Fernando Pessoa is thought of as one of the great poets of Portugal, for some equivalent to Luís Vaz de Camões. Pessoa’s genius is attributed to his invention of the heteronym.
In the Portuguese sense of the word, a heteronym denotes an invention made by an author of a complete imaginary character, who assumes a personality entirely different from that of his creator. Pessoa was a prolific writer in his short life and he invented over 70 noms de plume, pseudonyms and heteronyms.
Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa was born on June 13, 1888 in Lisbon. His parents were Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira, a 26-year-old from the Azores, and Lisbon-born Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, a 38-year-old civil servant who also wrote critical pieces in O Diário de Notícias.
Joaquim died of tuberculosis when Fernando was five and the following year saw the death of Fernando’s only brother Jorge. The lonely Fernando began to people his world with imaginary friends and, in their various names, he used to write letters to himself.
In 1895, his mother married by proxy Commandant João Miguel Rosa, the consul of Portugal in Durban, South Africa and the family immediately set sail for Durban. In South Africa, Pessoa had a British education and was awarded the prestigious Queen Victoria Memorial Prize for his university entrance exam essay. In his own time, he read widely in the classics of the English language.
Fernando visited Portugal in 1901-1902, and stayed in the farmhouse of relatives near Tavira, before he returned permanently to Lisbon in 1905 via the Suez Canal. This journey inspired the poems Opiário, supposedly written in 1914 by Álvaro de Campos, and Ode Marítima.
In Lisbon, he used his fluency in Portuguese, English and French in his working life as a freelance translator of commercial correspondence. He worked enough to live, sometimes as little as two days a week, and spent much of the rest of his time in cafés and writing at home.
He joined the mystical Portuguese Renaissance movement and published a series of articles about new poetry in the magazine A Águia, and with intellectual friends founded another magazine, Orpheu, devoted to modern aesthetics.
Pessoa became one of Portugal’s best known and active intellectual figures, making frequent contributions to political and cultural life. The suicide of his friend Mário Sá Carneiro in 1916 shook Pessoa’s spiritual equilibrium and he began to look into theosophy and the occult sciences. In particular, his study of astrology allowed him to develop over 1,500 astrologial charts of famous people such as Napoleon and Shakespeare.
From March 1914, Pessoa had experimented with heteronyms. His first and chief heteronym was Alberto Caeiro, born in 1889 and died of consumption in 1915. Caeiro said of his accomplishments: “I don’t pretend to be anything more than the greatest poet in the world.”
Fernando Pessoa and Álvaro de Campos acknowledged Caeiro as their master.
Another of Pessoa’s main heteronyms, Ricardo Reis, was born in Porto in 1887, studied at a Jesuit College and trained in medicine before emigrating to Brazil as a protest against the proclamation of the Republic in Portugal in 1910.
Álvaro de Campos was born in Tavira on October 15, 1890 and studied naval engineering in Scotland before travelling to the East. Campos’ poetry has three distinct stylistic areas: first, he feels foreign wherever he is; second, he worships industrialisation and scientific progress; and in his third phase, Campos is profoundly disenchanted with the present. Perhaps here is the parallel of Pessoa’s own existence.
Pessoa’s only known sweetheart was Ofélia Maria Queirós Soares, the ninth child of parents from Lagos. Their relationship was discreet and short, and spanned two distinct periods: May 1 – November 29, 1920 and September 11, 1929 – January 11, 1930.
He declared his love for her one day with lines taken from Hamlet, and then kissed her “like a madman”, she said. The relationship became perversely infantile and in one of Fernando’s letters, Álvaro de Campos butted in to tell her that she should not take the relationship seriously.
The reason for the failure of the second phase of their relationship has been attributed to the constant presence of a third person, Álvaro de Campos. It was a virtual ménage à trois.
The semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares was an assistant bookkeeper in downtown Lisbon who seems always tired or sleepy. He was the closest to Pessoa’s own voice and was the author of the Livro do Desassossego (Book of Disquiet), one of the foundations of Portuguese fiction of the 20th century. Bernardo Soares wrote all of Pessoa’s prose work.
Fernando Pessoa – using his real name – was a modernist and symbolist. A number of great fado artists have recorded Pessoa’s work as fado, among them Camané, Mariza and Ana Moura. In 2013, a disc was published called O Fado e a Alma Portuguesa which features Pessoa’s work sung in fado form, and on Wednesday, November 16 at 7pm there will be a performance of these fados at the museum Fado com História in Tavira. This performance forms part of the celebrations of the birthday of Álvaro de Campos between October 1 and November 30 in his birthplace.
Tavira celebrates the fame of Álvaro de Campos on a daily basis. The walls of the town are decorated with 10 examples of the poetry of Álvaro de Campos; a restaurant, a street and the municipal library are also named after him; and the Casa Álvaro de Campos centre celebrates his work.
On November 30, 1935 in Lisbon, aged 47, Pessoa died of problems with his liver brought on by the obviously excessive consumption of alcohol throughout his life. I suspect that he knew that he was dying, because the last written phrase he composed was in English: “I know not what tomorrow will bring.”
By Lynne Booker