Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Poems from Spain's Golden Age

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Edith Grossman’s The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, a sampling from poets of Spain’s glorious literary period from the late 15th through mid 17th centuries. The book contains several poems each by eight of the Golden Age’s greatest poets: Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, San Juan de la Cruz, Fray Luis de León, Lope de Vega, Luis de Gongóra, Francisco de Quevedo, and, as her books were first published in Spain, Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Even if the limited number of selections (Lope de Vega, author of some 3,000 sonnets and 2,000 plays, gets three short poems) can only provide a quick glimpse of the work of these poets, Grossman gives a terrific introduction to this period, providing each poet with a brief biography accompanied by an engraved portrait, and the Spanish originals on facing pages (the hardcover book itself, printed on deckle-edged rag paper, is lovely; my spouse, reading her own book one night, kept stealing glances at mine and finally asked, “What is that beautiful book you’re reading?”). The biographies touch on formalistic and stylistic elements of the poems, historical innovations such as Garcilaso’s tremendous impact in introducing Italian, Petrarchan forms to Spanish poetry, and memorable biographical details. One concerns Gongóra’s nickname, “The Prince of Darkness,” due to a culturanista or euphuistic style mocked by Lope de Vega and Quevedo. Another is Fray de León’s Jewish converso background and insistence on honoring the Hebrew origins of biblical stories. Returning to teaching after four years in prison, he is said to have begun his first class, “As I was saying the other day…” Sor Juana, towards the end of her life, gave away her entire library of 4,000 volumes, the largest in Mexico at the time, and died serving the poor.

A striking number of the poems in The Golden Age take as their subject the brevity and evanescence of life. Of these, Quevedo is the clear master of such deeply melancholy expressions of our short tenure on earth and of approaching death, pining in one poem, “I am a weary was, will be, and is” and in another, “Sonnet XVIII,” offering a palpably acute sense of death’s parentheses around life:

The too-brief year of this our mortal life
sweeps everything away, mocking the courage
of valiant steel and marble gleaming cold
that dare to challenge time with their hard strength.
Before my foot knows how to walk it moves
along the path to death, where I do send
my obscure life, a poor and  turbulent river
swallowed by great waves in a pitch-dark sea.
Each brief moment a long and thrusting step
I take against my will, for on this journey
e’en when still, or sleeping, I spur ahead.
A brief lament, a final, bitter sigh
is death, the fate that is our legacy:
if law, not penalty, why do I grieve?

Courtly apostrophes to women idolized from a distance also figure frequently in the selection, filled with snowy bosoms “so pure and white,” “inviting scarlet lips,” “Aurora upon your cheek/Phoebus in your eyes.” Lope de Vega, in his “Folk Song VII,” attempts to surmount such clichés: “”Your beautiful eyes, Lucinda/are not really stars in the sky” while admitting that “their brightness, their sweet light/not having something divine -/that cannot be.” As poet Billy Collins notes in his introduction to the book, such lofty sentiments are offset, somewhat ironically, by the patently carnal religious poems of San Juan de la Cruz. A disciple of St. Teresa of Avila, San Juan mimicked the transparently sexual ecstasy of his muse’s religious transports in expressions that would have been scandalous if addressed to a flesh and blood woman, but remained safe when couched in a higher, more spiritual context:

O flame of living love
that wounds with such tenderness
the deep, the deepest center of my soul,
now that you have come to me
conclude, if you so wish,
and rend the fabric of this sweet encounter.
 - (from"Song III: Flame of Living Love")

One of the most charming poems in the book is notable for its unusual self-reflexivity. In “Instant Sonnet,” Lope de Vega spends a sonnet’s entire 14 lines describing the writing of the poem itself.

Violante orders me to write a sonnet,
I’ve never been so pressed in my life before.
Fourteen verses, they say, are in a sonnet;
I haven’t even tried and I have four…

Perhaps my favorite of all the works in the book is a lengthier poem by Garcilaso de la Vega, “Eclogue 1,” modeled on the bucolic eclogues of Virgil. In the first dedicatory stanzas, Garcilaso notes that before singing the praises of his patron he’ll entertain him with a story of two shepherds, Salicio and Nemeroso, both grieving the loss of their lady loves (Salicio’s has run off with another man; Nemeroso’s has died). The poem is like an exquisitely painted miniature. Garcilaso first presents the two shepherds as though zooming into the pastoral landscape with a camera to capture the beginning of their lamentations - “their sheep paid heed to their sweet songs, forgetting/to graze, listening to their plaints of love” - following this with several pages of deeply felt melancholy and grief, the shepherds alternating their woeful tales. At the poem’s end, Garcilaso zooms back out to reveal again the tranquil scene of the two shepherds at the end of their work day:

Never would the shepherds have put an end
to their laments, or their sweet, mournful songs,
heard only by mountains untamed and desolate,
have ceased, if, looking at crimson-hued clouds
embroidered in gold by the setting sun,
they had not seen the close of day upon them.
The shadows came descending,
moving apace, hastening down the overgrown slope
of the loftiest mountain, and the two,
as if waking from a dream, and in
the scant light of the sun
in flight, and then gone, brought together their sheep,
and slowly, step by step, the shepherds left.

Garcilaso manages to invest the surface of a typical pastoral scene – two shepherds tending their flocks – with intense interiority, a kind of lesson in the depth of human emotion lurking beneath placid surfaces. In the context of placing his shepherd’s tale as a sort of preface to the delayed praise of the patron for whom he writes the poem, perhaps (I am speculating here) Garcilaso also creates a subtle means of orienting his patron to interior reflection and to a sympathetic understanding of suffering.

Grossman’s selections do exactly what such selections should do: arouse the reader’s interest in reading more. The strength of her selection, at least for me, is that my interest has been aroused not just for a few of these poets, but for all of them. And if my reading of additional selections from Garcilaso de la Vega is any indication, many treasures await.

Sincere thanks to Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos for suggesting The Golden Age.


  1. Great post Scott.

    You have indeed aroused my interest to read more!

    The poignancy of life's limits is one of my favorite themes in poetry. Thus I think that these poets will be of particular interest to me.

    1. Thanks, Brian. If poignancy about life's brevity is a favorite theme, then you'll eat this up (though a few of the poems treating this theme are no so much poignant as they are raging - i.e. "Fortune has gnawed at my allotted time" [Quevedo]).

  2. I remember that Garcilosa de la Vega was the biggest surprise to me, but he was also the only writer I had not previously explored in some - not depth - page count, let's say.

    I still have not followed up, despite the existence of this book.

    It is ridiculous how much those little portraits add to the book. Quevedo's glasses, I love those.

    1. So true about those portraits. And the bios themselves are little condensed masterworks. All in all, I found this book a terrific model for how to put together a poetry sampler.

      Curiously, I recently read that Garcilaso collection by John Dent-Young, not long before Richard encouraged this group read of The Golden Age. I found the translations not quite up to Grossman quality (a very high bar, so that's not a knock), but it's a book well worth seeking out, especially for the other Eclogues and for a memorable poem about Garcilaso's imprisonment on an island in the Danube.

    2. Quevedo's crazy eyewear was the Google glasses of the day no doubt!

  3. Glad you enjoyed these poets so much, Scott, and what fine commentary on that eclogue! I decided to allot myself extra time to reread the Garcilaso de la Vega, Góngora and Quevedo selections since they always give me so much trouble in the Spanish, but I've been enjoying seeing how Grossman "solved" so many translation difficulties that I wouldn't have known what to do with. One day you will have to sample the "other" famous Garcilaso: El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the 16th/17th century chronicler from Peru!

    1. First, Richard, thanks for suggesting this terrific little book.What a world it opens! I've just checked out Grossman's translation of Góngora's Soledades from the library, and there you go: one thing leads to another. Funny you mention that other Garcilaso, who confounded my search for this one a few months ago. Should this fast and furious brevity of life (so acutely captured by Quevedo) allow me time to read him, I will.

  4. As Borges once pointed out, Gongora sometimes played at being Quevedo:

    That every repeated sun's just another comet

    Carthage bears witness, and yet you ignore it?
    Danger lies ahead if you still stubbornly chase
    after shadows, Lycius, and keep on hugging smears.

    You cannot expect forgiveness from the hours:
    The hours that are busily filing off at our days,
    The days that are busy gnawing away at our years.

    Cada sol repetido es un cometa.

    ¿Confiésalo Cartago, y tú lo ignoras?
    Peligro corres, Licio, si porfías
    en seguir sombras y abrazar engaños.

    Mal te perdonarán a ti las horas;
    las horas que limando están los días,
    los días que royendo están los años.

    1. humblehappiness - Thanks for this. I'll be interested to explore these three poets in more depth, as my understanding is that they vigorously challenged one another's approaches to poetry, and played off of one another as your example shows.

  5. I too was struck by how many poems dealt with "brevity and evanescence of life"--which on the one hand could be viewed as something of a downer, but I found so many of them so beautiful to read. I kept noting how melancholy Quevedo's poems were, yet I enjoyed them anyway.

    I agree with what you say about Grossman's selections--they make me want to read more. Quite the enjoyable experience.

    1. Amanda - True, the beauty of the poems rather surmounts whatever "downer" elements they might have thematically. So many of them, despite their formality, are so heartfelt! But then look at some of the biographies; this is a period in which writers were persecuted and/or went off to do battle, and the brevity of life was not just a theme but, for many, a reality.