The Keeper of Sheep

by Fernando Pessoa. Bilingual edition (English/Portuguese), trans. Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown.Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1985.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th C., the greatest Portuguese poet in 400 years, and indeed one of the great modernist poets of Western literature. Because he wrote in Portuguese, there aren’t many translations of his work and most English speakers have never heard of him — even though, curiously, Pessoa himself was fully bilingual in English and Portuguese and even wrote some early poems in English. Actually, he was trilingual, and also published poetry in French.

Pessoa wrote his poetry in several voices, and even published his poetry under different names — not pseudonyms, but rather heteronyms:

Having accustomed myself to have no beliefs and no opinions, lest my aesthetic feeling should be weakened, I grew soon to have no personality at all except an expressive one. I grew to be a mere apt machine for the expression of moods with became so intense that they grew into personalities and made my very soul the mere shell of their casual appearance…. p. xvi

One of his heteronyms was named Alberto Caeiro, the heteronymic author of the book The Keeper of Sheep, who “exists solely in what he sees, in the diversity of nature, and not in his mind reflecting the outer world” (p. xvii). Take, for example, this poem:

The moonlight behind the tall branches
The poets all say is more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches

But for me, who do not know what I think,–
What the moonlight behind the tall branches
Is, beyond its being
The moonlight behind the tall branches
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches.

This is not to say that Caeiro/Pessoa is a mystic, asserting some direct connection with a divine reality inaccessible to most. A true mystic, at least the way I’d use the word, is someone who claims to know ultimate reality through direct intuition, but Careiro/Pessoa claims to know nothing: “My mysticism is not wanting to know./ It’s living without thinking about it.” This sounds like some sort of Western Zen Buddhist ideal, except that Careiro/Pessoa makes no claim to Enlightenment either. Maybe it’s more like the Western notion of the Fool, who is utterly simple and clueless, and thus seems to be utterly wise.

At times, Careiro/Pessoa seems to become an almost Wittgensteinian Fool in his insistence that claims to “higher knowledge” are just another form of language game:

Only Nature is divine, and she’s not divine…

If I speak of her as a being
It’s because to speak of her I must use the language of men,
Which endows things with personality,
And forces names upon things.
But things have neither name nor personality —
They exist, and the sky is vast and the earth wide,
And our hearts the size of a clenched fist…

Other poems in this book have similar theological implications. One of my favorites begins:

To think of God is to disobey God
Because God wanted us not to know him,
And therefore did not show himself to us….

— a statement that I find amusing, if not entirely profound.

Nor are these poems meant to be profound, in the sense of being deeply philosophical/theological ruminations on metaphysical subjects. Yet Careiro/Pessoa seems to be trying to get at some kind of deeper truth, or maybe a deeper (or transcendent) true way of perceiving, not available to the thinking mind but only to the purely sensate self — you don’t think about sensing, you sense unthinkingly.

It’s an open question for me as to whether these poems demonstarte that there is a transcendent reality or not;– after all, how unthinking can you be if you’re writing a poem about it? As near as I can tell, these are open questions for Pessoa, too — Careiro is only one of his heteronyms, and his other heteronyms have other things to say. I’m most happy with the poems in The Keeper of Sheep when I read them as a part of a process, a process of being and saying and sensing, rather than as final statements on anything.