Fernando Pessoa
(Portugal, 1888–1935)   
 
 
 
Fernando Pessoa

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. In fact Pessoa wrote under dozens of names, but Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro 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. Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis also signed dozens of pages of prose.

Fernando Pessoa and his retinue of writerly alter egos was a hard act to follow. During the rest of the twentieth century, Portuguese poets almost inevitably found themselves being influenced by him – either positively, by knowingly or unknowingly incorporating aspects of his multifaceted work into their own poetry; or negatively, by going out of their way not to be influenced by him and his heteronyms. Anxiety of influence ran high, and there was also the anxiety of comparison. Some claimed that Pessoa stole the whole show, leaving little room for other Portuguese poets to be known and appreciated.

Pessoa published relatively little, and almost nothing in book form, so that his work only began to become well known in the 1940s, when the first large-scale edition of his works was issued. At that point Pessoa became a massive poetic presence in Portugal and in Brazil. It was not until the 1980s, however, with the publication of the Livro de Desassossego (The Book of Disquiet) – his most stunning prose work – that the poet of many masks began to be widely translated and appreciated in the rest of the world. Did foreign publishers, caught up in Pessoa mania, neglect other Portuguese poets, leaving them to languish in the shade? Not at all. In fact Pessoa’s work was a kind of open-sesame, insofar as it alerted the rest of the world to the rich literature being produced in a small country situated on southwestern Europe’s fringe.

Pessoa began a publishing wave, and soon other Portuguese writers saw their works being translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian and other languages. It’s true that Portuguese poets have a harder time than novelists getting their works translated and published, but that’s not Pessoa’s fault, it’s just how it is, whatever the language. Even Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which is in fact a heap – a fascinating heap – of prose fragments that the author never organized into a book (it took decades of posthumous scholarly labor to produce the first edition), far outsells his poetry.

Where poetry is concerned, Pessoa still grabs the lion’s share of the attention, which is why the Portuguese section of Poetry International has thus far focused on other poets, but people have been asking for him and his heteronyms, so here at last is a necessarily small selection from his and their vast output. Many other translations are available on line. At one site [http://www.disquiet.com/pessoa.html], in fact, you can find thirteen different translations into English of Pessoa’s signature poem, ‘Autopsychography’ (and on this site you’ll find a fourteenth translation [LINK], my own). Looking for Pessoa’s work in the original Portuguese? A Brazilian site [http://www.revista.agulha.nom.br/pessoa.html] has published over 1,000 poems!

Pessoa’s handwriting can be notoriously difficult to decipher, which is why much of his work (at this point mostly prose) is still unpublished. To see facsimile images of some original manuscripts, visit the site dedicated to his archives [http://purl.pt/1000/1/index.html], where all the manuscripts for the poems of heteronym, Alberto Caeiro, can be found (more of the archives will be digitalized as time goes on). Speaking of heteronyms, please note that we have included a separate page telling more about them and the horoscope charts Pessoa devised for his three most important heteronyms. For a biographical sketch of Fernando Pessoa himself, see the link below. Last but not least, check out the video clip from Wordsong, a Portuguese band who have just released a CD/DVD featuring songs based on excerpts from Pessoa’s poetry and accompanied by excellent video images. You can find another video clip on their webpage.

© Richard Zenith

Bibliography
Pessoa published many poems in magazines but only one full-fledged book of poems, Mensagem, in 1934. (He also self-published several chapbooks of his English poetry.). The posthumous editions are far too numerous to list, and the quality is uneven. Early editions, in particular, were marred by erroneous transcriptions. The most reliable, up-to-date editions for the general reader are available from Assírio & Alvim (Lisbon):

Canções de Beber, ed. Maria Aliete Galhoz, 2003. (Contains Pessoa’s ruba’iyat in the manner of Omar Khayyam.)
Mensagem, ed. Fernando Cabral Martins, 1997.
Poesia 1902-1917, eds. Manuela Parreira da Silva, Ana Maria Freitas and Madalena Dine, 2005.
Poesia 1918-1930, eds. Silva, Freitas and Dine, 2005.
Poesia 1930-1935, eds. Silva, Freitas and Dine, 2006.
Poesia, Alberto Caeiro, eds. Fernando Cabral Martins and Richard Zenith. 2nd ed., 2001.
Poesia, Alexander Search, ed Luísa Freire, 1999.
Poesia, Álvaro de Campos, ed. Teresa Rita Lopes, 2002.
Poesia Inglesa (I), ed Luísa Freire, 2000.
Poesia Inglesa (II), ed Luísa Freire, 2000.
Poesia, Ricardo Reis, ed. Manuela Parreira da Silva. Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim, 2000.
Quadras, ed. Luísa Freire, 2002.

Most of the same volumes are published in Brazil by Companhia das Letras. Critical editions of Pessoa’s poetry are available from Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda (Lisbon).


Translations
These are even more numerous than editions in Portuguese, and new translations are constantly coming out. Fernando Pessoa’s poetry has been rendered into all but the rarest languages, and most visitors to this site should have no problem finding his works in their own language.


Links
In Portuguese
Revista Agulha
Over 1000 poems of Pessoa available here
http://www.revista.agulha.nom.br/pessoa.html />
In Portuguese
Insite
Poems, discussion group, “curiosities”
http://www.insite.com.br/art/pessoa/ />
In Portuguese
National Library of Lisbon
Facsimile images of Pessoa’s original manuscripts (thus far the poems of Alberto Caeiro – more mss forthcoming)
http://purl.pt/1000/1/index.html />
In French
Association Française des Amis de Fernando Pessoa
Articles, poems and essays, with a focus on esoteric aspects
http://fernando-pessoa.com/ />
In English
Pessoa’s Trunk
Among other things, 13 different English translations of “Autopsychography”
http://www.disquiet.com/pessoa.html />
In Italian
University of Bologna, Dipartimento di Scienze della Comunicazione
Poems, biographical information, citations from the prose work
http://web.dsc.unibo.it/~lorenzet/ig/ />
In German.
Gabi Buchner
Poems and biographical info, including a Chronology.
http://www.gabi-buchner.de/pessoa/content.htm />
In Spanish
Marcos Lomba
Pessoa’s life, excerpts, critical essays
http://perso.wanadoo.es/mlomba/

 



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