Thursday, April 28, 2011

My soul is simple and doesn’t think - untranscendent Caeiro

The Keeper of Sheep, treated like a book, contains 49 poems, most quite short, a stanza or two, the longest, a trivial fantasy of Christ’s return, as long as six pages.  The importance of the collection is disproportionate to its size, and can hardly be indicated by any particular poem.  Almost every poem, though, has a blunt argumentative power.   Alberto Caeiro is kin to Thoreau, a prick for our thick hides.  Yelling “Knock it off!” is, to Caeiro, better than doing nothing.  Caeiro, like Thoreau, is kind of a jerk, or plays one in his writing.

I find it so natural not to think
That I start laughing sometimes when alone
At what, I really don’t know, but something
Having to do with people who think. . . .  (XXXIV, ellipses in original)

Hey, he’s laughing at me!  “Nothing thinks anything” he writes later in the same poem.  I don’t like where he puts me.   Poets get the same treatment in poem XXXVI:

And there are poets who are artists
And work on their poems
Like a carpenter on his planks! . . .

And Caeiro is almost cruel to this crusader for humanity:

And, looking at me, he saw tears in my eyes
And smiled with satisfaction, thinking I felt
The hatred he did, and the compassion
He said he felt.
(But I was scarcely listening…)  (XXXII, ellipses mine)

If I make Caeiro sound like too much of a Transcendentalist, it is my fault more than his.  What is bracing about Caeiro is his continual rejection of the transcendent, often just at the moment I expect the leap into the unknown:

If they want me to be a mystic, fine.  I’m a mystic.
I’m a mystic, but only of the body.
My soul is simple and doesn’t think.  (XXX)

And then the poet retreats to his “solitary whitewashed cabin.”  If he writes, if he uses language, it is for the sake of “deluded men” and “their stupidity of feeling” (XXXI).  In four poems in a row, Caeiro explicitly embraces transcendence of himself – “I’d give anything if only my life were an oxcart” (XVI) or “I’d give anything just to be the roadside dust” (XVIII), but these poems are preceded by another, in which Caeiro insists that “I wrote them when I was ill…They agree with what they disagree” (XV) which is either completely ridiculous or a fine joke.  That ungrammatical, nearly nonsensical last sentence is what one would expect from an untutored shepherd poet, yes?

Caeiro’s poems are packed with bad ideas, plainly stated, and better ideas, concealed, perhaps.  Ricardo Reis, for example, always seems to indulge in what I take as the shallowest side of Caeiro, the pointless search for authenticity, the rejection of subjectivity, like Caeiro’s example gives him an excuse for his pessimism.  Words like “subjectivity” belong to Reis.  Caeiro does not write like that. Reis is Caeiro gone sour.

This will take more reading and, although Caeiro forbids it, thought to sort out.  Maybe I should try to learn some Portuguese, too.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll look at his single best poem, make the case that Caeiro was a poet, not just a bundle of crude philosophical positions.


  1. Hi A.R.

    "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes".
    Walt Whitman

    I keep thinking that Caeiro was influenced by Walt Whitman. I also wonder if there is something more going on in the original Portuguese than is found in the simple English translation.

    It is easy to sound profound if you can render contradictions with a poetic aire.

    BTW: I like this Caeiro.


  2. Caeiro's contemporary Ricardo Reis insists that "on close examination there is really no influence of Whitman here." But Reis really wants Caeiro to be the simple, unlettered poet, so I don't trust him.

    Whitman seems to have been important to a number of the early 20th century Portuguese poets. The slippery Álvaro de Campos was openly imitative of Whitman at times.

    I think you're right about the Portuguese - I should try to learn more.

    And that other line - "it is easy to sound profound" - gets at something important about Caeiro. He is often, at his best, almost more of an aphorist than a poet.