Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Luis de Góngora's Solitudes, perhaps forming letters on the pellucid paper of the heavens

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

                      Fortune’s theater,
    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.


  1. Grossman is such a fantastic translator. I will have to look out for this one. Have you seen Picasso's artist's book on Gongora? It's gorgeous.

  2. I had no idea the Picasso book existed, how interesting. This long UK Independent piece by John Golding puts Picasso's book in context.

    Góngora, like Donne, was revived by Modernist poets, that is the basic story.

    The Picasso book is all sonnets. There is a Góngora collection by Michael Smith from Anvil Press that does an outstanding job with the sonnets. Grossman's versions in The Golden Age are good, too. And then there is a recent collection from U of Chicago Press.

    For a poet who can't be translated, there has been a lot of good translation.

  3. Borges, in the first chapter of that new Professor Borges: a Course in English Literature, talks about ancient Scandinavians "creat[ing] metaphors out of metaphors by using successive combinations. Thus, if a ship was "sea-horse" and the sea was "gull's field" then a ship would be "horse of gull's field" ... This is how an extremely complicated and obscure poetry evolved." I read that yesterday and you've reminded me of it; this greedy, eating-up way of writing poetry.

  4. Very true. There are some dazzlers in the Eddas. Help, footnote please!

    The poets and story-tellers have other purposes, and time keeps moving forward, so there are constraints, not to mention that the individual poet's inventiveness will eventually dry up, but the great insight is that there is no logical limit to poetic metaphor.

  5. There are magical lines on them Solitudes:

    Lie tus nudos ella, que los dias
    disuelvan tarde en senectud dichosa;
    y la que Juno es hoy a nuestra esposa,
    casta Lucina -en lunas desiguales-
    tantas veces repita sus umbrales.

    Let her spin your thread, may your days
    in happy senescence late be dissolved;
    and she who tends as Juno today to our wife,
    chaste Lucina -in odd different moons -
    so many times cross again her thresholds.

  6. You went straight to a really hard passage (I, 810-4). Grossman's version is entirely different, disagreeing on points of vocabulary and grammar. She has the days dissolving the knots, for example.

    The appearance of Lucina is a good example of the depth of the classical references. Juno in her role as goddess of childbirth, a footnote tells me. I did not know that one.


  7. The problem with Gongora comes mostly in understanding what extended metaphor he's going for, as you so rightly explained. As I read it, Gongora's writing about the Moriae Clotho and Athropos, expressing a which that 'yours' be like Clotho spinning a long thread of life rather than like Athropos cutting it short. So, the Chorus is wishing the couple a long life, hence the request for a late dissolving of 'your' days at some point into a happy senescence. There's also a expressed wish for many children to come repeatedly every nine moons (an odd number, hence the odd moons).

    And these are mere throwaway lines: there is a reason why Quevedo and Gongora are considered the greatest poets of the Spanish language.

  8. Of course there are also many reasons to read those lines in a different way than I suggested: the knots could be the marriage knots tied up by the god Hymen, or they could be a metaphor for sexual union's grasping and embracing:

    A link between the couple's necks,
    Among the swarming of lewd loves,
    Hymen was tying up with knots,
    while in alternate turns invoking the god
    the tender voice of candid country girls
    the soft accents of country boys:
    Come, Hymen [...]
    let your yoke bind
    their burning desire [...]
    in the marriage of elms and vines
    while the vine shoots Hercules crown
    Bacchus grasps Hercules' Club.
    Hymen Come, come; come, Hymen.

    El lazo de ambos cuellos
    entre un lascivo enjambre iba de amores
    Himeneo anudando,
    mientras invocan su deidad la alterna
    de zagalejas candidas voz tierna
    y de garzones este acento blando:
    Ven, Himeneo [...]
    vincule tu coyunda
    a su ardiente deseo [...]
    y -los olmos casando con las vides-
    mientras coronan pampanos a Alcides
    clava empuñe Lieo.
    Ven Himeneo, ven; ven, Himeneo.

  9. Once you commit to an interpretation you sometimes have to push it pretty far in this poem.

    It gets a little steamy there at the end.

  10. Who would have thought that Góngora, in Castilian or English, would have been such a comment traffic generator? Love that bit about "Fortune's theater" and the line about "mausoleums of short-lived spume." Pretty uplifting for such a depressing fellow!

  11. I know, the "spume" bit is great, in English and Spanish.

    Góngorans belong to a cult, basically. What they lack in numbers they make up in intensity.

  12. Of the towering 20th Century Spanish poets, Lorca, Jimenez, Alberti, Guillen, the less well known to the English readers is Rafael Alberti. This is unfortunate, Alberti is a poet of almost Nerudean diversity and richness. Anyways, many readers of Gongora's Solitudes miss how sexy and erotic Gongora's masterpiece is. Not so Alberti. Here is a little sample from his Third Solitude, Homage to Don Luis de Gongora (I've posted the Spanish original at certain Fictional Woods):

    Jealous nymphs and sweet (their arms,
    twisted, both porch and diadem);
    like dancing vestals' garlands
    - from his youthfully curled,
    thin tresses' emeralds
    is hanging the sound and flight
    of their free daring fruit,
    the frosted forest or warped sky
    of their silky backs
    their traveling legs which,
    Launches the hips
    and gobbles up the feet's swift ice,
    The traveler -their wild voices
    narrowing the circle-
    imprison, in unison, by turning,
    faithful to their song, slow or fast.


    Hostesses of summer,
    of winter and dancing spring,
    autumn's true guardians,
    of the tropics and the cold
    you will be the master or ours, at your will,

    If the to the air, fully stripped
    of its linen prison, transfigured
    into black onyx or marble, your beauty
    remains, dark or bleached,
    which our blood accelerates.

    Come, the Oreads,
    Sirens of the woods, are calling out for you,
    free forest youth, they feel like dying
    because of their maidenheads,
    into clearings and hollows gird you they desire.

    So much they wanted their circle's ring
    adjusted to the pilgrim's
    club, his fixed
    fearful misaligned pillar,
    that, with a signal from the wind, quickly,
    their golden circle was torn, and yellow
    with anger an unicorn, stripped,
    long in pride and brightness
    from his forehead's eternally north-pointing sword,
    sparks on all fours, and on its mane,
    a thousand tongues, electric waves,
    blind coral the eyes, the branches
    crashing and burning,
    swiftly, came and declared
    war on the nymphs' musical
    secret gardens, who running,
    came, to be converted into trees .

    Celosas ninfas, dulces ya -los brazos,
    portico y diadema retorcidos...

  13. So there is a third Solitude. Just a little delayed.