Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Fernando Pessoa

By aifos on Monday, June 3, 2002 04:30 pm
Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is the perfect embodiment of the romantic notion of what is to be a poet: unique, eccentric but at the same time leading a quiet life, isolated in its own madness, shyness and love for writing.

After his death, a trunk with around 27,000 items ranging from prose fragments to letters and poems was found. These works are ascribed to around 80 "writers", his heteronyms: Bernardo Soares, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and A'lvaro de Campos are the most important ones. Pessoa created their lives in detail, nothing was forgotten. From what they looked like, going through date of birth and death, profession, views of the world, ways of expressing themselves and even astral charts, Pessoa documented everything and the personalities impact their different works: Ricardo Reis is an epicurian doctor; A'lvaro de Campos is the self-made engineer. Alberto Caeiro is a shepard. Pessoa and the four heteronyms first appeared in a vanguardist magazine called "Athena". No one could suspect that they were indeed the same person...

His childhood can be compared to Baudelaire's: he comes from a bourgeois family of Lisbon and his father died when he was very young. His mother remarried a counsil to South Africa and so, they moved to Durban. Latter they returned to Lisbon and Pessoa never left it again. His relationship with his mother was very strong and her death left a deep scar in him. Living in Durban enriched his English and made him acquainted with the works of several English writers. His work is done both in English and in Portuguese.

During his life, Pessoa worked as a commercial translator for a firm in Lisbon. His earning was modest. In the meanwhile, he kept his literary occupation, helping to create vanguardist literary magazines in the Portuguese avant-garde scene, such as "Orpheu".

Also, throughout his life, Pessoa only saw a book published, an esoteric work, rich in symbolic meaning and having to do with the rich Portuguese historical past and its uncertain future, "A mensagem" (the message). His works, found in the trunk, are still being published and translated to several languages.

Never leaving Lisbon, Pessoa kept friends and acquaintances all over the world. One curious acquaintance of his is Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist. Pessoa read Crowley's astral chart in a brittish publication. Noticing some mistakes and having deep knowledge in astrology, Pessoa wrote a letter to Crowley, sending along with it the corrected chart. Crowley, surprised and flattered and always eager to travel, decided to meet Pessoa in Lisbon. But this was not a perfect "rendez-vous": the two characters had not much in common. Even so, Pessoa decided to participate in Crowley's staged suicide at "Boca do Inferno" (Hell's mouth), a very mystical and beautiful place in the coast near Cascais in Portugal. With the "suicide", Crowley managed to escape the persecution of his many creditors and some angry lovers. After this episode, Pessoa wrote to a friend: "After having commited suicide, Crowley decided to live in Germany (...)", showing his always sharp humor.

But even with many acquaintances, Pessoa was not skilled to social life. He preferred isolation, he lived for literature. Very shy, he became even more isolated after his mother's death and his health, psychological and physical, decayed more and more. His only known lover is Ophelia, a girl that worked in his office and which he almost married. But this was a very distorted relationship. Their love is now documented by an edition of his share of love letters, which shows his psychological health declining fast, his ghosts and problems and which are a notable document about the poet's inner struggles. Sometimes, A'lvaro de Campos "appears" in the letters writing to Ophelia, instead of Pessoa: A'lvaro did not like this relationship. Ophelia's share of letters are kept by her family. She married after their final and painful breakup.

Lots of speculation exist about Pessoa's sexuality; some say he died a virgin. Others say his only love-affair was with Ophelia. Others say that he was homosexual but due to the social pressure could not deal with it. But, this is pure speculation and probably the truth will never be known and it doesn't really matter. For sure, we know that he had many shades. That his personality was very rich and that his love was to write. That he felt completely isolated and lonely, as we can read in his poem "Autopsicografia" (Autopsycopgrahy):

The poet is a faker.
His faking is so real

That he even fakes that is pain,
The pain he truly feels.

And those who read his writings
In the read pain they feel
Not the two pains that were his,
But only the one that is not theirs.

And so in its little tracks

Runs, to entertain reason,
That clockwork train
The thing that is called the heart

(Fernando Pessoa, himself)

Some other poems by heteronyms and himself:

Keeper of flocks (by Alberto Caeiro)

I'm a keeper of flocks
The flocks are my thoughts.
And all my thoughts are feelings
I feel with my eyes and ears,
And with hands and feet,
And with nose and mouth.

To think a flower is to see and to feel it,
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning

So when in a hot day
I feel sad for enjoying it so much
And I lay on the grass
And close my hot eyes,
I feel my whole body laying down in fact
I know the truth and am happy.


Portuguese Sea (from "Mensagem", by Pessoa himself)


Oh salt-laden sea, how much of your salt
Is tears of Portugal!
To cross you, how many mothers wept,
how many sons in vain prayed!
How many brides-to-be brides remained,
So you were ours, oh Sea!

Was it worth? Everything is worth,
If the soul is not small.
Whoever wants to go beyond (cape) Bojador,
Has to go beyond pain.
To the sea gave God peryl and the abyss,
But in it He also mirrored heaven.

Pessoa died in Lisbon in 1935, when he was 47 years old.



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