Sometimes, on days of pure and perfect light,
When things are as real as real can be,
I quietly ask myself
Just what makes me suppose
That there is beauty in things.
The beginning of poem XXVI of The Keeper of Sheep is what we have here, this time in the translation of Peter Rickard (University of Texas Press, 1971). Readers who follow me more closely than is wise may detect a hint of my interest in Alberto Caeiro, although I merely asked if there was beauty in literature, conceding the beauty of things from the start. The naïve Caeiro is, unlike me, a real radical.
Is there beauty in a flower, then?
Is there beauty in a fruit?
No: they have colour and shape
And they exist, that’s all.
Beauty is non-existent, the name
I give to things in return for the pleasure they give me.
It has no meaning.
Why then do I say that things are beautiful?
Holy cow, Caeiro pushes this idea a lot farther than I dare – “they exist, that’s all”! But that’s a lot, I think to myself, and why do we want to stop there? Most of us, most of the time, stop all too soon, reflexively. Caeiro makes an ideology of reduction. He has a response for me, in poem XXII: “But who ordered me to want to understand? \ Who told me I had to understand?”
The simple pastoral poet seems to have been (not) reading Plato or Kant or who knows who – someone with genuine knowledge can help me out. Or he is a throwback to the sorts of philosophers who talk about properties of matter, “extension,” that sort of thing. Each brand of breakfast cereal is a specific combination of traits – sweetness, crunchiness, mouthfeel, and so on, all measured on a five point scale. Everything is like breakfast cereal. Color, shape, existence. Why are these components not themselves understandable, or beautiful? Perhaps Caeiro has an answer to his difficult question.
Yes, even to me, who live just by living,
Come all unseen the lies men tell
When faced with things,
When faced with things which simply exist.
How hard it is to be oneself and see only what is there!
Kinda strong, huh, “lies”? The corruptions of men, received ideas, I guess, must be resisted. At least the poet acknowledges the difficulty of his stance. If Caeiro, who lives just by living, has so much trouble, what can I, who live not only by living, but also by thinking, possibly do?
Ricardo Reis, a contemporary of Caiero, wrote that “my knowledge of The Keeper of Sheep opened my eyes to seeing,” a paradox more interesting than anything I have seen in his own poems. Did Reis’ knowledge just happen somehow, or did it require something more active, some kind of knowing? My eyes were already open, and already saw, or so I claim.
I just read – I think I just read, but cannot find – a line by Annie Dillard, in Living by Fiction (1982) to the effect that good criticism has no obligation to be right but rather to be fruitful. The same is true of poetry. Is there beauty in the abundant fruitfulness of Caiero?