Maria José de Lancastre
Octavio Paz's aphorism applies more aptly to Fernando Pessoa than to any other twentieth-century poet: “Poets have no biography; their work is their biography.” Accordingly, the most authoritative Pessoa biographies, from Simões's pioneering work (1950) to the most recent and sharpest ones by Angel Crespo (1988) and Robert Bréction (1996), are based mainly on Pessoa's works in order to extract his life. Thus his life, except for a few verifiable and easily summarized facts, is essentially an exegesis (or conjecture) educed from his texts. We must distinguish between his external, anagraphic life and his true life of emotions, passions, and strictly personal vicissitudes, about which Pessoa was always very reserved (nay, parsimonious), both in his letters that are available today and in his autobiographical notes or diary jottings written for himself alone and not intended for publication. Between Pessoa and his life stands an impenetrable wall, which leads us to understand that “la vraie vie est ailleurs” (real life is elsewhere), in Rimbaud's words.
As stereotypic biography, we may say that Pessoa was born in Lisbon to a middle-class family on June 13, 1888. His father, Joaquim, a dilettante musician, was a freelance music critic for a Lisbon evening paper. The boy saw his little magic world collapse at the age of six with the death of his tubercular father and of his infant brother, as well as the confinement of his demented paternal grandmother to a psychiatric hospital. His mother then married by proxy Colonel João Miguel Rosa, Portuguese consul at Durban during the British colonial era, resulting in the boy's uprooting from Lisbon to spend the rest of his childhood, adolescence, and youth in an English-speaking land, where he obtained his schooling in an Anglo-Saxon cultural environment. A voracious reader, he excelled in his studies, undergoing at Durban High School the deep influence of his headmaster, W.H. Nicholas, professor of English literature and classical cul-