Fernando Pessoa World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2020

Fernando Pessoa is the preeminent representative of modernism in Portugal, a movement that dominated Western culture from the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. It established a new canon of absolutes in terms of form and content, challenging the previous dictates of classicism, Christianity, and the Enlightenment. Ultimately it produced the...

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Fernando Pessoa is the preeminent representative of modernism in Portugal, a movement that dominated Western culture from the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. It established a new canon of absolutes in terms of form and content, challenging the previous dictates of classicism, Christianity, and the Enlightenment. Ultimately it produced the postmodernist denouement, which dissolved all absolutes, considering all perspectives relative and inconclusive.

Pessoa knew and respected the old canons yet was absorbed by modernism. He anticipated the disorienting dilemmas of postmodernism. Pessoa explored esoteric philosophies, such as theosophy and Rosicrucianism; adhered to the Portuguese version of Arthurian mysticism, known as Sebastianism; and employed esoteric technologies of astrology and numerology.

He joined Renascença Portuguesa (Portuguese Renaissance), a modernist movement that published the vanguard literary journal A Águia (The Eagle). In it, he published his first poems, along with a series of controversial essays on the sociological and psychological aspects of modern Portuguese poetry. Pessoa was associated with the short-lived literary journals Orfeu (Orpheus) and Portugal futurista (Futurist Portugal). Such journals, together with newspapers, were the principal means by which he published his work during his lifetime. His poem “Antinous,” about the male lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the booklets or chapbooks entitled Thirty-five Sonnets (1918) and English Poems I-III (1921), published under the pseudonym Alexander Search, were published in his lifetime. They received unenthusiastic literary reviews in Great Britain, discouraging him from his ambition to become an English-language poet.

Crucial to understanding the work of Pessoa is recognizing that his ideas on the philosophy and the creation of poetry are expressed through the life and work of his principal heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis. The principal heteronyms he created in 1914 suggest both his awareness and resolution of the dilemma of conflicting absolutes and looming relativism. He could see the general validity of other poetic perspectives but not their individual validity for himself.

Alberto Caeiro is the master poet, and the others, including Pessoa, are his disciples. Caeiro is the poet’s poet; born in 1889 and dying of tuberculosis in 1915, he is raised as a peasant, and his roots lie in a rural, natural environment. He rejects any philosophy of poetry. For him, poetry is the unadorned expression of direct, immediate feelings. Being a poet is not a career ambition but a way of being. His representative works are two series of poems, O guardador de rebanhos (published in Obras completas, 1942-1974; The Keeper of Sheep, 1986) and O pastor amoroso (also published in Obras completas; the amorous shepherd). In these poems, he is not concerned with fitting sentiments into aesthetic or literary molds but seeks to convey their emotional impact as directly and naturally as possible.

Álvaro de Campos is a very structured poet, convinced of the relevance of modern technology and progress. Born in Portugal in 1890, he is a cosmopolitan professional, trained as a naval engineer in Scotland. Returning to live in Portugal, he founds a modernist literary journal in Lisbon and adheres to a sequence of vanguard literary movements. He is a consistent admirer of Caeiro but eventually dissolves into a nihilist. One of his most noted poems, “Tabacaria” (“The Tobacco Shop”), originates from this perspective. He confesses that he is and always will be nothing, that he has no ambition to be something, yet nonetheless he harbors within himself all the dreams of the world.

Also a formalist, Ricardo Reis adheres not to modernism but to a classicist poetic tradition. Educated by Jesuits and imbued with classical Latin learning, he is trained as a doctor. Neither the dates of his birth nor of his death are clear. He goes into exile in Brazil after the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the republic in Portugal. Nonetheless, returning finally to Portugal, he visits Caeiro, greatly admiring him but recognizing he can never be his poetic equal or reach his poetic authenticity. His representative poetic works are odes, expressing both epicurean and stoic sentiments enveloped in a lingering sadness.

Having created Caeiro, Pessoa reasserted his identity by immediately composing under his own name the vanguard collection Chuva oblíqua (published in Obras completas; oblique rain). He then proceeded to create Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. Pessoa conceived of the poet as a dissembler, someone who dissembles so well that he ends up imitating the very sentiments he most acutely feels. The noted American literary critic Harold Bloom and the Chinese Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian consider Pessoa among the most representative poets of the twentieth century. Pessoa achieved his capacity for multiple perspectives not by concentrating a fractured whole but by consolidating a multifaceted diffusion. Beyond his literary achievement, his sustaining personal achievement may have been to create a multifaceted personality from a fractured one.


First published: Mensagem, 1934 (English translation, 1992)

Type of work: Poetry

This modernist lyrical epic traces a tripartite cycle ranging from the iconic glories of Portugal’s past to esoteric speculations about its future.

The first group or cycle of poems from the three sections of Message views Portuguese history through its principal heroic and princely figures. Pessoa produced the work within the tradition and under the shadow of the premier epic of Portuguese literature, Os Lusíadas (1572; The Lusiads, 1655), by Luis de Camões. This poem recounted the heroic exploits around the globe during Portugal’s Age of Discoveries. The Lusiads themselves were written under the influence of the heroic national epics of Rome, the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), and of Greece, Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614).

The first poem of the initial cycle of Message views Portugal as the face of Europe, which sees the future from the perspective of the past. The next poem describes the arbitrary will of the gods and observes that while a life may occupy a small amount of time, a soul extends over a much greater length. There follows a sequence of eight poems, grouped as “The Castles,” referring to the stalwart figures of the founding and development of Portugal. The first figure is Ulysses, mythical founder of Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. Myth is considered a narrative made of nothing but which suffuses everything. The next poems concentrate on Portuguese monarchs and princes. In one poem, Pessoa speculates on nations as mysterious worlds unto themselves, begetting kingdoms and then empires.

The next cycle of poems, entitled “Portuguese Sea,” concentrates on the Age of Discoveries and begins with a poem on the death of Crown Prince Sebastian. His death in battle ended the dynasty of the discoveries and sparked the myth of Sebastianism, the idea that a royal figure would return to restore Portuguese glory. The section culminates with poems on the discoverers themselves: Bartolomeu Dias, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco da Gama. It begins with the observation that the desires of God become the dreams of men, prompting the work for their accomplishment. It culminates with a poem on the price for the Portuguese of the discoveries. Rhetorically, it inquires of the sea how much of its salt has come from Portuguese tears. Wondering whether the cost was worth the effort, the inquirer responds that anything not small-minded is worthwhile. God made the dangerous depths of the ocean yet its surface reflects an arching sky.

A third and final cycle, “The Covered,” gathers poems of a mystical nature, seeming to foretell or anticipate a culminating climax for Portugal and humankind. An air of mystery or of the mystifying permeates the poems. This section achieves this atmosphere through esoteric and numerological frames of reference and visionary interpretations of Portuguese heraldry.

Message was the only book in Portuguese published in Pessoa’s lifetime and under his own name, not a heteronym. It was compiled from poems written in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, with a few going back to the period of World War I. They were compiled in order to compete for a 1934 prize in poetry, which he won, sponsored by the Secretariat of National Propaganda. The work’s dedicated nationalism complemented the nationalist objectives of the Portuguese dictatorship of the time, although Pessoa maintained he was opposed to authoritarian government.

The Book of Disquiet

First published: Livro do desassossego, wr. 1912-1935; pb. 1961, 1982 (English translation, 1991)

Type of work: Nonfiction

Published posthumously, this collection of journal-like entries jotted down over two decades gathers reflections on existential dilemmas and the nature of the self.

The Book of Disquiet (also translated as The Book of Disquietude) has a format somewhat like a journal or diary and is also a collection of vignettes and reflections. Begun in 1912, Pessoa made entries for it throughout his life, especially in his later years. He described it as a collection of fragments. Although originally written under his own name, he eventually attributed the book to Bernardo Soares, whom he considered a “semi-heteronym,” even a mutilation of himself, who is described as an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon, a minor, anonymous clerical bureaucrat. Some critics attribute earlier parts of the work to another heteronym, Vicente Guedes.

What has impressed most readers of the book is its serene, succinct insights, as scintillating as they can be paradoxical. Though The Book of Disquiet is a work in prose, it is of a singularly poetic nature. The dominant theme or spirit of the work is introspection and self-reflection. This steady pursuit of self-inquiry gives the work a serenity that often belies its tortuous insights. Pessoa speculates that a heart would stop if it could think. Solitary reflection results in anguished isolation. Interested in everything but attached to nothing, he describes himself as a bisected individual, Siamese twins that are separated. The intensity of self-analysis leads him to conclude that his true dimension should not be measured in physical height but the size of his imagination.

The work also contains ironic reflections. Thinking of the banality and tensions of his life, he wryly observes that he suffers from a headache and the universe. He punctures pretensions by noting that while someone may have touched the feet of Christ, they should not be excused for lax punctuation. There are also lyrical recollections of the haunts of Lisbon, its cafés, bars, and byways, and of dreamlike delights.

A significant part of the work consists of reflections on prominent literary figures and their works. The literary masters for the author are Dante, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. He considers Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608) to be defective; nonetheless, he is envious of its creator for what the drama does accomplish. He admires classical authors, such as Homer, Vergil, and Horace. The most exotic figure in his canon is the Persian poet and scientist Omar Khayyám. Recognized also are nineteenth century writers, such as François-René de Chateaubriand, Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Heinrich Heine. The author is moved by the vibrant writings of Charles Dickens and the severe reflections of Thomas Carlyle.

The Book of Disquiet was not published in Pessoa’s lifetime, and how he would have organized it for publication is not known. Those who discovered the multitude of jottings that compose it were only able to organize and publish it after his death, in 1961. It quickly attracted favorable critical attention and was translated into numerous languages, with several admirable editions in English.

Ironically, while the author recognized it as a collection of fragments and conceived of it as a book, he never assembled it as such. Moreover, its creator had little sense of himself as an identifiable person. Thus the work has been described as a nonbook by a nonauthor. The word pessoa means “person” in Portuguese, although even Pessoa thought of himself as a nonperson.

While the chronological development of the work can be traced, its narrative continuity is nonexistent; it could be organized by either time or theme and has neither a beginning nor an end. One can dip into its thoughts at any point, drawn along on the serpentine allure of its insights. The work has nether a beginning nor an end, either as a genre or a pursuit.

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Fernando Pessoa Poetry Analysis


Pessoa, Fernando (António Nogueira)