A Little Fellow with a Big Head


Arts & Culture

Fernando Pessoa. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Fernando Pessoa’s life divides neatly into three periods. In a letter to the British Journal of Astrology dated February 8, 1918, he wrote that there were only two dates he remembered with absolute precision: July 13, 1893, the date of his father’s death from tuberculosis when Pessoa was only five; and December 30, 1895, the day his mother remarried, which meant that, shortly afterward, the family moved to Durban, where his new stepfather had been appointed Portuguese consul. In that same letter, Pessoa mentions a third date, too: August 20, 1905, the day he left South Africa and returned to Lisbon for good.

That first brief period was marked by two losses: the deaths of his father and of a younger brother. And perhaps a third loss, too: that of his beloved Lisbon. During the second period, despite knowing only Portuguese when he arrived in Durban, Pessoa rapidly became fluent in English and in French.

He was clearly not the average student. When asked years later, a fellow pupil described Pessoa as “a little fellow with a big head. He was brilliantly clever but quite mad.” In 1902, just six years after arriving in Durban, he won first prize for an essay on the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Indeed, he appeared to spend all his spare time reading or writing, and had already begun creating the fictional alter egos, or, as he later described them, heteronyms, for which he is now so famous, writing stories and poems under such names as Karl P. Effield, David Merrick, Charles Robert Anon, Horace James Faber, Alexander Search, and more. In their recent book Eu sou uma antologia (I am an anthology), Jerónimo Pizarro and Patricio Ferrari list 136 heteronyms, giving biographies and examples of each fictitious author’s work. In 1928, Pessoa wrote of the heteronyms: “They are beings with a sort-of-life-of-their-own, with feelings I do not have, and opinions I do not accept. While their writings are not mine, they do also happen to be mine.”

The third period of Pessoa’s life began when, at the age of seventeen, he returned alone to Lisbon and never went back to South Africa. He returned ostensibly to attend college. For various reasons, though—among them, ill health and a student strike—he abandoned his studies in 1907 and became a regular visitor to the National Library, where he resumed his regime of voracious reading—philosophy, sociology, history, and in particular, Portuguese literature. He lived initially with his aunts and, later, from 1909 onward, in rented rooms. In 1907, his grandmother left him a small inheritance and in 1909 he used that money to buy a printing press for the publishing house, Empreza Íbis, that he set up a few months later. Empreza Íbis closed in 1910, having published not a single book. From 1912 onward, Pessoa began contributing essays to various journals; from 1915, with the creation of the literary magazine Orpheu, which he cofounded with a group of artists and poets including Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, he became part of Lisbon’s literary avant-garde and was involved in various ephemeral literary movements such as Intersectionism and Sensationism. Alongside his day job as a freelance commercial translator between English and French, he also wrote for numerous journals and newspapers and translated Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, short stories by O. Henry, and poems by Edgar Allan Poe, as well as continuing to write voluminously in all genres. Very little of his own poetry or prose was published in his lifetime: just one slender volume of poems in Portuguese, Mensagem (Message), and four chapbooks of English poetry. When Pessoa died in 1935, at the age of forty-seven, he left behind the famous trunks (there are at least two) stuffed with writings—nearly thirty thousand pieces of paper—and only then, thanks to his friends and to the many scholars who have since spent years excavating that archive, did he come to be recognized as the prolific genius he was.

Pessoa lived to write, typing or scribbling on anything that came to hand—scraps of paper, envelopes, leaflets, advertising flyers, the backs of business letters, et cetera. He also wrote in almost every genre—poetry, prose, drama, philosophy, criticism, political theory—as well as developing a deep interest in occultism, theosophy, and astrology. He drew up horoscopes not only for himself and his friends but also for many dead writers and historical figures, among them Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Robespierre, as well as for his heteronyms, a term he eventually chose over pseudonym because it more accurately described their stylistic and intellectual independence from him, their creator, and from each other—for he gave them all complex biographies and they all had their own distinctive styles and philosophies. They sometimes interacted, even criticizing or translating each other’s work. Some of Pessoa’s fictitious writers were mere sketches, some wrote in English and French, but his three main poetic heteronyms—Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos—wrote only in Portuguese, and each produced a very solid body of work.


The award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa lives in England. Read her Art of Translation interview, which appears in the Summer 2020 issue.

From The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro, by Fernando Pessoa, translated from the Portuguese by Patricio Ferrari and Margaret Jull Costa. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.