Sunday, December 5, 2010



Selected Poems of Garcilaso de la Vega edited and translated by John Dent-Young
(The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009)

Although, as Dent-Young in his introduction states, Garcilaso de la Vega’s poetry was “the reverse of popular, in the more technical sense of the word, being inspired by literary and foreign models”, with their publication “in 1543, seven years after his death, he has been one of Spain’s most popular and critically acclaimed poets” whose poetry “changed the course of Spanish literature.”(1)

This may not have been the case and de la Vega may have been just another soldier poet trying to entice the ladies with his wit and charm were it not for his nephew. A member of Emperor Charles I’s court, de la Vega was preparing to join up with Charles’s forces in their campaign against the Turks, when he was requested to witness his nephew’s wedding. His nephew being only fourteen, this was an arranged marriage through which it was hoped two powerful families would be united. Unfortunately, this marriage had not received royal sanction and, as a result, de la Vega was banished from Spain, after first spending some time imprisoned, following which he was assigned to serve under Don Pedro de Toledo who was the new viceroy of Naples. There, “he met Italian and Spanish humanists and came into contact with the new, post-Petrarchan generation of Italian poets: Pietro Bembo, Sannazaro, Tansillo, and Bernardo Tasso.”(8) This fortuitous contact led to his prominence as an innovative poet, the main innovation being “the introduction into Spanish of the verse forms of the Italians, their sonnets and canzone, their tersearima and ottava rima and above all the hendecasyllable.”(1-2)

Dent-Young has grouped the poems into types. He begins with a selection of ‘Sonnets’. He then continues with ‘Songs’, then ‘Elegies and Epistle to Boscan’, before completing with ‘Eclogues’. There are also two appendices.

We are fortunate that this is a bilingual edition. Translation from Spanish to English is incapable of capturing the intricate rhyme scheme of the original. De la Vega uses a variety of forms in his sonnets although all consist of two quatrains followed by two triplets. The predominant variation occurs within the triplets with that in the quatrain sometimes being quite redundant. In sonnets I and XI, for example, de la Vega creates a monody, each ending exactly the same. The rest of those included are abba abba. However, when we come to the sextets, we have: cde dce – I, XXIII, XXX, XXXIII; cde cde – V, XIII, XVII, XXV, XXXII, XXXV; cdc dcd – X, XI; and one very idiosyncratic one –XXXVII with the scheme cde efd. Subject matter varies as well, de la Vega equally adept at writing about war as about love.

For example, here is Sonnet XXIII:
While colors of the lily and the rose
are displayed within the outline of your face,
and with that look, both passionate and chaste,
storms grow still in the clear light of your eyes;

and while your hair that seems to have been mined
from seams of gold, and seeming too in flight
about that neck, so white, so bravely upright,
is moved and spread and scattered by the wind,

seize the sweet fruits of your joyous spring,
now, before angry time creates a waste,
summoning snow to hide the glorious summit;

the rose will wither in the icy blast
and fickle time will alter everything,
if only to be constant in its habit.(43)

That insipid internal rhyme found in the third line of the second quatrain is no fault of the translator as it is present in the original. Line length varies considerably in the original as well from 11 to 15 syllables.

And here is Sonnet XXX subtitled ‘To Boscán from La Goleta’:
Arms, Boscán, and the fury of rampant Mars,
that, cultivating with their modern power
the soil of Africa, persuade the empire
of Rome to burgeon in these parts once more,

have reawakened, brought again to mind,
Italy’s art, Italy’s ancient valor
by means of which, with gallant deeds and power,
Africa was laid low from end to end.

Here, where once the Romans, looting and burning,
kindled profligate flames that left the whole
of Carthage nothing but a name alone,

love invades my thoughts, turning and returning,
to torture and set fire to the anxious soul,
and I in tears and ashes am undone.

The Spanish Inquisition, it must be recalled, began in 1478 (interestingly, it was never officially ended until 1834). Is it this that imbues this sonnet with imagery of flames? Was de la Vega denouncing the auto da fe with his use of the word ‘profligate’ using the image of Carthage to mask his denunciation? It must also be considered that there was a sizable Moorish component to the population of Spain in de la Vega’s time and that the Moors were originally from northern Africa, probably from the same area as Carthage.

Not that they aren’t interesting, but we’ll skip the canciónes, or songs, and move directly to the Elegies and Epistle for Boscán. There are two elegies, Dent-Young stating that the second “is more of an epistle than an elegy”(76), both of which were written in a form of terza rima which, in Spain, was known as a tercetos encadenados, or ‘linked tercet’. The rhyme structure of both is aba bcb cdc dad etc. Dent-Young makes a valiant attempt to capture that structure in his translation of Elegy II:
Here, Boscán, where the great Mantuan locates
the ashes of old Anchises, the illustrious
Trojan, whose name and fame he celebrates
            all of us are gathered under the glorious
banners of the present-day African
Caesar, we who returned victorious;
            but we differ in our aims, for some can
hardly wait to gather in the harvest,
to reap the crop that with our sweat was sown,
            while others, who say that virtue is their friend(99)

We can see that at this point he begins to lose it. The translation doesn’t indent the first line which the original does. In fact, the first line of every tercet is indented in both which would appear then to be a convention making it possible for the reader to follow the complex structure. The Epistle to Boscan exists in a different world. As Dent-Young states, it is “the first poem in Spanish written in endecasilabos sueltos, or ‘blank verse’ (though this equates it with the Latin hexameter rather than Elizabethan blank verse).” As this innovation will not be detectable from the English translation, we will move on to the last part of the book, Eclogues, which should prove an interesting analysis given that we have a modern day eclogue, Lisa Robertson’s XEclogue.

Dent-Young completes his translations with three eclogues, He indicates that he has “kept them in their traditional order, though, rather confusingly Eclogue II as written first.” He introduces Eclogue I through an apologia: “It has a complicated rhyme scheme, which I have not tried to follow, but I have kept to the pattern of long and short lines (in the original, hendecasyllables and heptasyllables).” To capture this, the entirety of a stanza, in this case the first, needs quoting:
Of two shepherd’s melodious laments,
Salicio’s and also Nemoroso’s,
I shall sing, reproducing their complaints;
to that delicious song the curious sheep
listened, forgetful of the joys of feeding,
while they attended to the tale of love.
            You, who through your deeds have earned
            a worldwide reputation
            and title beyond compare,
whether at this moment given over
entirely to the government of your realm
of Alba, or whether engaged elsewhere
            resplendent in your armor,
taking the warlike role of Mars on earth,(121)

He begins his discussion of Eclogue II with another apologia: “In Eclogue II, which has 1,885 lines, I have made extensive cuts, but I have tried to provide enough to allow comparisons with the other eclogues...The whole eclogue is written in a variety of verse forms, including a long section with internal rhyme. It is also a mixture of genres, the history of the house of Alba being Garcilaso’s nearest approach to epic.” Again, the opening lines are:
            Even in the depths of winter, the water
of this clear spring is mild and sweet, while in
the summer, snow itself’s not cooler.
            O limpid stream, how clearly when I look in
your water I see in memory the day
that has my soul still shivering and burning!
            In your transparency I saw my joy
become all muddled and confused; when I
next saw you I lost my true companion.(149)

Of the final poem, Eclogue III, he states: “it is thought that it still awaited a final revision at the time of his death. It is written in octave real, and I have attempted, where possible, to follow the rhyme scheme (abababcc).”(119) We can see the effect of this in the first stanza:
That pure and honorable sense of duty,
illustrious and most beautiful Maria,
I have had to celebrate your beauty,
your wit and intelligence and your rare
quality, despite the adverse destiny
that forces me to turn my steps elsewhere,
will always be in me as firmly fixed
as the body and the soul are intermixed.(181)

In completion of this work, Dent-Young has provided two appendices. The first contains two coplas. The second, a letter from him to Boscán and used as the prologue to Boscán’s translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier. He also provides extensive notes to each of the translations.

Although we cannot know what it was that didn’t make its way into the selection (unless we speak medieval Spanish and have access to the source documents all of which is doubtful for the average reader), we can certainly appreciate what did – which is an excellent sampling of de la Vega’s poetry and the genres in which he wrote. For this, we should be thankful.


John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.

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