The most celebrated Portuguese poet, who had a major role in the development of modernism in his country. 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 as a writer 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. Maria Madalena Nogueira Pessoa, his mother, married the Portuguese consul in Durban in South Africa, where the family lived from 1896. During these years Pessoa became fluent in English and developed an early love for such authors as William Shakespeare and John Milton. He also used English in his first collections of poems. Pessoa was educated in Cape Town. At the age of seventeen he returned to Lisbon to continue his studies at the university. When a student strike interrupted classes, he gave up his studies, and got employment as a business correspondent.
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, appeared 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. However, it did not attract much attention.
The bulk of Pessoa’s work was published in literary magazines, especially in his own Athena. 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 name means both person and persona. At the age of five or six the poet had started to address letters to an imaginary companion, named Le Chevalier de Pas. Later much of his best work Pessoa attributed to his heteronyms, 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. Alberto Caeiro, a shepherd, is against all sentimentality, and writes in colloquial free verse. 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 wrote 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 on November 30, 1935 in Lisbon. He had avoided social life and the literary world, but his poetry started to gain a wider audience from the 1940s 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).
"Quando vim a ter esperanças, já não sabia ter esperanças.
Quando vim a olhar para a vida, perdera o sentido da vida."
Known above all as a poet, Pessoa also wrote short essays, several of which were briefly sketched or unfinished. His LIVRO DO DESASSOSSEGO (The Book of Disquiet), the "Factless Autobiography", written under the name Bernardo Soares, 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 for which Pessoa writes, he loves and hates his city, but cannot break out of his monotonous life.
biography taken from Fernando Pessoa
Introducing Fernando Pessoa by Fernando Pessoa
The whole constitution of my spirit is one of hesitancy and of doubt. Nothing is or can be positive to me; all things oscillate around me, and all is meaning. All things are "unknown", symbolic of the Unknow. Consequently horrors, mistery, over-intelligence fear.
(Fernando Pessoa, an untitled excerpt written in english)
In my trade, which is literary, I’m a professional, in the highest sense of the term; that is, I’m a scientific craftsman who does not permit himself to have any opinions that are not literary. Nor should not having this or that philosophical belief to these people-books lead anyone to think I’m a skeptic
(Fernando Pessoa, an untittled excerpt)
A medium of myself and still I survive. I am, therefore, less real than the others, less coherent, less personal, and extremely vulnerable to their influence. I am also a disciple of Caeiro and I still remeber the day – March 13, 1914 – when, having "heard for the first time" … a large number of the first poems of The Keeper of Sheep, I immediately began to write «Oblique Rain» the visible and logical result of Caeiro’s influence on the mind of Fernando Pessoa.
(Fernando Pessoa, from «The Genesis of the Heronyms»)
Behind the involuntary masks of the poet, the reasoning person, and whatever else, what I am essentially is a dramatist. The phenomenon of my indistinctive depersonalization which I alluded to in my last letter as an explanation for the existence of the heteronyms, naturally leads to this definition. As such, I do not evolve, I TRAVEL…
(Fernando Pessoa, letter to Adolfo Casais Monteiro, 1935)