Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)

Considered the greatest name in Portuguese poetry since the sixteenth-century poet Vaz de Camoes, Fernando Pessoa has often been described as the quintessential modernist, an artist whose work addresses the principal philosophical, psychological, and spiritual questions of the twentieth century. As Gabriel Josipovici wrote in his Lessons of Modernism, Pessoa is among the few truly representative poets of our time: "When I think of what is most radical in the literature of the past hundred years, of what embodies most clearly the essential spirit of modernism, I think of five grey-suited gentlemen: Constantin Cavafy, Franz Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Fernando Pessoa, Jorge Luis Borges."


Pessoa was born into a cultured Lisbon family. His father, who was a music critic, died when the future poet was five, and a year later his mother married the Portuguese consul to South Africa. Educated in South Africa, Pessoa excelled in English, winning the Queen Victoria essay prize in competition with nine hundred other students. At the age of fifteen he was composing English sonnets in the style of Shakespeare; these poems were later collected and published as Thirty-five Sonnets (1918). Returning to Portugal in 1905, Pessoa briefly attended the University of Lisbon, eventually securing an office job as a commercial translator, an occupation in which he remained for the rest of his life. He did continue to write poetry, but it was not until 1912 that Pessoa began composing poems in Portuguese. Around that time he became associated with poets of the saudosismo movement, whose works expressed a longing for Portugal's glorious past. By 1915 Pessoa was well known as a modernist poet and critic in Lisbon, gaining renown as one of the founders of Orpheu and Presenca, highly influential literary journals. Most of Pessoa's poetry published during his lifetime appeared in literary journals and remained uncollected; with the exception of his English poems, only one volume of verse, Mensagem (1934), appeared during his life. At the time of his death Pessoa's work was not widely known outside of Portugal; consequently, his international reputation is almost entirely based on posthumously published works.

Two subjects predominate in Pessoa's poetry: the elusive and deceptive nature of personal identity and the individual's limited power to apprehend reality. In order to explore these related themes in the most comprehensive manner, he invented a variety of literary alter egos, each with a different world view. Pessoa termed these persons heteronyms, in contrast to the usual designation of "pseudonym." By providing each heteronym with an imaginary biography, philosophical outlook, and characteristic style, Pessoa attempted to create several distinct literary oeuvres. In essence, Pessoa tried to consider each aspect of his personality as an independent entity. In his poetry, this fragmentation of self is evoked by the frequent use of mask symbolism. The recurrence of masks in Pessoa's poetry has also been related to his family name, which derives from the Latin word persona referring to the mask worn by an actor and, by extension, to the role an actor plays. Acutely aware of the many associations brought forth by his name, the poet occasionally created puns on the word "pessoa," which in Portuguese means both "person" and "nobody."

All of Pessoa's heteronyms were "'born,' much like Athena, in full possession of their poetic faculties, producing a variety of works in strikingly different styles. Pessoa effected this remarkable mind-split not in an effort to accommodate an exuberant personality, but to achieve supreme artifice, ironic distance, and complete depersonalization," observed Odile Cisneros in Harvard Review. "Pessoa's jostling aliases expressed his absolute belief that the individual subject, the core of European philosophy, religion and morality, is an illusion," noted New Statesman reviewer John Gray. "Many lyric poets, of course, have written in several voices, but rarely with such a radical self-splitting as this. Why did Pessoa divide himself in such a way? The excitement engendered by his novel procedure may be part of the answer, but obviously his own volatile personality created the main pressure," commented David H. Rosenthal in the New York Times Book Review. "Pessoa is a master pretender, writing under a myriad of assumed names and styles and disowning them all. He eschews identity for multi-personality, and in the chorus of voices, he admits to none," commented Gregg Miller in the Stranger. Despite the many difficulties and confusions inherent in balancing and assessing the seventy-two heteronyms and aliases wielded by Pessoa, today the poet "remains as he was during his lifetime: an obscure, almost inexistent figure, among whose many aliases are to be found some of the most authentic voices in European literature," Gray concluded.

The first heteronym Pessoa created was Alberto Caeiro, whose philosophical views are those of a pagan materialist and whose poetic style is free verse. When writing as Caeiro, Pessoa repudiates all forms of supernaturalism and celebrates a natural existence in which appearances are accepted at face value. In "Guardador de Rebanhos" ("The Keeper of the Flock"), for example, Caeiro praises the senses as the only legitimate basis for knowledge, proclaiming: "I think with my eyes and with my ears." In a letter written to Adolfo Casais Monteiro in 1935, Pessoa described the birth of this heteronym: "[It] was March 8th 1914--I approached a high chest of drawers, and, taking a sheet of paper, I began to write, standing up, as I always write whenever I can. And I wrote thirty or so poems at a stroke in a kind of ecstatic trance, the nature of which I will not be able to define to you. It was the day of triumph in my life and I shall never succeed in living another like that. I opened with the title 'The Keeper of the Flock" ('O Guardador de Rebanhos'); and what followed was that someone emerged from within me, and whom I christened that very moment Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me for the absurdity of the following sentence: my master emerged from within me."

Like Caeiro, Pessoa's second heteronym, Ricardo Reis, is committed to an exclusively sensual reality, and his neo-classicist "paganism" is derived in large part from his acknowledged master, Caeiro. But, whereas Pessoa assumed the role of a naive pastoral poet when he wrote as Caeiro, Reis is a sophisticated and world-weary fatalist who composes poems in fixed forms rather than free verse. Reis's philosophy of resignation is illustrated in "Quando Lidia, vier o nosso outona" ("When, Lydia, Our Autumn Comes"), an exhortation to "seize the day" in view of the ephemeral nature of human existence. Pessoa adopts another philosophical perspective when he takes on the role of the modernist poet Alvaro de Campos, another heteronym. In the exclamatory free verse Pessoa wrote as Campos, critics have observed two contrary impulses. The first, seen in such poems as "Ode triunfal" ( "Triumphal Ode") and "Ode maritima" ("Maritime Ode"), conveys a feverish desire to be everything and everyone, declaring that "in every corner of my soul stands an altar to a different god." The second impulse is toward a state of isolation and a sense of nothingness. In "Tabacaria" ("Tobacco Shop"), for example, Campos is pictured alone in his room, questioning his own existence: "Just as those accustomed to invoke spirits invoke spirits/I invoke Myself and find nothing." In addition to these three major heteronyms, under which Pessoa wrote much of his poetry in Portuguese, he wrote a variety of works under some seventy other heteronyms and "semi-heteronyms," and still others under his own name.

In the 1935 letter to Casais Monteiro, Pessoa described his relation to the heteronyms through which he wrote: "I ... created a non-existent coterie. I established it all in patterns of reality. I graded the influences, was aware of their friendships, heard within me the discussions and the differing of judgments and in all this it seemed to me that it was I, creator of everything, who had the least to do with it all. It seemed that everything took place independently of me; and it seems that this is still taking place in the very same way. If one day I am able to publish the aesthetic discussion between Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos, you will see how much they differ from each other and how I am nothing in this matter."

Pessoa also composed poetry under his own name, which he considered simply another literary alias, designating it an "orthonym." Many of his best poems were written under this name, including those that reveal his interest in occult studies. As a poet open to occult imagery, Pessoa structured his collection Mensagem, which ostensibly related the legend of King Sebastian's resurrection as Portugal's savior, according to occult paradigms charting an initiate's spiritual progress toward enlightenment. Intrigued by esoteric learning and spiritual traditions, Pessoa nevertheless remained uncommitted to any specific doctrine. In his introduction to Pessoa's Selected Poems, Peter Rickard observed that Pessoa "refuses to choose, to commit himself to any god, for that would mean exchanging the reality for the appearance, the unlimited for the limited, the transcendental for the immanent, the occult for the positive, the soul for the surface."

The majority of the critical work on Pessoa's poetry in English translation has focused on the significance of the heteronyms, and some of this work takes a psychological approach to the poetry. Jonathan Griffin, writing in his introduction to an edition of the Selected Poems of Pessoa, is an example of this approach: "Fernando Pessoa is the extreme example of what may be the essentially modern kind of poet: the objective introvert. None has more consistently tried to find his real self with its multiplicity intact and to keep his poems impersonal." Pessoa himself, in his 1935 letter to Casais Monteiro, signaled this response when he stated: "The mental origin of my heteronyms lies in my organic and constant propensity toward depersonalisation and simulation," propensities he attributed to "the profound streak of hysteria which is existent within me." Other critics have adopted this approach to Pessoa's work. "Pessoa anticipated in art by sixty years the multiple-personality theory in science," asserted Joanna Courteau in an essay collected in The Man Who Never Was: Essays on Fernando Pessoa. "The heteronyms ... could be interpreted as Pessoa's representation of man's attempt at listening to and expressing the various voices within." For some, this focus on the slippery nature of individual identity is what makes Pessoa the emblematic poet of the twentieth century.

Though virtually unknown at the time of his death, even in his native Portugal, due to the small amount of work he had published during his lifetime, Pessoa has risen in reputation in the decades following his death. Some critics make considerable claims for the poet, comparing him to Dante, Shakespeare, and other seminal figures in the history of world literature. As Alberto de Lacerda has written: "I shall venture to say that, given the tragic implacable light which Pessoa throws on identity, on responsibility, poetic and otherwise, on shifting the notion of sincerity from the lyrical impulse to intellectual and psychological honesty, he is not the greatest but the most emblematic poet of the Twentieth Century, as Baudelaire was for the Nineteenth Century."

In the early 2000s, editor and translator Richard Zenith produced several new volumes of Pessoa's works. In one of these books, Fernando Pessoa & Co., Zenith assembles a selection of poems by Pessoa and his alternate identities Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Alvaro de Campos. Zenith provides "elegant translations that glide through many stylistic registers" of the many personalities of Pessoa, noted David Wise in a Stranger review, including the "limpid and elegant" Caeiro, the "decadent" de Campos, and the "masochistic intensity" of Reis. Zenith also includes examples of the lyrical work of Pessoa himself. Ray Olson, writing in Booklist, called the collection a "beautiful one-volume course in the soul of the twentieth century."

A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, also edited by Zenith, contains a broader sampling of work by Pessoa and many of his heteronyms. "In this volume Zenith attempts to give English-speaking audiences the largest sampling of Pessoa's work available to date and avoid duplication with his previous Fernando Pessoa & Co., noted Cisneros. In addition to pieces by Caeiro, Reis, de Campos, and Pessoa, this book also includes poetry by other notable pseudonyms, such as Alexander Search, a British alter ego. The four main identities, however, are thoroughly represented here. "Each wrote quite differently from the others, and as Zenith renders them, all wrote brilliantly," observed Ray Olsen in Booklist. De Campos, for example, wrote odes that stand as both homages to and parodies of the work of Walt Whitman, Olson noted. "Zenith's new comprehensive selection and translation of poetry by this coterie of poets jointly inhabiting a single mind is by far the best if not the definitive English edition of a major modernist who, slowly but surely, is earning his rightful place in the Anglophone world," commented Cisneros. "For poetry readers in the English-speaking world, A Little Larger than the Entire Universe should be a major cause for celebration," Cisneros concluded.

In A educacao do estoico, by Alvaro Coelho de Athayde, Barao de Teive, yet another Pessoa alter ego, Zenith "offers a psychology for understanding Pessoa, especially his creation and manipulation of heteronyms," commented World Literature Today critic George Monteiro. The book contains fragments of work by the fictional Baron of Teive that deal in large part with the Baron's decision to kill himself because he has been unable to produce the perfect, ideal work he has sought to create. Monteiro suggested that this disposition of the identity of the Baron was, in some measure, due to the possibility that Pessoa had not been able to fully realize de Teive as a fictional identity. "Perhaps had Pessoa lived longer, he would have been able to flesh out his Barao so as to make him more meaningfully engaging," Monteiro mused. Still, the book has a notable place within the broad canvas of Pessoa's writing. "Although it is a minor work, A educacao do estoico now becomes part of the canon, the latest piece in the puzzle called Pessoa," Monteiro concluded.

The Book of Disquiet, a semiautobiographical work by Pessoa--filtered through the lens of yet another heteronym, Bernard Soares--had its genesis in a trunk full of unfinished works, fragmented narratives, poems, and other material discovered after the poet's death in 1935. "This perpetually unclassifiable and unfinished book of self-reflective fragments was first published in Portuguese in 1982, and it is arguably Pessoa's masterpiece," remarked a reviewer in Publishers Weekly.

"This unique masterpiece--unique because there is nothing quite like it in western literature--purports to be the 'factless autobiography' of an assistant book-keeper named Bernardo Soares," reported London Independent reviewer Paul Bailey. As depicted by Pessoa, Soares is a nondescript office worker who approaches his job with disdain, if not outright hatred, and who lives in a constant state of depression and disappointment. "Yet Soares is a real enough character in his state of almost non-being, and his thoughts are always worthy of close attention," Bailey commented. Soares, some critics suggest, may have been a character that most closely represented the reality of Pessoa himself. If "Bernardo Soares is the nearest we will ever get to Pessoa, then that is part of the beauty of his gift," Bailey remarked. "He treats boredom, lethargy, and failure with a respectful insight entirely his own."

Though Pessoa wrote decades ago, the poetic work found in The Book of Disquiet is "as good as you'll find anywhere, at any time, by anyone," commented a reviewer in Poetry. The book itself "is an inexhaustible jumble of epigrams, images, dreams and fantasies, the self-revelation of a disoriented and half-disintegrated soul that is all the more compelling because the author is himself an invention," Gray observed. "Readers with a particular interest in modernism will find this work indispensable," noted a Publishers Weekly critic. Philip Landon, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, stated that The Book of Disquiet is "one of the undisputed classics of twentieth-century literature," and that Pessoa "stands beside Conrad, Nabokov, and Beckett as a writer who used his position as an imaginative outsider to reinvent literary form."


From: "Fernando Pessoa." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2008.


  • Further Reading


    • Batalha, Maria do Carmo de Siqueira, Construco da "Ode Maritima" ou unidade e multiplicidade em Alvaro de Campos, Editora da Universidade do Sagrado Coracao (Bauru, Brazil), 1996.
    • Belkior, Silva, Texto critico das odes de Fernando Pessoa--Ricardo Reis: Tradico impressa revista e ineditos, Impr. Nacional-Casa da Moeda (Lisbon, Portugal), 1988.
    • Blanco, Jose, editor, Fernando Pessoa: A Galaxy of Poets, 1888-1935, Servico Internacional da Fundacao Calouste Gulbenkian (Lisbon, Portugal), 1985.
    • Campbell, Roy, Portugal, Max Reinhardt (London, England), 1957, pp. 119-163.
    • Casais Monteiro, Adolfo, Introduction a la poesie de Fernando Pessoa, [Lisbon, Portugal], 1938.
    • Cluny, Claude Michel, Le livre des quatre corbeaux: Poe, Baudelaire, Mallarme, Pessoa, Editions de la Difference (Paris, France), 1998.
    • Griffin, Jonathan, translator and author of introduction, Selected Poems, by Fernando Pessoa, 2nd ed., Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1982, pp. 9-23.
    • Hamburger, Michael, The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s, Methuen (New York, NY), 1982, pp. 110-147.
    • Hispanic Literature Criticism, Volume 2: Lorca to Zamora, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 969-986.
    • Josipovici, Gabriel, The Lessons of Modernism, and Other Essays, Rowman and Littlefield (Totowa, NJ), 1977, pp. 26-50.
    • Lemos, Fernando, Fernando Pessoa e a Nova Metrica: A imitacao de formas e metros liricos greco-romanos em Ricardo Reis, Editorial Inquerito (Mem Martins, Portugal), 1993.
    • Lopes, Teresa Rita, Pessoa por conhecer, Editorial Estampa (Lisbon, Portugal), 1990.
    • Martin, Jose Luis Garcia, Fernando Pessoa, Jucar (Madrid, Spain), 1982.
    • Monteiro, George, The Presence of Pessoa: English, American, and Southern African Literary Responses, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1998.
    • Monteiro, George, editor, The Man Who Never Was: Essays on Fernando Pessoa, Gavea-Brown (Providence, RI), 1982, pp. 93-107.
    • Moure, Eirin, Sheep's Vigil: By a Fervent Person, House of Anansi (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
    • Parker, John M., Three Twentieth-Century Portuguese Poets, Witwatersrand University Press (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1960.
    • Pessoa, Fernando, Fernando Pessoa: A Galaxy of Poets, 1888-1935, edited by Jose Blanco, Portuguese Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture (Lisbon, Portugal), 1985, pp. 17-22.
    • Pessoa, Fernando, Selected Poems, translated by Edwin Honig, introduction by Octavio Paz, Swallow Press (Chicago, IL), 1971, pp. 1-21.
    • Pilling, John, A Reader's Guide to Fifty Modern European Poets, Barnes & Noble (Totowa, NJ), 1982, pp. 173-180.
    • Posada, Tarsicio Valencia, Fernando Pessoa, El Angel Marinheiro: Mar Portuguez, Taller El Angel Editor (Medellin, Spain), 1996.
    • Quintanilha, F.E.G., editor, translator, author of introduction, Sixty Portuguese Poems, by Fernando Pessoa, University of Wales Press (Cardiff, Wales), 1971, pp. xi-xlix.
    • Ramalho, Americo da Costa, Portuguese Essays, National Secretariat for Information (Lisbon, Portugal), 1968, pp. 47-84.
    • Reckert, Stephen, and Y.K. Centeno, Fernando Pessoa, Tempo, Solidao, Hermetismo, Moraes Editores (Lisbon, Portugal), 1978.
    • Rickard, Peter, editor, translator, and author of introduction, Selected Poems of Fernando Pessoa, by Fernando Pessoa, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1972, pp. 1-61.
    • Sadlier, Darlene J., An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa, Literary Modernist, University Press of Florida (Gainesville, FL), 1998.
    • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Volume 27, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988, pp. 291-325.



    • Booklist, April 15, 1998, review of Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems, p. 1414; April 15, 2006, Ray Olson, review of A Little Larger than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, p. 21.
    • Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, September, 2001, David Bergman, "Poets of Iberia," review of Fernando Pessoa & Co., p. 37.
    • Harvard Review, June, 2007, Odile Cisneros, review of A Little Larger than the Entire Universe, p. 193.
    • Independent (London, England), June 22, 2001, Paul Bailey, review of The Book of Disquiet.
    • Library Journal, June 1, 1991, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 138.
    • New Statesman, December 6, 1991, Geoff Dyer, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 46; May 28, 2001, John Gray, "Assault on Authorship," profile of Fernando Passoa; p. 52; June 12, 2006, John Gray, "Blind Folly," p. 66.
    • New York Review of Books, September 21, 1972, review of Selected Poems, p. 19.
    • New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1987, David H. Rosenthal, "Unpredictable Passions," review of The Keeper of Sheep; December 13, 1987, David H. Rosenthal, review of Poems of Fernando Pessoa; September 1, 1991, Fernanda Eberstadt, "Proud of His Obscurity," review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 26.
    • Poetry, December, 2003, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 176.
    • Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 53; February 3, 1992, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 76; December 9, 2002, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 77.
    • Quill and Quire, May, 2001, Heather Fitzgerald, review of Sheep's Vigil.
    • Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1999, Philip Landon, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 142.
    • Spectator, June 30, 2001, Francis Henry King, review of The Book of Disquiet, p. 40.
    • Stranger (Seattle, WA), March 25, 1991, "Book Review Revue," David Wise, review of Fernando Passoa & Co.; Gregg Miller, review of Always Astonished: Selected Prose.
    • World Literature Today, spring, 1999, George Monteiro, review of Enrico Cartas entre Fernando Pessoa e os directores da presenca, p. 318; winter, 2000, George Monteiro, review of A educacao do estoico, p. 216.