Today I revisit to an old favorite of Wuthering Expectations, the baroque genius of the Spanish Golden Age, Luis de Góngora. I last mentioned him here when a fragment of Los Soledades, in English The Solitudes (ca. 1613), appeared in The Hudson Review, newly translated by Edith Grossman. I finally got around to reading the whole thing, a Penguin Classics edition from 2011.
A “shipwrecked youth, one scorned and desolate,” washes ashore. He comes across goat herds who are having a party for a wedding. That covers the first canto or solitude. In the second, the castaway joins a group of fishermen who take him to an island, where he meets more fisherman, and some comely fisherwomen. Then they all go bird watching. Apparently two more solitudes were apparently planned but never written.
This sounds like nothing. It is close to nothing. All that matters is the elaboration, the imagery, the metaphors, and the complex classical references.
And so they all passed by, and in good order
as at the equinox we see furrowing
through oceans of open air
not flights of galley ships
but flocks of swift-sailing cranes,
moons perhaps waxing, perhaps on the wane
their most distant extremes,
perhaps forming letters on the pellucid
paper of the heavens with
the quill feathers of their flight. (601-610)
“They” are just the shepherds, walking in formation, like ships, no, cranes; the cranes are like the moon in certain aspects. In the most fanciful touch, Góngora writes, quill in hand, that the metaphorical birds may also be writing with their quills, which almost logically transforms the sky from water (“oceans of open air”) to paper.
The entire poem is written in this fashion. Rabbits are “ignorant of fulminating lead (del plomo fulminante, 281-2),” meaning bullets, “the saliva of mute stars” (293) is dew, the Atlantic Ocean is
the voracious, the profound
graveyard thirstily drinking
from goblets of fir all that the New World
– I mean the tributes from the Americas –
pays in mausoleums of short-lived spume. (394-9)
Góngora thought this was so obscure he had to explain it. Sometimes he gives the answer to the riddle, other times not. Turning a ship into a goblet is nuts, unless you are thinking at the right mythological scale.
The range of reference in The Solitudes is the greatest mystery to me. I recognize, broadly, Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses are the source of many of the transformative substitutions so necessary for Góngoran metaphor. But I have no idea how much actual outside text is woven into the poem, how many images or phrases or key words are borrowed from Horace or Petrarch or earlier Spanish poets known to me by name if I am lucky.
The whole thing is an elaborate, sophisticated 400 year old poetic riddle. The reward for solving a piece of it is a little burst of delight. How kind of Edith Grossman to help us marvel at this preposterous object.
I hope Grossman continues translating Golden Age poetry. She cannot be doing it for the money.