Fernando Pessoa World Literature Analysis - Essay

Fernando Pessoa World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2020 words.)