Other Literary Forms

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In addition to his verse, Fernando Pessoa published many critical essays and polemical tracts during the course of his career. Most of these were published in the many Portuguese journals with which he was associated, or as short-run pamphlets for particular occasions. He also accumulated a large body of nonliterary...

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In addition to his verse, Fernando Pessoa published many critical essays and polemical tracts during the course of his career. Most of these were published in the many Portuguese journals with which he was associated, or as short-run pamphlets for particular occasions. He also accumulated a large body of nonliterary writing of a speculative, philosophical nature that was never intended to be published during his lifetime. Moreover, Pessoa was a prolific letter writer, and he left a large body of uncollected correspondence containing some of his clearest and most detailed commentary on his own work. The vast bulk of this material is now available in the following posthumous collections: Páginas de doutrina estética, 1946; Páginas de estética e de teoria e crítica literárias, 1966; Páginas íntimas e de auto-interpretação, 1966; Textos filosóficos, 1968; Cartas a Armando Côrtes-Rodrigues, 1945; and Cartas a João Gaspar Simões, 1957.

Achievements

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Although very little of Fernando Pessoa’s work was collected and published in book form during his lifetime, his poetry—appearing mainly in small literary journals that he founded, supported, or helped to edit himself—has come to be considered an important expression of the modern sensibility. Today Pessoa is considered to be a major poet of the twentieth century—and, in the opinion of many of his countrymen, the greatest of all Portuguese poets since Luís de Camões.

This is evident in the increasing influence that his posthumously published work has had on the modern Portuguese tradition in poetry—in which he has come to be considered the seminal figure—as well as in his effect on the work of such prominent later poets as José Régio and João Gaspar Simões, and, finally, in the works of his many admirers among poets writing in Spanish, English, and many other languages.

Pessoa’s preoccupations—the introspective, philosophical nature of his poetry, the epistemological doubts that it expresses, and the anxiety-ridden existential atmosphere that pervades his work—are not provincial but universal in character, and they convey the central concerns found in the work of countless modern writers. Among the recurring themes of Pessoa’s work is a persistent concern with understanding the essential nature of the self and its difficulties when subjected to the contingencies of life. Like many other modern writers, Pessoa sought to discover through his writing the psychological truth about the artist’s identity: Who is the artist, and what is his or her role among all the fictional selves that inhabit the work? These two concerns are clearly expressed in the reflexive nature of Pessoa’s work, where the “I” is constantly turning back upon itself, asking: Who is speaking? and Who is speaking now?

Until 1942, when Pessoa’s work began to be published in collected form, his reputation was based mainly on his early poems in English. These were published under the pseudonym Alexander Search and were written mostly between 1903 and 1905, although not published in collected form until a decade later. Otherwise, there was the collection Mensagem (message), the only volume of Pessoa’s Portuguese verse published before his death, assembled and submitted to a poetry contest sponsored by the Portuguese Secretariat of National Propaganda in 1934. Neither of these two volumes, however, is representative of the poet’s best work, for the verse written in English is imitative, while the poetry of Mensagem is fervently nationalistic and hence deliberately provincial. The remainder of his work was known only to the small readerships of short-lived Portuguese literary journals such as A Águia, A Renascença, Orpheu, Centauro, Exílio, Portugal futurista, Contemporânea, Athena, and Presença, in which the majority of his published work—both poetry and prose—appeared between 1912 and 1928.

Creating Selves

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Pessoa’s attempt to resolve the epistemological doubts that have plagued the artist in the modern age led him to consider the essential nature of the self, which constituted for him the core of the problem. He concluded that the self is multiple, that it contains many conflicting potentialities. To prove the truth of this proposition, he created the heteronyms, giving each of them a distinctive personality which was reflected in the work they wrote. To Álvaro de Campos, he gave a painful awareness of the reflexive nature of thought and language; he granted Alberto Caeiro an absolute, almost inhuman, objectivity; he provided Ricardo Reis with a stoic detachment. Each of these selves is thoroughly consistent within itself yet is challenged by the equal though quite different reality of the other two.

Perhaps Pessoa’s greatest challenge, however, is not to the reader but to the modern artist himself. To the question of the relation of the author to the fiction that he creates, Pessoa’s work provides a clear answer. The mere existence of the heteronyms suggests that the author himself is as much a fiction as the work he creates. To assume that a poem signed Fernando Pessoa is somehow more honest or authentic than one signed by a heteronym—who, after all, is just a name, not someone who really lived—would be to ignore the radical critique of thinking about literature and reality that his accomplishment clearly represents.

Discussion Topics

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Although a small, obscure country in modern times, Portugal has a very distinguished history. What were its main achievements in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries?

What was Fernando Pessoa’s attitude toward the historical achievements of Portugal?

What is Sebastianism? How would you compare it to the tale of King Arthur or other national “returning savior” legends?

What are “heteronyms” and why did Pessoa use them?

How does a heteronym differ from a pseudonym? What authors have used pseudonyms?

Bibliography

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Monteiro, George. Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. The critic searches for the poet’s literary influences rooted in the English language. His European models and precursors included John Keats, Lord Byron, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Edgar Allen Poe was the most influential of his American models, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. The critic traces elements of influence in Pessoa’s work as he identifies the poet’s own legacy of influence.

Sadlier, Darlene J. An Introduction to Fernando Pessoa: Modernism and the Paradoxes of Authorship. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. This study focuses on the diminished value of authorship in twentieth century literature and the modernist pursuit of source. This vision is consistent with Pessoa’s personae as his heteronyms relate their literary creation to source. This study also explores links between Pessoa’s heteronomous writings and his literary predecessors. The critic seeks to broaden an understanding of European modernism by demonstrating that Pessoa’s authorship was a mimetic textual performance.

Sousa, Ronald W. The Rediscoverers: Major Writers in the Portuguese Literature of National Regeneration. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981. Addresses Pessoa in the context of Portuguese literature and the modern age. Bibliography.

Zenith, Richard. Fernando Pessoa and Co. New York: Grove Press, 1998. This excellent translation of Pessoa’s work is manifested through his various personae, enabling the reader to comprehend the corpus of poetry in an organized presentation. The poet’s heteronyms served to distance his art from his person. Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos attribute stylistic variations and personalities to impersonal entities. Zenith demonstrates that even the poetry that Pessoa wrote under his own name was not personal. The poet identified “Pessoa” as an “orthonym” made up of sub-personalities. Zenith captures the complexity of this evolutionary process in his English translations.

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