Monday, March 24, 2008

Poems of the Spanish Golden Age - earth, vapor, shadow, dust, nothing at all

Here's a hopeless task. Two, really. The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance (2005) is Edith Grossman's anthology of old Spanish poems, from the Coplas of Jorge Manrique in the 15th century to the sonnets of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz at the end of the 17th.* In between: Petrarchan innovator Garcilaso de la Vega, mystics Fray Luis de Léon and San Juan de la Cruz, ornamentalist Luis de Góngora, the prolific Lope de Vega, and the great satirist Francsico de Quevedo (pictured, left).

They're all lyric poets, so fundamentally untranslatable. That's the first hopeless part. The second is my attempt to evaluate the translations. I read, say, Grossman’s version of one of Luis de Góngora’s baroque bonbons, and think: that’s pretty good. Then I look at the Spanish and see that this word is omitted by Grossman, and that word appears out of nowhere, and although the rhythm is close, the music is completely gone. So I turn to the same sonnet in another collection, where I see that Grossman’s infelicities are corrected only at the cost of brand new problems, often worse.

This happened every time I checked one version against another, or any version against the Spanish. A Professional, a scholar or a translator, may know how to play this game, but I was stumped every time. I’ll try again tomorrow, with some scholarly assistance.

Grossman's new translation of Jorge Manrique is valuable. Longfellow's translation is a masterpiece, but anyone who finds him archaic or fussy should take a look at Grossman. The handful of poems of St. John of the Cross are some of the finest, strangest religious poems ever written, and should be read in their entirety (John Frederick Nims trumps Grossman here). Fray Luis de León and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz are almost as good. Luis de Góngora is a more difficult case, perhaps genuinely hopeless, although still worth the very real effort (my selected poems of Góngora includes his “Defense of Poetic Obscurity” - that should give you an idea of the problem). Grossman convinced me that Garcilaso de la Vega and Francisco de Quevedo's poems are also worth further attention.

This is really an admirable book. Each poet gets a pithy biography, and a portrait - there's a rather severe Luis de Góngora on the right. There's facing-page Spanish, as there should be in every translation of poetry. My only actual complaint is that the book is much too short - only 80 or so pages of poems, really. I want a sequel, preferably longer. And then a volume of 19th and 20th century poets - Becquer, Dario, Jimenez.

Here's Góngora, Sonnet CLXVI, per Grossman, on the transience of beauty, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc.:

As long as burnished gold gleams in the sun
in vain, attempting to vie with your hair;
and your brow, white as snow, views with mere scorn
the lily so fair growing in the plain
and each lip waiting to be gathered draws
more avid eyes than first carnation blooms;
and as long as your neck so full of charm
outshines brilliant crystal with proud disdain
revel in neck and hair, in lip and brow
before what was in this your golden age
gold, lily, carnation, and crystal bright
turn to silver, to violets crushed and sere,
and you and they together must become
earth, vapor, shadow, dust, nothing at all.

* I know, neither of these poets is actually from the Spanish Golden Age.

A profile of Edith Grossman, at Bookforum.


  1. I agree with your assessment of the Nims w/r/t St. John of the Cross. I'm sure you're relieved. Hee. Every time I catch myself going barefoot, I think of him and of St. Teresa of Avila. Because that's just the way my mind works. Dark Night of the Soul gets all the publicity, but I love the Ascent of Mt. Carmel more, I think. That is all.

  2. Heh this is probably not what you want to hear about this piece but this really helped me with my spanish homework!

    Thank you for taking the time out to write this work!