Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Each episode, I’ll discuss a different poem and poet. Today, I’ll be talking about two different poets – one real and one fake.
Can a poem be written by someone who doesn’t even exist? “The Keeper of Sheep” is written by Alberto Caeiro, which is a heteronym invented by the poet and writer Fernando Pessoa. A heteronym is different from a pseudonym, because a pseudonym is just a name, while a heteronym is an entire personality. I’ll talk more about the heteronym Alberto Caeiro later. But first, a little bit about Fernando Pessoa.
Fernando Pessoa was born on June 13, 1888 in Lisbon, Portugal. When Pessoa was six years old, he made up his first heteronym, a man by the name of Chevalier de Pas. Pessoa created at least seventy-two heteronyms throughout his lifetime. Pessoa was a poet, writer, literary critic, translator, publisher, and philosopher. He was deeply influenced by English poets like William Shakespeare and Percy Bysshe Shelley. You can also see the influence of Walt Whitman in much of Pessoa’s work, including the poem we’ll be reading today. Fernando Pessoa died on November 30, 1935, in Lisbon, Portugal, at the age of 47.
But now there’s another poet to talk about – Alberto Caeiro. In creating Caeiro, Pessoa had come up with a whole new personality with an entire history. Caeiro has had only a grade school education – he is a peasant who is in touch with his surroundings and is greatly influenced by them, yet not curious about their existence. According to Pessoa, Alberto Caeiro does not question the things around him – he has interesting ideas, but he simply takes in his surroundings without asking “why.” Speaking in the voice of another heteronym, Ricardo Reis, Pessoa said, “Caeiro, like Whitman, leaves me perplexed. We are thrown off our critical attitude by so extraordinary a phenomenon. We have never seen anything like it. Even after Whitman, Caeiro is strange and terrible, appallingly new.” Based on the personality of the heteronym Fernando Pessoa might be writing under at the time, the perspective of the poems differed in this way. Octavio Paz even called Caeiro the “innocent poet.”
Since “The Keeper of Sheep” is a long poem, I’m only going to read part one and part nine. However, these parts are amazing even by themselves!
“The Keeper of Sheep” is a beautiful poem, and this is proven even in just the first part. Referring to the title, the poem is technically about “a” keeper of sheep, and Caeiro proves that he both is and is not this shepherd. He does not have any sheep, and therefore he does not watch over any – but his mind is full and he is content with his thoughts, which he must arrange and keep, like sheep. This is an extended conceit – it’s a metaphor that runs throughout the entire poem. So, really, this poem, like so many poems, is about Caeiro’s mind and his being a poet. Caeiro also says how he wants to be a lamb, or, in fact, a whole flock of lambs (so he can be “many happy things at the same time.”) So, basically, referring back to the extended conceit, Caeiro values ideas and poetry so much that he would like to experience being a thought, but, at the same time, also a creature. This is interesting – Caeiro continues by saying that he can feel what he writes – he is in touch with his surroundings, like an animal.
This connection to nature is a theme that is discussed throughout the rest of this long poem. This is particularly evident in part nine, where Caeiro talks about all the things that he can sense around him.
The sheep are my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning.
When I ache from enjoying it so much,
And stretch out on the grass,
Closing my warm eyes,
I feel my whole body lying full length in reality,
I know the truth and I'm happy.
Part 9 begins with “I am a shepherd,” as if the poet has resigned to his fate as master of his mind. Yet another way that the sheep could resemble thoughts is that they could represent the many heteronyms Pessoa created – the way that all these different identities all clustered together inside Pessoa’s head. In this part of the poem, Caeiro talks about the senses, how there are so many different things around him. You might expect Caeiro to describe these things – but he doesn’t. He simply remarks again on his contentment with nature and how he does not question it – “I know the truth and I’m happy.”
I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!
To listen to &/0r read the first episode of Poetry Soup, a discussion of John Ashbery's Sestina "The Painter," click here!