Sunday, 6 January 2013

We’re tales telling tales, nothing: the poetry of Ricardo Reis

Ricardo Reis' Horoscope

It’s easy and tempting to write about Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms as autonomous beings with their own biographies, thoughts, interests and prejudices. That’s the method I employed when I wrote about Alberto Caeiro a few months ago. Pessoa himself encouraged this way of thinking about his heteronyms when he started inventing birth and death dates for them, casting their fictional horoscopes and expressing their opinions on literature through interviews. I’m not doing the same for Ricardo Reis although he’s not without his own biographical data.

Pessoa first idealized Reis circa 1913 when he became interested in writing some pagan poems. According to the author, Reis was born on September 19, 1887, and studied in a Jesuit college, where he received a Latinist education. On his own he also learned about Ancient Greece. He graduated in medicine and, being a monarchist, exiled himself in Brazil in 1919 after a botched monarchist revolution against the 1911 Republic. Unlike in Caeiro’s case, Pessoa didn’t leave a date of death, although José Saramago positioned it in 1936 in his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

Reis’ poems were first published in Pessoa’s Athena magazine in 1924, and between 1927 and 1930 in the modernist Presença, which also played a crucial role in diffusing and rehabilitating the work of Pessoa towards the end of his life. Most of them were published posthumously though.

From left to right: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos
Not unlike Álvaro de Campos, Reis considered himself a disciple of Master Caeiro and even wrote the preface for his collected poems. Reis, however, was not a mere imitator but an innovator in his own right who developed a unique voice. Part of the fun of the heteronyms is that Pessoa made each one a representative of a different type of poetry: Caeiro was a Whitman-like poet of Nature, but also anti-intellectual and anti-metaphysical. Álvaro de Campos was an avant-garde poet, a futurist in love with urban grime. Reis, instead, is a classicist. Reis admired Caeiro for his clarity of vision and simplicity of life. But whereas Caeiro detested philosophy, Reis framed his own pursuit of serenity around Epicureanism and Stoicism; whereas Caeiro didn’t believe in gods, Reis incorporated the pagan gods in his philosophy; whereas Caeiro wrote disinterestedly, Reis’ poetry has a didactic vein in the way he frequently refers to lessons, role models and learning by imitation. Reis wasn’t just writing poetry, he was also teaching his philosophy.

This is an emblematic poem by Reis:

Follow your destiny,
Water your plants,
Love your roses.
The rest is the shadow
Of foreign trees.

Reality is
Always more or less
Than what we want.
Only we are always
Equal to ourselves.

Living alone is smooth,
Grand and noble is always
Living simply.
Leave the pain on the altar
Like a votive offering to gods.

See life from afar.
Never question it.
It can tell you
Nothing. The answer
Is beyond the gods.

But serenely
Imitate Olympus
In your heart.
The gods are gods
For they don’t think themselves.

Most of Reis’ philosophy is contained in it: living a simple existence, avoiding suffering by not getting too involved in life – “seeing it from afar” – and not making plans for it, but accepting fate as it comes. As a classicist, Reis combines the doctrines of Epicurus and the Stoics. His Epicurean beliefs for instance show up in his adapting the best form of living to the rhythms of Nature:

Roses I love from the gardens of Adonis,
Flitting I love them, Lydia, the roses,
            Which on the day they’re born,
            On that day they die.
Light for them is eternal, because
They’re born the sun already high, and end
            Before Apollo leaves
            His visible path.
So let’s make our lives one day,
Insensate, Lydia, voluntarily
            For there’s night before and after
            What little we last.

Reis also changed Caeiro’s anti-intellectualism by subjecting science to the inscrutable pagan gods with their finished, self-sufficient existences:

Above the truth are the gods
Our science is a failed copy
            Of the certainty with which
            They know the universe is.

All is all, and higher are the gods
It is not science’s to know them,
            But love we must
            Their figures like flowers.

For visible to our high sight,
They’re as real as the flowers
            And in their calm Olympus
They’re another Nature.

Nature as the ideal teacher of virtues, and the gods are a reflection of its best qualities, unplagued by doubts, serene. Like Nature they don’t exist to rouse questions but to be seen and admired, and in their unreflective existence they’re a model for all men. Plain is also Reis’ mistrust of science and knowledge besides self-knowledge:

And all I know of the Universe is
That it’s outside of me.

This self-knowledge is effectively knowing how to life one’s life, and the Epicurean Reis is clear and to point about it:

Neither sadnesses
Nor joys
Exist in our lives.
So let us know,
Wise incautious,
Not living it,

But going through it,
Tranquil, placid,
Having children
As our masters,
And the eyes full
Of Nature…

As such his poetry is also inevitably fatalistic since everything ends up in death. His learning to live is not so much a call to enjoying life as learning to accept death and to be ready for it without pain.

Don’t want, Lydia, to edify in the space
You are a future, or promise yourself
Tomorrow. Fulfil yourself today, not waiting.
            You yourself are your life.
Don’t destine yourself, you’re not future.
Who knows if, between the cup you empty,
And it filled again, luck won’t
Put the abysm in front of you?

The future doesn’t exist, only the moment. And instead of a participating in life, Reis urges his readers to be spectators:

Wise is he who feels happy with the spectacle of the world,
            And on drinking doesn’t even remember
            That he has already drunk in life,
            For whom everything is new
            And always incorruptible.

This worldview eventually results in fatalism:

Not without a law, but under an unknown law,
Amongst men fate distributes
            Happiness and unhappiness
Fortune and glory, injuries and dangers.

And also in the realization of the futility of life:

Richness is a metal, glory an echo
            And love a shadow.

His poetry is fundamentally nihilistic:

We’re tales telling tales, nothing.

For that reason Reis’ attempts at celebrating life are the moments that ring the falsest in his poems. The centre of his poetry is not life but death. His carpe diem, borrowed from the Odes of the Epicurean Horace, doesn’t convince anyone because it’s obvious he’s at a loss for words when he really has to explain how to fill life. When we read this:

The real day we see? In the same breath
In which we live, we die. Seize
The day for you’re it.

what is impressive is the terror that a full life is no longer than an instant. The injunction is directed at the reader, but the author is outside his own advices. When he writes of love he comes off as cold and mechanic, like when he says

As if each kiss
Were of goodbye,
My Chloe, let us kiss, in love.

Notice he tells her to kiss, he doesn’t really kiss her. It’s an action set in the future, for later, not an experience he really lives. Although Reis was the poet of the moment, the great irony is that his languages always refers to later, never the now. There isn’t a more wasteful form of not living one’s life than telling others how to live it. For a teacher Reis has little to offer in way of personal experience. Reis was in fact a poet of inaction. And for that reason, no matter how much Pessoa tried to hide, Reis was Fernando Pessoa. A characteristic Reis shares with Caeiro and Campos, a thumbprint the author couldn’t erase without stopping being himself, is the inaction that informs his words. For all the supposed drinking and loving going on in his poems, Reis spends more time about talking of doing it than actually doing it. That’s no different than Caeiro, the poet who didn’t bother to peer deeper than the surface; nor is it any different than Campos, the lover of movement and machines who keeps postponing all his actions and writings for the next day. In the end they’re all Pessoa, a marvellous writer of great projects and dreams, all of them incomplete and unpublished at the time of his death.
The similarities between the heteronyms are as interesting as the differences, as are the dialogues they keep with each other and other poets. Reis, for instance, is the only poet who addresses his poems to listeners in the poems, to women with very classic-sounding names – Chloe, Neera, Lydia -, perhaps in order to emulate the stance of the ancient teachers with their pupils; of course it’s debatable how real these women are, for after all “Living alone is smooth.” Whereas Caeiro and Campos are confessional poets, expressing their feelings. Caeiro speaks of what is immediately around him, the countryside, as does Campos with the city of Lisbon, going so far as to write poems about taverns, ships in the Tejo harbour, head aches, and other trifles of the quotidian. Only Reis doesn’t write autobiography, not of his medicine, or exile, or of his monarchism, but his poetry is infused with his beliefs nevertheless. Caeiro is also quite conversant with other authors. When he counsels the reader to “Having children/ As our masters,” it’s impossible not to think of William Wordsworth. And his reminder to ‘water the plants’ can not fail to bring to mind the moral of Candide. Perhaps his best dialogue with another poet is his subtle alteration of John Keats’ famous verse “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” Reis inverts this:

On seeing the beautiful, remember it dies.

And he continues:

And may the sadness of that thought
            Make elevated and serene
            Your admiration.

Beauty is not a thing in itself but another pedagogic tool to teach men the true way of life. We need beauty to remember us that even that is transitory, finite, like all things, even the most important things will have the same end as the mundane ones. In the end, everything becomes equal in its worthlessness. Every tale turns into nothing. But while we live beauty teaches us the lesson of finality and prepares us to accept death. Magister dixit.


  1. Though I had not read either poet before both seem intriguing.

    Having recently read Emerson I see some similarities between Emerson's beliefs and Reis 's. Especiacially on the subject of nature being a model for virtue.

    1. That dates back to the Stoics, like so many other things that go back to the ancient Greeks :)

      You really need to try Fernando Pessoa, Brian, he's an excellent writer, as a poet and as a prose writer.