99. Fernando Pessoa…

15 Jan
99. Fernando Pessoa…

Fernando Pessoa is the most famous Portuguese poet of the 20th century, one of the most popular Portuguese writers of all time, and was one of my all-time favourite writers before I even read a word of his works. He is famous throughout the Portuguese-speaking world, and is as synonymous with Lisbon as Kafka is with Prague, or Shakespeare is with Stratford-upon-Avon. Images of him, with his distinctive hat, John Lennon glasses, moustache, and tie/bow-tie combo are ubiquitous throughout the city, on postcards, notebooks, t-shirts, statues…you name it.


Fernando Pessoa statue outside one of his regular haunts, ‘Café A Brasileira,’ Lisbon.
Erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth, 1988.


So who was he, a man so famous he used to feature on the pre-Euro 100-escudo bank note in Portugal?

The basic facts: born Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa in Lisbon in 1888, taken to live in Durban, South Africa, when his military step-father was posted there at the age of seven, (Pessoa that is, not his step-father), returned to Lisbon in 1905 at the age of seventeen, and barely left the city of his birth again. He had several jobs around the town, but as a writer he only published one work under his name, ‘Mensagem‘, in 1934, a year before his death.

Pessoa in tile form, Alto dos Moinhos metro station, Lisboa

Pessoa in tile form,
Alto dos Moinhos metro station, Lisboa


So far so simple. So what makes him so special?

Here’s what: Pessoa was writing as a critic and literary reviewer in the early 20th century, a fertile time for such work since there were poets popping up left, right and centre. And there was a reason for that: they were all him.

Pessoa took the idea of a pen-name one step further: whereas authors from Stephen King to J.K.Rowling have written under fake names, it could be said that Pessoa wrote under fake personalities. He invented what he called ‘heterónomos,’ or heteronyms, characters who became wildly famous and popular such as Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro and, most famously, Bernardo Soares and Álvaro de Campos.

The exact number of heteronyms is debatable, as you’ll understand when you hear that many scholars consider Fernando Pessoa itself a heteronym separate from Fernando Pessoa the author, but a recent count has the name of separate identities at 136.

Statue in front of the house of Pessoa's birth, São Carlos Square, Lisboa

Statue in front of the house of Pessoa’s birth, São Carlos Square, Lisboa


And separate identities they were, each given their own place and date of birth and death, (some of them, having no date of death, could be said to have ‘outlived’ Pessoa himself!), not to mention personalities and styles all of their own. Caeiro, uneducated and living his short life in the countryside, wrote stunningly beautiful poetry about nature and the wonders of his village;  Campos on the other hand, as an engineering graduate in Glasgow, wrote praising the wonders of technology and travel. Furthermore, many of the fragments of Pessoa‘s personality also had their own astrological chart, and even their own signatures, and many of them wrote about places Pessoa himself had never even visited!

None of this was a secret during his lifetime: Pessoa openly discussed his alter-egos, whilst claiming that they were entirely independent of his own writing self. This led to the absurd situation of Pessoa the critic sometimes writing either complimentary introductions, or harsh criticisms of the others’ works.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, some of the writing itself is amongst the most beautiful I’ve read: the complex wrapped in the simple, the absurd and abstract represented by everyday observations and sweeping lyricism.

Here, for example, is the opening of Poem 22, by ‘Alberto Caeiro,’ the first I read and still possibly my favourite, on the glory of the River Tagus, the heart of Lisbon and the gateway from Portugal to the world:


“O Tejo é mais belo que o rio que corre pela minha aldeia

Mas o Tejo não é mais belo que o rio que corre pela minha aldeia

Porque o Tejo não é o rio que corre pela minha aldeia…”


“The Tagus is more beautiful than the river that runs through my village

But the Tagus is not more beautiful than the river that runs through my village

Because the Tagus is not the river that runs through my village…”


Beautiful, não é?

All of this explains why the centre of Lisbon features a much-photographed statue of Pessoa in front of one ofhis regular café hangouts, the Café A Brasileira; a book-headed statue of perfect absurdist proportions in front of the house of his birth; a table preserved with his belongings in his favourite café and Lisbon’s oldest, Café-Restaurante Martinho da Alcada; tiled images of him in a metro station; and why they even sell a set of four expresso cups in his honour, each one featuring a slightly different image of the author with a different heteronym written below it. Genius for a genius.


Heteronymous coffee cups


Pessoa is so important to modern Portuguese culture that he is buried in the 500-year-old Jerónimos Monastery, one of the most important buildings in all of Portugal, under a simple memorial which features three short poems from three of his many facets in a poignantly fitting tribute.


Fernando Pessoa’s tomb in the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém, Lisboa


‘Alberto Caeiro’ memorial


‘Álvaro de Campo’ memorial


‘Ricardo Reis’ memorial









I leave you with his image on the now out of print 100-escudo bank note, which features a gorgeous reverse side showing a swirling pattern in which, ever so faintly, can be made out the names of some of the more famous heteronyms.

Enjoy looking out for his many, many works!


Front of the old Portuguese 100-escudo bill


Click me for a close-up!


Posted by on January 15, 2014 in BOOKS


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

9 responses to “99. Fernando Pessoa…

  1. Miguel St. Orberose

    February 3, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Have you been to Assírio & Alvim’s bookshop in Chiado, where you can get all of Pessoa’s books? It’s one of my favourite Lisbon bookstores, nicely hidden from everyone in the middle of the busiest part of Lisbon.

    • doronklemer

      February 3, 2014 at 10:20 pm

      Oh yes, I discovered that by accident my first week here, and couldn’t believe my luck!! Hidden right in the centre of the centre of town too, and Pessoa in dozens of different languages! I love that place, and I think now you’ve reminded me of it I’m going to go back and buy a Pessoa poster from there soon!


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