Pessoa, Fernando (1888–1935)
One of the most interesting and complex figures of Western literature in the twentieth century, Fernando Pessoa is best known for his heteronyms. The story of the genesis of the heteronyms was told by Pessoa, in the year of his death, in a letter addressed to Adolfo Casais Monteiro, a young poet and critic of presença (see Portugal). Pessoa’s heteronyms are, literally, “other names” which Pessoa himself (or “orthonymous” Pessoa) gave to “other poets” he discovered in himself and under whose different personalities he wrote. Dozens of “other names” have been found among the vast number of manuscripts left by Pessoa (in the famous “arca” [trunk]), but the most important of the heteronyms, those responsible for some of the most original poetry written in the West in this century, are, besides Pessoa himself, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos. The name of Bernardo Soares, a semi-heteronym according to the poet, and the author of an extraordinary fragmentary piece of poetic prose, posthumously published in 1982 as Livro do desassossego (The Book of Disquietude), must also be added to Pessoa’s “drama em gente” (“drama in people,” Pessoa’s own phrase for the poetic phenomenon of himself). At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schlegel spoke of “Unverständlichkeit” (Incomprehensibility) to identify the complexities and paradoxes of lyric poetry. Pessoa’s “desassossego” (disquietude) is perhaps the best term of all to characterize Western modernity’s deeper loss of grounds for meaning in its utmost consciousness of the opacity of language.
Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888, and died in the same city in 1935. He lived in Lisbon most of his life, except for a brief but very important period of his childhood and adolescence, during which he was in South Africa. After Pessoa lost his father at age five, his mother remarried, and in 1896 sailed for Durban to join her husband who had been recently appointed the Portuguese consul there. Seven-year old Fernando Pessoa traveled with her. He stayed for ten years and all his elementary and secondary schooling took place in English schools in South Africa. This experience was to leave a strong mark upon him. A contemporary of all the major Anglo-American modernist poets (he was born exactly the same year as T. S. Eliot), Pessoa received an elementary and secondary education in Durban that was similar to theirs. The Portuguese poet was also widely and deeply read in English Literature, wrote some very interesting and accomplished poems in English (including a handful of very early ones signed by Alexander Search, one of his first heteronyms), and the roots of his poetic theory and practice reach equally into Portuguese Literature and the Anglo-American literary tradition.