Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One who doesn’t understand what’s said \ And likes to pretend he does - Alberto Caeiro never kept sheep

I have been thinking about doing some Portuguese reading.  A project, a Challenge, maybe.  I don’t know.   Regardless, I decided to start at the top of the heap, so to speak, with the most influential Portuguese poet of the 20th century, Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the paradoxical pastoral poet, the shepherd without sheep.  Or so he says in the poem that leads The Keeper of Sheep, the collection he wrote in 1914.*

I never kept sheep,
But it’s as if I’d done so.
My soul is like a shepherd.
It knows wind and sun
Walking hand in hand with the Seasons
Observing, and following along.
All of Nature’s unpeopled peacefulness
Comes to sit alongside me.

And I’ll stop, because the next set of images is in bad taste and might spoil the effect.  Caeiro was what we would now call a naïve artist, untrained and unconnected to Portugal’s literary culture, born in Lisbon but spending most of his life living with an aunt in the countryside.  Thus the free verse, the informal language, the plain vocabulary.  As if he were a character in a Theocritus pastoral poem.  As if.

Thinking is discomforting like walking in the rain
When the wind increases, making it look as if it’s raining harder.
I’ve no ambitions or desires.
My being a poet isn’t an ambition.
It’s my way of being alone.

Caeiro conflates writing and walking.  Like William Wordsworth, he composes while walking.

I write lines on the paper of my thoughts,
I feel the staff in my hands
And glimpse an outline of myself
On top of some low-lying hill,
Watching over my flock and seeing my ideas,
Or watching over my ideas and seeing my flock,
And smiling vaguely like one who doesn’t understand what’s said
And likes to pretend he does.

The simple poet seems not-so-simple now.  The simile suggests that he actually does understand what’s said but likes to pretend he doesn’t.   Is the whole thing a pose?  I do not remember Wordsworth advising his reader like Caeiro does, as the poem ends ("they" are the imagined readers):

And when reading my poems thinking
Of me as something quite natural –
An ancient tree, for instance,
In whose shade they thumped down
When they were children, tired after play,
Wiping the sweat off their hot foreheads
With the sleeve of their striped smocks.

An unusual depiction of reading, isn't it?  It's something I do after exhausting play.  The twenty-five year poet is an ancient tree; his poems are the shade.  A couple of lines before, the reader is in "Somebody's favorite chair."  Poetry puts us in two places at once.

Well, let’s spend some more time with Alberto Caeiro and see if we can get to the bottom of this.  He is a long ways from a perfect poet, sometimes a long ways from a good one, clumsy, facile, sneering.  Then there are those other times.

“I never kept sheep” now exists in several English translations.  I’m using the version by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown in The Keeper of Sheep, Sheep Meadow Press, 1986.

*  The publication history of The Keeper of Sheep is a little complicated.


  1. You can't add a little * at the end to say that the publication history is complicated without going into more details! Do tell, do tell!

  2. Nice. Is it part of a series on 'heterogenous' poets.

  3. Rise - yes, eventually, at least. Caeiro has been a little easier to grasp than some of the poets who claimed him as an influence. The fascinating, quicksilver Álvaro de Campos, in particular, demands a lot more reading on my part.

    Oh, yes, the complex publication history. Some, but not all, of the poems in The Keeper of Sheep were published in a Portuguese literary magazine in 1925. I don't know when they first all appeared together. Campos clearly knew them much earlier and presumably read them in manuscript.

    The history of this set of poems is at least clearer than that of the poems Caeiro wrote posthumously.

  4. Are you using the Honig/Brown translation because you've compared them & prefer it, or just because it was available? I was just reading up on Pessoa/de Campos/Caeiro/Reis after happening upon The Book of Disquiet by chance, and became very enthusiastic only to get bogged down in different translation options that I couldn't compare apples-to-apples online. Amazing bio, though!

  5. All translations of Caeiro and the other poets you mention are good. You should read all of them.

    There is no bog. There is a calm, refreshing lake. Dive in.