The Literary Life of Pessoa’s Alter Ego


Pessoa’s heteronym Alberto Caeiro lies at the very core of Pessoa’s fiction. Born in Lisbon on April 16th 1889, Caiero died of tuberculosis in 1915. Pessoa himself gave March 8th, 1914, as the date of Caeiro’s poetic arrival in life, describing it as a “triumphal day,” in a letter to Portuguese literary critic Adolfo Casais Monteiro. The poet and novelist Mário de Sá-Carneiro was one of Pessoa’s closest friends, and Caeiro (perhaps a pun on Ca[rn]eiro’s name) seems to have come into being as a joke: “I thought I would play a trick on Sá-Carneiro and invent a bucolic poet of a rather complicated kind,” wrote Pessoa in the same letter. Caeiro’s “death” seems to have been influenced, in retrospect, by Sá-Carneiro’s suicide in Paris on April 26th,1916. As Pessoa wrote in 1924, “Those whom the gods love die young.” By that time, he had written the poems which Caeiro would be remembered for—The Keeper of Sheep. At that point, the creation of a “second” Caeiro was already underway, as the young Master whose memory would be kept alive by a group of disciples. The Keeper of Sheep was completed in the first week of March 1914, and although it was never published in Orpheu, the literary magazine of which Pessoa was co-founder, this second “posthumous” Caeiro was not only discussed by Pessoa’s fictitious authors, António Mora, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, he was also published in the art and literary magazines Athena (in 1925) and Presença (in 1931).

Perhaps Caeiro was right when he wrote, in a poem dated November 8th, 1915:


If, after I die, someone should choose to write my biography,
Nothing could be simpler.
There are only two dates—that of my birth and that of my death.
Between one and the other all the days were mine.

However, in order to write that biography, we must consider not just those two dates, but what came after, because some Caeiro poems were written after 1915, and, like all Masters, Caeiro continues to exist, to be perpetuated, in the words of his disciples.

It could be said that Caeiro came into being along with The Keeper of Sheep; but those poems weren’t written in a single day, nor did the cycle as a whole initially have a shape, title or even an apparent author. As editor Ivo Castro stated: “There is no evidence to indicate that the title of the cycle of poems, or Caeiro’s name, or, indeed, the idea behind the cycle, still less its architecture, had been thought of before the poems were written

What we now know is that some of the poems from The Keeper of Sheep—or, rather, a few disparate poems from an as yet undefined collection—were written around March 8th, 1914. Caeiro’s “birth” could be considered the date this series of texts were written “to play a trick on Sá-Carneiro,” who mentioned Caeiro in a letter dated June 15th, 1914. (“Greetings to our Alberto Caeiro,” Sá-Carneiro wrote to Pessoa from Paris). So it was March, 1914, that Pessoa considerd the possibility of this book made up of forty-nine poems, while the heteronyms Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos were born closer to the summer of 1914.

We only know up to a point what Caeiro could have been.

The specific date of Caeiro’s death is uncertain. In Ricardo Reis’s best-known introduction to Caeiro, which can be dated sometime in 1929, blank spaces refer to the day and month of the Master’s death. A horoscope drawn up some years before— which Pessoa appears not to have consulted when he wrote Ricardo Reis’s introduction to Caeiro—states that Caeiro’s death “would occur when Jupiter (a planet signifying death) was in opposition to the Sun … the star that is the source of all vital energy and …rules the physical body and life of the poet in question,” and that Jupiter would be in opposition to the sun on May 12th, 1915. Whether or not that was the exact date of his death, the fact is that almost all the Uncollected Poems were written after that date and in one poem—poem 60 in this edition, dated November 7th,1915—Caeiro appears to be still alive:

If I die young,
Without ever being able to publish a book,
Without seeing the face my verses make in print,
I ask only that, if you choose to be vexed on my behalf,
Then don’t be vexed.
If that is what happened, that is what’s right.

Pessoa continued to write Caeiro poems up until the end of 1915 and beyond, including dates for many of them. In a posthumous prefatory note to the works of Caeiro, Reis, Mora, Campos and Guedes, Pessoa wrote: “Each of their personalities—remember—is complete unto itself, and where their work is ordered chronologically, as is the case with Caeiro and Álvaro de Campos, the moral and intellectual evolution of the writer is perfectly defined.” It would seem from this that Pessoa was intentional about Caeiro’s dates of composition. The dates he gave to poems from The Keeper of Sheep—brought to light in 1925 in the magazine Athena (no. 4)—were 1911- 1912, and the dates he gave to Uncollected Poems in issue 5 were 1913-1915. So, if we accept the fictitious date of Caeiro’s death as 1915, we perhaps need to see Caeiro’s work as having been written between 1911 and 1915.

To read Caeiro is to read a heteronym whose “moral and intellectual personality” remained incomplete and whose work remained unfixed, given that Pessoa never published The Keeper of Sheep in its entirety and never “finished” it. For example, after publishing a the poems in the magazine Athena, he continued to revise them in his own copy––extant in his private library. Caeiro is, therefore, like other heteronyms, a posthumous editorial construction, and as a result, the various editions of Caeiro differ in the wording of some poems, the ordering of the uncollected poems, and the inclusion of certain pieces. It was the Portuguese literary critic and editor Maria Aliete Galhoz, not Fernando Pessoa. who first grouped some of the poems under the title The Shepherd in Love. We only know up to a point what Caeiro could have been. The notebook containing The Keeper of Sheep is full of variants, perhaps a sign that there could have been an edition based on that notebook prepared by Pessoa himself. Other references by Pessoa to The Shepherd in Love indicate that it might have been conceived as a pamphlet; there was even a plan for Caeiro’s work to be published elsewhere in Europe, which seems to suggest that, even before the magazine Orpheu came into existence, Pessoa’s intention was to make Caeiro known outside Portugal (likely in England and France).

Born in Lisbon, Caeiro would be a shepherd who spent most of his life in the countryside. He had no profession and almost no education. He was a poet “almost ignorant of literature,” who, in his own work, boasts of never having read certain authors such as Virgil, or, simply of passing the time “without reading anything, or thinking anything”. He was a spontaneous, ingenuous, simple being. In short, a myth. A master, whose work transcended inspiration: “I write verses on a piece of paper in my mind,” he claims in the opening poem of The Keeper of Sheep, but his thoughts were sensations. So where did he write and how did he make his sensations intelligible? What does he mean by “unlearning?” Caeiro mocks poets who labor over their poems: “And there are poets who are artists / And work on their verses / As a carpenter does on a piece of wood!” But what kind of poet is Caeiro? Was he the most natural poet who ever lived, or the most artificial? A poet who scorns technique, who might say, like Keats: “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all;” or one for whom technique is inevitable, who might say, like Wilde: “Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation.” Surely, Caeiro occupied a central place in the Pessoan universe, because, while being the very image of the most natural of poets, he was, at the same time, the embodiment of the most artificial.

One of the most significant results of our study of Pessoa’s personal library has been finding out what Pessoa was reading before the so-called “triumphal day.” Among many books, there were several he was reading about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as some by or about Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ideas on the value of certain poses, attitudes, and unrealities clearly left their mark on Pessoa’s life and work. Yet both Wilde and Shakespeare were instrumental in the genesis of Caeiro & Co.–– in the constructing of these authors and shaping their identities. This edition—the first to date in English to combine Caeiro’s poetry and the responses of other heteronyms to his poetic work—could perhaps serve as an invitation to reread Caeiro with or without a willing suspension of disbelief. Caeiro is both a shepherd living in the midst of nature, and a fiction, a mask, a pretence. He may have emerged “triumphally,” which would help us understand Pessoa’s statement (in a letter to Armando Côrtes-Rodrigues on September 2nd 1914): “If there is a part of my work that bears the ‘stamp of sincerity,’ that part is the work of Caeiro.” Then again, Caeiro is also the child of Nietzsche and Wilde, that is, the defender of the lie and the rejection of the lie as decadent. When Wilde writes: “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art,” it is hard not to think that this perfectly describes Caeiro. When Wilde states that “truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style,” it is hard not to think that Caeiro’s truth—his trees and flocks for example— is a mere stylistic fraud. When in the same Wilde essay we read: “Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place,” we cannot help but wonder if Caeiro’s poems are Art or Nature. It would be difficult to deny that he is pure Art. And a myth too, one built out of a series of absolutes: objectivity, spontaneity, naturalness. We breathe again—he’s a breath of fresh air—but only if we read him with that willing suspension of disbelief. The moment we think about Caeiro, we are filled with a feeling of disquiet.

In that mood of simultaneous acceptance and negation, it is best to read Caeiro as both an unlettered poet and a man of letters. In a 1914 text written in English intended to publicize The Keeper of Sheep in England, Pessoa mentions Walt Whitman, William Blake, Antero de Quental, Wordsworth, Shelley, Robert Browning, Victor Hugo, Francis Jammes, Émile Verhaeren, Abílio Guerra Junqueiro, António Correia de Oliveira, Teixeira de Pascoaes, João de Deus, and João de Barros. When Pessoa introduces us—especially us English readers—to Caeiro, he makes him a synthesis of modern poetry. He writes here a kind of treatise on comparative literature, in which the originality of modern Portuguese poetry is highlighted (“not only the greatest but the most original of our time”), a poetry that began with Antero de Quental and reaches its apogee with the pantheistic materialism of Alberto Caeiro. Caeiro represents a vast journey through various literatures––American, British, and French, among others.

As Portuguese literary critic and philosopher Eduardo Lourenço once affirmed, Whitman was a key influence in the invention of Caeiro. That father of rhythmo paragraphico, or phrasal verse, based on the rhythmic patterns of the English Bible, changed Pessoa completely: “One could even say that Whitman’s vision and language provided Pessoa with the ideal material to carry him to extremes of refinement that he would probably never have known otherwise.” Pessoa preferred to play down that influence. Preparing to write an article intended for the magazine A Águia, he writes: “…the work [of Caeiro] is astonishingly original. Even if we judge the author to be cultivated enough to have read Whitman … this would still not explain how the form of his verse came about.” Campos thought Caeiro superior, saying that if Whitman’s poems were “astonishing,” Caeiro’s were “more than astonishing.” The truth is, though, that Whitman hovers over all of Caeiro’s poetry, and without the poet of Leaves of Grass, Caeiro would be unimaginable.

“[Caeiro] comes apparently out of nothing, more completely out of nothing than any other poet.”

Whitman may well have been a model for the way how Pessoa planned to introduce Caeiro to a European public. In Bliss Perry’s book, Walt Whitman: His Life and Work (1906), found in Pessoa’s private library, Pessoa would have read about Whitman’s “anonymous notices” or “self-reviews”:

Throughout his career as a poet, [Whitman] had no scruples about composing laudatory anonymous notices of himself, and sending them to the newspapers … It has sometimes been urged that his anonymous defense of Leaves of Grass was called forth by the abusive attacks upon it, but the fact that at least three of his elaborate articles appeared almost immediately after the publication of the book shows that they were part of a deliberate campaign. Believing absolutely in himself and his book, he took a large and unconventional view of the publicity involved.

Perry refers here to reviews that Whitman published in three newspapers: United States Review, Brooklyn Daily Times and American Phrenology Journal. Pessoa underlined this passage in his copy of the book. In the article “Walt Whitman and His Poems” (United States Review, 1855), Whitman begins in a prophetic tone:“An American bard at last!”This is exactly the tone adopted by the fictitious author and translator Thomas Crosse at the beginning of an article about Caeiro: “The 20th century has at last found its poet—not in the sense that this poet sings the twentieth century, but in the sense that a poet has at last appeared who represents an absolute novelty.”. In his article, “An English and an American Poet” (American Phrenology Journal, 1855), Whitman compares his new poetry with the “ennui” and “aristocracy” of the then Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson. Whitman states that for a poem to be original, it requires: “Not the refined life of the drawing-room—not dancing and polish and gentility, but some powerful uneducated person.” Whitman cultivates the image of the unlettered poet who appears as suddenly as if he were a force of nature. As Thomas Crosse, the projected translator of Caeiro’s poems wrotes around 1921: “[Caeiro] comes apparently out of nothing, more completely out of nothing than any other poet.”


The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro

An introduction to The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro, copyright © 2020 by Patricio Ferrari and Jeronimo Pizzaro. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.