Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Where does my song come from? - the poet Rubén Darío

So I will pick any poem.  That is what I said to do yesterday.  That’s a way to write about Rubén Darío.

No, not just any poem.  Some of Darío’s earliest poems are neo-Romantic imitations of Bécquer, and his breakthrough was as a poet who moved the innovations of Verlaine and other French avant-gardists into Spanish.  A number of Darío’s early poems are flawless takes on Verlaine.  So not those.

And not the long “Dialogue of the Centaurs,” even though Stanley Appelbaum calls it “very possibly Darío’s finest single poem” (xviii).  It is a philosophical dialogue among centaurs, in rhyming couplets:

I comprehend the secret of animals.  There are malevolent [Malignos]
beings and benevolent ones.  Between them are exchanged signals [signos]
of good and evil, hate or love, or else pain  [pena]
or joy:  the raven is evil and the ringdove is good.  [buena]

Darío’s range grew, though, his formal command and his subject matter.   His set of references moved far past classical antiquity to include the full range of Latin American history and Spanish-language literature, as in his prayer to “Our Lord Don Quixote,” who is enjoined to relieve the poet from his lost faith and “Nietzsche’s supermen,” or the lightly worn couplets of his “Epistle to Mrs. Leopold Lugones.”  And swans, always swans.  But I need to pick a poem.

It is 1906 or 1907.  Darío is living in Majorca for the winter, which sounds all right to me.  The title means “Alas!”:


    Here, beside the Latin sea,
I speak the truth:
In rock, olive oil, and wine I feel
my antiquity.

    Oh, how ancient I am, holy God,
oh how ancient I am!...
Where does my song come from?
And I, where am I going?

    The knowledge of myself
is already costing me
many moments of dejection,
and the how and the when...

    And this Latin clarity and brightness,
what good was it to me
at the entrance to the mine
of the self and the nonself?...

    A contented cloudwalker
I believe I can interpret
the secrets of the wind,
the land and the sea…

    Vague secrets
about being and nonbeing,
and fragments of awareness
about now and yesterday.

    As if in the midst of a wilderness,
I began to cry out;
and I gazed at the seemingly dead sun
and I burst into tears.

Ellipses all Darío’s.  Appelbaum’s translations are meant to assist language learners and are as literal and non-poetic as possible, so they are awfully thumping.  The Spanish verse sings:

    Y esta claridad latina,
¿De qué me sirvío
A la entrada de la mina
Del yo y el no yo…?

But even in prose, this poem has as much “claridad latina” as any of them.  Romantic subjectivity, Modernist cultural exploration; books and nature; that which is right in front of him and those “fragments of awareness” about what he feels must be out there, just within reach of the artist – no, just out of reach, always escaping him.

Thanks to Richard and Stu for Spanish Literature Month.  More, por favor, someday.


  1. Thanks to you, Tom, for participating in Spanish Lit Month and extra special thanks for turning so much of your attention to poetry. My own attempts to finish writing about the Cid and to start writing about Chileans Neruda and Parra were waylaid, but I did finally post my own Rúben Darío mini-homage of sorts (note: thereby choosing not to close out the month with anti-crowd pleaser Osvaldo Lamborghini!). Love the language play in the poem you cover here, by the way.

  2. No, no, I insist, thank you!

    Your Darío translation is a contribution to world literature and should be published somewhere other than the dang internet.

    I can barely wait, just barely, for your post on Lamborghini. No I guess I can wait.

  3. What a terrific poem. "In rock, olive oil, and wine I feel/my antiquity" - that's about the best single line I've read about being by the Mediterranean, and it makes me want to be there now, with or without the crisis of self.

  4. It was a challenge to find a poem that came across so well in literal translation. But this one sure does.