Biography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa (PEHS-wah) was born on June 13, 1888, at the home of his parents in Lisbon, Portugal. His mother was Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira and his father was Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa. In addition to being employed in the Ministry of Justice, Pessoa’s father was also a...

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Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa (PEHS-wah) was born on June 13, 1888, at the home of his parents in Lisbon, Portugal. His mother was Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira and his father was Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa. In addition to being employed in the Ministry of Justice, Pessoa’s father was also a part-time music critic. Pessoa’s father died in 1893 and his mother remarried two years later. In 1895, the six-year-old poet wrote his first verse, “À minha querida mãe” (to my beloved mother). His mother had two sons from her first marriage, but Fernando’s younger brother died in infancy. With her second husband she had five children, two dying in infancy. Her second husband was the Portuguese consul in Durban, South Africa, where the family moved in 1896.

Living in Durban until 1905, Pessoa studied in British-modeled primary and secondary schools. He attended a grade school run by Irish nuns, completing its five-year course in three. He graduated with honors from Durban High School, its teachers nurturing his interest in the classic English poets. English became his second language. He won the Queen Victoria Memorial Prize in 1903 for the quality of his English prose; however, he failed to be admitted to the University of the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1905, he returned to Lisbon in order to study literature at the University of Lisbon. However, he almost immediately abandoned his classes. He took business courses and became a freelance writer and correspondence secretary, in English and French, for foreign companies. Such work allowed him free time for his own writing but economically only modestly sustained him. Until his widowed mother returned to Lisbon in 1920, he lived with relatives or in rooming houses, moving frequently. No longer in school, he read extensively in Greek and German philosophy and French poetry. His maternal grandmother, with whom he had lived for a time and who was mentally unstable, died in 1907. She left him a small inheritance, which he used to set up a printing and publishing business, Empresa Ibis (Ibis Enterprise). It immediately went bankrupt.

Political and social turbulence mounted during this period. The socioeconomic state of Portugal had plunged drastically since its heroic Age of Discoveries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the Brazilian gold rush of the eighteenth. In 1908, the king of Portugal was assassinated, along with his heir; two years later, a republic was declared. In 1918, an authoritarian government under a military leader, Sidónio Pais, took over. Hailed by some as a savior, a “president/king,” he was assassinated the same year. Pessoa dedicated a poem to him. A more enduring authoritarian government emerged in the late 1920’s under the economist and dictator António Salazar. His regime would last until well after World War II. In this atmosphere of political chaos and economic and historical decay, Portuguese cultural figures, such as Pessoa, emerged and sought to achieve the revival of a glorious national past through a modernizing renewal.

Pessoa considered 1914 to be the most significant year of his life. On March 8, he was inspired to begin creating the “heteronyms” for which he is most famous. This term is in contrast to a pseudonym, through which an author conceals his identity by use of a fictitious name. By a heteronym, Pessoa meant a literary figure, distinct from himself, with a separate biography and body of work, albeit created by Pessoa.

Throughout his life Pessoa suffered periods of depression. The writing he produced under his own name and that of his heteronyms seemed to balance his mental state. He is known to have had only one brief emotional relationship with a woman. Although he chain-smoked and drank excessively, he was rarely known to appear publicly drunk. Photographs from the late 1920’s and later show him rapidly aging. In 1935, he died of cirrhosis of the liver, having published the previous year Mensagem (Message, 1992), a prize-winning work that was his only book in Portuguese to appear in his lifetime.

After Pessoa’s death, a large trunk was found in which he had stored nearly thirty thousand scraps of paper. Pessoa published rather sparsely during his own life. However, over the course of the second half of the twentieth century, the dense archive of poetry and prose that he had stored was edited and published by his friends. Over the decades, the contents of the trunk have culminated in a multivolume, posthumous oeuvre, the steadily amassing foundation of the poet’s reputation.

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