Completed: The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance

The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance
Translated by Edith Grossman, 2006

Aquí la alma navega por un mar de delzura, y finalmente en él ansí se anega que ningún accidente extraño y peregrino oye o siente  Fray Luis de León, “Oda III” 7th Stanza

So….did you know that Renaissance and Baroque era Spanish poetry is a good beach read? Neither did I actually, but it was while on vacation, at the beach, enjoying sea breezes and the sounds of the surf pounding the sand (and studiously avoiding the sun, preferring not to turn fire-engine red), that I read the entirety of Edith Grossman’s 2006 translations of some of her favorite Siglo de Oro poetry. Somehow this worked: I made my way through the book rather quickly, even challenging myself to read the Spanish of each poem first–for a taste of the sound, mostly; I made no effort to create my own mental “translations”–before turning to the English translation. Not only does this therefore mark the first time I’ve read a whole (half) book in a language other than English, but I was often surprised at how much I did understand from that first, quick, reading.

I was also surprised to find myself wanting to read more after the first sitting. I thought this would be more of a challenge for me, not being much of a reader of poetry, and these being Renaissance/Baroque era poems on top of that! While I didn’t care for every poem I read, this definitely was an enjoyable experience rather than the expected “work” and “effort” to get through what I was sure was a worthy book, just perhaps not “my thing.” In fact, if my Spanish were better, I’d be reading from Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, Elias L. Rivers, ed. (the book Grossman used for the Spanish versions of her translations). (It’s on my list, and I own a copy, but I need to reclaim more forgotten Spanish first.)

This does not mean I’m a complete convert to poetry as of yet. I still stumble around how to talk about poems, and I find that I’m not very fond of the sonnet: I can appreciate the work required to fit a sentiment into a set form, but I don’t seem to enjoy them as much as longer forms. Perhaps this in part because many of the sonnets included here are of the “courtly love” type; somehow “woe is me, I love this beautiful, unobtainable, cold-hearted woman so now I wish to die because she doesn’t love me” just doesn’t work for me.

On the other hand, many of the more religious-themed poems did draw in me in. Apparently, “momento mori” is a theme that resonates quite well with me! (I swear, I’m not a depressing person.) I think too, it seems that the poets strove for even grander language when trying to contemplate ideas or themes that resonate beyond the here-and-now. I just love the lines I opened this post with, from Fray Luis de León’s “Oda III.” It is a tribute to a Spanish composer, Francisco Salinas, but it also touches on the power of the music and the idea of a “divine Musician.” He ends thus:

¡Oh! suene de contino, Salinas, vuestro son en mis oídos, por quien al bien divino despiertan los sentidos, quedando a lo demás amortecidos.  Fray Luis de León, “Oda III” Final StanzaI am also rather partial to Jorge Manrique’s “Coplas que fizo por la muerte de su padre” / “Verses Written on the Death of His Father.” Sounds uplifting, doesn’t it? But I found it beautiful, the language he used, even before I turned to the English translation. This was one of the poems the surprised me actually, with how much I understood from the Spanish.

Manrique_Coplas_3rdStanzaOf course, there are some happier poems too! In particular, I enjoyed Lope de Vega’s “Soneto de repente” / “Instant Sonnet.” It is an amusing little sonnet about writing, well, itself: “catorce versos deicen que es soneto:/burla burlando van los tres delante.” (“Fourteen verses, they say, are in a sonnet:/I haven’t even tried and I have four.”) And here we get to translation: I can understand most of the Spanish on this one, and the English isn’t quite the same. I rather like the Spanish better, in fact. But how to translate a poem? With rhythm and meter and rhyme? English, it appears to me, has greater difficulty in finding rhymes than does Spanish, so it is no wonder Grossman chooses not to concern herself with matching rhyme schemes. And to match the other–the translation is a difficult task indeed! Without better Spanish I cannot look at most of the poems here and readily see the changes made–words added or words neglected–and determine why such change is. A word-for-word literal translation doesn’t seem quite right for poetry, which would surely turn the poem into prose. It seems that the translator of poems must be–becomes–a poet. Thinking of the difficulties, I both admire those who make it look so effortless and think that if I wish to read more of the Spanish poets I would be well served to learn to read them in Spanish. The practical difficulties of learning to read well in another language, though! Thank goodness for translators!

The question remains, why did I attempt something that I expected to be “work” while on my beach vacation? I blame Richard of Caravana de recuerdos entirely, as this was yet another readalong he tempted me to. This, I think, is the best part of book blogging–the opportunities to challenge ourselves to something we might not otherwise read, knowing other readers are making their way through the same. Thanks so much, Richard, for hosting!


ETA: Richard’s master post for the RAL may be found HERE.

11 thoughts on “Completed: The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance

  1. At least one of your readers answers “Yes” to that first question.

    I love the Manrique especially. I think of my Spanish as terrible, primitive, but like you I was surprised and pleased to discover how much of it I could read and enjoy in Spanish.

    1. Glad to know I’m not the only one that thinks this makes a good beach read!

      The Manrique is definitely in my top two from this collection. I mean to reread it (again) before I return the book to the library.

  2. De nada, Amanda, and glad you found the poems more like play than work. I’m also a big fan of the Manrique, which always strikes me as incredibly powerful considering how simple the language seems. Anyway, will link to your post once my own is up–am running behind as usual, I’m afraid, but thanks so much for reading along.

    @Tom: I think your Spanish must be better than you let on: Aira’s “Cecil Taylor,” Manrique, other odds and ends I’ve seen you cite. You’re doin’ great for a “primitive”!

    1. Manrique seems to be quite the favorite! I think this must be a first for me, to be finished with a readalong on time–the advantage of a well-timed vacation. I’m looking forward you your thoughts.

  3. I had a similar experience with Grossman’s selection: I found it a great joy to read. And though my Spanish is rudimentary at best, I too forced myself (force nothing, it was quite a lot of fun) to read the Spanish. It’s rare to find a collection of such distinctly different poets for whom one wants to read more work by all of them. Also, thanks to Richard too for connecting me to your blog; I look forward to exploring!

    1. I think knowing that I could just read the Spanish and turn to Grossman’s translation for understanding made it more fun–the work element was taken away. But it also encourages me to try to improve my Spanish! Finding new blogs is another benefit of readalongs–I will have to check yours out next.

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