Archive for February, 2012

Horacio Quiroga (December 31 1878 – February 19 1937)



















Her entire honeymoon gave her hot and cold shivers. A blond, angelic, and timid young girl, the childhood fancies she had dreamed about being a bride had been chilled by her husband’s rough character. She loved him very much, nonetheless, although sometimes she gave a light shudder when, as they returned home through the streets together at night, she cast furtive glances at the impressive stature of her Jordan, who had been silent for an hour. He, for his part, loved her profoundly but never let it be seen.

For three months – they had been married in April – they lived in a special kind of bliss. Doubtless she would have wished less severity in the rigorous sky of love, more expansive and less cautious tenderness, but her husband’s impassive manner always restrained her.

The house in which they lived influenced her chills and shuddering to no small degree. The whiteness of the silent patio – friezes, columns, and marble statues – produced the wintry impression of an enchanted palace. Inside, the glacial brilliance of stucco, the completely bare walls, affirmed the sensation of unpleasant coldness. As one crossed from one room to another, the echo of his steps reverberated throughout the house, as if long abandonment had sensitized its resonance.

Alicia passed the autumn in this strange love nest. She had determined, however, to cast a veil over her former dreams and live like a sleeping beauty in the hostile house, trying not to think about anything till her husband arrived each evening.

It is not strange that she grew thin. She had a light attack of influenza that dragged on insidiously for days and days: after that Alicia’s health never returned. Finally one afternoon she was able to go into the garden, supported on her husband’s arm. She looked around listlessly. Suddenly Jordan, with deep tenderness, ran his hand very slowly over her head, and Alicia instantly burst into sobs, throwing her arms around his neck. For a long time she cried out all the fears she had kept silent, redoubling her weeping at Jordan’s slightest caress. Then her sobs subsided, and she stood a long while, her face hidden in the hollow of his neck, not moving or speaking a word.

This was the last day Alicia was well enough to be up. The following day she awakened feeling faint. Jordan’s doctor examined her with minute attention, prescribing calm and absolute rest.

“I don’t know,” he said to Jordan at the street door. “She has a great weakness that I am unable to explain. And with no vomiting, nothing . . . if she wakes tomorrow as she did today, call me at once.”

When she awakened the following day, Alicia was worse. There was a consultation. It was agreed there was an anemia of incredible progression, completely inexplicable. Alicia had no more fainting spells but she was visibly moving towards death. The lights were lighted all day long in her bedroom, and there was complete silence. Hours went by without the slightest sound. Alicia dozed. Jordan virtually lived in the drawing-room, which was also always lighted. With tireless persistence he paced ceaselessly from one end of the room to the other. The carpet swallowed his steps. At times he entered the bedroom and continued his silent pacing back and forth alongside the bed, stopping for an instant at each end to regard his wife.

Suddenly Alicia began to have hallucinations, vague images, at first seeming to float in the air, then descending to floor level. Her eyes excessively wide, she stared continuously at the carpet on either side of the head of her bed. One night she suddenly focused on one spot. Then she opened her mouth to scream, and pearls of sweat suddenly beaded her nose and lips.

“Jordan! Jordan!” she clamoured, rigid with fright, still staring at the carpet; she looked at him once again; and after a long moment of stupefied confrontation she regained her senses. She smiled and took her husband’s hand in hers, caressing it, trembling, for half an hour.

Among her most persistent hallucinations was that of an anthropoid poised on his fingertips on the carpet, staring at her.

The doctors returned, but to no avail. They saw before them a diminishing life, a life bleeding away day by day, hour by hour, absolutely without their knowing why. During the last consultation Alicia lay in a stupor while they took her pulse, passing her inert wrist from one to another. They observed her a long time in silence and then moved into the dining room.

“Phew . . .” The discouraged chief physician shrugged his shoulders. “It’s an inexplicable case. There is little we can do . . .”

“That’s my last hope,” Jordan groaned. And he staggered blindly against the table.

Alicia’s life was fading away in the sub-delirium of anemia, a delirium which grew worse throughout the evening hours but which let up somewhat after dawn. The illness never worsened during the daytime, but each morning she awakened pale as death, almost in a swoon. It seemed only at night that her life drained out of her in new waves of blood. Always when she awakened she had the sensation of lying collapsed in the bed with a million pound weight on top of her. Following the third day of this relapse she left her bed again. She could scarcely move her head. She did not want her bed to be touched, not even to have her bed-covers arranged. Her crepuscular terrors advanced now in the form of monsters that dragged themselves toward the  bed and laboriously climbed upon the bedspread.

Then she lost consciousness. The final two days she raved ceaselessly in a weak voice. The lights funereally illuminated the bedroom and drawing room. In the deathly silence of the house the only sound was the monotonous delirium from the bedroom and the dull echoes of Jordan’s eternal pacing.

Finally, Alicia died. The servant, when she came in afterward to strip the now empty bed, stared wonderingly for a moment at the pillow.

“Sir!” she called to Jordan in a low voice. “There are stains on the pillow that look like blood.”

Jordan approached rapidly and bent over the pillow. Truly, on the case, on both sides of the hollow left by Alicia’s head, were two small dark spots.

“They look like punctures,” the servant murmured after a moment of motionless observation.

“Hold it up to the light,” Jordan told her.

The servant raised the pillow but immediately dropped it and stood staring at it, livid and trembling. Without knowing why, Jordan felt the hair rise on the back of his neck.

“What is it?” he murmured in a hoarse voice.

“It’s very heavy,” the servant whispered, still trembling

Jordan picked it up; it was extraordinarily heavy. He carried it out of the room, and on the dining room table he ripped open the case and the ticking with a slash. The top feathers floated away, and the servant, her mouth opened wide, gave a scream of horror and covered her face with clenched fists: in the bottom of the pillow case, among the feathers, slowly moving its hairy legs, was a monstrous animal, a living, viscous ball. It was so swollen one could barely make out its mouth.

Night after night, since Alicia had taken to her bed, this abomination had stealthily applied its mouth – its proboscis one might better say – to the girl’s temples, sucking her blood. The puncture was scarcely perceptible. The daily plumping of the pillow had doubtlessly at first impeded its progress, but as soon as the girl could no longer move, the suction became vertiginous. In five days, in five nights, the monster had drained Alicia’s life away.

These parasites of feathered creatures, diminutive in their habitual environment, reach enormous proportions under certain conditions. Human blood seems particularly favourable to them, and it is not rare to encounter them in feather pillows.





 El almohadón de plumas

Su luna de miel fue un largo escalofrío. Rubia, angelical y tímida, el carácter duro de su marido heló sus soñadas niñerías de novia. Ella lo quería mucho, sin embargo, a veces con un ligero estremecimiento cuando volviendo de noche juntos por la calle, echaba una furtiva mirada a la alta estatura de Jordán, mudo desde hacía una hora. Él, por su parte, la amaba profundamente, sin darlo a conocer.

Durante tres meses -se habían casado en abril- vivieron una dicha especial.

Sin duda hubiera ella deseado menos severidad en ese rígido cielo de amor, más expansiva e incauta ternura; pero el impasible semblante de su marido la contenía siempre.

La casa en que vivían influía un poco en sus estremecimientos. La blancura del patio silencioso -frisos, columnas y estatuas de mármol- producía una otoñal impresión de palacio encantado. Dentro, el brillo glacial del estuco, sin el más leve rasguño en las altas paredes, afirmaba aquella sensación de desapacible frío. Al cruzar de una pieza a otra, los pasos hallaban eco en toda la casa, como si un largo abandono hubiera sensibilizado su resonancia.

En ese extraño nido de amor, Alicia pasó todo el otoño. No obstante, había concluido por echar un velo sobre sus antiguos sueños, y aún vivía dormida en la casa hostil, sin querer pensar en nada hasta que llegaba su marido.

No es raro que adelgazara. Tuvo un ligero ataque de influenza que se arrastró insidiosamente días y días; Alicia no se reponía nunca. Al fin una tarde pudo salir al jardín apoyada en el brazo de él. Miraba indiferente a uno y otro lado. De pronto Jordán, con honda ternura, le pasó la mano por la cabeza, y Alicia rompió en seguida en sollozos, echándole los brazos al cuello. Lloró largamente todo su espanto callado, redoblando el llanto a la menor tentativa de caricia. Luego los sollozos fueron retardándose, y aún quedó largo rato escondida en su cuello, sin moverse ni decir una palabra.

Fue ese el último día que Alicia estuvo levantada. Al día siguiente amaneció desvanecida. El médico de Jordán la examinó con suma atención, ordenándole calma y descanso absolutos.

-No sé -le dijo a Jordán en la puerta de calle, con la voz todavía baja-. Tiene una gran debilidad que no me explico, y sin vómitos, nada… Si mañana se despierta como hoy, llámeme enseguida.

Al otro día Alicia seguía peor. Hubo consulta. Constatóse una anemia de marcha agudísima, completamente inexplicable. Alicia no tuvo más desmayos, pero se iba visiblemente a la muerte. Todo el día el dormitorio estaba con las luces prendidas y en pleno silencio. Pasábanse horas sin oír el menor ruido. Alicia dormitaba. Jordán vivía casi en la sala, también con toda la luz encendida. Paseábase sin cesar de un extremo a otro, con incansable obstinación. La alfombra ahogaba sus pasos. A ratos entraba en el dormitorio y proseguía su mudo vaivén a lo largo de la cama, mirando a su mujer cada vez que caminaba en su dirección.

Pronto Alicia comenzó a tener alucinaciones, confusas y flotantes al principio, y que descendieron luego a ras del suelo. La joven, con los ojos desmesuradamente abiertos, no hacía sino mirar la alfombra a uno y otro lado del respaldo de la cama. Una noche se quedó de repente mirando fijamente. Al rato abrió la boca para gritar, y sus narices y labios se perlaron de sudor.

-¡Jordán! ¡Jordán! -clamó, rígida de espanto, sin dejar de mirar la alfombra.

Jordán corrió al dormitorio, y al verlo aparecer Alicia dio un alarido de horror.

-¡Soy yo, Alicia, soy yo!

Alicia lo miró con extravió, miró la alfombra, volvió a mirarlo, y después de largo rato de estupefacta confrontación, se serenó. Sonrió y tomó entre las suyas la mano de su marido, acariciándola temblando.

Entre sus alucinaciones más porfiadas, hubo un antropoide, apoyado en la alfombra sobre los dedos, que tenía fijos en ella los ojos.

Los médicos volvieron inútilmente. Había allí delante de ellos una vida que se acababa, desangrándose día a día, hora a hora, sin saber absolutamente cómo. En la última consulta Alicia yacía en estupor mientras ellos la pulsaban, pasándose de uno a otro la muñeca inerte. La observaron largo rato en silencio y siguieron al comedor.

-Pst… -se encogió de hombros desalentado su médico-. Es un caso serio… poco hay que hacer…

-¡Sólo eso me faltaba! -resopló Jordán. Y tamborileó bruscamente sobre la mesa.

Alicia fue extinguiéndose en su delirio de anemia, agravado de tarde, pero que remitía siempre en las primeras horas. Durante el día no avanzaba su enfermedad, pero cada mañana amanecía lívida, en síncope casi. Parecía que únicamente de noche se le fuera la vida en nuevas alas de sangre. Tenía siempre al despertar la sensación de estar desplomada en la cama con un millón de kilos encima. Desde el tercer día este hundimiento no la abandonó más. Apenas podía mover la cabeza. No quiso que le tocaran la cama, ni aún que le arreglaran el almohadón. Sus terrores crepusculares avanzaron en forma de monstruos que se arrastraban hasta la cama y trepaban dificultosamente por la colcha.

Perdió luego el conocimiento. Los dos días finales deliró sin cesar a media voz. Las luces continuaban fúnebremente encendidas en el dormitorio y la sala. En el silencio agónico de la casa, no se oía más que el delirio monótono que salía de la cama, y el rumor ahogado de los eternos pasos de Jordán.

Alicia murió, por fin. La sirvienta, que entró después a deshacer la cama, sola ya, miró un rato extrañada el almohadón.

-¡Señor! -llamó a Jordán en voz baja-. En el almohadón hay manchas que parecen de sangre.

Jordán se acercó rápidamente Y se dobló a su vez. Efectivamente, sobre la funda, a ambos lados del hueco que había dejado la cabeza de Alicia, se veían manchitas oscuras.

-Parecen picaduras -murmuró la sirvienta después de un rato de inmóvil observación.

-Levántelo a la luz -le dijo Jordán.

La sirvienta lo levantó, pero enseguida lo dejó caer, y se quedó mirando a aquél, lívida y temblando. Sin saber por qué, Jordán sintió que los cabellos se le erizaban.

-¿Qué hay? -murmuró con la voz ronca.

-Pesa mucho  -articuló la sirvienta, sin dejar de temblar.

Jordán lo levantó; pesaba extraordinariamente. Salieron con él, y sobre la mesa del comedor Jordán cortó funda y envoltura de un tajo. Las plumas superiores volaron, y la sirvienta dio un grito de horror con toda la boca abierta, llevándose las manos crispadas a los bandós. Sobre el fondo, entre las plumas, moviendo lentamente las patas velludas, había un animal monstruoso, una bola viviente y viscosa. Estaba tan hinchado que apenas se le pronunciaba la boca.

Noche a noche, desde que Alicia había caído en cama, había aplicado sigilosamente su boca -su trompa, mejor dicho- a las sienes de aquélla, chupándole la sangre. La picadura era casi imperceptible. La remoción diaria del almohadón había impedido sin duda su desarrollo, pero desde que la joven no pudo moverse, la succión fue vertiginosa. En cinco días, en cinco noches, había vaciado a Alicia.

Estos parásitos de las aves, diminutos en el medio habitual, llegan a adquirir en ciertas condiciones proporciones enormes. La sangre humana parece serles particularmente favorable, y no es raro hallarlos en los almohadones de pluma.






Parasites are gruesome creatures, and in particular the sort that kill their hosts or drive them insane, or cause them to change into a different life-form. Quiroga’s creepy insect, Colin Wilson’s mind-parasites, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, are all creatures that prey on unwary humans. They are entities that victimise human beings, and drain them of their lives and life-force.

In this tale of tragic anamorphosis,  the wily insect secretes itself in the pillow of a young wife, and from within its feathery nest it infects her sleep with fearsome images and drains her of her life’s-blood and life. Her coldly affectionate and undemonstrative husband does not detect the cause of his wife’s fatal malady until it is far too late.

The husband, in this terrible misalliance, is oblivious to his wife’s desperate unhappiness and of her sense of isolation as she is brought to live in the echoing emptiness of her new residence – since one can scarcely call it a home. She on the other hand, was aware of something’s being amiss from the very beginning, when the honeymoon gave her “hot and cold shivers.”

Francisco Quiroga, who has aptly been compared to Edgar Allan Poe, the originator of the psychological short story, leaves us in no doubt whatsoever about the nature of the pernicious insect in this story.
If only the husband  had been as perceptive!

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Las Sirenas

Ninguno ha conocido la lengua en la que
cantan las sirenas
y pocos los que acaso, al oír algún canto
a medianoche
(No en el mar, tierra adentro, entre las aguas
De un lago), creyeron ver a una friolenta
y triste surgir como fantasma y entonarles
Aquella canción misma que resistiera Ulises.
Cuando la noche acaba y tiempo ya no hay
A cuanto se esperó en las horas de un día,
Vuelven los que las vieron; mas la canción quedaba,
Filtro, poción de lágrimas, embebida en su espíritu,
y sentían en sí con resonancia honda
El encanto en el canto de la sirena envejecida.
Escuchado tan bien y con pasión tanta oído,
Ya no eran los mismos y otro vivir buscaron,
Posesos por el filtro que enfebreció su sangre.
¿Una sola canción puede cambiar así una vida?
El canto había cesado, las sirenas callado, y sus ecos.
El que una vez las oye viudo y desolado queda
para siempre.


*The Sirens

No one has known the language in which the sirens sing
And few are they, who perhaps at hearing some song at midnight
(Not at sea, but inland, upon the waters
Of a lake.) They believed they saw a woman, cold and forlorn
Arise like a phantasm, and intoning
that same song which Ulysses  resisted.

When the night is done, and no time remains
For whatever was hoped for in the daytime hours,
They return, who first saw them. But the song is left,
A philtre, a potion of tears, embedded in the spirit,
And sensed in themselves with deep resonance,
The old enchantment of the sirens’ song.

So passionately and well-listened-to so well heard
Already and no longer the same the same, they sought another life,
Possessed by the philtre which  fevered their blood.
Can a single song thus transform a life?
The song having ceased, the sirens and their echos fallen silent,

One is left widowed and desolate forever.





Luis Cernuda (September 21 1902 –November 5 1963)














Retornos del amor en los vividos  paisajes

Creemos, amor mio, que aquellos paisajes
quedaron dormidos o muertos con nosotros
en la edad, en el día en que los habitamos;
que los árboles pierden la memoria
y las noches se van, dando al olvido
lo que las hizo hermosas y tal vez inmortales.
Pero basta el más leve palpitar de una hoja,
una estrella borrada que respira de pronto
para vernos los mismos alegres que llenamos
los lugares que juntos nos tuvieron.
Y así despiertas hoy, mi amor, a mi costado,
entre los groselleros y las fresas ocultas
al amparo del firme corazón de los bosques.
Allí está la caricia mojada de rocío,
las briznas delicadas que refrescan tu lecho,
los silfos encantados de ornar tu cabellera
y las altas ardillas misteriosas que llueven
sobre tu sueño el verde menudo de las ramas

Sé feliz, hoja, siempre: nunca tengas otoño,
hoja que me has traído
con tu temblor pequeño
el aroma de tanta ciega edad luminosa.
Y tú, mínima estrella perdida que me abres
las íntimas ventanas de mis noches más jóvenes,
nunca cierres tu lumbre
sobre tantas alcobas que al alba nos durmieron
y aquella biblioteca con la luna
y los libros aquellos dulcemente caídos
y  los  montes  afuera  desvelados  cantándonos.



*Return of Love in a Living Landscape

We believe, my love, that those landscapes
have been left asleep, or dead with us
in the age, in the time that we dwelt in them;
that the trees lose their memory
and the nights depart and give over to oblivion
that which conferred on them beauty and perhaps immortality.
But it is sufficient, the slightest stirring of a leaf,
the quick breath of an erased star,
to see ourselves similarly happy, we who filled
the places that we had together.
And so, today you awake, my love, beside me,
among the currant bushes and the hidden strawberries
sheltered by the steadfast heart of the woods.
There is the caress moist with dew,
the delicate strands that refresh your bed,
the sylphs enchanted to adorn your tresses
and the mysterious squirrels high above
who rain down on your sleep
the small green sprigs.

Forever be happy, leaf, never know autumn,
leaf that has brought to me
with your delicate trembling
the fragrance of such a blinding luminous age.
And you, little lost star who have opened to me
the intimate windows of my more youthful nights
never close your light
over such chambers where we slept
and that library with the moon
and the those books sweetly tumbled
and the  wakeful mountains outside singing to us.

Rafael Alberti (December 16 1901 – October 28 1999)



















Deja el vino en la mesa. Mira como
un nuevo invierno de honda lejanía
– leñas y nubes,sequedad y frío –
insondable  y fantastico aparece.
Bebamos más. Que nuestras almas sean
de cenizas y tul las que separen
la infinita maraña de la muerte.
Que entren en el invierno de la espina,
que las telas de araña se desgarren,
que el humo blanco y quieto se divida.
Nuestra carne desierta sea olvidada
y se pudra insensible porque estemos
en los grises castigos para siempre.
Bebe, que el aire el aire es ciego. Bebe y mira
en hondo y crudo invierno dilatarse
a sus nubladas luces sometido.
Condenado me entierro.Mi futuro
un invierno insondable, seco y frío.



*Drinking Song

Leave the wine on the table. See how
a new winter  is distant and profound,
firewood and clouds, aridity and cold
appearing unfathomable and fantastic.
Let’s drink some more. That our souls
made of ashes and tulle, might be able
to untangle the infinite tangled scam of death:
That they  might enter this winter of the thorn,
that the threads of the spider web might be rent,
through the quiet white smoke that divides.
Our parted flesh will be forgotten
and rot insensibly, because we are
in an eternal penance of greyness.

Drink, for the air, the air is blind, drink and watch
the deep raw winter prolong itself
compelled by its cloudy light.
I am condemned and interred. My future
an inconsolable winter, dry and cold.



Manuel Altolaguirre (June 29 1905 - July 26 1959)















*Translations Dia Tsung.

Prose writers and poets go about their work differently when it comes to their chosen forms of expression. Prose writers have to make good prose sense, but in addition to this, poets have to fulfill several olther requirements.

Though it has been the fashion for nearly a century  for poets to write poetry in fragmented images, and sentence fragments,  such usages do not become a person who professes to  possess a poetic vocation. A true poem will at the very minimum make prose sense, and cohere well at that elementary level. The poet will take the images and impressions vouchsafed to him or her in the poetic trance, and honour them, which is to say, place his or her intellect as well as a firm grasp of language at the service of delivering the whole in such way as to represent all the many layers of meaning and sense which came with the original vision.

Poems that are not  received in this magical way and are written without the clarity of deep vision inevitably fall short of being convincing and authentic. They will not have insight.  In such cases the original inspiration or ‘vision’ may be a muddle of sentiments or images which carried the poet away into a sort of day-dream, and left him reaching for a pencil in order to capture the whisps of thought before they disappeared into  thin air.  These are the shadows left behind by a day-dream – or a night-dream.  When good honest sense is not permitted to attend, the unfortunate consequence is that nonsense intrudes.

In these three poems alone we have excesses and exaggerations such as land-locked sirens, philtres of tears embedded in the spirit, (which must have been exceedingly vexing and uncomfortable) blind air,  enchanted hair-dressing sylphs and singing mountains. We have the rather droll pairing of ashes with tulle, reminiscent of Cinderella, and we are left scratching our heads about the reason one would exhort a leaf to “never see autumn,” since the fulfillment of such a wish would surely mean a premature death for the hapless leaf.

Carelessness and lack of rigor are difficult to tolerate, let alone accept, and yet one comes across anthology after anthology filled to overflowing with similar works.  I can find no reason for this lamentable state of affairs, other than to hazard that we have come to accept, and become habituated to absence of sense in much of what we read and hear and watch. As a consequence of the numbing and suspension of our critical senses, the debasement of poetry has gone unnoticed. In these English translations I have done something I would never do with a sound poem, which is to supply some of their deficiencies with a little subtle patch-work here and there.

Many people take this dreamy and sometimes feverish quality to be the hallmark of a poem. All sorts of detriments appear when these sorts of experiences come dressed up as poems. Poems about loss often possess a sort of melancholy beauty: such poems have the power to engage the imagination, and many writers of poems are content to leave it at that.  But the sense and  beauty of a poem must go more than skin-deep – or even flesh- deep: it must extend right down to the bones and sinews. Clarity must be present even at the greatest depth, and there must be no deception.

True poems all have this in common, that with the stripping away of  each layer of meaning, there is another to be found, and there is clarity at all levels. By no means does this mean that a poem should yield its meaning easily. True poems, which is to say Muse poems,  are intensely personal in nature. They are addressed to a single person, and are the attempt to resolve a single authentic crisis of love. The reader might have to figure out for himself or herself the circumstances that might have fit the poems origin, but in the end, wholeness and sense must come clear.

All these requirements, which take effort and dedication to sataisfy, don’t often meet the eye. A true poem requires and deserves the engagement of several faculties: the eye, the ear, the mind, and also the hand, for the act of writing a poem by hand is often one of the best ways of probing its strengths and weaknesses.

Translating poetry has its own set of problems, but the same rules which apply to English poetry apply to poems in other languages as well, which is to say they must not be garbled.

When I run into translation problems I have to make sure I am not misreading and mistaking idiomatic usages with which I am not familiar for nonsense. I might have to make allowances for words with double-meanings by using more than one word in my translation, and rearrange phrases in my English version because their original sequence and meanings in an inflected language do not carry over sufficiently well.  Sometimes I find that a poem which read quite well, and seemed to make good sense in the original, suddenly becomes muddled and loses its thread in the process of translation, and this is where I sometimes find its hidden flaws.

These three poems are a case in point. They are written by three eminent poets who (with others including Federico Garcia Lorca), belonged to an avant-guard movement in who spearheaded a new style of  Spanish poetry in the ‘twenties. They were collectively referred to as ‘Generation 27.’  These poems by Cernuda, Alberti and Altolaguirre all exuded a kind of desperate sadness and poignancy which fairly swamped the sense their creators attempted to convey. Filled with a kind of langour and lassitude, they came tricked-out in the evocative imagery of the natural world and or mythical images.  The dejected air of dampness of fog and dew, together with wine and philtres of tears, nostalgia, and lost youth and death clung to them.  But when I began to translate, I felt the dampness infected with a touch of mildew. There was a certain lack of purpose, a limp-wristedness in place of precision, a blur in the place of sharpness, and a self-indulgence in the place of sentiment. This is not to say all poems are required to be vivid or precise, but when a poem lacks strong intent and purposiveness, it becomes a very shapeless affair.

These poems are not uninspired – but they are strange in that they lack inspiration. One can actually feel this – or at least, that was my own personal experience. Despite the fact that this blog contains a great deal of critical writing, it was not my intent this time, to make a post of failed poems, but after spending several days translating them, I decided to make the best use possible of my own mistakes in choosing badly. Perhaps I might, just for the exercise, chose some bad English poems and do the same thing with them!



Since I find it difficult to end on an unrelievedly negative note, I am including a lively, unpretentious, real love-poem, written with overflowing humour and affection. It is by a 15th century poet Baltasar de Alcanzár, and one worthy of the title. He alone makes sound sense, and avoids the pitfalls the three other avant-guard poets could not.

Again, this is my own translation of Alcanzár, so any flaws in the English version are mine alone.






*Three things hold me captive

Three things hold me captive
of love, and of the heart –
the lovely Inés, ham
and eggplant prepared with cheese.

It is this Inés, O lovers,
who has me taken in such a powerful way
that has left me abhorring
all that isn’t her.
She kept me a year out of my senses,
until on a certain occasion,
for luncheon she gave me ham
and eggplant prepared with cheese.

To Inés went the first accolade,
but then it was arduous to judge
between the three of them, how much
of my soul each one could claim.
In taste, in means and weight,
I couldn’t make a distinction,
I already wanted Inés, but now
I want the eggplant with cheese as well.

Inés alleges her beauty
but the ham is from Aracena,
and the cheese and the eggplant possess
a Spanish pedigree most ancient.
In faith they are so close in merit
one cannot judge them dispassionately.
To me they seem almost one and the same,
Inés, ham and the eggplant – all three.

At least to negotiate thus
between my new-found loves,
will compel Inés to confer her favours on me,
and part with them a little less dearly.
Since she will have as a counterbalance,
(if she will not listen to reason,)
to compete with a loin of ham
and eggplant prepared with cheese.



Tres cosas me tienen preso

Tres cosas me tienen preso
de amores el corazón,
la bella Inés, el jamón,
y berenjenas con queso.

Esta Inés, amantes, es
quien tuvo en mí tal poder,
que me hizo aborrecer
todo lo que no era Inés.
Trájome un año sin seso,
hasta que en una ocasión
me dio a merendar jamón
y berenjenas con queso.

Fue de Inés la primer palma;
pero ya juzgarse ha mal
entre todos ellos cuál
tiene más parte en mi alma.
En gusto, medida y peso
no le hallo distinción:
ya quiero Inés, ya jamón,
ya berenjenas con queso.

Alega Inés su bondad,
el jamón que es de Aracena,
el queso y la berenjena
la española antigüidad.
Y está tan en fiel el peso
que, juzgado sin pasión,
todo es uno, Inés, jamón,
y berenjenas con queso.

A lo menos este trato
destos mis nuevos amores
hará que Inés sus favores
nos los venda más barato.
Pues tendrá por contrapeso
si no hiciere razón,
una lonja de jamón
y berenjenas con queso.

Baltasar de Alcánzar (1530 or 1531 – February 16 1606)

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(Franz Schubert January 31 1797 – November 19 1828)


































Auf dem Wasser zu Singen

Mitten im Schimmer der spiegelnden Wellen
Gleitet, wie Schwäne, der wankende Kahn:
Ach, auf der Freude sanftschimmernden Wellen
Gleitet die Seele dahin wie der Kahn;
Denn von dem Himmel herab auf die Wellen
Tanzet das Abendrot rund um den Kahn.






Über den Wipfeln des westlichen Haines
Winket uns freundlich der rötliche Schein;
Unter den Zweigen des östlichen Haines
Säuselt der Kalmus im rötlichen Schein;
Freude des Himmels und Ruhe des Haines
Atmet die Seel im errötenden Schein.






Ach, es entschwindet mit tauigem Flügel
Mir auf den wiegenden Wellen die Zeit;
Morgen entschwinde mit schimmerndem Flügel
Wieder wie gestern und heute die Zeit,
Bis ich auf höherem strahlendem Flügel
Selber entschwinde der wechselnden Zeit.

















*To Sing on the Water

In the middle of the shimmer of the reflecting waves
Glides, as swans do, the wavering boat;
Ah, on joy’s soft shimmering waves
Glides the soul along like the boat;
Then from Heaven down onto the waves
Dances the sunset all around the boat.






Over the treetops of the western grove
Waves, in a friendly way, the reddish gleam;
Under the branches of the eastern grove
Murmur the reeds in the reddish light;
Joy of Heaven and the peace of the grove
Is breathed by the soul in the reddening light.






Ah, time  vanishes on dewy wing
for me, on the rocking waves;
Tomorrow, time will vanish with shimmering wings
Again, as yesterday and today,
Until I, on higher more radiant wing,
Myself vanish to the changing time.













Leopold Graf zu Stolberg (7 November 1750 – 5 December 1819)


















Nacht und Träume

Heilge Nacht, du sinkest nieder;
Nieder wallen auch die Träume
Wie dein Mondlicht durch die Räume,
Durch der Menschen stille Brust.








Die belauschen sie mit Lust;
Rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht:
Kehre wieder, heilge Nacht!
Holde Träume, kehret wieder!

Matthäus Casimir von Collin (3 March 1779 – 23 November 1824)






















Night and Dreams

Holy night, you sink down;
Dreams, too, drift down
Like your moonlight through space,
Through the quiet hearts of men;

















They listen with delight
Calling out when day awakens:
Return, holy night!
Fair dreams, return!


















Einsam wandelt dein Freund im Frühlingsgarten,
Mild vom lieblichen Zauberlicht umflossen,
Das durch wankende Blüthenzweige zittert,


In der spiegelnden Flut, im Schnee der Alpen,
In des sinkenden Tages Goldgewölke,
In Gefilde der Sterne strahlt dein Bildnis,


Abendlüftchen im zarten Laube flüstern,
Silberglöckchen des Mais im Grase säuseln,
Wellen rauschen und Nachtigallen flöten,





Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe,
Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens.
Deutlich schimmert auf jedem Purpurblättchen:







Your friend wanders alone in the garden of spring,
Gently bathed in lovely magical light,
Which shimmers through the swaying branches of flowers:

In the reflection of the river, in the snows of the Alps,
In the golden clouds of sinking day,
In the fields of stars thy face beams forth,

Evening breezes whisper through the tender leaves
The silver bells at Maytime rustle in the grass,
Waves roar and nightingales sing,

Some day, o miracle! a flower will blossom,
Upon my grave from the ashes of my heart;
And clearly on every violet petal will shine:














Friedrich von Matthisson (23 January 1761 – 12 March 1831)
















*Translation from German to English
copyright © 1997 by Lynn Thompson.

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Katharine Lee Bates (August 12 1859 – March 28 1929)

















“There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.”

–Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It was a beautiful morning, whose beauty could only hurt, of the first June since Joy-of-Life went away. All green paths were desolate for lack of her glad step. And the stately kennel that had been known from the first as “Sigurd’s House” stood silent, its green door closed on bare floor and cobwebbed walls. Stray cats passed it unconcerned and hoptoads took their ease on the edges of “Sigurd’s Drinking-cup” hollowed out in the adjacent rock. In an hour when the pain of living seemed wellnigh unbearable, the Angel of Healing called me up by telephone. His voice was gruff, but kindly.

“Say, you miss that old dog of yours a sight, don’t you?”

I could feel the confidential pressure of Sigurd’s golden head against my knee as I briefly assented, recognizing the speaker as the proprietor of certain collie kennels not far distant.

“He had a right good home, that dog had, and you must have got pretty well used to collie ways.”

“If you were going to ask me to buy another collie, please don’t. Sigurd is my dog–forever.”

“Well! Since you put it that way–but I’m at my wit’s end to get rid of a collie pup–a pretty little fellow, rough Scotch, sable and white, like yours–that’s scairt at his own shadow.”

“What scared him?”

“Blest if I know! His sire, Commander, and his dam, Whisper, are as nice, normal, easy-tempered dogs as you could find anywhere, and their litters take after ’em–‘cept this youngster, who sulks all day long off in some dark hole by himself and shakes if we speak to him. Nobody has mishandled the little chap so far’s I’ve ever seen or heard, but the least thing–a shout or a rattle of tools or any fool noise–throws him into such a funk that all the rest of the puppies are getting panicky and the whole caboodle is running wild. There’s no two ways about it. I’ve got to clear that born ninny out. I sold him a month ago to a lady for fifty dollars, but she brought him back in a week and said he was about as cheerful company as a tombstone. Now see here! You can have him for twenty, or for nothing, just as you feel after you’ve given him a try.”

“But I don’t want him. I shouldn’t want him if he were the best dog in the country.”

“Then I reckon I’ll have to shoot him. I could give him away, but he’s such a wretched, shivery little rascal that most any sort of folks would be too rough for him. ‘Twould be kinder to put him out of the world and done with it. He’s had seven months of it now and pretty well made up his mind that he don’t like it. I did think maybe you might be willing to give him a chance.”

I was surprised to hear my own voice saying into the telephone: “I’ll try him for a few days, if you care to bring him over.”

Yet I dreaded his coming. The friend who gave us Sigurd had offered us the past winter a very prince of puppies, the daintiest, most spirited, most winsome little collie that a free affection could ask, but Joy-of-Life and I could not make him ours. We could regard him only as a visitor in Sigurd’s haunts, and the Lady of Cedar Hill, resenting the name of Guest which we had given him, re-named him Eric and took him to her own home. Here she soon won the utter devotion of his dog-heart, which, though now no longer beating, through that ardent and faithful love “tastes of immortality.”

I was in the veranda off the study, trying to busy myself with my old toys of books and pen and paper, when the young collie was led in by a small girl, the only person at the kennels whose call he obeyed or whose companionship he welcomed. Deposited beside my chair, he promptly retreated to the utmost distance the narrow limits of his prison-house allowed, panting and quaking.

“Be good, Blazey,” the child admonished him, stroking his head with a sunburned hand from whose light caress he at once shuddered away. “I’ll come to see you by and by.”

“By and by is easily said,” the puppy made answer with incredulous eyes that first watched her out of sight and then rolled in anguish of despair from the wire screening of the porch to roof and wall.

“Is your name Blazey?” I asked him gently, but his fit of ague only grew worse as he turned his ghastly stare on me
“with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors.”
“I made further efforts at conversation while the day wore on, but that little yellow image of throbbing terror, upright in the remotest corner, would not even turn its head toward my voice. In vain I remonstrated:
“Alas, how is’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep.”
The constant tremble of the poor, scared, pitiful puppy was intensified by every train whistle and motor horn to a violent shaking. I could not flutter a leaf nor drop a pencil without causing a nervous twitch of the brown ears. Suddenly the crack of an early Fourth of July torpedo electrified him into a frenzy of fright. If it had been the fatal shot in reserve for Blazey he could not have made a madder leap nor wheeled about in more distracted circles. In one of these lunatic reels he struck against me and, gathering him close, I crooned such comfort as I had into that dizzy, quivering, pathetic face; but he tore himself loose and fled gasping back to his corner beseeching a perilous and cruel universe to let him alone. I, for one, declined:
“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!–
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee; I’ll call thee Hamlet.”
The puppy accepted his new name, as he accepted his dinner, with lugubrious resignation and the air of saying to himself:
“Heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me.”
His misery was more appealing than a thousand funny gambols could have been, and the household, those of us who were left, conspired in various friendly devices to make him feel at home. The child at the kennels had taught him one sole accomplishment, that of giving his paw, and Sister Jane, in a fine spirit of sacrifice, made a point of shaking hands with him long and politely at least a dozen times a day, rushing to a faucet as soon as this hospitable rite was accomplished for a fierce scouring of her own polluted palms. Housewife Honeyvoice tempted his appetite with the most savory of puppy menus and kept up such a flow of tuneful comment while he ate that, even in his days of deepest gloom, he rarely failed to polish his dish and then thump it all about in an unscientific effort to extract gravy from tinware. Esther’s arms were now as strong as her feet were lively and, after the first week or so, he would let her pick him up like a baby and carry him about and would even be surprised, at times, into a game of romps. He needed play as much as he needed food, but he was curiously awkward at it, not merely with the usual charming clumsiness of puppies but with a blundering uncertainty in all his movements, miscalculating his jumps, lighting in a sprawling heap and often hurting himself by a lop-sided tumble.

Yet apart from these brief lapses he maintained his pose of hopeless melancholy, varied by frantic perturbations, until his new name fitted him like his new collar.
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
He was not, to be sure,

“The glass of fashion and the mold of form,”

for his nose, from the bench point of view, was nearly half an inch too long. But his “dejected haviour” and deep-rooted suspicion of his surroundings were Hamlet’s own. He felt himself “be-netted round with villanies” and apprehensively watched the simple ways of our family in profound despondency and distrust. The fears that haunted him kept him so hushed that we grew to believe he was actually dumb,–a defect in physical endowment that might account for many abnormalities. Now and then the rigid little figure beside me on the veranda–for gradually, day by day, he edged an inch or two nearer–would give a stir of weariness or even drop, exhausted, for a nap, but in the main
“as patient as the female dove
When that her golden couplets are disclos’d,
His silence” would “sit drooping.”
Through all the hot summer days I had to see him,
“A dull and muddy mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams,”
but as soon as we reached the cool cover of dusk, I would lift the now crouching, anxious puppy to his four feet and snap on his new leash.

His troubled eyes would well over with expostulatory questions:

“Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?”

“We’re going to walk, Little Stick-in-the-Mud. Come on!”

And thus Hamlet, “with much forcing of his disposition,” would undergo the daily constitutional, which he converted into a genuine gymnastic exercise for us both by pulling back on the leash with all his considerable strength, protesting:
“It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
In this ignoble fashion I would drag him along for a mile or so of the least frequented road, until he would suddenly fix his slender legs and refuse to be budged:
“Where wilt thou lead me? speak;
I’ll go no further.”
“Very well! If you insist on turning back here, you know what will happen. It will be your turn to drag me.”

To this he had always the same rejoinder:
“‘Tis true ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true.”
So Hamlet, all his soul set on getting back to the comparative security of that veranda, would fall to tugging like an infant Hercules, scrabbling me along, regardless of sidewalks, by the nearest route to safety, till I felt myself, on reaching home, more than ever a “quintessence of dust.”

When I tried him off the leash, he would, even into the autumn, run back to the kennels, though he would let no one there touch him but the gypsy-tanned child. Later, he would slip back to the Scarab, usually after dark, but be afraid to come near or ask admittance, sweeping around the house in wide, wistful circles. It took our softest coaxings to bring that palpitating puppy across the threshold and, once in, we all had to shake paws with him many times before he would believe himself welcome and sink down at my feet to sleep away his tiredness and terror. It was midsummer before I dared loose him on the campus for a free scamper, from which, hesitant, with many tremors and recoils, he came back to me in answer to my call. I thought then that the battle was won, but the next time I ventured it, and the next, he ran away. Yet before the leaves fell we had made such progress that when I fastened on his leash and invited him to go to walk,
“there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it.”
For weeks the rooms of the house were to this kennel-bred puppy no better than torture-chambers, being full of strange, sinister objects, for to Hamlet, even yet, the unknown is a menace and a dread. Brought into study or dining-room, he would “wax desperate with imagination,” throwing wild looks at ceiling and walls and then spinning about and about like an agonized top. “Upon the heat and flame” of those excitements it was hard to persuade him to “sprinkle cool patience,” but in process of time he became accustomed to rugs and furniture and even, after repeated assurances, grew to understand that Sigurd’s chair was at his service.

By mid-winter he had come to realize, with a touching relief and responsive fervor of affection, that the members of the family were his friends, but he was still thrown into a panic by the door-bell and the murderous monsters whose entrance he believed it to announce. Every arrival he regarded as an agent of Hamlet’s doom and fled precipitately to chosen places of concealment on the upper floors. Yet curiosity was strong in the little fellow, too. As I sat chatting with a caller, I would presently be aware of an excessively unobtrusive collie stealing down the stairs. Quivering all over, in awe of his own daring, he would place himself erect on the threshold with his face to the hall and very slowly, inch by inch, would “like a crab” back into the room, edging along on his haunches, steering his blind course for the further side of my chair. Still keeping his back to the stranger, he would reach up a pleading paw for me to clasp and then, regarding himself as both invisible and protected, listen keenly to learn if the conversation were by any chance about Hamlet.

He was as timorous out of doors as in, having little to do with other dogs, save with a benignant collie neighbor, old Betty, and yielding up his choicest bones without remonstrance to any impudent marauder. If I reproached him for his pacifist bearing, he would touch my hand with an apologetic tongue and look up with shamefaced eyes that admitted:
“it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.”
It was his habit to take legs, rather than arms, “against a sea of troubles,” and when enemies loomed on the horizon he would precipitately make for home. He was by this time dog enough to be overjoyed if one of us summoned him for a walk.

“What noise? who calls on Hamlet?”

And all his belated frolic of puppyhood came out in impatient collie capers while, with our intolerable human tardiness, wraps were donned and doors thrown open. And then the leaps of ecstasy!

“Go on; I’ll follow thee.”

But he hated, and still hates, to be out in the great, dangerous world of noises, people, motors, alone by daylight. “Nay, come, let’s go together,” is his constant plea. But if no one of the household is at liberty to companion him, he prefers to wait for his exercise till “the very witching time of night,” when he plunges into the mystery of the woods or runs by moonlight along deserted roads. During his first winter, on returning from one of his nocturnal rambles, he would stand, snow-coated, without a whine or scratch, shivering at the outside door, silent even under the beating of an icy storm, until some anxious watcher caught sight of him and let him in. He had been with us over a year before he found his voice. Then, one noon, a brisk step coming up to the south porch along our private path took Hamlet by surprise. His quick, shrill protest astonished him as much as it did us and he promptly rushed to refuge under the table. But having shattered our psychopathic theories and confessed that he was no mute, he took to barking with immoderate enthusiasm that has already more than made up for lost time. Yet as with his movements, so his barking is odd,–discordant, off the pitch, “jangled out of tune.”

These tremendous bouts of barking, combined with his excitable and suspicious temperament, have given our timid collie a preposterous reputation for ferocity. Callers wise in dogs observe that even as he roars he runs away, wagging his tail, and come boldly on to the north door, while Hamlet announces and denounces them at the south:
“O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”
“A guilty thing.”
“A puff’d and reckless libertine.”
“A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!”
“What, ho! help, help, help!”
But when he has torn his “passion to tatters, to very rags,” he slips in shyly to greet the accepted caller, usually seating himself, according to his own peculiar code of etiquette, with his back to the guest, but sometimes, especially if it is a college girl “in the morn and liquid dew of youth,” he will, instead of taking his accustomed place by me, lie down at Ophelia’s feet, explaining:

“Here’s metal more attractive.”

Hamlet is a delicate subject for discipline as any sign of displeasure on the part of the few he trusts will fling him back to his puppy state of quivering misery. But for his inhospitable clamors he is occasionally shut up in the telephone closet, a custom which he considers

“More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”

Released, he bounds toward us beseeching caresses and every assurance that we have forgiven him and love him still. But he is just as ready to bark at the next arrival, though the dread word CLOSET will sometimes arrest a roar in mid-career. His sense of duty, as the guardian of the house, is inextricably intertwisted with his desire to be good.

Hamlet has, indeed, an uncharacteristic conviction of the preciousness of property. He did not learn it from me. I resent the metal that outlasts flesh and bone and am careless about locking doors since against grief and death no bolts avail; but Hamlet, had destiny put him in his proper place, would have ridden through life on top of an express wagon, zealously guarding its packages from every thievish touch. As it is, he keeps an embarrassing watch and ward on my desk and bookcases. Often a seminar student, reaching for a volume that promises to throw light on the discussion, is amazed by the leap of what had seemed to be a slumbering collie, now all alert and vigilant, gently nipping her sleeve to hold that arm of robbery back. Or in the midst of committee toils, a guileless colleague may move toward my desk to make a note. From the hall Hamlet dashes in with gleaming eyes and, as she turns in astonishment, squeezes his yellow bulk between her and that mysterious altar of my midnight devotion and firmly shoves her back. These policeman ways of his are not universally endearing and, in return, he has no faith whatever in the honesty of my associates, “arrant knaves all.” He has never put aside his dark suspicions of one who is not only generosity itself, but a socialist to boot, because on his first Christmas Eve in the Scarab she had been so kind as to act as her own Santa Claus and take away her labeled packet from the pile of tissue-papered and gay-ribboned gifts in a corner of the study. Although I had noticed that the puppy made a point of lying down before that heap, I did not realize that he, terrified and bashful as he then was, had constituted himself its custodian, till this action of hers left his soul “full of discord and dismay.” Even yet he heralds her approach with consternation:
“O shame! where is thy blush?”
“A most pernicious woman!”
“Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.”
So our dog has few friends outside his home. It is difficult to maintain with the children on the hill the pleasant fiction that their Christmas playthings come from Hamlet when it so obviously “harrows” him “with fear and wonder” to see the little recipients allowed to bear these objects away. Laddie’s mistress, ever gracious, pets and praises him, and hers is the only home in the village at which, sure of a happy welcome and delectable bits of bread and butter, he consents to call, but Jack’s mistress, catholic as her sympathies are, remembers an unlucky encounter from which her famous comrade retired, blinking queerly, the loser of a tooth. It is, of course, her theory that Hamlet feloniously reached into Jack’s mouth to snap out that treasure, while to me it seems crystal clear that Jack uprooted the venerable fang himself in an unholy effort to bite Hamlet; but now the collie is shut up whenever the terrier comes, though they manage to exchange through the windows a vituperative language not taught in our curriculum.

Hoping to extend this too limited circle of Hamlet’s friendships, we have accepted as a summer guest a cynical old parrot, who has already, in a lifetime cruelly long for a captive, known a variety of vanishing households. The tones that Poor Pol echoes, the names that he calls, insistently and vainly, in his lonesome hours, the scraps of family talk dating perhaps from five, ten, twenty years ago that his strange voice, a mockery of the human, still repeats, make him, even to us, an awesome personage, a Wandering Jew of the caged-pet generations. What does he miss, what does he remember, as he sits sweetly crooning to himself “Peek-a-boo, Pol,” and then rasps crossly out, “Wal! what is it?” and then falls to a direful groaning “Oh!” and “Ah!” over and over, more and more feebly, as if in mimicry of a death-bed, and suddenly spreads his wings, hurrahs like a boy on the Glorious Fourth and storms our ears with a whole barn-yard of cackles and cocka-doodledoos?

For the first few minutes after the arrival of Polonius, Hamlet regarded the great cage, set on top of a tall revolving bookcase, and its motionless perching inmate, whose plumage of sheeny green was diversified by under-glints of red and the pride of a golden nape, as new ornaments committed to his guardianship. Erect on his haunches, he gazed up at them with an air of earnest responsibility, but when Polonius, cocking his head and peering down on the collie with one round orange eye, crisply remarked:

“Hello! What’s that? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Hamlet went wild with amazement. After making from every side vain leaps and scrambles toward the unperturbed parrot, he tore from one of us to another, with whines and imploring gaze striving to learn what this apparition might mean
“So horridly to shake” his “disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches” of his soul.
A week has passed and I begin to fear that Hamlet’s antipathy to Polonius, “a foolish prating knave,” a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” is too deeply rooted in drama for life to eradicate. The fault does not lie with the parrot. Though with him, as a rule, “brevity is the soul of wit,” he accosts Hamlet quite as cordially as any other member of the family, with “Hello” when the dog trots into the room and “Good-by” when he trots out. He is, indeed, so far in sympathy with Hamlet that, well-nigh to our despair, he seconds the collie’s uncivil clamor when the doorbell rings by stentorian shouts of “Fire! Fire!! FIRE!!!” We do not admit that, in general, Polonius talks only “words, words, words.” If he does, the coincidences are uncanny, for he warns “Look out” as we lift his heavy cage and pronounces “All right” as we set it safely down. I was adding a column of figures yesterday and, as I named the total, Polonius said in an approving tone: “That’s right; that’s it.” He has a mild curiosity about our doings and occasionally responds to our overtures by offering to an outstretched finger the chilly grip of his clay-colored claws,–invariably, like a well-bred bird, presenting the right foot. If Housewife Honeyvoice undertakes to scratch the parrot’s green head, Hamlet rears up against her and insists that the same ceremony be performed on his yellow one. Polonius, for his part, though too blase for jealousy, has a proper self-respect, and when he overhears us comforting our troubled collie with murmurs of “Good Hamlet! Dear Hamlet!” promptly interjects “Pretty Pol.”

But Hamlet, who is so sensitive to suffering that he will go of his own impulse to any visitor in trouble and press close, lavishing all his shy caresses in the effort to console, need not fear that Polonius will usurp his place in my affection. It is all I have to give him and I shall not fail him there. I cannot give that fearful, only half-quieted heart the security it craves from
“the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.”
There is no security on this whirring planet where pain is pain, and loss is loss, but where, for our deepest of consolation, though it involves our keenest of grief, love is always love.

“Keep me close,” pleads Hamlet, and I promise: “While I can.






Katharine Lee Bates was an ardent feminist and the author of the song “America the Beautiful.”

She attended Wellesley college and later returned to join the faculty. While on staff she met Katharine Coman and began a relationship that lasted for 25 years.
Bates and Coman’s relationship might be best described as a romantic friendship. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual, but it was intensely loving; Bates referred to Coman as her “Joy of Life” and wrote many poems about their love.
Both women had successful careers at Wellesley college–Bates became chair of the English department, while Coman became chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college. They kept contact with other educated women who lived in couples as they did, but they did not assume roles as lesbian activists.
In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer, and Bates nursed her until Coman died in 1915. In 1922, Bates published a limited volume of poetry entitled, “Yellow Clover,” where she wrote of their relationship.
Bates remained at Wellesley until she retired in 1925. She died four years later, at the age of 70. Only a few years before her death, she wrote to a friend, “So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.
Biography by Alix North






Two Poems by Katharine Lee Bates


If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

Katherine Coman

















Yellow Clover

Must I, who walk alone,
Come on it still,
This Puck of plants
The wise would do away with,
The sunshine slants
To play with,
Our wee, gold-dusty flower, the yellow clover,
Which once in parting for a time
That then seemed long,
Ere time for you was over,
We sealed our own?
Do you remember yet,
O Soul beyond the stars,
Beyond the uttermost dim bars
Of space,
Dear Soul who found the earth sweet,
Remember by love’s grace,
In dreamy hushes of heavenly song,
How suddenly we halted in our climb,
Lingering, reluctant, up that farthest hill,
Stooped for the blossoms closest to our feet,
And gave them as a token
Each to each,
In lieu of speech,
In lieu of words too grievous to be spoken,
Those little, gypsy, wondering blossoms wet
With a strange dew of tears?
So it began,
This vagabond, unvalued yellow clover,
To be our tenderest language. All the years
It lent a new zest to the summer hours,
As each of us went scheming to surprise
The other with our homely, laureate flowers,
Sonnets and odes,
Fringing our daily roads.
Can amaranth and asphodel
Bring merrier laughter to your eyes?
Oh, if the Blest, in their serene abodes,
Keep any wistful consciousness of earth,
Not grandeurs, but the childish ways of love,
Simplicities of mirth,
Must follow them above
With touches of vague homesickness that pass
Like shadows of swift birds across the grass.
How oft, beneath some foreign arch of sky,
The rover,
You or I,
For life oft sundered look from look,
And voice from voice, the transient dearth
Schooling my soul to brook
This distance that no messages may span
Would chance
Upon our wilding by a lonely well,
Or drowsy watermill,
Or swaying to the chime of convent bell,
Or where the nightingales of old romance
With tragical contraltos fill
Dim solitudes of infinite desire;
And once I joyed to meet
Our peasant gadabout
A trespasser on trim, seigniorial seat,
Twinkling a sauce eye
As potentates paced by.
Our golden cord! our soft, pursuing flame
From friendship’s altar fire!
How proudly we would pluck and tame
The dimpling clusters, mutinously gay!
How swiftly they were sent
Far, far away
On journeys wide
By sea and continent,
Green miles and blue leagues over,
From each of us to each,
That so our hearts might reach
And touch within the yellow clover,
Love’s letter to be glad about
Like sunshine when it came!
My sorrow asks no healing; it is love;
Let love then make me brave
To bear the keen hurts of
This careless summertide,
Ay, of our own poor flower,
Changed with our fatal hour,
For all its sunshine vanished when you died.
Only white cover blossoms on your grave.










Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The daughter of a Congregational pastor, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1880 and for many years was a professor of English literature at Wellesley. She lived there with her partner Katharine Coman, who herself was a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesley College Economics department. The same-sex pair lived together for twenty-five years until Coman’s death in 1915.
The first draft of America the Beautiful was hastily jotted in a notebook during the summer of 1893, which Miss Bates spent teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Later she remembered,
“One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
The words to her one famous poem first appeared in print in The Congregationalist, a weekly journal, for Independence Day, 1895. The poem reached a wider audience when her revised version was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript, November 19, 1904. Her final expanded version was written in 1913.
The hymn has been sung to other music, but the familiar tune that Ray Charles delivered is by Samuel A. Ward (1847-1903), written for his hymn Materna (1882).
Miss Bates was a prolific author of many volumes of poetry, travel books and children’s books. Her family home on Falmouth’s Main Street is preserved by the Falmouth Historical Society.
Katharine Lee Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1929.

Katharine B. and Katharine C.
While on the faculty at Wellesley College, Bates met Katharine Coman with whom she formed a “romantic friendship.” Coman served on the faculty as the chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college.
Bates and Coman lived as a couple for 25 years in what is sometimes referred to as a “Boston marriage.” In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer. Bates nursed Coman through three painful years of physical decline. Katherine Coman died in 1915.
“So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.” – K. L. Bates Lambda.net




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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)













In No Direction

To go in no direction
Surely as carelessly,
Walking on the hills alone,
I never found easy.

Either I sent leaf or stick
Twirling in the air,
Whose fall might be prophetic,
Pointing ‘there’,



Or in superstition
Edged somewhat away
From a sure direction,
Yet could not stray.

Or undertook the climb
That I had avoided
Directionless some other time,
Or had not avoided,

Or called as companion
Some eyeless ghost
And held his no direction
Till my feet were lost.





















The Castle

Walls, mounds, enclosing corrugations
Of darkness, moonlight on dry grass.
Walking this courtyard, sleepless, in fever;
Planning to use – but by definition
There’s no way out, no way out –
Rope-ladder, baulks of timber, pulleys,
A rocket whizzing over the walls and moat –
Machines easy to improvise.



No escape,
No such thing; to dream of new dimensions,
Cheating checkmate by painting the king’s robe
So that he slides like a queen;
Or to cry,  ‘Nightmare, nightmare’!
Like a corpse in the cholera-pit
Under a load of corpses;
Or to run the head against these blind walls,
Enter the dungeon, torment the eyes
With apparitions chained two and two,
And go frantic with fear –
To die and wake up sweating by moonlight
In the same courtyard, sleepless as before.























The seven years’ curse is ended now
That drove me forth from this kind land,
From mulberry-bough and apple-bough
and gummy twigs the west wind shakes,
To drink the brine of crusted lakes
And grit my teeth on sand.

Now for your cold, malicious brain
And most uncharitable, cold heart,
You,  too , shall clank the seven years’ chain
On sterile ground for all time cursed
With famine’s itch and flames of thirst,
The blank sky’s counterpart.


The load that from my shoulder slips
Straightway upon your own is tied:
You, too, shall scorch your finger-tips
With scrabbling on the desert’s face
Such thoughts I had of this green place,
Sent scapegoat for your pride.


Here Robin on a tussock sits,
And Cuckoo with his call of hope
Cuckoos awhile, then off he flits,
While peals of dingle-dongle keep
Troop-discipline among the sheep
That graze upon the slope.

A brook from fields of gentle sun,
Through the glade its water heaves,
The falling cone would well-nigh stun
The Squirrel wantonly lets drop
When up he scampers to tree-top
And dives among the green.

But no, I ask  a surer peace
Than vengeance on you could provide.
So fear no ill from my release;
Be off, elude the curse, disgrace
Some other green and happy place –
This world of fools is wide.















The Presence

Why say ‘death’? Death is neither harsh nor kind:
Other pleasure or pains could hold the mind
If she were dead. For dead is gone indeed,
Lost beyond recovery and need,
Discarded, ended, rotted underground –
Of whom no personal feature could be found
To stand out from the soft blur evenly spread
On memory, if she were truly dead.




But living still, barred from accustomed use
Of body and dress and motions with profuse
Reproaches (since this anguish on her grew
Do I still love her as I swear I do?)
She fills the house and garden terribly
With her bewilderment, accusing me,
Till every stone and flower, table and book,
Cries out her name, pierces me with her look,
‘You are deaf, listen!
You are blind, see!’
How deaf or blind,
When horror of the grave maddens the mind
With those same pangs that lately choked her breath,
Altered her substance, and made sport of death.





















The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky.
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.






There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy, or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.





















Song of Contrariety

Far away is close at hand,
Close joined is far away,
Love shall come at your command,
Yet will not stay.

At summons of your dream-despair
She might not disobey,
But slid close down beside you there,
And complaisant lay.

Yet now her flesh and blood consent
In the hours of day,
Joy and passion both are spent,
Twining clean away.

Is the person empty air,
Is the spectre clay,
That love, lent substance by despair,
Wanes and leaves you lonely there
On the bridal day?




















Be assured, the Dragon is not dead
But once more from the pools of peace
Shall rear his fabulous green head.

The flowers of innocence shall cease
And like a harp the wind shall roar
And the clouds shake an angry fleece.

‘Here, here is certitude,’ you swore,
‘Below this lightning-blasted tree.
Where once it struck, it strikes no more.



‘Two lovers in one house agree.
The roof is tight, the walls unshaken.
And now, so must it always be.’

Such prophesies of joy awaken
the toad who dreams away the past
Under your hearth-stone, light forsaken,

Who knows that certitude at last
Must melt away in vanity –
No gate is fast, no door is fast –

That thunder bursts from the blue sky,
That gardens of the mind fall waste,
That fountains of the heart run dry.

















Sick Love

O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in royal array,
A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,

Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:

Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head.
Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
That shivering glory not to be despised.

Take your delight in momentariness,
Walk between dark and dark – a shining space
With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.



















To the galleys, thief, sweat your soul out
With strong tugging under the curled whips,
That there your thievishess may find full play.
Whereas, before, you stole rings, flowers and watches,
Oaths, jests and proverbs,
Yet paid for bed and board like an honest man,
This shall be entire thiefdom: you shall steal
Sleep from chain-galling, diet from sour crusts,
Comradeship from the damned, the ten-year-chained –
And, more than this, the excuse for life itself
From a craft steered toward battles not your own.


















The China Plate

From a crowded barrow in a street-market
The plate was ransomed for a few coppers,
Was brought gleefully home, given a place
On a commanding shelf.

Quite a museum-piece,’ an expert cries
(Eyeing it through the ready pocket-lens) –
As through a glass case would be less sepulchral
Than the barrow-hears!



For weeks this plate retells the history
Whenever an eye runs in that direction:
‘Near perdition I was, in a street market
With rags and old shoes.’

‘A few coppers’ – here once again
The purchaser’s proud hand lifts down
The bargain, displays the pot-bank sign
Scrawled raggedly underneath.

Enough, permit the treasure to forget
The emotion of that providential purchase,
Becoming a good citizen of the house
Like its fellow-crockery.



Let it dispense sandwiches at a party
And not be noticed in the drunken buzz,
Or little cakes at afternoon tea
When cakes are in demand.

Let it regain a lost habit of life,
Foreseeing death in honourable breakage
Somewhere between the kitchen and the shelf –
To be sincerely mourned.






















Burn It!

Fetch your book here,
That you have fought with for half a year
(Christmas till May)
Not intermittently but night and day
Need but enhance your satisfaction
In swift and wholesome action.

Write off the expense
Of stationary against experience,
And salvage no small beauties or half-lines.
You took the wrong turn, disregarded signs
Winking along your track,
Until too close-committed to turn back.

Fetch the book here
And burn it without fear,
Grateful at least that, having gone so far,
You still know what truth is and where you are,
With better things to say
In you own bold, unmarketable way.

















Leaving the Rest Unsaid

Finis apparent on an earlier page,
Wit fallen obelisk for colophon,
Must this be here repeated?

Death has been ruefully announced
And to die once is death enough,
Be sure, for any life-time.

Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?

But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.

So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander’s wing
At a careless comma,


















There are some poets to whom Poetry is a craft. To others it is an avocation, or a hobby, or merely a means of expression much resembling prose, only written in shorter lines.  None of these types is worthy of the name ‘poet’.

But once or twice in a century one comes across a man or woman who can truly be called a poet. Such beings possess the full panoply of skills, abilities and attributes the Muse demands: an honourouble character, a deep and extensive knowledge of his or her own native tongue, both historical and contemporary, a good grasp of his or her own poetic tradition, the languages related to his or her own native tongue, a thorough familiarity with Greek Mythology, the History, Geography, Literature associated with his or her own poetic tradition, Philology, Orthography, a superior intelligence,which is matched with superior intuition, and the ability to step easily and lightly between the trance and waking state.

Needless to say that all who claim to write poetry are not poets, and today this Royal calling is debased beyond all recognition. That is why Robert Graves is one of my best-loved poets. I have never found him to disappoint, nor does he fall the slightest bit short of the highest standards.  With the rarest skill, and the deftest touch he bends his skills to meet the exigencies of love, and beautifully resolve its dilemmas and conflicts. His appeal for me has never flagged, and his example in modern times has never been matched, let alone surpassed.

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In lieu of a picture of D. van der Wert, this image of a young Burgher circa 1944.




















I remember pushing my head and upper body as far out of the train window as I could. My grandfather would tell me to not look in the direction of the engine. If you looked that way, sooner or later a rock-hard piece of coal dust would come to lodge itself in the softness of your eye. I didn’t pull my head back even when we reached a tunnel with its scary jagged sides mere feet away from the window, and the hot coal-scented gloom would enter my nose, and my eyes, no matter how wide I opened them could take in nothing but the black velvet darkness.  When the inevitable cinder found its random lodgement, my grandfather would remove it by pushing my lower lid under the upper one, and allowing my lashes to remove the grit.

My grandfather brought along sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. Because we always took the early train he made them early in the morning, before the sun came up, as soon as the bread man made his delivery.  From my couch next to the dining room I could hear my grandfather’s  wooden slippers as he made his way up and down the stairs into the kitchen, to bring up the beef curry left over from the last night’s dinner. Thick red spicy sauce clung to the bits of beef and stuck to the butter between the slices of bread with their curved black crusts. I remember the scent rising out of the grease dotted newspaper, and the fragrance of those sandwiches.

This grandfather, who had been an engineer of the Ceylon Government Railway, spent many years driving this very train, an old steam engine called ‘The High-Country Princess.’ He knew all the stations by heart, and the places where the train narrowly skirted a deep precipice. He would point out all the important landmarks to me: Places remembered for being the lookout posts for robbers and bandits and partisans who tried desperately and by ambush to forestall the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom, the last to fall, (in 1815) by rolling rocks down the steep hillsides.  These places had Sinhalese names which meant ‘Getting out Swords’ and ‘North-forest-hill,’ the hide-out where Saradiel, the Robin Hood of Ceylon, had his cave. There was Bible Rock, Sensation Rock, Lion’s Mouth, Dawson’s Tower, and the many others I can still vividly remember. We would drink the sweet milky tea, brought around by a waiter in the heavy restaurant cups stamped with a crest and letters of the Ceylon Government Railway, and eat fried snacks from the vendors who hawked them at the train stations. I could forget for a little while that I was going back to boarding school, for another agonizing three months of wrenching loneliness and sadness, far away from anyone I loved or who loved me, not that there were too many of those.

But now my school days were over. My widowed grandmother from the other side of the family, whom I called Nanna, lived in Colombo, and now I was living with her. Nanna’s house was at the end of a lane full of deep ruts, which would get deeper and more treacherous with each monsoon season. I had been staying here since I finished school. Nanna was very respectable, and proud of her cabinet of wine glasses and knick-knacks and fading studio photographs of long-dead, formally-dressed family members. Everything  in the old house was neat and tidy, and nothing gathered dust as it did in my grandfather’s  Kandy home, where no book was ever thrown out, and snake-skins and antlers hung on the walls together with old photographs of hunting dogs and prints like ‘The Gleaners,’ and one in particular, which caused me great anguish called ‘The Last of the Garrison.’ This was an engraving of an old hound lying dead over the threshold of a shelled-out doorway, with a broken musket by his head.

But it wasn’t too bad here. There were diversions –  a piano in the living room which had only a couple of dumb notes – and a young girl who lived in the neighbouring  house around the back of ours, who filled the late afternoons with the wild romantic  music of her piano. During the worst heat which came just before the evening, I would sit on the steps of the algae-covered servants’ bathroom behind the garage and listen to her playing, and my mind would float as far away as the desperate notes could take me.

Nanna’s youngest son, my uncle Walter kept birds in a huge cage on the verandah. They were finches that chirped and fluttered all day, and built their nests in little boxes near the top of the cage, and cleaned their beaks on cuttlefish bones. Still unmarried in his forties, he stayed in the front room, the only one with a sink. My grandmother had the next room, which she shared with me. The two rooms next to them were occupied with boarders: a young married couple who couldn’t yet afford their own home, and a medical student who had the last room next to the bathroom and lavatory. It was clear to me that the boarders all had futures. I did not.

My stomach was still jumpy from this morning. I felt sick and lightheaded and my mouth remained stubbornly dry.  I couldn’t quite believe that I had actually pulled off this stunt. Despite the weeks of planning, when it actually came to doing it, things took on their own momentum.  It was fairly easy to stick to my decision in the dark early morning, as I felt around for the heavy drawer pull of the bottom shelf of Nanna’s old almirah. Neatly folded in the drawer and smelling of mothballs, I knew I would find the two starched and ironed suits of clothes she had kept there for the last twenty years since Grandpapa’s death. I knew I would find a pale blue long sleeved shirt, only a little frayed at the collar, placed on top of a pair of khaki shorts and a cotton vest with short sleeves, and a pair of white cotton socks. There was also a second set of clothes  –  a white shirt and a pair of eggshell coloured cotton longs – and a matching cotton coat with a white handkerchief folded in the pocket. On the top of coat was a blue and brown striped tie and an old  ‘Peacock’ brand cigarette box that contained the yellowing removable celluloid trouser studs that went with both pairs of trousers.

I took the studs and put the box back. Everything smelled coldly of camphor and old tobacco, because together with the clothes, and my grandfathers brush and comb and a tassel from his coffin, my grandmother had stored Grandpapa’s pipe.  I hesitated before coming to a decision: Even though everyone in my family including my aunt Lennie, my father’s older sister, had the same height and build right down to the skinny legs and flat backsides. I didn’t want to chance it with the longs, in case they weren’t exactly the right length.  I knew the shorts would do fine. Even if they didn’t exactly fit, it wouldn’t matter. There was no required length of planters’ shorts. They could be anywhere from an inch to three inches above the knee: But I took both shirts and the vest.

The morning was cold, and grew colder as I bathed in the servants’ bathroom around the back of the house shivering as I poured the buckets of  night-cooled water over my head as quietly as I could.  It had begun to drizzle. Using my grandmother’s sewing scissors and the small piece of mirror used by the cook for shaving, I began with little snips to transform my head of wet hair.  I carefully felt around my head, and trimmed up the back by feel. Then I did the front and sides, stopping every few minutes to wipe the raindrops off the glass. I tried to leave a hint of sideburns in the front.  The face that looked back at me from the dark surface was uncertain. It would do.  When I shut the tall iron gate behind me the garden was still and quiet. My footsteps made no sound in the damp sand, and the birds on the veranda were still asleep, with the canvas cover drawn down over the front of their cage. I wished I still had my old sweater.  Only one house on the lane had a lighted window; the rest were dark, and opaque, their occupants still asleep. Soon I was standing at the bus-stop in the quiet street.  The drizzle had made the blue shirt a little crumpled and spotted with rain drops, but the clothes seemed to belong to me, and I thought I seemed quite presentable.  The bus ride to Fort cost ten cents.

Taking care to avoid the puddles and to keep my shoes unspotted, I walked the short distance to the train station, which was crowded. The sun was coming up.  When I gave the man in the ticket booth my money he barely looked up at me.  “Where to Sir”?  –  “One third class to Kandy”. People milled around the station even though the Kandy train would not arrive for some time yet. They walked around with their dripping umbrellas, or sat on the benches or on their suitcases if they had them.  Conversations in three languages swirled around in the watery air and settled like a foggy covering around my ears. I counted out my loose change and bought three ‘Three Roses’ brand unfiltered cigarettes, a couple of toffees and a box of ‘Elephant Brand’ matches from a vendor.   I would rather have that than a snack, and it was wonderful to smoke in the open. When the train pulled in, I grabbed a door handle of the first third class compartments to pass me, and ran along while holding on to it, and jumped in.  A man jumped in close beside me, brushing my shoulder as we entered the compartment, and we each claimed a window seat diagonally across from each other.

So this was it. This was the something I had told myself I had to do, suddenly the cord that had wound itself around my chest and stomach during the last few days seemed to loosen, and I began to hear myself breathing.  More people entered the compartment, a man with a little girl in a red dress and a pink ribbon in her braid sat next to me, and a genteel old burgher couple in front of me. Unusually, the compartment did not fill up. On the other side of the aisle sat a Sinhalese gentleman with a tortoise shell comb in his hair, and from the snatches of conversation I overheard I guessed he was traveling with his son and daughter-in-law. Across from them and next to the young man who jumped into the train with me, sat an elderly Sinhalese lady dignified in her white sari, and a silver clasp pinning it to her blouse where it covered her shoulder. There were no standing passengers, and  even a couple of empty seats. The whistle blew, the green flag waved and the train pulled out and soon the moist, morning, smoke-mixed air began to rush past the open window.

She got in at Maradana, which was the next station.  The train now stopped for nearly fifteen minutes was filling up, but the seat across from mine still had only two occupants: The very proper old burgher gentleman reading his damp copy of ‘The Daily News,’ and his white-haired, comfortable-looking wife who smelled faintly of 4711 and smiled as she crocheted blue glass beads onto the lace border of a small white doily. We all looked up when she stepped into the compartment. The old man sized up the situation: A young burgher girl traveling alone: He folded his newspaper and moved away from his  window seat and took the aisle seat next to his wife. “You can sit here, I don’t like the wind.”  He said.  She thanked him and  took the seat directly in front of me. I smoked my second cigarette right down to where it burned my fingers, and threw the butt out of the window.  The whistle blew, the guard waved his green flag, and again the train slowly pulled out of the platform with many metallic groans and shrieks. I looked at the scraps of refuse and paper swirling away from the tracks and fervently hoped that I could leave my dismal prospects to fade away with them into the distance separating me from Colombo.

We were stopped for a long time at Ragama. The small girl sitting next to me was singing a little ditty that echoed the sound of train:“ For the up-country princess, pairs and pairs of silk umbrellas….”  She smiled shyly  at me when I looked at her, so I reached into my pocket and gave her the toffees. I wished I had brought a book. The old lady smiled when she caught me looking at her. Leaning across the space between us, and cupping her hand next to her cheek in order to be heard above the rattle of the engine, began to speak to me.

“Where are you going?”

“To Kandy.”

“Do you live there? What is your name?”

“I’m from Colombo, but I am going to visit my aunt in “Katukelle.” My hands turned clammy: I hadn’t yet thought of a name.

“Where in Colombo do you live?”

“In Dehiwela – before the bridge – 47th Lane.”

“Son, I didn’t catch your name.”

“Daniel Greve,” I said – using my grandfather’s first name.

“Oh – I knew some Greves – Sam,”  she said, tapping the old man’s arm, “Don’t you remember the Greves?  Before he died so suddenly I think old Mr. Greve used to work for an insurance  office in Fort –”

Not waiting for an answer she turned to me again:

“My daughter went to school with their daughter Lenore Greves – at  Methodist College.”

“That is my Aunt Lennie.”

“Greve worked at The Great Eastern Life Insurance office” the old gentleman said, but his wife did not appear to hear him.

“Oh how nice! She was such a nice girl!”  Now her face was beaming.

“That’s whom I am going to see.”

“When you see her tell her that Connie Martyns sent her regards.  My daughter’s name was Francine, but now her surname is Vantwest.”

“Tell her go come and visit Sam and me, we live on the main road next to the Girls’ High School. Its the house with the Kohomba tree in front – you can’t miss it.”

“All right Aunty, I will do that.”

I was anxious to end the conversation. I had not counted on conversation, and could hear my voice becoming suspiciously


uneven under the tension. Turning my body away from the old lady and towards the old man who was now nodding drowsily as his head bobbed to the rhythm of the train, I asked to borrow the newspaper. Before I raised it to hide behind and gratefully shield my stinging ears, I saw his pale hands come to rest in his lap against the soft cotton fabric of his loose trousers.

The train got stuck on the track for an hour and a half a little before we reached Polgahawela. Several of the passengers, the ones who were probably close to their final destinations, got off the train.  When the Sinhalese gentleman rose to his feet his son handed him a rolled up umbrella to use as a cane, and the daughter-in-law followed them carrying a suitcase.  They exited through the door on my side of the compartment, which I held open for them. The young man helped his father and then his wife with the big step down onto the rough stones beside the track, and when soon thereafter the man sitting next to me climbed down the steps, I handed the little girl down to him. All five began to walk towards the station, perhaps to catch a goods train later on in the day or maybe to take a bus. They all had a purpose, or so it seemed to me.  The train continued, and as it   pulled into Labugolla station, the old Sinhalese lady carefully prepared a small chew of betel and placed it in her mouth. She rearranged the newspaper-wrapped packages in her straw bag and walked across to the door. Softly she said,  “May you attain merit Sir” when I handed her bag to her on the platform.

We were now in the mountains, and the locomotive was straining to climb the steep gradient of the tracks. Mrs. Martyns set her crocheting aside and unwrapped a newspaper package and produced sandwiches. As I handed back “The Daily News” to Mr. Martyns’s I felt the  smooth papery touch of his hand. He took the paper and began to read the last page.

“Old Henry Toussaint has died,” He said to his wife as she handed him a sandwich. She handed me one as well, and I took it gratefully. I hadn’t expected to be hungry.  “Thank you, Aunty, Corned beef  – how nice!”

She demurred at the same offer. “Eat a little bit child, we won’t always get this kind of food now that the war is over.”

The old man was holding his sandwich in one hand still looking at the last page of the newspaper.  He cleared his throat slowly.

“Do you remember Henry? He used to work in the mercantile building with Fred.”

“Of course I remember Henry.”  She nodded her head and raised her eyebrows while brushing the crumbs from her dress.

“He used to visit our house in Kolpetty and bring us guavas from his garden. I can’t believe he is dead.  How did he die? How old was he?”

“Probably old age.  It says here he went in his sleep. Eighty-three I think.”

“Can’t be that old!”

“Yes. That old. Now we are all old. That was before the first war, when you knew him.”

“What was his wife’s name?  Do you remember?”

Thoughtfully he raised his eyes to the soot-stained roof of the carriage. His shirt collar slid down his skinny neck, and he lifted a blue-veined hand to slowly stroke his chin.

“Eunice Decker I think. Her people came from Matale.”

Mrs. Martyns picked up her doily. “We must send a telegram when we reach home.”

But Mr. Martyns was looking out the window and appeared not to hear her. The train lurched to a start, and we were off again.The conversation kept winding around, easy but persistent. I should have known something like this would happen. All the vines and tendrils of the burger community were intricately intertwined.  If you ran into a fellow burgher, the chances were that he or she would keep asking questions, like a person anxious to solve a puzzle, until the thread was caught which connected  you to someone already known. She was looking out the window at the mountains beyond the border of green along side the tracks. Her face was relaxed and  she seemed to be lost in thought. Her slightly waving brown hair was parted on the left and held firmly in a clip, away from her forehead.

I continued to watch her secretly in the dull yellow flickering light that bathed the compartment. Then we entered the Mirigama tunnel, one of the nine or ten pitch black holes  basted through the rock along our 79 mile route.  When a piece of grit flew into her eye she took out a white handkerchief and carefully used a corner of it to clean it. She dabbed the tears running down her cheeks and looked down at her lap as if she was carefully inspecting the yellow and pink rose print with green sprigs of her dress. Either that or she was carefully looking past them to my feet, which stuck out on the floor between us. I had shined my pair of brown shoes to a high lustre, but the loose cotton socks had sagged shamefully around my ankles. I was suddenly glad for the soft but visible covering of hair on my shins and calves.  I wished I had had a clean white handkerchief.

At Rambukkana we were delayed for another half hour while a second engine was added to the train for the big climb we would have to make into the mountains. Soon we were stalwartly taking the treacherous the curves, but I could hear the engines pushing and straining, and remnants of the large gusts of grey smoke they exhaled overwhelmed the white steam and came streaming past my window.  I wondered, what if there was a rock-fall and what if the train derailed on one of the passes – but I told myself that wasn’t likely, and it was only just another appearance of all my other fears in a new disguise.

When we reached Kadugannawa the Martyns got up to leave. I pulled out one suitcase from under my seat, and reached over her to take the other down from the luggage rack. For a moment my arm was stretched over her, and it seemed as if she gave a quick upward glance, but I couldn’t tell. When I looked at my elbow I could see the sooty double tracks smeared from the window.  Maybe that’s what she was looking at.   I stepped onto the platform with the old couple to say goodbye. Mrs. Martyns was holding Mr. Martyns’ arm.  A porter had already grabbed their bags and was racing ahead towards the other end of the platform. With his free hand the old man reached up and stroked my head.

“You are a good boy,” He said.

“Don’t forget to tell your aunty about me, ” She said.

Burgher siblings

I felt lost when I climbed back into the train. The sound of the train may as well have been a silence for the sense of emptiness that followed me. I felt the worlds within worlds within worlds, and  each of those worlds was changing faster than the other, and I was in the midst of them all. I couldn’t bear to look in front of me at the two vacant spaces: such slow going. The newspaper was gone. I had nothing.  My neck was aching with nowhere to look except outside the window. In the opposite corner the young man smoked his cigarette with fierce dedication, inhaling and re-inhaling each thick plume of blue smoke which rushed out from his mouth.  I wondered where he was going and when he would get off the train. I felt the silence surge and pulse over the monotony of the train.

“I went to Methodist too.” She was talking to me.


“Yes. Those old people were really nice. I think the old lady was a Miss Pietersz. I’m related to the Pieterszs on my mother’s side.” She moved her hand away from the window-sill and moved the hair away from her cheek. She had large hands.

“Then you must be from Kandy.”

“Not really. My dad’s family was originally from Peradeniya, and he used to teach Chemistry at the university, but we moved to Maradana  after my mother died. Our family home is in Peradeniya, so we moved back there last year, but before that I went to school in Colombo.”

She smoothed her skirt, which was not in any way crumpled, over her knees.  While she was speaking I managed a couple of times to look directly at her face. Her expression was serious but friendly. Then she was smiling slightly, and I could see that her teeth were white and even, except for one on the right side, which slightly overlapped the tooth beside it.  That was probably when I began to think she was really beautiful.

I couldn’t help wondering about her  – her life, her father, her dead mother,  her home. I tried to make a quick calculus of which and what threads could possibly connect the Greve’s to the Pietersz’s, and from thence to her. Inside my head I could see the names and the tangle of lines connecting them, but the lines and letters kept getting separated and reconnected in ways that made my thoughts stutter and my mouth turn dry again.

Why was it this way? Why couldn’t I ever find a single way in which to think my way clearly into a moment or two of happiness.  It was cruel that I couldn’t. Irresoluteness was thoroughly dissolved into my bloodstream, already thinned by the blood that had come down to me through generations of clerks and civil servants.  Of course that had skipped a generation, but it must have resurfaced in me.  I was no Daniel. Life with all its possibilities and impossibilities frightened and dismayed me. The girl frightened me as only something filled with careless and unconscious beauty could. I looked at her grey eyes and her smooth skin and I knew now that she would change my life. The waiter with his tray of rattling teacups was making his careful way between the compartments.  I wished I could have bought her a cup of tea.

Back at the house on 47th lane they would have afternoon tea without me.  I wondered if my Nanna would worry a little as she filled the cups on the table in the back verandah, opening the meat safe with one of the keys on her key chain to get the can of condensed milk.  The chickens in the back yard would be clucking and gathering below the window ledge, waiting for their own tea-time snack of the handfuls of paddy my grandmother kept in an old pillow case and would throw to them out the window.  She may or may not have discovered that my suitcase was missing, together with a few of my clothes and the few sad things she had saved to remember Grandpapa’s life, a life so uneventful, until that morning in May, when dressed and ready to go to work, he suddenly dropped dead of what my grandmother referred to as “a burst blood vessel.” That was a story she repeated from time to time, about her dear good husband, but I had also heard her allude, though never directly, to the black moods that would overtake him, when he would refuse to eat, or go to the office, or talk to anyone for days on end.

I hadn’t taken any money from my Nanna’s clay till which stood on the bureau in her bedroom. I did take out two Rupees from my own smaller till, being careful to leave enough coins so that my withdrawal would not be noticed or discovered.  I didn’t own anything of value,  but last week I had sold some of my clothes including the old blue sweater I had outgrown for to the bottle-man for seven rupees.  Though we were not poor by the standards of the time, and very respectable, cash money was scarce.  As old as I was, Nanna would only give me a Rupee on special days like birthdays, Easter and Christmas, but uncle Walter would give me two Rupees from the envelope of crisp new bank notes he kept for just such occasions.  When I looked up from my welter of thoughts the waiter had long since passed us and was moving down the aisle of the train and out of sight.

“What are you going to do in Kandy?” She was straightening the pleats in her skirt. What was the use of speaking? But I made myself answer.

“I’m going to see if I can get a job.”

“What kind of job?” She was frowning now, and interested. I heard my voice answering.

“I don’t know – I could get a job in the an office – or the Kutcherry maybe. I matriculated with high marks, and I know some short-hand and typing, and my uncle is a clerk in an accounting office.”  Hearing the words spill out I almost believed it could happen.

“That is nice, but I was thinking you looked like you could be a planter.”

“A planter! That would be a story of rags to riches!”

“Yes it could!” She was laughing a little and wiping off a few drops of rain that blew onto her face.

“Look at you in your planter’s shorts! You almost look the part, and you could even be handsome, except that your socks look funny  bunched up like that around your ankles, and your hair is terrible!”

I found myself laughing with her. I wanted to please her, to confide in her, to reveal my thoughts to her. I told her that if I could  really have had my wish I would have liked to work on the trains. There had been Greves’s in the railway off and on as far back as 1845 when John Ryland Greves was a goods clerk with the Kandy railway.

The faint sun was dying away.  She stood up to stretch and the smoker across the way turned around to look. I did too. She was tall – maybe as tall as I was – That surprised me, and again I could feel a wave of something I could not easily recognise coming over me. It made me want to see into her life. Even though she hadn’t said very much about herself, I could see this girl belonged in her life. I wanted to hold on to that feeling of knowing, so I couldn’t and wouldn’t ask her any questions.  I didn’t need to talk much because I didn’t know what to say anyway. I didn’t want her to ask me too many questions. At the same time I was aware of the way in which she was affecting me. I felt myself giving in to the sort of heavy feeling that comes before a fever, when you don’t want to hold your head up  and you don’t want anything except to be quiet and still and safe.
“Why don’t you come and see us?”

I wondered if  I could really have been hearing this.

“Who? Where? At your house?”

“Yes. My dad and me.  You can easily take the train and we can meet you at the station and drive you back to our home.”

“Your dad has a car?”  So they must be rich.

“Yes – an old Morris Minor – and it runs most of the time.”

“I don’t know – I will have to ask my aunty.”

It was out before I could stop it. It felt like someone else was speaking for me.

“Really? Even on the weekend? How old are you?”


But it was getting late, and the train would soon reach Peradeniya station: Then Kandy. As I watched the darkening world flying past my window, I knew it was flying past me too.  I was thinking now that this was the kind of escape that has no escape. I wished with all my heart that I was someone else: Someone who really had a chance at life: Someone who belonged somewhere safe and secure, or at least someone who had a home, or parents – or even a small job.  A line from an old play drifted into my mind. “I am a tainted wether of the flock,” And the thought that six thousand ducats was a king’s ransom.

“I know about you.”

She was looking away from me now and at the man across from us who had lit another cigarette. He seemed to sense her attention and looked up at her, and she nodded briefly to acknowledge him. I had looked at her during this exchange when she suddenly turned and caught my eye. I fought to not look away. She held steady.

“I know your secret.”

She was biting her lip. Her eyes were deep: Sweet and deep as the sky in which I thought the stars must love to lose themselves. I felt my stomach lurch and my hands begin to turn clammy.  Then  the nervous laughter almost spilled out, at the irony of who had come to judge. But I said nothing.

“Tell me really, what are you going to do in Kandy”?

Against the cool upright of my seat I could feel the dampness on the back of my shirt spreading.

“I really don’t know.”

She nudged my foot with her shoe.

“What are you going to say to your aunt? What do you think she is going to say?”

I thought of Lennie and the serious way in which she said funny things and the funny way she had for saying cutting things, and I felt a little unsure. I knew for certain she would take me in: She had to love me, and we even looked alike, but there was so much that could happen that I didn’t know and couldn’t guess. What I did know was that I just couldn’t go on living as I had been.  It was better to die. I was like a candle in my chemistry class, about to go out because it had burned up all the oxygen in the jar. I thought Lennie would know – might understand –  that about me.

“She might scold me for leaving Colombo.”

There was almost the hint of a catch in her voice.

“Please come and visit me in Peradeniya.”

I noticed the “please.” It leapt out into the air between us together with the ‘us’ that was now a ‘me.’

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll come and see you.”

“No. You can’t.”

“Yes I can, and if you don’t come to see me that’s what I’ll do.  Listen to me. I have an idea. My Dad’s brother, Uncle Peter, is a planter. He works at an estate called Bellwood in Newralia.”

She pronounced it in the burgher way.

“And I remember now that quite recently he wrote to my dad and said he was looking for a creeper.”

What was she saying? Was she really saying this?

“Even though it wont pay much you will learn a lot, and you wont need a lot of money anyway, and he wont make you ask permission for everything you do.”

“But they will all find out!”

“Yes, in the end they might: But we could keep it a secret long enough.”

“Long enough? Long enough for what?”

Silence stepped in to make a brief appearance, then the sounds of the train surged back and caught us.

“For us – to get engaged – or something.”

I looked up expecting to see some hint that she was teasing. But she wasn’t. She was serious, and her gaze was fixed on my face.

“I can think up a story. I don’t know what the details will be, but if I have a little time I  know could make it all fit.”

“They will know you are lying with any kind of story you could think up.”

“You don’t know me. I have read a lot of books and heard a lot of stories, and all I’ll have to do is chang a few details.”

“What about my family?”

“Who and who is in your family?”

“Just my Nanna and my Aunt Lennie – Uncle Eddie – Uncle Walter.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

After all, I didn’t really have a father.

“Alright! That makes it really easy!  We’ll say that your father was a planter and that you were adopted and brought up by your mother’s family. That will make it hard for them to ask too many questions. They will assume that you are not legitimate and that will make them feel too ashamed to ask any questions.”

“Are you crazy? People always ask questions! They ask a lot of questions! – and they don’t stop asking until they have dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.”

“Don’t be a coward. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“What about – ”

But she cut me off.

“You’ll have to leave all the details to me. Just let me take care of everything. When I was in school I was very good at writing stories, and I always made them have happy endings.”

“All stories can’t have happy endings.”

“Yes they can. All of them.  I detest stories with sad endings. Especially now.”

“Why are you doing this!”

Even I could hear the worry in my voice.

“I don’t know. Maybe its because I like you. Maybe its because I don’t really want to go to university or be a Montesorri teacher or a stenographer,  or worse marry someone and have a lot of children – and there aren’t many other things besides that I could do.”

I shook my head and clasped my clammy hands.

“It will never work.”

This seemed to make her angry. Her face reddened slightly.

“Stop jiggling your leg. And stop acting like a child. You started this! You should have thought of that before you started.”

She saw my frightened look.

“Listen to me. We could pretend that you are like my cousin John.”

I looked at my feet.

“Look at me! His mum, my aunty Amy and my dad were on a ship, on their way to a holiday in England when she met this fellow on board. That’s how she had John. When he was born she kept him, and even gave him the fellow’s last name. My dad probably felt guilty, so he helped her with everything. He sent John to Trinity College, and found him a job even though he didn’t bother to matriculate.”

“Where is your cousin now?”

“He is on an estate in Uva. He is also a planter.  He has a wife and two kids and a car and my aunt lives with them, and she and John’s wife get along and no one ever says anything about his past.  See? A happy ending.”

A whole shimmering world built itself before my eyes, of hand cut-lawns and rose gardens and hydrangea borders: Of mango and mulberry trees and long driveways and cypress hedges: A house with polished red floors and echoing rooms and pictures on the wall and old photographs of dead ancestors.  There would be a teak-wood dining table and food served by men in starched white coats and polished brass buttons:  A bathroom with an enamel tub and a hot water geyser and of course a bedroom with a sofa and an armchair and a side table with a reading lamp: And of course a bed. That was unavoidable. I had never slept next to anyone before in my whole life. I wondered what that would that be like.

She was repeating herself.

“Don’t worry, I can make everything work out.”

She seemed impossibly strong: So much stronger than I felt I could ever be. I thought of my bed in Colombo, across the room from Nanna. I couldn’t  even have my own room because she kept boarders: and here was this girl, deciding her own fate – choosing this thing and pushing the other aside – and in spite of myself I felt a tremor of some feeling that was a mixture of horror and joy.  She said it again.

“Don’t worry, I can make it all work out.”

And I could think of nothing else to do with my life than put it in her hands. Only yesterday the truth of that life seemed unbearable – and now I was going to exchange it for a web of lies in which I was caught like a helpless fly. But never before in the world had there been such an intoxicated fly. To do something with my hands which were about to start shaking, I took out the box of matches from my pocket and began to rattle it.

“Look here,  pull yourself together and listen to me. I’ll tell my dad that I met someone who can creep for Uncle Peter: We can even say you will work for free. Since you know short hand and typing you could even work in the factory office and help him with the clerking. That would really be good.” She spoke faster.

“I know Uncle Peter has an old clerk called Mr. de Jong who wants to retire. He has a son in Australia who has been asking him to leave his job – leave Ceylon – This could really work! I could come and join you!  – And then – ”

She paused for a moment.

“Are you a Methodist?”

“Yes. Why?”

But she didn’t answer.  She seemed to drift away and I could see she was  absorbed in thinking. “That’s good.”

What on earth did it matter whether or not I was a Methodist? What did it matter whether the world saw me as I was or wasn’t? I was invisible. No one had seen me before this. She was the only one who had ever seen me. Here I sat in a dead man’s thin blue cotton shirt and old khaki shorts, buckles pulled tight as far as they would go at the waist, with only a few coins and not even a hanky in my pocket, and she was seeing me and my present, past and future in a way I could never have dreamed possible. Sometimes when I looked at old people I imagined I could see around the corner into the past when they were young. I liked doing that, but I had never met anyone who could grasp and unravel the whole thread of life wrapped around a single moment.

The air outside the window had turned chilly and again the rain had begun to fall. The trees looked wet and glistening in the thick, heavy light. All along the way there had been little cadjan-thatched huts with bunches of plantains hanging from the rafters and men and women sitting beside baskets of fruits and betel leaves and piles of new clay pots. I had watched them with envy, even envying the occupants of the little graves with their cement headstones, that came into view from time to time.

I thought  of how in less than an hour I might be sitting down for dinner at Lennie’s table, with the antique Dutch oil lamp shedding its light on the dishes and glasses. I could see the scarred bread-board with its companion the bone handled knife which she kept by her side, cutting off a couple of slices at a time as they were needed. We would have bread every night I knew. No rice for dinner that was Lennie’s way of keeping up the old burgher ways.  Then I saw myself sitting with her at the table. I felt like a fly that had flown into a fly-paper, unable to move without tearing myself apart. All the bits and pieces of my past had suddenly become disconnected. The years in boarding school, a father who only left the asylum for a few weeks at a time and then during the term rather than the holidays, my resourceful Nanna making do by taking in boarders and supplying lunches to office workers, mending my socks with the old silver thimble with the holes in it on her finger, and telling me how it had belonged to her favourite aunt, who sewed dolls dresses in the latest Victorian fashions. I saw myself watching her unpick the tacking thread from a hem to save and use again, I saw myself as a child, with my Kandy grandfather who bought me marbles, and thread and  tissue paper for kites, and how happiness seemed to appear and disappear and be replaced by pain and emptiness. Now that past would have to be left behind, together with all the scenes that passed by my train window today. How simple and yet how strange life was turning out to be – frightening and mysterious and full of promises I didn’t know could ever be fulfilled.

The train was pulling in to Peradeniya station. She reached out suddenly and grabbed my hand, shaking it hard with both hers,  sending  a hot jolt of electricity through us both, making us prickle with the sparks. She leaned forward and I could feel the pulse in my neck begin to throb.

“Remember everything I said!”

“Alright. Yes: I will.”

Neither one of us had a pencil or paper, so she told me her address.

“Write to me first and ask about my uncle Peter. Then I’ll arrange things and write back.”

The tension and the excitement inside me rose to such a pitch, I felt everything around me begin to melt and disappear. I could see something reflected in her face and in her eyes, which were glittering brightly in the uneven light of the compartment.  The pattern of what life had meant to me shifted and changed like the sudden click of a kaleidoscope.

“Yes,” I said:  “Yes.”

I got her suitcase down from the luggage rack and stepped down to the platform with it.  A porter came running and grabbed it. She turned away.  I got back into the train and stood leaning out of the middle window. I saw a tall older man in a white cotton suit and brown hat come walking towards her. She almost ran towards him. They kissed and embraced each other. She turned around and waved, and I watched her thin straight form move away until it got swallowed up in the crowd. The guard blew his whistle and waved his flag. The train began slowly to grind its tired way away from the station platform.

I sat down, suddenly feeling weak. My legs were shaking and my eyes turned hot and filled with tears.  I took out the last crumpled cigarette from my shirt pocket and began to smoke. I began to compose a letter to her in my head, and it was then I realized that I didn’t know her name. A sense of horror came over me and deepened until I felt myself engulfed in it.  I thought, this must be what it feels like to die.  I could recall every detail of her face, every expression, every mannerism, every inflection of her voice.

But the address had flown out of my mind like a bird leaving its cage.














The Burghers are the mixed descendants of Dutch, French and  to a lesser degree, British colonial settlers in Ceylon. They  were

A Planter with his family and staff.

an anglicised culture, speaking English as their first language, and were largely employed in the public sector, but also the schools, and the banks, etc.  It would not be an over-statement to say they ran the country, until Ceylon gained its independence from the British in 1948.

The  subsequent rise of nationalistic sentiments and the shift from English to Sinhalese as the lingua franca sealed the fate of the Burghers, and their displacement  and removal as a stable part of Ceylonese society. The displacement, which in fact was an eviction, began to pick up speed in the early ‘fifties, when most of the Burghers began to leave to country and move to other parts of the British commonwealth, chiefly to Australia and Canada.

Tea was brought to Ceylon by the British, in the mid 19th Century as a source of revenue,  and a complex sub- culture grew up around the business. Planters were a sub-set of a certain social class originally

Job offer made to an 18 year old in response to an application.

consisting mostly of Englishmen and Burghers. Their positions allowed considerable autonomy over the running of very large tea and rubber plantations, and over the labour force (Imported from South India) used to pluck the tea leaves – a highly labour-intensive process.

Most Planters lived in large bungalows built in the style of country houses, and were served by sizable staffs of servants. Most parent companies would provide their British Planters an all-expenses-paid trip to England every ten years, and in time this privilege was extended to the Ceylonese as well.

This story is set at the beginning of  the time of social upheaval and unraveling for the Burghers. About forty years or so ago,  the government began the processes which ended in its seizing ownership of  the tea  and rubber estates, and a way of life came to an end, but by that time the Burgher diaspora had been well underway for decades.

A ‘creeper’ is an apprentice Planter.

The picture at the top of the post, shown in lieu of the writer, is that of a girl. She was my Aunt Mone’s school-friend.

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Rosalía de Castro (February 24 1837 – July 15 1885)

Rosalía de Castro’s poems, suffused as they are with the feeling of unassailable loss, which is known in Galician as Saudade, are still vivid and sharp even as they express a sorrowful concession to the inevitability of changes which can only be lamented. There is a sense of persistence about these poems, and a refusal to accept false comfort. de Castro takes her dose of sorrow without dilution, but remarkably, also without bitterness. Nature is ever present in her manifestations of a loveliness which is sufficiently intense to cause the sharpest pain.

A remarkable woman with a strong social conscience, de Castro’s antecedents were probably influential in predisposing her to identify with her poor and exploited countrymen. She was the illegitimate daughter of a priest. Her mother came from a well-to-do family, but de Castro spent the first 14 years of her life in the country. When she was 14, de Castro was ‘reclaimed’ by her mother.  She missed her country life intensely and no doubt her poems grew out of her feeling of longing and homesickness for the countryside, and the only home she had ever known until  she was displaced.  The sense of  something longed for and unfulfilled in these poems is so honest and sincere and uncontrived, that to read them is to almost directly experience them  oneself.

I suspect it was de Castro’s fervour and intensity which led to the her being able to accomplish as much as she did in a relatively short life. She died of Cancer at the age of 48. It seems clear that de Castro had a premonition she would not live long, and this sense of life’s brevity and fragility lends the keenest possible edge to her writing. We are blessed indeed to be her literary beneficiaries and to be able to relish her remarkable work, and through them to hear her lovely voice.


This is de Castro’s prologue to Follas Novas. Santiago de Compostela. March 30, 1880.


 And there is so much suffering in this dear Galician land! Whole books could be written about the eternal misfortune that besets our peasants and sailors, the sole true working people of our country. I saw and felt their hardships as though they were my own, but what always moved me, and consequently could not help but find an echo in my poetry, were the countless sorrows borne by our women: loving creatures toward their own folk and toward strangers, full of spirit, as hardy as soft-hearted and also so wretched that one would think they were born only to overcome as many travails as may afflict the weakest and most naive portion of humanity. Sharing the hard, outdoors tasks of farming fifty-fifty with their husbands, braving courageously the anxieties of motherhood indoors, the domestic chores and the wants of poverty. Alone most of the time, having to work from sunrise to sunset, barely able to sustain herself, without assistance having to take care of her children and perhaps of a sickly father, they seem destined to never find rest but in the grave.
Emigration and the King continually take away the lover, the brother, her man—the breadwinner of an often large family—and thus deserted, mourning over their misery, they live out a bitter life amid the uncertainties of hope, the bleakness of solitude and the anxieties of never-ending poverty. And what breaks their heart most is that their men all drift away, some because they are drafted, others because example, necessity, sometimes lust, forgivable though blind, compels them to abandon the dear home of whom they once loved, of the wife become mother and of the many unfortunate children, too small the darlings to suspect the orphanhood to which they are condemned.

When these poor martyrs hazard to reveal to us their secrets confidentially, to mourn for their loves always kept alive, to lament over their woes, one discovers in them such delicacy of sentiment, such  rich treasures of tenderness, so great a spirit of self-denial that unawares we feel ourselves inferior to those obscure and valiant heroines who live and die performing wonderful deeds forever untold, yet full of miracles of love and unplumbed depths of forgiveness. Stories worthy of being sung by poets better than I and whose holy harmonies ought to be played on one single note and one lone chord, on the chord of the sublime and on the note of pain.




Candente está la atmósfera

Candente está la atmósfera;
explora el zorro la desierta vía;
insalubre se torna
del limpio arroyo el agua cristalina,
y el pino aguarda inmóvil
los besos inconstantes de la brisa.

Imponente silencio
agobia la campiña;
sólo el zumbido del insecto se oye
en las extensas y húmedas umbrías,
monótono y constante
como el sordo estertor de la agonía.

Bien pudiera llamarse, en el estío,
la hora del mediodía,
noche en que al hombre, de luchar cansado,
más que nunca le irritan
de la materia la imponente fuerza
y del alma las ansias infinitas.

Volved, ¡oh, noches del invierno frío,
nuestras viejas amantes de otros días!
Tornad con vuestros hielos y crudezas
a refrescar la sangre enardecida
por el estío insoportable y triste…
¡Triste… lleno de pámpanos y espigas!

Frío y calor, otoño o primavera,
¿dónde…, dónde se encuentra la alegría?
Hermosas son las estaciones todas
para el mortal que en sí guarda la dicha;
mas para el alma desolada y huérfana
no hay estación risueña ni propicia.



The Atmosphere is Incandescent.

The atmosphere is incandescent;
The fox explores an empty road;
Sick grow the waters
That sparkled in the clear arroyo,
Unfluttered stands the pine
Waiting for fickle winds to blow.

A majesty of silence
Overpowers the meadow;
Only the hum of an insect troubles
The spreading, dripping forest shadow,
Relentless and monotonous
As muffled rattle in a dying throat.

In such a summer the hour of midday
Could as well go
By the name of night, to struggle-weary
Man who has never known
Greater vexation from the vast cares
Of the soul, or from matter;s majestic force.

Would it were winter again! The nights! The cold!
O those old loves of ours so long ago!
Come back to make this fevered blood run fresh,
Bring back your sharp severities and snows
To these intolerable summer sorrows…
Sorrows!…While vine and corn stand thick and gold!

The cold, the heat; the autumn or the spring;
Where, where has delight set up its home?
Beautiful are all seasons to the man
Who shelters happiness within his soul;
But the deserted, orphaned spirit feels
No season smile upon its luckless door.


Translation Edwin Morgan



Ya que de la esperanza…

Ya que de la esperanza, para la vida mía,
triste y descolorido ha llegado el ocaso,
a mi morada oscura, desmantelada y fría,
tornemos paso a paso,
porque con su alegría no aumente mi amargura
la blanca luz del día.

Contenta el negro nido busca el ave agorera;
bien reposa la fiera en el antro escondido,
en su sepulcro el muerto, el triste en el olvido
y mi alma en su desierto.



Now That the Sunset of Hope….

Now that the sunset of hope for my life
has sand and colourless come,
toward my dim dwelling, dismantled and chill,
let us turn step by step:
for the white light of the day
with its gladness does not embitter me more:

Contented the ill-fated bird seeks its black nest;
well the wild beast to its hidden cave retreats;
the dead to the grave; the wretched to oblivion,
and to its wilderness my soul.

Translation Kate Flores.




Adiós rios, adios fontes.

Adiós, ríos; adios, fontes;
adios, regatos pequenos;
adios, vista dos meus ollos:
non sei cando nos veremos.
Miña terra, miña terra,
terra donde me eu criei,
hortiña que quero tanto,
figueiriñas que prantei,
prados, ríos, arboredas,
pinares que move o vento,
paxariños piadores,
casiña do meu contento,
muíño dos castañares,
noites craras de luar,
campaniñas trimbadoras,
da igrexiña do lugar,
amoriñas das silveiras
que eu lle daba ó meu amor,
caminiños antre o millo,
¡adios, para sempre adios!
¡Adios groria! ¡Adios contento!
¡Deixo a casa onde nacín,
deixo a aldea que conozo
por un mundo que non vin!
Deixo amigos por estraños,
deixo a veiga polo mar,
deixo, en fin, canto ben quero…
¡Quen pudera non deixar!…
Mais son probe e, ¡mal pecado!,
a miña terra n’é miña,
que hastra lle dan de prestado
a beira por que camiña
ó que naceu desdichado.
Téñovos, pois, que deixar,
hortiña que tanto amei,
fogueiriña do meu lar,
arboriños que prantei,
fontiña do cabañar.
Adios, adios, que me vou,
herbiñas do camposanto,
donde meu pai se enterrou,
herbiñas que biquei tanto,
terriña que nos criou.
Adios Virxe da Asunción,
branca como un serafín;
lévovos no corazón:
Pedídelle a Dios por min,
miña Virxe da Asunción.
Xa se oien lonxe, moi lonxe,
as campanas do Pomar;
para min, ¡ai!, coitadiño,
nunca máis han de tocar.
Xa se oien lonxe, máis lonxe,
Cada balada é un dolor;
voume soio, sin arrimo…
¡Miña terra, ¡adios!, ¡adios!
¡Adios tamén, queridiña!…
¡Adios por sempre quizais!…
Dígoche este adios chorando
desde a beiriña do mar.
Non me olvides, queridiña,
si morro de soidás…
tantas légoas mar adentro…
¡Miña casiña!,¡meu lar!

Good-bye Rivers, Good-bye Fountains.

Good-bye rivers, good-bye fountains;
Good-bye, little rills;
Good-bye, sight of my eyes:
Don’t know when we’ll see each other again.
Sod of mine, sod of mine,
Sod where I was raised,
Small orchard I love so,
Dear fig trees that I planted,

Meadows, streams, groves,
Stands of pine waved by the wind,
Little chirping birds,
Darling cottage of my joy,

Mill in the chestnut wood,
Clear nights of brilliant moonlight,
Cherished ringing bells
Of the tiny parish church,

Blackberries in the brambles
That I used to give my love,
Narrow footpaths through the cornfields,
Good-bye, for ever good-bye!
Good-bye, heaven! Good-bye, happiness!
I leave the house of my birth,
I leave the hamlet that I know
For a world I haven’t seen!
I leave friends for strangers,
I leave the lowland for the sea,
I leave, in short, what I well love…
Would I didn’t have to go!
But I’m poor and—base sin!—
My sod is not my own
For even the shoulder of the road
Is loaned out to the wayfarer
Who was born star-crossed.
I must therefore leave you,
Small orchard I loved so,
Beloved fireplace of home,
Dear trees that I planted,
Favourite spring of the livestock.
Good-bye, good-bye, I’m leaving,
Hallowed blades of grass in the churchyard
Where my father lies buried,
Saintly blades of grass I kissed so much,
Dear land that brought us up.
Good-bye Virgin of the Assumption
White as a seraph,
I carry you in my heart:
Plead with God on my behalf,
Virgin of the Assumption mine,
Far, very far away hear
The church bells of Pomar;
For hapless me—alas—
They shall never ring again.
Hear them still farther away
Every peal deals out pain,
I part alone without a friend…
Good-bye land of mine, good-bye!
Farewell to you too, little darling…!
Farewell forever perhaps…!
I send you this farewell crying
From the precious coastline.
Don’t forget me, little darling,
If I should die of loneliness…
So many leagues offshore…
My dear house! My home!

Translation Eduardo Freire Canosa.








Meses do inverno

Meses do inverno fríos,
Que eu amo a todo amar;
Meses dos fartos ríos
I o dóce amor do lar.
Meses das tempestades,
Imaxen da delor
Que afrixe as mocedades
I as vidas corta en frol.
Chegade e, tras do outono
Que as follas fai caer,
Nelas deixá que o sono
Eu durma do non ser.
E cando o sol fermoso
De abril torne a sorrir,
Que alume o meu reposo,
Xa non o meu sofrir.

Translation Eduardo Freire Canosa.



Cold Months of Winter

Cold months of winter
That I love with all my love;
Months of rivers that run full
And the sweet love of home.
Months of wild storms,
Image of the pain
That besets the young
And severs lives in bloom.
Come, after the autumn
That makes the leaves fall,
And let me sleep among them
The slumber of dissolution.
And when the lovely sun
Of April returns smiling
Let it shine upon my repose,
No longer upon my suffering.




Translation Eduardo Freire Canosa.






Negra Sombra

Cando penso que te fuches,
negra sombra que me asombras,
ó pé dos meus cabezales
tornas facéndome mofa.
Cando maxino que es ida,
no mesmo sol te me amostras,
i eres a estrela que brila,
i eres o vento que zoa.
Si cantan, es ti que cantas,
si choran, es ti que choras,
i es o marmurio do río
i es a noite i es a aurora.
En todo estás e ti es todo,
pra min i en min mesma moras,
nin me abandonarás nunca,
sombra que sempre me asombras.

Black Shadow


When I think that you have parted,
Black shadow that overshades me,
At the foot of my head pillows
You return making fun of me.
When I fancy that you’ve gone,
From the very sun you taunt me
And you are the star that shines
And you are the wind that moans.
If there’s singing it’s you who sings,
If there’s weeping it’s you who weeps,
And you are the river’s rumour
And the night—and the dawn.
Everywhere you are in everything,
For and within me you live
Nor will you ever leave me,
Shadow that always shades me.







Translation Eduardo Freire Canosa.







Del rumor cadencioso de la onda.

Del rumor cadencioso de la onda
y el viento que muge;
del incierto reflejo que alumbra
la selva o la nube;
del piar de alguna ave de paso;
del agreste ignorado perfume
que el céfiro roba
al valle o a la cumbre,
mundos hay donde encuentran asilo
las almas que al peso
del mundo sucumben.


From the Cadenced Roar of the Waves.

From the cadenced roar of the waves
and the wail of the wind,
from the shimmering light
flecked over woodland and cloud,
from the cries of passing birds
and the wild unknown perfumes
stolen by zephyrs
from mountaintops and valleys,
there are realms where souls
crushed by the weight of the world
find refuge.

Translated by Kate Flores






Ya no mana la fuente…

Ya no mana la fuente, se agotó  el manantial;
ya el viajero allí nunca va su sed a apagar.

Ya no brota la hierba, ni florece  el narciso,
ni en los aires esparcen su fragancia los lirios.


Sólo el cauce arenoso de la seca  corriente
le recuerda al sediento el horror de la muerte.

¡Mas no importa! A lo lejos otro arroyo murmura
donde humildes violetas el espacio perfuman.

Y de un sauce el ramaje, al mirarse en las ondas,
tiende en torno del agua su fresquísima sombra.

El sediento viajero que el camino atraviesa,
humedece los labios en la linfa serena
del arroyo que el árbol con sus ramas sombrea,
y dichoso se olvida de la fuente ya seca.



The Spring Does Not Flow Now.

The spring does not flow now, the stream is quite dry,
No traveller goes to quench his thirst there.
The grass does not grow now, no daffodil blooms,
No fragrance of lilies floats on the air.
Only the sandy bed of the dried-up river
Fills the parched traveller with the horror of death.
No matter; in the distance another stream murmurs
Where timid violets perfume the air.
And willow bough, seeing themselves in the ripples,
Spread about the water the coolest shade.

The thirsty traveller, crossing the highway,
Moistens his lips with the limpid water
Of the stream shaded by the tree’s branches,
And gladly forget the spring now dry.

Translation Muriel Kittel





Yo no sé lo que busco eternamente…

Yo no sé lo que busco eternamente
en la tierra, en el aire y en el cielo;
yo no sé lo que busco; pero es algo
que perdí no sé cuando y que no encuentro,
aun cuando sueñe que invisible habita
en todo cuanto toco y cuanto veo.
Felicidad, no he de volver a hallarte
en la tierra, en el aire, ni en el cielo,
y aun cuando sé que existes
y no eres vano sueño!



I Know Not What I Seek Eternally.

I know not what I seek eternally
on earth, in air, and sky;
I know not what I seek; but it is something
that I have lost, I know not when,
and cannot find, although in dreams invisibly
it dwells in all I touch and see.

Ah bliss! Never can I recapture you
either on earth, in air, or sky,
although I know you have reality
and are no futile dream.




Translation Muriel Kittel.





Dicen que no hablan las plantas

Dicen que no hablan las plantas, ni las fuentes, ni los pájaros,
Ni el onda con sus rumores, ni con su brillo los astros,
Lo dicen, pero no es cierto, pues siempre cuando yo paso,
De mí murmuran y exclaman:
—Ahí va la loca soñando
Con la eterna primavera de la vida y de los campos,
Y ya bien pronto, bien pronto, tendrá los cabellos canos,
Y ve temblando, aterida, que cubre la escarcha el prado.

—Hay canas en mi cabeza, hay en los prados escarcha,
Mas yo prosigo soñando, pobre, incurable sonámbula,
Con la eterna primavera de la vida que se apaga
Y la perenne frescura de los campos y las almas,
Aunque los unos se agostan y aunque las otras se abrasan.

Astros y fuentes y flores, no murmuréis de mis sueños,
Sin ellos, ¿cómo admiraros ni cómo vivir sin ellos?



They Say That the Plants Do Not Speak.

They say that the plants do not speak, not the brooks, nor the birds,
Nor the waves with their roar, not with their brilliance the stars,
So they say: but one cannot be sure, for always when I go by,
They whisper about me and say
“Ah, there goes the madwoman, dreaming,
Of the everlasting springtide of life and the fields,
And yet soon, very son, her hair will be grey,
And trembling, frozen, she sees that the frost is upon the grass

-There are gray hairs in my head, there is frost on the lawns,
But I press on dreaming, poor, incurable somnambulist,
With the eternal spring of life that goes
And the perennial freshness of the fields and souls,
Although some were scorched and although others scorch.

Stars  and fountains and flowers, will not murmur of my dreams,
Without them, neither can one admire –  nor can one live without them.

Translation Kate Flores




Yo en mi lecho de abrojos

“Yo en mi lecho de abrojos
tú en tu lecho de rosas y de plumas;
verdad dijo el que dijo que un abismo
media entre mi miseria y tu fortuna.
Mas yo no cambiaría
por tu lecho mi lecho,
pues rosas hay que manchan y emponzoñan,
y abrojos que a través de su aspereza
nos conducen al cielo.”

I in My Bed of Thistles.

I in my bed of thistles,
You in your bed of roses and feathers,
He spoke the truth who spoke of an abyss
between your good fortune and my wretchedness.
Yet I would never change
My bed for your bed,
There are roses which envenom and corrupt,
and thistles on the road to heaven
though harsh to the flesh.



Translation Edwin Morgan




Sintiéndose acabar con el estío

Sintiéndose acabar con el estío
la desahuciada enferma,
—¡Moriré en el otoño!
—pensó entre melancólica y contenta—,
y sentiré rodar sobre mi tumba
las hojas también muertas.
Mas… ni aun la muerte complacerla quiso,
cruel también con ella;
perdonóle la vida en el invierno
y cuando todo renacía en la tierra
la mató lentamente, entre los himnos
alegres de la hermosa primavera.


Feeling Her End Would Come With Summer’s End.

Feeling her end would come with summer’s end,
the incurable invalid
thought with mingled joy and sadness:
“I shall die in the autumn,
and over my grave I shall feel the rustling
of the leaves that will also be dead.”

But … cruel with her, too, even death
would not oblige her,
sparing her life through the winter
and, when all the earth was being born anew,
killing her amidst the happy hymns
of glorious spring.

Translation Kate Flores




No va solo el que llora

No va solo el que llora,
no os sequéis, ¡por piedad!, lágrimas mías;
basta un pesar del alma;
jamás, jamás le bastará una dicha.
Juguete del Destino, arista humilde,
rodé triste y perdida;
pero conmigo lo llevaba todo:
llevaba mi dolor por compañía.



He Who Weeps Goes Not Alone.

He who weeps goes not alone,
Keep flowing, I beg of you, my tears!
A single burden suffices the soul;
One joy is never, never enough.

Destiny’s plaything, humble speck,
sad and lost I stray;
Nevertheless I carry all with me:
I carry sorrow for company.






Translation Kate Flores





Hora tras hora, día tras día.

Hora tras hora, día tras día,
entre el cielo y la tierra que quedan
eternos vigías,
como torrente que se despeña
pasa la vida.

Devolvedle a la flor su perfume
después de marchita;
de las ondas que besan la playa
y que una tras otra besándola expiran
recoged los rumores, las quejas,
y en planchas de bronce grabad su armonía.

Tiempos que fueron, llantos y risas,
negros tormentos, dulces mentiras,
¡ay!, ¿en dónde su rastro dejaron,
en dónde, alma mía?.





Hour After Hour, Day After Day.


between the earth and sky that keep
eternal watch,
like a rushing headlong torrent
life passes on.

Restore fragrance to the flower
after it withers;
From the waves that caress the beach
and one after the other die in that caress,
gather the murmurs and the complaints
and engrave on plates of bronze their harmony.

Times now past, tears and laughter,
dark afflictions, soothing falsehoods,
Ah, where do they leave their mark,
tell me where my soul!




Translation Muriel Kittel






The Forward to the 1863 publication of Cantares Gallegos (Galician Songs) by Rosalía de Castro.

It is without doubt a great gamble for a poor talent like the one fortune gave me to hatch a book whose pages ought to be full of sunlight, of harmony and of that candour which along with a profound tenderness, along with an unceasing lullaby of kind, caressing and heartfelt words, constitutes the greatest charm of our popular songs. Galician poetry, all music and vagueness, all grievances, sighs and sweet pampering smiles, sometimes murmuring with the mysterious winds of the woods, other times sparkling with the sunbeam that falls delightfully serene on the waters of a sombre river flowing full underneath the branches of flowering willow trees, requires a sublime and crystalline spirit to be sung—if we may express ourselves thus—a fertile inspiration like the greenery that garnishes our privileged terrain, and above all a delicate acumen to acquaint others with so many first-rate glories, so much elusive ray of beauty radiating from every tradition, from every idea expressed by this people whom many dub stupid and whom perhaps judge insensitive or aloof to poetry divine. No one owns fewer of the great qualities required to accomplish so difficult a task than I although equally no one could be found more deeply stirred by an honest desire to sing the wonders of our land in that soft and caressing dialect which is styled barbarian by those who ignore that it surpasses the other languages in sweetness and harmony. For this reason, despite finding myself with little strength and having learned in no other school than that of our poor peasants, exclusively guided by those songs, those tender words and those idioms never forgotten which sounded so sweet to my ears since the cradle and which were gathered up by my heart as its own heritage, I ventured to write these songs endeavouring to relate how some of our poetic traditions preserve still a certain patriarchal and primeval freshness and how our sweet and resonant dialect is as suitable as the foremost for every type of versification.

Truly my strength fell far short of my expectations and for that reason, realizing what a great poet could accomplish in this matter, I lament my inadequacy even more. O Libro dos Cantares of Mr. Antonio Trueba, which inspired and encouraged me to undertake this work, crosses my mind like a remorse and the tears almost well in my eyes when I ponder how Galicia would be raised to the place she deserves had Mr. Trueba of the Cantares been the one picked to make her beauty and customs known.

But my unhappy homeland, as unlucky in this as in everything else, must content herself with some cold and insipid pages which barely deserve to stand afar off the gates of the Parnassus were not for the noble sentiment that created them. May even this earn the reprieve of those who will in all fairness criticize my shortcomings for I hold that whoever endeavours to dispel the falsehoods which tarnish and offend her homeland unjustly has earned credit toward some exoneration!

Songs, tears, complaints, sighs, evening twilights, festive pilgrimages and picnics, landscapes, pasturelands, stands of pine, solitudes, river banks or shorelines, traditions, in short everything which due to its essence and colour is worth singing about, everything which had an echo, a voice, a drone however subdued—as long as it came to stir me—I was bold enough to celebrate in this plain book to state albeit once, albeit clumsily, to those who without reason or knowledge despise us that our land is worthy of praise and that our language is not what they debase and stammer in the most educated provinces with derisory laughter (which to speak the truth, however harsh it may be, demonstrates the crudest ignorance and the most unforgivable injustice that one province can commit against a sister province regardless of how poverty-stricken this one might be). What is saddest about this affair is the false image given abroad about the sons of Galicia and about Galicia herself whom they generally judge to be what is most contemptible and ugly in Spain when she is perhaps what is most beautiful and laudable.

I do not wish to hurt anybody’s feelings with what follows although to tell the truth this short outburst could well be forgiven she who was offended so much by everyone. I who traversed several times those lonesome stretches of Castile which call up the desert, I who toured bountiful Extremadura and the vast Mancha where the blinding sun scorches monotonous fields and where the colour of dry straw lends a tired hue to a landscape which fatigues and depresses the spirit without the relief of a single precious blade of grass that might distract the wandering gaze adrift in a cloudless sky as tiresome and unchanging as the land it looks down upon, I who visited the celebrated outskirts of Alicante where the olive trees with their dark green colour planted in rows, which rarely come into view, seem to weep at seeing themselves so alone, and I who visited that famous orchard region of Murcia so renowned and so praised and which tiresome and monotonous as the rest of that country displays its vegetation like landscapes coloured on a piece of cardboard—trees aligned symmetrically in tight rows for the delight of the children—I can not but feel outrage when the sons of those provinces blessed by God with plenty, but not with a beautiful countryside, make fun of this Galicia able to compete in climate and in finery with the most spellbinding countries on earth, this Galicia where Nature is spontaneous and where the hand of man defers to the hand of God.

Lakes, waterfalls, torrents, flower-filled meadows, valleys, mountains, serene blue skies like Italy’s, overcast and melancholy horizons yet always as beautiful as those acclaimed ones of Switzerland, peaceful and sedately serene river banks, stormy capes that terrify and awe because of their gigantic and mute wrath…immense seas…what more can I add? There is no pen that can tally so much enchantment assembled together. The ground covered with dear grasses and flowers all year long; the hills full of pines, oaks and willows; the brisk winds that blow; the fountains and cascades pouring forth frothing and crystalline summer and winter over smiling fields or in deep, shaded hollows…Galicia is a garden always where one inhales pure aromas, cool and poetry…and in spite of this such is the dullness of the ignorant, such the ignoble prejudice that wars against our land, that even those who were able to gaze on so much beauty—and we leave aside those who are majority and who mock us without having ever seen us even from a distance—the same ones yet who came to Galicia and enjoyed the delights that she offers dared to say that Galicia was…a disgusting farmhouse!! And these perhaps were sons…of those scorched lands from which even the small birds flee!…What shall we say to this? Only that such inanities about our country resemble those of the French when they talk about their unbroken string of victories over the Spaniards. Spain never, never defeated them; rather she invariably ended beaten, defeated and humiliated; and the saddest part about this is that this infamous lie is currency among them as currency it is among parched Castile, the barren Mancha and every other province of Spain—none comparable in true beauty of their countryside to ours—that Galicia is the most despicable corner on earth. It has been said wisely that everything in this world has requital and so Spain comes to suffer from a neighbouring nation that offended her always the same injustice which she, even more censurable, commits against a humiliated province that never crosses her mind except to debase her further. Much I feel the injuries that the French favour us with, but at this moment I am almost grateful to them because they provide me with a means of making more tangible to Spain the injustice that she in turn commits against us.

This was the main motive that impelled me to publish this book which I know better than anyone begs the indulgence of everybody. Without grammar or rules of any kind the reader will often find writing mistakes, idioms that will jar the ears of the purist; but at least, and to justify these defects to some extent, I took the greatest pains to reproduce the genuine spirit of our people and I think that I have succeeded in some measure…albeit feeble and limp. May heaven decree that somebody more talented than I will describe in their true colours the enchanting canvases which can be found here even in the most secluded and forsaken spot, so that therewith may at least gain in repute, if not in profit, and be regarded with the deserved respect and admiration this unfortunate Galicia!


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