Fernando Pessoa Essay - Pessoa, Fernando (António Nogueira)

Pessoa, Fernando (António Nogueira)


Fernando (António Nogueira) Pessoa 1888–1935

(Also wrote under the heteronyms of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, Alexander Search, Bernardo Soares, Baron de Teive and others) Portuguese poet, essayist, and critic.

Pessoa, considered to be the greatest Portuguese poet of the twentieth century and, indeed, the greatest since Vas de Camões in the sixteenth-century, holds a prominent position in twentieth-century literature. His works are felt to epitomize the themes and techniques of modernism, and his experimental approach to poetic composition explores the questions—psychological, philosophical and spiritual—that define the modern age. Pessoa created a set of literary alter egos called "heteronyms," which allowed him to explore many disparate aspects of human nature without the limitations of a single literary persona.

Biographical Information

Pessoa was born into an artistic, cultured family in Lisbon, Portugal on June 13, 1888. His father, a music critic, died when Pessoa was five years old. In the following year, his mother married the Portuguese consul to South Africa and moved the family to Durban, where Pessoa spent the remainder of his youth. In South Africa, Pessoa attended an English secondary school where he excelled in languages, and became proficient in English. Young Pessoa was an admirer of Shakespeare, and, by the age of fifteen, was composing sonnets in English. These sonnets were later collected and published as 35 Sonnets (1918). Pessoa returned to Portugal in 1905 and enrolled at the University of Lisbon only to leave the school after just one year. His fluent English was a desirable skill and he soon found himself a position as a business correspondent for Portuguese commercial firms, an occupation that was to last his entire life. Although he continued to write poetry, it was not until 1912 that he began to compose poems in Portuguese. Around that time he also became associated with poets of the nationalistic saudosismo movement, which celebrated a romanticized Portuguese past. By 1915 Pessoa was well known in the cultural circles of Lisbon, having established himself as a poet and critic well in tune with the modernist movements that flourished in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century. He was also one of the founders of Orpheu and Presença, the most influential journals of modern Portuguese literature. For a brief time he also edited his own journal, Athena, where many of his poems and essays were first published. He died in November 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal after long suffering from alcoholism. At the time of his death, his work was not widely known outside of Portugal, as it was not collected or published in books until after his death. His reputation has grown posthumously through the publication of many collections of poetry and by a number of English translations which made his work available to a much wider audience than during his lifetime.

Major Works

As Pessoa was not known in literary circles outside of Portugal until after his death, there was no critical or scholarly attention given to his work prior to the posthumous publication of collections and translations. In the early part of his career, after his return to Portugal from South Africa in 1905, Pessoa wrote English sonnets, using the pseudonym Alexander Search. It was not until around 1912 that he began writing in Portuguese; he became politically active and involved with the saudosismo movement and, by 1915 had produced a considerable body of work in Portuguese. During his lifetime, he published several volumes of his English poems: 35 Sonnets (1918), Antinous (1918), English Poems (I, II and III) (1921). He also published one volume of Portuguese poems, Mensagem (1934), which is considered his greatest work. Mensagem is composed of a sequence of poems on the history of Portugal, and created controversy in that it is possible to interpret it as a "nationalist" work in which Pessoa apologizes for the authoritarian regime that had come to power in 1926. Since his death, numerous volumes of his poetry have been published, and his poetry has been translated into several languages. Among these posthumous editions are Poemas de F. P. (1942), Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems (1974), and Poems of Fernando Pessoa (1987). The poems themselves are not his only successful poetic creations. Among the most remarkable of Pessoa's poetic achievements are those alter-egos, or "heteronyms," that he created to be the authors of much of his poetry. Distinct from pen-names, or "pseudonyms," these do not simply disguise the author, Pessoa argued, but replace the author, allowing the author to affect a completely different persona.

Critical Reception

The history of twentieth-century literature, and modernist poetry in particular, would not be complete without Fernando Pessoa. Critics often speak of Pessoa in the same breath as such modernist legends as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Rainer Maria Rilke. Because of his invention and frequent use of "heteronyms" in his poetry however, Pessoa stands out as an idiosyncratic figure in twentieth-century letters. Critics have analyzed Pessoa's three most frequently used heteronyms and agree that each has a distinctive personality and distinguishing literary characteristics. The first heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, wrote in free verse and expressed the philosophic views of a pagan materialist. This author-persona disavowed any sense of the supernatural, and in "Guardador de Rebanhos" ("The Shepherd") maintains that the senses are the only certain sources of knowledge. Another heteronym, Ricardo Reis, acknowledges Caeiro as a mentor and expands upon the view that sensory experience is the only true knowledge. Reis writes in a fatalistic, world-weary manner and employs fixed forms. A third philosophical stance is explored by the Alvaro de Campos heteronym, which, of all of Pessoa's heteronyms, most embodies the modernist philosophy. Campos' poems display the opposing desires to have both everything and nothing, and comment on the elusive nature of identity.

Pessoa's canonical status, however, is not surprising when one considers the implications of this ostensibly bizarre poetic accomplishment. His use of heteronyms constitutes an intense examination of identity and how individuals come to develop identities, a concern not only of Pessoa's contemporaries but of modern critics, as well. The poet whose conventional English sonnets critics have hailed as expert imitations of Shakespeare went on to become a poet who sought to undermine conventional notions of authorship. By creating so many personae of authorship, Pessoa forced his contemporaries, and forces his readers today, to question the stability of identity, not only of the author, but of all individuals. Many critics have remarked on the irony of the fact that Pessoa's name means "person" in Portuguese and is derived from the Latin "persona," appropriate for a poet who had so many personae.

Principal Works


Antinous 1918

35 Sonnets 1918

English Poems. 3 vols. 1921

Mensagem 1934

Poemas de F. P. 1942

Poemas de Álvaro de Campos 1944

Poemas de Alberto Caeiro 1946

Poemas de Ricardo Reis 1946

Poemas dramáticos I 1952

Poesias inéditas: 1930-35 1955

Poesias inéditas: 1919-30 1956

F.P.: Antologia (edited by Octavio Paz) 1962

Selected Poems 1971

Sixty Portuguese Poems 1971

Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems 1974

Poems of Fernando Pessoa (translated by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown) 1987

Other Major Works

Faust (unfinished drama) 1906-1935

The Mariner (drama) 1914

Obras completas de Fernando Pessoa 11 Vols, (criticism, poetry and essays) [still in progress] 1942

Páginas de doutrina estética [Pages on Aesthetic Doctrine; edited by J. de Sena] (criticism and essays) 1946

Always Astonished: Selected Prose (prose) 1988


Jane M. Sheets (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Fernando Pessoa as Anti-Poet: Alberto Caeiro," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, January 1969, pp. 39-47.

[In this excerpt, Sheets discusses Pessoa's Alberto Caeiro heteronym, and relates his poetic aesthetic to Zen Buddhism, existentialism, and that of French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet.]

If one accepts poetry in the traditional sense, as a way of looking at things, not directly, but following the poet's eye, if one thus accepts the poet as a perceptive interpreter of his surroundings, then the intention of Alberto Caeiro, Fernando Pessoa's first heteronym, is distinctly antipoetical….

In the 1935 letter to Casais...

(The entire section is 2736 words.)

Geoffrey R. Barrow (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Personal Lyric Disguised: Fernando Pessoa's Mensagem," in Luso-Brasilian Review, Summer, 1976, pp. 90-9.

[In the following excerpt, Barrow examines the dramatic and lyric elements of Mensagem, considered to be Pessoa's most significant work.]

The author of Mensagem was preoccupied with the future of Portugal and conscious of her spiritual and historical past. In a spirit of messianism he associated himself in 1912 with the movement Renascença Portuguesa and wrote an essay concerning "A Nova Poesia Portuguesa Sociològicamente Considerada" for A Águia, the principal organ of this movement. Eight years later, the...

(The entire section is 2113 words.)

Alex Severino (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Fernando Pessoa's Legacy: The Presença and After," in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 5-9.

[Severino examines the effect of the Presença movement in Portugal on Pessoa's enduring reputation, and his contribution to the nationalistic movement.]

To study the extent and character of Fernando Pessoa's legacy, it is necessary to consider the circumstances surrounding the publication of his work. Practically unknown at the time of his death, Pessoa (1888-1935) possessed a reputation based solely on Mensagem (Message; 1934), a book of nationalistic verse imbedded in the occult—a little-known facet of this multifaceted...

(The entire section is 3179 words.)

Ronald W. Sousa (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Structure of Pessoa's Mensagem," in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. LIX, No. 1, January 1982, pp. 58-66.

[Sousa analyzes the structure of Mensagem, and explores its relation to the occult.]

Over the past thirty-or-so years, criticism has raised a genre problematic about Mensagem, the one book of Portuguese poetry that Fernando Pessoa published in his lifetime. The basic question is: 'Is it historical, narrative, more-or-less "epic" poetry, or personal, "lyric" poetry?' The lines of the debate—recognized as such or not by the various participating critics—can be expressed in the following formulations: 'Is the book a recounting...

(The entire section is 3957 words.)

Leland Guyer (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Fernando Pessoa and the Cubist Perspective," in Hispania, Vol. 70, No. 1, March 1987, pp. 73-8.

[In this excerpt, Guyer relates Pessoa's work and poetic priorities to those of the Cubist aesthetic movement]

The nineteenth century in the mainstream of Western civilization was unquestionably one of those periods marked to a great degree by an enthusiastic dedication to a vision. The vision was one of order, of progress, and of the subjugation of nature to humanity's technical genius. This self-assured interpretation of one's ability to know and dominate the environment is reflected in that century's artistic interpretation of the world.


(The entire section is 3383 words.)

John Hollander (review date 1987)

SOURCE: "Quadrophenia," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 3, 790, September 7, 1987, pp. 33-36.

[Renowned American poet John Hollander reviews two editions of English translations of Pessoa's work: The Keeper of the Sheep and Poems of Fernando Pessoa, both translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown. Hollander praises the translations and comments on Pessoa's significant position within the whole of modernism.]

If Fernando Pessoa had never existed, Jorge Luis Borges might have had to invent him. This remarkable modern poet started writing in English, in which he was educated; and then, in his native Portuguese, he produced four major poetic...

(The entire section is 3704 words.)

Anne J. Cruz (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Masked Rhetoric: Contextuality in Fernando Pessoa's Poems," in Romance Notes, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 55-60.

[In the following excerpt, Cruz explores the rhetorical implications of Pessoa's use of heteronyms.]

Fernando Pessoa has made an art form of psychic fragmentation. In his poems, mask (un)covers mask in order to expound, explicate, and contradict the multifacetic poet. The creation of heterónimos, as he calls his poetic avatars, presupposes an interest in the ludic: unlike Antonio Machado's pseudonyms, which clearly reveal the poet's persona to the reader, Pessoa's masks contribute to his duplicity as poet. As Octavio Paz has...

(The entire section is 1364 words.)

Richard Zenith (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Fernando Pessoa and the Theatre of His Self," in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. XV, No. 2, May, 1993, pp. 47-9.

[Below, Zenith provides a general overview of Pessoa's career and the development of his poetic persona(e).]

Not widely known in his own country and scarcely at all outside it at the time of his death in 1935, Fernando Pessoa (born 1888) is now generally regarded as Portugal's most original poet since Luís de Camões and one of the most original poets of any land writing in the twentieth century. This phenomenal increase in stature is related more or less directly to the increasing availability of the 25,000 + manuscript sheets left by Pessoa in a...

(The entire section is 1170 words.)

Further Reading


Jennings, H. D. Os Dois Exilios: Fernando Pessoa Na Africa Do Sul. Porto, Portugal: Centro de Estudos Pessoanos, 1984, 210 p.

This is a critical biography of Pessoa centering on his youth in South Africa.


Anderson, Robert N. "The Static Drama of Fernando Pessoa." Hispanofila 104 (January 1992): 89-97.

Anderson examines questions of genre and Pessoa's conception of himself as a dramatist, and examines how readers today can theorize a dramatic genre to which Pessoa could belong.

Biderman, Sol....

(The entire section is 366 words.)