Fernando Pessoa Poetry Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1928

During several decades of intense and sustained critical interest, initiated by João Gaspar Simões’s Vida e obra de Fernando Pessoa (1950; life and works of Fernando Pessoa), Fernando Pessoa’s status as a poet has been transformed from that of a literary oddity—combining an intense nationalistic provincialism with an affinity for...

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During several decades of intense and sustained critical interest, initiated by João Gaspar Simões’s Vida e obra de Fernando Pessoa (1950; life and works of Fernando Pessoa), Fernando Pessoa’s status as a poet has been transformed from that of a literary oddity—combining an intense nationalistic provincialism with an affinity for the faddish avant-garde literary movements of the early twentieth century—into that of a major figure in modern European literature. His poetry is now seen by many critics to express—in both content and form—the deepest concerns of the modern age. Ronald W. Sousa, his “rediscoverer,” expresses this new perception of Pessoa’s work in The Rediscoverers:

Pessoa’s writing . . . while not “philosophical” in a strict sense, nonetheless not only treats in practical application the systematic intellectual problems of the day but also does so at a level of abstraction and in a mode of presentation that approach many of the formal properties of traditional philosophy.

This modernist sensibility is characterized by two strong emphases in Pessoa’s work: the assertion of the relative or subjective nature of the interior psychological world of the self, and the epistemological reduction of the external world of objects and persons to the status of concrete phenomenological data that exist in a wholly different order of reality from that of the reflecting mind. For this reason, Pessoa’s work has come, in recent years, to be associated with the work of two better-known writers: Jorge Luis Borges and Alain Robbe- Grillet.

In the stories and parables of Borges, such as “Borges y yo,” (“Borges and I”), “Las ruinas circulares” (“The Circular Ruins”), and “De alguien a nadie” (“From Someone to No One”), one finds an intense questioning of the reality of the self which explores in a more self-conscious, didactic way the identical questions of existence that Pessoa considers in his “Passos da cruz” (“Stations of the Cross”). There, the narrator is the incarnate Christ, Jesus, who reveals his bewilderment in the course of a confusing series of events.

“Stations of the Cross”

“Stations of the Cross,” written under Pessoa’s own name, consists of a series of fourteen sonnets that retell the story of Christ’s Passion from the perspective of the suffering victim. In this work, Pessoa’s literary kinship with Robbe-Grillet is made evident, for, like the central characters of Robbe-Grillet’s New Novels (nouveaux romans)—Les Gommes (1953; The Erasers, 1964) and Le Voyeur (1955; The Voyeur, 1958)—the speaker of the “Stations of the Cross” sequence is plagued by a split in consciousness that finds him acting out a role in a drama of whose ultimate purpose he is not consciously aware. This epistemological dilemma is well illustrated in sonnet 6, where Jesus speculates on his role in history: “I come from afar and bear in my profile,/ If only in remote and misty form,/ The profile of another being.” The puzzled speaker, reflecting on the role into which he has been cast unaware (unlike the biblical account of Christ’s Passion, in which He is granted foreknowledge), concludes: “I am myself the loss I suffered.” Like Borges’s narrators, this speaker seems intended to be a figure representing modern man’s existential bewilderment.


Also included in Pessoa’s orthonymic poetry (that part of his work published under his own name) are the fervently nationalistic poems of Mensagem. These poems constitute the only collection of his poems in Portuguese published during his lifetime. Fortunately, the collection was put together shortly before his death, so that the volume contains work spanning nearly the entire period during which he wrote verse in Portuguese. It would be a mistake, however, to see this collection as representative of his work. For one thing, the collection is dominated by a tone of intense longing for the restoration of Portugal’s once-illustrious past. Furthermore, as Sousa has shown in his work on Pessoa, the volume has an elaborate, systematic, symbolic structure (not characteristic of Pessoa’s other work) which gives it the thematic unity of a sustained political allegory. Sometimes the nostalgia of Mensagem is expressed as a generalized attitude, as in his reminiscence of an unidentified sea explorer in “Mar Português” (“Portuguese Sea”). At other times, Pessoa speaks through the personage of a historical figure such as the sixteenth century king of Portugal Dom Sebastian, who is elevated to the status of a legendary hero in the poem bearing his name: “Mad, yes, mad, because I sought a greatness/ Not in the gift of Fate./ I could not contain the certainty I felt.”

This concern with the relativity of the self goes beyond being merely a theme of much of Pessoa’s best poetry; it is also expressed in the very manner of its presentation. The writer now known as Fernando Pessoa wrote much of his mature work under the assumed identity of a series of three “heteronyms,” for each of which Pessoa created not only a biographical background but also a distinctive style.

Álvaro de Campos: “In the Terror of the Night”

The first of the three heteronyms that Pessoa adopted was Álvaro de Campos, whose writing was characterized by the use of long verse lines of uneven length, informal, colloquial diction, and the organic forms of free verse. This style is illustrated in the long, overlapping lines of a poem such as “Na noite terrível” (“In the Terror of the Night”), a poetic meditation on a common existential theme—the creation of oneself by one’s own actions. As in much of Pessoa’s work, the poem is pervaded by a tone of elegiac regret: “In the terror of the night—the stuff all nights are made of,/ . . . I remember what I did and could have done with life,/ . . . I’d be different now, and perhaps the universe itself/ Would be subtly induced to be different too.” This poem exhibits Campos’s tendency to mold entire lines—and at times entire poems—around subtle variations of key words. In the example above, this is done with the noun “night,” the verb “to do,” and the adjective “different,” where Pessoa carefully retains their grammatical functions consistently throughout the passage. Another characteristic of Campos’s style illustrated in the poem is the use of the paradoxes, oxymorons, and non sequiturs that has frequently led critics to compare his style to that of the French Surrealists.


The surreal quality of Campos’s work is best seen in “Tabacaria” (“Tobacco-Shop”), in which verbal irrationality is used to create a subtly ironic form of black humor reminiscent of the best poetry of Benjamin Péret, the master comedian of the French Surrealist movement. The speaker of this poem, self-characterized as a metaphysical “genius,” sits dreaming in a garret, out of which he observes a little tobacco shop far below in the street. He finally concludes that dreams and fantasies are man’s only certainty, though they can never have more than an accidental correspondence with the external world.

Alberto Caeiro “If, After I Die”

Pessoa’s second major Portuguese heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, which he employed from time to time between 1914 and 1920 (when he “killed him off” at the tragically young age of twenty-six), is predominantly a nature poet. As Caeiro himself says in a poem titled “If, After I Die”:

I am easy to describe.
I lived like mad.
I loved things without sentimentality.
I never had a desire I could not fulfil, because I never went blind.
. . . And by the way, I was the only Nature poet.

This epitaph illustrates well Caeiro’s simple, colloquial style, which has been described by many critics as essentially prosaic. In creating an informal style for Caeiro which imitates the structure and content of ordinary speech, Pessoa eschews traditional poetic devices such as elevated diction, figures of speech, meter, rhyme, and predictable stanzaic patterns, and employs rhetorical locutions that call attention to the poems as conversation.

“The Keeper of Flocks” and “I’m a Shepherd”

These qualities of Caeiro’s style are best illustrated in his most famous work, a series of forty-nine brief poems collectively titled “O guardador de rebanhos” (“The Keeper of Flocks”). There are also, however, other characteristic elements of Caeiro’s work. One of the most important of these is what critics have called the “antimetaphysical” nature of his thought. As Peter Rickard, one of Pessoa’s recent translators, puts it:

Fundamental to his worldview is the idea that in the world around us, all is surface: things are precisely what they seem, there is no hidden meaning anywhere.

This attitude of calm, naturalistic objectivity toward the world is prominent in poems such as “Sou um guardador de rebanhos” (“I’m a Shepherd”):

I’m a shepherd.
My sheep are my thoughts.
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
And so on a warm day,
. . . I feel my whole body lying full-length in reality,
I know the truth and I’m happy.

Some critics see in Caeiro’s thought a foreshadowing of Existentialism’s assertion of the primacy of existence over essence—where man’s immediate physical experience in the world is valued above the rational productions of his reflecting consciousness.

Ricardo Reis

It was Pessoa’s third major Portuguese heteronym, Ricardo Reis, that served him longest. Works by Reis appeared from 1914, the first year of Pessoa’s adoption of the heteronyms, until 1935, the year of his death. Under this guise, Pessoa produced some skillful imitations of Latin poetry, writing a series of Horatian odes the style of which is characterized by archaic, formal diction and the use of free verse. Reis’s odes, like those of Horace, are governed by classical conventions which constrain not only the language of the poem but its theme as well. As Pessoa later said of Reis’s classicism in a letter to one of his friends: “He writes better than I do, but with a purism which I consider excessive.”

Equally important, however, is Reis’s attitude toward the world, for in many ways his resigned attitude of detachment from life is the psychological converse of Caeiro’s engagement with it. This important contrast in attitude is succinctly characterized by F. E. G. Quintanilha, one of Pessoa’s translators:

In opposition to Caeiro’s constant discovery of things . . . Reis assumes a stoic and epicurean attitude towards Existence. As he assumes that he can learn nothing more, he shuts himself up in his world and accepts life and destiny with resignation.

“The Roses of the Gardens of Adonis”

These attitudes and techniques are well illustrated in one of Reis’s best odes, “As rosas amo dos jardins do Adónis” (“The Roses of the Gardens of Adonis”), which illustrates a number of characteristic elements: The elevated poetic diction, the Latinate syntax, the perfect strophic form, the use of conventional symbolism drawn from mythology—even the name by which the beloved is addressed is a poetic convention. Yet the imitative nature of this ode is not limited to its style, form, or content. The didactic conclusion that the speaker reaches at the end of the poem expresses the carpe diem (seize the day) theme common in classical poetry:

Like them, let us make of our lives one day
Voluntarily, Lydia, unknowing
That there is night before and after
The little that we last.

As Pessoa himself suggested, this degree of imitative purity cannot help but strike the modern reader as “excessive,” however skillfully it might be accomplished.

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