Herberto Helder was born into a family of Jewish ancestry in the Portuguese Atlantic island of Madeira. In 1946 he traveled to Lisbon to complete his secondary studies and subsequently in 1948 moved to Coimbra to study Law at university. In 1949 he had changed to the Humanities University to study Romance Philology but dropped out after three years without completing the course. After returning to Lisbon he took up several temporal jobs, and got in contact with a circle of artists and writers such as Mário Cesariny, Luiz Pacheco, João Vieira and Hélder Macedo. This group revolved around Surrealism which would inform his early writings. In 1958 his first book, O Amor em Visita was published. In the following years he traveled and lived in France, Holland and Belgium taking menial and marginal jobs to survive. Living illegally in Antwerp he was reportedly a guide to sailors into the underground world of prostitution.
Considered one of the most important living Portuguese poets his poetry is not yet enough studied by academics due to the obscurity of his personality itself (he refuses to take literary prizes or have media exposure) and the complexity of his paradoxal work that has a strange enchantment.