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Fernando António Nogueira Pessôa was born on June 13, 1888, in Lisbon, Portugal. When he was barely five years old, his father died. His mother remarried a year and a half later to the Portuguese consul in Durban, South Africa. Pessoa attended an English school in Durban, where he lived with his family until the age of seventeen. When he was thirteen, he made a year-long visit to Portugal, returning there for good in 1905. He began studying at the University of Lisbon in 1906 but dropped out after only eight months. During the following years, he stayed with relatives or in rented rooms, making his living by translating, writing in avant-garde reviews, and drafting business letters in English and French. He began publishing criticism in 1912, creative prose in 1913, and poetry in 1914. The following year, he dropped the circumflex from his surname. He had also adopted alter egos by taking on the heteronyms Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Àlvaro de Campos.
The majority of Pessoa’s poems, heteronymic or otherwise, appeared in literary journals and magazines. He published his first book of English poems, Antinous (Monteiro & Co.) in 1918, followed by 35 Sonnets (Self-Published, 1918) and English Poems (Olisipo, 1921), but released only a single book of Portuguese poems, Mensagem (Pereira), in 1933.
Pessoa died on November 30, 1935 in Lisbon from cirrhosis of the liver. During his lifetime, Pessoa avoided the literary world and most social contact; thus, it was not until years after his death that his work garnered a wide readership.
Literary alter egos were popular among early twentieth-century writers: Paul Valéry had Monsieur Teste, Ezra Pound had Mauberley, and Rainer Maria Rilke had Malte Laurids Brigge. But no one took their alter ego as far as Pessoa, who gave up his own life to confer quasi-real substance on the poets he designated at heteronyms, giving each a personal biography, psychology, politics, aesthetics, religion, and physique. Alberto Caeiro was an ingenuous, unlettered, unemployed man of the country. Ricardo Reis was a doctor and classicist who wrote Horace-like odes. Álvaro de Campos, a naval engineer, was a bisexual dandy who studied in Glasgow, traveled to Asia, and lived outrageously in London. In an English text, Pessoa wrote, “Caeiro has one discipline: things must be felt as they are. Ricardo Reis has another kind of discipline: things must be felt, not only as they are, but also so as to fall in with a certain ideal of classic measure and rule. In Álvaro de Campos things must simply be felt.” In later years, Pessoa also gave birth to Bernardo Soares, a “semiheteronym” who authored the sprawling fictional diary known as The Book of Disquietude; António Mora, a prolific philosopher and sociologist; the Baron of Teive, an essayist; Thomas Crosse, whose critical writings in English promoted Portuguese literature in general and Alberto Caeiro’s work in particular; I. I. Crosse, Thomas’s brother and collaborator; Coelho Pacheco, poet; Raphael Baldaya, astrologer; Maria José, a nineteen-year-old hunchback consumptive who wrote a desperate, unmailed love letter to a handsome metalworker who passed under her window on his way to work each day; and so on.
At least seventy-two names besides Fernando Pessoa’s were “responsible” for the thousands of texts that were actually written, and the many more that he only planned. Although Pessoa also published some works pseudonymously, he distinguished this from the “heteronymic” project: “A pseudonymous work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.”