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]
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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):

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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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The Aegean

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View of the Aegean from Cape Sounion

The Ship with Black Sails: How the Aegean Got Its Name

After King Aegeus of Athens lost a war to King Minos of Crete, Athens had to send seven young men and seven maidens to Crete every nine years to feed the Minotaur – the half man-half bull monster kept in the labyrinth at Knossos. Eventually, Aegius’ son, Theseus, volunteered to go to Crete and slay the monster. With the help of King Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who fell in love with him, Theseus succeeded in killing the Minotaur and escaping from the labyrinth.

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From Ransome to Keats to Homer

When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.

From:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

To:

… like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome  – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.

Searching for Homer

Homer is difficult to get into nowadays; he was difficult to get into two hundred years ago too. Keats wrote:

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

One October night in 1816, when he was twenty-one years old, Keats had read the translation of the Odyssey by George Chapman at a friend’s house – and that very same night, he wrote the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The power of his images haunts me still.

Thetis gives Achilles the weapons forged by Hephaestus, attic black-figure vase. Photo via Wikipedia [public domain]
Thetis gives Achilles the weapons forged by Hephaestus, attic black-figure vase. Photo via Wikipedia [public domain]

I always enjoyed Greek mythology and especially the story of the Trojan War, but when I read excerpts of the Iliad and the Odyssey in school, they bored me. Homer wrote nearly three thousand years ago and reading him is not easy, especially in a verse form: I gave up on the Iliad at the seemingly endless description of Achilles’s shield. Yet with Keats I could stand on a peak on Darien and see the uncharted sea through the eyes of Cortez (in point of fact, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa but I suppose that wouldn’t have scanned); with Keats I could be Galilei discovering the moons of Jupiter. Keats had seen what I failed to: he had stood on the walls of Troy and had seen the black ships appear on the horizon, he had seen Achilles fight under the walls, he had seen Odysseus tossed in the stormy seas. Keats made me believe in Homer. I went and read Pope’s translation of the Iliad but if the Hungarian verse had been boring, Pope was contrived; and they both lacked punch.

Figuratively – and literally – speaking, I was still to come across Chapman’s Homer.

In the end, for me, a 19th century prose translation from the Gutenberg Project did it. Since then, I consider the Iliad (as opposed to the Greek myths relating to the Trojan War) as one of my favourite books; I’m still reading versions of it. Someday I’ll learn Ancient Greek, and take the poetry in the original (it seems Ransome has much to answer for).

All this, by the way, occasioned by the line of Chapman’s Homer that had – supposedly – inspired Keats to write his sonnet:

“The sea had soak’d his heart through.”

Chapman has got that one so right.

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