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).
Imagine that you just built a graceful sailing ship – a tea clipper, no less – and have to come up with a name for it… Any ideas? No? Well, if you’re short of ideas, allow me to suggest you a name. How about the Skimpy Night-dress?
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…
Just before noon on 25 September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa ordered his men to halt, then went forward alone, to complete the last stretch of the journey to the summit of the mountain they were climbing. Soon he stood, alone with his god, his ambitions and his sins on this peak rising out of the jungle in Darién; the first European to set eyes on a new ocean. A new ocean which he named Mar del Sur (South Sea) because he reached it by travelling southwards. The ocean that Magellan seven years later was to rename Pacific – coming as he was round the Horn via the straits named after him, well Magellan might have thought the Pacific peaceful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: