To write an author spotlight about Fernando Pessoa is quite a demanding task, since he was not one single writer, he was many. He invented the concept of ‘heteronyms’, which are not ordinary pen names or pseudonyms, but different ‘voices’ with their own biographies, writing styles, physiques, personalities and intellectual lives. Pessoa is one of the most famous Portuguese writers and published both poetry, essays and fiction.
Born in 1888 in Lisbon, he moved to South Africa with his mother in 1895 to join his stepfather, a military officer who was then the Portuguese consul in Durban. His father and his younger brother died when he was really young. In 1905, he returned to Lisbon, where he died in 1935 of cirrhosis. Some of his works were left unfinished and the majority were only published after his death.
Fernando Pessoa can be characterised as a modernist writer, being one of the authors who established the movement in Portugal. I am no specialist, but from what I remember from school, modernist writers aimed to self-consciously break with the traditional ways of writing. They had a conscious desire to express new sensibilities, to focus on new themes in poetry and to contravene the language rules.
Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego in the original in Portuguese) is probably his most renowned work internationally. It is a fragmentary lifetime project left unedited by Fernando Pessoa, who called it a “factless autobiography”. There are various editions of this book and experts don’t agree on how to organise it. Richard Zenith believes that there is only one single volume written by Bernardo Soares, a semi-heteronym. But Teresa Sobral Cunha considers that the book has two authors: Vicente Guedes, in a first phase, and Bernardo Soares, in a second.
Controversies apart, Book of Disquiet is a combination of intimate diary, prose poetry and descriptive narrative. Do not expect much plot. The highlights of this book are the reflections on life, solitude, the philosophical concerns, the magnificent prose and the exquisite use of words. When I first read it, a few years ago, I always had a pencil with me in order to underline the most striking sentences.
Many lives in one
Fernando Pessoa is one of the authors we study in secondary school in Portugal, but the emphasis is on his poetry. The poems he signs as himself focus on matters related to the poetic pretence, that is the feelings of the poet may not really be the feelings expressed in a poem. He also reflected on the pain that stems from thinking and having an acute conscience, which leads to bitterness, boredom and exhaustion of living. The fragmentation of the self is another of the themes of his poetry, which can have either a traditional or a modernist structure. Feeling at any given moment a different thing is at the inception of the creation of the heteronyms.
It is believed that Fernando Pessoa created around 70 heteronyms. The most famous are Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos. Both the last two and Fernando Pessoa consider Alberto Caeiro their master. If you want to begin reading Pessoa’s poetry, I would recommend starting with an anthology that has poems both by these three heteronyms and Pessoa himself. There are various anthologies of their poems translated into English. However, as I’ve only read his poems in Portuguese, I cannot say which is the best translation.
Alberto Caeiro saw himself only as a simple herdsman. He preferred objectivity, naturalness and the senses, which allowed him to have an exact perception of things. Only what the senses could perceive had his interest. He didn’t look for a complex explanation for the nature’s mysteries, he lived in the present and refused to think too much. He reduced things to his perception of them: shapes, colours, etc. His poetry reflects these ideas, being written in a simple language with almost no adjectives or metaphors.
I believe in the world as in a daisy,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it,
Because to think is to not understand.
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is to have eyes that aren’t well)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.
Extract from ‘The Keeper of Sheep II’ by Alberto Caeiro
Translation by Richard Zenith
On the other hand, Ricardo Reis is considered a classic poet, who saw Ancient Greece as the model for perfection. Epicureanism and stoicism are two philosophies present in his poems. They are full of moral advices and appeals to indifference. There is also a sense of fatalism and drama, because of the ephemeral condition of human life. In terms of style, his poetry features rich vocabulary, metaphors, similes, and follows metric and strophic rules.
My favourite heteronym is Álvaro de Campos. His poetry can be divided into three periods: decadent, futurist and intimate. During the first phase, he expressed feelings of boredom, depression and the need for new sensations. There is no meaning in life. That changes in the second phase, which is a celebration of the triumph of machines, mechanical energy and modern civilisation. He also mentioned the scandals and corruption of modern life. Finally, in the third period, he expressed his inability to achieve fulfilment and revealed disillusionment, revolt, dismay and frustration.
No, I don’t want anything.
I already said I don’t want anything.
Don’t come to me with conclusions!
Death is the only conclusion.
Don’t offer me aesthetics!
Don’t talk to me of morals!
Take metaphysics away from here!
Don’t try to sell me complete systems, don’t bore me
with the breakthroughs of science (of science, my God, of science!)
— Of science, of the arts, of modern civilization!
Extract from ‘Lisbon Revisited’ by Álvaro de Campos
Translation by Richard Zenith
Portugal as a subject
Fernando Pessoa also wrote Mensagem (Message in the English translation). It is a mix of lyric and epic text, since it both conveys feelings and aims to praise the efforts of heroes. Pessoa chose certain aspects of Portuguese history and, in a way, created myths to help reborn a nation. The purpose of these poems is to highlight the importance that some events and heroes would have had in the establishment of the Fifth Empire (“Quinto Império”), which was supposed to unite the entire world spiritually and culturally. In this book, Pessoa revealed his belief in a mythical nationalism.
He also wrote other poems about Portugal. After being complacent with the authoritarian regime of “Estado Novo”, he changed his mind. He started to express his distrust of authoritarian leaders in some of his poems, such as ‘O Rei’ and ‘À Emissora Nacional’. He also criticised the lack of freedom and censorship, which prevented people from knowing the truth.
Finally, I have also recently read an anthology of his short stories, which are quite philosophical and feature esoteric elements. The majority of them are beautifully written and thought-provoking. One of the stories was originally written in English by the heteronym Alexander Search.
If you are interested in Portuguese literature and appreciate beautiful prose, Fernando Pessoa is a must-read.