Only with acute and ingenious effort could the proposition
be verified that absence could be a worse ill than jealousy.
Here furious madness finds its moderation
Discoursing even as delirium raves
And when she with ceaseless sighing is afflicted
No earthly force this sorrow can assuage.
Disconsolate, then you here repine without her,
And in the final damage her absence on you imposes
Is much finer torment than jealousy could devise.
Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Translation Dia Tsung
Though perhaps one’s furious madness can be tempered
When its delirium is moderated by discourse
And without relief sigh the unrelenting sighs
That puissant sorrow nothing can oppose
And without her, inconsolable and bearing
In the end the damage wrought by absence
Will be eclipsed by the torment caused by jealousy.
Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Translation Dia Tsung.
SÓLO CON AGUDA INGENIOSIDAD ESFUERZA EL DICTAMEN
DE QUE SEA LA AUSENCIA MAYOR MAL QUE LOS CELOS.
Éste templa, tal vez, su furia loca,
cuando el discurso en su favor delira,
y sin intermisión aquél suspira
pues nada a su dolor la fuerza apoca
aquél, sin ella, sufre desconsuelos;
y si es pena de daño, al fin, la ausencia,
luego es mayor tormento que los celos.
Juana Inés de la Cruz.
Translating the work of a genuine poet such as Juana Inés Asbaje is always a tremendous challenge, because of the tightly wrought perfection of her work. Her intense play of words and ideas, and the games of disputation and logic which find their way into her poems can at times make the translator’s job very nearly impossible.
I chose this poem because I could not find an English translation of it anywhere, and I loved it so much that I couldn’t resist the fool-hardy temptation to attempt take a stab at it. Even after working on two different versions I still am not entirely convinced I have done a creditable job.
I took one revisionist liberty here, in the manner of the pronouns, which the original Spanish with its gendered nouns permits me to do. I know that with this poem of Juana Inés, both Muse and poet are female, so that, to my mind made both the jealous one and the absent one female as well. Therefore I saw no need for engaging in the practice of pronoun dissimulation which many lesbians in the past have been forced to adopt.
Since the late ’50’s a kind of rot began to find its way into the manner in which poetry was read and written and appreciated. A kind of empty technicality came to be admired and exemplified, and a certain heartlessness as well.
The ego of the poet came to take centre stage but in a way that was indirect and horrible to contemplate. One of the greatest anti-poets of the last century, Sylvia Plath, was a masterful exponent of this genre. While there are few personal pronouns in her poems, the Huge ‘I’ hovers over the hopeless grandeur of bleak and ugly landscapes of her poems. I sometimes wonder if her suicidal impulses were not the result of a lifetime given to offending the Muse.
While I am obviously not an admirer of Plath – I can see the essence of her poetic predicament. Heterosexual women do not have either a natural or a genuine Muse. The male muse is poetic distortion, and very few poets are able benefit from his inspiration. If they do, they are usually homosexual males like Jacques Prévert and Constantine Cavafy, or poor Gerard Manley Hopkins with his clattering rhythms and his crucified saviour – the Muse’s midsummer sacrifice.
Even the male muse of St.John of the Cross has his origins in the old Caananite songs of the sacred marriage, so ancient and well established that the Hebrew compilers of the old testament could not bring themselves to exclude even such a purely humanistic chapter of their cultural history.
True and genuine poets are exponents of an ancient art. Their work can stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny and withstand the abrasive inquiry of the touchstone, and the corrosive kiss of Acqua regia. While meaning may be encoded – even hidden – in their poems, diligent effort can extract it whole. The sense in a true poem is unassailable, and it contains no false logic, no lies, or mistakes of language. The etymology of all words found in true poems is apt and apposite, and as for its emotional content, the presence of the Muse will always be felt.
Even a poem of the intellect – which has Apollo as its patron finds Juana Inés paying tribute to the Muse by stating clearly one or another of the themes which are part of the poetic cycle. Absence – when the Muse leaves the poet in order to perform her sinister offices, and the jealously which comes in its wake – is a genuine poetic theme.
Juana Inés is free of all the detriments and defects of false poets. Her poetic technique is impeccable, and her brilliant intellect is always placed exactly where it belongs, at the feet, and in the service of her Muse. She is a rarity; and someone like her comes along only about once in a thousand years.
When she bends her constellation of poetic talents towards elucidating a philosophical proposition, she does so not in the dry and emotionless way of a logical proof, but with images and words and phrases which show a deep insight into matters of the heart, and of its secret ways.
Her logic here in which she weighs jealousy and absence in the balance and concludes that absence is worse, is enormously convincing. It is better, she seems to say, to endure the pangs of jealousy – to see it for what it is – a fabrication of the mind when the heart is troubled, rather than risk a total estrangement, when, with the beloved’s absence, the poet’s heart mind and senses are painfully separated from their chosen object.
Absence then, is hererin asserted to be the more onerous of the two evils, and the more difficult to endure.