effects of masturbation. Although Pessoa later came into the conclusion, that his method of communication with spirits was self-deceptive, he continued to experiment with automatic writing, which was in France an important part of the Surrealist techniques.

Pessoa left behind some 25,000 unpublished text and fragments, both poetry and prose, everything from horoscopes to detective stories. From the 1940s, his poetry started to gain a wider audience in Portugal and later Brazil. Several of his collections have been published posthumously and translated in Spanish, French, English, German, Swedish, Finnish, and other languages. Among the most important works are Poesias de Fernando Pessoa (1942), Poesias de Álvaro de Campos (1944), Poemas de Alberto Caeiro (1946), and Odes de Ricardo Reis (1946). Pessoa's work has inspired writers such as the South-African poet Roy Campbell (1901-1957), the Nobel laureate José Saramago (1922-2010), and the Italian novelist and short story writer Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012)

"Quando vim a ter espenranças, já não sabia ter esperanças.
Quando vim a olhar para a vida, perdera o sentido da vida."

(from 'Aniveresario')

Known above all as a poet, Pessoa also wrote short essays, several of which were briefly sketched or unfinished. His most significant work Livro do Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet), the "factless autobiography," was found in an envelope. Written under the name Bernardo Soares, which was on the title page, it appeared for the first time in 1982, almost 50 years after the author's death.

The Book of Disquiet is a collection of prose manuscripts, written in the style of an intimate diary. Bernardo Soares is troubled by alienation and experiences of drowning: "And I, truly, I am the center that doesn't exist except as a convention in the geometry of the abyss; I am the nothingness around which this movement spins..." Soares praises the literary magazine to which Pessoa contributes, he loves and hates his city, but cannot break out of his monotonous life. O banquiero anarquista (The Anarchist Banker), published in 1922, was Pessoa's longest story. This dialogue novella asks the question, "What is an anarchist?" The unnamed protagonist, a banker, sees himself to be a true anarchist, in idea and practice. He defines the concept of anarchism in the context of personal freedom. By getting rich, he has gained liberty for himself. "I have achieved my limited dream as a practical, clear-thinking anarchist. I'm free. I do what I want – to the extent, of course, that what I want is possible." Prophetically, the banker sees that the Russian Revolution will set back the goal of a free sociaty by decades. "But what more could we expect from a nation of mystics and illiterates?"

Pessoa's own political views were controversial. He defended the military coup d'etat of 1926, which turned the country into a dictatorship, but he wrote a few satirical poems of António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968. Pessoa once described himself as a "mystical nationalist"– he had occult interests, believed in astrology, and had a wide knowledge of Rosicrucianism and Masonic rites. However, in 1935 he stated in a newspaper article, that he was not a Freemason, and did not belong to any Order of a similar or different nature. 

For further reading: Vida e obra de Fernando Pessoa by Gaspar Simõnes (1950, 2 vols.); Estudos sobre Fernando Pessoa by A. Casais Monteiro (1958); O poeta é um fingidor by J. de Sena (1961); Diversidade e unidade em Fernando Pessoa by J. do Prado Coelho (1973); Pessoa revisitado by E. Lourenço (1973); Man Who Never Was by George Monteiro (1982); Poesia e matafísica by Eduardo Lourenço (1983); The Presence of Pessoa by George Monteiro (1998); Modern Art in Portugal 1910-1940, ed by Joao B. Serra (1998); Fernando Pessoa: Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems, ed. by George Monteiro (1989); Fernando Pessoa: Voices of Nomadic Soul by Zbigniew Kotowich (1996); An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa by Darlene J. Sadlier (1998); The Presence of Pessoa: English, American, and Southern African Literary Responses by George Monteiro (1998); Fernando Pessoa and 19th Century Anglo-American Literature by George Monteiro (2000); Embodying Pessoa: Corporeality, Gender, Sexuality by Anna Klobucka and Mark Sabine (2007); Fernando Pessoa's Modernity Without Frontiers: Influences, Dialogues and Responses, ed. by Mariana Gray de Castro (2013); Fernando Pessoa - The Poet With Many Faces by Hubert Dudley Jennings (2019) - Note: Pessoa's statue is in front of the café Brasileira in Lisbon.  In Finnish: Suomeksi julkaistu myös valikoima Hetkien valellus (1974), suom. Pentti Saaritsa, En minä aina ole sama: runoutta, suom Pentti Saaritsa (2001) ja Minä, aina vieras, suom. Janne Löppönen & Harry Salmenniemi (2016), Minä se olen, suom. Leo Saukkoriipi (bilingual edition; 2020); Virtual Subjects, Fugitive Selves: Fernando Pessoa and His Philosophy by Jonardon Ganeri (2020). Antologiassa Salaperäinen seurue (1997) oli mukana Pessoan runoja.

Selected works:

  • O Marinheiro, 1913 (play)
    - The Mariner (in The Selected Prose of Fernando Pesson, edited and translated by Richard Zenith, 2001)
  • O guardador de rebanhos (written in 1914 under the name Alberto Caeiro)
    - The Keeper of Flocks (translated by J. C. R. Green, 1976) / The Keeper of Sheep (translated by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown, 1997)
  • 35 sonnets, 1917
  • Antinous, 35 sonnets, 1918 (2 vols.)
  • Sonnets, 1918
  • English Poems: Antinous, 35 sonnets, Epithalamium, 1921 (3 vols.)
  • O banquiero anarquista, 1922 (in the Lisbon magazine Contemporânea)
    - The Anarchist Baner (in Always Astonished: Selected Prose, translated by Edwin Honig, 1988; The Selected Prose of Fernando Pesson, edited and translated by Richard Zenith, 2001)
    - Anarkistipankkiiri (suom. Sanna Pernu, 1992)
  • 'O caso mental português', 1932 (in Fama)
    - 'Mielipuoliportugeesi' (suom. Jarkko S. Tuusvuori, niin & näin, 2/2012)
  • Mensagem, 1933
    - Message (translated by Jonathan Griffin, 2007)
  • À memória do Presidente-Rei Sidónio Pais, 1940
  • Poesias de Fernando Pessoa, 1942
  • Obras completas, 1942-56
  • Cartas, 1944
  • Poesias de Álvaro de Campos, 1944
  • A Nova Poesia Portuguesa, 1944
  • Cartas de Fernando Pessoa a Armando Côrtes-Rodrigues, 1945 (ed. by Joel Serrão, rev. ed. 1959)
  • Poemas de Alberto Caeiro, 1946
  • Odes de Ricardo Reis, 1946
  • Páginas de doutrina estética, 1946 (ed. by Jorge de Sena)
  • Obras completas, 1952-
  • Poemas Dramáticos, 1952
  • Quadras ao Gosto Popular, 1955
    - Quadras ao gosta popular = Quatrains in the Popular Style (translated, with introduction and notes by Philip Krummrich, 2003)
  • Poesias Inéditas: 1919-1930, 1956
  • Cartas de Fernando Pessoa a João Gaspar Simoes, 1957 (ed. by João Gaspar Simões)
  • Cartas a Fernando Pessoa, 1958-1959 (2 vols., by Mário Sá-Carneiro, ed. by Helena Cidade Moura)
  • Obra Poética, 1960 (ed. by Maria Aliete Galhoz)
  • Páginas de Estética e de Teoria e Crítica Literárias, 1966
  • Páginas Íntimas e de Auto Interpretação, 1966 (ed. by J. do Prado Coelho and G.R. Lind)
  • Textos Filosóficos, 1968 (2 vols., ed. by A. de Pina Coelho)
  • Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, Fernando Pessoa, 1971 (4 vols., edited and translated by Jonathan Griffin)
  • Selected Poems by Fernendo Pessoa, 1971 (translated by Edwin Honig)
  • Selected Poems, 1971 (translated by Peter Rickard)
  • Sixty Portuguese Poems, 1971 (translated by F.E.G.Q.)
  • Novas Poesias Inéditas, 1973
  • Cartas de Amor de Fernando Pessoa, 1978
  • Sobre Portugal, 1979
  • Textos de Crítica e de Intervenção, 1980 (Obras completas)
  • Obra Poética, 1981 (includes the poem Tabacaria, written under the name Álvaro de Campos, 1928)
    - The Tobacconist's = Tabacaria (translated by Suzette Macedo, 1987)
  • Livro do desassossego por Bernardo Soares, 1982
    - The Book of Disquiet (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 1991; Alfred Mac Adam, 1998; Richard Zenith, 2003)
    - Levottomuuden kirja (suom. Sanna Pernu, 1999)
  • Poemas Completos de Alberto Caeiro, 1994 (edited by Teresa Sobral Cunha)
  • Always Astonished: Selected Prose, 1988 (translated by Edwin Honig)
  • Fernando Pessoa & Co: Selected Poems, 1998 (edited by Richard Zenith)
  • Poems of Fernando Pessoa, 1998 (translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown)
  • The Education of the Stoic: The Only Manuscript of the Baron of Teive, 2002
  • The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa, 2002 (edited by Richard Zenith)
  • A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, 2006 (translated by Richard Zenith)
  • Destacado e nítido, 2020 (prefácio, Jerónimo Pizarro; selecção e organização, Miguel Almeida)
  • Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro, 2020 (edited by Jerónimo Pizarro and Patricio Ferrari; translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari)

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