miércoles, 30 de abril de 2014

The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance #1: Jorge Manrique

The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006)
Selected and translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Spain and New Spain, a long time ago...

Jorge Manrique's affecting "Coplas que fizo por la muerte de su padre" [here translated as "Verses Written on the Death of His Father"] (Spain, 1476) doesn't seem like it should be as powerful as it actually is given its metrical simplicity and its apparent lack of verbal pyrotechnics, but it's a poem that did a number on me the first time I read it and a poem that continues to do the same whenever I have the occasion to revisit it.  Of course, the ubi sunt thing can always get to you if you're in a susceptible state of mind.  And Manrique does have at least one good trick up his sleeve for an elegy.  Anyway, to give you an idea of the tenor of the piece and of how Grossman translates the Spanish verse (Grossman: "The meter, called pie quebrado, or broken foot, consists of a fixed alternation of eight- and four-syllable lines in a twelve-line stanza, with a regular rhyme scheme" [1-2]), here's the opening stanza:

Recuerde el alma dormida,
avive el seso y despierte,
cómo se passa la vida,
cómo se viene la muerte
tan callando;
cuán presto se va el plazer,
cómo después de acordado
da dolor,
cómo a nuestro parescer,
qualquiera tiempo passado
fué mejor.

 Let the dozing soul remember,
let the mind awake and revive
by contemplating
how our life goes by so swiftly
and how our death comes near
so silently;
how quickly pleasure fades,
and how when it is recalled
it gives us pain,
how we always seem to think
that times past must have been better
than today.

As I hope more than just poetry geeks can tell, Grossman's translation flows admirably in modern English even while mimicking Manrique's repetitions.  However, one example of the riches that can be lost in translation is that the sixth line that the translator renders as "so silently" is, to my mind, much more powerful in the 15th century Castilian: death is tan callando, or "so silencing," a present participle-aided statement of effect that might not translate as smoothly as "so silently" but which is probably more faithful to the vale of tears sorrow that the poet is seeking to evoke.

Elsewhere, Grossman does a marvelous and maybe even an uncanny job capturing Manrique's mood in English: "Our lives are the rivers/that empty into the sea/that is our dying," from the beginning of the third stanza, is a lovely translation of "Nuestras vidas son los ríos/que van a dar en el mar/que es el morir:" with its tricky third line [literally: "which is dying"], and her close to the ninth stanza's "The agility and speed,/the bodily strength and vigor/of one's youth,/they all turn heavy and dense/when entering the sullen precincts/of old age" is a clear winner even without Manrique's rhyming of "joventud" and "senectud" in the original's "Las mañas y ligereza/y la fuerça corporal/de joventud,/todo se torna graveza/quando llega al arrabal de senectud." As for that trick up Manrique's sleeve that I mentioned at the outset?  After using the ubi sunt theme as a prelude to a summary of his father's successes in life (being a friend to friends, an enemy to enemies, and--this being Reconquista Spain--naturally a slayer of Moors), Manrique has Death come knocking at his father's door just long enough to enjoin the caballero to seek eternal life through God rather than the life of this earth, which is fleeting.  The last stanza is the one that slays me, but it's a measure of the escalating power of the poem that this stanza, the third from the end, isn't so bad either.  The voice belong to Manrique's father:

--"No gastemos tiempo ya
en esta vida mezquina
por tal modo,
que mi voluntad está
conforme con la divina
para todo;
y consiento en mi morir
con voluntad plazentera
clara y pura,
que querer ombre vivir
quando Dios quiere que muera
es locura.

"Now let us spend no more time
on this miserable, this worthless
mortal life,
for in everything my will
conforms with the divine will,
the will of God;
and I consent to my dying
and submit to a desire
bright and pure;
it is madness for a man
to wish to live when God wishes
him to die."

Jorge Manrique (1440-1479)

I hope to write at least two more posts about this collection at some point.  In the meantime, please check out the posts below for more on the title.  The Manrique poem appears on pp. 1-37.

Amanda, Simpler Pastimes

Scott, seraillon

lunes, 7 de abril de 2014

La Misa de Amor


Mañanita de San Juan,
mañanita de primor,
cuando damas y galanes
van a oír misa mayor.
Allá va la mi señora,
entre todas la mejor;
viste saya sobre saya,
mantellín de tornasol,
camisa con oro y perlas
bordada en el cabezón.
En la su boca muy linda
lleva un poco de dulzor;
en la su cara tan blanca,
un poquito de arrebol,
y en los sus ojuelos garzos
lleva un poco de alcohol;
así entraba por la iglesia
relumbrando como sol.
Las damas mueren de envidia,
y los galanes de amor.
El que cantaba en el coro,
en el credo se perdió;
el abad que dice misa,
ha trocado la lición;
monacillos que le ayudan,
no aciertan responder, non,
por decir amén, amén,
decían amor, amor.


Early in the morning on San Juan's,
early in the morning of beauty,
when young ladies and gentlemen
go to hear High Mass.
There goes my lady,
the best among them all,
wearing a two-piece skirt,
a mantilla with an iridescent sheen,
a blouse with gold and pearls
embroidered on the collar.
On her very beautiful mouth
she wears a little lipstick;
on her face so white,
a touch of rouge,
and about her big blue eyes,
a little eyeliner;
she entered the church like that,
dazzling like the sun.
The ladies are dying with envy,
the young gentlemen from love.
The singer in the choir
lost himself in the creed;
the abbot giving mass
got all mixed up during his sermon;
the altar boys who are there to help him don't manage to reply correctly, no,
for instead of saying "amen, amen,"
they were saying "amor, amor."]

Since Edith Grossman will be treating our April The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance group readers to a number of high end pro translations of some of the signature "learned" poetry from the Siglo de Oro era later in the month, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer up an amateur translation or two of some of the more popular romancero or songbook poetry being collected and published at the same time to balance things out somewhat.  A bad idea, I'm afraid--at the very least, I was quickly reminded of how insanely easy it is to wreak aesthetic destruction on even a simple poem just by attempting to provide a more or less literal translation of it without regard to rhyme or meter.  Ugh.  In any event, the anonymous romance "La Misa de Amor" ["The Mass of Love"] above--often presented as "La bella en misa" ["The Beauty at Mass"]--is one of the more frequently anthologized examples of romancero poetry that I've seen with lovely little variations available in Catalan, French, and Occitan as well as other ones in Spanish.  It's also supposedly a staple among the Sephardi Jewish community although I've yet to come across any translations of those variants that I can remember.  In this version, borrowed from Ramón Menéndez Pidal's Flor nueva de romances viejos, there's the usual playful interplay between the beauty of mass on a famous feast day such as San Juan's--the poem's "mañanita de primor" ["early in the morning of beauty"] in line 2--and the beauty at mass who disrupts the service by virtue of her show-stopping physical appearance.  Menéndez Pidal points out a further irony worth sharing here: the poem's composer gets so wrapped up in the "inocente irreverencia" ["innocent irreverence"] of the matter and in particular the detailed description of the beautiful lady's dress and make-up that "las gracias naturales de la hermosura" ["the natural graces of her beauty"] are almost completely forgotten (207)!  Note: the Spanish words I translated as "lipstick" and "eyeliner" could just as well have meant something more like "lip gloss" or "eye shadow" or whatever those 15th and 16th century Iberian Peninsula equivalents were.  It'd be nice if somebody from Elle or Ella España could step in and help a brother out with this.

"La Misa de Amor" appears on pp. 206-207 of Ramón Menéndez Pidal's Flor nueva de romances viejos (Madrid: Espasa, 2001) sans my primitive prose translation.  Menéndez Pidal defines the romance genre as "poemas épico-líricos breves que se cantan al son de un instrumento" ["brief epic/lyrical poems that are sung to the sound of an instrument"] (9), a convenient enough description for our purposes here and one which explains the obvious musicality of this poem when it's read in the original Spanish.  The image of the two juglares (French: jongleurs) is from an artist/work as yet unknown to me.

miércoles, 2 de abril de 2014

The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance Group Read

April's Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong group read selection is the Edith Grossman-curated The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2007 with a facing page English translation of poems also appearing in their original Castilian, which presents an all-star lineup of Spain and New Spain verse talent from about the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 17th century: Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, San Juan de la Cruz, Luis de Góngora, Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Household names all, dig?  But if those names alone aren't enough to whet your poetic appetite to the point where you're practically salivating to join me for the group read, here's a juicy six year old post from our friend Tom of Wuthering Expectations in which he notes that "this is really an admirable book" and "my only actual complaint is that the book is much too short."  What he said!  Anyway, thanks to Tom for the push to add this collection to the syllabus for this year since it includes some of the most famous and the most dazzling Spanish poetry of the Siglo de Oro era, it's still in print and it's available for less than a $15 cover price in the U.S.  N.B. Those who'd like to read along with me should plan on coming back for the discussions somewhere around April 28th thru 30th; those who'd just like to see me fall on my face wrestling with a rare poetry offering in public can come back around the same time.  No harm either way.

Other Readers

martes, 1 de abril de 2014

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis [O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis] (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1991)
by José Saramago [translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero]
Portugal, 1984

"Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world" is one of three epigraphs appended to this phenomenal novel--part "political fiction" in the manner of Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares, part star-crossed love story, part literary travelogue set in an increasingly ominous 1935-1936 Lisbon just as the storm clouds of fascism were beginning to blanket all of Europe--a tremendous irony since much of what passes for plot in Saramago's soulful metaphysical character study has to do with what happens when a man of culture seeks to live apart from the world for and through his art but finds that a far more difficult task than he'd anticipated.  Far, far more difficult.  That man of culture is of course none other than the 48-year old bachelor Ricardo Reis, a doctor by trade but a poet by calling, who has returned to his native Portugal from Brazil after learning that his good friend Fernando Pessoa has just died--a curious friendship, is it not, given that the history books all tell us that Reis himself was only a product of Pessoa's imagination?  (The imagination: "that mistress of great power and generosity"! [3089/5585])  Although it's a measure of Saramago's storytelling brio that his title character seems to spend an awful lot of time not examining Herbert Quain's work The God of the Labyrinth, the parts of the novel that really got to me had less to do with the Borgesian (meta)ficciones and more to do with the Dante/Virgil-like conversations that Reis carries on with the shade of Pessoa, who has been allowed approximately nine months after his death to spend time with the living.  Does the novel at all propose that being a man of action is more important than being a man of words at a time when scores are being settled by the thousands inside the Plaza de Toros following the Battle of Badajoz?  In a manner of speaking.  But beyond that, it's also an affecting memento mori in which the fragility of life, words, remembrance, everything suggests that the love of a chambermaid maybe ought not be taken for granted in the book of disquiet of one's inner life.  Time, as opposed to loneliness or solitude, is the sleepwalking dreamer's real enemy:

Ricardo Reis crossed the Bairro Alto, descending by the Rua do Norte, and when he reached the Rua de Camoes he felt as if he were trapped in a labyrinth that always led him back to the same spot, to this bronze statue ennobled and armed with a sword, another D'Artagnan.  Decorated with a crown of laurels for having rescued the queen's diamonds at the eleventh hour from the machinations of the cardinal, whom, however, with a change of times and politics he will end up serving, this musketeer standing here, who is dead and cannot reenlist, ought to be told that he is used, in turn or or at random, by heads of state and even by cardinals, when it serves their interests.  The hours have passed quickly during these explorations on foot, and it is time for lunch. This man appears to have nothing else to do, he sleeps, eats, strolls, and composes poetry line by line with much effort, agonizing over rhyme and meter.  It is nothing compared to the endless dueling of the musketeer D'Artagnan, and the Lusiads run to more than eight thousand lines, and yet Ricardo Reis too is a poet, not that he boasts of that on the hotel register, but one day people will remember him not as a doctor, just as they do not think of Alvaro de Campos as a naval engineer, or of Fernando Pessoa as a foreign correspondent.  Our profession may earn us our living but not fame, which is more likely to come from having once written Nel mezzo del cammin de nostra vita or Menina e moga me levaram da casa de metis pais or En un lugar de la Mancha, of which I do not wish to remember the name, so as not to fall once again into the temptation of saying, however appropriately, As armas e os barões assinalados, may we be forgiven those borrowings, Arma virumque cano.  Man must always make an effort, so that he may deserve to be called man, but he is much less master of his own person and destiny than he imagines.  Time, not his time, will make him prosper or decline, sometimes for different merits, or because they are judged differently.  What will you be when you discover it is night and you find yourself at the end of the road (865/5585).

José Saramago (1922-2010)

Other The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis Readers (Past and Present)
Miguel, St. Orberose

Richard, Shea's Zibaldone

Tom, Wuthering Expectations
History is indifferent to the fine points of literary composition - Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

Note: I read this wonderful novel, my first by Saramago, in a poorly-formatted and typo-ridden Kindle version that will likely keep me from buying other such works from the publisher (I prefer real books anyway).