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Pessoa, Fernando (1888-1935)  

Although his sexuality cannot be documented, Fernando Pessoa, the greatest Portuguese poet since Vaz de Camoes in the Renaissance, wrote verse, much of it in English.

Pessoa established Modernism in Portugal and deeply influenced the language. It is said that even Lisbon chamber maids speak differently from their grandparents because of him. He was born (on June 13, 1888) and died (on November 30, 1935) in Lisbon, but grew up in Natal, South Africa, where he had an English education, attending the University of Cape of Good Hope, Capetown. At fifteen, he published a number of virtuosic English sonnets modeled on Shakespeare's.

In 1905, he returned to Portugal, where for the rest of his life he earned his living as a business correspondent (writing letters for export companies in foreign languages) and was also a habitué of literary cafes. He was briefly connected with the nationalist movement in poetry called saudosismo and edited two short-lived journals.

Like his near contemporary Langston Hughes in the United States, he was essentially a reclusive, though dandyish, person. His sexuality is at best a guess, for no certain relationship with man or woman has been documented, but homoerotocism is important to his poetry.

Like Cavafy, another near contemporary, he developed a style based on multiple voices and distinct personae. He wrote and published under a great number of names, each of whose work grew from competing traditions, and some of whom engaged in literary rivalries with one another in journals and had biographies and even horoscopes attached to their publications.

For these distinct personalities, he invented the term heteronym; the most important are Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, and the writer of his English poetry, published under his own name. Each has received intense critical scrutiny; each is acclaimed to have established specific developments in modern Portuguese writing.

The English poetry exhibits the best of a high Edwardian style, steeped in Elizabethanisms, similar to but perhaps better than the poetry of Rupert Brooke or Sacherville Sitwell. Many of the English poems have a homoerotic explicitness that Pessoa's post-Wilde English counterparts scarcely dared.

The long poem "Antinous," published with 35 Sonnets (1918), is singled out as the finest of his English style. It also has provoked speculation about his sexuality, for it luxuriates over the Hadrian-Antinous story in the grand style of an Elizabethan erotic mock epic.

In contrast, Alvaro de Campos writes in the tradition of Whitman. His work founded a Whitmanesque school in Portuguese, much as Pablo Neruda's did in Spanish. Campos's "Salutation to Walt Whitman" is an ecstatic love song across time, with lines like these:

. . . And just as you felt everything, so I feel
   everything, and so here we are clasping hands
Clasping hands, Walt, clasping hands, with the universe
   doing a dance in our soul. (16-17)

It ends with de Campos embracing Whitman as mentor/father/lover, imagining a psychic insemination of the spirit:

"Goodbye, bless you, live forever, O Great Bastard of Apollo, / Impotent and ardent lover of the nine muses and of the graces, / Cable-car from Olympus to us and from us to Olympus." (219-221)

One is reminded of Hart Crane's similar stance in The Bridge.

Pessoa's heteronyms have provided a field day for psychoanalytically inclined critics, such as Roditi, Hamburger, and Paz, who see them as the work of a schizophrenic uniquely articulated as art.

Recent trends in theory, especially interrogations into performativity, might, however, inspire a new generation of readers to discover in Pessoa's unprecedented virtuosity not a psychosis of failed identity but a powerful expression of a ventriloquistic "poetic " that destructs the very notion of straight adult unitary self.

Donald N. Mager


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A sculpture of Fernando Pessoa installed in front of the Café a Brasiliera in Lisbon, Portugal. Photograph by Nol Aders.
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   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  Modernism

Despite the widespread homophobia in the Modernist movement, several of its practitioners were homosexual; some of them wrote openly about homosexuality, and the groundwork was laid for the gay liberation movement.

social sciences >> Overview:  Portugal

Portugal has made significant progress in recent years toward affording equal opportunity to its glbtq citizens.

literature >> Cavafy, C. P.

Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy has written some of the greatest homoerotic poems of all time.

literature >> Crane, Hart

A successor to Walt Whitman, Hart Crane found spiritual transcendence in homoerotic desire.

social sciences >> Hadrian

The love of the second-century Roman emperor Hadrian for the beautiful youth Antinous was exceptional not because the lovers were male, but because of its intensity.

literature >> Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

literature >> Roditi, Edouard

Poet, translator, literary and art critic, and short story writer, Edouard Roditi was associated with most of the twentieth-century's avant-garde literary movements from Surrealism to post-modernism.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Hamburger, Michael. "Multiple Personalities." The Truth of Poetry. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Monteiro, George, ed. The Man Who Never Was: Essays on Fernando Pessoa. Providence, R.I.: Gavea-Brown, 1982.

Pessoa, Fernando. Selected Poems. Trans. Edwin Honig. Intro. Octavio Paz. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1971.

Roditi, Edouard. "Fernando Pessoa: Outsider Among English Poets." The Literary Review 6.3 (1963): 372-385.


    Citation Information
    Author: Mager, Donald N.  
    Entry Title: Pessoa, Fernando  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 3, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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