Monastery of Jeronimos Lisbon, Lisboa Municipality, Lisboa, Portugal
Fernando Pessoa (June 13, 1888 – November 30, 1935) was a Portuguese poet. Pessoa was born into a middle-class Lisbon family of mixed Jewish, aristocratic and Azorean descent. His father died when he was 5 and two years later his mother married the Portuguese consul in Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa spent his teens. He was educated at Durban High School and became fluent in English. Pessoa returned to Portugal in 1905 and never left it again. He soon abandoned his university studies and from then on maintained himself by translating commercial correspondence into English, which allowed him to live modestly but adequately. His external life was uneventful and he died in relative obscurity. He devoted his main energies to poetry and was involved in the major literary controversies of the day. Towards the end of his life he began to be recognised by the next generation of poets and since then his reputation has grown both in Portugal and internationally. Today he is recognised as one of the great European modernist poets. In Portugal he is regarded as the greatest poet of the twentieth-century and has been accorded the status of a national hero.
Pessoa published relatively little in his lifetime. Most of his poetry appeared in literary magazines and was only collected after his death. He left a famous trunk full of manuscripts which have been gradually published posthumously. Many of his early works were written in English and it appears that he initially hoped to make a literary reputation in Britain. Later works were written in Portuguese, but critics have noted an English influence in their syntax and rhythm, which forms part of their special appeal. Pessoa is best known now for his avantgarde and modernist works written in the 1910s and 1920s, and particulary for his invention of three heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos. These were more than pseudonyms, since Pessoa invented separate identities for each of them and maintained an elaborate fiction that they wrote independently of their creator. He wrote different styles of verse under the three heteronyms, as well as under his own name. In 1934 he published a collection of mythical nationalistic poems called Mensagem (Message), which was exploited after his death by the conservative Salazar regime.
There is no direct evidence that Pessoa was homosexual, but the fact that he never married (despite a tentative courtship when he was in his thirties), his friendship with a number of openly gay writers and the evidence of his own work point in this direction.
In 1918 Pessoa published Antinous, a long poem written in English under his own name. This poem described the emperor Hadrian mourning over the dead body of his young Greek lover, Antinous, and promising to raise a marble sculpture in memory of their love which would act as an inspiration to their brothers yet to be born. Although the English is rather stilted, there are some fairly explicit descriptions as Hadrian remembers their physical love-making, dispelling any lingering belief that Pessoa was a purely intellectual poet. Pessoa sent review copies of the poem to various British newspapers, which regarded it as something of a southern curiosity. In 1921 he published a revised version in a collection titled English Poems. This retained the same structure, but among other changes, Pessoa radically excised words such as ‘vice’ and ‘crime’ which suggested that the relationship was wrong. In the other major work in English Poems, ‘Epithalamium’, the poet imagined himself as a bride on her wedding morning, thinking of the pains and pleasures of the wedding night yet to come.
English Poems was published under the imprint of Olisipo, Pessoa's own shortlived publishing house. The following year he published the second edition of Canções (Songs), a collection of love poems by the openly gay poet António botto, and wrote an article defending Botto's aestheticism for a leading literary and artistic magazine, Contemporanea. This engendered a major controversy, with book seizings and public demonstrations, and involving other writers, such as Raul Leal. Botto kept quiet throughout this period but both Pessoa and Leal issued leaflets attacking their opposition, before the controversy fizzled out.
The bestknown of Pessoa's work with homoerotic aspects is the poem ‘Ode Marítima’ (Maritime Ode), first published in 1915 under the heteronym of the supposed engineer, Álvaro de Campos. In this lengthy work the poet pictures himself on the Lisbon quayside watching steamers heading out to sea. Gradually this prosaic scene is transformed into a sadomasochistic fantasy of attacks by pirate ships in the age of sail. The poet dreams of being a woman raped by pirates and the pleasures to be gained from the sufferings of others. The impetus of the poem is governed by the image of a fly-wheel which accelerates and then slows down, returning the poet to the mechanical world of the quayside. In another poem of the same period signed by Álvaro de Campos, ‘Saudação a Walt Whitman’ (‘ Greeting to Walt Whitman’), the poet refers to whitman as a ‘great pederast’ and says, ‘I am one of yours’. Because the poem is ostensibly written by Campos these views cannot be directly attributed to Pessoa.
This was not a form of simple closetry, however – since Pessoa's most forthright writings appeared under his own name – but rather part of an extended reflection on the meaning of personality and the role of the poet. The sincerity of Pessoa's expressed views has been the subject of much academic debate. Pessoa himself referred to his heteronymic writings as a ‘drama in people’. The idea of multiple personalities and identities, with the associated image of the mask, has many philosophical connections, but has a particular resonance for gay readers looking for survival strategies in a hostile environment. Thus, while homoerotic themes are treated directly in a number of specific poems, they can also be seen to underlie much of Pessoa's work.
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