Friday, October 26, 2007

Sorrows neither few nor brief – Jorge Manrique

The logical place to end my tour of poetry in translation is in Spain, but I don’t know much about 19th century Spanish poetry. Just some names – Becquer, Ruben Dario – subjects for future research. So here’s a 19th century translation of a 15th century Spanish poet.

Jorge Manrique (1440-79) is remembered for one great poem, “Las Coplas a la muerte de su padre”, “Couplets on the death of his father.” Manrique’s father was a knight who died in combat against the Moors (this is before 1492 – still the age of chivalry and crusading in Spain). The son’s poem is an elegy, but also a way to ask what makes life meaningful. Here’s how it begins:

O let the soul her slumbers break,
Let thought be quickened, and awake;
Awake to see
How soon this life is past and gone,
And death comes softly stealing on,
How silently!

Swiftly our pleasures glide away,
Our hearts recall the distant day
With many sighs;
The moments that are speeding fast
We heed not, but the past,—the past,
More highly prize.

Onward its course the present keeps,
Onward the constant current sweeps,
Till life is done;
And, did we judge of time aright,
The past and future in their flight
Would be as one.

There is some relationship here with humanist ideas that I do not usually associate with Spain. The last stanza contains a sophisticated idea about the difference between the future and the past – why do we think of them so differently?

O World! so few the years we live,
Would that the life which thou dost give
Were life indeed!
Alas! thy sorrows fall so fast,
Our happiest hour is when at last
The soul is freed.

Our days are covered o'er with grief,
And sorrows neither few nor brief
Veil all in gloom;
Left desolate of real good,
Within this cheerless solitude
No pleasures bloom.

Thy pilgrimage begins in tears,
And ends in bitter doubts and fears,
Or dark despair;
Midway so many toils appear,
That he who lingers longest here
Knows most of care.

Manrique presents this dark view of life to argue with it, providing a list of examples from Spanish history of heores who lived and died in meaningful ways. He ends the list with his father:

He left no well-filled treasury,
He heaped no pile of riches high,
Nor massive plate;
He fought the Moors, and, in their fall,C
ity and tower and castled wall
Were his estate.

Here’s his end, and the end of the poem:

As thus the dying warrior prayed,
Without one gathering mist or shade
Upon his mind;
Encircled by his family,
Watched by affection's gentle eye
So soft and kind;

His soul to Him, who gave it, rose;
God lead it to its long repose,
Its glorious rest!
And, though the warrior's sun has set,
Its light shall linger round us yet,
Bright, radiant, blest.

The last line is perfect. This translation was done by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, young Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, in 1833, before he had published his own poems. The reputation of Longfellow, once one of the most popular poets of the 19th century, is not very high now. I don’t know his poems well enough to know why. But he was a superb translator of poetry, one of the best.

Manrique’s Coplas are one of the few works of any sort that I’ve read in two languages. Longfellow keeps the same form and meter. He changes the rhyme scheme a little (he uses AAB/CCB, while the original is ABC/ABC). He poeticizes some prosaic bits, and rearranges the order of sentences. He omits three stanzas. To me, the mood, the feel is just like the original.

Longfellow’s version is a masterpiece. I don’t know why it shouldn’t be as famous as Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat”. Too late for that now, I suppose. Longfellow also made marvelous translations of poems of Dante, Michelangelo, Goethe. I think they are models of poetic translation. Maybe a Longfellow revival is due.


  1. I think a Longfellow revival is *way* overdue, fwiw. I think it was all that slickly sentimental writing for journals and weeklies and hebdomadaires and newspapers, and those unending tours of the country being the eminence gris, that made people write off Longfellow. I mean, okay, "Song of Hiawatha" -- "Paul Revere's Ride" -- and "Evangeline" -- there's nothing expressly wrong with them, but even reading them in grade school, I always felt like they were written for a paycheck, if you catch my drift. But he's amazing. He had a lot of tragedy, family-wise -- his poems that deal with sorrow and loss are astounding.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this poem. I never learned about Jorge Manrique and am now fascinated not just by this poem but the history of Spanish Poets during this time.

  3. Let me recommend W.S. Merwin;s translation of early Spanish poetry, "From the Spanish Morning". The early Spanish romances are something else. "The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse" is wonderful is you have even a little Spanish, but maybe too dry (prose translations) if not.

  4. Thank you for this page. It's an uncommon task to divulge the classic and beautiful Spanish poetry. Translating from one language to the other is really difficult, and it's hard to judge the best version. Only one thing to mention to be more specific: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer is Spanish but Rubén Darío is from Nicaragua. And you don't mention José Martí a Cuban writer but he's really interesting. As well as Leopoldo Lugones from Argentina. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is a Mexican writer. All wrote in Spanish, but sometimes their ideas were different and the way of writing was slightly differente because they live in a different region with mixed culture.

  5. Thanks for the kind words. Earlier this year I spent some time reading Becquer and Darío. I still have not made it to José Martí.