Saturday, 15 September 2012

A Brief History of Fernando Pessoa Literary Criticism

The author of “Tobacco Shop” and the fragments of the “Ode to Night” didn’t have a special vocation for what we call “happiness.” In spite of that, and against his legend as a damned poet, he knew the rare joy of being recognized by “his people.” It was, perhaps, his only joy. For the narrow circle of his Orpheu companions or for the narrower still of his partners in esotericism, Fernando Pessoa was someone. The strangeness of his person and the singularity of his work didn’t pass unnoticed to those who surrounded him. At the time of his death, Luís de Montalvor (1) could, in terms imbued with symbolist nostalgia, evoke one and another. Pessoa died unknown to the great public, but not to the circle that had participated in and would continue, in its way, the “modernist” adventure from 1915 to 1917. That the complexity and the range of his work aren’t, then, truly understood, and even less accepted, doesn’t modify in anything this beginning of recognition. Already then the news of his death had first page honours in the country’s main daily. Soon, a special homage issue of Presença (2), the literary magazine of the young generation, would give these first signs of virtual recognition its true cultural dimension. Pessoa’s reputation flourished on the edge of his tomb.

One could guess that an oeuvre such as Pessoa’s was not destined to being a rare treasure or secret and that, sooner or later, it would open up before everyone’s eyes. This doesn’t minimize the mediating and, in a certain way, revealing role performed by the Presença magazine. Even before contributing to the knowledge of a certain number of his poems, and not the minor ones, this magazine, already in its first two years (1927 and 28), includes Pessoa, little esteemed or unknown in the time’s venues of consecrated culture, in the short number of “masters” of living Portuguese literature. By the pen of José Régio (3), one of its editors and its true “maître-à-penser,” Presença devotes his work and his generation’s the first critical look it will be subjected to. A poet himself, essayist and demanding critic, José Régio gives to Pessoa’s poetry an admiring look, but not without reservations. One of the most constant critical themes regarding Pessoa’s poetry, described immediately as too intellectual or, even, artificial, has its roots here. Another one, the one of the psychological motivation of the heteronymic creation considered as the paradisiacal search of childhood, is due to João Gaspar Simões (4), the Poet’s future biographer and, likewise, literary critic and responsible for the Coimbra magazine. It’s still to a young collaborator of Presença, Guilherme de Castilho, also future biographer of António Nobre and Raul Brandão, that we owe the first study about Pessoa’s most famous heteronym, Alberto Caeiro. If we add that we owe to another poet and Presença critic the idea of questioning Pessoa about the enigma of Heteronymy, around which, little by little, Pessoa’s whole poetic myth coalesces, we can’t help admitting, in effect, as Gaspar Simões contends, that the Coimbra magazine was the first and most solid support of the critical fortune of the author of “Maritime Ode.”

All these names will be present, in diverse titles, in the decisive period that extends from the middle of the thirties to the beginning of the fifties, the moment of total recognition of the work and genius of Fernando Pessoa. As it’s known, until the date of his death, Pessoa had only published one book in the Portuguese language, Message, but the almost totality of his most beautiful poems had already been published in diverse magazines related to our Modernism. One can even say that, in that regard, the essential of his work was already “known” when he died. The question was of sharing or dispersing this knowledge amongst the great public. That role would fall simultaneously on the first “complete” publications of the poetries of Pessoa and of each one of his heteronyms – starting in 1943 -, edited by João Gaspar Simões, and on an Anthology, in two volumes, organized and prefaced by Adolfo Casais Monteiro (5). The importance of this Anthology for the young generation at the start of the forties was capital. It was in these pages that it discovered Pessoa and his interminable labyrinth. With the poems and to better help understand the strange creation of “poets” that will make of Pessoa an unprecedented literary “case,” Casais Monteiro will also publish the famous “Letter about the genesis of the heteronyms” that Pessoa had sent him, as well as the no less famous pages from “Recollections about my master Caeiro,” attributed to Álvaro de Campos. The great textual machine, of profile unknown and enigmatic, was, at last, standing before us and the forty years that separate us from this “revelation” was just the time needed to unveil its mysteries.

In spite of attempts made by himself, through the publication of his poems in English, it wasn’t England, his first cultural fatherland, that offered him the opportunity of being really read and accepted outside our linguistic walls. That occasion is due to a country he didn’t like very much, France, through Armand Guibert’s translations, crowned in 1960 by publication at publisher Seghers and in its prestigious collection “Poètes d’Aujourd’hui” of one Fernando Pessoa. For the first time he was partnered alongside Yeats, Claudel, Maiakovsky, Valéry and others of his generation. That will be the true bridge for knowledge abroad of the poet of Heteronymy. Having centered his presentation of the Poet around his case of “poet, creator of poets,” Armand Guibert chose, out of instinct, the most spectacular and propitious angle to the critical taste of an epoch focused like no other on the question of writing and of the relationships between the I and language. It was after having read him in French that a poet and essayist as eminent as Octavio Paz wrote his brief and masterful essay “El desconocido de si mismo” which if it’s not the first in our sister tongue’s it will be the first to reach a large audience.


Having arrived later at the knowledge and commentary of Pessoa’s poetry, the Anglo-Saxon, German, Italian and Slavic worlds made up for the delay and sometimes in exceptional ways. It was the case, especially, in Italy that honoured Pessoa with two of the most complete and laboured Anthologies Pessoa has been subjected to, including the ones in the Portuguese language: the ones by Luigi Panaresi and, especially, Antonio Tabucchi, writer and essayist familiarized with all the games and myths of the “Pessoan” universe. This double anthology effort had been preceded by a critical study of great finesse, by Luciana Stegagno Picchio, who devoted to the heteronymic enigma reflexions still pertinent today. After her, other critics, always growing in number, “naturalized” Pessoa in Italian culture, thus completing his Latin presence outside Portugal. In the end, Pessoa had to feel at home, like in no other place, in a culture that had already produced twin souls from Leopardi to Pirandello and Svevo.


Amongst all cultural spaces, the one we’d imagine the most receptive to the voice of the Poet would the English world. Thinking it better, the opposite is more logical. It’s in that space that Pessoa surprises the least, which is not strange at all, for a good deal of him comes from it. Let us easily admit that we can see a Pessoa there as a phenomenon in the margin of a certain state of English literary culture and mythology of the end of the 19th century and beginnings of the 20th. That’d explain the scant receptivity of the English public to the poems written in a language that Pessoa knew and spoke, as well as the smaller diffusion of his translated work in the country of Shakespeare, his supreme idol. In spite of everything, one can’t consider negligible a poetic presence assured by the translations of Jonathan Griffin for “Penguin Books” or of Peter Rickard for the University of Edinburgh.

These are just some excerpts from a very informative essay by Pessoa scholar Eduardo Lourenço (b. 1923). Lourenço is a Portuguese writer, literary critic and philosopher who has lived most of his life in France, where he’s a university teacher. He has a long career as a critic of Portuguese literature – he’s written about Miguel Torga, neorealist poetry, Antero de Quental, Gil Vicente, Eça de Queiroz, but Pessoa is his main area of study. Pessoa scholarly studies are an industry in Portugal: the amount of books, essays and events about him made every year overshadow any other Portuguese writer. Lourenço is the not the greatest scholar to write about Pessoa, there are other great scholars who contributed a lot to our knowledge of this poet – João Gaspar Simões, Jorge de Sena, Richard Zenith – but his knowledge is immense, as we can see in this essay that traces the history of Pessoa literary criticism from his time of death to the 1980s. The book it’s taken from is Fernando Pessoa, Rei da nossa Baviera (1986), a book of essays about the poet and full of information and insights into his work and personality. There is one book by Lourenço in English, Chaos and Splendor, which is very weak and confusing and deals with politics and society. I think he writes better when he writes about literature. Since it’s unlikely his better books will ever be translated, I leave these excerpts here for the fans of Fernando Pessoa.

It’s also a good excuse to give me to time to work on next week’s book reviews and make a quick and simple post without having to think too much about it.


1 Luís de Montalvor (1891-1947), poet, one of the founders of the Orpheu magazine, Portugal’s first modernist magazine, and personal friend of Fernando Pessoa.

2 Presença (1927-1940) was a modernist magazine whose headquarters was in Coimbra, co-founded by João Gaspar Simões and Branquinho da Fonseca. Besides rediscovering the work of the Orpheu writers, it divulged writers like Proust, Gide, Pirandello and Valéry.

3 José Régio (1901-1969), a prolific writer: he wrote poetry, short-stories, novels, theatre, diaries. His book The Flame-Coloured Dress has been published in English (trans. Margaret Jull Costa, Carcanet Press)

4 João Gaspar Simões (1903-1987), poet and literary critic, author of the seminal biography Vida e Obra de Fernando Pessoa.

5 Adolfo Casais Monteiro (1908-1972), poet and critic, one of the editors of Presença, corresponded with Pessoa, who wrote him a legendary letter detailing the creation of his heteronyms.


  1. It is very interesting when one finds connections between authors. Based upon commentary over at Tom's blog I see that Antonio Tabucchi was interested and made numerous references to Pessoa in his works.

    I have not yet read Pessoa but he sounds really good.

    1. Yes, he liked Pessoa a lot. He translated, taught him in college, wrote about him, even wrote a novel in Portuguese. That's how close he was to Pessoa and Portugal.

  2. Thanks for translating all of this - much is explained. i had some idea of how Pessoa moved into English, but not about how his reputation grew, then ballooned, in Portugal. "The great textual machine," yes indeed.