Fernando (António Nogueira) Pessoa 1888–1935
(Also wrote under the heteronyms of Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, Alexander Search, Bernardo Soares, Baron de Teive and others) Portuguese poet, essayist, and critic.
Pessoa, considered to be the greatest Portuguese poet of the twentieth century and, indeed, the greatest since Vas de Camões in the sixteenth-century, holds a prominent position in twentieth-century literature. His works are felt to epitomize the themes and techniques of modernism, and his experimental approach to poetic composition explores the questions—psychological, philosophical and spiritual—that define the modern age. Pessoa created a set of literary alter egos called "heteronyms," which allowed him to explore many disparate aspects of human nature without the limitations of a single literary persona.
Pessoa was born into an artistic, cultured family in Lisbon, Portugal on June 13, 1888. His father, a music critic, died when Pessoa was five years old. In the following year, his mother married the Portuguese consul to South Africa and moved the family to Durban, where Pessoa spent the remainder of his youth. In South Africa, Pessoa attended an English secondary school where he excelled in languages, and became proficient in English. Young Pessoa was an admirer of Shakespeare, and, by the age of fifteen, was composing sonnets in English. These sonnets were later collected and published as 35 Sonnets (1918). Pessoa returned to Portugal in 1905 and enrolled at the University of Lisbon only to leave the school after just one year. His fluent English was a desirable skill and he soon found himself a position as a business correspondent for Portuguese commercial firms, an occupation that was to last his entire life. Although he continued to write poetry, it was not until 1912 that he began to compose poems in Portuguese. Around that time he also became associated with poets of the nationalistic saudosismo movement, which celebrated a romanticized Portuguese past. By 1915 Pessoa was well known in the cultural circles of Lisbon, having established himself as a poet and critic well in tune with the modernist movements that flourished in Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century. He was also one of the founders of Orpheu and Presença, the most influential journals of modern Portuguese literature. For a brief time he also edited his own journal, Athena, where many of his poems and essays were first published. He died in November 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal after long suffering from alcoholism. At the time of his death, his work was not widely known outside of Portugal, as it was not collected or published in books until after his death. His reputation has grown posthumously through the publication of many collections of poetry and by a number of English translations which made his work available to a much wider audience than during his lifetime.
As Pessoa was not known in literary circles outside of Portugal until after his death, there was no critical or scholarly attention given to his work prior to the posthumous publication of collections and translations. In the early part of his career, after his return to Portugal from South Africa in 1905, Pessoa wrote English sonnets, using the pseudonym Alexander Search. It was not until around 1912 that he began writing in Portuguese; he became politically active and involved with the saudosismo movement and, by 1915 had produced a considerable body of work in Portuguese. During his lifetime, he published several volumes of his English poems: 35 Sonnets (1918), Antinous (1918), English Poems (I, II and III) (1921). He also published one volume of Portuguese poems, Mensagem (1934), which is considered his greatest work. Mensagem is composed of a sequence of poems on the history of Portugal, and created controversy in that it is possible to interpret it as a "nationalist" work in which Pessoa apologizes for the authoritarian regime that had come to power in 1926. Since his death, numerous volumes of his poetry have been published, and his poetry has been translated into several languages. Among these posthumous editions are Poemas de F. P. (1942), Fernando Pessoa: Selected Poems (1974), and Poems of Fernando Pessoa (1987). The poems themselves are not his only successful poetic creations. Among the most remarkable of Pessoa's poetic achievements are those alter-egos, or "heteronyms," that he created to be the authors of much of his poetry. Distinct from pen-names, or "pseudonyms," these do not simply disguise the author, Pessoa argued, but replace the author, allowing the author to affect a completely different persona.
The history of twentieth-century literature, and modernist poetry in particular, would not be complete without Fernando Pessoa. Critics often speak of Pessoa in the same breath as such modernist legends as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Rainer Maria Rilke. Because of his invention and frequent use of "heteronyms" in his poetry however, Pessoa stands out as an idiosyncratic figure in twentieth-century letters. Critics have analyzed Pessoa's three most frequently used heteronyms and agree that each has a distinctive personality and distinguishing literary characteristics. The first heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, wrote in free verse and expressed the philosophic views of a pagan materialist. This author-persona disavowed any sense of the supernatural, and in "Guardador de Rebanhos" ("The Shepherd") maintains that the senses are the only certain sources of knowledge. Another heteronym, Ricardo Reis, acknowledges Caeiro as a mentor and expands upon the view that sensory experience is the only true knowledge. Reis writes in a fatalistic, world-weary manner and employs fixed forms. A third philosophical stance is explored by the Alvaro de Campos heteronym, which, of all of Pessoa's heteronyms, most embodies the modernist philosophy. Campos' poems display the opposing desires to have both everything and nothing, and comment on the elusive nature of identity.
Pessoa's canonical status, however, is not surprising when one considers the implications of this ostensibly bizarre poetic accomplishment. His use of heteronyms constitutes an intense examination of identity and how individuals come to develop identities, a concern not only of Pessoa's contemporaries but of modern critics, as well. The poet whose conventional English sonnets critics have hailed as expert imitations of Shakespeare went on to become a poet who sought to undermine conventional notions of authorship. By creating so many personae of authorship, Pessoa forced his contemporaries, and forces his readers today, to question the stability of identity, not only of the author, but of all individuals. Many critics have remarked on the irony of the fact that Pessoa's name means "person" in Portuguese and is derived from the Latin "persona," appropriate for a poet who had so many personae.