Fernando Pessoa – an icon of Portuguese modernism

Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa (1888-1935) was an extremely versatile artist: poet, writer, philosopher, translator and literary critic. He wrote not only in his native language, but also in English and French. He published both under his own name and under many heteronyms – fictional characters of literary figures, some of whom he created more than 70 (some were discovered only in the 21st century). This was an unprecedented innovation, especially since the various “personae poeticae” differed in style, aesthetics, views and even gender and language, making it impossible for the “uninitiated” to identify them with a single person.

Inspirations, schools and influences

When Pessoa was 22, Portugal ceased to be a kingdom. In the new republic, the Portuguese Renaissance movement (Renascença Portuguesa) began to develop, with Leonardo Coimbra as its leading philosopher, and António Sérgio as its critic and historian. The poets – Mário Beirão, Augusto Casimiro, João de Barros – first recycled the program of the nationalist-minded Teixeira de Pascoaeis saudosismo movement, seeing it as a way to restore the greatness of the homeland. Saudade is a positive autostereotype, a kind of melancholy and nostalgia combined with an appreciation of the past and contemplation of transience, also present in the works of Fernando Pessoa. Aestheticism and decadence of the turn of the century was represented by António Botto. Integralism, headed by poet and historian António Sardinha, also developed steadily, appealing to the tradition of the Catholic monarchy in reaction to modernism and emerging futurism. In 1926, the First Republic collapses.

Fernando Pessoa drew on late Symbolism and saudossismo, becoming one of the luminaries of Western European modernism. He was appreciated after his death, especially in the late 20th century, accompanied from the 1940s onward by editions of his works, research, monographs and scholarly articles.

Critic and poet Jorge de Sena described Pessoa as “the person who never was,” thus indicating his almost perfect embodiment as a poet of the fragmented, plural and yet universal by integrating this intentional, created and creative multiplicity. He reinforced his influence on subsequent generations of artists through a letter to Adolfo Casais Monteri, a member of the Presença writers’ group, in which he expounded his poetics. Pessoa also inspired theater, introducing symbolist drama to modern theater. He used Maurice’ Maaeterlinck’s concept of “static drama” to create his only play, titled The Sailor (O marinheiro) in 1913. The action takes place in a medieval castle, where four women (one of them dead) await the return of the sailor just.

Only one of his books was published during Fernando Pessoa’s lifetime: Mensagem (The Message, 1934). Written under the name of Bernardo Soares, Livro de Desassosse (Book of Unrest) did not come out in print until 1982. Mensagem can be compared to Luis Vaz de Camões’ Luzjadas, especially for its poetic historicism.

Fernando Pessoa – many places, many people and many languages

Childhood in the shadow of death

Fernando Antonio was born in Lisbon on June 12, 1888. He came from the aristocracy, but not among the strict elite. His father, Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, was born in the capital and was an official at the Ministry of Justice and at the same time a music critic at Diário de Notícias. His mother, Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira Pessoa, was from the island of Ilha Terceira, part of the Azores archipelago. Also living with the family were Dionísia’s seriously ill grandmother and two old servants: Joana and Emília.

The future literary man was baptized on July 21 at Basílica dos Mártires. During Fernando’s early childhood years, events occurred that greatly influenced his later life. On July 13, 1893, his father, who was ill with tuberculosis, died at the age of 43. In less than a year, on January 2, 1894, his brother, Jorge, also passed away. As the family’s financial situation deteriorated, his mother was forced to sell some of the furniture and move to a poorer apartment on Rua de São Marçal. At the same time, Fernando created for his first “alter ego” – heteronym Chevalier de Pas, as Adolfo Casais Monteiro wrote about in a letter from 1935. He also wrote his first poem – a few lines entitled À Minha Querida Mamã.

A new family and a new country

On December 30, 1895, in the church of São Mamede, the Poet’s mother marries by proxy João Miguel Rosa (1857-1919), who had been appointed a little earlier to the post of Portuguese consul in Durban, having met him as recently as 1894. On January 20, 1896, the mother, son and uncle – Manuel Gualdino da Cunha – sail away from Madeira to find themselves with Fernando’s stepfather in South Africa after eleven days of sailing.

In 1899, Pessoa enters Durban High School, where he studies for three years, distinguishing himself from his classmates in grades and knowledge. Also in 1899, under the pseudonym Alexander Search, he writes letters to himself. In 1901, he passes the Cape School High Examination with honors, also writes his first poems in English and goes to his homeland with his family for a year’s vacation. During the same period, his two-year-old stepsister Madalena Henriqueta dies. In Lisbon, João Maria, the fourth child of Fernando’s mother and stepfather, is born. During the vacation period, the poem Quando ela passa is written.

He is constantly interested in books, as well as British and American poetry. He eagerly reaches for Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, John Milton, Byron and many other writers. English will also prove to be very important in his later work on business correspondence, and especially in his own texts and translations of, among others, The Raven and Annabel Lee by E.A. Poe. Apart from Mensagem, the only books published during Pessoa’s lifetime were collections of his poems in English: Antinous, 35 Sonnets and English Poems I – II and III (Lisbon 1918 – 1921).

Although the entire family, including his mother, returns to Durban, Fernando still remains in Lisbon. He returns alone on the steamer Herzog. He enrolls at the Durban Commercial School, where he studies in the evening, in addition to attending “daytime” university lectures in the humanities. At the same time, he attempts to write novellas in English, some under the heteronym David Merrick, but leaves them unfinished. In 1903, he takes the exams for the University of the Cape of Good Hope. He gets a mediocre score, however, out of 899 candidates, he is the one who gets the best mark for an essay testing his knowledge of English style. The prize is the Queen Victoria Memorial Prize. A year later, he enters Durban High School again, where he follows a first-year program of higher humanities studies. He reads British and Latin classics and continues to write in English, both poetry and prose. He uses the following heteronyms: Charles Robert Anon and H.M.F. Lecher. His essay Macaulay is published in the school magazine. He finishes his education in South Africa by passing the Intermediate Examination in Arts with good results.

Permanently in Portugal

Pessoa separates from Durban in 1905 to live in the “old country” with his ailing grandmother Dionysia and two aunts. He writes steadily in English and also enrolls in a literature course (Curso Superior de Letras, now the Faculty of Literature – Faculdade de Letras at the University of Lisbon), which he abandons without completing the first year. He establishes contacts with important writers and journalists, and begins to take an interest in the works of Cesário Verde and the works of Jesuit Father António Vieira, who lived between 1608 and 1697, a Portuguese missionary who defended the rights of indigenous people in the colonies, and was also a preacher, writer and philosopher.

In August 1907, the Writer’s grandmother dies, leaving him a modest inheritance, but allowing him to open a small typographic studio, Empreza Ibis, which soon goes bankrupt. In 1908, Pessoa begins to make a living translating trade correspondence, his profession being described in Portuguese as “correspondente estrangeiro” – “foreign correspondent.” He made a living from this work, similar to today’s freelancing, until his death, while leading a rather modest social life. Between 1905 and 1920, he lived at fifteen addresses, renting different rooms from time to time, depending on his current financial situation and personal adventures. He adopted the distanced perspective of a flâneur in the likeness of his heteronym Bernardo Soares, whose silhouette he outlined in the posthumously published Book of Anxiety.

Lisbon modernism and modernists

As a literary and theater critic, he also collaborated with writer and journalist José Boavida Portugal. In 1912, his articles appeared in the bimonthly magazine A Águia, órgão da Renascença Portuguesa. He also frequented the circle of his adoptive uncle, poet and retired general Henrique Rosa, at the A Brasileira café; today, there is a statue of him in front of its front door. In the 1920s, Pessoa enjoyed frequenting the Martinho da Arcada café on Praça do Comércio, where he met with friends and wrote. In 1920 he met Ofelia Queiroz, his only known life companion or lover.

statue of Fernando Pessoa

In front of the A Brasileira café in Lisbon is a sculpture of the Poet sitting at a table, wearing a distinctive hat, suit and fly, chiseled by Lagoa Henriques

In 1915, he co-founded the magazine Orpheu, a harbinger of modernism in Portugal, with controversy and scandal. Only two issues were published, in which Pessoa wrote under his own name and the alias Álvaro de Campo. An organ of modernism, Orpheu also laid the groundwork for Portuguese Futurism, not least through the manifestos and poetry of Pessoa and his circle of friends, especially his main collaborator, the poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, a representative of post-Symbolism.

In October 1924, together with graphic designer and artist Ruy Vaz, the writer launches another publishing venture: Athena – Revista de Arte. The monthly magazine is published for longer than Orpheu – until 1925, which resulted in more of Pessoa’s poetry under several heteronyms and his own name. In 1925 he wrote a guide to his city in English, which remained in manuscript for 67 years.

In 1935, several of his political writings were written against Salazar’s Estado Novo and Mussolini’s Italy’s attack on Abyssinia. Censorship did not allow them to be printed. He defended Freemasonry in the article Associações secretas, wrote anti-fascist satirical poems and anti-Catholic texts and poems, opposing the growing role of Catholic clergy in Portuguese politics. He sent a letter of protest against the government to President Óscar Carmona, indicating Pessoa’s growing commitment to defending the democratic and liberal system, and especially protecting the freedom and dignity of opponents of authoritarian rule, not just Portuguese.

Between gnosis and fides

Criticism of the clergy was associated with a shift to the Catholic faith – in 1935 the writer described himself as a “Gnostic Christian,” programmatically opposing all institutional churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church. He leaned toward an esoteric reinterpretation of Christianity, with close ties to the Kabbalah – the secret knowledge of the Israelites – and the occultism of Masonic lodges. He claimed to be initiated into the three lower degrees of the “Order of the Knights Templar of Portugal” (Ordem Templária de Portugal). As late as 1917, Pessoa also presented his vision of neo-paganism, describing himself as a “pagan decadent,” living during the “Autumn of Beauty,” an “intellectual mystic of the sad Neoplatonists of Alexandria.” He believed “in the Logos in the Neoplatonic sense, the Logos of the language of the philosophers – the Christ of Christian mythology.” His main heteronyms were connected to a renewed paganism: the worshipper of the creative power of nature Alberto Caeiro, the classicalist Ricardo Reis, who was passionate about Greece and Rome, and Álvaro de Campos likened to the American poet Walt Whitman. Like Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, he also took a keen interest in the figure of Christian Rosenkreutz and the Rosicrucian movement, and created the hermetic and highly regarded poem No Túmulo de Christian Rosenkreutz among adepts of secret knowledge in its Western European version. He believed sincerely in astrology – he left behind more than a thousand horoscopes. He was also interested in spiritualism and tried his hand as a medium using automatic writing.

Last two days

November 29, 1935 The writer is admitted to St. Louis Hospital due to pains caused by a stone in the bile duct. The stone was said to be associated with either cirrhosis hepatis or acute pancreatitis, which can be caused by, among other things, a gallstone entering the common bile duct, or be idiopathic in nature. Accurate diagnosis without ultrasound and blood tests is sometimes difficult, and today, the percentage of patients dying from acute pancreatitis is also still quite high. Fernando Pessoa died on November 30, having lived only 47 years. The previous day he managed to write his last words: I know not what tomorrow will bring. The funeral at Cemitério dos Prazeres took place on December 2.

In 1988 – the centenary of his birth – the Maker’s remains were moved to the monumental complex of the Hieronymite monastery, located in Lisbon’s Santa Maria de Belém neighborhood. He rests there alongside Luís Vaz de Camões and Vasco da Gama, among others.

Based on:

Encyclopaedia Britannica s.v. Fernando Pessoa, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fernando-Pessoa

William C. Atkinson et al. s.v. Portugese literature: the 20th Century, Encyclopaedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/art/Portuguese-literature/The-20th-century

Interesting materials:

Casa Fernando Pessoa https://www.casafernandopessoa.pt/en/cfp

Digitized private library of the Writer with detailed discussion and catalogs: Biblioteca Particular Fernando Pessoa http://bibliotecaparticular.casafernandopessoa.pt/index/index.htm

Lecture by Richard Zenith Fernando Pessoa: An Englishly Portuguese, Endlessly Multiple Poet (Library of Congress) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r788Xw6xU0U

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