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Ep. 2: "The Keeper of Sheep" by Fernando Pessoa


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!

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.
Still I'm sad, as a sunset is
To the imagination,
When it grows cold at the end of the plain
And you feel the night come in
Like s butterfly through the window,
But my sadness is comforting
Because it's right and natural
And because it's what the soul should feel
When it already thinks it exists
And the hands pick flowers
And the soul takes no notice.
Like the clanking of cowbells
Beyond the bend in the road,
My thoughts are happy.
My only regret is knowing they're happy
Because if I didn't know it,
They'd be glad and happy
Instead of unhappy and glad.
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.
And if sometimes in my fancy
I desire to be a lamb
(Or the whole flock of sheep
So I can go over the hillside
And be many happy things at the same time),
It's only because I feel what I'm writing when the sun sets
Or when a cloud's hand passes over the light
And a silence runs off through the grass.
When I sit down to write a poem
Or when ambling along the main roads and bypaths,
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.
I greet everyone who'll read me,
Tipping my wide-brimmed hat to them
As they see me at my door
Just as the coach tips the top of the hill.
I salute them and wish them sunshine,
And rain when rain is called for,
And may their houses contain
Near an open window
Somebody's favorite chair
Where they sit, reading my poems.
And when reading my poems thinkin
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.
(Translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown)

“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. 

I'm a keeper of sheep.
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.
To think a flower is to see it and smell it
And to eat a fruit is to taste its meaning.
That's why on a hot day
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.
(Translated and edited by Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown)

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! 

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