Pen Mightier than Sword (Pluma más poderosa que espada)

Authors with Sword in Hand

Throughout history, there were soldiers who wielded the pen with as much as skill as they wielded the sword; sometimes better.

Autores con la espada en mano

A lo largo de la historia, hubo soldados que manejaron la pluma con tanta habilidad que la espada; a veces, mejor.

Most of the literary output of these soldier-writers was, understandably, autobiographical: descriptions of battles and campaigns they took part in. A classic example of this is Xenophon’s Anabasis, better known as The March of the Ten Thousand, a gripping account of the retreat of ten thousand Spartan mercenaries in the wake of a lost battle across hostile territory, from Mesopotamia all the way to the shores of the Black Sea. Another is Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, a similarly gripping (at least in the abridged version) account of how four-hundred desperadoes under Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico and overthrew an entire empire in the process. I warmly recommend them both.

La mayor parte de la producción literaria de estos soldados-escritores fue, naturalmente, autobiográfico: descripciones de batallas y campañas en que lucharon. Un ejemplar clásico de este tipo de libro es La anábasis de Jenofonte, mejor conocida con el título La marcha de los Diez Mil, un relato emocionante de la regresa de diez mil mercenarios espartanos después de una batalla perdida, a través de un territorio hostil, todo el camino desde Mesopotamia hasta las orillas del Mar Negro. Otro relato que es semejante emocionante (por lo menos en la versión abreviada) es la Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España por Bernal Díaz del Castillo, que narra como cuatro cientos aventureros bajo el mando de Hernán Cortés han conquistado Mexico y derrocado un imperio entero en el proceso. Os recomiendo ambos libros.

But in addition to these authors, there were a handful of soldiers who are better known by literature professors than by military buffs; a handful of soldiers who are more famous for being authors than for ever having been soldiers.

Pero además de esos autores, hubo un puñado de soldados, que son mejor conocidos por profesores de literatura que por aficionados de la historia militar; un puñado de soldados que son más famosos por ser autores que por su pasado como soldados.

Meet five of them.

Aquí abajo puedes conocer a cinco de ellos.

Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 456 B.C.) /

Esquilo (525-456 a.C.)


This Athenian playwright fought in both Persian Wars, at the battles of Marathon and Salamis respectively (490 and 480 B.C.) but he owes his fame not to his military prowess but to winning the Athenian drama competition – thirteen times. His surviving plays are ample testimony of his talent and only one of them, The Persians, draws on his war experiences. If a play by Aeschylus ever comes to be staged near you, don’t miss out on it.

(It might be wise to study a bit of Greek mythology first though!)

Este dramaturgo de Atenas luchó en ambas guerras persas, en las batallas de Maratón y de Salamina (490 y 480 a.C.), pero debe su fama al hecho de que ha ganado el concurso de dramaturgos de Atenas – trece veces. Sus obras supervivientes nos demuestran su talento, y sólo una de ellas, Las persas, es el resultado de sus experiances de las guerras persas. Total que si una de sus obras viene a un teatro cercano a tu barrio, que vayas.

(Aunque sería una buena idea estudiar un poco de la mitología griega antes del teatro.)

Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524-1580)

Luís Vaz de Camões

Known as ‘the father of Portuguese’ on account of his epic poem, The Lusiads, this sixteenth-century author lived a turbulent life, having been often imprisoned for duelling and debts. When not in prison, he served in the Portuguese army in North Africa and the Far East.

The Lusiads recounts the epic voyage of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first man to round the Cape of Good Hope on the way to India – the route that Camões himself travelled a generation later.

Conocido como la padre del idioma portugués, debido a su epopeya, Los lusiadas, este autor del siglo XVI vivió una vida turbulenta, y fue encarcelado a causa de sus deudas y duelos. Cuando no estaba en cárcel, sirvió en el ejército de Portugal en el norte de África y el Oriente Lejano.

Los lusiadas narra el viaje épico del explorador portugués, Vasco da Gama, quien fue el primero en doblar el Cabo de Buena Esperanza viajando a India – la ruta que el mismo Camões siguió una generación más tarde.

Miklós Zrínyi (1620-1664)

Miklós Zrínyi

Or to be exact, Zrínyi Miklós in the original Hungarian where surname always comes first; known as Nikola Zrinski in Croatian (he came from a mixed ancestry). Among the five here he is the only one who is as famous as general and military strategist as he is as poet.

Zrínyi is the author of the first Hungarian epic poem, translated into English under the title of The Siege of Sziget. Influenced by Homer’s Iliad and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, he tells the story of the heroic but failed defence of the Hungarian castle of Szigetvár by his own great-grandfather (also called Miklós Zrínyi) in 1566. Incidentally, this poet-general spent his life defending his country against the same enemy – the Ottoman Empire – as his great-grandfather: the Turkish wars in Hungary lasted literally centuries.

O, para ser exacto, Zrínyi Miklós, en la forma original de su  nombre en húngaro, como que los húngaros siempre llevan sus apellidos antes del sus nombres; conocido en Croacia como Nikola Zrinski (fue de una ascendencia mezclada). Entre los cinco aquí él es el único que es famoso tanto por ser general y estratega militar como poeta.

Zrínyi es el autor de la primera epopeya húngara, El peril de Sziget (que desafortunadamente no ha sido traducido al español que yo sepa, pero puedes encontrarlo en inglés, francés o italiano). Influenciada por la Ilíada de Homero y Jerusalén liberada por Tasso, la epopeya narra la historia de la heroica pero fallada defensa del castillo húngaro, Szigetvár, en 1566. El comandante del castillo fue el propio bisabuelo del poeta (también llamado Miklós Zrínyi). Y, a propósito, este poeta-general pasó su vida defendiendo su país contra el mismo enemigo que su bisabuelo: el imperio otomano – en Hungría las guerras contra los turcos duraron, literalmente, siglos.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer

Often called the ‘father of English literature’, Chaucer owes this epithet to having penned The Canterbury Tales, a collection of twenty-four tales mostly written in verse which are set against the background of a story telling competition during a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Written in Middle English, it’s still in print both in its original version and Modern English ‘translations’.

And the author’s military credentials? Chaucer took part in the Hundred Years’ War and was captured (and ransomed) during the siege of Rheims in 1360.

A menudo llamado el padre de la literature inglesa, Chaucer ha recibido este epíteto por su obra, Los cuentos de Canterbury, una colección de veinticuatro cuentos, en la mayor parte en verso. Los cuentos son relatados por distintos personajes quienes se encuentran durante un peregrinaje al sanctuario de Thomas Beckett en Canterbury. Los cuentos de Canterbury ha sido escrito en inglés medio, es decir, en la lengua de aquel tiempos y todavía se puede comprar esta versión además de las traducciones al inglés moderno.

¿Y las credenciales militares de Chaucer? Pues participó en la Guerra de los Cien Años, y fue capturado (y rescatado) durante el asedio de Rheims en 1360.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Last but by no means the least; for is there anybody who hasn’t heard of Don Quijote? It was penned at the beginning of the seventeenth century by a Spanish soldier who had fought – and had been maimed – in the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

Cervantes’s comic masterpiece describes the addle-brained adventures of a self-appointed knight and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, up and down in the Spanish province of La Mancha. The impact and influence of Don Quijote was so great that Spanish nowadays is often called ‘the language of Cervantes’.

Pues seguramente no hay nada nuevo que puedo contar sobre Cervantes a vosotros hispanohablantes, ¿no?  🙂 

If you wish to add to this - by no means exhaustive - list, feel free to leave a comment below.

Si quieres añadir a esta lista que no exhaustiva de ninguna manera, déjame un comentario aquí abajo.

The Master of Cold Mountain

Don’t you know the poems of Han-shan?
They’re better for you than scripture-reading.
Cut them out and paste them on a screen,
Then you can gaze at them from time to time.

Don’t you know the poems of Han-shan? Don’t you know Han-shan, the hermit and accidental poet, the legendary Master of Cold Mountain, the early Chinese Zen philosopher?

Well, if you don’t, it’s time you got to know him. 🙂

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Ode to Santorini

This summer it’ll be five years ago that I visited Santorini for what then I thought was the first but now suspect was also the only time. I didn’t know the poetry of Odysseas Elytis then even though he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979 and I did – twice! – graduated in literature. Admittedly, neither of those degrees was in Greek literature but you don’t study literature, in any language, in a vacuum, and my ignorance of a Nobel Prize winning poet seems preposterous in retrospect.

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Four Seasons in Japan – with Matsuo Basho

“Haiku”, it is said in Japan, “began and ended with Basho.”

Translator’s Introduction to The Sound of Water: Haiku by Basho, Buson, Issa and Other Poets by Sam Hamill

Two weeks ago, in the conclusion of The Four Seasons in Japan, I promised that I would revisit haikus, with a specific focus on Matsuo Basho (you know: the first, the last and the only… in other words, the greatest writer of haikus), so:

  • first a little introduction to Matsuo Basho’s life and poetry
  • followed by part II of The Four Seasons in Japan

Enjoy. 🙂

Continue reading “Four Seasons in Japan – with Matsuo Basho”

An Evening with Matsuo Basho

Matsuo Basho by Sugiyama Sanpu [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
I was reading haikus last night. A haiku – for those of you who don’t know – is a traditional, non-rhyming Japanese poem of 17 syllables, arranged in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables respectively.

The greatest – the first, the last and the only, some would say – haiku poet was Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) but we’re not going to enter into a thorough discussion of his qualities right now because:

a) it’s getting on for midnight and I’ve got to go to work tomorrow, and

b) nobody’s first introduction to a poet or a style of poetry should be spoiled by literary criticism.

(You’ll just have to subscribe and wait until I revisit the topic.)

I love haikus because I love my poems evocative, ephemeral and emotive. The best haikus are capable of combining those three qualities within measly seventeen syllables.

(We’ll take this step by step.)

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Los lusiadas o como Portugal se ganó un imperio

Read this in EnglishThe Lusiads or How Portugal Won an Empire

Fui a Portugal para una semana con un libro, y volví con dos; lo nuevo está en portugués.

I felt this might be the closest I’d ever get to reading The Lusiads in the original… / Me pareció que esto sería lo mejor que puedo hacer para leer Los lusiadas en su idioma original…

Eso suena muy bien pero no tengas que envidiarme: no logré aprender portugués en una sola semana (echo la culpa a los portugueses, ya que insistieron en hablar conmigo en inglés). Sin embargo, he comprado un libro en portugués, y no cualquier libro, sino la más famosa obra de literatura portuguesa: el poema épico, Los lusiadas, escrito por el poeta nacional de Portugal, Luís Vaz de Camões.

Aunque sólo en la forma de un libro de historietas.

Todos aquí pueden confirmar que el español y el portugués son suficientemente similares para ser posible leer portugués un poquito sin aprenderlo, ¿no? Por esta razón me parece que tengo posibilidad de comprender Los lusiadas cuando el texto va acompañado con MUCHAS ilustraciones. Y un poco mejor: cuando el texto va acompañado con MUCHAS ilustraciones y ya conozco el argumento.

Porque la historia que Luís de Camões narra en Los lusiadas es de la era héroica de la navegación portuguesa: el viaje de Vasco da Gama en 1497-98, cuando él se convirtió en el primer europeo en llegar a India doblando el Cabo de Buena Esperanza. Y el libro con el que fui a Portugal, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (Conquistadores: Como Portugal creó el primer imperio global) por Roger Crowley, se trata del mismo viaje – y un poco más. (Conquerors es el último libro de Crowley, y desgraciadamente todavía no está traducido al español, pero espero que no tardaría mucho.)

Continue reading “Los lusiadas o como Portugal se ganó un imperio”

The Lusiads or How Portugal Won an Empire

Leer esto en castellano

I went to Portugal for a week with a book and came back with two; the new one is in Portuguese.

I felt this might be the closest I’d ever get to reading The Lusiads in the original…

This sounds grandiloquent but you needn’t turn yellow with envy: I did not manage to learn Portuguese merely in one week (I blame the Portuguese who insisted on speaking to me in English). Nevertheless, I acquired a book in Portuguese, and not just any book but the most famous piece of Portuguese literature: the epic poem The Lusiads by Portugal’s national poet, Luís Vaz de Camōes.

Although only in the form of a comics book.

Any Spanish speaker will testify to the fact that if you can read Spanish, you can read Portuguese to a very decent degree. Consequently I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures. Better still: I fancy my chances of making sense of The Lusiads when accompanied by LOTS of pictures and when I already know the plot.

Because the story Luís de Camões tells in The Lusiads is from the heroic age of Portuguese navigation: the journey of Vasco da Gama in 1497-98, when he became the first European to reach India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. And the book I went to Portugal with, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley, treats the same journey – and a bit more.

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Pablo Neruda Explains a Few Things

I read in the news on Friday that in Madrid they are renaming the streets that carry Francoist names – high time. The same afternoon, Sophisticated Young Lady came home for the weekend from university (where she reads Spanish and History) and reminded me of a poem that I haven’t heard for decades… and certainly never read in the original until last Friday night. So today we’ll remember the Spanish Civil War…

Pablo Neruda explica algunas cosas

El viernes leí en las noticias que en Madrid van a dar nombres sustituivos para calles con nombres franquistas – ya es hora. La misma tarde, La Señorita Sofisticada volvió a casa de la universidad (donde estudia español  y historia) para visitarnos para el fin de semana y me recordó a una poema que no había oído hace décadas… y seguramente no he leído en lo original nunca hasta la noche del viernes pasado. Así que hoy recordamos la guerra civil española…

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The Lament of King Roderick (La lamentación de don Rodrigo)

In the early 19th century, several English poets, among them Lord Byron, Walter Scott¹ and the poet laureate Robert Southey, were inspired by old Spanish historical ballads. Someday I will explore this topic in more detail but today, I’m merely sharing an excerpt from a ballad known as The Defeat of King Roderick.

A principios del siglo XIX, varios poetas ingleses, entre ellos Lord Byron, Walter Scott¹ y Robert Southey, eran inspirados por viejas baladas históricas españolas. Algún día voy a explorar este tema con más detalle pero hoy sólo estoy compartiendo un extracto de una balada conocida como La Derrota de Don Rodrigo (Los huestes de don Rodrigo).

King Roderick with is troops in the battle of Guadalete / El rey Don Rodrigo arengado a sus tropas en la batalla de Guadalete (Bernardo Blanco) [public domain via Wikipedia]
King Roderick with his troops in the battle of Guadalete / El rey Don Rodrigo arengado a sus tropas en la batalla de Guadalete (Bernardo Blanco) [public domain via Wikipedia]
Continue reading “The Lament of King Roderick (La lamentación de don Rodrigo)”

Sappho: Midnight Poem (Fragment 48)

The Temple of Poseidon at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Temple of Poseidon at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in the winter of 570 BC or thereabouts, on the island of Lesbos, an elderly Greek woman wrote:

Δέδυκε μεν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες πάρα δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

Which has been translated as (one of the many translations):

Continue reading “Sappho: Midnight Poem (Fragment 48)”

A Petrarch Sonnet (Venice Balcony at Night)

A few weeks ago, when I was writing about Egyptian poetry, I made the point that reading poetry in translation is a deceptive exercise since you’re not reading the same poem that poet had, in fact, penned. You might like the translation but quite possibly would not like the original or vice versa. A sonnet by Petrarch today in two different English translations will serve to illustrate the same point… and the Venetian balcony at night will serve to illustrate the sonnet.

Un soneto de Petrarca (Un balcón en Venecia por la noche)

Hace unas semanas, cuando escribió sobre la poesía egipcia, he señalado que leer poesía en traducción es un ejercicio engañoso, porque no estás leyendo el poema que el poeta, de hecho, había escrito. Así que te puede gustar la traducción, pero lo original no, y viceversa. Hoy un soneto de Petrarca con dos traducciones ingleses servirá para ilustrar la misma idea… y el balcón de Venecia servirá para ilustrar el poema. El texto original italiano está abajo de los versiones ingleses si quieres leerlo – no hay que hablar italiano para apreciar la cadencia bella del idioma de Petrarca. (También puedes encontrar un enlace abajo para la traducción española.)

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Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar

There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:

Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…

Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).

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The Harper’s Song: Enjoying Life After Death in Ancient Egypt

I bet ancient Egyptian poetry is not your strong point – it certainly isn’t mine! To begin with, I do rather subscribe to the view that while a great poem in translation may be still a great poem, it’s just not the same poem. So no matter how much you love Petrarch’s sonnets, if you only read them in English, there’s always the ever so slight chance that you don’t like them all that much, actually. (I had this experience with Wordsworth, myself. Fine poet in Hungarian translation. I’m not so keen in the original.) So when it comes to ancient Egyptian poetry, there’s the small problem that much as I like to stare at the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, the only hieroglyphs I can ‘read’ on it belong to Ptolemy’s name, and well, that doesn’t get me far in reading poetry.

So with that caveat let’s have some Egyptian poetry in translation. 🙂

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Ozymandias: Shelley and the Feet of Ramesses II

Ramses II feet.jpg
The feet of a statue of Ramesses II (known to the Greeks as Ozymandias) in Egypt

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Disappointing as this might be, the broken feet above is probably not from the same statue Shelley wrote about – if Wikipedia is to be believed that statue has been put together and moved to Cairo in 1955 and since then to Giza. This one on the other hand is still in situ – okay, was in situ twenty-five years ago when this picture was taken – in the Ramesseum, the funeral temple of Ramesses II, part of the Theban Necropolis.

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair?

Ramesses II is generally considered one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs and in his poem Shelley created a powerful image of how the ravages of time obliterated the works of this high and mighty ruler. The line “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” doesn’t just show us the pharaoh’s arrogance but also acts as a commentary on the futility of human endeavour. Yet Shelley wrote this poem 3000 years after Ramesses II’s death… and I think we will still read it in another 3000 years’ time.

How’s that for a paradox?

The Moorish King Rides Up And Down

Last Sunday we had an overcast picture of the Alhambra, so today we’ll follow it up with a poem set in Granada. Although reading Spanish poetry in the original is, by and large, beyond me at the moment (Arturo Pérez-Reverte generally drives me to despair with his quotes of Francisco de Quevedo), there is the odd poem that I have no problem understanding (Spanish learners, take note). I was afraid I might have to provide a prose translation myself, but Lord Byron obliged! The Spanish original is below the English translation for those of you who can enjoy it…

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