Fernando Pessoa

2 posts

Fernando Pessoa & Literary Children


After lazily wending my way through Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, I found a like-minded soul and poet: a quiet man, a homebody, a literary enthusiast.

Most interesting to me is this passage about children and their “literary” way of thinking (as opposed to those conformists like that one in the mirror — a.k.a. “adults”). For me, this brought to mind the video of Naomi Shihab Nye quoting William Stafford about how we are all poets as children and just have to readopt the facility if we want to write poetry as adults.

Here’s the quote from Pessoa:

“Children are particularly literary, for they say what they feel and not what someone has taught them to feel. Once I heard a child, who wished to say that he was on the verge of tears, say not ‘I feel like crying,’ which is what an adult, i.e. an idiot, would say, but rather, ‘I feel like tears.’ And this phrase — so literary it would seem affected in a well-known poet, if he could ever invent it — decisively refers to the warm presence of tears about to burst from eyelids that feel the liquid bitterness. ‘I feel like tears!’ That small child aptly defined his spiral.

“To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined loves and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming — like worms when a rock is lifted — under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky.”

This is the gospel according to St. Fernando (thanks be to the writing gods)….

“The Stars Are Its Eternal Nuns”


Reading the new translation of Fernando Pessoa’s poetry, The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro — especially the section called The Keeper of Sheep — has brought reading the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu) to mind.

In poem after poem, the “shepherd poet,” a creation of Pessoa’s imagination, insists that there is no philosophy in his approach, but anti-philosophical attitudes are in themselves a philosophy of sorts, especially when they pile up and reinforce each other in poem after poem.

Let’s dip into The Keeper of Sheep anew, where the poems are numbered, to sample a few showing the simple pastoral writer’s views. These new translations are by Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari:



Like someone on a summer’s day opening the door of the house
And peering out, face-first, at the heat of the fields,
Sometimes, suddenly, Nature beats down
On the sum of my senses,
And I feel confused, troubled, trying to understand
I don’t know quite how or what…

But who ever said I should want to understand?
Who told me I needed to understand?

When the summer runs the soft warm hand
Of its breeze over my face,
I have only to feel pleasure because it’s a breeze
Or displeasure because it’s too hot,
And that however I feel it,
The way I feel it, because that is how I feel it, is how I feel it…



What we see of things are the things themselves.
Why would we see one thing if there were another?
Why would seeing and hearing be an illusion
If seeing and hearing are just seeing and hearing?

The essential thing is knowing how to see,
Knowing how to see without thinking,
Knowing how to see when you see,
And not thinking when you see
Nor seeing when you think.

But this (alas for those of us whose soul wears clothes!),
This requires long study,
An apprenticeship in unlearning
And a solitude within the freedom of that convent
Of which the poets say the stars are its eternal nuns
And the flowers devout penitents for a single day,
But where, after all, the stars are just stars
And the flowers are just flowers,
Which is why we see them as stars and flowers.


A Pessoa-through-Caeiro poem holds equal contempt (though ever so gently) for both the scientist who must know why and for the poet who must see or feel something that is not there. That Pessoa uses metaphor himself to make the point is not intended as ironic, it just is.

And if saying something just is and so should just be seen for what it is strikes you as strange, then you, too, require some unlearning. For a good start, you can read all of The Keeper of Sheep.