Fernando Pessoa, born Fernando António Nogueira Pessôa in June 13, 1888 was a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher and philosopher. He was described as one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language. He also wrote in and translated from English and French.
On July 13, 1893, when Pessoa was five, his father, Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, died of tuberculosis and next year, on January 2, his younger brother Jorge, aged one, also died.
Following the second marriage of his mother, Maria Magdalena Pinheiro Nogueira, with João Miguel dos Santos Rosa, on December 31, 1895, little Fernando sailed with his mother for South Africa in the beginning of 1896, to join his stepfather, a military officer appointed Portuguese consul in Durban, capital of the former British Colony of Natal.
The young Pessoa himself, “There is only one event in the past which has both the definiteness and the importance required for rectification by direction; this is my father’s death, which took place on 13th July, 1893. My mother’s second marriage (which took place on 30th December, 1895) is another date which I can give with preciseness and it is important for me, not in itself, but in one of its results – the circumstance that, my stepfather becoming Portuguese Consul in Durban (Natal), I was educated there, this English education being a factor of supreme importance in my life, and, whatever my fate be, indubitably shaping it.”
The young Pessoa received his early education at St. Joseph Convent School, a Catholic grammar school run by Irish and French nuns. He moved to the Durban High School in April, 1899, becoming fluent in English and developing an appreciation for English literature. During the Matriculation Examination, held at the time by the University of the Cape of Good Hope (forerunner of the University of Cape Town), in November 1903, he was awarded the recently created Queen Victoria Memorial Prize for best paper in English. While preparing to enter university, he also attended the Durban Commercial High School during one year, in the evening shift.
During his life, most of Pessoa’s considerable creative output appeared only in journals, and he published just three collections of poetry in English—Antinous (1918), Sonnets (1918), and English Poems (1921)—and one collection in Portuguese, Mensagem (1933).
In 1914, the year his first poem was published, Pessoa found the three main literary personas, or heteronyms, as he called them, which he would return to throughout his career: Alberto Caeiro, a rural, uneducated poet of great ideas who wrote in free verse; Ricardo Reis, a physician who composed formal odes influenced by Horace; and Álvaro de Campos, an adventurous London-based naval engineer influenced by poet Walt Whitman and the Italian Futurists. Pessoa published under his own name as well, but considered that work the product of an “orthonym,” another literary persona. While other notable writers of his generation used literary personas, such as Pound’s Mauberley and Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge, Pessoa alone gave his heteronyms a full life separate from his own, assigning and adopting in turn each persona’s psychology, aesthetics, and politics. Pessoa’s insistence on identity as a flexible, dynamic construction, and his consequent rejection of traditional notions of authorship and individuality, anticipated the concerns of the post-Modernist movement.
Later in life, Pessoa created the “semi-heteronym” Bernardo Soares, whose expansive, unbound fictional journal written over a period of 20 years (and assembled with little guidance after Pessoa’s death) became The Book of Disquietude, as well as philosopher and sociologist António Mora, essayist Baron of Teive, critic and Caeiro scholar Thomas Crosse and his brother/collaborator I.I. Crosse, poet Coelho Pacheco, astrologer Raphael Baldaya, and many others, for a total of at least 72 heteronyms.
Pessoa died in Lisbon in 1935 of cirrhosis of the liver, and only after his death did his work gain widespread publication and acclaim. In The Western Canon, critic Harold Bloom included Pessoa as one of just 26 writers responsible for establishing the parameters of western literature.
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