Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A resplendent and blessed dream from Juan Ramón Jimenez - Wait, wait; do not run

Selected Translations 1948-1968 is the fifth book of W. S. Merwin’s translations that I have read.  Spanish, French, Latin, and then this book, which contains translations from, well, everything.  Russian, German, Chinese, Quechuan, Welsh, Eskimo, etc.  Merwin does not know those languages.  If it makes one more comfortable, retitle the book Selected Adaptations or something like that.

Merwin does know Spanish, and most of what I have read are translations from Spanish – the medieval Poem of El Cid, the fifteenth century picaresque Lazarillo de Tormes, miscellaneous old ballads and romances.  Much of this can be found in one essential book, From the Spanish Morning (1985).  Merwin includes some substantial scraps in Selected Translations, too, along with some 20th century poets: Neruda, Borges, Lorca, the startling Nicanor Parra.

This one is by Juan Ramón Jimenez.  Won a Nobel Prize, don’t you know.  The poet, not necessarily this poem.  Merwin’s version, p. 78, is untitled.

I shall run through the shadow,
sleeping, sleeping, to see
if I can come where you are
who died, and I did not know.

Ah, what problems I have, right from the start.  Is the poet sleeping, or the shadow, or, given the repetition, both?  The echo of Psalm 23 in the first line becomes a full-fledged reference in the last.  Yes, that shadow may be of the valley of death, but this fellow is going to run, not walk.  Perhaps he fears evil.  Perhaps the Lord is not with him.

Wait, wait; do not run;
wait for me in the dead water
by the lily that the moon
makes out of the light; with the water
that flows from the infinite
into your white hand!

What confusion – has the voice shifted?  Is the “you” of the first stanza telling the “I” to wait, to not run?  Or is it the same speaker, calling to the fleeing “you”?  I have no idea.  I love how the moonlight on the water forms a lily.

I have one foot already through the black
mouth of the first nothing,
of the resplendent and blessed dream,
the bud of death flowering!

That’s it, the entire poem.  We must be back to the original speaker, if we ever left him.  The black mouth pulls us pack to the first line’s shadow.  Does the explicit mention of a dream reassure me that the poem is about a dream, the poet dreaming about a dead or lost lover?  The Gottfried Keller poem I looked at yesterday could also be a dream poem.  Two dreams about women in the “dead water.”

I would hardly want to pin the Jimenez poem to a single meaning.  The blessed dream is also a metaphor, an inversion of the meaning of death.  Maybe this is a poem about suicide.  Or childbirth – the missing woman is the poet’s mother.  Or she’s the Virgin Mary (the lily is suspicious).  Or the “I” is a woman, and the “you” a man.  And so on.

Can this all really be in this one poem, fourteen lines, eighty-some words?  I guess so.


  1. But..

    “A poem should not mean
    But be.”

    Archibald MacLeish

  2. Hi A.R.

    Actually he wrote on whole poem on the topic: Ars Poetica.

    However, I like Hemingway’s answer better:

    “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” : )


  3. 3 points

    1. If I go to the MacLeish poem , I find lines like "A poem should be wordless." I detect irony! Beware of turning those last lines into an aphorism. All of the "should"s should be enough of a tipoff.

    2. Taken on its own, the aphorism destroys translation. Translation depends on meaning, on a word by word, phrase by phrase, level. If Merwin lets the poem be, his English version does not exist.

    3. I've come across a number of readers who resent criticism, either of their pet authors, or in general. The aphorism, as such, is anti-criticism. Since MacLeish himself wrote criticism, irony once again rears its amusing head. Pushed another step, the aphorism denies the value of even reading a poem.

    As for Hemingway - meaning and "a message" are nowhere near the same thing. Hemingway's stories are meaningful!

  4. Hi A.R.

    Those are very good points. I am going to think about them.

    However, I don’t think meaningful poems can really be really translated unless they are epics.

    In some poems, the beauty is in how they make you feel and not in what they mean. (Consider the ecstasy poems of St. Teresa.)

    A translation to make you feel something ‘x’ would very likely be impossible on a word-for-word basics. (A word can carry different emotional baggage in different languages.)

    I do like the difference between ‘message’ and ‘meaning’. I like it a lot. I’m going to think about this tonight.


  5. I think I have been reading too much Keats lately, but to me this poem echoes "Endymion." I love that you pointed out the connection/play on Pslam 23 because that is the essence of the mystery of Keats and, to my mind, Jimenez. Sleep and death are so closely related in both poems that to pull them apart is, in a sense, to murder the poem.

    I didn't find the repetition to be problematic. Perhaps there are two competiting voices within the poem, or the speaker is arguing with himself. I do that all the time; why would I find it problematic in a poem? (I ask the last question rhetorically, without sass.)

  6. In some poems - oh, I agree with that! We might disagree about the scope of "some." There are an awful lot of poems in translation at Wuthering Expectations.

    Thanks, Anna, for mentioning "Endymion." I would never have thought of that - don't remember the poem well enough.

    'Why did I dream that sleep o'er-powered me \ In midst of all this heaven?' (I.672-3) That's a strange thing to dream.

    The "problem" with the repetition is cognitive. At "sleeping, sleeping," the poem branches. The possible but not certain shift in speaker in stanza 2 is even more difficult - the range of meanings have multiplied.

    The cognitive problem is mine, a limit on how many possibilities I can keep track of, how many suggestions I can follow to the end. I assume that many of the ambiguities are unresolvable. So how do I juggle all of the choices that I, the reader, can make?

  7. Hi A.R.

    You say ‘amateur’ but this is very high grade material. Is the word ‘amateur’ being used in irony?

    Socrates was an amateur in that, unlike other Sophists, he never charged for his teaching.

    How do you see a translated poem? Do you compare it to the original and judge how faithful it is to the original? Or do you judge it solely as if it was a self-standing English poem?


  8. Oh, thanks, Vince. Yes, "amateur" means "no money." So, no irony, really. I have professional training, but in the social sciences.

    How do I look at translated poems? I do everything you suggest, although not for every poem. Sometimes I look at the original, sometimes I read multiple English versions, sometimes - mostly - I just treat a translated poem like an English poem. I just read the text in front of me.