📰 The Year of the Birth of Alberto Caeiro
Full Title: The Year of the Birth of Alberto Caeiro
(The heteronyms, Pessoa claimed, were not mere pseudonyms, since they thought and felt and wrote differently from their creator.)
I spent a few days trying in vain to envision this poet. One day when I’d finally given up—it was March 8, 1914—I walked over to a high chest of drawers, took a sheet of paper, and began to write standing up, as I do whenever I can. And I wrote thirty-some poems at one go, in a kind of ecstasy I’m unable to describe. It was the triumphal day of my life, and I can never have another one like it. I began with a title, The Keeper of Sheep. This was followed by the appearance in me of someone whom I instantly named Alberto Caeiro. Excuse the absurdity of this statement: my master had appeared in me.
The story of Caeiro is preceded by a brief sketch of the political climate in Europe before World War I, especially in Portugal, where, less than four years earlier, a revolution had toppled a much–discredited monarchy, replacing it with a tumultuous republic.
Pessoa had the vexing habit, for scholars and biographers, of assigning fictional dates to some of his works, usually for the sake of an ideal narrative of his life and literary development.
Here are some of the lines of verse that came to him on March 4, like a sunbeam slicing through clouds of metaphysics and hitting him right in the eyes:
For the only hidden meaning of things
Is that they have no hidden meaning.
It’s the strangest thing of all,
Stranger than all poets’ dreams
And all philosophers’ thoughts,
That things are really what they seem to be
And there’s nothing to understand.
Yes, this is what my senses learned on their own:
Things have no meaning: they have existence.
Things are the only hidden meaning of things.
To see things as they are, asserts a Caeiro poem written on March 13, requires “lessons in unlearning,” and if Caeiro taught Pessoa anything, it was the art of unlearning, of seeing as if for the first time.
To think about God is to disobey God,
Since God wanted us not to know him,
Which is why he didn’t reveal himself to us…
Let’s be simple and calm,
Like the trees and streams,
And God will love us, making us
Us even as the trees are trees
And the streams are streams,
And will give us greenness in the spring, which is its season,
And a river to go to when we end…
And he’ll give us nothing more, since to give us more would make us less us.
Whether or not God exists, according to Caeiro’s pellucid logic, is entirely beside the point of what life is for, namely living. Though indifferent to God, it is with holy devotion that Caeiro exalts the trees, the streams, and all of Nature, leading Pessoa to define him at one point as “an atheist St. Francis of Assisi.” Caeiro was not a true atheist, let alone a saint. He was, however, a religion, whose first and main adherent was Fernando Pessoa.
Pessoa claimed, in The Book of Disquiet, that certain fictional characters were more real to him than living people. Alberto Caeiro was just such a character.
In a letter sent to João Gaspar Simões6 in 1933, Pessoa would call The Keeper of Sheep “the best thing I’ve ever written,” an achievement he could never again match, since it exceeded what he was rationally capable of creating.
Pessoa’s real ambition was to fool the world at large, by launching Caeiro as an independent poet, while he remained backstage, out of sight. Caeiro a literary immortal and himself a complete unknown—that, for Pessoa, would be the highest triumph.
As poems streamed forth in the stunningly clear voice and simple language of Caeiro, Pessoa simultaneously began writing critical prose texts to announce the new literary prodigy.
On March 13, while sitting at a café table, Pessoa jotted down the first version of the Caeiro poem that begins: “What we see of things are the things.” After eight lines had been written, an English critic abruptly took control of Pessoa’s ink pen and wrote the following incomplete sentence: “At the same time a preciseness so astonishing in noting states of enjoyment of nature that it is difficult ….”
At one point the interviewee alluded to his “spontaneous materialism,” but when asked point-blank if he was a materialist, Caeiro replied:
I’m not a materialist or a deist or anything else. I’m a man who one day opened the window and discovered this crucial fact: Nature exists. I saw that the trees, the rivers and the stones are things that truly exist. No one had ever thought about this.
Walt Whitman was the most visible as well as the most intimate influence on Caeiro. The most visible, since the heteronym’s poetry adopted the American’s free-verse style, took up some of the same topics, and employed some suspiciously similar turns of phrase. The most intimate, since Whitman taught Caeiro how to open up, feel everything, be everything, and sing. The audacity of Whitman’s poetic “I” had awed Pessoa when he read “Song of Myself” for the first time, six or seven years earlier, but he had no inkling of how to write like that. Alberto Caeiro showed him how.
In his many pages of criticism to promote the new, bucolic heteronym, Pessoa repeatedly mentioned Walt Whitman, at times falsely claiming that his influence was minimal or nonexistent. And he marshalled arguments, mostly in English, to prove how fundamentally different Caeiro was.
Whereas Whitman strove to see an object deeply, linking it up “with many others, with the soul and the Universe and God,” Caeiro merely wanted to see the object clearly and in itself, apart from other objects and free of “transcendental meanings.” Pessoa also contrasted Whitman’s “violent democratic feeling” with “Caeiro’s abhorrence of any sort of humanitarianism.”
Caeiro criticized him and other mystic poets—including St. Francis of Assisi—for saying “that flowers feel / And that stones have souls / And that rivers are filled with rapture in the moonlight.”
Caeiro was also and more broadly a reaction against Fernando Pessoa—against all his learning and incessant intellectual wrangling.
I lie down in the grass
And forget all I was taught.
The first person to translate Caeiro into English in a sustained way—twelve poems—was Thomas Merton (1915–1968), the American Trappist monk who was himself a fine poet as well as a major writer of contemplative literature.
In 1914 Zen Buddhism had still not been popularized in the West, and Pessoa’s knowledge of it was scant, though he was interested in the tenets and spirit of Buddhism generally. Caeiro’s likeness to Zen was a sheer coincidence, evident in his renunciation of studious learning and the preconceptions it fosters, in his commitment to seeing what is there to see, without interpretation, and in his distrust of metaphysical speculation.
The principal aim of Zen, which is satori, or enlightenment, was not an ambition of Caeiro, who had no ambitions, but his accidentally Zennish qualities are what made him the master of the two other major heteronyms soon to emerge—Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis—and of Fernando Pessoa himself.
Pessoa was the first one to admit the absurdity of claiming that Caeiro was his master, but the claim may seem not so absurd if we think of Caeiro as a convergence of empowering poetic influences that, dawning on Pessoa all at once, changed him forever.
It was on the back of a sheet of paper with two Caeiro poems that Pessoa jotted down his first ideas about “Sensacionismo,” and Alberto Caeiro was the first Sensationist.
I’m a keeper of sheep.
The sheep are my thoughts
And each thought a sensation.
I think with my eyes and my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
To think a flower is to see and smell it,
And to eat a fruit is to know its meaning.