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Comparative Critical Studies 3.3 (2006) 249-267

Affinity and Influence:
The Reception of W. B. Yeats by Fernando Pessoa
Patrícia Oliveira da Silva McNeill

That Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) is frequently compared to W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) is hardly surprising, considering the fact that they were near contemporaries, belonged to overlapping literary generations and emerged from smaller nations on the Western periphery of Europe, each with a distinct literary Renaissance or revival movement. This notwithstanding, only a handful of scholarly articles and three as yet unpublished monographs have devoted attention to the striking similarities between the two poets over the course of five decades.1 Among these, Ruben Garcia's general introductory article on their affinities, Catherine Jaffe's study on the reader in the modern lyric poem, which included individual chapters on each poet, and my own recent reappraisal of their strategies of literary self-representation have focused in particular on the poets' unique and original use of personae. As significant as these contributions have been in developing a general framework for comparison, none of them has focused on the actual reception of Yeats by Pessoa and how this correlates with the commonalities encountered in their works. This study seeks to redress this omission and determine more precisely the nature of the relationship between the two poets. It is divided into three parts: the first presents the factual particulars of Pessoa's reception of Yeats as they emerge from recently discovered and published documentary evidence; the second examines Pessoa's reception of Yeats's brand of literary nationalism and revivalism; and the third addresses the rather more complex issue of Pessoa's reception of Yeats's poetry, focusing on his poetic production in English, which exhibits some intriguing affinities with Yeats's early poems.

The publication ten years ago of Pessoa's hitherto unpublished correspondence has, at long last, furnished definitive proof not only [End Page 249] that Pessoa knew of Yeats, but also that he entertained the idea of establishing contact with the Irish writer, even if only for a short while. The circumstantial evidence consists of a draft of a letter in English addressed to Yeats.2 The fragmentary nature and unpolished style of the autograph suggest that this was a preliminary draft, hurriedly jotted down and to be resumed on a future occasion. This occasion seems never to have materialised, as Pessoa's archive has yielded no other hand-written or typescript copy of the letter. Nor is there any proof that this letter was ever received by Yeats. Pessoa's name does not feature in the list of correspondents in the two-volume edition of the Letters to Yeats.3 Likewise, there are no records of a reply on Yeats's part in the volumes of his letters edited thus far.4 The fact that no document other than the draft has been discovered strongly suggests that the actual letter was indeed never sent.

In the undated draft of the letter, Pessoa apologetically ascribes his limited knowledge of Yeats to his peripheral position in relation to English and Irish literature: 'You will excuse my ignorance', he writes,

both concerning you and the Irish movement, and my frank stating of this ignorance, when I explain that it is extremely difficult for me living outside England, and never having lived there, without English, or Irish, acquaintances anywise connected with literature, to sign anything but the coarser, more popular and more newspaper-factual […].5

His explanation is consistent with the equally limited knowledge about Anglophone literature evinced by other Portuguese writers in the first decades of the twentieth century, following a long-standing tradition of French literary influence. However, Pessoa was an exception amongst Portuguese writers of his generation mainly due to the fact that he had lived in South Africa from the age of seven to the age of seventeen and had received his formal education in English.6 Although he never travelled to England, we know that he closely followed...


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pp. 249-267
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Archived 2009
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