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Who was Fernando Pessoa

In order to discover who Fernando Pessoa was, perhaps it would be opportune to begin by his last name, Pessoa, from the latin word persona: mask. Pessoa was, in fact, a poet of many faces and many names, spending his life inventing fictitious authors called heteronyms. Also, thanks to this peculiarity, he is considered to be one of the most brilliant contemporary poets today and Portugal’s most famous and important poet.

His Life and the Man

Pessoa was born in Lisbon on June 13, 1888, in the elegant zone of Chiado. For family reasons, between his youth and adolescence, he lived in the British Empire, namely South Africa. This period (1896-1905) spent in the cosmopolitan city of Durban left a strong impression on his life. In 1915, Pessoa founded the magazine Orpheu, which introduced Modernism to Portugal. He changed residences frequently during the 1910s and also came to live in the Carmo zone, near Lisboa Pessoa Hotel. In 1920, he settled into an apartment in Campo de Ourique, in a building that today houses Casa Fernando Pessoa, an indispensable cultural center for anyone who wants to know who this man named Fernando Pessoa was.

The poet lived his anonymously, with little money, working as a translator of commercial documents. His absolute love was literature. He felt like a genius and constantly dedicated himself to his “mission.” He left little room for his own feelings, but at least one woman – Ophelia Queiroz – will remain in history as the girlfriend to whom the genius sent letters full of affection. Pessoa passed away on November 30, 1935, in Lisbon, leaving behind thousands of unpublished papers, one of the most brilliant works in the history of literature. In order to know who Fernando Pessoa was, one needs to read his texts, since, as Octavio Paz affirmed, a poet’s biography is their work.

The work, the heteronyms

Pessoa left his mark as an extremely original writer for inventing fictitious authors – heteronyms – who “wrote” parts of his work. Each one “had” a personality, a biography, a physionomy, a character, a defined literary style, unlike the others and even Pessoa, the “orthonym,” that is, himself. The main “imaginary friends” of Pessoa were the poets Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos: Caeiro, the pastoral and (anti)philosophical poet, was the “master” of heteronyms; Reis was the neoclassical singer of a new paganism; and Campos was the exuberant modernist who “felt everything in every way.” Bernardo Soares deserves special attention, author of The Book of Disquiet, an intimate diary composed of dreams and reflections. And Pessoa – the orthonym? He was not only the demiurge who invented this imaginary coterie; he also played a relevant role.

He was also the poet who wrote Message, the only book in Portuguese published in life, a set of poems dedicated to Portugal’s heroes and myths in a universalist projection that sees a future of tremendous culture for Portugal and for humanity. We are the future: Readers of the texts that he kept in a legendary case – Pessoa’s assets – full of papers, many of which have yet to be published. After all, who was Fernando Pessoa? It’s difficult to say. Every heteronym and each instant for him was an “eternal novelty,” full of poetry and beauty. A beauty that also has the light and colors of Lisbon, his beloved city, sung masterfully by him. Fragmentary, contradictory, irresistable in his intricate fascination, Pessoa is the author to discover, with multiple facets. From poetry to philosophy to literary criticism to psychology... Pessoa’s genius unsettles us for its multiplicity and leaves us with a major, fundamental question which is always open and challenging: who are we?