Margaret Jull Costa and Patricio Ferrari

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“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.