Posts Tagged ‘Spanish Sonnets’

In lieu of an image of Francisco de Medrano, (1570 – 1607) this portrait by El Greco.



















I know not how or when or what it was

I know not how or when or what it was        
I felt, that me replete with sweetness made.
I know but to my arms such beauty came
To partake with me of bliss so avidly.



I know she came, although with shrinking look,
Almost, I could not then withstand her face,
So stunned was I, as one in obscure night
Loses his bearings, and dares not take a step.


Following this great bliss, astonishment – or dream –
I knew not when, nor how, nor what had been
That made all sense and senses quiescent seem.





To know nothing at all is yet to know,
So slight is that which merely sense can grasp –
A compass which the soul alone could fit.





Translation Dia Tsung.
















No sé cómo, ni cuándo, ni qué cosa

No sé cómo, ni cuándo, ni qué cosa         
sentí, que me llenaba de dulzura;
sé que llegó a mis brazos la hermosura,
de gozarse conmigo codiciosa;


sé que llegó, si bien, con temerosa
vista resistí apenas su figura;
luego pasmé, como el que en noche oscura
perdido el tino, el pie mover no osa.



Siguió un gran gozo a aqueste pasmo, o sueño;
no sé cuándo  ni cómo  ni qué ha sido,
que lo sensible todo puso en calma.




Ignorarlo es saber; que es bien pequeño
el que puede abarcar solo el sentido,
y éste pudo caber en sola la alma.



















When I set out to attempt the translation of a poem, I usually resort to pen and ink. The keyboard does not connect with my brain as when my hand accepts the task of forming letters. The liquid ink seeping into the paper, the angle of the nib, and even the necessity of coaxing the pen, all play their part in how my mind is enabled to enter the poem. The movement of the hand, helped by the pen, the ink and the paper, forms a system of communication with the mind, as it simultaneously tries to work on several levels.  As the stream of one language flows in, it is welcomed by a different one, and words are exchanged and greeted – or asked to leave. The sound and rhythm is a music provided by an invisible conductor and musicians in the back of the room, and a helpful adviser of sorts sits off to the side at a desk and  busily sorts out the words, explaining  their meanings and deciding on their suitability.

Over all these, there hovers an unseen, but powerfully-felt presence, who draws in all the participants, placing them in accord with each other, while containing the indispensable sense of wholeness  and protecting the atmosphere within  where all things seem to flow within a suspended space.

In order for any of this to happen, the original work must first cast its spell on me, place my mind in accord with its own frequency. I feel this as an indescribable  sensation, which seems to make itself felt in a soundless buzzing behind my forehead, and a feeling of ‘lifting up’ on the top of my head. My hair feels somewhat detached, and there is a tingling along the outsides of my ears.

First drafts, with all their flaws, create the most excitement. All the collaborators work hard to play their parts, and then come the second and third, and as many drafts as are needed in order to feel that there is a ‘fit.’  Then sometimes there has to follow a hiatus – a time of separation and detachment, since the synthesis of all the players makes  further discrimination impossible at that moment.

After that there is a return. The words have determined their places on the page, and have been able to work out their differences, and they have made decisions about where they wish to be placed. Some must leave, and there is a flurry of rearrangement, and some newcomers arrive.  The musicians again begin to play, and the lexical entities determine if they are in accord with their vocable counterparts.  A sober schoolmistress is invited to sit at the head of the classroom, and the students present themselves to her. Sometimes she is pleased, and gives them her nod.  Sometimes she shakes her head and says nothing, and sometimes she comes up with a suggestion, but sometimes she walks out without a word.

Without the Muse there are no acceptable translations – that is if her presence has been evoked in the original work to begin with. Only the Muse can help the translator to mediate between two languages without falling  away from chastity into falsehood. Her stern insistence on clean hands and devoted mind are the only assurance that no lies will  spoken, and no infelicities permitted to  intrude.  The translator must humbly, yet willingly, enter this liminal space, or the result will fail to satisfy.

Besides the presence of  two languages, a third is required – and that is the language of poetry itself. This is the holy trinity. This is the language the original poet and the translator must have in common. If all this sounds like so much presumptuous nonsense, experience must provide the only possible veto.  In my case, there is no other way that can lead me to my desired destination.

When I first read this poem by Francisco de Medrano, it drew me instantly in. I saw and heard and felt some essence of observing the unfolding images which passed before my inward eye, which is how the conviction came to me that the poem was real. The feeling and images lingered in the back of my mind for three or so years, until last night the moment came when they reasserted themselves, and I took up the task of translation.

Medrano, who was born in Seville in 1570, was a Jesuit priest, who gave up religion for poetry, which of course is the more divine vocation of the two.  I wish more people could do this, but alas the inferior requirements of religion are much more easily satisfied than those of poetry, which might account for the greater popularity of the former.

Despite his initial clerical misstep, de Medrano did find his way out of the darkness of the church. He spoke of love in a way that is clearly not merely mystical hocus-pocus. That he felt the influence – or presence – of St. John of the Cross seems evident in the subject and circumstances of the poem, as well as its imagery and vocabulary, yet it is very different from the poetry of St. John.  The locutions suggest to me (perhaps it is from the gender of the nouns) that de Medrano’s Muse, unlike St. John’s, was adamantly female.   This makes his poem more have for me a greater feeling of conviction – of genuineness.  de Medrano’s choice of the last three words of the poem, which include the choice of ‘la alma’ over ‘el alma’ (alma is generally a masculine noun which turns feminine in the plural)  not merely as a preference for the sake of how it sounds, thereby changing the gender of the (singular)  soul to female, seems to affirm this.

When I first read this poem, I felt it was a little creepy – as the suggestion of night visitants are apt to be.  It has the sense of a nightmare, one which had the ambivalent elements of both horror and bliss. Who was this presence who came to Medrano’s darkened room in the obscurity of the shadow-steeped night? Jungians no doubt would say it was his Anima, and that his soul’s shocking encounter with its oppositely gendered part, accounts for the events related and emotions felt.

I cannot refute such an argument, because however she is named, this presence attends all the uncanny states which accompany genuine poetic experience.  I have to stress the word ‘genuine’, because so much twaddle is passed off as poetry as to make the separation of wheat from chaff an onerous job, for the quantity of chaff is vast in comparison to the few grains which might appear at the end of an exhaustive winnowing.  What convinces me that de Medrano’s poem is genuine, besides my own vicarious experience, is that it follows the steps beginning with a feeling of infiltration which then goes on to overcome, and ends with a lysis (not in the pathological sense, or the priggish pederastic sense of Plato, but as the wall or barrier which breaks to permit access to a meaning which can be accessed) that feels true and right.

Genuinely inspired works stand out  brilliantly from among their dull pretenders. When one comes across the former, one feels a sense of wholeness, as when one is swept in the glissando of a well-structured drama which faithfully follows the structure of  rising action, crisis, denouement, and then leaves one with the small grain of resolution that endow it with the power to linger on in the mind, resonating with a persistent tenacity  for months and even years. de Medrano’s lips are sealed about the identity of his visitor – but  of course he knew who she was:  he really did. She was never a stranger to him.

Synchronicity can sometimes be made to serve as evidential proof that one has stumbled across a bit of contagious magic, and so it was last night. My search for a copy of this poem to cut and paste in this post took on a life of its own. Quite by chance (?) I came across a lesbian writer and singer from Argentina, María Elena Walsh, whose work is bound to make a future appearance in this blog.














Herewith a brief biography of de Medrano for those who can read Spanish, which I found at this site.



Nació en Sevilla hacia el año 1570. Perteneció a la orden de los jesuitas, hasta que en el año 1602 decidió abandonarla y retirarse a disfrutar de una vida sosegada, donde la poesía fue su principal actividad. Se sabe que estudió en Córdoba y Salamanca cuando aún pertenecía a la compañía.

Era un poeta que cultivaba una poesía clásica, de características muy similares a la de los poetas salmantinos del siglo XVI, basando su obra prácticamente en las traducciones de obras clásica, y realización de poesía a imitación de autores del mismo corte, principalmente Horacio. Así el crítico Adolfo de Castro lo refleja, dictanimando que Medrano es, sin duda alguna, el mejor de los imitadores españoles de Horacio.
Su escritura era correcta, huyendo del estilo gongorista que se impulsaba en la literatura española de aquella época. Escribió cincuenta y dos sonetos, dotados de una especial sensualidad, además de diversas odas y romances. Entre sus poemas más conocidos se encuentra la oda de La profecía del Tajo -que aquí les muestro- muy similar a la que escribió Fray Luis de León con el mismo título.
La muerte pronto vino a visitarle; murió en el año 1607.
Era un poeta que cultivaba una poesía clásica, de características muy similares a la de los poetas salmantinos del siglo XVI, basando su obra prácticamente en las traducciones de obras clásica, y realización de poesía a imitación de autores del mismo corte, principalmente Horacio. Así el crítico Adolfo de Castro lo refleja, dictanimando que Medrano es, sin duda alguna, el mejor de los imitadores españoles de Horacio.
La muerte pronto vino a visitarle; murió en el año 1607.


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Garcilaso de la Vega (1501 – 1536)













Soneto VI                                                  

Por ásperos caminos he llegado

a parte que de miedo no me muevo;

y si a mudarme o dar un paso pruebo,

allí por los cabellos soy tornado.

Mas tal estoy, que con la muerte al lado

busco de mi vivir consejo nuevo;

y conozco el mejor y el peor apruebo,

o por costumbre mala o por mi hado.

Por otra parte, el breve tiempo mío,     

y el errado proceso de mis años,

en su primer principio y en su medio,

mi inclinación, con quien ya no porfío,

la cierta muerte, fin de tantos daños,

me hacen descuidar de mi remedio.




Version 1

By rugged roads I have arrived                      

Whereat I cannot move for fear

And should I try to shift or step

I am dragged back by my own hair.

Moreover with death at my side

Fresh counsel for my life I seek

And knowing what’s best, I try the worst

Accustomed to ills or destiny.

On the other hand, my time is brief –

My errant progress through the years

From their commencement and mid life

Me predispose to not persist.

Death’s certain end after such pain

Makes me reject a remedy.






Version 2

By rough and rugged roads I have arrived            
Whereat for fear I cannot move away,
And should I even try to take a step
I find myself dragged backed by my own hair.

Moreover with Death poised here by my side
I search anew some counsel for my life:
I know what’s best and yet I try the worst
Due to ill habits and my destiny.

As for my part, I know my time is brief,
My errant progress marches through the years
From its inception through my middle age.

Death’s certain ending following such pain
Makes me uncaring of a remedy.



I myself find the second version (translated with metre intact)  retains the more intentionally  – and leisurely – contrived artifice of the sonnet, but I feel I prefer the first because dropping a foot gives it more briskness and urgency and the more uneven line gives it more impact.




Soneto XXIII *                                            

En tanto que de rosa y azucena

se muestra la color en vuestro gesto,

y que vuestro mirar ardiente, honesto,

enciende al corazón y lo refrena;

y en tanto que el cabello, que en la vena

del oro se escogió, con vuelo presto,

por el hermoso cuello blanco, enhiesto,

el viento mueve, esparce y desordena:


coged de vuestra alegre primavera

el dulce fruto, antes que el tiempo airado

cubra de nieve la hermosa cumbre;

marchitará la rosa el viento helado.

Todo lo mudará la edad ligera

Por no haces mudanza en su costumbre.








Sonnet 23                                                           

In such wise as the lily and the rose
Demonstrate the colour in your face
So does your gaze so honest, so direct
Consume the heart with ardour and restraint.

And so too does your hair seem like a vein
Of gold, that swiftly choosing it the breeze
Moves it and scatters it in disarray
Against the beauty of your white uprising neck.

Gather then the gayness of your Spring,
And the sweet fruit before an irate clime
Masks the acme of your beauty with its snow.

Soon icy winds will wither every rose
And swiftly change the lightness of your days
So as to keep unchanged their usual ways.


Translations Dia Tsung.


*This is the poem that inspired the more famous one by St. John of the Cross.



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Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas
(14 September 1580 – 8 September 1645)



















¡Cómo de entre mis manos te resbalas!    

¡Cómo de entre mis manos te resbalas!
¡Oh, cómo te deslizas, edad mía!
¡Qué mudos pasos traes, oh, muerte fría,
pues con callado pie todo lo igualas!

Feroz, de tierra el débil muro escalas,
en quien lozana juventud se fía;
mas ya mi corazón del postrer día
atiende el vuelo, sin mirar las alas.

¡Oh, condición mortal! ¡Oh, dura suerte!
¡Que no puedo querer vivir mañana
sin la pensión de procurar mi muerte!

Cualquier instante de la vida humana
es nueva ejecución, con que me advierte
cuán frágil es, cuán mísera, cuán vana.














How from between my hands you slip away

How from between my hands you slip away
Oh how you flow away, my years, my life.
What muted steps you take, O frigid death,
When with your silent feet you make all equal.

Ferociously, you ascend earth’s weak rampart,
upon which robust youth placed such reliance.
Already my heart awaits the final day,
attending thus the flight of unseen wings.

O mortal condition, O unyielding fate,
that I could not desire to see tomorrow
unless I pay the price by death exacted.

At any instant of this human life
a new decree awaits, serving to warn me
how fragile it is, how miserable, how vain.
















Todo tras sí lo lleva el año breve               

Todo tras sí lo lleva el año breve
de la vida mortal, burlando el brío
al acero valiente, al mármol frío,
que contra el Tiempo su dureza atreve.

Antes que sepa andar el pie, se mueve
camino de la muerte, donde envío
mi vida oscura: pobre y turbio río
que negro mar con altas ondas bebe.

Todo corto momento es paso largo
que doy, a mi pesar, en tal jornada,
pues, parado y durmiendo, siempre aguijo.

Breve suspiro, y último, y amargo,
es la muerte, forzosa y heredada;
mas si es ley, y no pena, ¿qué me aflijo?


















All these are swept away in one brief year              

All these are swept away in one brief year,
mortal life scoffed at, the spirited impetus
of  eager and valiant steel and icy marble
which dares to oppose time with its resistance.

Before the foot knows how to walk, it moves
along the road to death, whereto I send
my obscure life, a poor and turbid river,
which towering waves of a black sea then drink up.

Each brief moment becomes a lengthy stride
which adds to each day’s demands another burden,
since standing fast or sleeping, I am goaded.,

Brief breath, and so it ends: bitter is death:
an unavoidable, and sure inheritance. But if its
only law, and not punishment, why should I worry?

















Amor constante más allá de la muerte

Cerrar podrá mis ojos la postrera
sombra, que me llevare el blanco día,
y podrá desatar esta alma mía
hora a su afán ansioso lisonjera;

mas no, desotra parte, en la ribera,
dejará la memoria, en donde ardía:
nadar sabe mi llama el agua fría,
y perder el respeto a ley severa.

Alma a quien todo un dios prisión ha sido,
venas que humor a tanto fuego han dado,
médulas que han gloriosamente ardido,

su cuerpo dejarán, no su cuidado;
serán ceniza, más tendrán sentido,
polvo serán, más polvo enamorado.

















Love constant beyond death.                                                     

So will it shut my eyes, this final shadow,
which bears away from me the whitened day
and so will it unbind this soul of mine
now of its eager and anxious beguilements.

But not even from the remotest shoreline
will it depart, that burning memory,
which though inflamed, knows how to swim the icy waters,
casting aside respect for even the severest law.

Soul, which has held all that’s divine imprisoned,
veins, which endowed with blazing fire its humours,
setting the very marrow gloriously aflame,

Its body forsaken, still it takes no care
though it be turned to cinders, still retains feeling –
though turned to dust, it still remains in love.

















Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not arrived,
Today goes on without a stop in sight;
I am a ‘had been’, a ‘to be’ and one who is weary.

Ayer se fue, mañana no ha llegado,
hoy se está yendo sin parar un punto;
soy un fue, y un seré, y un es cansado.


Translations Dia Tsung.



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