Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Life and Work of Alberto Caeiro

Alberto Caeiro da Silva was born in Lisbon on April 16 of 1889, and died there in 1915, of tuberculosis. However, apart from the first years of his life and his final months, he lived on a farm in Ribatejo, where he wrote his short poetic oeuvre. Small as his literary output was, The Keeper of Sheep was enough to establish him as one of the most important Portuguese poets of 20th century. Little is known of his personal life. It is known that he had a disappointing love affair that inspired him to write the chapbook The Lovesick Shepherd. A man of meagre studies, his poetry, renowned for its simplicity, directness, and lack of erudition, nevertheless stems from profound and original reflections about time, experience, Nature and man’s place in the world. A poet-philosopher who despised philosophers, an anti-mystic who exalted Nature, Caeiro was a mysterious figure for most of his life and continues to be the subject of many studies.

Of possible influences we can only say, with certainty, that he had read the 19th century Portuguese poet Cesário Verde (1855-1886), one of the first singers of Lisbon, who was practically a marginal figure until younger admirers like Caeiro and Fernando Pessoa rescued him from obscurity and championed his work. In one of his poems, Caeiro directly mentions Verde, and expressed wishes that his collected poetry should be dedicated to his memory. The similarities between Caeiro and the American poet Walt Whitman have also not gone unnoticed, particularly by his English translator, Thomas Crosse, who however finds no conclusive evidence that the Ribatejo poet had read the author of Leaves of Grass:

“At first sight it seems that something of Whitman is present in these poems. I have no information as to Caeiro's knowledge of foreign languages, or of English and of Whitman particularly; yet, on the face of it, and after a very cursory reading of the poems, I suspect the first to have been, at best, very slight, and the second and third nil. However it may be, on close examination there is really no influence of Whitman here. There is at most an occasional coincidence and the coincidence is merely of tone, and more apparent therefore than real. The essential difference is enormous.”

Indeed Crosse also remarks that one of the most striking features of “Alberto Caeiro is that he comes apparently out of nothing, more completely out of nothing than any other poet. The one Portuguese poet whose influence he supposes himself to be under is so remote from him both in quality and strength of inspiration, that it is idle to do more than say so.” Obviously he here referred to Verde, who, apart from his late countryside poems, a radical change from his urban poetry, bears no similarities with Caeiro.

Although Caeiro was quite distant from the emerging modernist circles of Lisbon – he died a month after the first issue of the modernist magazine Orpheu came out – he ended up having a seminal influence upon many of its most famous poets, as well as upon intellectual figures of the time, like the Pagan philosopher António Mora. Besides the admiration Pessoa had for him, Caeiro’s poetry also left a lasting impression on Álvaro de Campos, who considered him his master, and Ricardo Reis, who adopted Paganism in imitation of this Nature’s poet. Campos first met him after a return from a trip to the Orient. Through a cousin that took him for a ride in Ribatejo, he met one of Caeiro’s cousins who introduced each poet to the other. Campos, like many of his admirers, wrote impressions about him that were published posthumously.

Although he didn’t have many dealings with poets, we also know, thanks to an interview that he gave in Vigo in 1914, that he disliked the poetry of many figures of the establishment, namely Guerra Junqueiro, Teixeira Pascoaes and João de Barros. He didn’t forgive them for their sentimentality, mysticism and overt religiousness. 

Caeiro died like he lived, alone and unnoticed. “I was in England,” Campos writes. “Ricardo Reis himself wasn’t in Lisbon; he was back in Brazil. Fernando Pessoa was, but it’s as if he weren’t,” he mysteriously says, alluding to a possible falling out between Pessoa and Caeiro that has never been confirmed.

No photograph of him is known. The painter and writer Almada Negreiros (1893-1970), a member of the Orpheu group who personally knew him, however, immortalised him in a 1958 mural found in the façade of the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Letters, where he can be seen standing alongside his pupils, Reis and Campos:

From left to right: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos
Given his shy and reclusive personality, and true to the simplicity of existence that he espoused in his poems, Caeiro didn’t publish his poetry in his lifetime. Like a modern Socrates, the wisdom of his life was saved from oblivion by his followers. After his death, his oeuvre, badly organised and unedited, was generously ceded by his relatives to his friends and admirers in order to be edited. Thus three books, constituting less than 200 pages of poetry, exist – The Keeper of Sheep, The Lovesick Shepherd, and Poemas Inconjuntos (Disjointed Poems). Although the edition of the Complete Poems should have been a cause for celebration amidst his followers, difficulties arose when they tried to champion his work in Portuguese society. The philosopher António Mora, the father of a neo-Pagan revival, and who considered himself his ‘only disciple,’ when asked by his relatives to write a preface to the book, felt himself unfit for the arduous task of synthesising his work into a handful of pages, and ended up writing a long commentary that was later published in a standalone edition; he also discusses him in his magnum opus, O Regresso dos Deuses (The Return of the Gods). The authorship of the preface then fell upon Ricardo Reis, who encountered similar difficulties and also ended up writing a long text that exceeded the normal length of a preface. Saving this text for a rigorous study of Caeiro’s work, he wrote a second version, which is the one that now appears in the standard editions. Fernando Pessoa also published part of his poetry in the magazine Athena, in 1925, and in Presença, in 1931.

In a country of great poets who, however, often go sadly and unfairly unnoticed by the world, Caeiro was also quick to meet success abroad, thanks to Thomas Crosse’s translations of The Keeper of Sheep and The Lovesick Shepherd into English, making him a rare case of success. Less fortunate were his friends’ attempts at translating him into French, into which the translation of Le Gardien des Troupeaux was cut short by the untimely suicide, in 1916, of Mário de Sá-Carneiro, poet and close friend of Pessoa living in Paris who was managing the operation. Although Caeiro was not as generously admired in England as he was in Portugal, it is known that he was acquainted with Alexander Search, English poet and Lusophile (he was the younger brother of the celebrated translator Charles James Search, who translated the sonnets of Antero de Quental and Luís de Camões and Eça de Queiroz’ The Mandarin), who had read him in Portuguese and conducted the only known existing interview Caeiro gave, in 1914. Search, like Crosse, had no doubt that he had discovered one of the greatest poetic voices of the nascent century. To him we owe some of the sharpest impressions we have of this elusive figure.

The image he gives of Caeiro is far from the meek poet of his poems. “The poet speaks of himself and of his work with a sort of religiousness and natural exaltation which, perhaps in others less entitled to speak like this, would seem frankly unbearable. He always speaks in dogmatic sentences, excessively synthetic, admonishing or admiring (he seldom admires, however) with absolutism, despotically, as if he were not giving an opinion, but uttering intangible truths.” As for Caeiro, he defines himself in proud terms: “I don’t presume to be more than the greatest poet in the world. I’ve made the greatest discovery worth making and next to it all other discoveries are stupid children’s entertainments. I noticed the Universe. The Greeks, with all their visual clarity, didn’t do as much.”

His words, which leave nothing to modesty, would have been more repugnant, however, had they not found an echo in the praise of most of his admirers. Crosse, in his preface to the English edition, doesn’t mince words:

“I claim, in all confidence, that I am putting before Englishmen the most original poetry that our young century has as yet produced - a poetry so fresh, so new, untainted to such a degree by any kind of conventional attitude, that the words a Portuguese friend said to me, when speaking of these very poems, are more than justified. “Every time I read them,” he said, “I cannot bring myself to believe that they have been written. It is so impossible an achievement… !” And so much more impossible, that it is of the simplest, most natural and most spontaneous kind.”

Ricardo Reis used similar words to express his admiration for him: “Alberto Caeiro is, we believe, the greatest poet of the 20th century, because he’s the most complete subverter of all diversely known sensibilities, and of all the intellectual formulae widely accepted.”

On trying to explain the spontaneity and honesty that informs his vision of life, Álvaro de Campos argues: Ricardo Reis is a pagan by character, António Mora is a pagan by intelligence, I’m a pagan by revolt, that is, by temperament. In Caeiro there was no explanation for paganism; there was consubstantiation.” Caeiro didn’t think about his poetry, he lived it. “The biography would have no interest,” Mora once wrote, “for in Caeiro’s life nothing happened, except the verses he wrote, and they’ll speak for themselves.” As such, it is mostly in his poetry that clues can be found to explain his thought and worldview. He lived for poetry and everything he experienced and sensed he turned into poetry, as his love poems attest. What then can we learn about him from his poetry?

Here we have his radical interpretation of loneliness:

I have neither ambitions nor desires.
Being a poet is not an ambition of mine.
It’s my way of being alone.

And a synthetic description of his philosophy:

I believe in the world like I do in a marigold,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it
Because thinking is not understanding…
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is being ill in the eyes)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.

 In fact his philosophy is a strident refusal to interpret the world beyond our five senses, rejecting the use of mental faculties, settling for what Campos called a sensationist view of reality:

The mystery of things? I don’t know what the mystery is!
The only mystery is there being those who think about the mystery.

He also likes to flaunt his anti-rationalism:

Virgil’s shepherds played rustic flutes and other things
And sang of love literarily
(They say – I never read Virgil.
What would I have read him for?).

But Virgil’s shepherds, poor things, are Virgil,
And Nature is beautiful and ancient.

He chastises poets:

Mystical poets are philosophers,
And philosophers are crazy men.

For mystical poets say that flowers feel
And say that stones have souls
And that rivers have moonlight ecstasies.

His poetry, in its cold exaltation of Nature for its own sake, also ends up downgrading the importance of man, and some of his poems are borderline misanthropic and suspicious of idealism and the belief in social progress of his time:

What do men matter to me
And what they suffer or think they suffer?
Be like me – they won’t suffer.
All evil in the world comes from caring about others,

Either for doing good, or for doing evil.
Our soul and the sky and earth are enough.
Wanting more is losing that, and being unhappy.

Like Thomas Crosse remarks, “Whitman's violent democratic feeling could be contrasted with Caeiro's abhorrence for any sort of humanitarianism, Whitman's interest in all things human, with Caeiro's indifference to all that men feel, suffer or enjoy.”

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that Alberto Caeiro is the author of a remarkable and singular poetic oeuvre that continues to offer, thanks to its many nuances, intellectual delights, challenges, and shocks to those willing to read it


  1. I usually am no so interested in too much detail about the biography of an artists - I may write about this on Monday, actually - but foe some reason for Caeiro this sort of knowledge seems essential.

    Yes, one of the great poets of the century. Excellent essay.

    1. Yes, one of the great poets of the century.

      Well, perhaps, but Reis and Campos' opinions are rather suspicious, no?

  2. I have not read Caeiro. The translations you posted above do seem extraordinary.

    I have read Whitman extensively and tried to read him deeply.Though there may not have been real influences, I would like to now read Caeiro to see if I can detect similarities.

    1. The Keeper of Sheep is the right place to start; although Crosses' translation is a classic, the more recent one by Honig and Brown are also quite good:

      Also, I don't believe Caeiro didn't know Whitman; it was just part of his anti-intellectual pose: a man who goes around making references to Virgil isn't exactly a fool. He tried to clear his tracks, but he wasn't good enough.