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Fernando Pessoa

Updated on September 19, 2014


It is sometimes said that the four greatest Portuguese poets of modern times are Fernando Pessoa. The statement is possible since Pessoa, whose name means 'person' in Portuguese, had three alter egos who wrote in styles completely different from his own. Pessoa wrote under dozens of names, but Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos were - their creator claimed - full-fledged individuals who wrote things that he himself would never or could never write. He dubbed them 'heteronyms' rather than pseudonyms, since they were not false names but "other names", belonging to distinct literary personalities. Not only were their styles different; they thought differently, they had different religious and political views, different aesthetic sensibilities, different social temperaments. And each produced a large body of poetry. Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis also signed dozens of pages of prose. (Poetry International Web)

Three reasons to love Fernando Pessoa





(INSCRIPTIONS, English Poems, 1920)

Reason #1: Fernando Pessoa was not just one poet; he developed all these poetic and prosaic personalities that he called "heteronyms". They had their own voice, beliefs, political views, ages, professions, even birth dates. It was a process that began in Pessoa's childhood, gathered steam in his adolescence with the invention of alter egos who wrote in English, and made literary history in 1914, with the creation of would-be shepherd Alberto Caeiro, Futurist naval engineer Ãlvaro de Campos, and classicist Ricardo Reis, three of the finest Portuguese poets of the twentieth century.

Reason #2: The immense body of work he left behind and the amount of scholars that studied, and still study, it. He had only a few publications while he was still alive. Upon his death, his work amassed 25,000 manuscript pieces in a trunk (loose leaves, journals, notebooks, empty envelopes, napkins; some typed, some handwritten, some illegible) that to this day are not all cataloged.

Reason 3#: You have to read Pessoa and find out yourself.

PESSOA HIMSELF (1888-1935)

The symbolist

"The poet is a faker

Who's so good at his act

He even fakes the pain

Of the pain he feels in fact"


When Pessoa was five years old, his father died of tuberculosis. A year later, his brother died and his mother remarried. In 1896, the family moved to the British-governed town of Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa's stepfather was the Portuguese consul. The young Pessoa received his early education in Durban and Cape Town, becoming fluent in English and developing an appreciation for English poets such as William Shakespeare and John Milton.

At the age of seventeen, Pessoa returned to Lisbon, attending a Portuguese university. A student strike soon put an end to his studies, however, and Pessoa chose to study privately at home for a year. His term of study ended and Pessoa found a job working as an assistant for a businessman, where he was charged with writing correspondence and translating documents. In 1914, he and other artists and poets such as Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá Carneiro, created the literary magazine Orpheu that would introduce modern literature in Portugal.

His interest in the mystical led Pessoa to correspond with the occultist Aleister Crowley, later helping him to plan an elaborate fake suicide when the latter visited Portugal in 1930.[He translated Crowley's poem Hymn To Pan into Portuguese.

Pessoa died of cirrhosis in 1935, almost unknown to the public and with only one book published: "Mensagem" (Message). The previous day he'd written his very last words, in English: "I KNOW NOT WHAT TOMORROW WILL BRING". In 1985, his remains were moved to the Jerónimos Monastery, in Lisbon, the same place where there are the tombs of Vasco da Gama, Luís de Camões, and Alexandre Herculano.

ALVARO DE CAMPOS (1890-1935?)

The futuristic naval engineer

Pessoa breathes and perspires poetry; he draws in the other poets. He meets Ãlvaro de Campos, the avant-garde author of Ode Triunfal (Triumphal Ode), Ode Marítima (Maritime Ode) and Ultimatum. He is tall, has straight hair, parted on one side, and wears a monocle.

He was born in Tavira in 1890. He had finished high school in Portugal and then moved to Glasgow, in Scotland, where he graduated as a mechanical and naval engineer. He had written Opiário, an ironical poem about opium and exoticism, a piece of literary decadence. In Lisbon, he had dedicated himself to literature and to modernist polemics. He had also written articles for some newspapers on current political affairs. As far as Pessoa was concerned, Ãlvaro was only a blasé, indolent symbolist, a cultured and bored bourgeois. Campos is also a disciple of Caeiro, but contrary to Caeiro's serenity, he chooses the ethics of dynamism and violence.

"Oh, the savagery of this savagery! To hell

with every life like ours, this is not

what life is about!

Here I am, an engineer, forced to be practical,

sensitive to everything,

Here I am, motionless, in relation to you,

even when I walk;

Even when I act, I am inert;

when I'm in command, I am weak;

Immutable, broken, a dissenter, a coward before

your Glory,

Before your great dynamics,

strident, hot and soaked in blood!"

Source:Fernando Pessoa on Vidas Lusofonas; retrieved Sept 17, 2008

ALBERTO CAEIRO (1889-1915)

The would-be shepherd

"I have no ambitions and no desires.

To be a poet is not my ambition,

It's my way of being alone"

"I'm a keeper of flocks

The flocks are my thoughts.

And all my thoughts are feelings

I feel with my eyes and ears,

And with hands and feet,

And with nose and mouth.

To think a flower is to see and to feel it,

And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning"


Alvaro de Campos left a description of Alberto Caeiro:"medium tall, blue eyes, fair har, and fair skin, with a strikingly white forehead" and said he once loved a lady who did not return his love.

"Alberto Caeiro da Silva was born in Lisbon on April 16, 1889, and died of tuberculosis in the same city on (. . .), 1915. He spent nearly all his life in a village in Ribatejo, and only returned to the city of his birth in his final months. In Ribatejo he wrote nearly all his poems, those of the book entitled The Keeper of Flocks, those of the incomplete book, The Amorous Shepherd, and some of his first which I myself, having inherited them for the purposes of publication with the rest, gathered together under the designation graciously suggested by Ãlvaro de Campos: Detached Poems. His final poems, beginning with the one numbered ( . . .), were written in the last period of the author's life, after he had returned to Lisbon. The task befalls me briefly to establish a distinction. Some of these poems reveal, by reason of the perturbation caused by illness, something new and rather foreign - in nature and direction - to the general character of his work.

Caeiro's life cannot be narrated: there is nothing in it to be told. His poems were the life within him. In all else there was neither incident nor story. Even the brief, fruitless, and absurd episode which gave rise to the poems of The Amorous Shepherd was not an incident but rather, so to speak, a forgetting.

Caeiro's work represents the absolute essence of paganism, fully reconstructed. The Greeks and the Romans, who lived in the midst of paganism and therefore did not think about it, would have been incapable of such a thing. Yet Caeiro's oeuvre and its paganism were never thought through, nor were they even felt. They came from something within us deeper than feeling or reason. To say any more would be to explain, which serves no end; to affirm any less would be to lie. Every oeuvre speaks for itself with its own voice in the language that shapes both work and voice. "If you have to ask, you will never know." There is nothing to explain. Imagine attempting to explain to someone a language he did not speak." (from an introductory essay by Ricardo Reis, translated by Chris Daniels)

Source: Shearsman Books; retrieved Sept 16, 2008

RICARDO REIS (1887-1935?)

The classicist

"And so, Lydia, by the fireplace, as if we were,

with the Gods of home, right there in eternity,

Like people who confection clothes

As we once did

In that disquiet that rest

Brings to our lives when we think

Of what we once were.

And outside, there is only night"

June, 1914. Another poet makes his appearance in the life of Pessoa, who had become aware of his existence two years before. He is Ricardo Reis, average height, although frail he didn't appear to be as frail as, in truth, he was, with a vaguely brown complexion. This physician from Oporto, a defender of the monarchy, is one year older than Pessoa and spends some time in exile in Brazil after the proclamation of the Republic. A traditional thinker, a conservative, he uses classicism as a point of departure to approach the subject of human restlessness, to question the meaning of the Universe. He writes intensely: eleven odes in one month.

Source:Fernando Pessoa on Vidas Lusofonas; retrieved Sept 17, 2008

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