Fernando Pessoa Poetry Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)